Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giving food desert residents healthier options does not mean they will eat healthier, study says

Giving people in rural food deserts—more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store—healthier choices does not mean they will eat healthier, says a study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rural residents in food deserts purchase significantly greater amounts of healthy foods outside their immediate neighborhoods, but given healthier options locally, "their shopping patterns changed only slightly," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder.

The study used data from the 2010 Nielsen Homescan Panel Survey, which tracks consumers’ purchases of individual items, including where the purchase was made. 

Consumers living in low-income, low access areas (LILA) "bought 4.5 percent less fruit, 2.7 percent fewer vegetables and 10.8 percent fewer low-fat milk products than consumers not residing in LILA areas," states the study's authors. "At the same time, they bought 8.9 percent more red meat, 5 percent more diet (soda) drinks and 3.3 percent more non-diet drinks. LILA consumers who travel farther to buy food purchase more fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry and fewer drinks (diet and non-diet), but the magnitudes of these effects are small, and they cannot explain large nutritional disparities observed in the population."

Allison Hagey, who works in the health-equity and food-access program at PolicyLink, "says one study doesn’t undermine years of research showing that better access to healthy foods is a necessary ingredient in improving nutrition," Marema writes. She told him, “Every few year there’s a study like this that is trying to measure the immediate impact of these types of community initiatives. Often the focus is on one single measurement and misses the bigger picture of what it means to have a healthy community.” (Read more) (For an interactive version of this USDA map, click here)

Most electric utilities not fighting Clean Power Plan; market favors natural gas industry

Many of the top electric utilities are embracing the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, rather than fight them, because "economic forces are pushing the power industry inexorably toward a lower-carbon future," Rebecca Smith reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The new regulations just add certainty to companies’ plans to move away from relying on coal to generate electricity, turning instead toward cheap natural gas as well as renewable energy, which is available at increasingly lower cost."

"Switching from an old coal plant to a modern natural-gas one can cut carbon-dioxide emissions by between 50 percent and 60 percent for each megawatt hour of electricity produced, according to the Environmental Protection Agency," Smith writes. "And although coal also remains a relatively cheap fuel, natural-gas plants can produce power at lower prices and are often much more profitable for the companies that own them." (WSJ graphic)
"In much of the U.S., grid operators take bids from generators every day, tapping the lowest-cost resources first—often natural-gas plants," Smith writes. "But the market price is set by the last producer needed to meet that day’s electricity demand, which tends to be a coal plant. So natural-gas plants can often offer electricity at prices lower than coal plants but collect the higher price set by coal units."

"In the wake of the U.S. shale boom, natural gas has become so abundant and so inexpensive—and forecasters expect it to remain so for years—that the EPA’s new carbon rule has provisions that prevent utilities from relying too much on a single fuel," Smith writes. "Instead, the EPA regulation encourages development of renewable-energy projects. Coal consumption by utilities fell so much in the first four months of the year that it may be headed toward a 25-year low, according to data released in August by the U.S. Energy Information Administration." (Read more)

Tech companies like Facebook grabbing up land in rural areas for the tax breaks

Major corporations like Facebook are thriving in rural towns where "server farms are supplanting scrub brush and cornfields, underwritten by small-town tax breaks," Mike Rogoway reports for The Oregonian. "Those tax deals, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, quietly helped finance a new industry that formed from an unlikely pairing of rural America and Silicon Valley." (Best Places map: Prineville, Ore., is home to a Facebook data center.)

"It's the story of big tech companies that have the world at their disposal and can put their computers almost anywhere," Rogoway writes. "And it's the story of fading rural America, which has few other options and leaps at the chance to bring even a few dozen jobs to town. No one else wants to move their businesses out among the junipers and sage, so small towns and rural states are content to cut a deal with the world's wealthiest companies for whatever they'll bring to town, on whatever terms they'll bring it."

"Nearly half of the states have tax exemptions carved out specifically for data centers, an industry that may spend $1 billion on computers to run a facility that employs fewer than 200," Rogoway writes. "At least eight states, including Oregon and Washington, have enacted or expanded incentives for the industry this year alone. It's state versus state and sometimes town versus town," like the battle in Oregon to secure the Facebook data center, won by Prineville, where Facebook "has spent nearly $800 million since 2010 to build and equip two giant data warehouses on the hill above" the town. The company, which saved $30 million over the past two years on tax breaks, has fewer than 150 employees in Prineville. Computers are managed from company headquarters in California.

"Oregon tax incentives saved data centers more than $30 million last year alone," Rogoway writes. "Those tax breaks and the absence of a state sales tax make this an especially attractive destination for data centers. But it's not alone. Server farms have to be distributed geographically so they're close to the people using the data. Even electrons take time to travel, and over large enough distances that time would become noticeable to Internet users. Since Facebook built its first data center in Oregon, it's put similar facilities in Iowa, North Carolina and Sweden, and it's planning one in Texas."

"Really, data centers just want three things from a site: cheap power, cheap land and, above all, no taxes," Rogoway writes. "Power rates and land prices are largely beyond the purview of local governments. Taxes are another story. States or local governments could, of course, refuse to offer tax breaks. But virtually all big data center projects follow the money."

Small towns love the economic impact, with Facebook leading to new jobs in Prineville—unemployment has fallen to 8.7 percent—and higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs—Facebook jobs average $225,000 in a county where the mean is $42,000, Rogoway writes. Also, the high cost Facebook spends on electricity has helped, with the company spending $12 million last year, generating $600,000 in franchise fees. (Read more)

Impoverished rural areas in the South are turning to local food systems to feed the economy

Local food systems are helping feed people and the economy in impoverished rural areas in the South, Susanna Hegner reports for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation as part of its video Series "Southern Voices." The series of oral histories "documents opportunities, challenges, lessons learned and progress made by our nonprofit grantee partners in the South," states the organization's website.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture "announced $35 million in grants to support local and regional food systems," Hegner writes. "That includes $13.3 million to promote farmers markets and community supported agriculture and $11.9 million to promote food hubs, aggregation centers, local processors and farm-to-institution programs." USDA is also "awarding $8.1 million in grants to enhance SNAP operations at farmers markets so low-income families can access fresh, local food."

"The grants are aimed at boosting market opportunities for small and mid-size producers, stimulating rural economies and improving health," Hegner writes. "Organizations across the South have been putting that theory into practice for years."

The West Virginia Community Development Hub earlier this year "helped the WV Food and Farm Coalition and the WV Farmers Market Association score major local-foods victories in their state legislature: SB 352 allows businesses to structure themselves as co-ops, and SB 304 streamlines the permitting process for farmers market vendors," Hegner writes.

In coastal Georgia, McIntosh SEED opened a farmers market,” said executive director John Littles, Hegner writes. He told her, “We try to open markets for small-scale farmers to be able to sell their produce directly. We work with local restaurants. . . . And on a larger level, we work with folks in Mississippi and Alabama in building value chains and getting small-scale farmers certifications that they may need . . . whatever it takes to get into the market, to sell institutionally so some of our farmers are meeting demand with Walmart, with local school districts, food chains, Sysco and Red Diamond. And it’s changing their economic conditions.”

Hegner writes, "In the persistently poor Black Belt counties of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, one of the ways the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative generates income for women is through an agricultural network that connects farmers with markets. SRBWI also worked with municipal leaders and community organizations to repurpose an abandoned school into a USDA-certified commercial kitchen for its members." Cofounder Shirley Sherrod told Hegner, “We work with farmers and trying to help women produce food that’s marketed to the school system and through farmers’ markets and other outlets in the area. Many of them are widows who own land and need to derive an income from that land. . . . We have a community foods project, and that’s in 22 counties.”

