Friday, December 19, 2014

Many Americans have trust issues when it comes to neighbors, media, government, public schools

A series of interactive maps show that many Americans—especially those in largely rural states—have little trust or confidence in their neighbors, elected officials, media outlets and schools, Emily Badger reports for The Washington Post. (The darker the color the higher the percentage)

That's according to recent results from the Current Population Survey, which asked people "all kinds of quirky questions about how we relate to each other and the institutions in our lives—our neighbors, our elected officials, our media outlets, schools and even the products we buy," Badger writes.

More than 150,000 surveys were recorded in 217 counties and 76 cities using data from November 2011. Among the questions asked were: How often do you discuss politics with your friends?; Do you trust people in your neighborhood?; Have you ever bought or boycotted a product or service because of the social or political values of the company that provides it?; Have you participated in a church, mosque, synagogue or other religious institution in the last year?; How much confidence do you have in the media?; How much confidence do you have in corporations?; How much confidence do you have in public schools?

In Minnesota, Nebraska, Vermont and Kansas, only 38 percent of people said they trust the media. Nevada (59 percent) and Montana (58 percent) had the highest percentages. No state had more than 50 percent of people say they are confident in public schools, with Nebraska leading the way at 46.91 percent. Confidence levels in schools are below 22 percent in Nevada, New Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina.

It also turns out that many people don't trust their neighbors, with only 32.13 percent of Arkansas respondents saying they trust their neighbors, 33.73 percent in Texas, 34.76 in Louisiana and 35.34 percent in Tennessee. In Utah 60.34 percent of people said they trust their neighbors, but the next highest number was in North Dakota, where 50.86 percent of people said they trust their neighbors.

AP creates team of statehouse government specialists to provide 'extra reporting firepower'

The Associated Press announced on Thursday that it is creating a team of statehouse government specialists to enhance the work of AP reporters already working in all 50 statehouses, Erin Madigan White reports for AP. "The specialists will collaborate with statehouse reporters, as well as on their own projects and stories focused on government accountability and strong explanatory reporting. Their over-arching goal will be 'to show how state government is impacting the lives of people across the country,' said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news."

The team, which consists of team leader Tom Verdin, David Crary, David Lieb, Ryan Foley, Christina Almeida Cassidy and Tom McCarth, will complement the current state government correspondents by providing "extra reporting firepower in on the most important stories," White writes. They will also partner with other reporters "to pursue bigger and more ambitious enterprise on the business of state government."

AP did not give a date for when the team will begin covering stories, but as an example of what some of the reporters are currently writing, Tom Verdin, who covers Sacramento, wrote this week on the state retiree health gap reaching $72 billion, while David Lieb wrote a story this week on officials in Jefferson City, Mo., withdrawing plans for online college scholarships.

The decline in oil prices could be a major concern for some energy-dependent states

While many people are probably happy to see a steep drop in prices at the local gas station—the price of crude oil is just above $55 per barrel, down from $105 on July 1—falling oil prices are a concern for some energy-dependent states, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. A decline in prices "has already forced officials to revise revenue predictions and, if the price remains low for long, could force lawmakers to make substantial budget changes as legislatures reconvene next year."

Alaska, more than any other state, stands to lose as a result of the falling prices, Chokshi writes. Moody’s Investors Services, the credit rating agency, said in a statement: “Alaska is far more vulnerable than any other U.S. state to the global,  political, economic and other factors affecting oil supply and demand, as well as to local conditions influencing production.” (Fitch graphic)

Moody’s analyst Emily Raimes told Chokshi, “This is sort of a big enough bump, we believe, that it could potentially bring Alaska’s rating down if the oil prices continue at this low level and if the state is not able to respond to it in a way that does something other than draw down their reserve."

In addition to Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico and North Dakota also could feel the impact of lower prices, warns Fitch, another credit ratings agency, Chokshi writes. "In Alaska, energy-related tax revenue accounted for about 92 percent of unrestricted general fund revenue in the 2013 fiscal year. In New Mexico, they accounted for about 17 percent. In Louisiana, 13.5 percent. Despite producing the largest share of crude oil in 2013, oil tax revenue in Texas accounted for well below 10 percent of overall general fund." (Read more)

Free seminar for journalists to explore local and national efforts to respond to climate change

The Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting is hosting a free seminar from May 12-14, 2015 in St. Louis for journalists to explore local and national efforts to respond to and plan for climate change. The deadline to apply is Feb. 9, 2015. Space is limited. To register click here.

During the seminar, journalists will have the "opportunity to explore new approaches to adaptation and discover fresh story ideas about climate change response and preparedness," says the Metcalf Institute. This will allow journalists "to meet adaptation experts from across the nation representing local, state, regional, tribal and federal interests and will focus on climate change impacts and adaptation efforts ranging from the transportation, agriculture and insurance sectors to architecture, environmental justice and disaster risk management."

Metcalf Institute’s Climate Change Seminar will include:
  • Tour showcasing local efforts to protect critical municipal infrastructure from projected extremes in Midwestern precipitation as a result of climate change
  • Highlights from successful and upcoming projects designed to help communities plan for and respond to the wide-ranging impacts of climate change
  • Talks by scientists, local officials, NGO and business representatives summarizing climate change science and the broad range of approaches being used to help communities weather projected impacts;
  • Kick-off reception hosted by the National Adaptation Forum
  • Opportunities to cover all aspects of the National Adaptation Forum and access to adaptation professionals throughout the conference

Residents in rural town amass $3,315 in late payments when USPS fails to deliver bills

It's not unusual for rural mail to be shipped to processing centers in metro areas—often in the opposite direction of the mail's final destination. But the U.S. Postal Service's closing offices—or reduce hours at many rural offices—has put a heavier burden on the remaining sorting centers and opened the door for errors. For example, people are blaming the Postal Service's error for about 400 residents in the Western Kentucky town of Providence (Best Places map) receiving $3,315 in late water bills, Matt Hughes reports for The Journal-Enterprise.

Paul Lashbrook, water district superintendent for the Webster County Water District, told Hughes, “We send out over 2,000 water bills per month. Because of changes to the postal system, everything goes from the local post office to Evansville, Ind., and then comes back to the local post office." Evansville is about 49 miles north of Providence. 

"When the bills went out in early November, something went wrong," Hughes writes. "Hundreds of customers who had always paid on time were suddenly late making their payments. Even as the district sent out late/shutoff notices to customers, they began getting bills back in the mail. Many of them were crumpled, dirty and damaged. Others that were supposed to be delivered to customers here in the county had been postmarked in places as far away as Texas." Lashbrook said all late fees were waived.

David Walton, with the USPS, blamed the mistake on a paper jam. He told Hughes,“Those water bills got jammed up in a machine. It does happen. It could have happened for various reasons.” To view The Journal-Enterprise, click here.

Electric utilities anxiously awaiting EPA coal ash disposal regulations; rules are due today

With Environmental Protection Agency coal ash disposal rules expected to be released today, "electric utilities are bracing on how they handle the millions of tons of waste ash produced by coal- fired power plants," Cassandra Sweet reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The regulations are aimed at coal ash stored as a slurry in about 700 earthen pits around the country" and could cost the power industry $587 million a year.

