Monday, September 29, 2014

Rent is rising faster than income, leaving many struggling to afford housing

The cost of rent is climbing faster than income, leaving many renters, especially those in mostly rural states, struggling to make ends meet, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. The average U.S. household spent 30.8 percent of income on rent in 2013, up from 25.5 percent in 2000. In 27 states, households spent more than 30 percent of income on rent in 2013, while in 2000 no state was above 30 percent.

The biggest change was in Rockland County, New York, in the suburbs of New York City, where the average amount of income spent on rent has increased from 28.3 percent to 40.5 percent, Henderson writes. Passaic County, New Jersey, increased from 26.8 percent to 37.6 percent; Wayne County, Michigan, from 25 to 35.7 percent; and Hinds County, Mississippi, from 26.6. to 36.4 percent.

"Mississippi had one of the most jarring drops in rental affordability statewide since 2000, as median rents rose 61 percent from $439 to $708 a month, while renters’ income increased by only about 19 percent," Henderson writes.

Florida residents pay the most, spending 34.1 percent of their income on rent, Henderson writes. Florida is followed by California, 33.8 percent; Hawaii, 32.9 percent; New Jersey, 32.2 percent; New York, 32.1 percent; Oregon and Vermont, 31.9 percent; Connecticut, 31.6 percent; Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan, 31.4 percent; Maine and Rhode Island, 31.2 percent; South Carolina, 31 percent; Colorado, 30.9 percent; Maryland and New Mexico, 30.8 percent; Mississippi, 30.7 percent; Delaware, 30.6 percent; Washington, 30.5 percent; Pennsylvania, 30.2 percent; Massachusetts and Tennessee, 30.1 percent; and Alabama and North Carolina, 30 percent. (Read more)

Free-standing emergency departments could be the solution to shuttered rural hospitals

Four rural hospitals in Georgia "have closed in the past two years, and several more either have closed or significantly reduced services since 2001," Bob Herman reports for Modern Healthcare. "Nationwide, more than two dozen rural hospitals have shut down since 2013. For people in rural areas, a closed hospital means they have to travel farther, sometimes hours, for care. And that could mean life or death in situations such as cardiac arrest, car accidents, workplace injuries and other emergencies."

But Republican-led Georgia, where officials have refused to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, "has proposed a regulatory change that some observers think could help rural hospitals across the country," Herman writes. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said in March that "financially struggling rural hospitals can offer fewer inpatient services and still keep their hospital licenses. In essence, they can convert into free-standing emergency departments that stabilize and transfer patients to bigger hospitals. Under Deal's proposal, these rural facilities also could offer other basic services such as labor and delivery."

Some people are critical of the idea. Brock Slabach, a senior vice president at the National Rural Health Association, "said the financial sustainability of free-standing rural EDs in Georgia as outlined by Deal would be low," Herman writes. Salbach told him, “Emergency departments would be nice for access, but that doesn't provide (insurance) coverage. These rural communities are still going to be having problems of paying for these services. We need to try to find a way to expand coverage to these poor populations in a way that's not going to be called Obamacare.”

There are somewhere between 400 to 500 EDs in the U.S., Herman writes. Most "are affiliated with a hospital or health system, serving as a feeder for patients needing inpatient care. The EDs usually are within 20 miles of a full-service hospital. More recently, for-profit ED companies have been building in affluent suburbs, targeting privately insured patients who see the EDs as more convenient than making an appointment with a primary-care physician."

The problem is that few are located in rural areas, Herman writes. For urgent-care centers and free-standing EDs to survive in underserved rural areas, the “operating model will need to adapt,” said Alan Ayers, a vice president for Concentra, Humana's urgent-care subsidiary. "They will have to use midlevel clinicians including physician assistants and nurse practitioners, reduce operating hours and offer other high-volume services such as primary care and occupational medicine. That could help rural facilities offset the typically high fixed costs, Ayers said."

"Perhaps the most feasible solution for rural areas is a hybrid model, mixing lower-level emergency care with primary-care services," Herman writes. "An example is Carolinas HealthCare System Anson in Wadesboro, N.C., a town of 5,800. In 2012, Carolinas HealthCare System—a large system based in Charlotte, N.C., with $4.7 billion in annual revenue—decided to overhaul Anson Community Hospital, a Hill-Burton facility with 125 staffed acute-care and nursing beds."

"The system spent $20 million and downsized the hospital's inpatient capacity from 30 beds to 15," he writes. "The new facility, which opened in July, offers 24/7 emergency care in addition to the limited number of acute beds. Carolinas officials said Anson's major innovation and attraction is that it uses a patient-centered medical home model, offering residents access to primary-care providers with the help of a patient navigator." (Read more)

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 5-11; now is a good time for stories about importance of papers

A Gallup poll released in June said that Americans' confidence in news media is at or tied with record lows, while a poll released this month by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center said that more than one-third of Americans are opposed to freedom of the press when it comes to stories concerning national security. Those are startling numbers. But with National Newspaper Week scheduled from Oct. 5-11, now is a good time to try to restore Americans' confidence in the power of the press.

This year's theme is “Newspapers: The Foundation of Vibrant Communities.” The National Newspaper Week website says it offers several resources for local newspapers and encourages newspaper to "editorialize locally about how your newspaper is important and relevant to your community."

A good example of a National Newspaper Week story is one written by David F. Sherman, managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of western New York state.

Sherman said the Gallup poll is "a sad reality for an industry struggling to adapt to changes taking place at a rapid pace. Perhaps beauty, like fairness, is in the eye of the beholder. As someone who has been a professional journalist for 37 years, I can attest to the greater attention being paid now in the newsroom to double-check the most basic facts and the thirst to present both sides of the story. These frameworks of fairness are more prominent now than ever."

Sherman quotes Robert Williams, president of the National Newspaper Association: “It’s been reassuring to see so many dedicated men and women who see newspapering as so much more than a ‘job.’ Newspapering is a job in the same sense that being a father or mother is a ‘job.’ Parents are responsible for the well-being of their family. Good newspapers take on that role with the communities we serve.”

Williams added, "Newspapers sound the alarm with swift, accurate and thorough coverage when sensitive issues arise. We provide not just facts but clearly labeled editorials to help everyone weigh matters with sufficient information. We pay attention. We laugh. We cry. We hurt. We rejoice. We care. We share the pain and shed tears along with our readers. That is what well-run newspapers do." (Read more)

More start-ups, especially in flyover country, can improve U.S. economy, entrepreneur says

Flyover Country—considered to be areas, mostly in the Midwest, that are flown over by airlines between hubs—could be the future of rising entrepreneurs in the U.S., writes Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution and co-founder of AOL, for The Washington Post.

Case writes that over the next decade, innovation and investment will accelerate in flyover country for five reasons: advancements in technology, increased mobility, lower cost of living, local support and greater access to capital. He writes, "In this next wave we will see revolutions in health, education, energy and food—but they’ll likely happen in evolutionary ways."