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund "helps farmers widen their profit margins through credit unions and the cooperative model," Hegner writes. Former executive director Ralph Paige told her, “We’re talking about creating a form of wealth that people own and control, that would help communities to stabilize. We’re talking about sustainable farming, sustainable communities. Someone will come to us and say, ‘I’ve got three acres of land. Can I make a living off it?’ You won’t get wealthy off it, but you can subsidize your income off it. You can grow produce and sell it to a local farmers market. You can get three or four other people to do it as a co-op; then you don’t have to own a tractor, per se. How do you use this kind of thing to make a difference for yourself in your life and livelihood for your family?” (Read more)

Surface spills contaminating water in Marcellus Shale; levels considered too low to be harmful

Surface spills of chemicals are contaminating residential wells near Marcellus Shale fracking operations in northeast Pennsylvania, says a study of 64 private water wells by researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lisa Song reports for InsideClimate News. The contamination, which was not caused by fracking compounds that were injected deep underground, was found to be at low concentrations that are not considered harmful to humans.

"Brian Drollette, a chemical and environmental engineering graduate student at Yale University and the paper's first author, called the results encouraging for local residents because they showed fracking fluids were not moving upward from the Marcellus shale to shallower groundwater aquifers—at least not in the short term," Song writes. "The study authors said this could help improve public health because residential wells near known surface spills could be monitored and targeted for treatment." (Drollette graphic: Increase in Pennsylvania gas wells from 2007-2014)
Homeowners affected by the spills "can remove the chemicals from their water using simple filtration systems," said Desirée Plata, another study author, Song writes. "Drollette said the conclusions of his study only apply to northeastern Pennsylvania. Due to differences in geology, 'our results don't necessarily translate to other shale [fields] in the U.S.,' he said."

Spills can be linked to "faulty gas well casings, leaking waste containment ponds, underground fuel storage tanks, migration from deep shale (formations approximately 1 mile deep) and surface releases associated with hydraulic fracturing activities," Drollette and Plata write for Phys.org. "We determined that the likely exposure pathway was from surface operations at gas well sites and not from deep subsurface transport."

Study charts where each part of the world gets and sends its food

The ingredients that make up any home cooked meal could have traveled thousands of miles from all corners of the world to reach the dinner table, Michele Debczak reports for Mental Floss. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has released a study that tracks the travels of where the world's produce is sent, separated into categories for calories, protein, fat, food weight, production quantity, harvested area and production value.

"For current food supplies and production systems, we analyzed data for each crop commodity per country per measurement over the most recent three years for which sufficient data were available (2009-2011)," states the report. "All (177) countries consistently reported during the time period were included for food supplies variables, as well as for production quantity and harvested area (covering 98.5 percent of the world’s population. All (141) countries reported for production value were included, covering 94.1 percent of the world’s population." (The plot on the left only shows the most significant contributions (those in the 95 percentile) while the one on the right includes everything)
"For the analysis of change in dependence over time, food supplies data were assessed for each year from 1961-2009, and production systems from 1961-2011, utilizing the full set of commodity and country listings, standardized across all years," states the report. "The resulting 152 comparable countries treated in food supplies data comprised 98 percent of the world’s population across the study period. The 182 comparable countries covered in production quantity and harvested area data comprised 99.7 percent of the global population, and the 115 countries covered in production value data covered 88.5 percent. (For all the study's graphics, click here)

Wildcard Democrat with rural ties could benefit during tonight's debate if others start bickering

While much of the focus of the Democratic presidential primary has been on Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the wildcard could be a lesser known candidate, who has much deeper ties to rural America, Rachel Weiner reports for The Washington Post. While "running an unconventional presidential campaign with little ground support, advertising or even public appearances" former Virginia senator Jim Webb "somehow manages to march on. And with an eclectic set of views that defy categorization, he has a chance to draw attention and find, or repel, a new audience" at tonight's debate. (Post photo by Melina Mara: Jim Webb prepares to speak at Iowa Democratic Party dinner in July)

"A one-term senator from Virginia, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan and a Vietnam War veteran, Webb falls both to the left and right of Clinton," Weiner writes. Like Sanders, Webb "was an early opponent of the war in Iraq. Long before Black Lives Matter protesters demanded attention from the Democratic candidates, Webb was working on criminal justice reform in the Senate."

"Yet Webb holds conservative leanings as well," Weiner writes. "He opposes President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. After a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, he called the symbolism of the Confederate flag 'complicated.' He speaks often of low-income white men as ignored and disparaged by the Democratic Party."

"His idiosyncratic views have not gotten traction so far," Weiner writes. "He polls in the low single digits both nationally and in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlike former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, he has not built a large campaign or tried aggressively to challenge front-runners Clinton or Sanders. Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said that reservation could be helpful in a debate. Republicans Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, he noted, surged in polls after debates during which they bypassed other candidates’ bickering." (Read more)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Heavy weight of trains carrying crude oil could be taxing tracks, increasing derailments

The heavy weight and long cars of trains carrying crude oil could be to blame for an increase in oil train derailments, Ralph Vartabedian reports for the Los Angeles Times. More oil was spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, and that doesn't count the spillage and 47 deaths from a derailment in Quebec of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. A Times review of 31 crashes from 2013 found that 59 percent were the result of track problems, more than double the overall rate for freight-train accidents. Many crude oil trains carry more than 100 cars and weigh 19,000 tons or more.

"Not since the early days of John D. Rockefeller's oil trust have railroads played such a central role in moving oil from wells to refineries," Vartabedian writes. "Oil shipments by rail have soared—an eighteenfold increase between 2010 and 2014—as domestic oil production has escalated faster than the construction of new pipelines to carry it to market."

"The Federal Railroad Administration is preparing to issue in coming weeks a new set of initiatives to address the track problems, after previously clamping tighter restrictions on tank-car designs and railroad operations," Vartabedian writes. "Weight, oil sloshing and cold temperatures are among the issues that might be exacerbating the problem, according to rail-safety experts. Investigators at Safety Transportation Board Canada, which is examining the eight accidents that have occurred in that country, are beginning to suspect that the oil trains are causing unusual track damage." (Read more)

Telemedicine program launched in rural Georgia can serve as a model for areas that lack hospitals

Officials in rural Hancock County, Georgia, (Wikipedia map) hope that technology can provide much-needed healthcare and boost the economy in an impoverished area with 9,000 residents, "no transportation system, no hospital and insufficient alternative care to treat residents plagued with chronic illnesses," Virginia Anderson reports for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Officials said the initiative can serve as a model for other areas whose economies have been hurt by hospital closings.

Anderson writes in a separate story, "The Hancock Rural Healthcare Initiative, an ambitious telemedicine program, equips ambulances with computers, cameras, electrocardiogram leads and 4G cards that allow EMTs to share patient information in real time with hospital emergency room doctors in neighboring counties. The EMT can move the equipment from the ambulance into the patient’s home, as needed. The ER doctor can then determine how best to treat the patient—whether at home or en route to the hospital."

"Hancock isn’t devoid of care for chronic or occasional maladies," Anderson writes. "There is a federally qualified health center in Sparta whose nurse practitioners provide treatment during basic office hours, regardless of a patient’s insurance status or ability to pay. But the health center doesn’t have a doctor. And since many people in Hancock lack transportation, even a Sparta-based facility can be hard to reach, especially for someone in a wheelchair."