EPA "said it wants to ensure that toxic chemicals contained in the ash, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, won’t leak and contaminate underground drinking water," Sweet writes. "It has identified 50 ponds where it says dam failures or other accidents could cause death as well as damage to property and the environment."

An EPA spokesperson said on Thursday that the rules aim to “protect communities from impoundment failures that pose costly risks to our health and our economy and to prevent groundwater contamination and harmful air emissions,” Sweet writes.

The rules "would replace or complement the current patchwork of state regulations," Sweet writes. "The agency may require companies to shut some or all of their coal-ash ponds and switch to storing ash in dry landfills, industry experts say. The rules are likely to require utilities to use the most up-to-date technology available in their ash ponds and landfills and to test the soil for leaking chemicals, said Christi Tezak, an analyst with Clearview Energy Partners LLC in Washington." (Read more)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Federal spending bill includes $255 million to boost rural air service

The $1.1 trillion spending bill includes $255 million for a program that boosts rural air service, Collin Deppen reports for The Bradford Era in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Funds will be allocated to the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program, a network of federal airport subsidies designed to offset the effects of airline deregulation. (Era photo)

"The bill includes $155 million—or a $6 million increase—in payments to participating air carriers, as well as an added $100 million in over-flight fees—or amounts assessed on tickets of foreign originating flights that use U.S. airspace but do not touch down here," Deppen writes.

EAS "was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service," says the U.S. Department of Transportation website. "The Department’s mandate is to provide the EAS communities with access to the national air transportation system. As a general matter, this is accomplished by subsidizing two to four round trips a day—with three being the norm—with 19-seat aircraft to a major hub airport. The Department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service."

Cuba deal could open the door for Southeastern states to cash in on agricultural exports

President Obama's decision on Wednesday to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba could be huge for U.S. agriculture, especially in Southeastern states, as long as the Republican Congress doesn't block funding for an embassy and ambassadors.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded the decision, saying in a statement that it "expands opportunity for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba. It removes technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and creates a more efficient, less burdensome opportunity for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products. It also makes those products far more price competitive, which will expand choices for Cuban shoppers at the grocery store and create a new customer base for America's farmers and ranchers."

The U.S. has allowed agricultural exports to Cuba since 2001, but exports have drastically fluctuated on a yearly basis, from a low of $4.1 million in 2001 to a high of $710 million in 2008, Doug Palmer, Helena Bottemiller Evich and Jenny Hopkinson report for Politico. Trade has been largely limited by financial and regulatory hurdles that the Obama Administration is working to eliminate. (University of Florida graphic)

"In 2013, the U.S. exported just shy of $350 million of agricultural goods to Cuba, with frozen chicken, corn, soybeans and soybean meal, as the top products, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Chicken represented nearly half the value, with $144 million in sales," Politco reports. "Canned foods, frozen sausages and frozen pork were also among the top 10 products."

Southeastern states are in position to reap the rewards of the reforms because they are able to "easily ship products like poultry, rice and corn to Cuba, which is just a few hundred miles away," Politico reports. "As of 2006, a full quarter of Alabama’s agricultural revenue came from exports to Cuba, including sales of catfish, soybeans and poultry. Other leading states exporting to Cuba include Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi, with most products funneling through Louisiana, Florida or Virginia ports." (Read more)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo bans fracking in New York, cites health concerns

NYT  photo by Chang W. Lee
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday banned fracking throughout the state of New York, citing concerns over health risks, Thomas Kaplan reports for The New York Times. While some economically depressed towns along the Pennsylvania border rely on fracking, Cuomo said, “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great.' Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’”

Several towns have already banned fracking after the state’s highest court ruled that towns could use zoning ordinances to ban the practice, Kaplan writes. But Cuomo had avoided making a decision while waiting for a study by state health officials. The study, released Wednesday, found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking.

The oil and gas industry criticized the decision. Karen Moreau, the executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said Cuomo made the decision because “he wants to align himself with the left,” Kaplan writes. Moreau told him, “Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically. It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity.”

The Center for Environmental Health applauded the decision. Ansje Miller, CEH’s Eastern States Director, said in a statement: “New Yorkers can rest easier now that the governor has taken this brave, bold step to protect our children and families from the toxic effects of fracking. Today is a major victory in the movement for safer energy. Other states should follow New York’s example and join the movement for a clean energy future.”

Environmentalists prepared to be disappointed with EPA proposed coal ash disposal rules

The Environmental Protection Agency faces a Friday deadline to announce proposed coal ash disposal rules, and environmentalists are prepared to be disappointed with the decision, Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "The Obama administration appears likely to refuse to designate the material as hazardous and could let states decide whether to enforce the rules."

"The federal government always has left it up to the individual states to manage coal ash storage and disposal, and the result is an inconsistent patchwork of regulations," Cockerham writes. "Federal disclosures show that more than two dozen utilities and other energy interests have had their lobbyists working in Washington to influence coal ash decisions this year, including Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C, which in February spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina and has ongoing problems disposing of more than 100 million tons of the ash elsewhere in the state."

"If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste, it will mean strict and costly new rules for the material, backed up with federal enforcement," Cockerham writes. "But if the agency decides it’s non-hazardous, the new requirements will be more modest, and citizens might have to sue to get them enforced. Most analysts expect the EPA to declare the coal waste non-hazardous, based on signals from the agency." (Read more)

Freedom Industries owners, managers, employees charged in January chemical spill in West Virginia

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday "charged Freedom Industries and six of its owners, managers and employees with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

"Dennis P. Farrell, William E. Tis, Charles E. Herzing and Gary L. Southern were each charged with three counts of violating federal environmental laws," Ward writes. "Each man is charged with failing to meet a 'reasonable standard of care' in running the company." Former plant manager Michael E. Burdette and Robert J. Reynolds, an environmental compliance officer, were charged via information with one-count of violating the Clean Water Act. (Gazette photo by Chris Dorst: Gary Southern the day after the January spill. Southern faces 13 charges and a maximum of 68 years in prison)

Southern, who founded Freedom Industries in 1992, was charged with 10 other crimes and faces a maximum sentence of 68 years in prison, while Farrell, Tis and Herzing face a maximum of three years in prison, Ward writes.

The indictment said: “Their negligence resulted in and caused the discharge of a pollutant, that is, MCHM, from point sources into the Elk River. Farrell, Tis, Herzing and Southern approved funding only for those projects that would result in increased business revenue for Freedom or that were necessary to make immediate repairs to equipment that was broken or about to break." The indictment says "they failed to take any action to fund other repairs necessary for upkeep or improvements."

Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer, confirmed with the Gazette "that the company had entered into a plea agreement with federal authorities and said the move was aimed partly at limiting the possible fines and criminal defense costs if the company were to be indicted," Ward writes. "Welch, in a prepared statement, said the plea agreement also stipulates that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will not seek restitution from Freedom for victims of the company’s crimes because of the company’s ongoing bankruptcy proceeding." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Census maps show county-level poverty rates for school-age children

From 2007 to 2013, the poverty rate of school-age children rose in 928 counties, fell in 15 counties and "remains above pre-recession levels in nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 3,140 counties," according to recently released Census Bureau data, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post.

Rates are highest in the South and West, with 972 counties above the national average, Choksi writes. More than 80 percent of counties in New Mexico and Mississippi "had rates statistically above the national average, and in 15 percent of school districts nationally, the poverty rate for school-age children is above 30 percent."

