Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Young weekly editor bullish on rural journalism

Whitehouse attended the annual
conference of the International
Society of Weekly Newspaper
 this summer.
A 25-year-old journalist in Central Kentucky is preaching the power of the local press to anyone who will listen. Abigail Whitehouse, "a young editor and a purist, understands the blurred lines between professional journalism and the news one finds on the Internet and on social media sites, especially on Facebook," reports Teri Saylor for Publisher's Auxiliary, the monthly publication of the National Newspaper Association website. "She’s trying to set her peers straight, even if she has to do it one at a time."

Whitehouse recently became editor of The Interior Journal, a 3,416-circulation weekly newspaper in Stanford, Ky., owned by Schurz Communications. She told Saylor, "I’ve already trained all my friends. I have told them if they talk to me about an article they have read on Buzzfeed, they are going to get smacked. ... I use Facebook as much as possible. I use it to post traffic alerts and breaking news to keep readers informed. It can direct people to our website and to our print edition."

A 2012 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, Whitehouse worked on the school paper, The Eastern Progress, Saylor writes. After graduating with a degree in English, she took a job at the Franklin Favorite, located near the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. She also worked at the Casey County News, before taking the job in April at The Interior Journal in her home county.

"Whitehouse, who recently received the prestigious Hazel Brannon Smith scholarship from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors Foundation, knows her natural career progression might include larger daily newspapers, but so far, she’s not looking in that direction," Saylor writes. Whitehouse told Saylor, “I love the pace of the weekly newspaper. You get to expand stories further than you would at a daily where it is go, go, go. ... Weeklies are crucial to their communities. People always want local elements in the news.”

Whitehouse "sees herself staying in community journalism for the long haul," Saylor writes. Whitehouse told her, “I love what I am doing, and I love that I am here." (Read more)

Rural hospitals in Ala., Okla. struggle to remain open; Neb. also feels lack of expanded Medicaid

Rural hospitals in Alabama and Oklahoma are in critica"l condition. In Alabama eight rural hospitals have closed "over the last 15 years and more closures are possible as rural hospitals struggle to stay open," reports Mackenzie Bates for Alabama Public Radio. In Oklahoma about 56 percent "of rural hospitals operated at a financial loss between 2009 and 2013," Randy Ellis reports for The Oklahoman.

Voters in Randolph County, Alabama, will go to the polls today "on a proposed one-cent sales tax" to try to keep open Wedowee Hospital, which has 34 beds and a 24-hour emergency room, Bates writes. "The money will be used to support a bond issue to build a new facility that administrators hope will attract more patients." (Best Places map: Wedowee, Ala.)

Seven rural Oklahoma hospitals have been involved in bankruptcy since 2011, Ellis writes. Hospital consultant Val Schott told Ellis, "I would say probably 70 (percent to) 75 percent of the hospitals in rural Oklahoma are having some kind of financial struggle."

"Schott estimated a dozen or so are in serious trouble, with less than 10 days cash on hand to pay operational expenses," Ellis writes. Nationwide, more than 50 hospitals have closed since 2010 and "another 250 or so are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or failure," Schott said. (Read more)

In Nebraska, rural hospitals "are seeing the effects of the state opting not to take the Medicaid expansion" offered under federal health reform, Irene North reports for the Scottsbluff Star Herald. "Without expansion, rural hospitals have reduced their charitable care and increased their bad debt from patients who have been unable to pay their bills.

“The unfortunate thing is when they put that whole thing together, they anticipated expansion would be taken by everyone,” Dan Griess, CEO of Box Butte General Hospital, told North, whose story is a comprehensive explainer.

Alpha Natural Resources, second largest U.S. coal company, files for bankruptcy

On the same day that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new version of its Clean Power Plan, the second largest U.S. coal company filed for bankruptcy. Alpha Natural Resources, which "has lost almost all its market value since 2011, when it bought Massey Energy Co. for about $7 billion" on Monday filed for bankruptcy in Virginia, Linda Sandler, Tim Loh, Jodi Xu Klein and Laura Keller report for Bloomberg.

Kevin Critchfield, chairman and chief executive officer of Alpha, said in a court filing, “The fall has been precipitous and the effect on the debtors has been extreme,” Bloomberg reports. “The CEO predicted continuing failures of major companies in the industry as a result of collapsing demand and pricing, plus a 'burdensome regulatory environment.'”

"Alpha didn’t give data on future closings, saying only that it wouldn’t immediately sell any mines," reports Bloomberg. "The company has about 8,000 employees, down 45 percent from a spike after the Massey purchase. It listed assets of $9.97 billion and total liabilities of $7.3 billion as of June 30." (Click on image for larger version)
"Research firm SNL Energy says more than three dozen coal operations have been forced into bankruptcy in just over three years," Bloomberg reports. "Most have been small, but some of the biggest firms have also succumbed, including Walter Energy Inc., Patriot Coal Corp. and James River Coal Co.—Patriot and James River for the second time. The combined market value of U.S. coal company shares shrank to about $12 billion in late July from $78 billion in 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg." (Read more)

Coal back at No. 1 for electric generation in May

It didn't take long for coal to get back on top as the nation's top source of electricity. In April, natural gas surpassed coal for the first time—powering 31 percent of electricity, compared to 30 percent for coal—but as predicted, coal reclaimed the top spot in May, powering 33 percent, compared to 31 percent from natural gas, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg.