"The telemedicine program was facilitated by a special waiver agreement for Hancock County that allows EMTs to be reimbursed for treating patients in consultation with doctors," Anderson writes. The program, launched this summer with a grant of $105,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Health, can also cut down on unnecessary trips to the emergency room. "About two-thirds of ambulance trips from Hancock to nearby counties’ hospitals are for non-emergencies," officials said. "In effect, the ambulance becomes a rolling hospital, which can prove particularly beneficial in cases involving a stroke, a heart attack or serious injury."

Sate Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon), whose district includes Hancock, said "the telemedicine program is a tool for economic development that the county desperately needs," Anderson writes. He told her, “Employers can get a $3,500 tax credit for every employee they hire, but we can’t get them here if you don’t have health care." With the backing of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other rural legislators, a waiver was built "that allows EMTs to be reimbursed by Medicaid and Medicare for treating patients in Hancock County." (Read more)

Two of three appeals court judges question how waters of the United States rules were adopted

When a federal appeals court on Friday blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its new definition of waters of the United States, two of the three judges "raised questions about the scientific justification for how key parts of the rule were created," Todd Neeley reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. The court said "it must first resolve pending legal questions, including whether the court has jurisdiction to hear multiple lawsuits against the federal government on the rule."

About 30 states have sued EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the rule's enforcement, and "a federal court in North Dakota recently issued an injunction preventing the rule's implementation in 13 states," Neeley writes. "In the majority opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court said it believes the plaintiffs have demonstrated their legal claims could be successful."

"The states and other plaintiffs have argued the federal government arbitrarily set distance limitations when determining adjacent waters, tributaries and 'significant nexus' in the final rule, providing no basis in science," Neeley writes. "Internal memos from the Army Corps of Engineers shows Corps personnel raised concerns about those distances being legally defensible in the weeks before the final rule was issued in August."

The court wrote, "We conclude that petitioners have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims . . . Moreover, the rulemaking process by which the distance limitations were adopted is facially suspect. Petitioners contend the proposed rule that was published, on which interested persons were invited to comment, did not include any proposed distance limitations in its use of terms like 'adjacent waters' and 'significant nexus.' Consequently, petitioners contend, the final rule cannot be considered a 'logical outgrowth' of the rule proposed, as required to satisfy the notice-and-comment requirements of the APA (Administrative Procedures Act)."

EPA and the Corps of Engineers failed to identify "specific scientific support substantiating the reasonableness of the bright-line standards they ultimately chose," states the court. "Considering the pervasive nationwide impact of the new rule on state and federal regulation of the nation's waters, and the still open question whether, under the Clean Water Act, this litigation is properly pursued in this court or in the district courts, we conclude that petitioners have acted without undue delay and that the status quo at issue is the pre-rule regime of federal-state collaboration that has been in place for several years." (Read more)

Editor/publisher of weekly Deer Creek Pilot (Miss.) explains why community newspapers matter

A column by Ray Mosby, editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, a weekly newspaper in Rolling Fork, Miss., was selected by the National Newspaper Association to be highlighted as part of National Newspaper Week, which ended on Saturday. Mosby's column is entitled, "Why Community Newspapers Matter."

Mosby writes:
Ray Mosby
"The chosen theme for this year’s National Newspaper Week is 'Power of the Press,' and that power, it seems to me, is a very relative thing. Everybody understands the power of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post, but probably less recognized and appreciated is the power of the Deer Creek Pilot and the thousands of other small, community newspapers just like it all across the land.

"In survey after survey, it is these little community-minded newspapers that are continuing to thrive. And there are some very tangible, observable reasons for that, not the least of which might be the notion I share that the smaller the community, the more important its newspaper.

"For more than 20 years now, I have put out a little country weekly that’s been published continuously for 138 years in what most folks might consider Backwater, U.S.A., the two poorest counties in the poorest state in the union with a combined population of less than 6,500 men, women and children.

"And it is neither flippant nor hyperbolic when I say that little country weekly newspaper is the only news organization on the planet Earth that gives the first tinker’s damn about Sharkey and Issaquena counties, Miss. That, folks, is what makes the Deer Creek Pilot mighty, mighty important to those people who call that place home.

"While mine might serve as prime example, it is in that respect no different from all those other community newspapers in all those other towns in this country.

"Community newspapers have the power to bring about great good and make a profound difference within their locales. And among the good ones, the ones who endure and even prosper, there is always to be found one common denominator: trust.

"In a small town, every newspaper subscriber thinks he or she is a stockholder, because there exists a real relationship, an implied contract, if you will, between that paper and its readers.

"They buy your newspaper, advertise in your newspaper, sometimes even when they don’t have to, based on a simple precept: They trust you to do your very best to find the truth and to tell it to them.

"News travels fast in a small town; bad news travels even faster, but all too often that 'news' is no such thing. All too often, that 'news' is little more than rumor, sometimes made up out of whole cloth and at best some grain of truth exaggerated in its retellings vastly, and often alarmingly out of proportion.

"In a small town, readers expect their newspaper to separate the wheat from the chaff and then to 'tell it like it is.'"

OSHA policy changes could phase out crop fertilizer

Anhydrous ammonia, the most economical form of nitrogen fertilizer for crops, is becoming scarce, Russ Quinn reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Some retailers say they have stopped carrying the product in anticipation of changing Occupational Safety and Health Administration policies regarding how ammonia is regulated for fertilizer retailers.

Changes in fertilizer storage regulations were initiated after the April 2013 deadly West, Texas, fertilizer facility explosion—which was caused by ammonium nitrate, Quinn writes. President Obama in August 2013 issued an executive order to improve chemical facility and safety and security. "At that point, OSHA decided to revise the interpretation of the exemption of retail facilities from Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals (PSM) regulations. The agency wants to eliminate the retail exemption for fertilizer retailers, which would subject retailers to new programs and safety rules. This, in turn, could end up costing retailers money in major renovations. Some smaller retailers may just stop selling ammonia. The deadline for retailers to comply with the OSHA policy change is Dec. 31."

OSHA "estimates the policy change will affect 4,800 fertilizer retailers," Quinn writes. "The policy doesn't affect businesses, such as gas stations, that sell small volumes of chemicals." Industry experts and OSHA are at odd over how costly the move will be to retailers. The industry says it will cost more than $20,000 per site, while OSHA estimated $2,160 per site. Several groups have joined a lawsuit "against the OSHA memorandum withdrawing the retail PSM exemption." (Read more)

Patriot Coal drops plan to divert money from health insurance of retired Indiana coal miners

Patriot Coal is withdrawing its plan to divert "$18 million intended for the health insurance of retired Indiana miners to pay attorneys and other bankruptcy costs," Alec MacGillis reports for ProPublica. The deal worked out by the lawyers and financiers would have left "only $3 million to cover the guaranteed health-care benefits of 208 retired miners and their dependents, enough to last only about a year and a half. The deal was especially striking given that the unionized miners had themselves never worked for Patriot. Instead, they were having their benefits stripped of their value through an elaborate bit of financial engineering."

"The retirees had worked for Squaw Creek Coal Company, a joint venture in southern Indiana between Alcoa and Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, which provided fuel for a nearby Alcoa plant," MacGillis writes. "The venture had mostly petered out by 2000, but as part of the agreement, Alcoa was covering the cost of the guaranteed retiree health benefits, about $2 million per year."