"Nearly the same number of counties—902—had school-age child poverty rates statistically below the national average, according to the Census," Choksi writes. "In Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming, more than 4 in 5 counties had rates statistically lower than the nation as a whole."

EPA to finalize Clean Water Act rules by spring; agency has not considered spending bill rule

Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said on Tuesday that the agency plans to finalize Clean Water Act rules by the spring, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Congressional Republicans and farmers and ranchers have protested the rules, fearing rules will expand EPA jurisdiction.

"McCarthy said the agency hasn't decided whether to replace a separate measure, an interpretive rule that provides standards for farming practices that are exempt from the pollution law's Section 404 permitting requirements," Brasher writes. "The fiscal 2015 omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress last weekend will strike down the interpretive rule, which was opposed both by farm groups and environmentalists."

McCarthy told reporters, “I want to make sure that we listen to the agriculture community about how we provide advice in a way that it's understood and it adds value. The interpretive rule clearly didn't make that mark even though it was well intended by USDA and EPA. Congress heard that, and I heard that as well." (Read more)

Northern Michigan logging and wood products industry in dire need of workers

Large numbers of loggers and foresters in Northern Michigan are hitting retirement age, creating a high demand in a profession that is losing workers to more lucrative careers in construction and paper mills, Eric Freedman reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (Michigan Farm Bureau photo)

"More than 27,000 jobs are directly in the state’s forest products industry, and more than 146,000 are supported by Michigan forests, according to Michigan State University Extension," Freedman writes. "The demand is expected to continue as the state looks for new uses for forest resources, including products and energy, according to the Michigan Biomaterials Initiative."

The main reasons for the shortages are a lack of training and a lack of knowledge about job opportunities, Brenda Owen, executive director of the Michigan Association of Timbermen, told Freedman. She said, "Everybody thinks they’re going to carry chainsaws, but we have some pretty high-tech jobs available.”

Positions needed to be filled include: lumber graders at sawmills, equipment operators, forklift operators, employees to run state-of-the-art computerized and mechanized equipment that’s operated with a joystick—like a video game—welders able to go into the woods to fix heavy equipment and drivers for logging trucks, Freedman writes.

To spark interest, local institutions have set up academic programs, Freedman writes. Last year seven students enrolled in the new associate degree program in forest technology at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, and seven more enrolled this year. And all 16 students who graduated from the newly-formed 15-week training program in welding at the Industrial Arts Institute in the Northern Lower Peninsula were offered jobs. (Read more)

Republican Senator blocks veterans suicide prevention bill; every day 22 vets commit suicide

A veterans suicide prevention bill that needed unanimous consent to pass the Senate on Tuesday was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said the bill amounted to essentially throwing away money because the goals of the bill are already funded through programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ramsey Cox reports for The Hill. (Associated Press graphic)

The bipartisan bill, which passed the House last week, "would have required the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Defense to annually arrange for an independent evaluation of the VA and DOD mental health care and suicide prevention programs," Cox writes. "It would also increase the number of psychiatrists at VA facilities." 

Coburn said of the bill, “I don’t think this bill is going to do one thing to change what is happening," Cox writes. Because Coburn is retiring, the bill could be brought up again in 2015. Around 4 million veterans are from rural areas, and half of those veterans are 65 or older. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. (Read more)

President Obama declares Bristol Bay area in Alaska off limits for oil and gas drilling

President Obama announced on Tuesday that oil and gas drilling is off limits across a stretch of 52,000 square miles along Alaska's coast in the Bristol Bay area, Dan Joling reports for The Associated Press. "The president said in a video announcement that Bristol Bay and nearby waters, covering an area roughly the size of Florida, would be withdrawn from consideration for petroleum leases. He called Bristol Bay one of the country’s great natural resources and a massive economic engine." Advocates of the oil and gas industry have not publicly criticized the move.

Obama said the area is responsible for about $2 billion in the fishing industry and supplies the U.S. with about 40 percent of wild-caught salmon, Joling writes. Obama said, “It’s something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder." (Seattle Times map)

The president and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "announced in March 2010 that a planned 2011 lease sale in what the Interior Department refers to as the North Aleutian Basin would be canceled," Joling writes. "Salazar cited a lack of infrastructure and the bay’s valuable natural resources. The temporary withdrawal was set to expire in 2017. Obama’s decision Tuesday under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 withdraws the area permanently."

Environmentalists say the move will also protect crab, herring, halibut and groundfish—including the lucrative pollock fishery—and salmon that are returning to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers through waters that had been considered for drilling, Lisa Demer reports for Alaska Dispatch News.

Environmentalist say the decision "effectively provides permanent protection to Bristol Bay and the waters north of the Aleutian Islands, though they acknowledge another president could reverse course," Demer writes. "The waters at issue stretch over approximately 32.5 million acres in what’s called the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, which includes Bristol Bay." (Read more)

Ohio weekly wins lawsuit by coal mogul Robert E. Murray; court cites First Amendment rights

Controversial coal mogul Robert E. Murray knows how to make headlines, often traveling coal regions to give speeches criticizing President Obama and his "War on Coal." Murray also has a reputation for suing any news organization that publishes anything unflattering about him. This time Murray, who this year expects to mine 64 million tons of coal, worth about $3.6 billion, took on a small weekly newspaper and lost.

Robert Murray
Murray last week lost his two-year battle against the Chagrin Valley Times when an Ohio court ruled in favor of the newspaper, Jonathan Peters reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Murray sued the Review for false light and defamation after the paper published a column criticizing Murray and a cartoon ridiculing him, in response to the December 2012 protest by Patriots for Change over Robert Murray’s decision to fire 156 employees after the presidential election.

"A trial court in Cuyahoga County granted summary judgment for the paper and the Patriots organization in May 2014," Peters writes. Murray appealed, and last week the Ohio Court of Appeals "affirmed the lower court based on First Amendment principles. Finding that Robert and his companies 'are public figures subject to comment and discussion,' the court held that the Dec. 20 article 'did not recklessly or knowingly publish a false statement of fact,' the editor’s column was not published with 'actual malice,' and the cartoon did not contain 'an injuriously false factual assertion made with actual malice.' Thus, each was a protected form of speech."

The court's decision said: "This case illustrates the need for Ohio to join the majority of states in this country that have enacted statutes that provide for quick relief from suits aimed at chilling protected speech. . . . The fact that the Chagrin Valley Times website has been scrubbed of all mention of Murray or this protest is an example of the chilling effects this has. . . . Given Ohio’s particularly strong desire to protect individual speech, as embodied in its Constitution, Ohio should adopt an anti-SLAPP statute to discourage punitive litigation designed to chill constitutionally protected speech."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Safety concerns keeping commercial drone operators from going about their business

The future has arrived in a stirring debate of controversy. Drones offer a cheaper, easier and more productive way to conduct many businesses—from agriculture to journalism to the film industry to fighting fires to dozens of other areas. (Air Dog photo)

But safety concerns have put the future of commercial drone use in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline to set rules for commercial use. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last month that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws. Until FAA rules are put in place, most commercial use of drones remains illegal.

