Thursday, June 21, 2018

Farmer suicides are 5 times higher than rest of population; new program in Washington state aims to help

Suicide is an epidemic among farmers, with 84.5 deaths per 100,000 people, almost five times higher than the rest of the population, according to a 2016 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Washington state, a new law is trying to address it.

The Washington Young Farmers Coalition lobbied for statewide legislation to help reduce farmer suicide after one of their founding members killed himself. During the latest legislative session, the state House and Senate unanimously approved a bill that created a suicide-prevention task force of mental-health experts and representatives of different agricultural sectors. It took effect June 7.

"The task force will produce a study by Dec.1 that includes data on the suicide rates, substance abuse, and accessibility and usage of behavioral health services among agricultural workers; occupational factors that lead to suicide; components to be included in a preventative pilot program; and strategies for improving the behavioral health of agricultural workers and their families," Melissa Hellmann reports for the Bothell-Kenmore Reporter. "The state Department of Health will then create a pilot program for workers in the agricultural industry in a yet-to-be-determined county 'west of the Cascade crest that is reliant on the agricultural industry' by March 2019."

The pilot program will include telephone counseling and services in Spanish and English, since 71 percent of farm laborers are immigrants. Immigrant farmworkers will be represented by a member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a fourth-generation farmer, sponsored the bill that led to the program. In an interview with Seattle Weekly he noted that farming is a "lonely occupation" since many of the social organizations that used to bring farmers together, like Ruritan or Lions clubs, are diminished or gone in rural areas without anything to replace them, Hellmann reports.

Some other factors that may contribute to farmers' high suicide rate: exposure to pesticides (which could affect the brain and encourage depression), the financial risk of farming, and the difficulty of quitting when times are hard. "Unlike other jobs in which workers can quit in the face of uncertainty, agriculture is interwoven into a farmer’s legacy, identity, finances, and housing," Hellmann reports. Washington State Dairy Federation Policy Director Jay Gordon put it more simply: "Nobody wants to be the generation that lost the farm."

Farmers increasingly go the legal route to get workers, through temporary visas; now they want the limit doubled

"The number of migrant workers in the U.S. on temporary agricultural visas is up 159 percent since 2011, as U.S. farmers seek replacements for the thousands of undocumented farmworkers scared away by anti-immigrant policies," Margaret Newkirk and Michael Sasso report for Bloomberg.

Many farmers once ignored the H2-A visa program because it was an expensive, bureaucratic bother and illegal laborers were plentiful. But as undocumented immigration (especially for farm jobs) has slacked off and immigration raids have increased, going the legal route has become more attractive. While most of the 1 million farm laborers in the U.S., are still undocumented more than 200,000 H2-A visas were issued in 2017, and numbers are on track to surpass that number this year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Now the farm lobby is pushing for changes that will allow farmers to double the number of legal immigrants, permit them to stay longer and cut the overall costs associated with using them," Newkirk and Sasso report. "Some of those changes were originally in one of two immigration overhauls moving through Congress, although farming advocates say they don’t know if they’ll still be there when the U.S. House votes this week."

Study concludes fear of racial diversity, not economics, was at heart of evangelicals' overwhelming support for Trump

It's well-known that white evangelical Christians--who are disproportionately rural--tend to strongly support President Trump, but the reason why is up for debate. A new book, Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, says evangelicals' fear of increasing racial diversity may be at the heart of it.

The book's author, Janelle Wong, details for The Washington Post how her research led her to that conclusion. She teamed up with other social scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles, Baylor University and Arizona State University to conduct a nationwide public opinion study online a few months after the 2016 election.

Their research showed how much white evangelicals differ from not only the overall population, but from other whites and other evangelicals. Election Day exit polls showed that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, while 59 percent of non-evangelical whites voted for Clinton. Part of that discrepancy is because white evangelicals are more conservative on many issues, even more so than Latinx, Asian American and black evangelicals.

At the same time, white evangelicals are declining as a proportion of the population; almost all evangelical growth comes from Latinx and Asian Americans--and that's making white evangelicals nervous, Wong writes. Some pundits have conjectured that economic anxiety is the main reason for evangelicals' support of Trump, but Wong's research doesn't bear that out. Instead, her team's research found that "white evangelicals’ perceptions they’re the targets of discrimination – more so than other groups" was at the heart of evangelical votes for Trump, she writes, and predicts, "The racial fears and anxieties that underlie their support for the president will probably remain the driver in their political views long after he leaves office."

Rates of severe obesity have increased much faster among rural adults and children than among urban counterparts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
Obesity has long been more common in rural areas; now two studies from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the scope of obesity in among rural adults and children. One shows that rates of severe obesity have increased much faster in rural America than in urban areas.

And there are differences between rural men and women: 39 percent of rural men and 47 percent of rural women were obese, compared to 32 and 38 percent among urban men and women, respectively. And while severe obesity doubled among rural women in 2013-16, it more than tripled among rural men during that time period, Dennis Thompson reports for CBS News.

The second study, which looked at children and adolescents aged 2 to 19, found no significant differences in obesity between rural and urban areas (both were around 17 percent), but 9.4 percent of rural children were severely obese compared to just 5.1 percent of their urban counterparts, Thompson reports.

Aaron Kelly, co-director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine, said he was troubled by the relatively high percentage of severely obese rural children. These kids with severe obesity really need to have access to specialized medical care to treat their obesity, in the form of weight management services," Kelly told Thompson, but noted that access was a barrier to many rural patients: "They just aren't going to be able to reasonably drive to the bigger cities where these obesity specialists are who can help them."

NCSU uses drones to pinpoint plant diseases, deficiencies

Bobby Vick of PrecisionHawk lands a drone.
(Wilson Times photo by Drew Wilson)
Drones are helping a study of plant diseases  get off the ground, Drew Wilson reports for the Wilson Times in North Carolina.

North Carolina State University student Joshua Henry is collaborating with North Carolina Cooperative Extension  and drone company PrecisionHawk to gather information about diseased tobacco plants interspersed with healthy plants over an acre on Vick Family Farms.

"We are looking at nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium deficiencies as well as magnesium and sulfur deficiencies and boron toxicity," Henry told Wilson. Henry, a doctoral student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, placed about 50 plants with each disorder, 300 total, among an equal number of healthy tobacco plants.