"Still, coal-fired power generation was down 12 percent from a year ago, while gas was up 14 percent," Loh writes. "Net generation from all energy sources was down 0.7 percent from the prior year. Also in May, renewable sources excluding hydroelectric power surged 9.4 percent from year earlier. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources accounted for 8.2 percent of net generation. Wind gained 9.9 percent to account for 5.3 percent of all electricity, the Energy Information Administration said." (Read more) (Bloomberg graphic: Coal and natural gas rates)

Brothers turn parody videos into pitch for farming

A series of agricultural-themed song parody videos that three Kansas brothers put online became a sensation and are enabling the brothers to use their celebrity status to promote positive stereotypes about farming, especially through social media, Caitlin Ellingson reports for Iowa Farmer Today. Greg, Nathan and Kendal Peterson of Saline County, Kansas, first uploaded the videos in 2012. Three years later they have become spokesmen for an industry that sometimes is not seen in a positive light outside rural areas.

Greg told Ellingson, "Our message is to help correct the stereotypes about farmers. We believe that farmers use the best technology available, do the most they can with the resources they have. They’re trying to make the best decisions to use their land and take care of their livestock. ... Some people don’t seem to understand that. So I think our most important message is to thank farmers for what they do and just try to understand them a little bit better instead of making snap judgments.”

The Peterson brothers host tours at their farm near Assaria, Kan., to teach people "about agriculture and see the work that goes into running a farm," Ellingson writes. Greg spoke at 100 events last year and is expected to do the same this year. He told Ellingson, "We give a presentation where we just kind of tell our story—how it all went down and what we learned from that experience. When we’re talking to younger kids, it’s more of an inspirational presentation, and for older farmers it’s more informational.”

The Petersons are not alone in using social media to promote agriculture. Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, "says many farmers have jumped at the chance to speak for the industry on social media," Ellingson writes. Burns-Thompson told her, “Farmers today, even the more senior ones, are becoming incredibly tech savvy, and they are surprisingly some of our most active social media users." (YouTube video)

Greater sage grouse sightings up in 2014 and 2015; bird being considered for 'endangered' status

The population of the greater sage grouse, a threatened species, appears to be on the rebound. Yet-to-be-published research compiled by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says that western state biologists "spotted 80,284 male sage grouse across the West in 2015, a 40 percent jump over the 57,399 that were spotted in 2014 and 63 percent over the 49,397 that were spotted in 2013," Phil Taylor reports for Greenwire.

A study published in March by the University of Idaho, commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found the "number of breeding male grouse fell by more than half Westwide between 2007 and 2013," Taylor writes. Those kinds of numbers led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2014 to list the grouse as threatened, and the agency has until September to determine if any additional protections, such as being listed as endangered, should be added. In May, the Obama administration moved to limit petroleum drilling and other activities on some of the sage grouse's wide-ranging habitat in the American West to keep the species off the endangered list.

Despite the positive numbers in the new study, "sage grouse experts caution against drawing conclusions from the two-year spike, noting that sage grouse populations appear to fluctuate on roughly decade-long cycles and are influenced in the short term by precipitation," Taylor writes.

"Much of the recent surge was driven by Wyoming, which is home to roughly 40 percent of the grouse's rangewide population," Taylor writes. "The number of male birds counted in the Cowboy State was 18,238 in 2013, 20,050 in 2014 and 35,860 in 2015, according to state officials. Scientists checked about 1,600 leks, about 88 percent of the known occupied leks, in each of those years." Officials, who cited improved weather conditions for the increase in population, said Montana and Colorado also had significant increases in sage grouse sightings. (Read more)

Voting open in Farmers Market Celebration to promote local markets, reward top vote-getters

American Farmland Trust is holding a Farmers Market Celebration to "raise national awareness about the importance of farmers markets to family farmers and communities," says the organization. Through Sept. 23, residents are being asked to endorse their local farmers market in five best in class categories: People's Choice; Focus on Farmers; Healthy Food For All; Pillar of the Community; and Champion for the Environment. Currently, the Floyd County Farmers Market in Prestonsburg, Ky., leads in all five categories.

American Farmland Trust says on its website: "We’re looking for the cream of the crop, the best of America’s farmers markets. Your recommendation can earn national awards and recognition for your farmers market. Put your hometown on the map." To endorse a local farmers market or see the current standings click here.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Organic farmers struggle to meet demand; food makers and retailers buy land to grow their own

Organic farmer Andrew Dunham looks for ripe
eggplant on one of the biggest multi-vegetable
farms in Iowa. 
 (DMR photo by Brian Powers)
Organic produce still has less than 6 percent of the national market, but is growing so rapidly that farmers are having trouble meeting increased demand, Christoper Doering reports for The Des Moines Register.

"Shortages have led to sky-high prices for some organic products. And more livestock producers, hungry for organic feeds, are importing them from overseas because they can't find enough in the United States, Doering writes, quoting Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association: "There is not a major retailer in the country that doesn't have appealing to the organic shopper in their strategy right now. But what happens if the industry can't fulfill that opportunity, and people walk away?"

Doering reports, "Batcha said some private-sector food makers and retailers are buying land to produce their own organic produce, or are enticing producers with long-term contracts that offer to pay them extra while they transition to organic — a period that can be costly for the producer who is dealing with lower yields and higher input costs but is not yet able to attract premium prices."

The OTA predicts sales will increase 12 to 15 percent a year for the next three years, Doering writes: "Organic food sales have risen by double digits annually as the public consumes more fruits, vegetables, pastas, dairy and meats raised and grown without pesticides, genetic modification or antibiotics, among other stringent requirements. Over the past decade, organic food revenue has tripled, reaching a record $36 billion last year."