But the U.S. needs the entire country to continue to excel, Case writes. "In order for America to remain the leader of the free world, it must have the largest and most robust economy—and that requires that it continue to be the most innovative and entrepreneurial nation. That will enable us to maintain our global lead—but also enable us to grow our economy faster and create more jobs—particularly good middle class jobs."

"To achieve this, we can’t rely on just a few regions—we need all 50 states to support start-ups, so we will have a broadly dispersed innovation economy," Case writes. "That means civic leaders and business leaders (even in major companies) and citizens in cities and towns across the country need to get involved. They need to support the agenda of connecting colleges to communities; of building great STEM programs in our schools; of passing comprehensive immigration reform." (Read more)

Documentary examines bee population losses

The honeybee population has decreased about 30 percent during each of the last eight winters. The decline has been blamed on anything from pesticides to viruses, but the truth is that many scientists do not know why many bees keep dying and what can be done about it. The Retro Report, an offshoot of the The New York Times that produces video documentaries examining major news stories from the past and analyzing what has happened since, has decided to focus on the plight of bees.

"The centrality of bees to our collective well-being is hard to overstate," writes Clyde Haberman for the Retro Report. "They pollinate dozens of crops: apples, blueberries, avocados, soybeans, strawberries, you name it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly one-third of everything that Americans eat depends on bee pollination. Billions of dollars are at stake each year for farmers, ranchers and, of course, beekeepers."

"But in the fall and winter of 2006-07, something strange happened," Haberman writes. "As Dave Hackenberg, a beekeeper in central Pennsylvania and in Florida, recalled for Retro Report, he went to his 400 hives one morning and found most of them empty. Queen bees remained, but worker bees had vanished."

Overall, the U.S. has seen honeybee colonies go from three million two decades ago to 2.4 million today, Haberman writes. "The fear is that this dying-off is too great for the country’s ever-expanding agricultural needs." (Read more)

Treated wastewater from oil and gas operations can still produce dangerous toxins, study finds

A study by researchers at Stanford University and Duke University published in Environmental Science and Technology found that "treated wastewater from oil and gas operations, when discharged into rivers and streams that travel toward drinking water intakes, can produce dangerous toxins," Susan Phillips reports for StateImpact.

"The research confirms what scientists have been warning about for some time," Phillips writes. "The high concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines." (Stanford and Duke graphic)

The study, which used samples from sites in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, found "just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes," Phillips writes. "The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer." (Read more)

Webinar on Oct. 3 to focus on proposed changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act

The Regional Offices of the Council of State Governments and the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders are hosting a free webinar at 3 p.m. (ET) on Oct. 3 to examine recently proposed changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act. The webinar will examine the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "most recent actions implementing the law, focusing on the supplemental rule proposals and their implications for those in the food and feed supply chain," says a news release.

Guest speakers are: Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association; Robert Guenther, Senior Vice President of Public Policy of United Fresh; Leah Wilkinson, Director of State Affairs of the American Feed Industry Association; and Joe Reardon, Asstistant Commissioner of North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Questions can be sent in advance to For more information or to register click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Missouri newspaper contest winners announced

The rural newspapers that won gold medals in the latest Missouri Press Association contest were The Clinton County Leader (weeklies up to 3,000 circulation), The Houston Herald (weeklies 3,001-7,000), the Daily Star-Journal of Warrensburg (dailies up to 5,000) and The Columbia Missourian (dailies 5,001 to 15,000). Urban winners were the Kansas City Star and the weekly St. Louis American. For a complete list of the winners, click here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some fear U.S. lacks enough organic farmers to keep up with rising demand from consumers

Organic products are growing so quickly in popularity that some fear the agricultural industry lacks enough producers to meet the growing demand of consumers, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Currently 18,000 certified organic operators live in the U.S. and 25,000 worldwide.

Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said "sales of organic food and non-food products in the U.S. grew by almost 12 percent last year, with similar growth expected this year," Agri-Pulse writes. "Total sales, she said, have topped $35 billion, up from $3 billion back in 2002. But she said the industry is running into a serious problem attracting new suppliers, especially in dairy, where the growth rate was about 8 percent."

Anne Alonzo, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's marketing service, said there are plenty of funding opportunities for organic farmers, Agri-Pulse writes. "Alonzo pointed to the work the agency is doing to implement provisions of the new Farm Bill, including laying the groundwork for the establishment of an organic check-off program that, in a first, would be spread across all organic commodities. She also described a USDA program that provides farmers transitioning to organic with up to $750 a year to help pay for certification costs." She said, “The money is there for you—take advantage of it." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

U.S. Forest Service reverses stance on photos, says proposed rules wouldn't apply to news media

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said on Thursday that proposed rules to charge for photographing and filming on National Forest System lands do not apply to the news media, Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. Tidwell did not address why Forest Service officials told the media on Tuesday that the rules did apply to them.

Tidwell said in a statement: "The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment. To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities." The agency's news release also said "the maximum $1,500 permit fees reported by The Oregonian and widely cited by other publications were 'erroneous and refers to a different proposed directive,'" but didn't specify the nature of the other directive, Davis writes.

The Forest Service also has extended the public comment period for the proposed rules to Dec. 3, to allow more input on its photography rules, Davis writes. "A host of bipartisan lawmakers said the proposal should instead be scrapped." (Read more)

Strip mining sand for hydraulic fracturing poses health and safety risks, environmental groups say

Strip mining for sand used in hydraulic fracturing operations could pose risks to water, air, public health and property values, says a report by the Civil Society Institute, the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates. The study said that nearly every step of the process of getting sand—by blasting chunks off the region's rolling hillsides and washing away the other soil and rock—poses problems for surrounding communities, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times.

The study was mostly conducted in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where there are 164 working mines and related facilities, with 20 more on the drawing board, said Grant Smith, one of the authors, Banerjee writes. About 58,000 people live within a half-mile of these facilities. (Times photo by Chris Walker: Sand used in fracking operations in Wisconsin)

Researchers said "washing the sand to separate it from debris uses prodigious amounts of water, often more than the municipal water systems in the counties where mines are located," Banerjee writes. "Mining operators use a chemical, polyacrylamide, to get the debris to clump and separate from the sand. The chemical can break down into acrylamide, a carcinogen, that can enter water sources from wastewater ponds at mine sites, the report said. It remains unclear whether states where sand mining occurs monitor for the formation of acrylamide and its possible migration to water sources."

"Silica dust released from blasting and picked up by the wind from piles of washed sand could pose health risks to nearby residents, the report said," she writes. "Fine airborne particles can irritate people’s lungs and heighten the risk of respiratory ailments. Until now, scientists and regulators have focused on the threat of silica dust at workplaces such as mines and fracking sites. Little research has been done into the presence of silica dust in communities near mines." (Read more)

Jobs returning to rural Indiana, but state lacks enough skilled workers to fill openings

Jobs are steadily returning to rural Indiana, but there won't be enough skilled workers to fill the positions, says a study by the Rural Urban Entrepreneurship Development Institute at Indiana State University. The main reason is that qualified workers migrated to areas where jobs were available or switched career paths.