"If the rules are reasonable, more than 70,000 jobs could be created within three years, says Mario Mairena, head of government relations for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, reports The Economist. The organization believes that "commercial benefits from drones for the American economy are worth more than $10 billion a year."

The problem is that many commercial operators have grown impatient waiting for official rules and have flown drones whenever and wherever they liked, which has led to crashes and several near misses, Gregory A. Hall reports for The Courier Journal in Louisville. 

FAA "released statistics to several media outlets in recent weeks in response to public records requests that showed a report of pilots seeing drones roughly daily during an almost-six-month period beginning June 1," Hall writes. "Using that data, The Washington Post calculated 25 near misses."

University of Louisville assistant professor Adrian Lauf told Hall that near-collisions are "definitely on the increase and there are a lot of people that now have access to these aircraft. Not as many of them are smart about it, and they don't realize the consequences. And that's perhaps one of the reasons why the FAA's probably going to require a pilot's license. . . . they have no other way of verifying that a UAV pilot has the knowledge of how airspace has to be handled."

One solution is to create more collision-avoidance technology, reports The Economist. "Passenger aircraft carry transponders that relay their position to ground radar. But an aircraft-type transponder would be too heavy for many small drones to carry, and with plastic or styrofoam airframes, they might not be detected with radar."

GPS-based devices that are part of a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast could be the answer, reports The Economist. "These devices repeatedly broadcast not just the aircraft’s position but other data, including its flight path. They also receive similar co-ordinates from any nearby aircraft. ADS-B is part of a new generation of air-traffic management being installed in America, Europe and elsewhere."

Another Republican governor comes out in favor of Obamacare since the midterm elections

In the six weeks since Republicans gained control of Congress, three Republican governors who refused to expand Medicaid in their states under federal health reform have now come out in favor of expansion but with a few twists thrown in, Jason Millman reports for The Washington Post. On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam joined Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming and Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah in support of expansion.

"Like most other Republican governors who want to take the health-care law's generous federal funding, Haslam is now offering a plan that deviates from the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the Affordable Care Act," Millman writes. "Haslam, who made the announcement almost a month after his re-election, said the Obama administration has verbally approved the approach." (Associated Press photo by Mark Humphrey: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday offered a plan to accept Obamacare funding)

The Tennessee plan includes a two-year waiver program with two tracks, Millman writes. "It will offer vouchers to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level—or about $16,100 for an individual—to help purchase employer coverage they would otherwise struggle to afford. Other newly eligible individuals can sign up in health plans modeled after health reimbursement accounts, with people earning above the poverty level required to pay premiums and copays. Haslam's administration didn't immediately offer details about how those payments are structured."

In November the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Tennessee has "about 142,000 low-income adults fall into what's known as the coverage gap—people who earn too much to qualify for the existing Medicaid program but not enough to qualify for subsidies to purchase private coverage on the Obamacare health insurance marketplaces," Millman writes.

"Nine Republican governors have expanded Medicaid so far, while Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is still negotiating with the feds on leveraging an existing state program to expand coverage," Millman writes. (Read more)

One of the nation's poorest school districts leads a discussion about innovation in education

By Melissa Landon
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

BOONEVILLE, Ky. — School administrators and teachers from several Kentucky counties gathered in Owsley County (Wikipedia map), perhaps the nation's poorest, on Monday, Dec. 15, to discuss innovation in education. The school district was recently inducted into the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools. "Poverty means every child in this district has a reason to fail, but that is just not going to happen," said County School Supt. Tim Bobrowski.

Attendees discussed topics such as use of snow days, technology in the classroom, farm-to-table programs and college readiness. The two most important discussions were on efforts to close the achievement gap, and the Snowbound Project — an effort to make up for snow days through online learning instead of through extra school days at the end of the year.

Students have from Dec. 1 to March 1 to complete online work that replaces up to 10 snow days. They earn 0.25 credits for the work. Jennifer Hall, an Owsley County High School science teacher, said students need to be taught how to use the Blackboard program used for the courses, and teachers need to provide free PowerPoint downloads and post PDFs rather than Word documents because some students may not have access to those computer programs.

Adam Holmes, an Owsley High graduate now in college, said the Snowbound Project helped him because he uses Blackboard in college to check grades, keep up with assignments and communicate with professors. Supt. Bobrowski said school officials want students to be innovative and creative, so they must have good Internet access.

Teachers don't just use the online resources for snow-day assignments. Hall said she puts extra assignments and explanations on Blackboard to help students who are having trouble with lessons in the classroom. Jason Hall, a sixth-grade teacher, creates educational videos to help his students learn math concepts. He is also learning how to use Google Docs for his lessons.

Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services for Reading is Fundamental, said the key to closing the achievement gap isn't technology, but books. She emphasized the importance of teaching children to love reading while they are still young so that it will become a habit. Also important to remember, she said, is that children of poor and middle-class parents do not hear as many high-level vocabulary words as children of upper-class people hear.

Stacey Davidson, instructional supervisor at the school, talked about the Owsley Summer Reading Project, an initiative designed to prevent students from losing knowledge over the summer and learn to love reading. The program provided 109 middle-school students with eight books each over the summer. Students received books in the mail, with letters for the parents providing discussion questions. A before-and-after test showed that the reading scores of the students who participated in the program declined less than the scores of those who did not.

Secure Rural Schools not included in spending bill; funds rural schools in struggling timber areas

Funds for the Secure Rural Schools program could be coming to an end. The program, which provides funding for rural schools that have struggled to make up shortfalls because of declines in the timber industry, has awarded about $270 million to 729 counties this year, says a press release from the National Association of Counties, Tim Marema writes for the Daily Yonder. But the $1.1 trillion spending package that passed Saturday night does not include funds for the program, which was launched in 2000. Funds from the program also can be used for road maintenance.

"The loss of Secure Rural Schools funding will also affect the distribution of another federal program that is popular with local governments—Payments in Lieu of Taxes or PILT," Marema writes. "This program provides federal support to counties that contain large swaths of untaxed federal lands. Continued funding for PILT was included in the congressional spending package."

"But counties with National Forests are entitled to more PILT funding if the Secure Rural Schools funding isn't forthcoming, according to a press release from the National Association of Counties," Marema writes. "That means the rest of the counties that receive PILT will draw from a diminished funding pool." (Yonder map: Estimated payments that counties received from the Secure Rural Schools program in FY 2013. For an interactive version, click here)

Alpha agrees to reduce pollution in West Virginia streams affected by mountaintop removal

Alpha Natural Resources on Monday reached an agreement with citizen groups to "take steps to reduce water pollution so that the streams involved either meet a more detailed test of aquatic life health than currently used by state regulators or comply with a water quality measure of electrical conductivity designed by federal regulators," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. In June a federal judge ruled that mountaintop removal from Alpha mines was having an adverse impact on nearby streams.

"The settlement, which must be reviewed and approved by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers before it can take effect, gives Alpha until August 2019 to clean up pollution of Laurel Creek in Boone County and Robinson Fork in Nicholas County," Ward writes. (Read more)

Longtime mountaintop removal foe dies at 88

Photo by Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Berea College
Daymon Morgan, a longtime activist against mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia, died Thursday at 88. In an email to The Rural Blog, Berea College Provost Chad Berry wrote, "He was a friend to many who were fighting for environmental justice in the coalfields and well beyond."

