Friday, May 29, 2015

FCC proposes Internet subsidy that will help low-income rural residents get broadband access

In a move that could expand broadband access to rural areas, "Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday proposed helping low-income consumers with the cost of broadband Internet access through a program that subsidizes phone bills," Gautham Nagesh reports for The Wall Street Journal. The "proposal would expand the government’s Lifeline program by giving low-income households the option to apply the subsidy to broadband Internet access, either wired or wireless." 

FCC said that "less than half of households making less than $25,000 a year have Internet access at home, compared with 95 percent of households with incomes of more than $150,000," Nagesh writes.

The proposal "seeks comment on whether carriers should provide a minimum level of service to consumers as part of the program and what those service levels should be," Nagesh writes. "The proposal tentatively proposes keeping the subsidy at $9.25 a month."

The Lifeline program was started under President Ronald Reagan to cover the basic cost of phone service, Nagesh writes. "It was expanded in 2008 under President George W. Bush to include wireless phones and currently serves roughly 12 million households, which qualify if they are eligible for other federal aid programs like Medicaid or food assistance."

The proposal has already drawn criticism from top Republicans of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who "faulted the broadband expansion and said spending on Lifeline and other Universal Service programs should be capped," Nagesh writes. FCC plans to vote on June 18 on opening the proposal up for comment. (Read more)

Walmart has become the social hub in many rural communities where there is not much else to do

Teenagers don't hang out at malls anymore; they hang out at Walmart, mostly because in many rural areas Walmart is the only game in town, Rachel Monroe reports for Talking Points Memo. "In some towns, Walmart may be the only grocery store, or the only pharmacy or the only place to buy books and DVDs. Walmart’s supercenter stores are open 24 hours; in many small towns, they’re the only store with lights on after dinner time."

"All of this, of course, is part of the Walmart plan: they move in, push other stores out of business while simultaneously expanding their services—at some supercenters you can get new tires, new glasses and a teeth cleaning—until suddenly you find yourself buying everything at Walmart because there’s nowhere else to buy it," Monroe writes.

"So as Walmart encroaches on more parts of life, more of people’s lives happen at Walmart," Monroe writes. "The chain is the third biggest vision care provider in the country, the fourth biggest pharmacy and the biggest grocery store. People sell drugs in Walmart and make drugs in Walmart. In one Florida town, nearly half of all crime takes place at Walmart. Some people live in Walmart parking lots; others try to live in the stores themselves."

"It’s the omnivorous quality of Walmarts—how they seem to consume surrounding communities, pricing out the competition and building ever-growing parking lots—as well as their infamously poor treatment of employees, that has won them many opponents," Monroe writes.

Monroe visited the local Walmart in Fort Stockton, Texas—surrounded by ranch land, on the fringes of Texas’s oil country—to get a glimpse of how the store impacts the town of 8,384. The store, which opened in 1986, is now a 95,000-square feet supercenter open 24 hours. In February 2016, it will begin paying employees a minimum of $10 per hour, about half of what someone can make in the oil fields. Fort Stockton only has one other grocery store. (Best Places map: Fort Stockton)

Some customers said they visit the store daily and that they consider the store a social hub, with Girl Scout cookie sales, bake sales and plenty of social interaction with friends and neighbors who are easy to find also shopping at the store, Monroe writes.

"The parking lot outside the store was its own whole scene, too," Monroe writes. "The far corner of the lot seemed to be an unofficial overnight camping location. (Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, was an avid RVer and has made a point of allowing free overnight parking in most of his store’s parking lots. They’re such a popular overnight destination that there’s even an app that purports to review every Walmart parking lot in America.)"

But inside the store, lines are often long, meaning customers have to stand around for long periods of time to check out, Monroe writes. "Those of us waiting in line shifted from foot to foot, companionable in our shared frustration. We murmured complaints, looked at the time on our phones, discussed leaving but didn’t leave. After all, there was nowhere else to go." (Read more)

Shaming tax delinquents on the Internet has been an effective way to collect money, states say

For years the names of delinquent tax payers have been published in local newspapers in an attempt to get people to come forward and pay taxes. But a new method, of shaming those same people on the Internet—or threatening to post their names and what they owe—is proving to be an extremely effective means of getting people to pay, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline.

The Vermont legislature last year approved publishing the names of the top 100 individual and top 100 business tax delinquents, Povich writes. Those on the lists are notified in advance by letter to give them time to pay. The state, which estimated it would collect $800,000 of an estimated $175 million in delinquent taxes in fiscal year 2015, which will end June 30, has already collected $1.3 million, according to Gregg Mousley, deputy tax commissioner. Mousley, who said at least half of the money was collected before the names were published, predicted a total take of $1.5 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Wisconsin has had similar results, Povich writes. "Officials estimated that publicly naming delinquents would allow them to recoup about $1.5 million annually when they first posted the information in January 2006. Instead, they’ve recovered between $11 million and $31 million annually, according to Stephanie Marquis, communications director at the Department of Revenue. Wisconsin collected $12 million in fiscal 2014 and has garnered $10.8 million so far in fiscal 2015, she said."

"California was one of the first states to publish the names of delinquent taxpayers online, starting in 2007," Povich writes. "Since then, the program has collected more than $414 million from taxpayers in arrears, according to Daniel Tahara, spokesman for the California Franchise Tax Board."

"In most of the states, once a taxpayer pays the money, his or her name comes off the list, and another taxpayer is put on, creating a rotating file of scofflaws, Povich writes. "In California, the list of the top 500 (half individuals and half businesses) is published twice a year. According to the Franchise Tax Board, 41 percent of those who were about to appear on the list made payment arrangements before their names were published, accounting for 205 individuals or businesses." (Read more)

Rural Pa. newspaper apologizes for running letter suggesting President Obama be executed

A rural Pennsylvania newspaper has run into hot water for publishing a letter to the editor this week in which a reader suggested President Obama be executed for his response to ISIS capturing Ramadi. The letter by W. Richard Stover, published Monday in The Daily Item in Sunbury, (Best Places map) said, "I think the appropriate and politically correct term is regime change. Forgive me for being blunt, but throughout history this has previously been accompanied by execution by guillotine, firing squad, public hanging."

The Daily Item, which received more than 100 letters complaining about Stover's letter, ran an apology on Thursday in an editorial, which read in part:

"There is no excuse for the letter The Daily Item published on Memorial Day. We did something we shouldn’t have, and the readers who called us on it deserve accountability.

Nearly a decade of provocative and divisive rhetoric may have inured us to language that calls the president of the United States 'the coward-in-chief' and the disrespectful use of the president’s first name. Both those elements are common to corners of the mediascape, having been uttered by commentators and candidates for president.

But we should have recognized that the final two metaphorical paragraphs of the Ramadi letter were inescapably an incitement to have the chief executive of our government executed. They should have been deleted."

Among the responses from readers:

"I can’t help but ask, 'What in the world happened here?' Have the responsible members of your editorial board been dismissed? I’m all for freedom of speech but understand, too, the concept of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater."

"I am thoroughly disgusted that you would choose to print, on Memorial Day, a letter to the editor which demands regime change and assassination of the President of the United States."

"Free speech is one thing; calling for a lynching is at least infantile, if not illegal. I don’t know or have the words that could describe how low you are!"

"Your editorial and letter printed on Memorial Day: so 'no bells went off when your editor read the letter?' Clearly you need a new editor."

Free journalism workshop on June 19 in North Texas to focus on covering rural health stories

The Association of Health Care Journalists is hosting a free workshop for journalists on covering rural America from 7:30 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. (EDT) on June 19 in Fort Worth, Texas. The Rural Health Journalism Workshop is designed to help journalists find and cover health stories and "will bring journalists together with health care and policy experts who focus on the medical challenges of rural areas." Travel assistance is available. The deadline to register is June 8. For more information or to register, click here

Rural advocate Sandra Rosenblith dies at 70; was instrumental in rural development programs

Sandra Rosenblith
Rural advocate Sandra Rosenblith died this week at the age of 70. "Rosenblith helped establish Rural LISC at the Local Initiatives Support Organization in 1995," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "The program helps rural development groups tap public and private funding for local projects." Rosenblith retired from Rural LISC in 2009 but remained active in rural development policy work and wrote occasional stories for the Yonder.

Rural LISC currently "has 63 partner development organizations that work in 40 states and cover nearly 1,200 U.S. counties" and has "leveraged $3 billion in rural development investment in the past two decades, according to a fact sheet on the organization’s website," Marema writes.

Arnold Montgomery, who worked in various capacities with Rosenblith since 1971, told Marema, “In my mind she contributed more to community development than anyone else I know. She did ground-breaking things. And all of it was driven by her vision, her tenacity and her determination to never give up—and I do mean never.”

Rosenblith graduated from the University of California, Berkley and earned a law degree at Harvard University, Marema writes. "After working at the National Council for Equal Business Opportunity, she ran a community development consulting firm and later served as director of the legal division of the Federal Home Loan Bank’s Office of Community Investment."

Rosenblith "was part of the federal task force that wrote the first regulations for the Community Reinvestment Act," Marema writes "She helped design and implement Department of Agriculture programs that supported affordable housing and nonprofit rural development organizations." (Read more)

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Biggest threat to future of journalism is the decline of local political coverage, Bob Schieffer says

The biggest threat to the future of journalism is the decline of local political coverage, outgoing CBS anchorman Bob Schieffer told NPR's Diane Rehm in an interview on Tuesday.
Schieffer said, "Unless some entity comes along and does what local newspapers have been doing all these years, we're gonna have corruption at a level we've never experienced. . . . Because there's nobody—so many papers now can't afford to have a beat reporter. For example, many papers don't have a city hall reporter anymore. They send somebody to cover the city council meetings, but to cover city hall, you have to be there every day, and you have to know the overall story, not just report whatever happens on a particular day."

Schieffer's remarks prompted Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post to note the concern about shrinking coverage of statehouses and Washington. A Pew Research Center study found that less than 33 percent of newspapers assign a reporter to cover the statehouse and only 14 percent of local television stations have a part-time or full-time statehouse correspondent.(Pew graphic)

Citing The Courier-Journal's elimination of a D.C. correspondent after almost 150 years, Cillizza writes, "The elimination of a reporter covering, say, Washington for a major Kentucky paper means that that job almost certainly won't be coming back. And that means one less set of eyes watching what happens in Washington and relating it back to the people of Kentucky."

Cillizza continues, "As Schieffer notes in the Rehm interview, no one knows what local pols are up to better than the people covering them day in and day out. Sure, national media swoops in on occasion when some local story gets huge—but the reason those stories get on the national radar in the first place is because of the spadework of local reporters."

The hidden cost to readers is that politicians are very much aware that local newspapers are unable to cover everything, Cillizza writes. "Not only are there fewer eyes watching politicians, legislation and the like but also the pols are all-too-well well aware of that fact. More things are tried—in a bad way—by politicians because they know there is a far smaller chance of them getting caught or even called on it."

Scholarship program to bring more pharmacists to rural and underserved areas in Ohio

In an attempt to bring more pharmacists to rural Ohio, Medical Mutual of Ohio, a health insurance company, has committed $1 million to provide 14 pharmacy scholarships at Northeast Ohio Medical School, Karen Farkas reports for Northeast Ohio Media Group. As part of the deal, scholarship recipients are required to work for one year in a rural or underserved area for every year under scholarship. (Plain Dealer photo by Peggy Turbett: Northeast Ohio Medical School)

Scholarships will provide $18,000 per year, or 70 percent of tuition and fees, to eight students this fall and six more in the fall of 2016, Farkas writes. Students in good standing can remain under scholarship all four years.

Northeast Ohio Medical School "is working on a similar initiative with Cincinnati-based Mercy Health, the state’s largest health system," Timoty Magaw reports for Crain's Cleveland Business.
"As part of that $3 million program, which was announced in December, the health system will cover tuition for qualifying medical students in exchange for future commitments to Mercy Health following residency training."

Montana, North Dakota senators urge Postal Regulatory Commission to study rural mail delivery

A pair of senators in largely rural states have written Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) Chairman Robert Taub, urging his agency to conduct an in-depth study of rural mail delivery, which has been criticized for being slow.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) wrote: "Recent changes to USPS delivery standards coupled with processing plant closures and consolidations have had a devastating impact on the quality of service in rural America. We firmly believe that the continued closure and consolidation of mail processing plants across the country hinders letter carriers' ability to ensure timely delivery and diminishes the Postal Service's competitiveness and relevancy in a twenty-first century business environment."

National Newspaper Association CEO Tonda F. Rush said at a May 19 roundtable discussion hosted by a Senate committee that Congress should require the U.S. Postal Service to report the quality of mail service in rural areas. NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Health said he and the other postal executives are open to discussion about how rural mail delivery can be improved. (Read more)

Rural Washington county addressing high teen pregnancy rates with confidential, free services

In Washington's most rural county, a social services organization is tackling the region's unusually high rate of teen pregnancy by providing any woman of reproductive age exams, birth control and counseling, Eve Andrews reports for Grist. Room One, in a little wooden bungalow on the edge of Twisp in Okanogan County, was founded in 1998 specifically to address high rates of teen pregnancy in the region. (County Maps of Washington map: Okanogan County)

Okanogan County, which ranks last in the state in quality of life and has the second lowest median household income, has a teen pregnancy rate of 58.5 pregnancies for every 1,000 girls ages 15-19, a rate nearly twice the state average, Andrews writes. Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One, told Andrews, “Historically, getting access to services or building support services has been tough in a community like ours."

One of the greatest benefits of Room One is that "because the organization receives federal Title X funding via Family Planning of North Central Washington, which operates the clinic, its sliding fee scale goes to zero, a crucial factor for girls who have no substantial independent income and would like to avoid a revealing Explanation of Benefits form sent to their parents from an insurance provider," Andrews writes.

Another key is confidentiality—an important factor in a small town, Andrews writes. Washington state law also does not require parental consent for such services, which helps many of the underage girls who are living on their own.

The clinic also "is able to offer long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs)—the IUD and hormonal implants—at zero cost to clients who are at or below the federal poverty level," Andrews writes. "In a fairly recent development in pediatric gynecology, LARCs are now the top-recommended form of birth control for teens, but they’re also expensive."

Room One stresses education in its approach to teen pregnancy, Andrews writes. "The organization runs the sex ed program in the local schools, and its staff has been trained by Planned Parenthood. It’s the only comprehensive sexuality education program in the county. As part of its sex ed curriculum, it also educates teens about domestic violence, power dynamics in relationships and gender oppression." (Read more)

Longtime editor who championed for Virginia to apologize for slavery announces resignation

Ken Woodley
Ken Woodley, who has worked at The Farmville Herald, a biweekly newspaper in Farmville, Va., for 36 years, 25 of them as editor, has announced he will resign from the newspaper effective Friday, reports the Virginia Press Association. Woodley plans "to write a book recounting the triumphant 16-month crusade that saw the Virginia General Assembly create the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship program in 2004, giving educational opportunity back to those from whom it was stolen during five years of 'massive resistance' in Prince Edward County."

In 2007 on the 400th anniversary of Virginia's settlement, Woodley was one of the most vocal advocates for Virginia to issue an apology for slavery. He has won numerous Virginia Press Association awards and is a two-time winner of VPA Lathan Mims Award for editorial service to the community. In 2006, the Virginia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists presented Woodley with its annual George Mason Award for lasting contributions to journalism.

In his final column, Woodley writes: "How do you say farewell, as editor, to an entire community? And after 36 years, the last quarter century spent 'preaching' from this pulpit, a privilege never anticipated? This is the last time we will meet in this space and on these pages, and the journey to find those farewell words begins now. And I stumble taking the first step. I can find no words, but at the same time words fall like raindrops all around me, and I stand in their puddles, looking down and seeing my own reflection." (Read more)

Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal in danger of being taken off New York Stock Exchange

Stock prices for Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal "have fallen so low that they're at risk of being taken off the New York Stock Exchange," Saqib Rahim reports for EnergyWire. Both companies "have recently traded at an average of less than $1 per share for 30 consecutive trading days. They have six months to get back over the $1 threshold, or the NYSE may delist them."

An increase of natural gas use, new environmental regulations, a decline of coal exports to Asia and cheaper coal in the West has hurt coal sites in Central Appalachia. That has led to coal prices dropping 33 percent over the past four years, making operations unprofitable for about 72 percent of Central Appalachian coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. Last week Alpha announced it was closing its underground Rockspring Development Camp Creek mine in Wayne County, West Virginia, that employs 439 and was also cutting 71 jobs at facilities in Kentucky and West Virginia.

"In 2010 and 2011 especially, U.S. producers borrowed heavily to pay for a buying spree of coal assets," Rahim writes. "Chinese demand was surging, causing coal prices to spike and putting the global industry in an expansionary mood. U.S. capital markets obliged them: Arch topped $35 a share in early 2011, and Alpha nudged above $60. But by mid-2011, the global market was swamped. Prices began to dive. In the U.S., hydraulic fracturing began to transform the natural gas supply. Just as the coal business became less lucrative, U.S. producers found themselves with huge debt bills."

Matt Preston, research director for North America coal markets at Wood Mackenzie, told Rahim, "If it wasn't for that debt, I don't think any of the coal companies would be nearly in as much trouble as they are. The properties are OK; it's just that the coal companies themselves are not financially sound. As soon as the debt issue gets figured out, there'll be coal companies around mining coal."

Arch, Alpha and Peabody Energy Corp. "carry more than $16 billion in long-term debt," Rahim writes. "They're paying millions in interest, which is making it hard for them to fund ongoing coal operations. Capital markets are keeping a wary distance."

One option is to "borrow from a private-equity firm, promising it a chunk of stock ownership in the future," Rahim writes. Other options are to "agree to get bought out by a private-equity company, going off the public markets," to declare bankruptcy or, if an investor believes the company is redeemable, to restructure the company and return to public markets in a few years. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Supreme Court to hear rural-urban redistricting case from Texas, aimed at non-citizens

"The U.S. Supreme Court will take up an appeal that could give rural voters more clout, agreeing to decide a long-simmering question about the rules governing state efforts to equalize the size of their voting districts," Greg Stohr reports for Bloomberg. "The justices will hear an appeal from two voters who say Texas unconstitutionally allocated its state Senate seats on the basis of total population rather than on the number of eligible voters."

If the Supreme Court sides with the Texas voters, it "might shift legislative seats away from areas with large Hispanic populations," Stohr writes. "The issue is an offshoot of the court’s landmark 1964 Reynolds v. Sims ruling, which established the 'one person, one vote' principle and required state and local voting districts to have roughly equal population."
In Texas each Senate district in the maps redrawn in 2013 consisted of about 811,000 people, Michael Lindenberger and Sylvan Lane report for The Dallas Morning News. "It’s why seven Senate districts slice through Dallas, but a single district—the 28th near Lubbock—can stretch across all or parts of 51 counties in far West Texas."

"Lawyers for Titus County GOP chairwoman Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger of Montgomery County argued that only the number of eligible voters, not total residents, should count when deciding how to draw a voting district," Lindenberger and Lane write. "Those ineligible to vote—children, immigrants, felons and the mentally incapacitated—shouldn’t count, they said."

"Conservative scholars hailed the court’s announcement, saying it’s time for the court to decide whether one person, one vote really means one voter, one vote," Lindenberger and Lane write. Others say the "changes could weaken the influence of voters in cities, where the percentage of residents who are not eligible to vote is often higher than in rural areas. And others asserted that lawmakers and local officials should represent the interests of all people, whether or not they are eligible to vote." (Read more)

Most people return to rural areas because of parents, opportunities to raise children, study finds

People most often return to rural areas because their parents live there and they want to raise their children in the same place they were raised, says a study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Factors Affecting Former Residents' Returning to Rural Areas."

Other factors for returning home are friends and family, familiar environments, increased opportunities for outdoor recreation, shorter drives to and from work and more chances for children to participate in school sports.

Those who did not return to rural areas cited low wages and a lack of career opportunities. They also said rural areas have a lack of privacy and a lack of cultural events, shopping and dining. They also had a less favorable view of the local schools than respondents who returned to rural areas.

The study consisted of 309 interviews of an average of 15 people at high school reunions in 21 rural communities in 2008 and 2009. Of the 309 people interviewed, 183—or 60 percent—said they lived elsewhere, usually in urban areas. Most moved away after high school, but some returned home before moving away again.

People who stayed in rural areas were asked "if they had ever considered moving away and what factors influenced the decision to stay. Returnees were asked to discuss reasons for moving away in the first place and reasons for returning. They were also prompted to describe the impact they had made on their home communities after returning, for instance, by starting businesses and hiring employees, assuming leadership positions or volunteering. Nonreturnees were asked, 'Have you thought about moving back? Why or why not?' For all migrant types, questions were included about marital status, presence of children, parental ties, educational pathways and current occupations." (USDA map)

EPA releases water rules; agency says rules do not add any new requirements for agriculture

The Obama administration today released water rules that attempt "to establish which waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. Gina McCarthy, Environmental Protection Agency chief, "said tributaries such as streams that flow into larger water bodies will be covered, in addition to wetlands and smaller bodies that adjoin them."

McCarthy told reporters, “The rule does not add any new requirements for agriculture . . . and does not interfere with private property rights. It will not get in the way of agriculture and recognizes the crucial role that farmers play. Farmers ranchers and foresters are all original conservationists, and we recognize that.”

The Republican-led House has repeatedly tried to overturn the rules, and critics say rules unnecessarily expand EPA jurisdiction. But officials said the rule "is about increasing clarity for businesses and helping make it easier to determine which waterways are subject to the pollution rules of the Clean Water Act," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

McCarthy told reporters, “We’re finalizing a clean water rule to protect the streams and the wetlands that one in three Americans rely on for drinking water. And we’re doing that without creating any new permitting requirements and maintaining all previous exemptions and exclusions.”

"This rule is about clarification, and, in fact, we’re adding exclusions for features like artificial lakes and ponds, water-filled depressions from constructions and grass swales," McCarthy said. "This rule will make it easier to identify protected waters and will make those protections consistent with the law as well as the latest peer-reviewed science. This rule is based on science."

“It does not regulate any ditches unless they function as tributaries," McCarthy said. "It does not apply to groundwater or shallow subsurface water, copper tile drains or change policy on irrigation or water transfer.” (Read more)

Rural Alabama hospital to re-open labor unit; says it can be a model of success for other hospitals

A rural Alabama hospital has found a way to re-open a local labor and delivery unit and believes that success can be duplicated in other areas that lack such services, Anna Claire Vollers reports for The Huntsville Times. Only 17 of 54 rural Alabama counties have hospitals with labor and delivery wards.

John Waits is the director of Cahaba Medical Care, a Federally Qualified Health Center—meaning it's a primary source of medical care for those who are uninsured or who have Medicaid—that serves people primarily from rural Bibb and Perry Counties, Vollers writes. Nearly 100 percent of Cahaba's prenatal care patients qualify for Medicaid, but expectant mothers have to drive 45 minutes to deliver a baby because the local hospital, Bibb Medical Center, eliminated child birth services in 1999. (Wikipedia map: Bibb County)

"Driving longer distances for a monthly or weekly prenatal appointment is just not feasible for women who lack access to transportation, money for gas, or who work jobs where they can't afford to take leave," Vollers writes. "According to the Alabama Rural Health Association, in 2013 more than a quarter of expectant mothers in rural areas in Alabama had less than adequate prenatal care, which can lead to health complications for both mother and baby and higher rates of infant and maternal mortality."

"But thanks to a remarkable collaboration between Waits' practice and Bibb Medical Center's leadership, a federal grant, a capital investment and more than a few crossed fingers, a brand-new labor and delivery unit is scheduled to open at Bibb Medical Center this September," Vollers writes.

Waits told Vollers, "We had to keep all the other aspects of family medicine alive. We [the physicians in the area] work in the ER. We work in the nursing home. We work in the clinic. We see inpatients in the hospital. We've made every other piece of this healthcare system work, which has kept the hospital itself viable without labor & delivery."

Dr. Lacy Smith, Cahaba's chief medical officer, "applied for and received an expanded medical services grant available from the federal government through the Affordable Care Act," Vollers writes. "That gave Cahaba Medical Center the ability to hire a fourth physician to perform obstetrics and to hire the personnel necessary to staff a labor and delivery department at Bibb Medical Center."

Waits told Vollers, "The hospital healthcare authority, seeing our gesture of trust, was willing to make a $1 million-plus capital investment in a four-unit labor & delivery, trusting that we're going to help staff this thing and not change our minds." (Read more)

Rural emergency services struggle during holiday weekends to provide care for vacationers

Holiday weekends can be a troublesome time for rural emergency services that are not equipped to handle an increase in calls due to an influx of tourists, reports Andrea Hay for WBAY-TV in Green Bay. Memorial Day weekend was a perfect example in Mountain, Wisc., (Wikipedia photo) a popular camping destination with a population of 860.

Over the weekend Mountain Ambulance Service struggled to respond to an unusually high number of calls, Hay writes. Michael Rzepka of Mountain Ambulance Service told her, "We had our first unit out. We got a second call; our second unit went out, and we were trying to scurry out so that we could still have coverage.”

EMT Matt Miller said the main problem in a small town is finding enough people willing to spend the time and money to go through the required more than 200 hours of training for the EMT basics class, Hay writes. Another problem is sharing services with other areas. Miller told Hay, “If that first unit that’s staffed goes and aides another community, it’s leaving its taxpayers without a staffed ambulance at that time and relying on people to be in the area and be able to respond.” (Read more)

Despite strong state opposition, Kentucky already on the verge of complying with proposed CO2 rules

Despite strong opposition in Kentucky to proposed rules to cut the state's carbon-dioxide emissions by 15 percent by 2020 and 18 percent by 2030, based on 2012 levels, the state is on the verge of complying with the rules—without meaning to, Naveena Sadasivam reports for InsideClimate News.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declared the rules part of the "war on coal," and Kentucky joined a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over the rule. Lawmakers also "passed a bill to exempt the state from submitting a plan to meet the proposed air regulations that work against coal," Sadasivam writes. If Kentucky doesn't submit a plan or submits one that isn't acceptable, EPA will just create one for the state.

Cheap natural gas is flooding the market, coal is becoming unprofitable in some regions and coal companies are leaving Central Appalachia for the West, where they can produce at a lower cost. As a result, more than 25 percent of coal-fired plants in Kentucky have already shut down or are expected to shut down in the next two years, Sadasivam writes. "With the announced retirements alone, Kentucky will reach the EPA's goal, energy analysts and state officials believe."

As of 2012, Kentucky "had almost 18,000 MW of coal-fired power from 19 plants," Sadasivam writes. "Of that, 3,900 MW has already been retired or has been scheduled for retirement in the next two years. According to a compliance tool created by M.J. Bradley, the environmental consulting firm, the emissions associated with those shutdowns alone are more than sufficient to meet the EPA's targets." (Read more) (InsideClimate News graphic)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Farmers face greater risk of getting skin cancer, but take few precautions, study says

Farmers take few precautions in protecting themselves from the sun, says a study by Marshfield Clinic dermatologists published in the Journal of Agromedicine.

The study, which consisted of 476 respondents, 194 of them farmers, found that only 23 percent of farmers always or frequently use sunscreen when out in the sun for more than 15 minutes, even though 80 percent of farmers said they knew skin cancer could be deadly and 84 percent said they believe that wearing sunscreen with SPF of 30 or greater reduces the likelihood of skin cancer. Of all respondents, 34 percent of farmers—and 22 percent of non-farmers—said they were referred for additional evaluation due to identification of a concerning lesion at the screening event.

Farmers—who averaged 60.4 years of age—said they spend an average of 3.9 hours outside between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. from May through October, while non-farmers averaged 56.6 years of age and said they spent 2.8 hours per day outside during the same time period, which is considered the most dangerous for contracting skin cancer.

When asked why they choose not to take precautions, 63 percent of farmers said they forget to use sunscreen. Also, 73 percent of farmers and 62 percent of non-farmers said it is too hot to wear long sleeves and long pants, and 45 percent of farmers and 19 percent of non-farmers said wearing a wide-brimmed hat is inconvenient and gets in the way of work. (Read more)

Walmart announces plans to improve animal welfare conditions

Walmart, the nation's largest grocery retailer and a staple in many rural areas, on Friday announced plans to improve animal welfare conditions, Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse. While dozens of companies have announced similar plans in recent years, Walmart's decision could be game-changer, said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Pacelle said in a statement that Walmart's announcement "signals to agribusiness that the era of confining farm animals is ending.

Walmart said in a statement that it supports the Five Freedoms of animal welfare—Freedom from Hunger and Thirst; Freedom from Discomfort; Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease; Freedom to Express Normal Behavior; and Freedom from Fear and Distress.

Walmart said it is asking suppliers to: report to authorities and take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action in any cases of animal abuse; adopt and implement the principles of the Five Freedoms in their own operations and industry producer programs and publish a corporate policy on animal welfare; find and implement solutions to address animal welfare concerns; and promote transparency by providing an animal welfare report to Walmart and publicly reporting against their animal welfare policy on an annual basis.

Oklahoma Senate passes bill to prohibit fracking bans in counties and cities

The Oklahoma Senate last week passed a bill that would prevent cities and counties from banning fracking and prohibit local bans on wastewater disposal, reports The Associated Press. The bill, which passed by a 33-13 vote, now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who has repeatedly said she believes the surge in the state's earthquakes is not related to oil and gas activity, despite several contradictory studies from scientists.

The Oklahoma Geological Survey, the state agency in charge of determining the cause of Oklahoma's rise in earthquakes, released a statement last month that said it was very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire.

Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in earthquakes last year with 585 of magnitude of 3 or higher and is on pace to have 800 this year, Soraghan writes. The state, which only averaged one to three earthquakes per year before 2009—when the oil and gas boom took off—is now averaging 2.5 earthquakes each day. (Read more) (The Nation graphic)

Scientists, conservationists say they have successfully treated bats with white-nose syndrome

Scientists and conservationists say they have successfully treated and cured bats afflicted with white-nose syndrome, reports The Nature Conservancy. The disease, which is a white fungus that appears on the noses of hibernating bats, has killed an estimated 5.7 million bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada. It also forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the northern long-eared bat as threatened. (A bat that was released after being treated for white-nose syndrome)

Last week 150 bats successfully treated for white-nose syndrome were released into the Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, Mo., according to The Nature Conservancy. "In 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and several colleagues at Georgia State University found that a common North America bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, had the ability to inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that R. rhodochrous, without directly touching the Pd, could nonetheless strongly inhibit its growth." Scientists said they are cautiously optimistic that the treatment is an effective cure for white-nose syndrome. (Read more)

Southern California professor discusses her book detailing the importance of small town newspapers

Judy Muller
Former ABC reporter and current University of Southern California professor Judy Muller, who wrote a book about small town newspapers, "Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns," was featured on C-SPAN as part of the Book TV college series. Muller discussed her book and her belief that small town newspapers are alive and well and an important commodity for communities. To see the interview, click here.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Newspapers must use mobile platforms to preserve their voices in their communities, experts say

Newspaper publishers "need to follow their readers" to mobile devices "if they want to preserve their newspaper’s voice in the community," Paula Seligson of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association reports from a conference, “From Disruption to Transformation: New Strategies for Prosperity in a Digital Age,” this week at the University of North Carolina.

"Multiple presenters echoed the same theme, that the industry has seen a watershed moment toward mobile," Seligson writes. "Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, and Robyn Tomlin, vice president of digital and communications at the Pew Research Center, presented complementing research that showcased the rapid changes in reader behavior."

Tomlin said 39 of the 50 top digital news sites examined in Pew's 2015 "State of the Media" report get more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop computers. "Rosenstiel said this means newspapers need to be cross-platform: 'You don’t have a ‘print audience’ or a ‘mobile audience'."

UNC's Penny Abernathy, author of Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability, said the changes in readers' behavior force publishers to consider “what it means to serve our advertisers in this new world.” For SNPA's list of takeaways valued by publishers at the conference, click here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Critics: EPA tinkered with public comments on proposed water rule that farm lobbies oppose

Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed water rules say the agency manipulated its public comments to produce a favorable response, Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport report for The New York Times.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy "told a Senate committee in March that the agency had received more than one million comments and nearly 90 percent favored the agency’s proposal," Lipton and Davenport write. McCarthy is expected to cite those comments to justify the final rule, which is expected today or next week. But critics say EPA violated federal law that prohibits agencies to "promote government policy or to support or oppose pending legislation."

EPA last year "sponsored a drive on Facebook and Twitter to promote its proposed clean water rule in conjunction with the Sierra Club," Lipton and Davenport write. "At the same time, Organizing for Action, a grass-roots group with deep ties to (President) Obama, was also pushing the rule. They urged the public to flood the agency with positive comments to counter opposition from farming and industry groups. The results were then offered as proof that the proposal was popular."

The rule has led to mass confusion, with Republicans and farmers saying it will expand EPA jurisdiction. EPA says that's not true and rules are meant to to tighten the definitions of ditches, tributaries and farm-field erosional features to narrow what areas fall under the law's jurisdiction.

Part of the confusion lies in the history of the rules, Davenport writes in another article for the Times. "The rule is being issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gave the federal government broad authority to limit pollution in major water bodies, like Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River and Puget Sound, as well as streams and wetlands that drain into larger waters."

"But two Supreme Court decisions related to clean water protection, in 2001 and in 2006, created legal confusion about whether the federal government had the authority to regulate the smaller streams and headwaters, and about other water sources such as wetlands," Davenport writes. "EPA officials say the new rule will clarify that authority, allowing the government to once again limit pollution in those smaller bodies of water—although it does not restore the full scope of regulatory authority granted by the 1972 law."

"EPA also contends that the new rule will not give it the authority to regulate additional waters that had not been covered under the 1972 law," Davenport writes. "People familiar with the rule say it will apply to about 60 percent of the nation’s waters."

"Farmers fear that the rule could impose major new costs and burdens, requiring them to pay fees for environmental assessments and to obtain permits just to till the soil near gullies, ditches or dry streambeds where water flows only when it rains," Davenport writes. "A permit is required for any activity, like farming or construction, that creates a discharge into a body of water covered under the Clean Water Act or affects the health of it, like filling in a wetland or blocking a stream." (Read more)

Postal Service should report quality of rural mail service, National Newspaper Association says

Letters have been taking longer to arrive, especially in rural areas. To help address the disparity, National Newspaper Association CEO Tonda F. Rush said at a May 19 roundtable discussion hosted by a Senate committee, Congress should require the U.S. Postal Service to report the quality of mail service in rural areas. NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Health said he and the other postal executives are open to discussion about how rural mail delivery can be improved.

"The Postal Service took a radical step when it began closing down the processing operations in smaller cities and moved them to the heart of urban America," said NNA President John Edgecombe, Jr., who publishes The Nebraska Signal in Geneva, Neb. "NNA is taking every possible step to get USPS to address the problems created by these closings."

Rush said that USPS provides reports about how well it meets its service standards, but most of the information is about urban mail. However, the USPS did report slow service during the first quarter of 2015 for First-Class Mail that should have reached its destination in three days. In many places, that standard was only reached in 60 percent of cases. The Postal Service blamed the weather across the country. Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT said, "There was bad weather in the Northeast, but in Montana, we were in shirt sleeves. There is always going to be bad weather somewhere."

For a 7 mb PDF of NNA's PowerPoint presentation to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, click here.

Murray Energy to lay off 1,800 coal workers; Alpha Natural Resources shutting W.Va. mine with 439

Murray Energy today will lay off about 1,800 workers—21 percent of its workforce—mostly at coal mines in West Virginia and Ohio, Timothy Puko and John Miller report for The Wall Street Journal. A spokesperson said the company made the decision on Wednesday "to make much bigger cuts than it had previously been considering because of growing concerns about the slumping market for thermal coal."

UPDATE, May 22: Alpha Natural Resources announced it would close its underground Rockspring Development Camp Creek mine in Wayne County, West Virginia, "which will mean the loss of 439 jobs," Susan Cameron reports for the Bristol Herald Courier. Alpha said the decision was "based on the mine operator's current assessment of market conditions."

Coal fuels less than 40 percent of the country's electric power, down from 49 percent in 2007, Puko and Miller note. Coal prices have dropped more than 15 percent in the past year "and are permanently stuck below those of natural gas, which is suddenly plentiful and inexpensive thanks to shale drilling." New environmental rules have led many utilities to phase out coal as a source of power, with many power companies "expected to retire substantial coal-fired generation capacity from the grid, the Energy Information Administration says."

Murray Energy operates 13 active mines at 12 mining complexes located in Northern Appalachia, the Illinois Basin and the Uintah Basin in Utah, according to the Murray Energy Corporation. Here is a map of Murray Energy operations outside of Utah.

Ohio Supreme Court orders private Otterbein Univ. to give police files to student newspaper

In a win for freedom of information, the Ohio Supreme Court sided with the editor of a student newspaper at Otterbein University who had requested student and non-student criminal cases that had been referred to the Westerville Mayor’s Court. Otterbein has a student body of about 3,000.

The January 2014 request by Anna Schiffbauer, an editor at Otterbein360.com, was denied by the university’s vice president and student affairs dean, who said the "private university’s police records are not public," reports the Society of Professional Journalists, which helped fund the case with a $10,000 contribution from its Legal Defense Fund. "Schiffbauer filed a mandamus action asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order the release of the documents."

"In a 4-3 decision in State ex rel. Schiffbauer v. Banaszak, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the Otterbein University police chief to produce the criminal records requested by Schiffbauer," SPJ reports. "The court said the university’s police department was established by statute to enforce criminal laws, and that function makes the department a public office under the state’s Public Records Act." (Read more)

John Deere sales continue to fall, dropping 22 percent in the past two years

The bottom has fallen out of the market for tractors and combines, with John Deere taking the biggest hit, Spencer Jakab reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Analysts see Deere’s revenue this fiscal year falling to $27.3 billion—a drop of 22 percent compared with two years earlier. Caterpillar’s sales are off, too, but by just half as much over the same period."

Record grain crops and train delays—blamed on increased shipments of oil and last year's bad winter—caused many farmers to store crops instead of selling for lower prices, which reduced the demand for tractors and combines and forced John Deere to announce plans last year to lay off 1,000 workers in Iowa.

Investors are expected today to report John Deere earnings of "$1.56 a share for the fiscal second quarter through April, down sharply from $2.65 a year earlier," Jakab writes. "During the fiscal first quarter, Deere’s U.S. and Canada equipment revenue fell by 14 percent, while it plunged by 28 percent everywhere else, exacerbated by the strong dollar. The company predicted global equipment sales would fall by 19 percent in the second quarter."

"Based on that, one would expect Deere’s share price to have trailed competitors in heavy-equipment manufacturing," Jakab writes. "Instead, it is the top performer with a drop of just 1 percent over the past year. That is perplexing since a turnaround isn’t expected soon. Based on forecasts going out to 2017, Deere’s earnings are seen remaining well below their fiscal 2013 peak." (Read more)

Free symposium on June 4 on 'Documenting Culture in the Twenty-First Century'

The American Folklife Center is hosting a free symposium, "Documenting Culture in the Twenty-First Century," on June 4 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The event will examine the past and present of documenting culture and how technology has impacted archiving culture. (Stephen Winick photo: Documentary equipment past and present)

"Speakers will consider how evolving approaches to ethics, social justice, ownership rights and privacy are affecting the acquisition, stewardship and sharing of materials at repositories like the Library of Congress," says the Folklife Center. "They will also explore how such approaches are creating other, newer opportunities for archiving and sharing cultural resources." (Read more)

Energy company tells Denton, Tex., officials it will resume fracking in city that banned practice

A Colorado energy company informed officials in Denton, Texas—which voted in November to ban fracking—that it plans to resume fracking in the city now that Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law "that limits the ability of Texas cities and local governments in writing local rules for oil and gas operators," Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe reports for the Denton Record-Chronicle. Employees for Vantage Energy told city officials the company plans to begin fracking on May 27. (Record-Chronicle photo by David Minton: A Vantage public notice announcing plans to resume fracking) 

Denton Mayor Chris Watts, who said the law "likely prevents the city from blocking Vantage’s plans to finish the gas wells," told Heinkel-Wolf, “It’s my understanding we don’t plan on seeking an injunction . . . Where we go from here hasn’t been determined.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Child care not affordable in many states; costs more than in-state college tuition in 31 states

The annual cost of child care is higher than in-state college tuition in 31 states "and exceeds 40 percent of the average annual income of single mothers in 22 states," says a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. Researchers wrote, “No state provides adequate child-care supports to a majority of children under five."

Researchers looked at the cost of full-time daycare for infants and the number of 4-year-old enrolled in publicly funded Pre-K or equivalent programs, Paquette writes. The cheapest annual cost of daycare is in Alabama, at $5,547, or about 16 percent of a working mother's income. The cost is $16,500 in Massachusetts, $14,500 in New York, $12,500 in Illinois and $11,628 in California. Rates climb even higher in urban areas.

"Over the last three decades, weekly out-of-pocket spending on child-care for families with an employed mother has almost doubled, according to the Census Bureau," Paquette writes. One problem is a lack of reliable, affordable daycare, which causes some women to quit jobs or settle for jobs below their skill sets or part-time work in return for more schedule flexibility, said economist Ariane Hegewisch.

Another problem is that only 17 percent of children eligible for child-care subsidies under the federal parameters in 2011 received the assistance, the report found, Paquette writes. "An estimated 43 million workers can’t take a sick day without shrinking their paycheck, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. They’re often forced to choose between a chunk of wages or, say, taking their child to the doctor."

The report found that only 12 percent of four-year-olds in New Hampshire have access to public preschool and only 13 percent in Hawaii, Idaho and Utah, Paquette writes. (Institute for Women’s Policy Research map)

Nation's 5.6 million rural veterans lack attention, resources, says Housing Assistance Council

Officials from the Housing Assistance Council said this week during their annual summit that public planners have too limited a view of the struggles of the nation's 5.6 million rural veterans to effectively reach them, Leo Shane reports for Military Times.

"Veterans in rural areas are generally older (median age 62) than the overall veterans population (median age 40) and more likely to own their own homes but less likely to have easy access to a variety of federal health care and employment offerings, according to group research," Shane writes.

"Jon Dieter, director of community services at Washington Longview Housing Authority, said recent national efforts to solve veterans' homelessness have led to a bounty of new housing resource partners in his state," Shane writes. "But when officials tried to expand those efforts from cities to rural regions, the available partners suddenly disappeared."

Deiter told Shane, "Like so many other things, you're just not going to find resources for rural veterans unless we push, pull and advocate for them. A lot of the problems we normally face with helping veterans become so much harder when we're in rural areas."

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said one concern is limited transportation options to VA facilities, especially for older veterans, Shane writes. Farr said "waiting for mobile care centers to visit their towns is less practical than getting the department to pay for checkups with private-sector doctors." Farr told Shane, "So we need a different approach. Too often rural America gets screwed on these kinds of services." (Read more)

Researchers find unsafe levels of cancer-causing toxins in Ohio's most heavily fracked county

Researchers who took samples from Ohio's most heavily fracked county found that toxic pollutants levels are higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for long term exposure, David Hasemyer reports for InsideClimate News. Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Cincinnati found chemicals released during oil and gas extraction that can raise people's risk of cancer and respiratory ailments in samples from Carroll County, home to 480 permitted wells.

"Based on the data collected, researchers calculated the cancer risk posed by airborne contaminants in the Carroll County study areas," Hasemyer  writes. "For the worst-case scenario––exposure 24 hours a day over 25 years––they found that a person anywhere in the study area would be exposed at a risk level exceeding the threshold the EPA deems acceptable." (InsideClimate News map)

"The lifetime cancer risk in the study area estimated for maximum residential exposure was 2.9 in 10,000, which is nearly three times the EPA's acceptable risk level of 1 in 10,000, according to the study," Hasemyer writes. "The study mirrored other research conducted in heavily fracked areas of the country, including Texas and Pennsylvania, that have focused on volatile organic compounds." (Read more)

Republicans seek to block stricter mountaintop removal rules until new administration takes office

Congressional Republicans are seeking to block a stricter rule for disposal of mountaintop removal until after President Obama leaves the White House, in hopes that the next administration will be more friendly toward the practice, Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. (Associated Press photo by James MacPherson)

Republicans say the stricter rule will kill jobs, Cockerham writes. The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which has jurisdiction over mining, "backs a measure by West Virginia Republican Rep. Alex Mooney, which would block the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining from implementing the rule, calling for a study within two years, then a year of review, before any new stream protections."

Critics say blocking the rule will make residents near mountaintop removal sites continue to needlessly suffer for several more years, Cockerham writes. Michael Hendryx, a health science professor at Indiana University, told reporters, “They’re going to continue to have higher rates of disease and premature death. There is plenty of solid evidence that mountaintop removal mining is done in a way that’s not responsible for the environment or public health.”

"National Mining Association president Hal Quinn argued in testimony to Congress last week that the federal government has shown no need to act and that even the Office of Surface Mining’s own analysis of an earlier version of the rule said it would cost 7,000 jobs," Cockerham writes.

Author, business owner offers a regional vision for Eastern Kentucky economic growth

"The Shaping Our Appalachian Region program, known as SOAR, can’t provide a new regional vision for Eastern Kentucky’s economy; we have to provide it ourselves," writes Jason Belcher, Eastern Kentucky business owner and author of Nexus of Innovation: The Promise of Eastern Kentucky. Belcher attended last week's SOAR strategy summit in Pikeville, Ky.

Jason Belcher
"There are literally dozens of ways for individuals to access resources to turn their ideas into reality," Belcher writes. "I’m one of them. Thanks to the Kentucky Innovation Network, I’ve been able to start my own business, Appalachian Aerospace, looking to build the next generation of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles. Aerospace is a major growth industry, and commercial drones alone are projected to generate $9 billion in economic activity over the next decade."

"Growth industries represent potential building blocks for a regional economy," Belcher writes. "Because the market segments are global, these industries are capable of sustaining a regional economy through large-scale job creation and revenue in-flows. Capturing a global market segment is a good way to build a strong regional economy capable of providing the jobs we need and the future we want. Morehead State University’s Space Science Center already has a toe hold in the Aerospace field, and our region can leverage that to gain a share of this global market segment."

"Eastern Kentucky can position itself to compete for ownership of multiple global market segments if we make the right choices today," he writes. "As a region, our economic future depends on our ability to think globally but act regionally . . . If we steer more growth industries here, the result will be an influx of high-tech, high-paying jobs."

"Programs like SOAR can’t do that for us, but SOAR is a tool that can help us do it ourselves," Belcher writes. "That means we have a competitive resource advantage over other regions who don’t have SOAR or similar programs. If we use our new programs, resources and opportunities to capture a share of global market segments, Eastern Kentucky can be an economic powerhouse. That’s a regional vision for our future." (Read more)

USDA declines to investigate watchdog complaint that major organic farms are committing violations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declined to investigate allegations from a watchdog group that some of the nation's largest organic egg and dairy farms are in violation of rules for organic agriculture, Peter Whoriskey reports for The Washington Post. (Cornucopia photo: A Texas organic dairy cited in a watchdog complaint)

The Cornucopia Institute says aerial photos it released in December prove that 14 organic operations are not allowing animals to engage in their natural behavior and have free access to the outdoors, Whoriskey writes. According to organic rules, "cows, goats and sheep are supposed to be able to get to pastures for grazing."

USDA, which said the five dairy farms and 14 chicken operations are in good standing, said the photographs are not evidence enough to warrant an investigation, Whoriskey writes. The operations, which supply stores such as Walmart, Target and Costco, according to the watchdog group, claim that the animals get outside but just happened to be inside when photos were taken.

Cornucopia officials, who said they will appeal the USDA decision, said the system is flawed because it allows organic farms to hire their own inspectors, and the inspections are typically announced long in advance, Whoriskey writes. Mark Kastel, co-founder of the group, told Whoriskey, "There's an inherent conflict of interest when you hire your own inspector. What Congress designed as a remedy was rigorous oversight by the USDA." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Food industries gearing up to deal with FDA guidelines on use of antibiotics in animals

By the end of next year, a comprehensive set of rules will limit the use of antibiotics in animals. December 2016 is the end of a three-year phase-in of the new Food and Drug Administration guidelines, which require 280 antimicrobials considered important to human health "be labeled strictly to treat and prevent disease and no longer to accelerate weight gain," Agri-Pulse reports. An FDA directive on use of antibiotics in food and water is expected soon.

Some food industry players such as McDonald's are already supporting the initiative. The restaurant chain will soon stop buying meat that comes from animals treated with medically important antibiotics.

Critics have said the rules rely too much on voluntary compliance, but "Larry Granger, a leader in USDA's Antimicrobial Resistance Program, says a Southern rancher who's used to putting antibiotics in water during the summer to fight anaplasmosis (a wasting disease spread by ticks) will have to get a vet to approve the treatment before a pharmacy will dispense the drug," Agri-Pulse reports, noting that livestock owners who don't have convenient access to a veterinarian will need to get accustomed to the standards, which require the approval of a vet for antibiotic purchase and use.

The Farm Foundation held a roundtable discussion to help livestock owners learn how to adjust. In the summer and fall it will hold 10 public forums across the U.S. for producers. Although farmers and ranchers have questioned the FDA's broader regulatory reach, they aren't contesting it much because too many antibiotics can also make them less effective in farm animals. Also, overuse of antibiotics increases resistant strains of pathogens that can harm humans.

Grady Bishop, representing Animal Health, a top maker of animal health products, said those in the animal health industry can abide by the new rules by "using antibiotics intended for animals only, such as ionophores, a class of antibiotics never used on humans; using vaccines, enzymes or other products; or finding new animals husbandry practices to prevent or treat diseases."

Advances in technology put rural 911 at risk

California firefighter Randy MacDonald testified on Capitol Hill last week that advances in technology, particularly in rural areas, are making the 911 system "harder to use [and] less reliable and interfering with critical lifesaving features like enhanced 911, which provides dispatchers with the caller’s location," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "The deficiencies are the result of changes in communications technology, which sees telecommunications companies and consumers moving to cell phones and Internet calling services instead of traditional copper wire systems that have been around for a century or more."

MacDonald, testifying at the event coordinated by the National Rural Assembly, the Rural Broadband Policy Group, and Public Knowledge, suggested three things Congress should consider for its telecommunications policy: "Put public safety first; ensure that new digital networks are at least as sturdy and reliable as the old copper-wire system; and do a better job of informing Americans that expanded choices in telecommunications can also make them more vulnerable during emergencies."

In many states, "phone companies have gotten state legislatures to eliminate or reduce state regulations on the old copper-line systems that people have relied on for generations," Marema writes. Kentucky filmmaker Mimi Pickering told Marema, “Rural Kentuckians are worried about what will happen during power outages, which are frequent and often long-lasting occurrences. Internet and wireless phones don’t work without electricity, or they operate on batteries which must be charged. Landlines have been our lifeline during these critical situations.”

Whitney Kimball Coe of the National Rural Assembly said consumer education needs to be a priority, Marema writes. Coe said that 75 percent of rural respondents to an informal survey didn’t know what kind of technology their phone used. (Read more)

Obama Administration unveils plan to save ailing honeybee and monarch butterfly populations

The Obama Administration on Tuesday detailed a plan to save the honeybee and monarch butterfly populations, mainly by adding or improving seven million acres of land "devoted to the wildflowers and milkweed that are crucial to their survival," Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. Honeybee populations lost 42.1 percent of colonies last year, while the monarch butterfly population has fallen by 90 percent in recent years.

The plan "aims to cut annual honeybee losses to 15 percent of colonies—roughly the average in earlier decades—by 2025," Wines writes. "For monarchs, the goal is to build by 2020 a migration large enough to cover 15 acres—or about 20 football fields—of the Mexico forest where the butterflies spend the winter. Last winter the monarchs occupied about 2.8 acres of forest."

Efforts would focus on the central U.S., "where about two-thirds of the nation’s managed honeybee colonies spend the summer and where monarchs conduct their annual migrations to and from Mexico," Wines writes. "It would include encouraging schools to plant pollinator gardens and turning land around Interstate 35, which runs from Duluth, Minn., to the Mexico border at Laredo, Tex., into a continuous wildflower buffet for migrating monarchs and other pollinating creatures."

Also, "federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Defense Department would include pollinator habitats in their management of government property, whether in restoring fire-damaged forests or landscaping a new office building," Wines writes. "Federal officials would encourage state highway and utility offices to plant wildflowers and milkweed along rights of way instead of planting and mowing grass. Among other initiatives, the strategy will modestly increase funding for research into bees and other pollinators, expand public education and study ways to minimize pollinators’ exposure to pesticides."

Environmental groups said the plan doesn't go far enough to address pesticides, which have been partially blamed for the declines, Wines writes.

Texas restriction on local fracking regulations takes effect; Denton ban will be impossible to enforce

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday signed a law "that restricts how municipalities can regulate oil and gas drilling operations within their city limits," Marissa Barnett reports for The Dallas Morning News. The law, which goes into effect immediately, will "pre-empt cities from enacting a variety of other ordinances, including regulations on wastewater disposal wells, which numerous studies have tied to earthquakes."

Residents in Denton voted in November 2014 to ban fracking, becoming the first city in the state to do so. The law will probably make that fracking ban impossible to enforce, Barnett writes. (Morning News photo: Denton)

Abbott said, “Oil and gas is already regulated at the state level by multiple agencies, at the federal level by multiple agencies. The last thing we need is an encroachment on private property rights at the local level . . . We’re ensuring that people and officials at the local level are not going to be encroaching upon individual liberty or individual rights.”

Critics say the law "is an affront to local control and prevents cities from picking up the slack where state regulation has failed," Barnett writes. "Under the law, municipal ordinances must be related to surface activity, must be 'commercially reasonable,' must not effectively prevent an oil and gas operation from occurring and must not be pre-empted by another state or federal law." (Read more)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease risk higher in rural and poor areas

An individual living in a poor or rural community has almost a 12 percent chance of having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, compared to the national average, which is slightly higher than 7 percent, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Roberta Alexander writes for Healthline.

COPD is one of the top causes of death in the U.S., said Sarah Raju, the study's lead author. The study found that living in the South or a rural area or in an area with community poverty were associated with COPD prevalence, but community poverty became insignificant when individual income was factored in.

The survey included 87,701 participants all older than 40. Some of the patients had never been formally diagnosed with the illness but had emphysema, bronchitis or asthma. COPD is a general term for emphysema—the enlargement of air sacs—and chronic bronchitis—the narrowing of the air tubes, said Linda Nici, the chief of the pulmonary/critical care section at the Providence Veterans Administration Medical Center in Rhode Island.

One effective way to avoid contracting COPD is not to smoke or to quit smoking. This is especially important in adolescence. "Researchers found an associated between biomass fuels and COPD in the South" and "suggest further research to understand the potential contribution of occupational exposure, fuel sources and indoor air pollutants to COP prevalence in poor, rural areas," Alexander writes.

The scientific evidence isn't yet available, but it appears that burning biomass contributes to disease. "It's probably better to use environmentally friendly fuels," Raju said. (Read more)

Obama Administration unveils plan to reduce to rural poverty; poverty report to be issued today

Today the Obama Administration unveiled a plan to tackle rural poverty that will focus on 10 communities, particularly in the Deep South and on Indiana reservations. The communities have yet to be selected.

The plan is designed to provide "more health care, child care and food to families in remote rural communities" and "will focus on programs that help a family as a whole unit, as opposed to separate programs for parents and children," Marisol Bello reports for USA Today. Programs will include job training and "look at providing mobile services, such as trucks that offer groceries." USDA also will focus on "providing more food to children during school, after school and during the summer months," Vilsack said.

Other strategies will include preventing a tax increase for 16 million working families with children, helping states expand Medicaid, increasing minimum wage, making two years of community college free, improving access to health services and encouraging federal agencies to work together and with external partners in efficient ways, according to a White House press release.

The federal poverty measure said that 45.8 million people were poor in 2013, Bello writes. In rural areas, the poverty rate is 16 percent, says a report the administration will release today. The report says that "while rural poverty has dropped drastically since the late 1960s, it has been consistently higher than urban poverty over the last 40 years." (Read more)

WTO rejects U.S. appeal on country-of-origin labeling; House committee OKs bill to repeal COOL

The World Trade Organization ruled against a U.S. appeal "to keep its country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule for imported cuts of beef and pork," Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. WTO said the rule "violates U.S. trade obligations and imposes a disproportionate burden in record-keeping and verification requirements on meat producers and processors."

In response, the House Agriculture Committee today approved a bill to repeal the COOL law.
Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse, "The bill was reported to the full House by a vote of 38-6, with the backing of all committee Republicans and with a 13-6 margin of support from Democrats. One of the votes against the bill was from the committee's lead Democrat, Minnesota's Collin Peterson, who opposes full repeal and thinks the bill is being rushed."

Peter told Chase, "I don't think it's the best way to avoid retaliation, and, quite frankly, I don't think the Senate will be able to pass a repeal. I think we need to look at the big picture and work together to come up with a solution that will get us where we want to get and resolve this issue." Other Democrats voting against the measure were Tim Walz and Rick Nolan of Minnesota, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, and Ann Kuster of New Hampshire.

Canada and Mexico argued that the rule puts its countries' meat at an unfair disadvantage in the U.S. market, Wheeler writes. COOL regulations, which were issued in 2013, required "that meat packaging give more information about where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered. Under the rule, the label on a cut of beef could theoretically read 'Born in Mexico, raised in Canada, slaughtered in the U.S.A.'"

Industry groups cheered the ruling. Critics of COOL said they fear it would cause retaliation by Canada and Mexico "imposing billions of dollars worth of tariffs on U.S. food, agriculture and manufacturing," Wheeler writes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Self-selected media polls need to remind readers and viewers that they are not scientific

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Our friend Ed Henninger writes a very good column for newspapers about design and layout on his site, and we recommend it to editors. Ed's latest column, about the value of running reader polls on opinion pages, has many good ideas, including the chart above (click on it for a larger version), but I think he left one out.

Reader polls are not the same as the public-opinion polls normally reported in newspapers and other media. The latter polls are based on some type of scientifically generated random sample and usually conducted under accepted standards designed to make the polls as reliable as possible—in other words, to be an accurate reflection of public opinion at the time they are taken.

Reader polls don't work that way. They are self-selected, meaning that the sample is determined by the people who want to give their opinion. Thus, they are not scientific and may not be an accurate reflection of public opinion. Most readers and viewers probably don't realize that, but news outlets rarely tell them. By failing to do that, the outlets are not being fully honest with them.

I recommend that any news outlet running a reader poll include this disclaimer or something like it: "Because the sample for this poll is self-selected, it is not a scientific survey and may not be an accurate reflection of general public opinion." Or, simply use this label: "Not a scientific poll." Or something that fits, as shown in the revised version of Ed's poll chart, above.