Indiana, which has a larger share of manufacturing jobs than any other state, lost 25 percent of its total manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession, writes Dave Taylor for Indiana State. "The total number of jobs in Indiana's 72 predominantly rural counties is expected to return to pre-recession levels by the end of 2015 and then steadily increase by 10,000 per year during the next decade. But the study says adults in their prime working years are expected to continue to leave rural counties, reducing the size of a talented and experienced labor force."

Robert Guell, professor of economics at Indiana State, said, "There is likely to be somewhat of a mismatch between the skill levels of the employees and the jobs that are available. A mismatch occurs when the ability of the workers who are available to do the work is different than the work that is available."

Taylor writes, "Many low-skilled jobs that had sustained Indiana for years have disappeared and are not expected to return, the report said, and workers especially hard hit by the bursting of the housing bubble—in such fields as construction, finance and real estate—may need to adjust their career aspirations." (Read more)

Local official suggests potholes as a way to slow down speeders on rural Vermont roads

In an attempt to find ways to curb speeding on dangerous roads in rural Vermont, one town official suggested a solution that is not going over well with residents—potholes. Westford (Wikipedia map) Selectboard Member Alex Weinhagen sent out a survey asking if potholes should be used as a speed deterrent, with 70 percent of respondents shooting down the idea, Lynn Monty reports for the Burlington Free Press.

Weinhagen told Monty, “More law enforcement, signage, speed carts, speed bumps and putting off pothole repair are all ideas that small Vermont towns toss around. The idea is not that far out there. Some people are willing to deal with rougher roads if it would deter drivers.

Westford does not have a police department, which is one of the reasons many fear that drivers ignored posted speed limits, Monty writes. Construction has also forced many drivers off main roads, increasing traffic on back roads. (Read more)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

FAA to allow Hollywood to use drones, opening the door for legalized commercial drone use

The path to legalizing commercial drone operations could wind its way through Hollywood. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected today to make an announcement to "permit Hollywood filmmakers to operate drones on movie sets, according to current and former U.S. officials," Craig Whitlock reports for The Washington Post. (Associated Press photo by Jae C. Hong)

"Prior to this week, the FAA had granted permits to only two companies to fly drones—both in remote parts of Alaska under highly restrictive conditions," Whitlock writes. "The decision to allow several movie-making companies to use drones is the first time that businesses will be able to operate the aircraft in populated areas."

Film industry officials "have applied for permission to fly the drones not just in Hollywood but anywhere in the country as long as they meet certain safety conditions," Whitlock writes. "Flights would 'occur over private or controlled-access property,' and drones would stay at least 100 feet away from people not part of the production crews, according to the applications. Paperwork filed with the FAA also states that the camera-bearing drones would weigh less than 55 pounds. They would fly no faster than 57 mph and no higher than 400 feet to ensure that they do not interfere with other aircraft." (Read more)

Forest Service wants to charge media to film or photograph on National Forest System lands

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed charging media for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System lands. The proposal is currently under a public comment period that ends on Nov. 3.

"Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation's 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone," Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. "Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don't get a permit could face fines up to $1,000."

The proposed rules are drawing criticism from First Amendment advocates, who "say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they'd allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories," Davis writes. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Alexandria, Va., told Davis, "It's pretty clearly unconstitutional. They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can't." (Read more)

EPA's proposed water rules could be new campaigning topic of contention

Several issues are already weighing heavily on upcoming elections, including candidate's stances on gun control and the Farm Bill. A new issue gaining steam is the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed water rules, which are mostly unpopular among Republicans and the agricultural industry, with the GOP-led House voting to block the rules. Many fear the rules will expand EPA's jurisdiction. The agency denies that claim. (Bemidji photo by Zach Kayser: Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson speaking Monday at a fundraiser) 

But some campaigning Democrats are also beginning to publicly speak out against the rules. Farm Policy has highlighted a Minnesota Democratic candidate who used a fundraising event to express his opposition to the proposed rules.

Rep. Collin Peterson told supporters he is against the rules, Zach Kayser reports for The Bemidji Pioneer. Peterson said, “I’m on two bills to get rid of it. I sent a letter over to . . . the EPA telling them to withdraw the rule, and I voted to get rid of it just the other day.” He said while the rule has good intentions, it is confusing. He said, "The EPA, I think their heart is in the right place, but they don’t know what they’re doing." (Read more)

Interactive, county-level map shows Depression-era photos taken throughout the U.S

An interactive web-based county-level map created by team from Yale University allows users to view Depression-era photos taken in each available county by federally paid photographers. (A man uses enormous asbestos mittens to handle hot magnesium ingots at Basic Magnesium’s plant in the southern Nevada desert in 1943.)

"The initiative was a public-relations move to bolster support for programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s contentious Farm Security Administration, which sought to help those hardest hit by the Great Depression," Sarah Tory reports for High Country News. "When it was over, some 175,000 photographs were transferred to the Library of Congress and eventually placed online, but they remained hard for the wider public to access." To view the map click here

New Jersey is underfunding poor rural schools, denying kids access to preschool, complaint says

New Jersey's rural schools are vastly underfunded, says a complaint lawyers filed against the Gov. Chris Christie administration, John Mooney reports for NJ Spotlight. The complaint says that 16 schools in high poverty mostly rural areas are being underfunded by $18 million, "and about 2,000 eligible schoolchildren are being denied access to mandated preschool." 

The complaint keeps "alive a nearly 20-year-old claim as to whether the state has provided adequate resources to poor, rural districts," Mooney writes. "The complaint claims that the state has failed to adequately fund the School Funding Reform Act, violating a 2008 state appellate court ruling to provide the needed resources to these districts, including for mandated preschool." (Townmapsusa map: Officials in Hammonton, N.J. say the district is underfunded and understaffed)

Critics say the School Funding Reform Act hasn't "been funded since its first year under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and after steep cuts by Christie in 2010, three-quarters of all districts still have not returned to prior levels in funding," Mooney writes. The most extreme example might be in Hammonton, where Superintendent C. Dan Blachford said the district is under adequacy by $11,919,928 and is short 51 teachers and 12 administrators. (Read more)

Federal judge restores endangered species status for Wyoming wolves

Two years after Wyoming wolves were taken off the endangered species list, they are back under protected status. A federal judge on Tuesday restored endangered status for the wolves, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "accepted a state commitment to maintain the wolf population without requiring adequate safeguards," Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

"The state’s wolf-management plan declared the wolf a trophy-game animal, allowing seasonal hunting in some areas and labeled it a predator that could be shot in four-fifths of the state," Wines writes. Judge Amy Berman Jackson "said that the state’s management plan was inadequate and unenforceable and that federal officials were 'arbitrary and capricious' in accepting it. Her ruling requires that the wolves remain under federal protection until Wyoming officials devise an enforceable proposal to maintain their numbers."