Leading Appalachian writer Silas House, like Morgan a native of southeastern Kentucky's Leslie County, wrote to the blog: "When I first met Daymon 10 years ago and heard him tell his own struggle of fighting big industry to protect his heritage and his land, I knew there was no turning back.  In that moment I knew I had to join him in speaking out on the issue.  Daymon never spoke in hyperbole or vitriol.  He simply told the story of what was happening to his mountains and asked others to spread the word.  In the 10 years since I have seen him touch numerous lives and pass this same responsibility onto them.  He had a tremendous impact on the environmental justice movement in this country and I am so glad I had the privilege of spending time with him on his porch and on his mountain where he showed us medicinal plants and told old tales." 

Molly Koeneman, a 2011 graduate of Western Kentucky University, featured Morgan in a story while a WKU student. "Daymon Morgan stood rooted to his land, offering silent reverence in a graveyard set off the side of a gravel path winding up the side of the mountain," Koeneman wrote. "Sunlight filtered through the trees and a gentle breeze rustled the early autumn leaves. These mountains raised Morgan, and in turn, his children. These mountains are home to him and his wife. These mountains are the resting place for his parents, and Morgan sees himself being laid to rest here someday." To read Morgan's obituary, click here.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Even if Republicans win the 'War on Coal' in U.S., the worldwide fight could be a losing battle

Although Republicans have vowed to save the U.S. coal industry by fighting the "War on Coal," they can't do much "to defend the industry against a growing international threat—the drying up of its once-promising markets overseas," Erica Martinson reports for Politico.
"Coal exports, which more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, are expected to fall by nearly one-fifth this year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says," Martinson writes. "In 2015, the number of tons exported could hit its lowest level in five years. (Politico graphic)

Prices in Asian markets are plummeting, and cheaper coal is available in Indonesia and Australia, Martinson writes. "Meanwhile, a lot of U.S. coal can’t even get out of the country, thanks to greens’ success in blocking proposed export terminals in Washington state and Oregon. And China, the world’s most voracious coal customer, just pledged to cap its use of the fuel and is promising to curb its greenhouse gas pollution."

Even though the House $1.1 trillion spending deal "bars the Export-Import Bank from cutting off financing for coal-burning plants overseas," the future of coal exports remains murky, with developing nations agreeing in recent talks in Peru to voluntarily reduce carbon dioxide pollution.

"Meanwhile, the World Bank is backing away from funding coal projects, hedge funds are eyeing major U.S. coal companies as high-risk investments and the strong dollar is hampering the market for all kinds of exports," Martinson writes. "The oil train boom also burdens coal producers’ access to rail lines from Western mining hot spots like Wyoming and Montana."

"It’s sobering news for an industry already beset by EPA climate and pollution regulations that Republicans denounce as Obama’s 'War on Coal'—their rallying cry on the way to big victories in the midterm elections," Martinson writes. "And it’s a far stretch from the export-driven boom that coal supporters like House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton were expecting as recently as a year ago." Upton said in 2013, “All that is missing is the additional infrastructure to make expanded exports possible, and achieving our export potential would have the added benefit of creating thousands, tens of thousands, of new jobs." (Read more)

County-level map shows the percentage of men ages 25 to 64 who are unemployed

In the U.S., 16 percent of men between the ages of 25 to 54 are officially unemployed, triple the number of unemployed men since 1968, Gregory Aisch, Josh Katz and David Leonhardt report for The New York Times. County level data, taken from surveys from 2009 to 2013, show the percentage of unemployed men from 25 to 64, which is considered the prime working age.

The data lumps all out-of-work men in the same category, whether they are unemployed, disabled, discouraged, retired, in school, taking care of family or any other option.

In some metro and suburban areas—such as San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston and Manhattan—as well as the booming North Dakota oil towns, employment rates were above 90 percent, the Times reports. But in poorer, more rural areas, such as Appalachia, the Deep South, northern Michigan, the Southwest and the Northwest, more than 40 percent of prime-age men are not working. (Read more) (NYT map: In McKinely County, New Mexico 46 percent of men between 25 to 54 are unemployed. To view an interactive version of the map click here)

University of Kentucky program using stories to explore school's connection to Appalachia

The University of Kentucky is taking a look at the school's relationship with Central Appalachia through a project called “Rooted in Our Communities: The University of Kentucky in Appalachia."

Through a continuing series of stories on health, agriculture, food, workforce and economy, environment, arts and culture, education and energy, UK students, faculty and staff "will bring to life the significant challenges and even more promising opportunities that exist not only in Eastern Kentucky but throughout our commonwealth," writes UK president Eli Capilouto. (University of Kentucky photo: UK grad Kesley Sebastian returned to her rural Appalachian hometown to open a restaurant)

One story looks at an Eastern Kentucky women who studied business management at UK then returned home to open a downtown restaurant in Jackson, a town with a population of 2,100 and few downtown eateries.

Another story is a feature about Eastern Kentucky native Jasmine Newman, who studied cultural anthropology at UK and has used her skills in South Africa and Berea, Ky., where she did an internship with the New Opportunity School for Women, which works to improve the financial, educational and personal circumstances of low-income, middle-aged women in the Appalachian region. Newman said, "Doing these things in your own community gives you a greater appreciation of where you came from, what you're made of and what the people in your community are made of." (Read more)

Developing nations agree to climate deal, but compliance is on a voluntary basis

Early Sunday morning in Lima, Peru, officials from 196 countries agreed to voluntarily reduce fossil fuel emissions that are blamed for climate change, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "But the driving force behind the new deal was not the threat of sanctions or other legal consequences. It was global peer pressure. And over the coming months, it will start to become evident whether the scrutiny of the rest of the world is enough to pressure world leaders to push through new global warming laws from New Delhi to Moscow or if, as a political force, international reproach is impotent."

As part of the deal, countries pledge to enact domestic laws to reduce emissions at home by March 31, 2015, Davenport writes. But the deal "does not include legally binding requirements that countries cut their emissions by any particular amount." That means that countries can put together weak plans that do little to nothing to help the environment, or they can refuse to submit a plan at all, without fear of punishment. (Global Carbon Project graphic)
The Obama administration "has pledged that U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions will be 26 to 28 percent lower in 2025 than they were in 2005," Brad Plumer reports for Vox. Meanwhile, the European Union plans to reduce its emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and China also intends to stop its emissions from rising past 2030 or so—and plans to ramp up its share of renewable energy."

But since the reductions are voluntary, each country can choose to do whatever they want, Plumer writes. "The final Lima deal simply says that countries 'may include' detailed information on how and when they intend to cut emissions. (Or they may not.) There will be no formal assessment of each country's plans. All that will happen is that, in November 2015, the UN will tally up all the national pledges and estimate how they stack up to the broader goal of preventing more than 2°C of global warming. Otherwise, there's little monitoring or verification."

It all came down to a simple word change that softened requirements, Rebecca Leber reports for New Republic. "Now, most of the information for these plans will be voluntary, rather than mandatory, because the text says countries 'may' include detailed information, rather than 'shall.' At the core of the questions is whether the world will commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the centurycrucial to limiting the worst effects of global warming. Other questions, like how countries plan to increase climate change financing to $100 billion annually, will be important to reaching a Paris agreement." (Read more

North Carolina-to-Japan pork pipeline quickly becoming state's top export

The fasting growing export from North Carolina is pork shipped to Japan, Andrew Curliss reports for the Raleigh News & Observer as part of a series called "High on the Hog." At the beginning of the 21st century, "the value of pork shipped from North Carolina to Japan was below $30 million a year in today’s dollars. It now tops $250 million."