Examining so many plants is a tall order, but drones can fly in a search pattern grid and gather a great deal of information quickly with remote sensors. Each nutrition deficiency creates a unique light signature; since the drones' remote sensors collect 270 narrow bands of light, they can pinpoint which disease a plant has.

Drones don't require much expertise, said PrecisonHawk solutions engineer Bobby Vick, whose parents own Vick Family Farms: "All you have to do is tell the drone where to go . . . The software is telling the drone what positions to go to and what altitude and speed to fly. The drone actually flies itself. Any one of us out here could fly these drones in five minutes time and feel comfortable doing it."

Graduate student Henry hopes drones, which can cost as little as $1,500, can help farmers develop better fertilization plans. Farmer Linwood Vick agreed: "I think it’s always good to be looking ahead and not getting stuck in the past, so we are looking to do new things and new technology."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Campaign sites say they offer 'truth' but push partisan arguments; shows need for more journalistic fact-checking

There are facts, and there are opinions, and there are falsehoods. For years we have relied on fact-checkers at news organizations and nonprofits like to nail down the truth, especially when it comes to politicians and their campaigns. Now they have started their own "fact checking" websites that deal more in argument than fact.

The site has since been reconfigured.
Perhaps the latest is from the campaign of Rep. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican challenging U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, reports Glenn Kessler, who writes "The Fact Checker" column for The Washington Post: "The website . . . directs people to 'find the truth,' which leads to a series of 'articles,' which mostly read like news releases that attack Heitkamp or bolster Cramer."

One example: “Heitkamp’s talk of deficits is pure speculation and none of it takes into account the economic growth the Trump pro-growth agenda is delivering.” Kessler notes that the 'talk of deficits' comes from the Congressional Budget Office, "the official scorekeeper of Washington. The CBO is so well respected that Cramer’s 'fact' website cites a CBO projection in another article to attack the Affordable Care Act."

Kessler writes, "Given how [the site] is pitched, it needs to hold up to a high standard of 'the truth'." And he gives it his worst rating, four Pinocchios.

This trend, which Kessler accurately calls "pernicious," illustrates that it is more important than ever for local and state news media to provide reliable fact checking, either on their own or by using The Fact Checker, or Politifact, a paid service of the Tampa Bay Times. Kessler offers a form to submit items for checking and a weekly newsletter, as does

Fact checking is needed beyond political campaigns. USA Today has a fact check today on the separation of children and parents at the Mexican border.

Chesapeake Bay judged healthiest it's been in 33 years

Virginia Tech map
"For the first time in the 33 years that scientists have assessed the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary showed improvement in every region, a likely sign that a massive federal cleanup plan is working," reports Darryl Fears of The Washington Post. "The bay’s overall grade is a C, because some areas, such as the Patuxent, Patapsco and York rivers, are bouncing back from near-failure. The category of water clarity faltered, falling to an F from last year’s D. But the James River area and the lower stem of the bay closer to the Atlantic both earned grades of at least B-, their highest ever, and shored up the overall score."

Bill Dennison, vice president for science application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told Fears, “We have seen individual regions improving before but not the entire Chesapeake Bay. It seems that the restoration efforts are beginning to take hold.”

Under the cleanup plan, which Barack Obama ordered as president in 2010, the states in the bay watershed "agreed to substantially improve wastewater treatment facilities and decrease runoff from farms once responsible for significant amounts of waste reaching the rivers and streams that run into the bay," Fears writes. "Although President Trump tried to eliminate the plan’s funding in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal and cut it by 90 percent for fiscal 2019, congressional support for the restoration effort remains strong."

While the report is upbeat, it warns of possible trouble ahead. Read more here.

N.M. federal judge says BLM must analyze 'downstream' impact of energy leasing on federal land, including climate

A federal judge in New Mexico has issued a ruling that, if upheld, could require the Bureau of Land Management to consider the "downstream" impacts of leasing federal land for oil and gas drilling, including "cumulative impacts on climate change of the use of the fuel produced," Brian Oswald reports for the Albuquerque Journal.

Senior U.S. District Judge Christina Armijo of Albuquerque set aside leases on more than 19,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest that the BLM approved in 2015, and ordered the agency "to conduct further analysis on environmental impact of the potential drilling," Oswald reports.

"The BLM had argued that only greenhouse-gas emissions from oil and gas exploration should be considered, not what happens when the fuel produced is actually used by consumers or industry down the line. The agency stated in its decision in favor of the leases that their 'incremental contribution' to greenhouse gas emissions 'cannot be translated into effects on climate change'."

But Armijo said federal law acknowledges that the impact of one such action "may be significant in combination with other actions," Oswald reports. "She also held that the BLM had failed to take an adequate look at how the national forest leases allowing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would impact water quantities and the environment in general."

Small daily in Ohio helps force resignation of the mayor

The latest report in Kirsten Hare's "Local Edition" series for The Poynter Institute focuses on the work of the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette in Ohio, which has five people in its newsroom and did stories that forced the resignation of Brian Kuhn as mayor of the town of 39,000, about 30 miles southeast of Columbus.

Reporter Spencer Remoquillo told Hare, “His wife was indicted for embezzling money and he was subsequently investigated. Kuhn faced minor felony charges relating to his taxes and was not forced out of office. Once his criminal case was closed, we requested all of the investigative records from the prosecutor’s office. We thought we’d have at least another week before the first print date, but a large metro paper had broken the story about Kuhn’s gambling the Sunday before ours was set to print. This development changed everything. We hunkered down in a room all week, finishing up interviews and cranking out stories as fast as we could write them to hit the daily deadlines for stories that could have taken us a couple days to write and perfect.”

Remoquillo concluded, “With a newsroom this small, you have to have a team of dedicated reporters who care about their work and the community. This project showed just how much we care about our craft and the importance of breaking big stories in small newsrooms.” The Eagle-Gazette is owned by Gannett Co. Inc.

Many rural cemeteries are abandoned; who will tend them?

Photo collage by The Daily Yonder
"As families pull up roots to look for opportunities elsewhere, as young people move away from their hometowns, and as elders who had time for such tasks die out, rural communities are faced with a difficult question: Who will tend the graves? Additional factors like weather, climate change, economic challenges, and the mysteries of human behavior make the story even more complicated," Donna Kallner writes for The Daily Yonder, offering "the grave news from a few rural communities."