"Earlier this year, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 again," MacGillis writes. "This time, it is auctioning off its mines and going out of business. And to cover the costs of the proceedings, its lawyers, from the New York firm of Kirkland & Ellis, struck an unusual agreement with Alcoa. Alcoa agreed to pay Patriot $22 million in exchange for Patriot assuming the health care obligations for the Squaw Creek retirees. This saved Alcoa money, since the actuarial value of the obligation was about $40 million. But instead of putting the $22 million toward the actual health care obligations, Patriot stated in filings to the court that it was going to put only $4 million toward that purpose—$3 million for rank-and-file miners and $1 million for salaried Squaw Creek managers. The rest, $18 million, would go to the attorneys and others involved in the proceedings." (Read more)

Billionaire coal owner running for W.Va. governor owes $3.5M in delinquent property taxes in Ky.

Southern Coal billionaire owner Jim Justice, who announced in May he was running for governor of West Virginia, still owes "$3.5 million in delinquent property taxes in Eastern Kentucky, shortchanging schools and other public agencies at a time many are struggling," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. In 2014, Southern Coal faced 266 violations at coal mines in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama. (Associated Press photo)

"The companies controlled by Jim Justice have delinquent taxes on mining equipment, land or coal reserves—or all three in some cases—in Pike, Floyd, Knott, Harlan, Magoffin and Breathitt counties, tax records show," Estep writes. While Jay Justice, the son of Jim Justice and an executive of a coal company controlled by his father, "said he understood the companies have agreements in place to pay the back taxes . . . officials in Pike and Harlan counties said no such payment plans were in place as of Oct. 8."

"Hundreds of mines in the region have closed since 2011 because of a combination of factors, including competition from cheap natural gas; cheaper coal from other U.S. regions; tougher rules to protect air and water quality; and the depletion of thicker coal seams after more than a century of mining," Estep writes. "The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration lists Justice as the controller of 158 surface or underground mines and related facilities, such as coal-preparation plants, in several states. However, nearly all of Justice's mines are listed as temporarily idled, non-producing or abandoned."

"Still, Justice—who has some of the largest delinquent tax bills among coal companies in Eastern Kentucky—has resources many coal operators do not," Estep writes. "When Jim Justice announced in May he would run for governor in 2016 as a Democrat, his estimated net worth was reportedly $1.6 billion, a fortune he amassed in coal mining, agriculture and timber." (Read more)

Friday, October 09, 2015

Appeals-court panel blocks WOTUS rule nationwide

A federal appeals court has blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its new definition of "waters of the United States," extending an earlier, limited WOTUS ruling to 37 other states.

Judge David McKeague of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati wrote that the 18 states challenging the rule “have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims” and a stay will not cause undue harm to the environment. "Judge Richard Griffin joined in McKeague's opinion, providing the two-to-one majority," Agri-Pulse reports.

"The decision is a victory for many in the agricultural community who were hoping to stop the rule through the legal process after legislative efforts through either a standalone bill or an appropriations rider proved challenging," Agri-Pulse reports. "Those opposed to the rule contend it greatly expands the authority of the EPA under the Clean Water Act and would have been placed an overly expensive burden, both on authorities charged with enforcement and producers found to be in non-compliance. The rule is subject to a number of lawsuits across the country from states and stakeholder groups."

World's first-ever carbon capture project on a large coal plant nearing full capture operating capacity

Mike Marsh, president and CEO of SaskPower's Boundary Dam—the world's first-ever carbon capture project on a large coal plant—said on Thursday "that the initiative is on track to reach full operating capacity this year," Christa Marshall reports for ClimateWire. The facility—which began capturing carbon dioxide last October at a coal plant in Saskatchewan, Canada—has captured more than 400,000 metric tons of CO2 since then.

Marsh told Marshall, "We're very happy that we've been able to not only demonstrate various capture rates over the past year. As we approach full capture, we can achieve 90 percent capture at that plant, which is about four times better than a comparable natural gas combined-cycle facility today."

He said SaskPower "has not decided whether to retrofit other coal units at Boundary Dam and won't until the end of next year," Marshall writes. "The next attempt to capture CO2 at another coal plant would be about 20 to 30 percent cheaper, he said, citing feedback from engineers. The capture rates and related data will be studied carefully because no other large coal-fired power plant globally ever has achieved such a high percentage of capture."

When the Environmental Protection Agency "unveiled its proposed carbon rule on new power plants in 2013, it cited Boundary Dam as an example of CCS technology," Marshall writes. "SaskPower moved forward in retrofitting part of its existing Boundary Dam Power Station because of a unique set of circumstances, including Canadian greenhouse gas regulations and $240 million from the Canadian government." (Read more)

Another rural hospital closes in a Republican-led state that chose not to expand Medicaid

This weekend Mercy Hospital Independence in southeast Kansas will become the 58th rural hospital to close since 2010, "joining dozens of rural hospitals around the country that have not been able to withstand the financial and demographic challenges buffeting them," Mitch Smith and Abby Goodnough report for The New York Times. "The hospital and its outpatient clinics, owned by the Mercy health care system in St. Louis, was where people in this city of 9,000 turned for everything from sore throats to emergency treatment after a car crash. Now, many say they are worried about what losing Mercy will mean not just for their own health but for their community’s future." (NYT photo by Amy Stroh)

"The closings have accelerated over the last few years and have hit more midsize hospitals like Mercy, which was licensed for 75 beds, than smaller “critical access” hospitals, which are reimbursed at a higher rate by Medicare," Smith and Goodnough write. "These institutions are often mainstays of small communities, providing not just close-to-home care but also jobs and economic stability." Mercy had 8,000 visits to its emergency room last year.

"On Thursday, just a day before the main hospital building was to close, a Mercy spokeswoman said another health system had tentatively agreed to open an urgent care clinic in Independence and take over most of Mercy’s outpatient operations but not inpatient services or the emergency room," Smith and Goodnough write. "An earlier plan for another hospital to take over some of Mercy’s operations here fell through last month."

"Mercy’s problems attracted notice in Topeka, the state capital, as some lawmakers renewed calls on the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that would have pumped an estimated $1.6 million a year into the hospital’s coffers," Smith and Goodnough write. "But Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, remained steadfastly opposed to the idea. Hospital officials said the Medicaid funds would have helped significantly but probably would not have ensured Mercy’s long-term survival."

"Two Republican state legislators from Independence, Sen. Jeff King and Rep. Jim Kelly, said they hoped some version of state-based Medicaid expansion would seriously be considered in the next legislative session to help prevent more hospital closings," Smith and Goodnough write. "King said that while he still opposed a straight expansion of Medicaid, he was open to the type of alternative model that Indiana and several other Republican-led states have pursued." (Read more)

Fracking linked to premature births, says study by researchers with ties to sustainability organization

A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University published in the journal Epidemiology "suggests pregnant women living near [hydraulic fracturing] wells in Pennsylvania are more likely to give birth prematurely or have high risk pregnancies," Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

Researchers, who studied more than 9,000 mothers who gave birth in north and central Pennsylvania between 2009 and 2013, "found that living among the most active quartile of fracking activity was associated with a 40 percent increase in premature birth and a 30 percent increase in reported high-risk pregnancies, which can mean factors like high blood pressure or excessive weight gain," Cockerham writes.

Nicole Jacobs, Pennsylvania director for Energy In Depth, a research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, criticized the study, saying it “doesn’t take any environmental samples and relies heavily on assumptions,” Cockerham writes. She also noted that lead researcher Brian Schwartz is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, an organization which says its "mission is to lead the transition to a more resilient, equitable and sustainable world by providing individuals and communities with the resources needed to understand and respond to the interrelated economic, energy and ecological crises of the 21st century." (Read more)

Renewable Fuel Standard uncertainty hurting farm economies, agricultural groups say

The National Farmers Union and the National Corn Growers Association released a paper on Thursday "claiming that uncertainty surrounding the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is a major factor in projected drops in net farm income," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. The paper "pointed to USDA's Economic Research Service's projected 26 percent drop in net cash income for farmers. The paper calls the RFS 'the most significant growth factor for agriculture since its inception' and says that the 'agricultural economic revolution spawned by the renewable fuel industry helped raise farm incomes across nearly all agricultural sectors.'”