"Late last year, in an unnoticed milestone in a decade-long trend, pork from North Carolina jumped ahead of tobacco as the state’s top direct export to Japan," Curliss writes. Overall, Japan "will buy about $2 billion in U.S. pork this year, making it far and away the No. 1 export market for American hog farmers." (Observer graphic: Meat exports out of North Carolina are catching up with tobacco exports)
The Japanese don't crave just any pork. Connoisseurs are looking for a specific taste and flavor—one that's silky, with a deeper color and fatter and sweeter, Curliss writes. That's where farmers like Bob and Ted Ivey come in. They "are part of a weekly race against time and circumstance to deliver the pork fresh—never frozen—from barns east of Raleigh to the world’s largest metropolis. It has become an unyielding effort to penetrate the demanding Japanese marketplace, where pork is consumed with a passion akin to North Carolinians and their barbecue."

"This pork-to-Japan pipeline is a prime example of how the global marketplace shapes North Carolina far beyond the potent Research Triangle Park," Curliss writes. "Today’s worldwide economy reaches places as basic and seemingly homebound as a hog barn in Eastern North Carolina."

Dermot J. Hayes, an expert on the pork economy and a professor at Iowa State University, told Curliss, “Japanese consumers are very finicky, very rich and they demand quality. So the people who export to Japan—they export a very high-value product. And that returns a lot of money.”

Read more here: http://highonthehog.nandoweb.net/#storylink=cpy


Read more here: http://highonthehog.nandoweb.net/#storylink=cpy
For the Iveys, about 300 of their boars "will produce about 1.3 million market hogs this year in North Carolina," Curliss writes. "Of those, the cuts from about 200,000 will make it to Japan as Silky Pork." (Read more)

Read more here: http://highonthehog.nandoweb.net/#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://highonthehog.nandoweb.net/#storylink=cpy

Senate passes HR 83, preserving 6-day mail service

On Saturday the Senate passed HR 83. The measure does not include postal reform language, but it does ensure that 6-day mail services will continue through the end of September, Max Heath, chairman of the National Newspaper Association wrote in an email to The Rural Blog.

"The president has not yet posted a signing date, but he is expected to sign," Heath writes. "He has until Wednesday, which is when the previous short-term appropriations bill runs out."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Kentucky county is passing a local right-to-work law that could well be the first such local ordinance

A Southern Kentucky county believes it will be the first in the nation to pass a local "right to work" law, which prohibits union contracts that require workers to join a union or pay it fees.

The Warren County Fiscal Court, based in Bowling Green, approved the ordinance 5-1 on first reading Thursday and plans to give it final passage Dec. 19. The judge-executive of Simpson County, which separates Warren County from Tennessee, said its fiscal court will consider a similar ordinance at a meeting Tuesday.

It is unclear whether Kentucky counties have the power to pass such laws, and a spokeswoman for Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said he would opine on the matter. Conway is a Democrat running for governor; Democrats generally oppose right-to-work laws because labor unions oppose them so strongly.

The ordinance would be the first local right-to-work law in the nation, says Jim Waters of the Bluegrass Institute, a free-market think tank based in Bowling Green. "Several other counties are ready to do the same," Waters writes. "Some of these counties are led by Democrats; some by Republicans. . . . Our plan is that if enough counties pass their own individual right-to-work ordinances, it will: (1) make it very difficult for opponents and (2) will ultimately force the state House political leadership to make Kentucky the 25th right-to-work state."

Former Bowling Green mayor Eldon Renaud, president of United Auto Workers Local 2164 at the General Motors Corvette plant in Bowling Green, "said he believes that the county’s ordinance is against state law and that right-to-work legislation would require a vote from the legislature," Katie Brandenburg of the Bowling Green Daily News reports.

Friday, December 12, 2014

'War on coal' gets cheers at climate-change talks; Kerry gets jeers from McConnell

A package of rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-burning electric plants is "one of President Obama’s most contentious domestic decisions" but has turned the U.S. from "one of the world's worst actors" on the issue to a catalyst for what could be the first global agreement to cut the emissions blamed for climate change, reports Coral Davenport of The New York Times.

Davenport writes from Lima, Peru, where global negotiations about climate change are concluding: "American negotiators are being met with something wildly unfamiliar: cheers, applause, thanks and praise," because of Obama's "June announcement that he would use his executive authority to push through an aggressive set of regulations on coal-fired power plants. . . . The enthusiastic reception on climate issues comes a month after a historic announcement by the United States and China, the world’s two largest polluters, that they would jointly commit to cut their emissions."

Obama's plan "set off a firestorm of legal, political and legislative opposition at home," Davenport notes. "Critics have called it a 'war on coal' that could devastate the American economy. But in the arena of international climate change negotiations, it has fundamentally transformed the feeling toward his administration."

John Kerry, making the first appearance by a secretary of state at such talks, didn't mince words when talking about coal plants, saying, "We’re going to take a bunch of them out of commission." His former colleague in the Senate, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, says he will attack the proposed rules through appropriations bills. "Despite the new Republican majority in the Senate, it appears unlikely that Mr. McConnell will be able to summon the votes necessary to repeal Mr. Obama’s rules—a point that American negotiators are making repeatedly here," Davenport writes.

McConnell fired back in a press release: "He was not speaking for Congress, and when I am Senate majority leader in January, the international community will have no doubt about that. It will soon be very clear that Congress disagrees not only with the EPA’s unilateral actions but also with the Administration’s entire international crusade against coal jobs. . . . Given the change in management that’s coming to the Senate, overseas audiences may want to proceed with caution when it comes to Secretary Kerry’s recommendations and comments.”

Only in recent years has federal data begun to count female farm workers and owners

Women have long worked and owned farms, but until recently were rarely factored into key statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Luke Runyon reports for Harvest Public Media. (Runyon photo: Mary Kraft owns Badger Creek Dairy outside Fort Morgan, Colo.) 

About one-third of U.S. farms are run by married couples, but many of those farms are considered to be run by men, Runyon writes. Sondra and Matt Pierce have been running a sugar beet farm in Colorado for years, with Matt working a regular 9-to-5 job in addition to farm duties, while Sondra works exclusively on the farm. Sondra told Runyon, "Technically, I don't own the farm. I mean, I just work on it. Most of the things we sell are always in his name."

It wasn't until 2002 that USDA "began collecting information—like gender and age—from more people on a family farm, not just from the person in charge," Runyon writes. "That's led to a broader picture of who does the farming in the U.S. Still, there are limits, and sociologists say expectations about what constitutes women's work on the farm can be slow to change."

"In 2002 about 27 percent of farmers were women," Runyon writes. "In 2012 that increased to more than 30 percent. The share of U.S. farms primarily operated by women has steadily increased over the past three decades, from 5 percent in 1978 to nearly 14 percent by 2012."