Her first example is from Nebraska, where "The Kearney Hub reported that the tax-exempt request for Dove Hill cemetery lists as its caretaker one Miriam Brandt. Brandt died in 2012. The county doesn’t know if someone else has assumed responsibility, although someone has left plastic flowers there. The unmarked, unfenced burial ground is overgrown by tall grasses. The lettering on its one standing gravestone is illegible, likely because of cattle rubbing against it."

State laws on cemeteries vary, but Kallner, who lives in Wisconsin, writes generally: "Unless neighbors come forward to tell the county board a cemetery is neglected or abandoned, local government’s options are limited. Many people don’t know that, or don’t want to seem disrespectful to the dead by complaining. They may take on the job informally and then move on — or die themselves, taking the secret of that good deed to the grave and leaving no one behind to carry on."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Americans have a slippery grasp of fact and opinion, and that's not all their fault. News outlets should self-examine.

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Professor, School of Journalism and Media, University of Kentucky

The latest Pew Research Center poll has troubling findings for American democracy and journalists who try to serve it: Many if most Americans have trouble telling the difference between fact and opinion. The survey of 5,035 adults, taken Feb. 22 through March 8, presented them with five statements and asked them to identify each as fact or opinion. The results were not encouraging.

"A majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set, but this result is only a little better than random guesses," Pew reports. "Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong. Even more revealing is that certain Americans do far better at parsing through this content than others. Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion."

The Pew researchers write, "With the vast majority of Americans getting at least some news online, gaps across population groups in the ability to sort news correctly raise caution. Amid the massive array of content that flows through the digital space hourly, the brief dips into and out of news and the country’s heightened political divisiveness, the ability and motivation to quickly sort news correctly is all the more critical." The poll found that people who identify with the major political parties tend to identify a statement as factual when it favors their side.

The study found that people tend to disagree with factual statements that they incorrectly label as an expression of opinion. The full report has a list of the statements, the responses to each, and the methodology of the study.

In another part of the study, respondents were shown statements attributed to one of three news outlets: "One with a left-leaning audience (The New York Times), one with a right-leaning audience (Fox News Channel) and one with a more mixed audience (USA Today)," Pew reports. "Overall, attributing the statements to news outlets had a limited impact on statement classification, except for one case: Republicans were modestly more likely than Democrats to accurately classify the three factual statements in this second set when they were attributed to Fox."

What does this study have to say to local news organizations? More than you might think. The last two years have shown that the opinions of readers, viewers and listeners about their local news outlets has been influenced by the increasingly partisan and polarized atmosphere of national politics. Most of the criticism of the news media comes from President Trump and Republicans, but those on the left also criticize national media outlets for pro-corporate bias and cashing in on Trump.

Perhaps the main lesson of this study is that news outlets need to do a better job of separating, or at least differentiating, fact fact from opinion. It may not be enough for a newspaper to signal, with the writer's photo and "columnist" in small type, that the piece is an expression of opinion. And maybe such columns should be reserved for a particular place on the printed page -- the far-left or far-right column -- or reserved for the editorial spread or web page.

There's an old saying: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” There’s plenty of room in that aphorism to fool a large percentage people a very large percentage of the time, and we now have people making millions of dollars and gaining high office by doing just that. People want entertainment more than knowledge, and the digital explosion has fed that appetite. But the devolution began well before digital, as Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote recently.

Oh, and there’s no proof Abraham Lincoln ever said that aphorism. Fake news isn’t new.  Maybe a good daily feature for a newspaper or TV station would be “Really Fake News,” regularly exploding myths new and old. Journalism has to do something to get its authority back. It could start with regaining its moral authority, but too many of its big paymasters stand in the way. As the network bosses have said, President Trump is good for their business. Local news organizations do better, but they should try to do even better, to earn and keep the trust of their audiences. That's good journalism, and good business.

Study: SNAP recipients' diet less nutritious than others'

A recently published study has found that the diet of the average person receiving assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) is less nutritious than that of people not in SNAP. The study was done by the Food Policy Review and Intervention Cost-Effectiveness, or Food PRICE, at Boston's Tufts University, which studies population-wide nutrition and its relationship to cancer and cardiovascular health outcomes, Siobhan Gallagher reports for Tufts. Rural areas have the highest percentage of SNAP recipients.

The study compared the diets of three groups: people on SNAP, people who qualified for it but chose not to participate, and people whose income is too high to receive it. Researchers scored diets as poor, intermediate or ideal, based on how much they adhered to the American Heart Association's 2020 Strategic Impact Goals for diet. Poor diets are those that adhere to less than 40 percent of the AHA 2020 goals, intermediate diets scored 40 to 79.9 percent adherence, and ideal diets scored 80 percent or better.

In the ten-year period studied, 2003-04 to 2013-14, the average diet score among SNAP recipients didn't significantly improve, but improved significantly among both income-eligible nonparticipants and those with higher incomes.

Though there were improvements in consumption of some food groups and nutrients among SNAP participants, like whole grains, whole fruits and dark green vegetables, that group still had the lowest consumption of most healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and shellfish, and nuts, seeds and legumes. They also had the highest consumption of sugary-sweetened drinks.

"Disparities persisted for most food groups and nutrients. Even after adjusting for differences in age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and income over time, diet-related disparities by SNAP participation status were not materially altered for most dietary components," co-author Junxiu Liu told Gallagher.

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said "These poor diets should not be interpreted as a cause-and-effect of participating in SNAP. It is possible that dietary trends of these low-income Americans could have been even worse without participation in SNAP. With the 2018 Farm Bill being debated in Congress, our findings underscore the need for robust new strategies for healthier eating and reduced dietary disparities for all Americans."

Supreme Court punts on gerrymandering cases but leaves door open to proposed formula measuring partisanship

The U.S. Supreme Court punted Monday on two potentially landmark gerrymandering cases, sending both back to lower courts for further consideration on procedural grounds. "The justices left the door open for future challenges to partisan gerrymanders. But as a result of Monday’s technical resolutions, both states’ maps will be intact for the 2018 elections, and the status quo remains," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post.

In the Maryland case, Democrats had redrawn congressional districts in an effort to regain two traditionally Republican districts. "The difficulty with the Maryland case, the court said in the unsigned opinion, is that it concerned a request from challengers that courts step in now to keep 2018 elections from being held in districts that have been in place since 2011," Barnes reports. "There was no reason to do that before a trial has taken place." The court voted 7-2 to send it back.