About 270 wolves lived outside Yellowstone when endangered status was removed, Wines writes. In the first year after protection was lifted, about 62 were killed by trophy hunters, and an unknown number were shot or trapped in areas where the wolves were labeled as predators, said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Now an estimated 306 wolves live in the region. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

USDA to establish Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center; goal is to reduce child food insecurity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that up to $2.5 million in grant money is available to establish the Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center to create child nutrition programs in up to 30 rural communities. In 2012 one out of four rural children lived in poverty, and 21.2 percent of rural households with children were food insecure, says the USDA.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release: "Children living in persistently-poor, rural areas tend to experience worse outcomes in terms of nutrition, activity and obesity. The Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center would facilitate innovative strategies to support a healthier next generation in rural America."

The release said: "The center will develop, administer and evaluate a series of sub-grants to improve services in these communities. The center will also organize several conferences to exchange lessons learned and develop a report on best practices. The rural communities will use their funds to target child food insecurity through greater coordination of the nutrition programs. For example, communities could use their funds to identify strategies to increase community involvement or to apply more effective uses of technology and digital media to improve program coordination." (Read more)

Crews say trains leaving stations with hazardous materials that are not mentioned on cargo list

Railroad union members in Minnesota say BNSF Railway trains are hauling hazardous waste materials that are not listed on the train's cargo list, which violates federal regulations and puts communities at risk because emergency personnel responding to an accident would not be fully informed of the dangers involved, Dan Gunderson reports for Minnesota Public Radio. At least 18 times over the past three years trains left Minneapolis with hazardous cargo not listed on the manifest, train crews said in complaints filed with the Federal Railroad Administration.

"In one case, a train traveled more than 20 miles through the western suburbs with six carloads of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic corrosive gas used as a farm fertilizer, before the train crew knew the chemical was on the train, a complaint said," Gunderson writes. "In another, a complaint said a train traveled about 90 miles west to Willmar before its cargo list was corrected to show an extra car of ammonia." (MPR map)

Dave Christianson, senior rail planner for the  Minnesota Department of Transportation calls the train manifest "the Bible" for first responders, Gunderson writes. He told Gunderson that an inaccurate manifest "basically nullifies any preparation that has ever been done to protect the public and to respond to a catastrophic incident. That document is the key to how emergency responders react to the accident." (Read more)

In rural Pennsylvania heroin is easier and cheaper for youth to get than alcohol, report says

In rural Pennsylvania it's easier and cheaper for young people to get heroin than alcohol, says a bipartisan report released Tuesday by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. State Senator Gene Yaw, the Republican chairman of the center, "said a small packet of heroin costs between $5 and $10 and delivers a high lasting four to five hours," David Dekok reports for Reuters.

The report said Cambria County in central Pennsylvania has a heroin overdose death rate equal to that of Philadelphia, at 22.6 deaths per 100,000 population, Dekok writes. Philadelphia has a population of 1.5 million, compared to 141,000 in Cambria County.

About 80 percent of the state's heroin users first became addicted to OxyContin or Vicodin, says the report, David Wenner reports for PennLive. "It said nearly 3,000 Pennsylvania residents have died over the past five years because of abuse of heroin or other opioids." The overdose rate has increased 470 percent over the past two decades, from 2.7 deaths per every thousand people to 15.4 deaths, says the report. (The Center for Rural Pennsylvania graphic)

Kaiser web briefing for journalists to focus on coverage of Ebola outbreak; event is Sept. 30

The Kaiser Family Foundation is hosting a web briefing for journalists to discuss the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The one-hour event will begin at 3 p.m. ET on Sept. 30. Topics will include: How has the United States contributed? What will the response be in the coming weeks and months? What key lessons can be learned from this outbreak, and what can be learned by comparing the outbreak to other large-scale disasters?

Guests are: Steve Monroe, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control; Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières; Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of global health and HIV policy; and Josh Michaud, Kaiser Family Foundation associate director of global health policy. After a brief introduction, the majority of the session will be question and answer time. For more information or to register click here.

Railway delays affecting not only grain crops but also coal industry

Railway delays have affected grain crops, and some people are blaming it on increased competition from oil and coal shipments, a bumper grain crop, an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods and a bad winter. But the coal industry says it has also been the victim of delays, as railroad companies choose to transport more lucrative oil over coal.

About 40 percent of U.S. power is generated from coal-burning plants, and 75 percent of U.S. coal relies on freight railroads to get to power plants, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, Swetha Gopinath and Sweta Singh report for Carrier Management. Without access to railways, some in the coal industry have turned to barges and trucks to transport coal. (Marketplace graphic)

"Transporting by barge, while cheaper than rail, is limited to plants located near rivers," Gopinath and Singh write. "Some companies are using third-party docks for barge deliveries and then trucking coal over to power plants that do not have adequate infrastructure. But trucking is typically used over short distances and is substantially more expensive than barge and rail."

Minnesota Power has idled four coal-powered generators that serve the Duluth area for three months "because the railroad isn’t delivering enough coal," Dan Weissermann reports for Marketplace. "Railroads are crazy busy—carrying oil from North Dakota for one thing—and the delays are driving their customers nuts."

Al Rudeck, vice president of strategy and planning for Minnesota Power, told Weissermann, "This is unprecedented. We’ve never had to shut our units off because we can’t get the coal we need. This year they’ve had a lot of challenges on the rail system, in terms of congestion, weather and a lot of business."

Delays are also significantly impacting supplies being stockpiled, Stephanie Joyce reports for Wyoming Public Media. "With temperatures dropping across the northern United States, power plants would usually be stockpiling coal in preparation for higher electricity demand during the winter months, but this year, that’s proving problematic."

The Comanche power plant outside Pueblo, Colo., which supplies power to communities along the Front Range, including Denver, and consumes hundreds of tons of coal an hour in the process, normally has a coal pile one hundred feet tall, said Xcel Energy fuel supply manager Craig Romer, Joyce writes. But right now, it’s less than a third of that. Romer estimates stockpiles for all of Xcel’s coal-powered plants are at 60 percent of where he would like them to be because competition from the oil industry has meant that coal trains haven’t been making as many deliveries as usual to the plant in recent months. (Read more)

CDC sending staffer to E. Ky. to fight health problems; regional economic effort hears plans

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will place a full-time employee in Eastern Kentucky to help public health departments battle the region's serious, chronic health problems, the area's congressman said Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who spent three days with him in his Fifth Congressional District last month, told him he would assign a senior staffer to the job.

Beshear, Rogers (Melissa Newman photo)
Rogers made the announcement at a meeting of the executive committee of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the economic-development effort he started with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in response to the sharp decline in the region's coal industry. The committee learned that "There were 13,000 fewer people working in a 23-county area in Eastern Kentucky's coalfield in May 2014 than a year earlier. That sobering statistic brought sharp focus to the challenge," reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The panel heard reports from chairs of SOAR's working groups, which held "listening sessions" around the region this summer. "The ideas prioritized by the working groups included development of systems to connect small farmers with local and regional markets, and small loans to help farmers; a tax-incentive program tailored to Eastern Kentucky to try to attract jobs; and setting aside money from the coal severance tax for a permanent endowment," Estep writes. "Among other things, the committees also recommended pushing a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public; asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study poor health in the region and the emerging research on a correlation between mountaintop mining and health problems; creating an economic development organization specific to the region; creating county coalitions to involve young people; promoting a home-weatherization program offered by the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development; raising the threshold at which the state's prevailing wage law applies to projects; and more funding for tourism marketing."

Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl said at the meeting that he would give SOAR up to the maximum $750,000 from his discretionary fund to cover up to half of the effort's expected administrative expenses over the next four years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

States, propane industry urging residents to stock up now, in case of another brutal winter

Last year's brutal winter hit many Americans in the pocketbooks, especially people who depend on propane for heat. Residents living in rural areas and in the Midwestern U.S. who rely on propane spent about 54 percent more last winter than in 2012-13, while those relying on heating oil, largely in the Northeast, paid about 7 percent more, natural gas consumers 10 percent more and electricity consumers 5 percent more. That's why states and the propane industry are asking residents to think ahead this year, just in case another harsh winter is around the corner. ( graphic)

Roy Willis, president and CEO of the Propane Education and Research Council, told the National Association of State Energy Officials: “America makes more than enough propane to meet U.S. demand, yet the transportation challenges we faced last winter stressed many propane providers and customers. The best thing propane customers can do to avoid any weather-related difficulties this winter is fill their tanks now.”

“By filling tanks early, customers and propane retailers, many of whom are small businesses, can better plan for supply needs and work together to ensure that everyone has a comfortable and safe winter," he said. "Because delivery and payment programs vary by company, it’s important that customers have a conversation with their provider to start making plans for winter today.” (Read more)

States are also urging residents to be prepared. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said, “Last winter was one we’ll all remember. This is especially true for some propane customers who found it challenging to find additional propane as cold temperatures lingered. That’s why now is the time to get an early fill, lock-in prices ahead of the heating season and get on a budget payment plan, if available.” The state website offers tips and resources for being better prepared this winter. (Read more)

Minnesota, which had its coldest winter in 30 years and suffered propane shortages, is also asking residents to fill up early, Nick Gerhardt reports for the Kenyon Leader. To combat the shortage problem, Dave Wager, Propane Operations Manager of Central Valley Coop in Northfield, said "more than 20 million more gallons have been delivered in Minnesota this summer compared to last year."

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the state's propane industry said in addition to filling up tanks early, residents should enroll in automatic propane delivery instead of waiting until they need more, monitor propane tanks and request more when it hits 25 percent instead of when it's almost empty, consider going on budget plans to avoid large winter bills and look into fuel efficiency options. (Read more)

Towns facing cost spikes trying to get out of deal that financed electric generating plant

Cities and towns in Illinois, Kentucky and other states are probably regretting their decision to own part of a power generating plant. High electricity costs have led the complete shake-up of the Paducah Electric Plant Board, including the resignation on Monday of the chairman, who was the last remaining member from the board that originally made the deal. "It's probably the most serious problem for Paducah since the Great Flood" of the Ohio River in 1937, Mayor Gayle Kaler said. 

The other Kentucky town in the deal is Princeton. The towns "entered into a contract with Prairie State Energy campus," Mychaela Bruener reports for WPSD-TV in Paducah. "The Prairie State power plant in Southern Illinois provides power to Paducah Power. The Peabody Coal project was supposed to lower electric rates. However, the costs at the Prairie State plants have increased from $1.4 billion to nearly $5 billion during the past decade." That has resulted in skyrocketing monthly bills that are 50 percent higher than what customers with other services are paying.

Last month Joe Marconi, a businessman in Batavia, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, filed a class-action lawsuit in Kane County Circuit Court over the city's investment in the Prairie State Energy Campus, Eric Schelkopf reports for the Kane County Chronicle in St. Charles, Ill.

"In 2005, the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency, of which Batavia is a member, agreed to a long-term power contract to purchase electricity from Prairie State," Schelkopf writes. Rate hikes have caused residents this year to "see a 6.5 percent increase in their electric rates, plus a $4-a-month increase to the customer charge. In 2015, residents also will see a 6.5 percent increase in their electric rates." Marconi told Schelkopf, "We filed it because the electric rates in this town are so high. Our main objective is to get Batavia out of the contract they signed with Prairie State. They misled us." (Read more)

Wisconsin voter ID law hurts rural voters and Democrats, liberal group contends

A Wisconsin law that went into effect on Sept. 12 requiring residents to obtain an ID card before voting is stirring controversy in the Badger State. One Wisconsin Institute, a liberal group that on Monday filed a brief with a federal appeals court, said rural residents will have a difficult time getting cards in time because many rural DMV offices are only open part-time, Leah Linscheid reports for Channel 3000 in Madison. The group also said the law favors Republicans, because more voters who are expected to lean Democrat will have a harder time getting cards.

The law was signed in 2011 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker—who is in the middle of a tightly contested race—"and opponents brought four lawsuits challenging it," Patrick Marley reports for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It was in effect for one low-turnout primary in February 2012 but then blocked by a series of rulings by state and federal judges." The law was reinstated earlier this month by a three-member panel of judges—all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents—on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. (University of Wisconsin-Madison graphic)

Scot Ross, executive director for One Wisconsin Institute, told Linscheid, "There are a couple places where people may only be able to have one or two chances before the election to be able to get the IDs they need to be able to participate in our democracy." DMV directors countered that offices are required to be open at least 20 hours per week, giving residents plenty of time to get cards.

One Wisconsin Institute estimates that 300,000 Wisconsin voters lack the type of photo ID that will be required to vote, reports The Associated Press. Some also fear that minorities and college students will have trouble getting get IDs, Autumn Linsmeier reports for The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Appeals court Judge Frank Easterbook, who voted in favor of voter ID cards, wrote that an estimated 4.5 percent of African Americans—many of whom are expected to vote Democrat—will be unable to get IDs. Many college students also might not have the proper identification on hand to obtain a voter ID.

A Wisconsin driver's license or ID card is required to receive a voter ID card, says the state Department of Transportation. For those without a driver's license, "ID card applicants must be U.S. Citizens, at least 17 years of age and indicate that the ID card is required free of charge for the purposes of voting; and ID card applicants must claim that documents required to prove U.S. Citizenship, name and date of birth and/or legal name change are unavailable and require a fee to a government agency to obtain." 

Rockefeller Fund, which was founded on oil, looking to rid itself of fossil-fuel investments

"The Rockefellers, whose family fortune sprung from oil, said Monday that their fund is working on a plan to divest itself of fossil-fuel interests," Michael Calia reports for The Wall Street Journal. "By the end of this year, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund will reduce its investment in coal and tar sands to less than 1 percent of its total portfolio."

The Rockefellers also plan to divest itself of holdings "as quickly as is prudent over the next few years," Calia writes. "In uncertain and volatile markets, these financial goals are not easy to achieve," the $860 million fund said on its website. "Therefore, our divestment from fossil fuels, which is now under way, will be accomplished through a careful process of evaluating our exposure and a phased approach that proceeds as quickly as is prudent."