Julie Zimmerman, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky who studies how women's roles on the farm have changed over time, told Runyon, "Women have always worked in agriculture, historically. I think a key issue is whether or not it's counted. If you see working on your farm as being part of your role as the spouse or the wife, as helping out, then you might not even recognize it as being 'working on the farm,' even if you're doing it all the time." (Read more)

FCC to spend $3.9 billion to increase Internet access to rural and poor areas

The Federal Communications Commission agreed on Thursday to boost spending by 60 percent to $3.9 billion to bring high-speed Internet access to schools and libraries in poor or rural areas, reports The Washington Post. The move would probably increase phone bills by about $2 per year.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler "said he estimates that two-thirds of American schools still don’t have access to high-speed connections, which can affect a child’s ability to do homework, research college scholarships and acquire basic job skills," the Post reports. Wheeler said, “We are talking about a moral issue. The greatest responsibility—the greatest moral responsibility—that any generation has is the preparation of the next generation.”

In a press release, the FCC said: "Broadband for rural consumers that is supported by the Connect America Fund must deliver the same speeds that 99 percent of urban Americans enjoy. . . The FCC will now require companies receiving Connect America funding for fixed broadband to serve consumers with speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. That is an increase reflecting marketplace and technological changes that have occurred since the FCC set its previous requirement of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps speeds in 2011." (Read more)

University of Missouri journalism students hit the road to experience rural America firsthand

Students at the Missouri School of Journalism undertook a massive project to emulate the 14,000-mile journey on back roads and through off-the-beaten-path towns that author William Least Heat-Moon detailed in his 1982 book Blue Highways. Following in his footsteps, 12 students in teams of two traveled through rural Missouri in a grand circle around Columbia. Their journeys are recorded in Vox Magazine, which is is published by the Columbia Missourian. (Mary Kaleta photo: The Union Covered Bridge in Monroe Countu)

"I was going with a goal to discover something bigger than myself," writes Tess Hart, who along with Mary Kaleta headed northeast out of Columbia. "We had no big destination. Today we were going small—to the little towns that dotted the map. I glanced at the big paper map spread out across Mary’s lap, and Mexico, Mo., jumped off the page. I turned north and let the weight of my right foot press a little harder on the pedal."

Niki Kottman and Jenna Fear traveled to the southeast, where they ended up in New Florence, a town with a population of 750, and where "entertainment comes in the form of looking out windows and hoping for something new to happen," Fear writes.

But in a small town, finding help after getting the car stuck in a ditch turned out to be no problem at all, Fear writes. "A woman stepped onto her porch. She’d been watching us through the window. She’d called the city workers to help, she said, but they were busy filling potholes. She walked us to the neighbor’s house. The neighbor called someone, and soon enough a big white truck rounded the corner and pulled up to my sad little car. He pulled us right out. We gave thanks, equally impressed and surprised by the kindness of these strangers."

Carson Kohler and Alexa Ahern headed south, ending up in Tuscumbia, Mo., looking for a fishing hole they couldn't find. "We took our time on the way back to what we called the 'main road,'" Kohler writes. "Crunching slowly along the gravel road, I turned to see a driveway with scatters of chickens. I gasped and pointed and realized I was pointing at a woman. She looked up and stared. My Florida license plate gave us away. We stopped, and Alexa convinced me that we needed to talk to her." (Alexa Ahern photo: Earl McDowell stands in front of 42 Swap Shop, an antique store in Brumley)

"A welcome party of about nine dogs ran toward us before we reached the driveway," Kohler writes. "The first few words exchanged were awkward. The inflection of her voice seemed as if she were asking, 'Why are you here?' But, channelling our inner William Least Heat-Moon, we asked about a good place to eat. From there, the conversation unfolded."

"Her name was Vickie Burrows, which we didn’t find out until the end of our hour-long visit," Kohler writes. "She told us about her family. Her ancestors lived in this area and owned the farm. Her older sons helped run the land they left behind. She lives with her daughter, 16, who is in a 'complicated' stage of her life. Vickie even told us about her husband’s passing in March after his long battle with cancer and how her farm hit highs and lows during his illness. I felt as though I could have talked to Vickie all day, but we had to leave, so Alexa and I left Vickie to her chores. We continued on."

Students also traveled west, southwest and north. Their instructor was Sara Shipley Hiles.

Rural counties continue to experience job growth

Rural America continues to add more jobs. From October 2013 to October 2014, rural areas added 428,000 jobs—a 2.1 percent increase—and a significant increase over numbers from September 2013 to September 2014 when rural areas added 208,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder. From October 2013 to October 2014, metro areas added 3.4 million jobs, an increase of 2.7 percent.

"The unemployment rate in rural counties, however, dropped below the rate in the cities," Bishop writes. The rate in rural counties with small cities—between 10,000 and 50,000 residents—was 5.3 percent, and it was 5.5 percent in rural counties with no town larger than 10,000 people, Bishop writes. The rate in metro areas was 5.6 percent. (For an interactive version of this Yonder map, click here)

Webinar for journalists to address ACA's employer requirements that go into effect Jan. 1

The Kaiser Family Foundation is hosting a webinar for journalists from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. (EDT) on Dec. 18 about how federal health reform's employer requirements affect businesses and workers. On Jan. 1, 2015, larger employers will be required to offer coverage to their workers or face penalties. The webinar will address how the penalties work, what options employers have to comply with the requirement, how provisions will affect coverage and costs for employers and workers as well as the implications of the King vs. Burwell case recently taken up by the Supreme Court.

After a brief presentation by Gary Claxton and Larry Levitt, co-executive directors for the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance, there will be a question and answer period. To register for the event, click here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rural residents living near a metro core city are more likely to experience better mental health

People who live in rural counties adjacent to a metro core have higher rates of happiness, says a study by researchers at Penn State University published online in Social Indicators Research.

"Educational attainment, employment opportunities including self-employment and social capital have important benefits in terms of community mental health," the study's authors wrote. "For policymakers concerned about reducing the average number of poor mental health days across the nation, our results suggest that reducing poverty is a more powerful strategy than reducing income inequality."

For the study, "researchers correlated mental health with a number of environmental factors," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "In addition to tracking the rural and urban status of the counties, they also looked at poverty rates, income levels, weather-related data like number of days of sunshine and other climate information and whether the counties had experienced droughts or other natural disasters."

The study found that residents of large, core, urban areas were more likely to have more mentally unhealthy days per capita, while the number of mentally unhealthy days dropped in counties outside those cities, Marema writes. "A high-water mark of happiness attributable to geography occurred in counties that were rural but adjacent to metropolitan counties." (Read more) (Yonder map)

Budget bill includes 50 percent cut in U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 budget

Congress is passing a Fiscal Year 2015 budget that includes a 50 percent cut of $123 million "in mostly planning monies for Census 2020 in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 budget," Phil Sparks, of The Census Project, wrote in a mass email.

"As the seven living former Census directors, both Republican and Democrat, wrote in a recent letter to Congress, critical planning for the next decennial census cannot wait and funds must be appropriated now for money-saving techniques that could cut the costs of taking the census by billions of dollars," Sparks writes. "But, these techniques need to be tested in the field next year for implementation in 2020."

Why the cuts? “The background to the move is that some on the conservative and libertarian side want to make it optional to respond to the bureau’s American Community Survey, which generates important, detailed demographic information about localities," said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "The bureau and its allies objected strongly to that, so this may be a way of extracting a pound of their flesh.”