The second case, centered on the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature's 2011 redrawing of congressional districts, is potentially more significant. The lower court concluded that the redrawn map favored Republicans and couldn't be explained by nonpartisan reasons, and cited a formula that the plaintiffs offered to measure the partisanship of redistricting,

But the formula looked at the statewide impact, and Chief Justice John Roberts said the plaintiffs hadn't shown that they were hurt individually, which he said was necessary before they had standing to sue. He said the Wisconsin plaintiffs should have another chance to show a lower court they had been individually harmed. He also wrote that the problem with the proposed formula is that it measures the effect gerrymandering has on political parties, not individual voters. 

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion in the case that "laid out a road map for future challenges, including under a test [Justice Anthony] Kennedy has proposed: that partisan redistricting schemes might be judged as punishment for voters because of their past political allegiances, which would violate the First Amendment," Barnes reports. Kennedy "has expressed a willingness to strike down partisan gerrymanders but has yet to accept a rationale for it," Michael Wines reported for The New York Times in 2016.

Research reveals 'severe' shortage of rural ER doctors

New research shows a "severe" shortage of emergency physicians in rural areas, Christopher Cheney reports for HealthLeaders. The study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, examined 2014 Medicare data and found that urban counties had a higher proportion of emergency physicians compared to overall emergency clinicians such as nurse practitioners--63.9 percent--compared to rural counties' 41.4 percent.

According to the study's lead author, M. Kennedy Hall, earlier research shows that rural areas have fewer incentives to lure ER physicians and more barriers; that research also showed several factors influence which location a doctor chooses to practice, including lifestyle, access to amenities and recreation, ER volume and acuity, family and spouse considerations, access to specialists, and location of residency programs (most are in urban areas).

Other previous research shows that strained budgets keep rural hospitals from hiring more ER physicians.

Hall said hiring non-emergency physicians and advanced practice providers such as nurse practitioners for emergency care positions might be a good fit for rural ERs struggling with costs. "As emergency departments increasingly serve as health safety nets in rural areas—becoming both primary sources for hospital admission and hubs for unplanned acute care—a mixed ER staff of emergency physicians, non-emergency physicians, and advanced practice providers may be able to better collaborate on care coordination," Hall said.

Speaking of rural broadband . . .

Here's an ironic update on an item we reported recently:

The Farm Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other organizations have created a series of listening sessions on how to improve rural broadband. Today's is being held at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, Minn., and the foundation planned a live webcast.

This morning we got an email from the foundation, saying it had discovered that slow internet speed in the Faribault area made a live stream impossible. The foundation's vice president of communication, Mary Thompson, wrote: "We regret that we are not able to share the live session with you. This complication does, however, emphasize the need to improve broadband connectivity in rural America."

Click here to see a video of the session afterward.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Trump announces Chinese tariffs; China responds with its own tariffs on crops, coal, oil, cars, whiskey and more

Despite the Trump administration's announcement last month that the U.S. and China had created the "framework" of a trade agreement, the president announced 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods that contain "industrially significant technologies." The administration also said it would announce tariffs on another $16 billion in Chinese goods later this summer. China swiftly responded with an announcement that it will slap 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion in U.S. goods such as pork, chicken and soybeans on July 6, and will announce 25 percent tariffs on $16 billion in U.S. goods later this summer, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

China's tariffs are carefully calculated to hurt the rural communities that voted for President Trump in 2016. Industries that Chinese tariffs would hurt include soybeans, dairy, alfalfa, seafood, coal, oil, automobiles, and whiskey, Alexander Kwiatkowski reports for Bloomberg.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a press conference late Friday that the effect of the tariffs won't be immediately apparent, and urged reporters not to pay too much attention to the sharp drop in grain and oilseed commodity futures that accompanied the announcement, Clayton reports. "You can't demonstrate any damage on the day that tariffs are announced," Perdue told reporters. "We're going to look at this very carefully. We're going to calculate -- we have been calculating market impact on a weekly basis on a number of months now, frankly. . . . When we determine, and if we determine, there is legitimate and lasting market impact, based on market disruption of tariffs and retaliation, then we're prepared to take action." The action he may be referring to is whether or not to tap into Commodity Credit Corp. funds to help farmers.

The American Soybean Association called the tariffs "devastating" in a press release, and cited a Purdue University study predicting that soybean exports to China could drop by as much as 65 percent if China imposes its retaliatory tariffs. Davie Stephens, a Kentucky soybean farmer and vice president of the ASA, said in the press release that China buys about 60 percent of all U.S. soybean exports and that "frankly, it's not a market U.S. soybean farmers can afford to lose."

Only 12 percent of public think journalists cover rural people accurately, and only 8 percent of journalists think they do

Only 8 percent of journalists and 12 percent of the public think journalists accurately cover people in rural areas, according to the Media Insight Project, a joint effort of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The finding somes on the heels of a poll that found most people living in rural areas don't think urbanites share their values, and that most urbanites probably think likewise of ruralites.

The latest poll also gave low marks to coverage of low-income people and grass-roots political movements.

Utilities still plan to close old coal-fired and nuclear power plants despite Trump's order to save them

Despite President Trump's June 1 order to Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdown of ailing coal and nuclear power plants, perhaps through emergency powers to force electric utilities to buy coal, many utilities say the announcement hasn't altered their plans to retire the unprofitable plants.

Mainly, the problem is that "utilities are reluctant to reverse course on plans put in motion years ago or to backtrack on pledges to embrace renewable energy," Ari Natter reports for Bloomberg. "Plant closures that have been worked out under consent decrees to settle environmental lawsuits or in deals with state regulators also can’t be easily reversed."

Coal- and nuclear-powered plants have been closing in increasing numbers for years in the U.S., Natter reports. Nearly 40 percent of the capacity of coal-fired plants has been either shut down or designated for closure since 2010. And more than one-fourth of U.S. nuclear plants aren't profitable. Also, some utilities worry that Trump's use of emergency powers wouldn't stand up in court.

"Certainly I think right now utilities are considering going forward with retirement plans as is,” Richard Glick, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told Natter. "It’s pure economics. Gas prices are way down, renewable projects are getting much less expensive and they are beating other older technologies out in the markets."

EPA keeps ban on minors from handling pesticides and rule for more training; still intends to block chemical disaster rule

The Environmental Protection Agency decided last week not to suspend an Obama administration rule aimed at educating farm workers about the safe handling of pesticides. The move was apparently spurred by a lawsuit filed at the end of May by the attorneys general of California, Maryland and New York that argued that suspension would hurt farm workers, Miranda Green reports for The Hill. The EPA has announced an intent to publish the new pesticide safety training materials in the Federal Register, Green reports.