"The Environmental Protection Agency has been under fire for its administration of the RFS for some time after delayed Renewable Volume Obligations (RVO) announcements led to a lawsuit from the American Petroleum Institute and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers," Chase writes. "That lawsuit resulted in a timeline for announcement of 2014 and 2015 RVOs, and the EPA is voluntarily announcing the 2016 RVOs along the same schedule. An announcement is expected by the end of November."

Thursday's paper says "the uncertainty in the blending requirements under the law led to uncertainty at ethanol plants across the country, forcing many to close," Chase writes. NCGA president Chip Bowling, who said he lives by one of those closed plants in southern Maryland, told reporters, "It has changed the basis in the price that we receive for our corn; it has changed the way we are buying equipment; it has changed the way we to go out to dinner.” He said one local equipment dealer has seen a 30 to 40 percent drop in orders, mostly "due to the uncertainty in the renewable fuel standard because that's what built the farm economy up.”

"In May, EPA proposed incremental increases in every biofuel category, including corn ethanol used in E10 and higher blends at gas pumps across the country," Chase writes. "In 2015, the agency is proposing 16.3 billion gallons of renewable fuels—short of the 20.5 billion statutory target—with the potential for 13.4 billion of those gallons coming from corn ethanol. In 2016, the agency suggests further increases to 17.4 billion gallons of biofuels—a jump of about 1.5 billion gallons from actual 2014 production but below the 22.25 billion called for in statutory language—with the potential for corn ethanol to account for 11.4 billion of the total." (Read more)

Movie set in coalfield town of Big Stone Gap, Va., is mostly believable, in-state critic says

Ashley Judd and Patrick Wilson, the film's love interests
The film "Big Stone Gap" opens today in 274 theaters, reports Glenn Gannaway of The Post in the southwest Virginia coal town of 5,600 that is the locle of the romantic comedy, set in 1978 and based on the novel of the same name by local native Adriana Trigiani.

"It has an impressive cast, all of whom reportedly took minimum salaries to get it made. They include Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, Jane Krakowski and Anthony LaPaglia," film critic Mal Vincent writes for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. "In spite of the actual plot of the movie, the wake-up call comes when the local folks learn that Elizabeth Taylor is coming to town. They plan a welcome they hope will rival Cleopatra's entrance into Rome. The local drug store, owned by Ave Maria Mulligan (Judd) and run by Fleeta Mullins (Goldberg), spruces things up in case Taylor might stop by for an aspirin. Those of us who have been around long enough remember the mania."

"For all of the movie's warmth, the setting sometimes raises an eyebrow," Vincent writes. "The corn is as high as an elephant's eye even though we are in Virginia, not Oklahoma. Things also sometimes venture dangerously close to the kind of hillbilly-bashing of things like 'Ma and Pa Kettle' and 'The Beverly Hillbillies.' But, for the most part, it stays believable, although the low budget at times shows. The writer stays away from the coal mines and any drama they might suggest. This is not the kind of movie, or novel, that is going to deal with the problems of organized labor. It's the sort of story that, one critic wrote in referring to the novel, 'is as comforting as a patchwork quilt and as charming as a country cottage. 'Yeah. That's kinda it. These are good ol' country folk—the kind you don't often see in the movies. Y'all come." To read other reviews of the film, click here and here.

Best Places map
The town is planning a big celebration Saturday with the stars and "and the hundreds of people who participated in filming two years ago, either in front of the camera or behind the scenes," Gannaway reports. "Other celebrities expected are novelist Barbara Kingsolver and possibly several other writers, and the film’s composer John Leventhal and wife Rosanne Cash."

Saturday's events included a press conference with Judd, Wilson and others. For a report from Robert Sorrell of the Bristol Herald Courier, click here.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Young, poor Central Appalachian adults are some of the nation's most sleep-deprived, study says

Young people in some of the nation's most economically distressed Appalachian counties are the nation's most sleep deprived, according to county-level data from a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study was taken from a 2009 survey that asked 432,000 people how many times over the past 30 days they felt that they didn't get enough sleep or rest. Respondents were separated into two categories based on people who reported poor sleep on fewer than 15 days and those who reported poor sleep on more than 15 days, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

"The nation's biggest cluster of bad sleep ended up in the heart of Appalachia and in a cluster of counties in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee," Ingraham writes. "In some of these counties, 40 to 50 percent of the sample—and even higher, in some cases— reported difficulty sleeping on at least half of the days in the previous month. By contrast, the research also identified a number of 'coldspots' when it comes to sleep deficiency—places where rates are below average. Wisconsin has a number of these counties, as does Northern Virginia. In many of these counties, rates of sleep difficulty fall below 20 percent."

"Researchers looked at a number of social and demographic factors to see whether anything correlated—obesity, income, education, drinking rates, overall physical and mental health," Ingraham writes. "They found, interestingly, that 'relatively younger individuals of lower socioeconomic status and poorer health were more likely to live in hotspot counties.' People who were generally younger, poorer and in worse health were more likely to live in places with high rates of bad sleep." (For an interactive map click here)

Researchers say whole milk reduces risk of heart disease, others say saturated fats increase risks

U.S. dietary guidelines that for years have recommended avoiding whole milk—leading to a decrease in sales—may have gotten it all wrong when it comes ingesting saturated fats, Peter Whoriskey reports for The Washington Post. Research in recent years has found that "millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk. Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease."

"This year, as the 'Dietary Guidelines for Americans' undergoes one of its periodic updates, the federal bureaucrats writing them must confront what may be the most controversial and weighty question in all of nutrition: does the consumption of so-called saturated fats—the ones characteristic of meat and dairy products—contribute to heart disease?" Whoriskey writes. "After all the decades of research, it is possible that the key lesson on fats is two-fold. Cutting saturated fats from diets and replacing them with carbohydrates, as is often done, likely will not reduce heart disease risk. But cutting saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated fats—the type of fats characteristic of fish, nuts and vegetable oils—might." (Post graphic)
"This shift in understanding has led to accusations that the Dietary Guidelines harmed those people who for years avoided fats—as instructed—and loaded up excessively on the carbohydrates in foods such as breads, cookies and cakes that were marketed as 'low fat.'" Whoriskey writes. "It also has raised questions about the scientific foundations of the government’s diet advice: To what extent did the federal government and the diet scientists they relied upon, go wrong? When the evidence is incomplete on a dietary question, should the government refrain from making recommendations?"

Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist, epidemiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University, told Whoriskey, "There's no evidence that the reduction of saturated fats should be a priority." Others disagree. Representatives of the American Heart Association said "the evidence for the dangers of saturated fats arises from these two ideas: Consuming saturated fats raises levels of so-called 'bad' cholesterol in the blood, and higher levels of 'bad' cholesterol, in turn, raise risks of heart disease."

Heart disease, for which health officials have long blamed fatty foods ingestion, is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming 611,105 lives per year, Whoriskey writes. Cancer claims 584,881 lives. The next highest total is chronic lower respiratory disease, at 149,205. (Read more)

Watchdog study requested by rural lawmakers says USPS tracking system completely unreliable

The U.S. Postal Service's "tracking system for measuring on-time delivery is so unreliable that there’s no way to know how late the mail really is," said a report by the Government Accountability Office, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. "Just 55 percent of the mail is even measured by postal officials, auditors found, making it unlikely that the agency is meeting its legal obligation to provide quality service to every corner of the United States."