EPA issues new version of Clean Power Plan; rural electric cooperatives say it puts them in a bind

East Kentucky Power's Spurlock Station
Rural electric cooperatives, which are more dependent on coal than other types of utilities, are raising fresh concerns as the Obama administration issues its revised, final regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We’re telling our story to everybody, everyplace, everywhere in hope that someone listens so we’ve done everything we can to protect our members,” said Jim Compton, CEO and general manager of South Mississippi Electric Power, told Cathy Cash, a writer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric generators say the regulations would force them to close plants for which they have received billions in federal loans for upgrades to meet previous environmental regulations. “We need to find solutions to help the government and electric cooperatives traverse these regulations so we can get to the financial end of these plants,” said Tony Campbell, president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Cooperative. “If we don’t, it’s going to cost the federal government money and the consumer-members money.”

But one of those consumer-members, Tona Barkley of Owenton, said through Kentuckians for the Commonwealth: “I volunteered and worked hard on an initiative with Owen Electric and other rural electric cooperative utilities to increase clean renewable energy and energy savings. That experience gave me hope that we can all work together to bring about a bright future in Kentucky. I believe the Clean Power Plan rule gives us another great opportunity to move forward quickly.”

The revised rules call for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, instead of the original 30 percent, but give states "more time and broader options to comply" with state-by-state limits still to be set by the Environmental Protection Agency, notes Josh Lederman of The Associated Press. The plan relies more on renewable energy sources, calling for them to provide 28 percent of U.S. power by 2030, up from 22 percent in the first plan, and keeps natural gas's share of electricity generation at current levels rather than increasing it.

What are the sources of our electric power? The Washington Post has a map showing the nation's electric generating stations, by size range and power source (coal is gray, gas is orange, hydroelectric is blue, wind is green, solar is gold, oil is red and nuclear is purple). Click on the image or here for a larger version.

Rural hospital in southwest Va., closed by chain, set to reopen after remarkable, multi-level effort

Sperling's Best Places map
Almost two years ago, the Wellmont chain closed the Lee County Hospital in Pennington Gap, Va., near the southwest tip of the state, "for all the wrong reasons," as local officials put it to Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times. This fall or winter, the hospital is to reopen after a remarkable effort by local, state and federal officials to make a way for it. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner told Rife, "Communities moan and give up. The folks in Lee County stood up and said, ‘We’ll fix this.’"

The story is a complicated one, well told by Rife. But the human dimension is simple. “There is no doubt that people have passed away because there was no hospital here,” Sheriff Gary Parsons told her. “We lose the golden hour in the amount of time that it takes to get them to another hospital in Big Stone or Kingsport.” And the county's economic-development efforts have suffered due to the loss of the hospital, which employed 140 peopele.

Parsons, echoing others, accused Wellmont of "double talk" in explaining why it closed the hospital. It cited reimbursement cuts associated with Obamacare, extremely low community use of the hospital and a lack of consistent physician coverage. Locals "claim the first two reasons resulted from a crisis manufactured by Wellmont managers to shift doctors and patients to other hospitals in their network," Rife reports. "Many in Lee County believe their hospital and their health were sacrificed to improve the nonprofit’s bottom line because Wellmont was searching for a merger partner."

Rife explains that when Wellmont bought the hospital in 2007, it didn't really want it, but took it in a package deal with Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Norton, where it "could go head-to-head against its regional rival, Mountain State Health Alliance and its Norton Community Hospital." Wellmont wouldn't talk about its reasons.

As it turns out, the new Lee County Hospital Authority plans to hire Mountain State to provide services. And Mountain State and Wellmont "are in negotiations to merge," Rife reports.

Streams lowered by California drought become renewed sites for gold prospecting and mining

Miners collect dirt from a mud pit next to the Bear River.
(Photo by Randy Pentch, The Sacramento Bee)
"As California’s prolonged drought dries up irrigation supplies for agriculture and forces cutbacks in urban water deliveries, it also creates opportunities for prospectors and miners panning, sluicing, chiseling and diving for gold," reports Peter Hecht of The Sacramento Bee. "Gold seekers are wading into formerly deep waterways to harvest flecks from the pea gravel and sediment in long inaccessible crevices. Diminishing flows also have been leaving gold residues, like gilded bathtub rings, amid the cobbled banks of many rivers and streams."

The increased prospecting has driven up sales of supplies and equipment. Heather Willis, manager of Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn, turned miner, too, at "an untapped spot on the upper Bear River. . . . In a few hours of digging and panning, she got nine grams of gold, worth about $340."

Hecht writes, "As the drought continues, some miners say diminished waterways are getting picked clean of gold. They count on another extreme weather event – namely, reports of a coming El Niño storm system – to provide help for the hunt. The system would replenish gold supplies by washing down mountainsides, dumping new glistening deposits into creeks and streams and invigorating the search for gold anew."

Friday, July 31, 2015

Medicaid rules limit treatment of hepatitis C in rural Indiana town facing HIV epidemic

The lone doctor in the rural Indiana town of Austin (Best Places map) that has faced an HIV outbreak is unable to "prescribe the latest treatments for patients also infected with the deadly Hepatitis C virus," Maureen Hayden reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. While Dr. William Cooke is treating dozens of people with HIV, "state Medicaid rules forbid him from prescribing new treatments to those same patients with Hepatitis C, the blood-borne disease that causes inflammation in the liver and now claims more lives than HIV in the U.S."

"The rules put tight limits on treatments paid for with taxpayer dollars," Hayden writes. "The only doctors who can prescribe the expensive drugs are gastroenterologists and infectious disease specialists. But neither exist in the poor rural communities of Scott County—nor in many other rural areas throughout where cases of Hepatitis C are on the rise."