The 2015 update to the rules was the first in 25 years. It included provisions such as requiring pesticide handlers to be at least 18, and educating farm workers about pesticide residue that could cling to their clothes and harm children who came into contact with the clothing, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Meanwhile, EPA faces criticism on another front after announcing that it intends to block most implementation of Obama-era rules that would require companies to "routinely disclose which hazardous chemicals they use, share information with emergency planners, submit to outside audits and publish reports on the root causes of explosions and leaks," Rebecca Hersher reports for NPR. Hersher notes that not implementing the rule "effectively shield[s] companies from scrutiny about how they prevent and respond to chemical disasters."

The new rules were supposed to take effect in March 2017 but the EPA delayed them after heavy lobbying from the chemical and petroleum industries. Last month, the agency announced it intends to block most of the rules; EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the move would "reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens, address the concerns of stakeholders and emergency responders on the ground, and save Americans roughly $88 million a year," Hersher reports.

But EPA must take public comments before making a final decision, and dozens of people who live and work near chemical facilities showed up to do just that at a hearing last week. "Grandmothers, teachers, firefighters and community activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge the agency to block the proposal," Hersher reports. "Representatives from industry groups countered that they're already doing enough to keep people safe and that companies don't need more oversight." EPA is taking public comments on the chemical disaster regulations until July 30.

Shortage of rural veterinarians has reached the point of posing risks to farmers, ranchers and the food supply

Large-animal veterinarians are critical for ranchers and farmers, but they've been in short supply in rural areas since 2003 because of low wages, long hours, and fewer new veterinarians wanting to live outside a major city. Last year the Department of Agriculture identified 187 mostly rural areas with a veterinarian shortage; the list almost exactly mirrors areas with a shortage of rural physicians, Esther Honig reports for Harvest Public Media.

Large-animal vets must inspect livestock before they can legally be sold for slaughter. The rule helps prevent the spread of illness among a herd or flock, or among the humans who eventually eat the meat. "And early detection is key to preventing devastating outbreaks, like the 2015 bird flu in the Midwest that led to the deaths of 50 million turkeys and chickens," Honig reports. Without large-animal vets, sick and infected animals would increasingly go untested, rendering the nation's food supply more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

The shortage of vets isn't because of lack of initial interest: a recent survey by Mark Stetter, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University, found that 30 percent of the students wanted to work in rural areas at the beginning of the program, but fewer than 10 percent actually took rural jobs after graduation.

Low pay is a big problem. Rural vets have the same school loans to pay back as their urban and suburban counterparts, but Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show that rural vets make between $61,470 and $73,540 a year, half of what they could make in a city, Honig reports.

Friday, June 15, 2018

FCC chair calls for increase in rural telemedicine fund

Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai is asking his colleagues to boost funding for a program that funds telemedicine efforts in rural America. In a recent memo, he urged an increase in funding from $400 million to $571 million for the Universal Service Fund's Rural Health Care Program.

Funding has been capped at $400 million since 1997, but that was never raised to account for inflation. "Yet the demand for funding has outpaced the budget and the situation is creating uncertainty for patients, healthcare providers, communications companies and telemedicine providers and patients,"Bernie Monegain reports for Healthcare IT News.

Pai's proposal would adjust the cap annually for inflation and allow unused funds from previous years to be carried forward to future years. That could bring more certainty for rural health care providers, who increasingly rely on telemedicine to treat patients.

Regulators, experts, say Trump's coal bailout unnecessary

Federal regulators and cybersecurity experts say that allowing ailing coal and nuclear power plants to close won't pose a security risk for the United States. President Trump recently ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdowns of such plants because he said they were necessary to maintaining the nation's energy mix, grid resilience and national security.

 "Asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing whether they believed the U.S. faced a national security emergency in wholesale power markets because of the closures, none of the five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission answered in the affirmative," Miranda Green reports for The Hill. Four of the five members of FERC are Trump appointees.

FERC member Richard Glick told the panel he was "sympathetic to the plight of coal miners who have been disproportionately affected" by coal's long slide, but said it wasn't FERC's job to figure out how to help struggling communities, Green reports.

Some energy companies and grid operators have questioned President Trump's order, such as PJM Interconnection, the nation's largest power grid operator, who called the action "drastic" and warned it could hurt the markets and cost consumers more. Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, agreed, saying in a TV interview that picking winners and losers "can be a very dangerous situation," Alex Thomas reports for W.V. Metro News.

Cybersecurity experts said the action is pointless because "hackers have a wide array of options for hitting electric infrastructure and nuclear facilities that are high-profile targets," Timothy Gardner reports for Reuters.

Quick hits: a tale of town on the Vermont-Quebec border; fracking's effect on a Pa. town

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Despite recent tensions between the U.S. and Canada, one tiny town shows, in typical rural fashion, how caring for your neighbors transcends borders. Read more here.

What effect is the boom in hydraulic fracturing having on small town America? A new book, Amity and Prosperity, dives into how a fracking company changed people's lives in one rural Pennsylvania community. Read an interview with the author here.

Two new studies detail how climate change could hurt the Corn Belt. Read more here.

Here's a story of how a rural North Carolina town struggled after it lost its hospital. Read more here.

Broadband providers and users in the Upper Midwest invited to offer perspectives in June 19 listening session

Broadband providers and users--or would-be users--in the Upper Midwest are invited to share their perspectives on enhancing connectivity at a listening session from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, June 19 at the Archery Building at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, Minn. A live webcast of the session will be available here.

The session is one of several across the country in the "What's on the Horizon for E-Connectivity?" project, which seeks insights on what is needed to improve e-connectivity and enhance the economic health of rural America. The project is organized and sponsored by the Farm Foundation, CoBank, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 "We want to hear from the people who live and work with limited broadband access today, as well as those who have innovative solutions for expanding the availability of those services," says Constance Cullman, President of Farm Foundation.

There's no charge to participate in the listening session, but please register ahead of time by emailing

Ala. town council bans press, which editor calls 'flat illegal'

UPDATE, June 20: "In what most cases would not be considered newsworthy, the Town of Paint Rock held a regularly scheduled town council meeting Tuesday evening – and the meeting was open to members of the press and the public," the Sentinel reports. Mayor Brenda Fisk "went on to explain that the guidelines were presented for consideration to the council, but never passed or enacted."