The fund was set up in 1940 but since 2010 "has sought to diversify its holdings to include investments in more sustainable energy initiatives and other, similar kinds of development," Calia writes. "That year, it said, the fund's board of trustees approved a commitment of as much as 10 percent of its endowment to investments that match the goals of its sustainable development program." (Read more)

EPA will not appeal federal ruling in Clean Water Act case against West Virginia farmer

The Environmental Protection Agency's decision "not to appeal a key federal ruling in favor of West Virginia farmer Lois Alt highlights the cynicism that drives the agency's water agenda, the American Farm Bureau said," reports Wisconsin Ag Connection. "The U.S. Court for the Northern District of West Virginia earlier ruled against EPA and in favor of farmer Lois Alt in October 2013. The court rejected EPA's contention that the Clean Water Act regulates ordinary stormwater runoff from the farmyard (non-production areas) at large livestock or poultry farms."

"Since no federal court had ever addressed the question of stormwater runoff from farms such as Alt's, the lower court's ruling carries implications for tens of thousands of poultry and livestock farms nationwide," Wisconsin Ag Connection writes. "An appellate court decision upholding that ruling would make it even harder for EPA to persist in imposing wide-scale federal permitting requirements on large animal farms."

"EPA's voluntary dismissal of its appeal signals the agency's desire to avoid a likely loss in the appellate court," Wisconsin Ag Connection writes. "The appeal could still go forward if any of the five environmental groups that intervened in support of EPA decides to go forward without the government." (Read more)

Coal mogul says to expect more bankruptcies

Expect more coal producers to go bankrupt because there’s “nothing on the horizon” to suggest demand and prices will recover, Robert E. Murray, owner of the largest privately held coal company in the U.S., said Monday in a speech in Pittsburgh, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. Murray said, “We are planning for a somewhat reduced coal marketplace, in terms of prices and demand, through at least next year, with only a possible slight improvement in the years beyond." (Bloomberg photo by Kenny Crookston)

Murray, owner of Murray Energy Corp., which has 7,400 employees and 12 active underground coal mines in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Utah, and West Virginia, blames President Obama for the downturn in the coal industry, Loh writes. (Read more)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Some states creating two-tier taxes, charging seasonal residents more than year-round ones

Some states with large populations of seasonal residents are imposing higher taxes for snowbirds and vacation rentals, as opposed to year-round residents, often pitting part-time residents against full-time ones, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. David Brunori, deputy publisher at Tax Analysts, which examines state tax law and policy, told Povich, “One of the great ways of exporting the tax base is to tax people from out of state who rent property, own property or work in the state. It’s a political nirvana. They don’t vote.” (Getty Images: Provincetown, Mass.)

Several states "have a 'homestead exemption,' which lowers the property tax bills for certain categories of homeowners, usually full-time residents," Povich writes. "Some of the exemptions are income-based, while others apply to categories of homeowners such as widows or widowers and military families. In general, the exemptions do not apply to second homes of any kind, particularly vacation homes. Homestead exemptions are one way to protect local homeowners while taxing vacationers at the full market value. The other way is to increase taxes on vacation homes directly."

There are about 3.6 million vacation homes in the U.S., making up 3.1 percent of all housing units, says the 2000 U.S. Census, the most recent year for such data, Povich writes. Maine has the highest percent of vacation homes at 15.6 percent, followed by Vermont at 14.6 percent. But some towns, like Provincetown, Mass., explode with seasonal residents, with the population of Provincetown increasing from 3,000 in the winter to 30,000 during the summer.

Tom Donegan, chairman of the Provincetown Board of Selectmen, argues that higher taxes for part-time residents are justified because the town has to prepare for 30,000 residents by increasing its costs for emergency services and utilities, Povich writes. He told Povich, “It’s not about charging them more; it’s about finding ways to stabilize the population so we can keep people in their homes. (Year-round residents) are retired men and women and working men and women. Their homes are increasing in value, and they have to pay increased property taxes, usually on a small or fixed income.”

Not surprisingly, seasonal residents have complained about higher taxes, with the Cape Cod town of Mashpee rejecting such an idea earlier this year, Povich writes. "Joyce Mason, town manager for Mashpee, said it was 'pretty clear folks were not in favor of splitting the community.'" (Read more)

Even though Obamacare has insured millions, rural hospitals still struggling to remain open

The main goal of federal health reform was to ensure that uninsured Americans would be able to find affordable insurance. But some rural hospitals, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid, have struggled to remain open, with 24 rural hospitals closing since 2013, Robin Respaut reports for Reuters. Almost all of those hospitals were in states that did not expand Medicaid. (Atlanta Business Chronicle photo: Charlton Memorial Hospital in southeast Georgia closed last year)

"Investors are being warned of the change," Respaut writes. "Standard & Poor's Ratings Service in August concluded that the nonprofit hospital sector is 'at a tipping point' from the drop in the number of patients cared for. Moody's Investors Service reported hospital revenue growth and operating margins are at all-time lows. Fitch Ratings wrote that the Affordable Care Act has accelerated the transition of patients out of the hospital and into clinics by tightening reimbursements and emphasizing technology."

Mark Claster, president of investment firm Carl Marks & Co. and chairman of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System board of trustees, told Respaut, “There is a big transition happening. I don't think smaller hospitals are prepared, and I don't think they can be. I don't think they have the economic wherewithal.”

Even in states that did expand Medicaid, rural hospitals are facing serious hurdles. Kentucky state Auditor Adam Edelen said "that Medicare and Medicaid reimburse hospitals at below the cost of providing care, with the expectation that they will make it up from private payers, but such payers are in short supply at many rural hospitals because the economic recovery is 'nonexistent in rural areas,'" Molly Burchett and Melissa Patrick report for Kentucky Health News, a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which also publishes The Rural Blog.

"Some rural hospitals are expressing concerns about the expanding Medicaid rolls under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but Edelen said in the interview that most of the complaints he heard are about Kentucky’s move to put Medicaid under managed care in 2011," Burchett and Patrick write. "He said in Bowling Green that Kentucky rolled out in six months what should have taken 18 months, creating a 'extraordinarily complex' and costly Medicaid system that still has no-pay and slow-pay issues. Then came the PPACA, generally known as Obamacare, creating an unprecedented level of complexity."

"The extra administrative overhead is particularly difficult for small hospitals and health-care providers, he said, and payment disputes with managed-care companies can be existential threats to community hospitals with small cash reserves," Burchett and Patrick write. Edelen told KHN, "We've got a number of hospitals in Kentucky who have less than 15 days of cash reserves. One hospital in particular told me that leaders meet weekly to figure out about who's getting paid and how much just to keep the doors open. . . . County officials are afraid they are going to lose their hospital, while the Cabinet [for Health and Family Services] says all is well. What's the good of having everybody insured if there's no one to provide care?" (Read more)

FCC will face backlash on net-neutrality rules, regardless of how they are written

When the Federal Communications Commission finally releases its rules on net-neutrality—which are expected by the end of year—the rules will be met with criticism, regardless of how they are written, Julian Hattem reports for The Hill. The FCC said it has received more than 3.7 million comments on its proposed rules, and many fear that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler "would not go far enough to ban 'fast lanes,' which could create a 'two-tiered' Internet, one with faster service for companies with deep pockets that could pay the Web companies’ 'tolls' and another with slower service for those who couldn’t." (Telco illustration)

"Democrats have pushed for the FCC to ban 'fast lanes' on the Internet, which critics have said could emerge under Wheeler’s plan if Internet service companies charge Netflix, YouTube or other websites for speedier service," Hattem writes. "Some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal members, along with the moderate Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), have pushed the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet service as a 'telecommunications service' instead of as an 'information service. That move would give the FCC more power over companies by drawing from the same legal authority that the agency uses to regulate traditional wired phone lines."