Even though Cooke said most Hepatitis C treatments can be delivered in a family doctor’s office or clinic, "a gastroenterologist specialist from New Albany, 30 miles away, visits patients at the county’s only hospital, in Scottsburg, twice a month," Hayden writes. Cooke told her, "Some of my patients can’t or won’t go. We had a hard enough time getting people tested for HIV. They don’t trust doctors to begin with, and they don’t trust strangers.”

Medicaid officials "say the rules were written with the input of a state panel of medical experts and are meant to safeguard patients who are chronically ill and need the care of specialists," Hayden writes. "Indiana is one of at least 14 states with Medicaid programs that require Hepatitis C treatment to be overseen by a specialist, according to a study by infectious disease experts that was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine." (Read more)

Search engine connects journalists with experts; makes finding interview subjects easy

After becoming frustrated with the inability to find experts before the deadline, a former reporter has co-created a search engine that helps journalists quickly and easily find the subjects they need for interviews, Kristen Hare reports for The Poynter Institute. Expertise Finder, created by Stavros Rougas and Ebrahim Ashrafizadeh, allows user to type in a name or subject and immediately be given a list of people and their subjects of expertise. (A sample search for rural reveals 81 experts and their subjects of expertise)

Rougas, who worked at a television station in Toronto, told Hare, "I was looking for experts with depth all the time, too often scrambling for deadline and ending up with less than ideal guests. I thought there must be a better way, so I looked and looked and looked. But nothing beat the power of the Google sledgehammer." He said listing experts is free for accredited universities and colleges. (Read more)

Rural man shoots down drone flying over his house; said it was an invasion of privacy

A rural Kentucky man, saying a drone hovering near his home on Sunday was an invasion of privacy, shot it down with a shotgun, Ryan Cummings reports for WDRB 41 in Louisville. Hillview (Best Places map) resident William H. Merideth "was arrested and charged with first degree criminal mischief and first degree wanton endangerment. He was booked into the Bullitt County Detention Center and released on Monday."

The owner of the drone, who estimated its cost at $1,800, said he was taking photos of a friend's house, Cummings writes. But Merideth, whose teenage daughter was in the backyard laying out by the pool, said he saw the drone as as threat. Merideth told Cummings, "I went and got my shotgun, and I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything unless it’s directly over my property.' Within a minute or so, here it came. It was hovering over top of my property, and I shot it out of the sky. I didn't shoot across the road; I didn't shoot across my neighbor's fences; I shot directly into the air."

Incidents such as this have led some to fear that unregulated drones use could  lead to "a modern version of the Wild West" in the skies. In June 2014, the National Park Service banned drones in all parks and areas it manages. In August 2014 a tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone National Park. Also in August 2014 drones were banned over the Appalachian Trail and in parks in Utah and Colorado, and a drone was reported flying over an NFL game. FAA in February drafted limits on drones, but final rules could still be two or three years away.

Nebraska's newest health care program aims to increase number of rural medical professionals

Nebraska hopes to fill a need for rural medical professionals through the University of Nebraska at Kearney Health Science Education Complex, which will open this fall to "begin educating future health care professionals with expertise in rural health issues," Sara Giboney reports for the University of Nebraska Kearney. (UNK photo by Corbey R. Dorsey: nursing students use the skills and assessment lab)

The new facility, along with a new building in Lincoln and the 2010 addition of the Northern Division at the College of Nursing at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Norfolk and the Center for Nursing Science in Omaha, "will yield approximately 620 new Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduates by 2020," Giboney writes.

By 2022, "the increased demand in health care positions will result in the need for 7,015 registered nurses, nearly 347 nurse practitioners, 434 physician assistants, 810 physical therapists, 521 radiographers and 166 diagnostic medical sonographers," says the Nebraska Department of Labor, Giboney writes. The Nebraska Center for Nursing estimates a shortage of nearly 4,000 registered nurses by 2020.

Nebraska is also getting older, Giboney writes. "The population of Nebraskans 65 years and older is projected to increase from 15.2 percent of the total population in 2015 to 20.6 percent of the total population in 2030—an increase of 104,432 people. The population of people 80 years and older is projected to increase by about 28,816 people in the same period. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80 percent of older adults have one chronic condition and 50 percent have at least two." (Read more)

Meat Institute president says let market create country-origin labeling that consumers want

National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson was off base on his assessment of the World Trade Organization's final appeal of Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), opines North American Meat Institute president and CEO Barry Carpenter for Agri-Pulse. "He's right: COOL for beef and pork is dead; but just about everything else is either incorrect or misleading," Carpenter writes.

Here is an excerpt from Carpenter's column:
Barry Carpenter
The World Trade Organization (WTO) case that Canada and Mexico brought against the United States about COOL is limited to labeling beef and pork, not the broad range of labels Mr. Johnson suggests. More specifically, the case is about labeling fresh, unprocessed beef and pork products produced in American plants, by American workers, under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors. Meat imported from Canada, Mexico, or any other country and offered for sale at a grocery store must be, and always has been, labeled as a product of that country.

Not only did the United States lose its “final appeal”—it lost every time COOL was considered by the WTO. So now, after four straight losses the U.S. continues to violate its trade obligations and our economy faces $3 billion in annual retaliatory tariffs by Canada and Mexico as a result.

The North American Meat Institute supports the proposal offered by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts to repeal COOL for beef and pork, as the House has done. If, as NFU argues, consumers truly want to know the origin of the livestock from which the meat they purchase is derived, the market will respond, as it has done so repeatedly concerning other information about meat products - e.g., natural, hormone free, organic, among others.