A small town in the northeastern corner of Alabama has voted to close its open meetings to non-residents and the press. Paint Rock (pop. 200) also forbids recording meetings or passing along recordings of meetings or any other town council information to the press, a set of rules that Brandon Cox, editor and publisher of area newspaper the Jackson County Sentinel, calls "flat illegal" in an editorial.

The Alabama Open Meetings Act requires all governmental meetings to be open to the public, Cox notes in an editorial. But the town clerk confirmed for him that the policies were real, and though the town doesn't have an attorney on staff or retainer, "the town clerk said she thought the mayor had consulted the Alabama League of Municipalities about the guidelines."

Paint Rock's mayor, Brenda Fisk, defended the law to Cox, saying "What goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock," and "I really don’t see the benefit for anyone outside of Paint Rock or who doesn’t own property here to come to these meetings. They’re open to anyone who lives here. Anyone else can stand outside the door, but I can close the door." 

Fisk expressed displeasure at an unofficial Paint Rock Facebook page that posted local news, commentary and information on town council meetings. The page is apparently run by a former town council member, whom Fisk referred to as a "disgruntled citizen who doesn't like that we have a government and can't do whatever they want to do."

Cox called some attorneys specializing in municipal law and learned that Paint Rock's rules violate the Alabama Open Meetings Act and are indefensible in court. Not only that, Cox writes, but the rules are "diametrically opposed to ideals in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provide for a free press and its responsibility to hold those who govern accountable."

If the press is to serve the governed, instead of the governors, as the Founding Fathers intended, the press must be able to attend open meetings without restriction, Cox writes. "I respect that the town’s leadership is attempting to make hard decisions and improvements. The law does not allow policies that censor public input or reject media coverage, however."

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Senate Agriculture Committee advances bipartisan Farm Bill

Hemp farmers process a new crop in Nucla, Colorado.
(Denver Post photo by Andy Cross)
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its farm bill on a 20-1 vote, sending it to the Senate floor for debate. It largely preserves the structure of the 2014 farm bill and keeps costs about the same, while including a provision legalizing industrial hemp. It doesn't include the expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients that the failed House bill had, Philip Brasher reports for AgWeek.

The Senate bill incentivizes rural and urban partnerships for conservation and provides mental health resources for rural areas, the Omaha World-Herald reports. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said it also includes "strong crop insurance, improvements to the ARC program and strong support for agriculture research" and "amendments to provide farmers and ranchers with access to more capital, as well as to make improvements to help make the wetland conservation title more farmer-friendly," Barry Amundson reports for the Duluth News Tribune.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised a full Senate vote on the entire bill before the July 4 recess. McConnell said he hopes the House will pass a farm bill, but said it will likely look different than the Senate's. "The House failed to pass a farm bill last month due to an immigration squabble among Republicans," Jeff Daniels reports for CNBC. Because of House in-fighting, the final farm bill is likely to strongly reflect the Senate version.

The only vote against the bill came from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who objected to the language surrounding industrial hemp. Grassley said he believed any language about industrial hemp should not be included in the farm bill, but rather in another bill that would go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, Marianne Goodland reports for Colorado Politics.

There appeared to be another reason for Grassley's dissention: "Grassley had been pledging for days to force a committee vote on his proposal to tighten the definition of what it means to be 'actively engaged' in farming to be eligible for commodity programs," Brasher reports. "However, sources said he didn’t have the final version of the amendment ready in time because it had to be changed at the last minute to conform to changes made in the manager’s package of amendments. Grassley may get to offer the amendment on the Senate floor, but it’s possible he may require 60 votes to get it adopted."

Report provides in-depth look at rural health care issues

"More than 80 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2010 and hundreds more are in danger. Millions of patients are at risk of being without a community hospital and providers in metropolitan areas could see an influx of patients with significant, untreated conditions," Modern Healthcare reports in its introduction to a six-part package called "Rethinking Rural Healthcare", which provides an in-depth the state of rural health care in the United States.

In "Reinventing a Hospital," Alex Kacik recounts the struggles of Guadalupe County Hospital in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and how it has had to innovate to stay open. 

In "Rethinking Partnerships," Kacik zeroes in on L.V. Stabler Memorial Hospital in Greenville, Alabama to illustrate how financially struggling small-town hospitals are increasingly seeking affiliations with larger hospitals to stay afloat.

In "Refocusing on the Population" Steven Ross Johnson examines how the shift toward population health management puts additional financial pressures on struggling rural health providers.

In "Reexamining Policy," Harris Meyer digs into how "policy disagreements, resistance from rural providers and communities, and opposition to new spending could slow progress in addressing the rural healthcare crisis."

In "Rebuilding a Community," Shelby Livingston illustrates what happens to a rural Tennessee town when its only hospital closes down. 

The report also includes supplemental content:

EPA chief Scott Pruitt faces frosty reception from corn farmers and ethanol producers in Kansas, South Dakota

Kansas corn farmers and ethanol producers confronted Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt Tuesday during his tour of the Agency East Kansas Agri Energy LLC ethanol plant in Garnett, telling him they were "mad as hell" about EPA efforts they believe will undermine the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, help Big Oil, and hurt rural America, AgDaily reports.

Protesters at a South Dakota rally during Pruitt's visit
(Sioux Falls Argus Leader photo by Briana Sanchez)
Pruitt told the standing room-only crowd that EPA is not supposed to pick winners and losers, but Kansas Corn Growers Association President Ken McCauley said Pruitt is "most definitely picking winners and losers right now . . . Our concern was that Administrator Pruitt thought he could come to Kansas, take a few photos with smiling farmers and tell the president that corn farmers are okay with his actions. That would be a gross misinterpretation of what happened here today. I told him that EPA’s attacks on ethanol don’t just hurt plants like EKAE, they hurt farmers, rural communities, and American consumers who benefit from ethanol with lower prices and cleaner air."

Much of the frustration stems from Pruitt's decision to grant an unusually large number of biofuel waivers to oil refineries. The waivers are meant to help struggling small refineries that would face economic hardship if they mixed the required amount of biofuels in their oil. But ethanol interests fear that the increased number of waivers granted is a backdoor effort to help Big Oil after the recent RFS dust-up. The Trump administration attempted to appease oil-producing states by proposing a rollback of the RFS last fall, but relented after strong pushback from corn states.