"Republicans, meanwhile, have struck back, warning that tough rules would allow the heavy hand of the FCC to stifle the Internet," Hattem writes. "Some Republicans have pushed back on the suggestion that the FCC should dust off old regulations to assert authority over Internet providers."

There is also concern whether or not the rules apply to people accessing the Internet wirelessly on smartphones and tablets, Hattem writes. "The commission’s original 2010 rules, which were struck down by a court earlier this year, did not apply to wireless service. But Wheeler has dropped several hints about taking that step this time, to high marks from supporters of strong rules." (Read more)

Candidates reaching for guns in an attempt to relate to voters

When gun control legislation was shot down last year, it solidified the notion that American voters have a strong attachment to their firearms and are not willing to budge on the issue, no matter how slight the law's changes would have been. As November elections approach, it seems all the candidates—especially those in tight races—have latched onto this and are airing ads with them toting a gun, regardless of how ridiculous they might look.

"So far this election, we've seen candidates shoot drones, televisions, elephant pinatas, Obamacare and targets that were metaphors for Obamacare in campaign ads," Jamie Fuller reports for The Washington Post. "One candidate threatened to shoot those who tried to come into his home. Other candidates have brought guns to rallies, raffled them off to supporters or challenged their opponents to debates of accuracy at the shooting range."

"In races where the candidates would rather talk about the character deficits of their opponents . . . voters are sometimes left with ownership of a gun, a snowmobile or a pick-up truck as the only thing they definitively know about a candidate by the time November comes along," Fuller writes. "Which is to say, nothing at all."

"The one thing these ads all shy away from, though, is talking explicitly about guns and gun policy," she writes. "Guns are used to make statements about Obamacare, outside money or civil liberties. The candidates know that the 2014 midterms aren't about guns, but they would like you to know that they own one."

"But the truth remains that while ads with guns have proliferated, the only gun legislation that has made it through Congress in the past few decades has lifted restrictions on firearm usage," Fuller writes. "The flavor of gun support that politicians have inherited imparts an 'us vs. them mentality' where it often seems like Americans for Responsible Solutions and some of the gun ads from the candidates it supports can't co-exist." (Read more(Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is running a gun ad where she accuses incumbent Mitch McConnell of not knowing how to hold a gun. McConnell responded by comparing Grimes to Obama, when the president ran an ad firing a gun.)

Series by Des Moines Register uses virtual reality to explore state's family farms

The Des Moines Register this summer undertook a three-month agricultural journey across Iowa in search of the diverse nature of what makes up the state's family farms. The result is a five-day series beginning today called "Harvest of Change" that uses virtual reality technology and 360-degree video with 3-D effects. (Register photo by Christopher Gannon)

"Iowa's farm families are as diverse as their operations, growing crops that are conventional, organic and chemical-free alongside pastures of grass- and grain-fed beef and free-range chickens," Sharyn Jackson reports for the Register. "Among those who steward these operations are a six-generation farm family, a same-sex couple, an aging father and son, and an immigrant who found refuge in Iowa."

"'Harvest of Change' is an exploration of a nation in transition, as seen through the lens of the family farm in Iowa," she writes "We look at major shifts, including the aging of the population and the decline of rural communities; the change of America's complexion, as the country heads toward becoming majority nonwhite; the increasingly global connections that are altering business in even the most remote corners of the country; and the environmental challenges predicted from climate change."

"These broad changes are giving many Americans an unsettled sense of the future," Jackson writes. "But what we found in the homes and on the farms of the Iowa families we met was a determination to continue contributing to a legacy that is rooted in history, even as they innovate to make their life's work compatible with a changing world. We're telling this story of a changing America and changing farm life through all the tools of a changing journalism landscape." To read the first story, click here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Americans favor censoring media on national security; many know little about government

More than one-third of Americans are opposed to freedom of the press when it comes to stories concerning national security, says a poll by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which also found that many Americans know surprisingly little about the U.S. government, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

The survey, which polled 1,416 adults, found that 19 percent of respondents favor requiring the media to get government approval before reporting on an issue of national security and 18 percent somewhat favor requiring approval. Meanwhile, 19 percent somewhat oppose requiring government approval, and 35 percent strongly oppose it. (Post graphic)

Those numbers pale in comparison to the lack of knowledge Americans have about the government, with 35 percent of respondents unable to name even one branch of the U.S. government. Only 27 percent know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, and 21 percent incorrectly believe a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

As for current politics, 44 percent said they had no idea which party controls the House, and 17 percent incorrectly answered Democrats. Asked the same question about the Senate, 42 percent said they did not know what party was in control, and 20 percent incorrectly said Republicans. (Read more)

White House declares war on superbugs; bugs responsible for 23,000 deaths annually in U.S.

The Obama Administration is fighting against superbugs that have developed a resistance to antibiotics, Monte Morin reports for the Los Angeles Times. "In an executive order signed Thursday, President Obama identified drug-resistant bacteria as a threat to national security and the economy and directed the creation of a special task force that will be co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services."

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are responsible for two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morin writes. "Officials estimate that drug-resistant bacteria have cost the nation $20 billion annually in direct healthcare costs and another $35 billion in lost productivity." (CDC photo)

The task force "will oversee public, private and academic efforts to minimize the spread of superbugs by promoting the proper use of antibiotics; the acceleration of scientific research into new antibacterial drugs and novel therapies; and the creation of new diagnostic technologies that will identify drug-resistant bacteria," Morin writes.

"The president's action calls on federal agencies, including Veterans Affairs, to review their current use of antibiotics and to formulate new policies for their employment," Morin writes. "It also directs the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate use of 'medically important antibiotics' for growth-promotion purposes in poultry and livestock. The plan also urges the improvement of international collaborative efforts for bacterial surveillance and control, as well as for the research and development of new drugs." (Read more)

One big TN county has highest income inequality except New York's; another did best at equalizing

Lydia DePillis of The Washington Post wrote a very interesting story this week about Robertson County, Tennessee (Wikipedia map), because it has had the largest growth in income equality in the U.S. over the last five years among counties with at least 60,000 people, large enough for reliable analysis. That was caused by "a reduction in the number of people making very little money and in the number of people making lots of money," more commuting to Nashville and more manufacturing jobs, DePillis writes.