We do not need Congress once again inserting itself into the market and imposing another inflexible statute. That was done before with COOL and it failed. What we need is for Congress to get out of the way and let the market, not government, develop a flexible, voluntary approach that provides consumers the information they truly want.

Rural New York county fair refuses to ban Confederate flags; cites contractual obligations

While some state and local governments have taken down Confederate flags in light of the June shooting deaths of nine Africans Americans in a historic Charleston church, officials in Delaware County, New York, (Family Search map) say they have no intention of banning such merchandise at the county fair, set to run from Aug. 17-22, Robert Cairns reports for Watershed.

After the New York State Fair issued a Confederate flag ban, Leslie Kauffman, a 4-H club leader and a co-superintendent of the rabbit barn at the Delaware County Fair, asked the Delaware Valley Agricultural Society, which governs the local fair, to pass a similar ban locally.

Board members declined the request, saying vendors had already signed contracts with the fair and it was too late to make changes, Cairns writes. When asked about Confederate flags during the meeting, board member Norm Kilpatrick said, “The more of them, the better," and board director Niles Wilson said, “It's just part of history . . . It's none of our damn business.”

After the Watershed story was published, the Delaware Valley Agricultural Society on Thursday issued a statement: "We are concerned regarding recent articles that have appeared in the press relative to Confederate flags being permitted at this year’s Delaware County Fair. While we strongly believe some of our director’s comments regarding the issue were taken completely out of context, the fair board wants to clarify that vendor contracts for this year’s fair were finalized and signed several months ago. With this being said, we simply cannot ban the flags; however, this does not mean we condone them, either. The public should be aware that we are sensitive to their concerns and will be closely reviewing our policies regarding this topic for the 2016 Fair Season."

South Carolina community journalist celebrates 61 years of local reporting

Mildred Browder Hughes has been at the forefront of community journalism in South Carolina for six decades. Hughes, who recently turned 90, has been writing at least one story and one column the the Weekly Observer and the Lake City News & Post for 61 years, Dianne Owens reports for the News & Post. (Observer photo by Matt McColl: Hughes)

"First, she wrote about family trips, the good ones and the bad, and garden parties and weddings and teas; then came her crime and political stories," Owens writes. "Ms. Mildred, as she is affectionately known by many (and yes, she has lots of other nicknames, too), has been the consummate reporter. She has been doggedly determined to get her byline in each week of the Weekly Observer since 1973."

Hughes wrote a column last week about her first byline, which was about a business trip she took with her husband to Florida. Here's an excerpt:
The first time my byline appeared in print was in the old "News and Courier," now the "Post and Courier" in September, 1954. My husband, Price, was going on a business trip to Minneapolis, Minn. His employer, Dexter Stuckey, was having him go by plane for a week of schooling on a particular line of products they were carrying, Marquette, if my memory serves me right.

The summer before this, the company was sending him to Gainesville, Fla., specifically to repair a dishwasher a customer was having a problem with. The customer had purchased the dishwasher a year before but could not find a service man anywhere to correct the problem. The customer, who happened to be one of the Stuckey sisters, was visiting her family here.

When we got home, I wrote an account of our trip, sent it to the News and Courier and they published it with my byline. Over the years I have become so byline conscious that every picture that is published or every story I read in a newspaper or other publication, I make sure to read the byline to see if it is by someone I know, have known in the past or just recognize from previous writings.

Army Corps memo fears fatal flaw in implementing and defending Waters of the U.S. rule

Army Corps of Engineers officials have questioned "the legal and technical basis" for the Obama administration's Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules under the Clean Water Act, fearing that the rule "had 'fatal' problems that would make it difficult to implement or defend in court," according to internal documents released by a House committee, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse.

Committee leaders wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, "demanding that she specify whether the administration addressed each of the issues raised by the Corps before finalizing the rule," Brasher writes. "McCarthy told the committee at a hearing Wednesday that the EPA had satisfied the Corps of Engineers concerns."

Maj. Gen. John Peabody, the deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations for the Corps, said in the April memo to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army who oversees the Corps, "that the draft rule 'contradicts long-standing and well-established legal principles undergirding' the way the Clean Water Act is enforced," Brasher writes. He wrote that “the rule's contradictions with legal principles generate multiple legal and technical consequences that in the view of the Corps, would be fatal to the rule in its current form.”

In a May 15 memorandum, concerns were raised "with the economic analysis and technical support documents for the rule," Brasher writes. "Both documents, Peabody said, were 'flawed in multiple respects.' He noted that the Corps of Engineers had only been provided the draft final versions two weeks earlier.

The memo says, “In the Corps' judgment, the documents contain numerous inappropriate assumptions with no connection to the data provided, misapplied data, analytical deficiencies and logical inconsistencies. As a result, the Corps' review could not find a justifiable basis in the analysis for many of the documents' conclusions.”

Peabody "also said the Corps had no role in analyzing the data that EPA used in drafting the documents and that the Corps logo should be removed from them," Brasher writes. "Peabody closed the memo by saying the Corps stood ready to help the EPA 'develop logically supportable conclusions for these documents, if and when requested.'" (Read more)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Federal Railroad Administration releases rule to increase safety for trains left unattended

The Federal Railroad Administration released a new rule on Wednesday requiring "two qualified railroad employees to ensure that handbrakes and other safety equipment have been properly set on trains left unattended while carrying dangerous materials such as crude oil or ethanol," David Morgan reports for Reuters. The rule "is directed specifically at trains left parked on main lines, side tracks and in rail yards."