The Postal Service was also criticized "for failing to provide the public with data on whether they are meeting delivery standards for rural addresses compared to urban or suburban ones," Rein writes. "Lawmakers representing rural states, who requested the GAO study, say spotty mail service is now the new normal across their districts, with cross-country and local delivery delayed by several days."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service, was one of the lawmakers who requested the study, Rein writes. He told her, “Service across the country, particularly in rural communities, is suffering. Unfortunately, the Government Accountability Office found the delivery performance results that the Postal Service and Postal Regulatory Commission provide do not give Congress or postal customers an accurate assessment of service.”

Rein writes, "Auditors found that almost half of the mail is not included in the post office’s system of assessing delivery times because it does not have barcodes and other information that can be tracked, on when mail arrived at the local post office, for example. There is no minimum that needs to be included."

The Postal Service said in a statement that it “strongly disagrees with the conclusion that our current service performance measurement is not accurate,” Rein writes. The agency states, “The Postal Service is strongly committed to transparency and the regular publication of our service performance results, including those in rural areas through a rural service measurement initiative. We continue to work with the Congress and our regulator to develop enhanced methods for evaluating delivery performance that are already robust and accurate.” (Read more)

Alabama making it difficult for rural blacks to vote, opines New York Times editorial board

Alabama's plan to close 31 part-time rural Department of Motor Vehicle offices, coupled with the state's voter ID law that went into effect last year, is making it more difficult for rural black residents who typically vote Democrat to vote, states the editorial board of The New York Times. Blacks make up more than 75 percent of residents in the 31 counties. Alabama is making it difficult for rural blacks to vote, opines New York Times editorial board.

Alabama’s voter ID law "requires voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls," states the times. Anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 of the state's registered voters lack a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID. "The state offers a special voter-ID card for people without any other photo identification, although only 5,000 were issued before the 2014 elections . . . These laws have proliferated around the country, nearly always enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures at the expense of minorities, the poor and other groups who tend to vote Democratic."

"Alabama has a long and ugly history of racial discrimination in voting," states the Times. "From 1965 on, at least 100 voting changes were blocked or altered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required Alabama and other states and jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting practices. But in a 2013 case brought by Shelby County, Ala., the Supreme Court said that the section could not be applied to those states and jurisdictions because the data about discrimination was outdated. On the same day as that ruling, Alabama announced it would enforce its voter-ID law, which had passed in 2011 but was never submitted for approval."

"Alabama officials say the driver’s license offices set to close process less than 5 percent of Alabama licenses," states the Times. "But many are concentrated in the central part of the state known as the 'Black Belt'—a poor, rural, heavily African-American region where car ownership is below average, public transportation is virtually nonexistent and voters are strongly Democratic. On Monday, Representative Terri Sewell asked the Justice Department to investigate the planned closings."

"Making voting easier doesn’t have to be hard," states the board. "Oregon, for example, passed a law in March that automatically registers any eligible voter who gets a driver’s license—a move expected to add 300,000 voters to the rolls. Compare that to the trend in Alabama, where fewer people turned out for the 2014 midterm elections than for any election in almost three decades." (Read more)

Freeman (S.D.) Courier news editor awarded Daniel M. Phillips Leadership Award by NNA

Jeremy Waltner
Jeremy Waltner, news editor of the Freeman (S.D.) Courier, was given the Daniel M. Phillips Leadership Award on Oct. 3 during the National Newspaper Association’s 129th Annual Convention & Trade Show in St. Charles, Mo. The award honors Daniel Morris “Dan” Phillips, "an award-winning writer, photographer and assistant publisher of the Oxford (Miss.) Eagle, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 47," states NNA. "This award is presented to an individual 23-40 years old who is well respected in his or her community, of good reputation and integrity, provides active leadership in the newspaper industry and is active in his or her state press association and community and whose newspaper is a member of NNA."

Brian J. Hunhoff, contributing editor to the Yankton County Observer in Yankton, S.D., nominated Waltner. Hunhoff said, “Jeremy Waltner has continued a family tradition of leadership in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. In 2007, at age 30, Jeremy served as the youngest president in ISWNE’s 60-year history. He also helped his father and Mobridge Tribune Publisher Larry Atkinson, organize the 2007 ISWNE Conference in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In 2003, from a pool of 144 entries, Jeremy won ISWNE’s Golden Quill award for best editorial. He remains one of the lynchpins of ISWNE.”

The James O. Amos award and the Emma C. McKinney award "are presented to a working or retired newspaperman and woman who have provided distinguished service and leadership to the community press and their community," states NNA. They are "recognized as two of the highest and most distinguished tributes in community journalism . . . presented to a working or retired newspaperman and woman who has provided distinguished service and leadership to the community press and his/her community."

Bill Tubbs, owner of the weekly North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, was named the recipient of the Amos award. Barbara “Barb” A. Walter, of Hennessey, OK, was presented with the McKinney Award. Walter, who became managing editor of the Hennessey Clipper in 1978, was later named co-publisher by her husband, Bill Walter.

Rural South Dakota residents frustrated with odors coming from nearby hog farm

Rural residents in Davison County, South Dakota (Wikipedia map) vented their frustrations on Tuesday to the county commission that little has been done to reduce unpleasant odors from a neighborhood hog farm, Evan Hendershot reports for the Grand Forks Herald.

"In June 2014, four of Jackrabbit Farms' neighbors came before the commission to discuss their concerns with the facility's exhaust system that allegedly pumps out a harsh smell," Hendershot writes. "Since that meeting, Jackrabbit Farms officials say it has spent $30,000 on biofilters meant to lessen the intensity of the odor and has applied microbes meant for odor reduction. But resident Marilyn Reimnitz said the odor has not subsided since then. Her husband Lyle Reimnitz told commissioners, "We shouldn't have to live in misery down here. Nobody should have to."

Neighbors, who claim Jackrabbit Farms' biofilter is not up to the standard needed to decrease the odor, brought in experts to back up that claim, Hendershot writes. "Laura Krebsbach, renewable harvest project director with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, argued on behalf of Jackrabbit Farms' neighbors for the commission to force the facility located in Baker Township to improve its biofilter. Krebsbach claims Pipestone Systems does not want to invest the money needed for an improved biofilter."

"The farm, which was approved by the commission in 2012, houses 5,000 sows and produces about 3,000 piglets each week," Hendershot writes. Pipestone System, which manages the farm, "said it has done all it could to reduce the smell. But the microbe treatment Pipestone applied is expected to take a year to reduce the odor." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Ky. clerk not sued for withholding marriage licenses now gives them only to opposite-sex couples

One of the Kentucky county clerks who stopped issuing marriage licenses after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage but didn't get sued has resumed issuing licenses, but only to opposite-sex couples.

Casey County Clerk Casey Davis told Larry Rowell of the Casey County News that he issued a marriage license to an opposite sex couple on Sept. 30.

"A Separate Baptist preacher, Davis said publicly numerous times after the ruling that based on his religious convictions that marriage is between a man and a woman, it precluded him from issuing a license to a same sex couple," writes Rowell, himself a Baptist minister. "And Davis said he still will not issue a license to a same sex couple. As to why he changed his position, Davis said he wants to serve opposite-sex couples."

“There’s a lot of hard decisions that come with being that (an elected official) and one of them is I wasn’t doing other people right by not issuing them licenses and when the governor and attorney general both came out and said a blank license is fine, give them the paper, it’s all right,” Davis told Rowell.