But we were more intrigued by a datum buried at the bottom of one of the charts with her story. The U.S. county over 60,000 with the greatest income inequality, except New York County (Manhattan), is another Tennessee county: Putnam. It straddles the Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau. On the plateau, where the coal gave out long ago, it is "very Appalachian," one regional observer told us. But down on the Highland Rim, there are many good-paying jobs at places like Tennessee Technological University and the headquarters of Averitt Express, a large trucking company. We suspect it also has dozens of millionaire entrepreneurs.

Putnam County in Tennessee (Wikipedia)
This seems to be a case where geology begets geography begets socioeconomics. We invite your observations.

Rural Texas seeing a rise in deported sex offenders trying to get back into the U.S.

Border security in rural towns along the Mexican border is facing a growing crisis in Texas with a rise in deported sex offenders trying to illegally re-gain entrance into the U.S., Kristin Tate reports for the Breitbart News Network. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection map)

The Del Rio Sector, which covers 59,541 square miles in 41 Texas counties, apprehended 16 deported sex offenders last year, but 32 have been caught trying to get into the U.S. during the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2013, Matt McDaniel reports for San Angelo LIVE.

Jose Castro, a spokesman for the Del Rio Sector, told Tate, "Individuals who have committed violence are going to go to less populated areas to try to come into the country. The Rio Grande Valley is more of an urban place, but Del Rio is more rural. People who pose a threat to our country are going to try to exploit that." (Read more)

Hosting rural weddings has cost central Oregon couple more than $2,000 in ordinance fines

The soaring popularity of rural weddings is costing a central Oregon couple thousands of dollars. John and Stephanie Shepherd, whose 216-acre property in Deschutes County is zoned exclusively for farming, have been fined more than $2,000 for violating county ordinances by hosting 18 weddings this summer, Ted Shorack reports for The Bulletin in Bend, Ore. Several complaints were made about the high number of weddings and fear about noise and increased traffic. (Bulletin photo by Andy Tullis: John Shepherd officiating a wedding on his farm)

The Shepherds, who began hosting weddings in 2011, were told in 2013 that they needed the necessary permits in order to continue, Shorack writes. The couple said they applied for an agritourism and commercial event ordinance in 2012 but were told it wasn’t applicable for their property.

"They went another route and sought permitting for 2 acres of their property for use as a private park. That application was initially rejected because wedding events weren’t considered recreational," Shorack writes. "After reworking the permit two more times to try and gain approval from the county, the Shepherds estimate they’ve spent about $15,000 in fees."

John Shepherd, a pastor who officiates the weddings, said they have continued to host weddings because they were already booked but have stopped advertising for 2015 after the county filed an injunction, Shorack writes. He told Shorack, “I’m feeling bullied by my government." (Read more)

Farmland prices, equipment sales in Midwest continue to fall; grain prices down 29.4 percent

The Rural Mainstreet Index—based on a survey of bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming—declined for the fourth straight month and reached its lowest level in more than two years, Steve Jordan reports for the Omaha World-Herald. Farmland prices dropped for the 10th consecutive month, while equipment sales hit a record low.

The index dropped from 48.3 to 48.2 and is down from 60.5 in June, 2013, Jordan writes. Anything below 50 indicates economic decline, while figures above 50 show growth. Equipment sales are expected to decline 13.8 percent for the year, with some dealers forced to go out of business.

Grain prices are the biggest concern, Jordan writes. Prices are down 29.4 percent from this time a year ago, and with low prices farmers are not recouping their costs, said economist Ernie Goss of Creighton University, which produces the index. Goss told Jordan, “This huge decline has had a significant negative influence on most of the factors from our surveys over the last several months.” (Read more)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Rural poverty rate down, household income up

Fewer rural Americans are living in poverty, says a report by the U.S. Census Bureau. The number dropped from 8.5 million in 2012 to 7.6 million in 2013, reports Christoper Doering of The Des Moines Register. "The poverty rate outside of urban areas dropped to 16.1 percent in 2013 from 17.7 percent." Nationally, the poverty rate dropped from 15 percent to 14.5 percent, says the Census Bureau.

While fewer rural Americans are living in poverty, the average rural household income increased 2.6 percent to $42,881, while in metropolitan areas the median household income was $54,042, Doering writes. Overall, the median household income rose from $51,759 to $51,939, says the Census Bureau. (Census Bureau graphic: National poverty numbers and rate since 1959)

USDA approves Dow's Enlist on GMO corn and soybeans; critics fear weed resistance

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday gave final approval to new genetically modified corn and soybeans developed by Dow AgroSciences that, while heavily criticized by environmentalists and some farmers, are portrayed by Dow as an answer to weed-resistance problems that limit crop production," Carey Gillam reports for Reuters. If approved by the Environmental Protection Agency the product could be on the market in time for the 2015 planting season.

"Like the popular Roundup Ready system developed by rival Monsanto Co., farmers who plant Enlist crops can spray their fields with Enlist herbicide and kill weeds but not the crops," Gillam writes. Roundup Ready—used on about 90 percent of U.S. corn and soybean plantings every spring—has wiped out milkweed plants in Midwestern corn and soybean fields and has been blamed for decreasing the nation's number of monarch butterflies. Roundup is also being blamed for an explosion of hard-to-kill super weeds.

Dow says Enlist addresses that problem, because weeds have yet to build up a resistance to it, Gillam writes. "But critics say 2,4-D can cause potential health and environmental problems, including increasing weed resistance. And they fear the chemical will damage neighboring farm fields. Fruit and vegetable farmers are particularly concerned that 2,4-D drift will lead to crop damage. But Dow has said the Enlist system is safe if properly used." (Read more)

Chairman testifies in favor of FCC's net-neutrality plan, admits rural broadband remains a concern

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler testified in a House Small Business Committee hearing on Wednesday in support of net neutrality and elimination of "the 'digital divide' that has saddled rural areas with slow-or-no Internet and dropped calls," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Critics have been skeptical of the FCC's proposed net neutrality rules, saying the rules will hurt consumers and small businesses instead of creating Internet equality.

Wheeler "pointed out that the record 3.7 million comments the FCC has received since May on its proposed new Internet rules 'are wildly in support of open Internet requirements,'" Agri-Pulse reports. Wheeler told legislators: “I bring 30 years of experience as small business person, including the scars of my companies being denied access to networks and I am a fervent believer in open Internet.”

But not all his congressional questioners were pleased with Wheeler's fervency, Agri-Pulse notes. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) a farmer, said he has “concerns about how a more heavily regulated Internet is going to affect small businesses.” Tom Rice (R-S.C.) a tax attorney, "pressed the issue further, asserting that enforcing rules to require net neutrality 'will stifle innovation.'” 

Wheeler admitted that the FCC has yet to come up with answers to connect the 12 million rural Americans lacking broadband access, Agri-Pulse reports. "Wheeler reported that Phase I of the FCC's Connect America Fund (CAF) will 'make broadband available to 1.6 million unserved Americans' and that Phase II will connect another 5 million. He said these 'rural broadband experiments will help us achieve our goal of delivering world-class voice and broadband networks to rural America.'” (Read more)