"The new rule also contains requirements that involve briefings for train crews, exterior locks on locomotives and the proper use of air brakes," Morgan writes. "It applies to trains carrying substances that can cause harm if inhaled and any train carrying 20 or more cars of 'high-hazard flammable materials.'"

More oil was spilled from trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and 47 people in Quebec died from the derailment of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. The oil boom in areas such as North Dakota and Texas has led to a 4,000 percent increase in oil train shipments since 2008, leading the  U.S. Department of Transportation to issue tougher rules for tank cars.

Texas conservationists seek help tracking disposal wells; industry says current rules good enough

Groundwater conservation districts in Texas, who are struggling to track new permits for the state's more than 7,500 wastewater disposal wells used in oil and gas operations, want to change existing rules to require "energy companies to notify them directly when they apply to drill new wells," Jim Malewitz reports for The Texas Tribune. The Texas Railroad Commission and industry groups say current rules are good enough and point to an online database of permits that anyone can check. (Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation photo: This 2011 spill spewed hydrocarbons onto ranchland in Dimmit County. Some experts linked the "breakout" to nearby oilfield waste injections.)

"Texas law requires some notification," Malewitz writes. "Disposal well applicants must directly notify landowners bordering the proposed waste site and the relevant county clerk. Anyone else interested must scour local newspapers for one-column notices with a few details: the company’s name, the well’s depth and a vague description of its location (eight miles northeast of Carrizo Springs, for example)."

Conservationists argue that it's time-consuming to scour newspapers for notices and are asking drillers and regulators to drop them a note of a new well application, even in the form of an email, Malewitz writes. "But industry groups, which call disposal wells safe, say such a change is unnecessary."

"Last legislative session, state Sen. Carlos Uresti offered Senate Bill 517, which would have required drillers to notify groundwater districts within 10 miles of a proposed well," Malewitz writes. "The bill failed to draw a hearing amid pushback from several petroleum interests, including the Texas Oil and Gas Association, the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association and Marathon Oil."

"On April 13, the groundwater managers petitioned the Railroad Commission to adopt new notification requirements," Malewitz writes. "The agency rejected the request two weeks later, writing that 'the current rule adequately addresses notification procedures in a variety of circumstances.'” (Read more)

Not intimidated by Big Water, Park Service to keep encouraging parks to ban disposable bottles

National Park Service officials said this week that even if Congress bows to pressure from water-bottling firms and threatens to cut off federal money to parks for banning disposable plastic water bottles, the Park Service will continue to encourage parks to halt water bottle sales, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. (Park Service photo: water refilling station at Denali National Park in Alaska, which no longer sells bottled water)

National Park Service allowed its parks to replace sales of disposable water bottles with refillable ones in an attempt to reduce trash. That move didn't sit well with water-bottling firms, who lobbied Congress to block the move, resulting in an amendment to a House spending bill that would kill the policy. About 20 parks have switched to refilling stations.

"Park officials say they have such strong support for these bans that they would go it alone with help from friends and allies: the nonprofit groups that donate to park projects and the companies that have been selling the bottled water in the first place," Rein writes. Shawn Norton, the Park Service’s branch chief for sustainable operations and climate change, told Rein, “We believe there are plenty of workarounds. We believe our friends groups and our concessionaires will step up if needed to fill this need.” (Read more)

Podcast examines if Appalachian photo essay was 'documentary photography or poverty porn'

The photo essay "Two Days in Appalachia" that appeared in Vice earlier this month has sparked controversy about its depiction of people in Eastern Kentucky. Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting asks, "Did Vice send photographer Bruce Gilden to Appalachia to make us look like freaks? And how does this feed into existing stereotypes of people here?" (Gilden photo: Harlan, Ky.)

Finn discusses the photo essay on his podcast, The Front Porch, along with guests Rick Wilson of the American Friends Service Committee, Laurie Lin of the Charleston Daily Mail and photographer Roger May of Looking at Appalachia.

"I think he was searching out images that kind of make people look like circus freaks," Finn said. "I think they were photographed in a way to make them look freaky. Is it documentary photography or poverty porn?"

While May said Gilden stayed true to his aggressive photography style of getting up close and personal with gritty, often unattractive photos, he said that style was inappropriate in this situation. May said, "When you consider the history of photographic works in Appalachia, that is not a good fit for the region, in my opinion . . . I take issue with people being used as props."

To listen to the podcast, click here.

University of Kentucky biology grad kayaking Mississippi River to document water quality

A University of Kentucky biology graduate is a little more than one month into a three month kayaking trip to traverse the Mississippi River in "an effort to educate people about water quality in America's lakes, rivers and oceans," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Alyssum Pohl, who began her journey on June 25, "will take water samples, document litter and help clean up beaches along the way. She'll submit some of her data to the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and she'll use some of it to write scholarly articles. She'll also share the data with each of the 10 states she travels through." (A selfie of Pohl on her journey)

Pohl is documenting her 2,500-mile trip on a blog, "Paddle On!," where she writes that she picks up an average of two to eight pieces of trash per day. As of July 19, only two days had passed during which she didn't see any trash.

"She said she has been surprised by the lack of trash in the water but disappointed by the amount of litter at campsites," Wright writes. She told him, "Every little bit of pollution . . . it all goes somewhere, and it all matters." Water samples Pohl collects will be compared with those of John Sullivan, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist who canoed the Mississippi River in 2012 and 2013.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Health-care spending increases predicted to be larger in next decade than last few years

Health-care spending increased 5.5 percent in 2014—to $3.1 trillion—and is expected to have an average annual growth of 5.8 percent between 2014 and 2024, starting "a period in which health-care spending will creep up after years of a slowdown in spending growth," says a report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services published Tuesday in Health Affairs.