Proposed cuts could lead the Census Bureau to "be forced to accept a significantly less accurate measure of America, which would carry its own high economic and governmental costs, according to advocates," Michael McAuliff writes for the Huffington Post.

"The census is required by the Constitution to count everyone in the nation every 10 years, an endeavor that has gotten increasingly expensive for many reasons, including population growth, inflation, rising distrust of government and increased difficulty tracking everyone down and getting them to answer," McAuliff writes. "For the last several decennial counts, the cost has roughly doubled from one to the next. After the last one, which came in slightly cheaper than predicted at $13 billion, Congress ordered the Census Bureau to figure out how to do it cheaper."

One method was to cut the number of door-to-door census takers and letters sent in favor of using the Internet, McAuliff writes. The White House still asked for a budget of $963.4 million, much higher than the proposed $123 million. (Read more)

County-level map shows mortgage interest deductions; rates higher in West, East Coast

Brookings has created a county-level interactive map that looks at the mortgage interest deduction (MID) on owner-occupied homes. "The MID allows taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest on up to $1 million in debt used to purchase or refinance a primary or secondary home, as well as for up to $100,000 of home equity debt not used to buy, build or improve the home," Benjamin Harris and Lucie Parker write for Brookings. "The MID is available only to the minority of households whose combined itemized deductions—which include such items as state and local taxes paid and charitable contributions, as well as mortgage interest—exceed the standard deduction."

The average mortgage interest deducted ranged from $3,450 to $18,692. "Income and housing differences fuel geographic variation in the mortgage interest deduction," Harris and Parker write. "Higher income taxpayers are more likely to have itemized deductions that exceed the standard deduction; taxpayers in areas with high housing values are also more likely to have larger mortgages and subsequently pay more in mortgage interest." (Brookings map: Average mortgage interest deducted in 2012. To view the interactive map click here)
"This geographic variation leads to a large gap between low and high claiming counties," Harris and Parker write. The bottom 10 counties have taxpayer claim rates of 7.3 percent or lower, while the top 10 have claim rates of 28.3 percent or higher. Adding in itemized deductions and the bottom 10 have mortgage interest deductions of $5,241 or lower, while the top 10 have deductions of $9,433 or greater.

"Deductible mortgage interest tends to be highest in the West, on the East Coast and near some metropolitan areas inland," Harris and Parker write. "Deductible mortgage interest is particularly high in California and the Northeast. Inland states east of the Mississippi tend to have lower housing values and, subsequently, fewer deductions for mortgage interest." (Read more)

A death in the Bakken Shale region; company not required to pay benefits to employee's daughter

The oil and gas industry can be a profitable—and dangerous—one in which to work. While the Bakken Shale boom in North Dakota has led to an increase in jobs and a flourishing economy, oil and gas extraction worker fatality rates are seven times greater than the rate for all industries. Between 2003-2010, 823 workers were killed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Left behind are grieving families—some of whom are fighting to collect death benefits from companies who them.

Brandon Belk and daughter Mariah Sykes
One such case is Brandon Belk, who two days before his death in 2013 was cleaning a frack tank for Badlands Power Fuels, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. Federal worker safety inspectors found the working conditions dangerous, and "his autopsy says he died from pneumonia—fluid in the lungs—which points to the chemical exposure" of a mix of solvents and petroleum gunk.

But Belk also had traces of of methadone—a potent and often abused painkiller—in his bloodstream, Soraghan writes. The autopsy report "indicates he wouldn't have died without the methadone and citalopram, an antidepressant for which he had a prescription. And his death certificate states he had no 'injury at work.'"

"To his former employer, that settles it," Soraghan writes. "So, too, for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the North Dakota workers' compensation system, which has denied death benefits to his 13-year-old daughter."

Liz Merritt, an executive of Nuverra Environmental Solutions, Power Fuels' parent company, wrote, "The North Dakota Forensic Medical Examiner's Office report concluded the death was an accident unrelated to the workplace. We can provide no further details or information regarding this incident."

"North Dakota Forensic Examiner William Massello said sometimes he just doesn't know whether a death is job-related. When that happens, procedures dictate that he just check 'no,'" Soraghan writes. Massello told him, "Sometimes, we might not be sure whether it's work-related or drug-related—or a combination of both—so we have to check off 'no.' Sometimes the person has an accident, and they go home, and they take drugs—too many drugs. And the issue is, what role did the accident play in this? It isn't clear."

What also isn't clear is whether proper safety precautions were taken, Soraghan writes. "The employees who had cleaned the tanks were inexperienced. No one tested the air in the tanks before they got in. Some didn't wear eye protection and protective clothing in the confined space. None of them wore a respirator."

"During OSHA's investigation, Nuverra acknowledged a mistake, according to the case file, which EnergyWire obtained under the Freedom of Information Act," Soraghan writes. "'Low-level managers had sought out new chemicals that could clean out frack tanks faster, but they didn't have a procedure for making sure they were safe."

OSHA "fined the company $17,000 for failing to evaluate the danger to the workers in the tanks and failing to train employees to properly handle the hazard," Soraghan writes. "But when the medical examiner's report came back, citing the methadone as a prominent factor in his death, OSHA changed its inquiry from a death investigation to a standard inspection." (Read more)

Controversial coal mogul Robert Murray cashing in on industry's decline

One of the most vocal opponents of the "War on Coal" has been profiting the most from the industry's decline, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. While the industry's marketing capitalization has shrunk from $78 billion in 2011 to about $25 billion today, Robert Murray, chief executive officer of Murray Energy, has catapulted his Ohio-based company into the country's fifth-largest coal producer, while making Murray Energy the largest privately held coal producer in the U.S.

Last year Murray Energy doubled in size by spending $3.5 billion to acquire five of Consol Energy's West Virginia operators. In September, Murray—who owns 12 active underground coal mines in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Utah and West Virginia—told industry members to expect more coal producers to go bankrupt.

In a 1988 interview, Murray referred to President George H.W. Bush and the Clean Air Act and "blasted proposals to toughen U.S. emission standards as 'criminal fraud' being perpetrated by a 'terrible government and a terrible president,'' Loh writes. "All the while Murray was devising a strategy to capitalize off of it. He recognized early that power plants had a choice to make: either install expensive 'scrubbers' to reduce sulfur-dioxide and other emissions to comply with the law or start buying low-sulfur coal from as far away as Wyoming."

Murray "identified which plants were likeliest to install scrubbers then went about buying as much of the coal reserves those retrofitted plants would require as he could," Loh writes. "He told plant owners he'd be able to sell them coal so cheap they'd wind up coming out ahead, even after they invested in the scrubber technology."

Murray hasn't looked back since, Loh writes. This year he said he expects to mine 64 million tons of coal, worth about $3.6 billion, up from a revenue of $1.3 billion in 2012.

And while Murray is cashing in on the coal industry, safety remains a concern, Loh writes. In 2013, the company ranked 22 out of the 25 largest U.S. coal producers for incident rates, and Powhatan No. 6 in Alledonia, Ohio had an incident rate 2.4 times higher than the national average for that type of mine. In 2007, Murray subsidiaries agreed to pay $1.15 million in civil penalties for mines in Utah that burst. (Read more)