Pruitt thanked the speakers despite their "harsh criticism" and said "It's important for me to hear how passionate and concerned you are about the issues," Ag Daily reports.

Pruitt also received a frosty reception in Sioux Falls, S.D., yesterday. About 200 corn farmers and ethanol producers held a rally in a nearby park as Pruitt toured Schindler Family Farms and spoke with sorghum farmers about creating a fuel credit program like the one for corn, Patrick Anderson reports for the Argus Leader. Area farmer Troy Knecht led the rally, telling Pruitt to uphold the RFS and President Trump's vow to allow E-15 gasoline blends all year-round.

Area farmer David Fremark, who was at Pruitt's discussion, told Anderson: "I don't think he’s agriculture's friend . . . He talked a good game, but the things that he's doing—he appeared not to grasp the magnitude of the things he’s doing."

"Biofuels have taken a hit because of Pruitt's actions," Anderson reports. "The changes mean less ethanol production and demand for corn. The reduction is equal to 1.63 billion gallons of ethanol, worth an estimated $2.45 billion, plus $1.96 billion in corn, according to the Renewable Fuel Association."

People with positive attitudes about aging likely to live longer, have better health; rural populations tend to be older

How you think about growing old can influence how well you age, says a growing body of scientific research and global data collected and analyzed by nonprofit journalism organization Orb Media. That's especially relevant in rural areas, where populations tend to be older.

"Individuals with a positive attitude towards old age are likely to live longer and in better health than those with a negative attitude. And those with a negative view of aging are more likely to suffer a heart attack, a stroke or die several years sooner," Jim Rendon and Olufemi Terry write for Orb. "Older people in countries with low levels of respect for the elderly are at risk for worse mental and physical health and higher levels of poverty."

Projected percentage of country population over 65 in 2050. Source: United
World Population Prospects. (Orb Media graphic)
Why does it matter?

Orb reports that if population trends continue, by 2050 nearly one of six people in the world will be over 65, and close to half a billion will be older than 80. In 2050, seniors would make up nearly 16 percent of the world's population, compared to today's 8 percent.

In the U.S., the Census Bureau estimates that one in five people will be over the age of 65 by 2030, and by 2035, seniors will outnumber children younger than 18.

Those are the basic figures, reflecting quantity, but what about quality of life for those people? Research shows that a simple shift in attitude can make a difference in how well we age, especially in a world that often has negative views about growing older.

A World Health Organization analysis found that 60 percent of people surveyed across 57 countries reported relatively low levels of respect for older people. A separate Orb analysis found that the level of respect for seniors varied "significantly from country to country."

Of the 58 countries ranked in the Orb study -- in order of how they respect their elderly, with 1 being "very low" and 5 being "very high" -- the United States ranked 50th, scoring 3.29.

Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, and a leading researcher in the field, has found "Those with positive views about old age live longer and age better," Orb reports. "They are less likely to be depressed or anxious, and they show increased well-being and recover more quickly from disability. They also are less likely to develop dementia and the markers of Alzheimer’s disease."

"In one study, Levy found that Americans with more positive views on aging who were tracked over decades lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative views," Orb reports, adding that studies in Germany and Australia have found similar results. In addition, other studies have shown that "the cells of those who have more positive views of the elderly actually aged more slowly than those who had negative views."

Levy told Orb that people with negative views of aging have higher levels of stress, which has been linked to a range of health problems. She added that those with more positive views of aging are also more likely to exercise, eat a balanced diet and go to the doctor. She also said people can decide for themselves how they think about aging, and that her research has found that people who who watch less TV, participate less in social media, and have more resistant personalities are more likely to hold more positive views of aging.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ky. editor who takes stands and tackles tough subjects wins award for public service through community journalism

Stevie Lowery
LEBANON, Ky. – Stevie Lowery, editor and publisher of The Lebanon Enterprise, is the 2018 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Lowery will receive the award Oct. 18 in Lexington, at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog) and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is chair emeritus.

Top three-quarters of special edition front page
Smith nominated Lowery for the award after learning of her successful campaign to pass a supplemental property tax for improvements in Marion County Public Schools. That was one of many efforts she has made to serve the public since joining the Enterprise, owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, as a reporter in 2002. She became news editor in 2004, editor and general manager in 2005, and publisher in 2011.

In 2008, Marion County voters defeated the school board’s proposal for an extra tax of 5 cents per $100 worth of property to finance school improvements. When the board decided in 2016 to try again, Lowery, who has a son in the school system, led the charge, doing several stories on the issue in a sample-copy edition sent to everyone in the county, with a main headline asking, “Are Marion County children worth a nickel?” She supported the cause with editorials and kept up an active conversation about it on the paper's Facebook page.

Third installment of the Enterprise's series on drugs
The next year, though her news staff had been temporarily reduced to herself, Lowery did a five-part series about drug abuse in the county. It won awards for best series and news writing, and one judge wrote, “If any community newspaper has not yet probed deeply into their local drug problems, they should take a look . . . What a read!” Another said, “Lowery’s reporting shows the resilience of her subjects as they cope with the aftermath of abuse, industrial fallout and incarceration. Readers are guided by her lean narrative, which flows through the events, facts and figures that make the sagas complete.”

Smith also cited the drug series. “Addiction overall is a major problem in Kentucky, and she is making a major effort in her rural county to make sure people know the problem. Smith, who tried and failed to win school-tax increases when he was editor and publisher in Logan County, said Lowery “made a heavy commitment to campaign in the paper, and she won the day” on that issue.

Institute Director Al Cross said the newspaper’s handling of the school-tax issue was a model for community journalists who see a need and want to take a stand. “Many rural editors are reluctant to take sides on controversial issues, but when they see a wrong that needs righting, they should take a stand, while being careful to give the other side its due in stories and on the opinion pages. The Enterprise did that.”

The two series were examples of Lowery’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects, such as the first same-sex couples to be married and adopt children in the county, and a feature story this week about a 19-year-old transgender woman.

“I’ve never been afraid to report on what some people consider ‘taboo,’ subjects, especially in a small community,” Lowery says. “I’ve also not been afraid to open up about personal struggles that myself or my family have been through in hopes that my story might help someone else.” For the last edition with the drug series, she wrote a moving column about her late father’s addiction to alcohol.

Lowery is the daughter of Susan Spicer Lowery, a cooking columnist for the Enterprise since 1979, and the late Steve Lowery, who was an award-winning editor and manager of Landmark papers in Lebanon, which he left in 1987, and Bardstown. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Murray State University.