If that proves true, by 2024 health care will account "for nearly a fifth of the gross domestic product, and federal, state and local governments are expected to foot nearly half the bill," the study says. The main reasons for the increase in spending are that more people are insured under federal health reform, the aging Baby Boomer generation and stronger economic growth, researcher Sean P. Keehan told Carolyn Johnson of The Washington Post.

"Prescription drug spending has also increased markedly, largely due to the debut of expensive hepatitis C drugs over the last two years, Keehan said," Johnson writes. "In 2013, prescription drug spending grew just 2.5 percent compared with the previous year, whereas in 2014, drug spending shot up 12.6 percent. The effects of those drugs on 2015 spending are expected to be tempered by rebates offered by the pharmaceutical companies. Prescription drug spending growth is projected to increase 7.6 percent in 2015."

Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president for communications at PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's main lobby, told Johnson, "The report is very clear that last year was unique and it was driven in part by expansion of health-care coverage and new cures that are available to patients. And even with new treatments for hepatitis C, high cholesterol, and cancer, the federal government is projecting that the spending going to medicine will continue to be approximately 10 percent through 2024, which is the same share it was in 1960." (Read more)

Drone pilot program in Brazil could benefit abused agricultural workers in the U.S.

A pilot program using drones could benefit abused agricultural workers throughout the world. The Brazil government announced that next month its labor inspectors, "who investigate properties that are suspected of employing workers in slave-like conditions, will use six drones equipped with cameras to monitor suspicious activities" of slave labor in rural areas, Adriana Brasileiro reports for Reuters. "Brazil defines slave labor as work carried out in degrading conditions or in conditions that pose a risk to the worker's life. Forced labor and working to pay off debts incurred with the employer are also considered slave labor."

In the U.S., 16 percent of all agricultural workers are undocumented. In Virginia, 26 percent of farm workers are immigrants, some of them young children, and in some states teenage immigrants are working 12-hour shifts in hazardous conditions in tobacco fields. In June, a California pot farmer was given a life sentence for killing an undocumented worker who was unhappy with his pay and working conditions.

"In May 1995, Brazil officially recognized the active use of slave labor in the economy," Brasileiro writes. "That year, the Labor Ministry launched a Special Mobile Enforcement Group that works with prosecutors and the police to find and raid farms and companies that employ slave workers. Since then, 50,000 people have been freed from slave-like work." (Read more)

More guns not the answer if armed citizens are not properly trained, gun-victims-backed study finds

Mount St. Mary's Univ. photo: Simulation participants
After mass shootings such as the one in Charleston, S.C.  in June and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, gun advocates often claim that adding armed guards and allowing citizens or employees to carry guns would prevent shootings.

A study by Mount St. Mary's University—backed by the National Gun Victims Action Council—put ordinary citizens in deadly simulations, finding that arming people is counterproductive if those carrying guns haven't received the same type of training as law enforcement. The report states: "Our findings indicate that the quality and frequency of training to maintain acquired skills is predictive of how someone with a firearm will react in a stressful situation and whether they can successfully defend themselves . . . Firearms training for law enforcement demands more than mastering the fundamentals of marksmanship. It also must include a clearly defined set of priorities to guide police officers in the use of firearms."

As part of the study, researchers recruited "77 volunteers with varying levels of firearm experience and training and had each of them participate in simulations of three different scenarios using the firearms training simulator at the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. "The first scenario involved a carjacking, the second an armed robbery in a convenience store and the third a case of suspected larceny."

"They found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people without firearms training performed poorly in the scenarios," Ingraham writes. "They didn't take cover. They didn't attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy—they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people or not itchy enough—they didn't shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at."

"The study, of course, has its limitations. Seventy seven participants is a very small sample size, for instance," Ingraham writes. "But its conclusion should be fairly uncontroversial: if you want to be able to use a gun in self-defense, you should be trained in how to do so. Requiring gun owners to be trained and licensed, similar to what we require of say, automobile drivers, may be in a middle area that more people could agree on." (Read more)

Black women in rural South: fewer opportunities, less philanthropic support than white ones

Rural African American women in the Black Belt and Mississippi Delta have higher rates of poverty than white women and lag behind their white counterparts when it comes to employment, health, education, transportation and access to quality grocery stores and restaurants, says “Unequal Lives: The State of Black Women and Families in the Rural South,” a report by the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, which covers 77 of the nation's poorest rural counties in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. (Mississippi State Department of Health map: Mississippi Delta)

The report states: "For women and children living in the rural South, poverty is the result of unequal social, political and economic conditions— failing school systems, high levels of unemployment, poor public infrastructure and housing and the lack of access to quality healthcare—that have persisted over many decades." (USDA map: Poverty rates)
Researchers found that in the study area the poverty rate of single-mother-headed households was 61 percent, compared to 20.6 percent for white women, and "black women heads of households in rural counties are nearly twice as likely to be poor as their white counterparts." Also, the unemployment rate for African American women was 23.6 percent, compared to 5.9 percent for white women.

When it comes to philanthropy, only 5.4 percent of all funding in the South from 2012 went to programs focused on women and girls and less than 1 percent to programs that focused on African American women and girls. African American women are also three times as likely to drop out of high school and have rural African American women in the South have the highest rates of obesity.

The report, which has a wealth of information about the region, can be accessed by clicking here.