However, a spokesman for the attorney general's office told Rowell that the licenses issued from Davis’s office have not been altered.

Davis is no relation to Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who was jailed by a federal judge for refusing in a lawsuit to issue marriage licenses. Casey Davis and the other Kentucky clerk refusing to do issue licenses, Whitley County Clerk Kay Schwarz, have not been sued.

Casey "Davis also said that since Kim Davis had been sued by opposite-sex couples seeking licenses in Rowan County, he hoped to avoid that fate by reversing his position on opposite-sex couples," Rowell reports. He said a group of county clerks are “putting together a form hoping to satisfy both sides and one that the legislature will pass a bill that accommodates for both.”

Oil and gas emissions down, greenhouse gas emissions on the rise, EPA reports says

Oil and gas industry greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, but methane leakage continues to fall, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report released on Tuesday, Pamela King reports for EnergyWire. "Petroleum and natural gas systems emitted 236 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere in 2014, up from 228 million metric tons CO2e in 2013. Methane emissions ticked down from 77 million metric tons CO2e in 2013 to 73 million metric tons CO2e last year, marking the third consecutive year that measurement has declined."

"Reductions in methane emissions appear to be the result of existing regulation, and further cuts will be made possible only by additional rulemakings, said Matt Watson, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy program," King writes. "A table toward the bottom of EPA's energy industry profile indicates that the bulk of emissions reductions between 2011 and 2014 came from gas well completions and workovers, a regulated source, he said." (EPA graphic)

Watson said in a statement, "This data shows that regulations work and promises of voluntary action don't. The largest methane reductions come from a practice that is subject to national standards, while the biggest increases come from sources that remain largely unregulated." (Read more)

Earlier bedtimes can decrease obesity in adolescents, study says

Earlier bedtimes can decrease the rate of obesity during adolescence and during the transition to adulthood, says a study by researchers published in the journal Sleep. Researchers concluded, "Later average bedtime during the workweek, in hours, from adolescence to adulthood was associated with an increase in body mass index (BMI) over time." The 12th Annual State of Obesity report, released last month, found that the largely rural South is the most obese region in the country.

For the study "researchers followed 3,342 adolescents from 1996 to 2009 and interviewed them three times during the study period about their bedtimes, food consumption, exercise and television watching," Ariana Eunjung Cha reports for The Washington Post. "They also measured the volunteers' heights and took their weights to calculate their BMI during each of the check-ins. They found that the later the average bedtime during the schoolweek, the higher the BMI over time. More precisely, they found that for every minute of later bedtime there was an increase in BMI of 0.035 kg/m2. Or for every additional hour later a 2.1 increase in BMI."

Lauren Asarnow, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the study, said in a statement, "The results are important because they highlight adolescent bedtimes, not just total sleep time, as a potential target for weight management concurrently and in the transition to adulthood." (Read more)

Most rural county clerks quietly issuing same-sex marriage licenses regardless of personal views

While Kim Davis, County Clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, has grabbed national headlines and been ridiculed on Saturday Night Live for refusing to issue marriage licenses based on religious objections, most of the nation's 3,100 clerks have quietly followed the law with little fanfare, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. (Andy Brusseau photo: Evonne Hoback, county clerk of McMinn County, Tennessee)

Evonne Hoback, clerk of Tennessee’s McMinn County, a rural county that lies between Knoxville and Chattanooga in the southeast portion of the state, told Marema, “Within 30 minutes of the Supreme Court ruling, we had a phone call from someone in the LGBT community asking what we were going to do about same-sex marriage licenses. I assured them that all systems were go as soon as another agency was ready to roll with the computer system.”

Hoback said the only holdup was that "the state needed to change labels on the standardized electronic form to accommodate same-sex couples—for example, using 'surname' instead of 'maiden name,'" Marema writes. "The state and McMinn County were ready to take applications the same day as the court ruling on June 26, Hoback said." She told Marema, “We just did it without pomp and circumstance. It’s the law, and our office takes the law very seriously . . . We are here to serve people. We are here to help people. This is a public-service office . . . My responsibilities are to keep our tax dollars safe, do a good job and stay within my budget. It’s not my job to judge the world.”

While clerks other than Davis have refused to issue marriage licenses, most have complied with the law, Marema writes. "Other clerks like Wayne Nabors in Putnam County, Tennessee, have issued same-sex licenses, even though they disagree on religious grounds with the Supreme Court ruling. He told reporters, 'I have a statutory authority and a job to do.'" (Read more)

Cattle market continues historic slide; consumers should begin to see lower prices in grocery stores

The historic slide of the cattle market should continue into next year, reports Agri-Pulse. After a record-setting 2014, over the past six months "the live cattle contract has lost over $25 per hundredweight," and the feeder cattle contract has lost $33.75 per hundredweight. "Longer-term figures look even grimmer, as the live cattle contract has lost over $35 since its 12-month high in November and the feeder cattle contract is down $52.75 since reaching its peak in the last year in early December."

Duane Lenz, general manager of the beef industry research firm CattleFax, said the current downward swing ranks in the top three all time, reports Agri-Pulse. He said, “Next year will probably average lower than this year, so other than short-term price bounces . . . the next rally is probably not going to occur here for a while.” He said "there was 'no way to forecast' the current drop, which he said really caught the industry off guard." (Agri-Pulse graphic)

For consumers, the slide should lead to lower prices in grocery stores, reports Agri-Pulse. Lenz told Agri-Pulse, “It’ll take longer than you think just because retailers don’t know if this is a temporary or a long-term situation. We are starting to see retail prices drop, but it’s very small. I would say that before we see a big change in the supermarket, you’re probably looking at five, maybe six months.” He said it is unlikely that cattle prices will return to 2014 numbers. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Midwestern farms could learn from Washington, where strict enforcement of rules is saving lives

Mandating and enforcing workplace safety rules has saved lives on Washington farms, while lives continue to be unnecessarily lost in Midwestern states where rules are less strict, Jeffrey Meitrodt reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune as part of its series "Tragic Harvest." "Farmers in Washington have embraced the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural safety program, an initiative that contrasts sharply with the hands-off approach that prevails in much of the Midwest."

"Unlike most farm belt states, where agricultural deaths are rarely investigated, Washington regulators are usually at the scene after an agricultural worker gets killed," Meitrodt writes. "Washington is one of three states that enforce safety rules on farms with fewer than 11 workers. Washington also provides consulting services to small farms that wouldn’t qualify for such help in other states."

"The results are stunning," Meitrodt writes. "Despite having a larger farm workforce than any state in the Midwest, Washington has reported a total of 63 farm deaths since 2003. By comparison, Minnesota, Iowa and six other Midwestern states each have had more than 200 work-related farm fatalities during that time. Of the 47 states that reported at least one farm death in the past decade, Washington has the nation’s lowest fatality rate. In some years, the state has gone without a single death linked to a tractor rollover, a common cause of fatalities elsewhere."

"Last year, Washington consultants visited 294 agricultural operations, including dozens of farms in the Yakima Valley, the state’s agricultural heart. By comparison, Minnesota has provided free consulting to 10 farms since 2010," Meitrodt writes. "If all states followed the Washington model, the lives of about 1,000 farmworkers could be saved in five years, according to a study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Farming remains one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations, generating an average of more than 400 work-related deaths each year." (Read more)

Undocumented workers in some rural agricultural communities have high rates of STDs

In rural agricultural towns like Mendota, Calif., (Best Places map) where there is not much to do when the work days ends, the sex industry thrives, and sexually transmitted diseases, especially among undocumented workers, are a cause for concern, Diana Aguilera reports for Valley Public Radio. Fresno County has one of the highest rates of STD’s in the state.

"Lack of access to health care, six-day work weeks and tough living conditions makes it hard for many farmworkers to visit a doctor," Aguilera writes. City councilmember Joseph Riofrio told Aguilera, “There’s a lot of unsafe sex because of people, you know, drinking, getting drunk, feeling lonely, far away from home. There’s people that come from Fresno or Merced. They’re looking for customers either at the motel across the street or the motel right here, and they’ll rent the room throughout the night.”

One problem is a lack of data on STD rates among migrant workers, Aguilera writes. George Lemp, who took part in a 2005 study by researchers from University of California-Berkeley and experts in Mexico, told Aguilera, “We found that there was a significant increase in risk behaviors after migration to the United States. Their risk of engaging in sex with sex workers went up about two and a half fold.” He said "farmworkers were also more likely to have sex while under the influence of drugs and alcohol after coming to the states. In addition, they were six times more likely to perform sex work for pay and 13 times more likely to have sex with men."

While local campaigns have sought to educate people and provide free condoms, undocumented worker Francisco told Aguilera, “If anyone has anything they don’t say it because they’re embarrassed. We’re very shy; we don’t talk about sex. I think its part of our culture, and that’s the reality.” (Read more)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Older farmers more likely to die in accidents; average age of farmers keeps increasing

Safety risks for farmers increase as they get older, a cause for concern considering the average age of farmers keeps increasing, Jeffrey Meitrodt reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune as part of its series "Tragic Harvest." A review of more than 200 farm death investigations in Minnesota showed that nearly half involved people 65 or older.

"Unlike the rest of the working world, where retirement at age 65 is typical and sometimes mandatory, most farmers keep working," Meitrodt writes. "Many die on the job because they gamble with their aging bodies once too often. Serious accidents are a concern for farmers of any age, but the risk only increases as they get older. Physical tasks become tougher than they used to be, and often it’s not easy—or even possible—to slow down." (Tribune graphic)

A 2009 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that "older farmers are more than twice as likely to die in an accident as younger workers, Meitrodt writes. "More than 1,800 farmers age 65 and older have died in work-related accidents in the past decade—or 38 percent of the U.S. total. And the farming community is aging with the rest of the population, suggesting that safety will become an even bigger issue. Nationally, the typical farmer was 58.3 years old in 2012, up from 50.5 in 1982. In Minnesota, where a quarter of principal farm operators are now 65 or older, the average age is 56.6."

"Researchers say older farmers often die in accidents that younger workers can survive," Meitrodt writes. "Older farmers are more likely to crack down on safety violations by others, especially their children, than to follow those rules themselves, according to a Star Tribune review of accident reports and interviews with surviving family members. But almost nothing is being done to raise awareness of the problem. Most safety campaigns focus on accidents involving children, who account for a tiny portion of farm deaths in the U.S." (Read more)

Rural mortgage loans decreased 28% from 2013 to 2014; loans for home purchases up 7%

The number of rural mortgage loans decreased 28 percent from 2013 to 2014, from more than 1.2 million to just over 900,000, Keith Wiley, senior research associate at the Housing Assistance Council, reports for the Daily Yonder. "Refinancing accounted for 99 percent of the decline both nationally and in rural areas. There were fewer than half as many rural refinance loans in 2014 compared to 2013 levels. The drop is partly attributable to recent interest rate increases, according to a Federal Reserve Bulletin. The decline in refinance loans also represents the first time since 2006 that home purchase originations represented a majority of loans (rural and nationally)."

"The number of loans for home purchases, in contrast, increased both nationally and in rural communities," he writes. Loan applications for home purchases grew by nearly 7 percent in 2014, "higher than the national increase in home purchases at 4 percent. Rural home purchase loan volume (440,489) still remains less than half of what it was before the Great Recession in 2006 (926,156)." (Housing Assistance Council map: Every state experienced declines in rural mortgage activity in 2014. The darker the blue the higher the decline. To view an interactive version, click here)
"Approximately 15 percent of rural home purchase loans were classified as high cost in 2014, up from 11 percent for calendar year 2013," he writes. "The rate of rural high cost lending is approximately four and three percentage points higher than the rate for suburban and urban loans respectively. High cost loans are particularly prevalent in manufactured home lending, a market segment important to rural communities. In 2014, nearly two-thirds of rural manufactured home purchase loans were classified as high cost loans—six times the high cost rate for single family home loans. Approximately half of all manufactured home loans occurred in rural communities which elevates the overall high cost lending levels in rural areas." (Read more)

Death of baby attended by unlicensed midwife exposes lack of qualified midwives in rural areas

The tragedy of the death of a baby whose delivery was being assisted by an unlicensed midwife in June in Washington highlights the risk of using midwives and the region's lack of such professionals, Sheila Hagar reports for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Walla Walla (Wikipedia map) has no licensed midwives, despite a population of more than 31,000 and a robust medical community.

"Gabriel Marin III was delivered stillborn June 15 at 4:15 a.m. at full term at Walla Walla General Hospital after complications arose during a home labor attended" by Oregon midwife Sherry Dress, according to the death certificate, Hagar writes. Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood "said he and others believe the infant would have lived if Dress had acted differently as she guided the labor."

"The cause of baby Gabriel’s death is listed as prolonged labor with fetal hypoxia, or inadequate oxygen," Hagar writes. "Other complications included the baby’s failure to descend through the mother’s pelvis during labor, plus too much carbon dioxide in his blood. Greenwood said the end came long after the beginning. Under Dress’ direction for most of the time, Magill labored about 55 hours at home before going to Walla Walla General Hospital for an emergency cesarean section. When the couple and Dress arrived at General Hospital, the unborn infant still had heart tones. The move to the hospital came at the insistence of Magill’s family." Greenwood told Hagar, "I think a normal midwife would have sent (Magill) to the hospital." Dress has yet to be charged with any crimes but is under investigation.

One of the problems is a lack of education about midwives, Hagar writes. When Sarah Magill and Gabe Marin hired Dress they did not know she had been barred from practicing in Washington two years earlier. "Magill said she wishes she knew before hiring Dress what she knows now about midwives and what to watch for, including if a midwife is in compliance with the law and is guided by health-care standards."

"In the U.S., two types of midwives are generally recognized under most state laws," Hagar writes. "Certified nurse midwives are trained in nursing, often at advanced practice levels, and in midwifery. They typically work in a hospital setting. Licensed direct-entry midwives, sometimes called lay midwives, train through a midwifery school, apprenticeship or self-study. They work in homes or independent birth centers." (Read more)

Photography series captures the decline of rural post offices

When the U.S. Postal Service announced in 2011 plans to close 3,653 rural post offices, "photographer Rachel Boillot initially saw parallels between the closures and what was happening in her own career," Diana Budds reports for Fast Company. "Just as the larger force of digitization has all but decimated the film industry, modern technology has slowly chipped away at the post office's relevance. For most of us, communication happens by phone or email, but for others it still happens the old-fashioned way, with a physical letter that travels many miles." (Boillot photo: Closed post office in Goodman, Miss.)

Boillot set out to capture rural post offices for her series, Post Script, Budds writes. Boillot told her, "The communities I visited were by and large elderly, remote and impoverished. I quickly learned it’s much more complicated when you consider the politics behind [the closures]. For example, why close rural post offices first if that's where the people need and value them most? The post office serves as town center in rural communities, often acting as a town’s sole address. That’s why zip codes are lost when a rural P.O. closes, and that became a crucial frame for the project."