In addition to her journalism, Stevie Lowery has been a civic activist in her native county. She shaved her head to raise money for children’s cancer research; she and her son, Owen, raised more than $15,000 to shave their locks. She organized and still leads Marion County Girls on the Run, a 12-week program that helps 8- to 13-year-old girls train for a running event, build self-esteem, learn to be assertive, respond to peer pressure and bullies, surround themselves with positive influences and complete a community-service project, with an overall goal of preventing at-risk activities as they grow up.

“The Al Smith Award is for journalism, but there are other ways community journalists can serve the public, and doing so helps show that they have the community’s interests at heart,” Cross said.

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

The dinner will also recognize recipients of the SPJ chapter’s student scholarships and Oregon editor-publisher Les Zaitz, winner of the Institute’s 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. Cross will present that award to Zaitz in Oregon in July. The dinner will be held at the Embassy Suites on Newtown Pike, near Interstates 75 and 64 in Lexington. For more information, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen at Details will appear soon on the Institute website, 

Poisoned newspaper owner files civil suit against suspects

Soldwedel works on a donated bicycle at a thrift
store where he volunteers. (Photo by Vern Shea)
The co-owner of a small-town Arizona daily has filed an $18 million civil lawsuit against the two people suspected of poisoning him with what could have been lethal doses of thallium and other heavy metals. The two suspects, whose names have not been released, are accused of poisoning Jason Soldwedel, the 66-year-old co-owner of The Daily Courier in Prescott and other news outlets in northern Arizona. Soldwedel still suffers the long-term effects of heavy metal poisoning; toxicologists said he had 15 times the normal amount of thallium present in his body, and that he was lucky to be alive, Richard Haddad reports for the Courier.

Soldwedel said he filed a civil suit because he recognizes the limitations law enforcement faces in prosecuting a poisoning case like his. "I refuse to stand silently on the sidelines and willingly allow my attackers to poison more victims, which could be you, a loved one or a friend," he told Haddad. He has also offered a $10,000 cash reward for information on who poisoned him, and says the expenditure is worth it to bring his poisoners to justice. "Let’s say you know there is a potential poisoner living in your town who tried to kill you, and you have my resources at your disposal," Soldwedel said. "Wouldn’t you be obligated to the community to employ those resources?"

Interior official met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists before canceling study on health effects of strip mining

A top official in the Department of the Interior met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists shortly before canceling a study on the public health effects of surface mining, Jimmy Tobias reports for the Pacific Standard.

Katharine MacGregor
Katharine MacGregor, the principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, oversees the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. OSM hired the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to do the study, but Interior abruptly suspended it last August, as researchers were about to hold their final public meetings on it. The meetings were held, and researchers said they expected to continue after a budget review that Interior had cited as the reason for the suspension, but then Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail revealed that the study was the only one suspended. Later, the contract was canceled and the research committee disbanded.

Tobias writes: "Emails obtained through a FOIA request show that Katharine MacGregor had a hand in ensuring the health study's cancellation. Indeed, she appears to have been keenly interested in the matter." She wrote the OSM director Aug. 17: "I thought you told me on the phone that this was postponed?" The next day, OSM suspended the work.

“This is the very essence of what we mean when we describe Appalachia as a sacrifice zone,” said Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, a group fighting mountaintop-removal mining. Bo Webb, coordinator of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign, which helped prompt West Virginia officials to ask for the study, said in the same press release, "It’s clear now that canceling this study was a gift to the coal industry.."

Tobias reports that "in the months leading up to the cancellation," MacGregor's calendar "shows that she had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia."

The evidence is circumstantial, but Tobias sees a broader trend in MacGregor's calendars: At the same time she held a mere handful of meetings—fewer than 10, according to my tally—with conservation organizations like The Wilderness Society and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters." The calendar sshow that she "appears to have a habit of meeting repeatedly with industries and organizations that later receive favorable treatment from agencies she helps oversee," Tobias writes. An Interior spokesperson told him MacGregor is "happy to make time to meet with whomever requests a meeting," including conservation groups. "We have always welcomed input from all citizens and will continue to listen to ideas and concerns from anyone interested in sharing them."

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Nation's biggest truck re-manufacturer says White House delay on pollution rule is endangering hundreds of rural jobs

Tommy Fitzgerald Sr. and Jr. with Trump during his 2016 campaign
The nation's largest truck re-manufacturer, in line for a crucial break from the Trump administration, says the White House is slow-walking the move in response to lobbying from other truck makers, putting hundreds of rural jobs at risk

"There is no doubt that Volvo, a foreign truck manufacturer, whose largest shareholder is Chinese, has lobbied for the limits and ban of gliders and is now lobbying against the repeal," Tommy Fitzgerald of Byrdstown, Tenn., told Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.

Fitzgerald makes glider trucks "by combining a new cab and chassis with an older, rebuilt engine — as well as a transmission and usually a rear axle — from wrecked or worn-out trucks," Estep explains. Gliders were once exempt from federal emission limits, but in the Obama administration the Environmental Protection Agency abolished that exemption. Now the Trump EPA wants to go back to the old rule, but the White House Office of Management and Budget has delayed that, saying EPA did not do an analysis of the regulatory impact, Fitzgerald lobbyist Jon Toomey told Estep. OMB "did not respond to a question on whether it is considering letting the repeal go through without a regulatory analysis," Estep reports.
Read more here:
Read more here:

Google map, adapted, shows Fitzgerald plant locations.
Fitzgerald's foes argue that gliders don't have the latest safety equipment, that "glider makers shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from a loophole at the expense of businesses that make, sell and use cleaner-running trucks, and which keeps higher-polluting trucks on the road," and that "the glider market traditionally was limited to salvaging usable engines from wrecked trucks," Estep notes. "However, glider production shot up after the first phase of the emissions rule went into effect on new trucks."

That happened because “some companies exploited the opportunity to offer glider vehicles with older ‘pre-emissions’ engines to customers seeking to avoid modern emissions control systems,” Volvo said in a letter to the EPA, which also pointed out that it employs thousands in the U.S. Fitzgerald has cited his employment of 700 people at plants in Tennessee, supported by hundreds of others at supplier plants, and his plans to open a plant in Kentucky. Fitzgerald says he is in his second round of layoffs and has "told the government his company would have to slash production by 90 percent by the end of 2018 under the rule," Estep reports.
Read more here: