Monday, May 02, 2016

Burning of coal to generate electricity dropped in all but two states from 2007 to 2015

From 2007 to 2015 the amount of coal burned to make steam to generate electricity fell in every state except Alaska and Nebraska, after peaking about a decade ago, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a report Thursday, Benjamin Hulac and Elizabeth Harball report for ClimateWire. "Combustion of steam coal reached its apex in 2007, but it has declined nationwide 29 percent since then, EIA said. The swoon was particularly sharp in the Midwest and the Southeast. Six states—Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt and Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina in the South—accounted for nearly half of the national decline." (EIA graphic)

Ohio has seen a drop of 49 percent and Pennsylvania 44 percent, most likely because the proximity of the states to inexpensive natural gas, said Mike Ferguson, director of energy infrastructure ratings at S&P Global Ratings, Hulac and Harball write. The amount of coal burned has also dropped by 53 percent in Georgia, 51 percent in North Carolina and 44 percent in Alabama. Two of the nation's biggest coal-mining and -burning states, West Virginia and Kentucky, have seen the amount of coal burned drop by 26 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Brian Park, an economist at EIA's oil, gas and coal supplies office, said that in Northeastern states "falling gas prices most likely have played a bigger role in crimping coal demand than the regional carbon-trading market, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative," Hulac and Harball write. "And pipelines in the Northeast and Southeast have already been erected, Park added." (Read more)

Outspoken Murray Energy CEO leads coal's charge against Obama, environmental regulations

Robert E. Murray, CEO and owner of Murray Energy Corp., the largest independent coal producer in the U.S., is no stranger to controversy, or to saying what's on his mind, Jad Mouawad reports for The New York Times. With the rapid decline of coal, and natural gas expected to take over coal this year as the nation's most dominant source of power (NYT graphic), Murray has been directing much of his focus, and criticism, at President Obama and stopping the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan.

Murray "has filed more than a half dozen lawsuits against the administration, including several challenging its landmark policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants." Mouawad writes. "In February, he scored a big victory when the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the administration’s plan until an appeals court can consider an expedited challenge this summer. The expansion of its mining business at a time of deep industry disillusionment, coupled with an activist agenda, has made Murray Energy one of the leading forces combating environmental regulations. And it has made Murray a galvanizing champion of a once dominant industry fallen on hard times."

Robert Murray
Murray has made news for a long time. Last year he was accused of threatening to fire employees for reporting safety violations, and was later ordered by a judge to personally tell miners their rights. In 2012 he was accused of forcing employees to donate to Republicans. Also that year Murray Energy agreed to pay the third largest penalty for violations related to coal mine deaths, at his Utah mine.

"For him, any attempt to regulate pollution from power plants is a plot not only to destroy coal producers in the U.S. but also to take control of the nation’s electrical supply," Mouawad writes. "He blames regulators in Washington intent on accumulating power and handpicking winners and losers. 'What it is is a political power grab of America’s power grid to change our country in a diabolical, if not evil, way,' he says. 'Thank you, Obama!' As the nation struggles to come to terms with greenhouse gas emissions, climate change and mining’s environmental toll, Murray stands at the center of the economic, social and political debate. His life goal is to see that coal production in America remains vibrant—even as his critics say he is waging a doomed, rear-guard battle against inevitability."

Murray has repeatedly held firm that humans are not responsible for global warming, Mouawad writes. Murray said, "This is a human issue for me. It kills me. Lives are being destroyed deliberately by some and by the ignorance of most. The coal industry is being destroyed. And it’s scary to me because electricity is a staple of life—like potatoes were to the Irish. And Obama has largely destroyed reliable, low-cost, affordable electricity in America.” (Read more)

Clinton campaigning in Central Appalachia, trying to win over rural voters in coal country

Hillary Clinton (Reuters photo by Rebecca Cook)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is hitting Central Appalachia today and tomorrow, "moving to strengthen what has been tepid support for the former secretary of state in coal country as the general election comes into focus," Colleen McCain Nelson and Laura Meckler report for The Wall Street Journal. "During stops in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, Clinton will focus on addressing economic disaffection, and she will make direct appeals to the rural and working-class white voters she has struggled to win over during the primary campaign." The West Virginia primary is May 10 and Kentucky May 17. Ohio already held its primary, but will be a coveted state in November.

"With her nearly insurmountable advantage in delegates and a clear path to becoming the Democratic nominee, Clinton now can work on honing her message and building support among key voter blocs," Nelson and Meckler write. "In Appalachia, the former secretary of state’s challenge will be to connect with white, working-class voters. Clinton scored resounding victories in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2008. But eight years later, she is marching toward the nomination with a decidedly different coalition, one that has been powered by minority voters, as well as urban and suburban professionals."

"While Clinton’s support among rural and working-class white voters has eroded, [Donald]Trump has gained traction in largely white and slow-to-diversify areas," Nelson and Meckler write. "The businessman’s success in attracting working-class white voters who are frustrated by the country’s shifting economics could prove a challenge for Clinton in areas such as Appalachia. Clinton, though, arrives in coal country with some explaining to do after appearing to blithely predict that coal jobs would be lost under her presidency."

"In March, as Clinton spoke about how she hoped to spur economic activity in areas hurt by the decline of coal, she said her plans were needed 'because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,'" Nelson and Meckler write. "Her next sentence was, 'And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.' But Republicans—and some Democrats—pounced on her remarks as insensitive to people affected by clean-energy policies." (Read more)

Rural Neb. town turns down 1,100-job chicken plant; some residents fear influx of immigrants

Residents in a small town in eastern Nebraska have vehemently said no to a proposed $300 million chicken processing plant that would create 1,100 jobs—mostly for outsiders—on grounds that the plant would ruin their rural way of life, reports The Associated Press. When plans for the plant leaked out among the 400 residents of Nickerson, "there was no celebration, only furious opposition that culminated in residents packing the fire hall to complain the roads couldn't handle the truck traffic, the stench from the plant would be unbearable and immigrants and out-of-towners would flood the area, overwhelming schools and changing the town's character." Longtime resident Jackie Ladd told AP, "Everyone was against it. How many jobs would it mean for people here? Not many." (Omaha World-Herald graphic)

Two weeks after the plans leaked, the village board unanimously voted against the plant and the company said it would seek another location, reports AP. Proponents of the plant, such as farmer Willow Holliback, said "the Nickerson plant would have helped area farmers, who mostly grow corn and soybeans, start up poultry operations and buy locally grown grain for feed."

While opposition leaders say the issue is not about race or religion, at a public meeting last month many locals expressed concern about illegal immigrants and minorities flooding the town, reports AP. "John Wiegert, from nearby Fremont, where two meat processors employ many immigrants, questioned whether Nickerson's plant would attract legal immigrants from Somalia—more than 1,000 of whom have moved to other Nebraska cities for similar jobs, along with people from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia." He said, "Being a Christian, I don't want Somalis in here. They're of Muslim descent. I'm worried about the type of people this is going to attract." Another speaker said they were concerned about the number of minorities working at other processing plants.

In growing rural Wyoming, isolated residents still live too far away to receive help during a fire

A growing population in rural Wyoming is leading to concerns among residents and fire fighters about how to protect isolated homes during fire emergencies, Joel Funk reports for the Laramie Boomerang. Linda Blinde and David Ratcliff bought a house in Albany County, a 4,309-square mile area home to 37,000 residents. Ratcliff told Funk, “It takes at least 45 minutes for the fire department to get here, so in that case, you just need to be able to take care of yourself. If the house catches fire while we’re gone, it’s going to burn to the ground; there’s nothing you can do, so you just protect yourself while you’re here.” A local company provided Blinde and Ratcliff with "three 20-pound fire extinguishers in areas of risk in the house to mitigate the possible fire risks to people and property." (Boomerang photo by Jeremy Martin: Linda Blinde and David Ratcliff live 45 minutes from the nearest fire station)

Art Sigel, chairman of Albany County Fire District No. 1, said the number of residences and structures in Albany County is growing, Funk writes. "For example, there are now as many as 25 permanent residents and approximately 60 structures." Siegel said the fire district realized the response time to those homes is simply too long. He told Funk, “If you can’t get there in 45 minutes, you can’t just say, ‘Well I’m sorry.’ You have to say, ‘What are we going to do about that?’” He said "one way to address the concern could be establishing a satellite volunteer department, Funk writes. Until they come up with a concrete solution officials are continuing to explore other options.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Gun sales up in rural Ohio county where 8 were killed and sheriff told fearful locals, 'arm yourself'

Pike County, Ohio (Wikipedia map)
Gun shops in rural Pike County, Ohio, have seen an uptick in sales since eight people were killed in a shooting there last week, Bob Strickley reports for the Chillicothe Gazette. Sheriff Charles Reader told residents, "If you are fearful, arm yourself. If you feel you need to protect yourself or your family, do so."

Reader's comment wasn't "considered a gaffe or even the first time a high-ranking Pike County official said or did something curious regarding firearms. The Appalachian hills of Pike County and neighboring Adams, Scioto and Ross counties are home to many hunters and gun enthusiasts. The rural surroundings and dense forests make for a suitable, and arguably safer, setting for firearm buffs."

Handguns are popular, too. In Pike County, 1,515 concealed-carry weapon permits were issued from 2011 through 2015, and 348 permits were renewed, Strickley writes. Scioto County Commissioner Michael Crabtree told him, "I think a lot of people have experience with guns here because they hunt from an early age. Many people I grew up with were introduced to guns at a young age. They would hunt groundhog, squirrel or venison and at the end of the day, the stuff you'd hunt would be on the dinner table. When I was a kid, our dad taught us how to use guns and the different safety practices of gun ownership. We didn't have the problems we have now. It was a different life. When people went to town, they left the doors unlocked. ... I'm not going to allow someone to do bodily harm to me or my wife." (Read more)

Tiny, isolated radio station punches above weight

Wikipedia map
A radio station in a remote desert town in West Texas has been scoring big with listeners, Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. The station, KRTS, Marfa Public Radio won an award in every category in this year's regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for small markets in Texas and Oklahoma. Awards representative Derrick Hinds told Hare, "It’s like their building, and then the nothingness for just miles. They’re out there and they’re just doing incredible radio." While Marfa only has 1,819 residents, partnerships with Texas Standard, AudioTexas and Fronteras make the station available in six of the country's top 20 markets.

Tom Michael, who founded the station in 2005 and is its general manager, said it focuses on three areas: "borderlands," including ranching and immigration; energy (the station serves a community in the Permian Basin), and "arts and culture, a staple of public radio," Hare writes.

Staff members are expected to know how to do everything, Hare writes. "Staff needs to tweet on their way to report a story, collect audio, get images, put together a tease for the morning show and prepare a post for the site. If they have past audio or interviews they can use with current reports, they will. Additionally, each quarter, the station produces between 50 to 70 original spots and features." (Read more)

Pa. officials trying to determine if small earthquakes are linked to hydraulic fracturing

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are conducting a study to see if a series of small earthquakes recorded Monday in Western Pennsylvania are linked to a nearby natural gas hydraulic fracturing operation, Laura Legere reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"The U.S. Geological Survey says five minor earthquakes originated in an area just west of New Castle in a 22-hour period on Monday, all small tremors between magnitude 1.7 and 1.9, which is below what humans can feel," Legere writes. "The timing and proximity of the Lawrence County earthquakes—originally the geological survey had identified just two—suggest a link to a nearby natural-gas fracking operation, but seismologists were being cautious Thursday, saying it is too early to tell definitively if fracking triggered the quakes." (Post graphic)

"A DEP spokeswoman said Wednesday that the wells that were being fracked have horizontal wellbores headed northwest from the pad, which is the general direction of the closest earthquake," Legere writes. Michael Brudzinski, a geology professor at Miami University in Ohio, told Legere, "I think anyone looking at the situation would say there are earthquakes very close to where the well is at the time the well is being stimulated with hydraulic fracturing. That’s suggestive that there is a link. But I don’t think any of us are ready to say anything more conclusive than that.” Injection wells for disposal of fracking fluids have caused quakes in Oklahoma, officials there say.

Free workshop in Louisville will examine changing dynamics in ag finance, land ownership

As investors keep putting more money into farmland, questions are raised about how that many affect agriculture and farm policy. The Farm Foundation is hosting a workshop to explore the implications of investor-owned farmland and other newly evolving trends that affect the financial landscape of agriculture.

The free workshop will be held in Louisville June 6-7, just before the Farm Foundation Round Table meeting in the city June 8-10. The program will feature "farmer-landowners, academic researchers and lenders, including representatives of commercial banks, Farm Credit, insurance companies and the investment community," says a foundation news release. "The program will also examine the relationship of ownership and financing to farm policies, including programs targeted to credit, conservation, commodities and crop insurance."

Farm Foundation President Neil Conklin said, "This workshop is targeted to farmers, landowners, investors and members of the finance, agribusiness and public policy communities. All are key players whose actions are shaping the trends in farmland ownership and agricultural finance which, in turn, has potential implications for the social and political environments in which they operate. ... It is clear that trends in farmland ownership and tenure patterns are changing. This workshop will explore the current interest in farmland, the players driving it, and the implications for farmland ownership and tenure." For more information, or to register for the event, click here.

Ky. papers get governor to veto provision that would have taken public notices out of papers

Gov. Matt Bevin
The Kentucky Press Association won a victory for government transparency and accountability this week, as its members persuaded Republican Gov. Matt Bevin to veto last-minute legislation that would have allowed local governments to stop publishing their annual financial statements in local newspapers and put them online or in the local public library. Similar efforts are being made in many other states.

The provision was in language added to the state budget by a House-Senate conference committee at the behest of a Northern Kentucky senator with many small cities that have to run their public-notice ads in The Kentucky Enquirer, an edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel said he intended to have the exemption apply only to counties of more than 100,000 population but last-minute drafting left that out.

When KPA discovered the language, its executive committee decided to ask Bevin to veto a similar provision that the legislature had been adding to biennial budgets for the last 12 years, exempting school districts. He vetoed both, without explanation, but his communications director, Jessica Ditto, said “Governor Bevin values our small-town papers and supports transparency.” Meanwhile, at McDaniel's behest, a legislative committee will study "the merits of public notices in newspapers vs. on government websites," the Lexington Herald-Leader notes in an editorial.

Growing number of people purchasing survivalist homes in rural Northwest

Photo by Kirk Siegler
A growing number of people are moving to the rural Northwest in search of survivalist homes, Kirk Siegler reports for NPR. "At first glance, real estate agent Theresa Mondale's listings don't sound too different from those of other agents trying to sell a piece of Montana paradise: 270 acres at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains completely surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land, stands of old growth fir and cedar trees, a spring with pure water. Only when you read on do you discover this isn't your average vacation cabin. One listing boasts of a modified bunker with a 'very secure' iron locking door on the property and a root cellar that could be turned into an alternative living situation. Another one mentions a yard with space to land a helicopter 'if the need is there.'"

"Welcome to the world of sustainable, survivalist real estate," Siegler writes. "There's a growing market for this kind of off-grid property. Mondale figures over the past six to eight years, sales of these survivalist properties have risen by 50 percent." Mondale said clients have cited fears about the financial system, societal collapse and fear of floods from global warming for wanting to purchase survivalist homes: "It seems like over the past few years, there's just this need, I don't want to say panic or frantic, but people feeling the need to be able to have someplace to go."

It's not as if the homes are simple cabins in the woods, Siegler writes. Some of the listings are for more than $1 million. One home includes a helicopter pad, "solar panels and inside, a backup generator, luxury bathrooms and a kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances." Mondale told Siegler, "Just because you're off-grid or being sustainable doesn't mean you have to be looking like the old hick miner." (Read more)

Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge application period opens Sunday

The American Farm Bureau Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge will begin accepting online applications Sunday for its business competition that will award $145,000 in funds to rural entrepreneurs working in food and agriculture. As part of the challenge rural entrepreneurs pitch innovative business ideas to a team of judges with expertise in business development and agribusiness. Six semi-finalists will receive $10,000, with four finalists competing for four awards: Farm Bureau Entrepreneur of the Year award ($30,000); People's Choice award ($25,000); First runner-up ($15,000); and Second runner-up ($15,000). (Read more)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Electric co-ops encourage rural residents to vote

Rural electric cooperatives are asking their members to "become a co-op voter" and go to the polls. During the 2012 presidential election, voter turnout was down 18 percent in rural areas, twice that of the nation as a whole, according to the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives. Kentucky's voter turnout in 2015 followed a similar trend. (KAEC photo: Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, right, has been traveling the state encouraging rural residents to register and vote)

Earlier this year the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association launched “Co-ops Vote,” a campaign designed "to boost voter turnout in areas served by cooperatives by encouraging electric co-op employees and their consumer members to exercise one of their most basic rights—the right to vote," NRECA said. Its CEO, Jeffrey Connor, said, “Co-ops Vote focuses elected leaders on the people who are most invested in the success of their own communities. With 42 million members across the nation, electric co-ops are a powerful voice on national issues that have a local impact. We want to be sure that voice is always heard, especially on Election Day.”

To take the Co-ops Vote pledge, click here. To find voter information in your state click here.

Instead of giving attention to wildlife-refuge occupiers, Oregon weekly focused on community

White spoke at a panel discussion about covering the takeover.

When journalists from around the world descended on Harney County, Oregon, to cover the militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the local paper, the Burns Times-Herald, a 3,000-circulation weekly, was not on the scene. That's because leaders at the paper thought the focus shouldn't be on Ammon Bundy and other occupiers, but on the community, Samantha Swindler reports for The Oregonian.

Reporter Samantha White, a fourth-generation resident of Burns, population 2,000, told Swindler, "We knew we did not want to go out there and give this guy any more attention or leverage. We were absolutely not going to give him a platform." During the refuge occupation, journalists "from as far away as Russia and Istanbul called the Times-Herald asking for comment," Swindler writes. "The staff always declined." White told her, "We didn't want to be the voice of the community." Instead, "the paper's coverage of the occupation focused on local voices and reaction. They gave little space to Bundy's views, but offered unlimited newsprint to locals who wanted to sound off. It wasn't unusual in those weeks to see a letter to the editor take up an entire page of the newspaper."

"It wasn't necessarily Bundy's opinions about the Bureau of Land Management that divided the town, Samantha said," Swindler writes. "It was his vaguely threatening attitude, and his attempt to speak for the community about the community's own problems." She told Swindler, "People didn't like the idea of someone else speaking for them. Sometimes when we say local control (over federal lands), we're just saying that we want more say in the process. We just want to have a voice."

In a column on Jan. 6, at the beginning of the occupation, White wrote, "As a local reporter, you’d think I’d be chomping at the bit to cover the story that’s been making headlines across the nation. You’d think I’d be pointing my camera and tape recorder in the face of every man, woman, and child in Harney County in order to get 'the scoop.' You’d think I’d be thrilled to watch a sensational scene unfold in my own backyard. But that’s simply not the case. I know that big, dramatic events sell newspapers. I’ve seen sensational journalism advance reporters’ careers."

"I know I could exploit this situation for my own personal gain," she wrote. "But that’s not why I got into the business. I decided to study journalism because I like to help people tell their stories. After earning my degree. I decided to return home to Harney County because I wanted to provide this service for the village that raised me. I consider it an honor and a privilege to bring Harney County its news because I genuinely love this land and the people who live in it."

Ag groups air complaints to lawmakers about guest worker program, FDA regulations, EPA rules

At a congressional hearing Wednesday, representatives from agricultural lobbies on detailed regulatory complaints about the Environmental Protection Agency's oversight of pesticides, new Food and Drug Administration food-safety regulations, the Department of Labor's management of farmworker programs and the prospect of labeling foods with ingredients from biotech crops, Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer.

One of the main issues concerned the H-2A program, which provides guest visas for farmworkers. Maureen Torrey, vice-president of Torrey Farms, a vegetable, grain and dairy operation in New York, told lawmakers "that American farmers are affected by the fact that the immigration process is badly in need of repair and reform," Clayton reports. "She said her farm was 28 days behind planting onions this season because of problems getting H-2A guest workers approved." The Department of Labor, which has been swamped with H-2A applications, has failed to keep up with the volume of applications, leading Torrey to tell lawmkers, "We will see some of these fruits and vegetables no longer grown in the United States because of lack of labor."

EPA was criticized for its slow response "to written questions about the 'waters of the U.S.' rule that is tied up in federal courts" and for continually pushing back the approval date for weed-resistant herbicide dicamba, Clayton writes. Fruit and vegetable growers, producers and processors say they are struggling to understand the different rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act and "panelists also lamented the failure of the Senate to find a compromise on a GMO labeling bill even though the House voted out a bipartisan bill last year."

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, told lawmakers, "Our government agencies need to stop implementing burdensome policies and regulations, which threaten the farm economy and pose challenges for producers and processors with little evidence of added benefit to food safety or production." (Read more)

U.S. could learn from Europe's approach to coal

The United States could learn a lesson from Europe in how to survive a decline of the coal industry, Joshua Zaffos writes for High Country News. In Europe "unemployment benefits generally last longer, job-training programs are more extensive and retirement benefits are better protected. That makes it easier for both industry and mining communities to weather the hard times when they come."

"West and East Germany relied heavily on coal for power and jobs following World War II," Zaffos reports. "But coal mines began declining following reunification in the 1990s. In the western part of the country, the high costs of continued 'hard coal' mining from deep geological formations has forced some closures as prices have dropped. Eastern Germany has the most productive lignite mines in the world, but lignite, also known as soft or brown coal, is extremely dirty, emitting much more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when consumed. The government is now scaling back those operations as part of Germany’s national effort to address climate change, and to restructure its energy policy to reduce carbon-spewing coal and fossil fuel use and invest in renewables. ... Germany’s environmental minister is pushing to stop mining and burning coal entirely by 2040."

"The U.S., in contrast, has no such comprehensive national-level climate action or energy policy," Zaffos writes. Miners and energy officials "continue to blame President Obama and the Clean Power Plan, rather than global economic and environmental pressures, for the downfall of coal, and many refuse to support climate action or even acknowledge climate change. With plenty of congressional support for that viewpoint, the U.S. has come up with only relatively minor coordinated efforts to manage sweeping energy trends. Instead of getting behind deliberate and comprehensive energy policies or climate-change planning, U.S. lawmakers have allowed global energy market forces to buffet the industry and energy workers, with few resources offered to ease the pain."

"Through German government and industry agreements that began nearly a decade ago, mining subsidies will be phased out by 2018, creating a 'soft landing' for workers and companies, compared with the typical U.S. pattern of unexpected layoffs and abrupt bankruptcies," Zaffos writes. "The arrangements aim to allow much of the over-40 workforce to move out of the mines and ease into retirement, while younger workers can go through job retraining to meet the growing need for skilled labor in engineering, technology, and other industries. Germany has a strong tradition of vocational training and apprenticeship programs, supported by unions, the government and employers."

"In Germany, the mining, energy and chemical industry trade union is one of the nation’s largest and strongest," Zaffos writes. "Unions do more than lobby to keep coal mines open and jobs in place; they also work to maintain welfare and retirement benefits and pensions for their members—and they support negotiated phase-outs"  In contrast, the United Mine Workers has seen its members drop from 800,000 in the 1930s to just 35,000 active and 40,000 retired miners today, with only 5 percent of mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction workers being union members in 2014. (Read more)

Five-part series takes a look at Central Appalachia

Oxycontin/Stacy Kranitz photo
Vice, a print magazine and website focused on arts, culture and news, this week published a five-part series on Central Appalachia called "Ain't No Grave." The series "focused on the effects of the declining coal industry, systemic problems with the health-care system, the struggle against the obliteration of mountains due to strip mining, the drug epidemic, and the history and meaning of the terms 'redneck' and 'hillbilly'," Stacy Kranitz reports for Vice. She said those involved in the series didn't want to focus on "mass media's view of Central Appalachia as a poverty-ridden region," but didn't want to ignore those traits either.

One story, "A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death," is a first-person narrative of Boone County, West Virginia. "Handley's Funeral Home buried most of my family," Jacob Knabb writes. "The stone structure sits on a corner lot near the terminus of Phipps Avenue, a couple miles downriver from my parents' house in Madison, W.Va., and right across the street from the old Bank of Danville building. The funeral business is one of the few that remain viable here in Danville—these days home to a smattering of churches and fast-food joints, a shocking number of for-sale signs, and not much else. But there are always going to be bodies to bury, grieving families to comfort, and so Handley's remains, its logo emblazoned on the menus a few blocks up Phipps at the Park Avenue Restaurant, on the fence at the Little League Ballpark in Madison, and on the press box perched above the football field where the Scott Skyhawks play."

Another story, "The Hard Times, Struggles, and Hopes of Addicts in Appalachia," looks at opiate addiction. "The opiate epidemic in Beckley, W.Va., is something that reveals itself quickly and casually—on the side of the road, in the parking lot at Walmart, in line at Taco Bell," writes Juliet Escoria, a Beckley resident. "Burnt bits of aluminum foil, paper packets that once held heroin. People nodding out, buying drugs on playgrounds, smoking heroin on the side of a busy road. It's worse on hot days, immediately after snowstorms, and especially on the first of the month, when paychecks and government benefits come through."

Other stories include: "What It Means to Be a 'Redneck' or a 'Hillbilly'"; "How Environmental Activists Are Fighting Back Against Pollution and Big Business in Appalachia"; and "Inside a Life-Saving Rural Clinic in Appalachia".

Kentucky Supreme Court to decide if anonymous Topix critics should be unmasked

Are anonymous posters on Topix protected by the First Amendment? Should posters be held accountable for slanderous accusations? If so, to what lengths should authorities go to uncover their identities? These are some of the questions that could be answered by the Kentucky Supreme Court in a case being heard this week in which an Eastern Kentucky lawyer and chairman of the airport board has sued two unknown posters who in 2013 called him a thief, embezzler and criminal, Andrew Wolfson reports for the Courier-Journal. The lawyer for the anonymous posters argues that "Topix has 'tremendous value' because critics in a small town can’t afford the repercussions of making their complaints publicly" and that the posters should not be unmasked.

"The case puts in the spotlight an Internet site—Topix.com—that proponents say allows small-town residents to keep local officials honest but others malign as a cesspool of character assassination and a corrosive influence on community life," Wolfson writes. "While the Palo Alto, Calif.-based site has slipped in popularity with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, it still claims to be the country's largest local forum site." Pikeville, Ky., the home of the plaintiff, has become the site's most heavily trafficked single forum, said Topix CEO Chris Tolles. "He said the site—which recently changed its emphasis to entertainment news—was always most popular in what he calls 'feud states,' with Kentucky, which once had 1 million page views a day, the 'highest by a country mile.'”

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, "said the influence of Topix and similar sites has eroded with the rise of other social media," Wolfson writes. "But given that many newspapers in rural communities lack the resources and the backbone to tackle controversy, Topix sites provide unfiltered, anonymous criticism that can be healthy."

Some courts "have allowed the shield of anonymity to be pierced," including instances in Georgia and Texas where people where Topix was forced to identify users who anonymously people called pedophiles, drug addict or drug dealers, Wolfson writes. But in the Kentucky case, the plaintiff is a public figure. Tolles, who said Topix "supports defamation laws and complies with lawful subpoenas," told Wolfson that “politicians occupy a special place and should have a thicker skin,” especially if anonymous speech alleges “corruption or that they acted like a jerk.” (Read more)

Western culture and diet have caused explosion of obesity among rural children in China, says study

The U.S. has helped make rural children in China fat, according to a report published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. Researchers blamed Western culture, such as sodas and video games, for the rate of obesity among rural boys increasing from 0.03 percent in 1985 to 17.2 percent in 2014. The rate for girls increased from 0.12 percent to 9.11 percent. The study examined 27,840 rural students aged 7-18 in Shandong Province. (Chart: Body mass index Z-scores).

Professor Joep Perk, cardiovascular prevention spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology, told Science Daily, "This is extremely worrying. It is the worst explosion of childhood and adolescent obesity that I have ever seen. The study is large and well run, and cannot be ignored. China is set for an escalation of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the popularity of the western lifestyle will cost lives."

Researchers say the "traditional Chinese diet has shifted towards one that is high in fat and calories and low in fibre," reports Science Daily. "The authors speculated that boys are more overweight than girls because they are given preferential treatment," such as greater access to sodas high in sugar and video games that keep them inactive. Dr Ying-Xiu Zhang, leader of the investigation team at the Shandong Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told Science Daily, "In China today, people eat more and are less physically active than they were in the past. ... This is a wake-up call for policymakers that rural China should not be neglected in obesity interventions. We need to educate children on healthy eating and physical activity, and monitor their weight to check if these efforts are making a difference." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Georgia tax credit could help rural hospitals

Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal Tuesday signed a bill that could help the state's struggling rural hospitals by allowing individuals and businesses to apply for tax credits for contributing to rural health, Dave Williams reports for Atlanta Business Chronicle. Five of the state's rural hospitals have closed since 2013 and 24.3 percent of Georgia's rural hospitals are at-risk, according to an October report by iVantage Health Analytics.

Individual taxpayers can "apply for a state income tax credit for either 70 percent of the amount of the contribution or $2,500, whichever is less," Williams writes. "Married couples filing jointly can get a tax credit for the lesser of 70 percent of the contribution or $5,000. For businesses, the tax credit is either 70 percent of the amount they contribute or 75 percent of their state income tax liability, whichever is less. The total price tag of the tax credits to the state is capped at $50 million in 2017, $60 million in 2018 and $70 million in 2019. The tax credits expire at the end of 2019." (iVantage map)

Rural-based yogurt firm to give employees a stake; some stand to get shares worth $1 million

Chobani, the nation's biggest yogurt seller, announced it will give its 2,000 full-time employees a stake in the company, basd in rural New Berlin, N.Y. (NYT photo by Alexandra Hootnick: Chobani owner Hamdi Ulukaya handing over stock to employees)

"Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded Chobani in 2005, told workers at the company’s plant here in upstate New York that he would be giving them shares worth up to 10 percent of the company when it goes public or is sold," Stephanie Strom reports for The New York Times. "The goal, he said, is to pass along the wealth they have helped build in the decade since the company started. Chobani is now widely considered to be worth several billion dollars."
Ulukaya told reporters, “I’ve built something I never thought would be such a success, but I cannot think of Chobani being built without all these people. Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time."

Shares were given based on tenure, Strom writes. "Two years ago, when Chobani received a loan from TPG Capital, a private equity firm, the company’s value was estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion. At the $3 billion valuation, the average employee payout would be $150,000. The earliest employees, though, will most likely be given many more shares, possibly worth over $1 million." Rich Lake, lead project manager at the plant, told Strom, “It’s better than a bonus or a raise. It’s the best thing because you’re getting a piece of this thing you helped build.” (Read more)

Ken Burns series on national parks repeats on PBS to celebrate National Park Service entennial

To help celebrate the National Park Service Centennial, PBS is rebroadcasting a six-part Ken Burns series on national parks. The series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," was filmed over six years at various parks. It is the "story of people: people from every conceivable background—rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy," reports PBS. For more information or air times click here. The official 100th anniversary date is Aug. 25. There are 407 national parks in the U.S. To find a park click here.

Climate scientists create website to review accuracy of climate journalism

With all the misinformation floating around the internet about climate change, a group of climate scientists are trying to set the record straight with a website that reviews the credibility of climate journalism. Climate Feedback was created to bring "the expertise of the scientific community into the world of online climate coverage to provide readers and authors with in-situ feedback about the content’s scientific credibility," states the website. "Climate Feedback is a project born from the reality that we are at a critical moment in history, one in which important decisions about climate change must be made. It’s a project born from the understanding that in order for our democracies to choose the right courses of action, citizens must have access to scientifically accurate information. And it’s a project born from the belief that it’s the civic duty of scientific professionals to better inform their fellow citizens in their respective areas of expertise."

Studies have shown "that only about half the population in some countries with among the highest CO2 emissions per capita understand that human beings are the driving force of our changing climate," writes Daniel Nethery, associate editor of Climate Feedback, and Emmanuel Vincent, Climate Feedback founder, for The Guardian. "Even fewer people are aware of the scientific consensus on this question. We live in an information age, but the information isn’t getting through. How can this be?" (Climate Feedback graphic: Scientists’ comments and ratings appear as a layer over the article. Text annotated with hypothesis is highlighted in yellow in the web browser and scientists’ comments appear in a sidebar next to the article)
"While the internet puts information at our fingertips, it has also allowed misinformation to sow doubt and confusion in the minds of many of those whose opinions and votes will determine the future of the planet," Nethery and Vincent write. "And up to now scientists have been on the back foot in countering the spread of this misinformation and pointing the public to trustworthy sources of information on climate change."

"Climate Feedback intends to change that," Nethery and Vincent write. "It brings together a global network of scientists who use a new web-annotation platform to provide feedback on climate change reporting. Their comments, which bring context and insights from the latest research, and point out factual and logical errors where they exist, remain layered over the target article in the public domain. You can read them for yourself, right in your browser. The scientists also provide a score on a five-point scale to let you know whether the article is consistent with the science. For the first time, Climate Feedback allows you to check whether you can trust the latest breaking story on climate change." (Read more)

Washington county votes against legalized pot, setting up showdown between political leaders

Voters in rural Pierce County, Washington (Wikipedia map) voted Tuesday against marijuana sales, a move that could lead "the Pierce County Council to consider reinstating a ban on such businesses that is due to expire July 1," Brynn Grimley reports for The News Tribune of Tacoma. "The results of Tuesday’s vote are non-binding. That means the County Council could let stand its decision to lift its de facto ban, which doesn’t explicitly outlaw marijuana businesses but requires them to comply with federal law that prohibits marijuana sales. Or the council could reverse itself and cancel the ban’s expiration."

It could also set up a showdown with Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, who has opposed banning legal marijuana, Grimley writes. "If the council votes to reinstate the marijuana-business ban and McCarthy vetoes that action, the seven-member council could again override her veto" with five votes, which is unlikely with three Democrats on the council who have opposed the ban. (read more)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Political reporters for mainstream news outlets are out of touch with rural America, says author

Neal Gabler
Mainstream political reporters for urban-based media have grown out of touch with the rest of the nation, mainly because political journalists are white men in their 40s, while the rest of the U.S, including rural areas, is becoming more diverse, Neal Gabler writes for Moyers & Co.: "A country that is increasingly younger, darker and half female is being reported on by a press corps that is older, whiter and more male. A gaping demographic gulf separates the press from the people—a gulf that undoubtedly affects the kinds of stories chosen and the way in which they are covered."

"And there are other dredges that widen the gulf," he writes. "Although journalists are obviously scattered throughout the country, they are not geographically apportioned equally. As one might expect, the news centers are New York, Washington and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. Of the 40,000 journalists in America, nearly a quarter live in these three areas, which is staggering when you think about it, and which certainly skews the news coverage. It also seems to confirm the familiar gripe of middle America that media elites consider most of the country a fly-over from LA to NYC."

The Big Feet—the reporters and pundits who wield the most influence—are also the highest paid, which means many are disconnected with how the other half lives, Gabler writes. "It is very possible that reporters—especially the Big Feet—dismissed (Donald) Trump and (Bernie) Sanders because journalists couldn’t possibly fathom the deep, seething, often unspoken economic discontent that afflicts so many Americans and that has helped fuel both the Trump and Sanders movements. They couldn’t fathom it, perhaps, because they haven’t experienced it. I know because I have."

"When you put their geographical proximity together with their class solidarity, it is entirely likely that MSM reporters will huddle, the way most geographic and economic cohorts do," Gabler writes. "They are more likely to see the same things, attend the same parties and events, mingle with the same people, draw on the same sources and send their children to the same schools, which adds up to their seeing the world in similar ways and reporting the same stories in the same ways. In short, the MSM is not only an elite, it is a kind of economic and cultural clique. And that clique is not us."

Gabler is an author and senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society. (Read more)

Low unemployment, aging workers force rural Minn. businesses to get creative to fill positions

Low unemployment rates and a rising age of workers nearing retirement is leading Minnesota's rural businesses—especially manufacturing—to take drastic measures to hire and retain workers, Dee DePass reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Katie Clark Sieben, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said "25 percent of manufacturing jobs in Minnesota are held by people over age 55." She said in 10 years the state will have nearly 53,000 openings for production jobs. She told DePass, “Filling these jobs will be a challenge for manufacturers.” (Tribune photo by Elizabeth Flores: Matt Wille of Alexandria Industries)

So, businesses are getting creative, DePass writes. "With operations in the western Minnesota cities of Morris and Hancock, Superior Industries recently bought a $300,000 apartment building and now spends another $250,000 a year on housing and plane tickets so 40 to 47 workers can migrate from Mexico to work at its concrete plant seven months each year. In central Minnesota, Alexandria Industries’ business grew 20 percent last year at the same time that 26 percent of its workforce neared retirement age. So the company scrambled to add 60 workers and is now converting part of a strip shopping mall into a $300,000 employee health clinic one block from its aluminum extrusion plant. It is also paying workers’ tuition for degrees in engineering and machine tooling and automation."

"These days, manufacturers say the name of the game is creativity as desperate factories around the state are trying to combat Minnesota’s worker shortage problem," DePass writes. "With state unemployment at 3.7 percent (and with some towns closer to zero), manufacturers are aggressively opening purses to boost staff retention and help recruitment get a little easier. Running job fairs, ads, partnering with technical colleges and raising average wages to $61,000 a year haven’t been enough to feed the swelling demand for workers at bustling factories in outstate Minnesota. DEED reports that the state’s manufacturing wages are now $10,000 to $15,000 higher than wages in most other industries."  (Read more)

Rural Georgia residents fighting proposed inland port that would create jobs and congestion

Rural Georgia residents are fighting a proposed development that promoters say would bring much needed jobs to the region, but that residents say would disrupt the quiet beauty in Murray County (Wikipedia map), Dan Chapman reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "State officials want to turn a 42-acre cow pasture into a train-and-truck depot along a lovely stretch of U.S. 411 line that abuts the Cohutta Wilderness Area near the Tennessee state line" into the $24 million Appalachian Regional Port. "The proposed 'inland port' site sits across the two-lane Georgia Scenic Byway from a park with baseball fields, an old brick church and a scattering of homes. Sumac Creek skirts two sides of the tract, while Grassy Mountain, 3,700-feet tall, looms over the Fairy Valley."

Opponents of the port, one of of several proposed in Georgia, "have established a nonprofit to fight the project, hired an Atlanta attorney, enlisted environmental groups, created a Facebook page with 276 friends, convened town hall meetings and filed open records requests seeking evidence of official shenanigans in the site’s selection," Chapman writes. "Their hopes lie largely with state and federal regulatory agencies which must sign off on a variety of environmental issues. Lawsuits, though premature, haven’t been ruled out." Supporters of the port it "will bring jobs, economic activity and reduce truck traffic, albeit mostly in metro Atlanta."

Citizen groups in Georgia have been successful in derailing other projects, Chapman writes. "Citizen outrage helped kill a Texas company’s attempt to build a pipeline through eastern Georgia. Another pipeline in southwest Georgia hangs in the balance after a huge public outcry. A landfill in southeast Georgia faces heated opposition over plans to accept millions of tons of toxic coal ash. And, in Paulding County west of Atlanta, a regional airport’s effort to add airline service is stuck on the runway amid citizen opposition that has turned a couple of pro-airport commissioners out of office."

Restaurants claiming food is local might be lying

Are all those menu items labeled “farm-to-table,” “locally sourced,” and “sustainable” really what they say they are? Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley found that in the urban Tampa/St. Petersburg area when restaurants claim local, it's not always true, Adam Harris reports for Pro Publica. "In the aftermath of her investigation, several restaurants changed their menus and chalkboards to reflect true food sourcing. I spoke with Reiley about the investigation and how what’s going on at Tampa Bay restaurants might be happening at places near you." (Reiley photo: The chalkboard at Boca Kitchen Bar Market in Tampa lists a fish purveyor, Captain Kirk Morgan, who has never sold fish to the restaurant)

When asked about the value of farm-to-table, Reiley told Harris, "It’s a term that I think is bordering on bankrupt. I know a bunch of restaurants here that are doing everything right, that are really working through local purveyors, that work closely with local farmers and get all their seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, etc., who really object to the term 'farm-to-table.' They haven’t figured out a new term that they like better, but they bristle a bit when you call them that."

Reiley told Harris that after her story published, "I was getting a hundred emails an hour. And half of them, each hour, were from people in Seattle, in Portland, in Southern California, in the Finger Lakes of New York, from all over the country. … This wasn’t people saying, 'I’m so sorry things are lousy in Tampa Bay, and you have all those bad apples.' It was people everywhere saying, 'We know this is happening here.' I think it’s a national phenomenon, definitely." (Read more)

NPR election-year series visits Eastern Kentucky

Letcher County (Wikipedia map)
As part of its series, "The View From," an election-year project focused on how voters' needs from government are shaped by where they live, NPR recently visited with three Appalachian residents in Eastern Kentucky, including a former coal miner trying to rebuild his life, a single mother hoping a college degree will allow her to leave the region and a college graduate who returned home to teach.

Gary Bentley, who lost his Letcher County coal mining job in 2012, now works at a Dixie cup factory, Miranda Kennedy reports for NPR. Bentley, who regularly contributes coal-mining stories to the Daily Yonder, told Kennedy, "You grow up in this area, and the coal miners are the ones who are able to provide their families with things that not everybody else can have. The idea that these people go to work everyday, knowing that they might not make it home alive, in order to provide for their families and make a better life ... there's something about that just kinda tugs at you."

Shawna Gabrielle Coots, a 20-year-old single mom, doesn't feel the same way, Kennedy writes. Coots has a plan. She is taking classes at a community college in Whitesburg, where she does maintenance to help with tuition. After she graduates, she's planning to join the military. Her mom will watch her 6-month-old while she's away, she says. Then she wants to become a state trooper — but not in her home county, where drug abuse is a serious problem." She told Kennedy it would hard to arrest people she knows, saying, "A lot of my friends is gone downhill. And it would kind of suck if I put one of my used-to-be-close friends in the back of a cop car. So that's why I want to go away and be a cop. It's like everyday you see on the news, like people getting busted for meth. And I don't want to be around here no more."

Shawna Kay Rodenberg left Letcher County to go to college, but "something kept drawing her back," Kennedy writes. She "now commutes in to Eastern Kentucky, driving hundreds of miles to teach English once a week at a local community college." Rodenberg told Kennedy, "I love it here. There's nowhere else that I really feel like myself. In Letcher County, I don't feel like I have to have any kind of artifice, pretend to be someone that I'm not." (Read more)

Rural co-op designed to bring internet to Western Mass. stalled by new Republican governor

A proposal to create a rural cooperative to increase internet access to under-served Western Massachusetts towns has been stalled by a new Republican administration, leaving the communities stuck in limbo, says a report from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The project, WiredWest, "has already secured deposits in the amount of $49 from more than 7,100 pre-subscribers, developed a financial model, and drafted an operating agreement." WiredWest would "connect community institutions such as libraries, schools, hospitals, and government buildings in 45 towns considered 'unserved' (because they lack any cable service), plus 79 other towns that had partial or full Internet access services." So far, only one of the 45 unserved towns has built such a network.

Susan Crawford, co-author of the report, writes in Backchannel, "The tale is disheartening. Dozens of small towns in Western Mass have been working for years towards forming a cooperative in an effort to take advantage of economies of scale — and to ensure their homes and businesses have future-proof, 21st-century fiber connections. But they’ve been met with indifference at the state level. The towns are willing to put up most of the cost but need the commonwealth’s help to get the fiber job done. The previous state administrators seemed to be on board with this. Now, the commonwealth, led by Gov. Charlie Baker seems to be looking for short-term, non-fiber solutions that don’t involve any form of cooperative municipal ownership." Baker took office in 2015.

"In 2009, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, boosted by some federal stimulus funding, began building a 1,200-mile 'middle-mile' fiber network," Crawford writes. "That network, called MassBroadband 123 and completed in 2014, was designed to connect libraries, schools, and government buildings to fiber in scores of Western Mass towns. But for the crucial 'last-mile' connectivity to homes and businesses, the towns were on their own." (Blue towns are access-starved. So are yellow towns, which have lined up to join the (now stalled) WiredWest cooperative. The red town, Leverett, managed to lay down a last-mile fiber network on its own.)
That led in 2010 to the creation of WiredWest, she writes. "The idea was that by acting as a cooperative, WiredWest towns would be able to buy equipment in bulk — and thus at lower costs — and ensure that the primary incentive of their Internet access provider would be ubiquitous high-quality service rather than cherry-picking customers and charging as much as the richest Massachusetts resident could pay."

After Barker took office in January 2015, and named a new head of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a state agency set up in 2008 as a pet project of then-Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, "communications between MBI and WiredWest became fraught: MBI issued statements signaling that single-town networks would be the way to go, and flatly said in December 2015 that 'the current draft WiredWest operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the commonwealth, the towns, or their residents,'" Crawford writes.

"Consultants hired by MBI said there were flaws in WiredWest’s business model; consultants hired by WiredWest said the model was conservative and appropriate," Crawford writes. "The key problem for MBI seemed to be the very idea of a 'cooperative' itself: MBI asserted to the towns that they would lose control of network infrastructure, while WiredWest pointed out that the cooperative would be 'nothing but the towns.' Chaos and confusion reigned. MBI had no other proposals on the table." (Read more)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Some high-poverty rural schools are stuck with slow, unreliable internet service

Some poor rural communities have become technology dinosaurs, forced to use slow, unreliable internet that is slowing down the education process for students, Chico Harlan reports for The Washington Post(Post photo by Michael S. Williamson: Students at Monroe Intermediate in Lower Peach Tree, Ala. have to rely on spotty internet service)

"Schools with sub-par internet are scattered around the country, spanning from the far-flung communities of Alaska to the desert towns of New Mexico," Harlan writes. "The danger is that students who attend these schools will struggle for years with the critical tasks that now require online fluency: applying to colleges, researching papers, looking for jobs."

Evan Marwell,  founder and chief executive of the EducationSuperHighway, told Harlan, “This is essentially the definition of the digital divide in education. Students on the wrong side don’t have the same opportunity to compete.” Harlan reports, "While having only one provider in a region might mean higher cable or Internet bills in cities, in rural areas it can have profound consequences."

Monroe Intermediate, a K-8 school in rural Alabama, "depends on a nearly two-decade-old T1 line that, by the time it reaches dozens of individual computers, delivers speeds comparable to dial-up service," Harlan writes. "The school district’s administrators have tried for nearly two years to persuade AT&T to upgrade its service in the area, to no avail."

"Monroe has daily computer classes that start and stall; students sometimes need 30 minutes just to log in," Harlan reports. "It has 29 iPads, purchased with federal funding, that often go unused because of the hapless wi-fi. It has students who talk about the Internet not as a reliable tool, but as a temperamental one. It works better in the mornings, they say. It works better on this side of the room. It works better when the sun is out."

"Lower Peach Tree is one of the hardest-to-reach places in Alabama, at the far western edge of a county most famous for being the home of the late author Harper Lee," Harlan writes. "In much of the county, including at six other schools, Frontier Communications provides good broadband internet. But Lower Peach Tree sits on the other side of the Alabama River, AT&T’s territory, and is reachable from Monroeville—the county seat—only by intermittent ferry service or a looping, one-hour drive. Many who live in Lower Peach Tree work as loggers or truck drivers. The town of fewer than 1,000 residents has no restaurants or gas stations."

"Educators say that rural areas, with limited curriculums and resources, in particular could benefit from digital advances that allow students to reach far beyond their towns," Harlan writes. "Spanish classes could Skype with students in Mexico City. Advanced students could take high school classes remotely. The problem is that such small towns also provide a limited pool of customers for any company thinking about making an investment." Jerome Browning, a coordinator at Alabama’s Department of Education, told Harlan that Monroe “is a really, really small school in a precarious area. It doesn’t make any sense for vendors to come to that area.” (Read more)

Time to nominate rural journalists of courage, integrity and tenacity for Tom and Pat Gish Award

Nominations for the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, must be received by May 10.

Gishes at award announcement, 2004
The award is named for the late Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 51 years. They withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas, and were the first winners of the award named for them.

Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Tex.) Record, in 2007; James E. Prince III and Stanley Dearman, current and former publishers of The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., in 2008; Samantha Swindler, editor and publisher of the Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Ore., in 2010 for her work as editor of the Corbin, Ky., Times-Tribune and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress; in 2011, Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; in 2012, Jonathan and Susan Austin of the Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.. in 2014, the late Landon Wills of Kentucky's McLean County News; and in 2015, the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in EspaƱola, N.M.

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of previous winners, which are detailed at www.RuralJournalism.org. Nominators should send detailed letters to Institute Director Al Cross, explaining how their nominees show the kind of exemplary courage, tenacity and integrity that the Gishes demonstrated in their rigorous pursuit of rural journalism. Detailed documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Questions may be directed to Cross at 859-257-3744 or al.cross@uky.edu.

Letters should be postmarked by May 7 and mailed to: Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042, or emailed to al.cross@uky.edu by May 10.

Editors say lack of funds, legal issues in technology hamstring news industry's First Amendment battles

Nearly two-thirds of editors in a survey said economic concerns have weakened the news industry's ability to pursue legal action concerning First Amendment issues.

The survey was conducted for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Of the 66 respondents, 65 percent said the industry is weaker than it was 10 years ago in pursuing First Amendment legal action and 53 percent agreed that “News organizations are no longer prepared to go to court to preserve First Amendment freedoms.” When asked for the main reason for diminished capability, 89 percent cited money.

Legal issues about technology were also a concern, Jonathan Peters reports for Columbia Journalism Review. "An overwhelming majority of the editors (88 percent) agreed with the statement, 'In the digital age, there are many unsettled legal questions about the scope of free expression.' Meanwhile, 71 percent agreed with the statement, 'First Amendment law has not kept up with technological developments.' And 59 percent disagreed with the statement, 'First Amendment law is largely settled.'”

The Knight Foundation last week announced "$200,000 in new support to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which will expand their work in providing legal assistance to journalists and shaping a new path for free-speech law," Anusha Alikhan wrote in a news release. "Since 1970, the Reporters Committee has provided free legal assistance, research and guidance to reporters and news organizations. The organization will use the new funding and two previous endowments to expand the Knight Litigation Project, an effort to help journalists and news organizations pursue First Amendment cases that have the potential to explore new legal territory."

Congress and the Obama administration are doing little to help struggling rural hospitals

Hospitals in rural areas continue to close or struggle to remain open, leaving an aging population with few resources to seek medical care, Shannon Muchmore reports for Modern Healthcare. The problem, especially bad in states that refused to expand Medicaid, is getting little help from Congress, where bills have been introduced but have little chance of passage. The Obama administration hasn't helped either, proposing "tightening the definition of a critical-access hospital and cutting their reimbursements, which are currently slightly higher than other hospitals." (Photo: Page Memorial Hospital in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley is in danger of closing because of Medicare cuts and the state's refusal to expand Medicaid)

"While the Affordable Care Act has allowed millions to gain access to health insurance, rural hospitals continue to face reimbursement cuts and practice-of-medicine regulations that administrators say do more harm than good. In the U.S., nearly 2,000 hospitals are rural and 1,333 qualify as critical access," Muchmore writes. Travis Clark, president of Page Memorial Hospital in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, "said the federal government has helped hospitals such as his in the past. But they are now in need of special programs and grants that will allow rural providers to do more than just survive." In Shenandoah Valley the population over age 65 has increased 28 percent in the past decade and the poverty rate is up 21 percent.

"Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs for the National Rural Health Association, said significant Medicaid cuts in the past few years have been suffocating rural hospitals," Muchmore writes. "Since 2010, 55 rural hospitals have closed and that rate is escalating. More than 280 report being at the edge of closure. In 2013, more than one-third of rural hospitals were operating at a deficit, she said."

"The worst financial hits have come from cuts to Medicare's bad-debt program and disproportionate-share hospital payments," Muchmore writes. "Sequestration, which slapped a 2 percent across-the-board cut on Medicare payments, hit rural areas with their older populations especially hard. Rural hospitals rarely have the option of shifting costs to the privately insured. The 20 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid eligibility under the ACA tend to be more rural states with Republican governors. These states also have residents who tend to be older, poorer and sicker, Elehwany said."

USPS inspector general's office seeking ways to save struggling agency and better serve rural areas

The U.S Postal Service's inspector general has for years considered ways to help save the financially struggling USPS—which lost $5.1 billion in the 2015 fiscal year—while also helping rural areas where service has been threatened, Vauhini Vara reports for The New Yorker.

"David C. Williams, who recently retired after serving as the inspector general for more than twelve years, defined his position expansively, publishing reports on all kinds of things that the postal service could do." Ideas included having mail carriers "deliver groceries, alert social-services agencies when people on their routes need help" and "delivering medicine to elderly people, or even just checking in on them in exchange for a fee. The idea seems particularly useful in rural areas, where health services are scarce."

"Other proposals from the inspector general’s office would take advantage of the postal service’s buildings—for instance, by allowing post offices to provide basic financial services, like cashing checks, keeping savings accounts, and even taking out small loans," Vara writes. "Countries such as Brazil, China, and New Zealand have been doing this for years. Many low-income people, repelled by high fees or generally mistrustful, don’t use banks. And in many parts of the country where executives have decided it’s not worth their while to invest, financial services are simply absent, making them effectively banking deserts. As it happens, nearly sixty per cent of post-office branches are in zip codes where there are either one or no bank branches, according to a white paper on the topic from the inspector general...Thus far, none of the inspector general’s proposals has gained much traction, in part because the USPS doesn’t have the authority to bring them about."

Study links animal illnesses, deaths and birth defects to exposure to fracking fluids

Illness, death and birth defects among mammals, chickens, fish and other livestock and wildlife have been linked to exposure to hydraulic-fracturing fluids, says a study by Cornell University. The study, which included interviews of animal owners in  Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, found 24 cases where animals were potentially affected by fracking, Krishna Ramanujan reports for the Cornell Chronicle.

"According to the study, recently published online and appearing soon in print, in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, making a direct link between death and illness is not possible due to incomplete testing, proprietary secrecy from gas drilling companies regarding the chemicals used in hydrofracking, and non-disclosure agreements that seal testimony and evidence when lawsuits are settled," Ramanujan writes.

Researchers round that in Louisiana, "17 cows died within an hour of direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid. A necropsy report listed respiratory failure with circulatory collapse as the most likely cause of death," Ramanujan writes. "A farmer separated his herd of cows into two groups: 60 were in a pasture with a creek where hydrofracking wastewater was allegedly dumped; 36 were in separate fields without creek access. Of the 60 cows exposed to the creek water, 21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. None of the 36 cows in separated fields had health problems, though one cow failed to breed in the spring. Another farmer reported that 140 of his cows were exposed to hydrofracking fluid when wastewater impoundment was allegedly slit, and the fluid drained into a pasture and a pond. Of the 140 cows, about 70 died, and there were high incidences of stillborn and stunted calves." The study also cited examples in other mammals: horses, goats, llamas, dogs and cats. (Read more)

Evangelist Dewey Cooper, who built roadside signs exhorting people to seek salvation, dies at 93

Dewey Cooper, an evangelist known for building and placing signs across rural Kentucky, pleading for people to seek salvation, died Friday at 93, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Cooper preached in scores of churches in Southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, as well as on the radio, on the street and in jails and nursing homes during a career that spanned nearly 60 years. But he received perhaps the most attention for about three dozen eye-catching roadside signs he built in several counties in Southern and Central Kentucky. The signs consist of two placards angled to be visible to drivers coming from either direction, with a 10-foot cross rising above. Cooper painted the signs bright orange and included a picture of a clock showing time running out to be saved."

Cooper, who started installing the signs in the 1990s, "told an interviewer in 2002 that while some people might go to church only a few times in their lives, people traveling past couldn’t ignore the signs," Estep writes. "Cooper paid for the signs with donations and his own money and got permission from landowners to put them up. Ronnie Peters, a United Baptist pastor from Tennessee and longtime friend of Cooper’s, said Cooper told him he hoped the signs would make people think." He told Estep, “He just wanted them to really consider about their own soul. His whole life was centered around his ministry and serving the Lord and trying to get people saved.” To read Cooper's obituary click here.