EPA ordered to redo air pollution limits in 13 states; will extend CO2 compliance to 2022

A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's right to impose clean-air standards but ordered the agency "to relax some limits it set on smokestack emissions that cross state lines and taint downwind areas with air pollution from power plants" in 13 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, Matthew Daly reports for The Associated Press. "The ruling follows a Supreme Court decision last year upholding the so-called Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which blocks states from adding to air pollution in other states." (AP photo by David J. Phillip: exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas)

The court told EPA "to redo sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide standards" in the 13 states, meaning that "Texas and South Carolina would see limits for both forms of pollution adjusted, while new limits for either sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides would be set in 11 other states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia," Daly writes. EPA’s "rule imposed overly strict limits on the 13 upwind states," and "the limits would result in downwind states' 'overachieving' air quality standards for harmful pollutants," the court said. (Read more)

EPA is also expected on Monday to announce it is giving states an extra two years—until 2022—to begin complying with proposed rules to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005, Emily Holden and Rod Kuckro report for EnergyWire.

"The rule will also provide more time for states to submit final plans," Holden and Kuckro writes. "It still calls for states to meet emissions goals under the rule by Jan. 1, 2030. But it extends the time states have to craft plans, requiring an 'initial' state plan by Sept. 6, 2016, and a "final" state plan by Sept. 6, 2018."  (Read more)

12 free workshops set on antibiotic use in animals

A series of free workshops for livestock producers, feed company representatives and veterinarians will focus on stewardship of medically-important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals, Farm Foundation announced.

The one-day workshops "are an opportunity for livestock producers, their feed suppliers and veterinarians to gain a comprehensive understanding of two Guidance for Industry (GFIs) issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the use of medically-important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals, as well as the FDA’s revised Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) rule," reports Farm Foundation. "The workshops are also an opportunity for other stakeholders, such as state and federal agencies, colleges of veterinary medicine and university extension personnel, to gain insights into the changes needed to meet the requirements."

Workshops, which are scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., will be held Aug. 14 in Raleigh, N.C.; Aug. 18 in Dover, Del.; Aug. 20 in Albany, N.Y.; Aug. 25 in Birmingham, Ala.; Sept. 9 in Flagstaff, Ariz.; Sept. 11 in Amarillo, Texas; Sept. 16 in Ames, Iowa; Sept. 28 in Denver; Oct. 6 in Davis, Calif.; Oct. 13 in Rapid City, S.D.; Oct. 15 in Twin Falls, Idaho; and Oct. 22 in Lexington, Ky. For more information or to register, click here.

Study apps are becoming popular among students heading back to school

Back to school is just around the corner. So, for a generation that has grown up with technology, what better way to prepare students for another school year than the latest study apps, Jefferson Graham reports for USA Today. USA Today asked University of Southern California about the best education apps, finding the following results:
  • Quizlet (Free, Apple and Android): Lets students create flashcards, tests and study games to help keep facts at the front of the brain. 
  • Evernote (Free, Apple, Android, Windows.): The app for note-taking is popular because notes can start on laptops and pick up where they left right off on mobile devices. 
  • Khan Academy (free, IOS, Android.): Is a series of instructional videos to learn math, biology, chemistry, economics and other subjects. 
  • Easy Bib (Free, Apple, Android.): A tool to format papers with more than 7,000 citation styles. Type in the name of the book, and EasyBib can make the citation. Or take a picture of the book’s barcode to get the citation. 
  • Fast Scanner Pro ($2.99 Apple, Android.): The scan app allows users to put the camera over the document, press record as if taking a picture, then e-mail it to their personal accounts. 
  •  StudyCal (Apple, $1.99): Freeschool planner and organizer.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

$3.5B to get broadband to 7M rural Americans will benefit only a few hundred thousand, Politico finds

Billions of federal dollars that were supposed to connect rural America to high-speed Internet were never used for that purpose, Tony Romm reports for Politico. In 2011 the Rural Utilities Service announced $3.5 billion in aid as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package to bring high-speed Internet to 7 million rural Americans in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country, while also providing connection to more than 360,000 businesses and more than 30,000 critical community institutions like schools, health-care facilities and public safety agencies.

"RUS never found its footing in the digital age," Romm writes. "Sometimes, RUS ignored its rural mission by funding high-speed Internet in well-wired population centers. Sometimes, it chose not to make any loans at all. Sometimes, RUS broadband projects stumbled or failed for want of proper management; loans went delinquent, and some borrowers defaulted. Yet despite years of costly missteps that left millions of Americans stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide, a stable of friendly lawmakers swallowed their doubts about RUS and made sure the politically protected agency wasn’t cut out of the historic stimulus effort." (5W Infographics graphic; click on it for larger version)
A Politico investigation "found that roughly half of the nearly 300 projects that RUS approved as part of the 2009 Recovery Act have not yet drawn down the full amounts they were awarded," Romm reports. "All RUS-funded infrastructure projects were supposed to have completed construction by the end of June, but the agency has declined to say whether these rural networks have been completed. More than 40 of the projects that RUS initially approved never got started at all, raising questions about how RUS screened its applicants and made its decisions in the first place."

"But a bigger, more critical deadline looms for those broadband projects still underway: if these networks do not draw all their cash by the end of September, they will have to forfeit what remains," Romm writes. "In other words, they altogether may squander as much as $277 million in still-untapped federal funds, which can’t be spent elsewhere in other neglected rural communities."

"And either way, scores of rural residents who should have benefited from better Internet access—a utility that many consider as essential as electricity—might continue to lack access to the sort of reliable, high-speed service that is common in America’s cities," Romm writes. "Even RUS admits it’s not going to provide better service to the 7 million residents it once touted; instead, the number is in the hundreds of thousands." (Read more)

Voluntary country-origin labeling only reasonable solution, says Farmers Union president

Country-of-origin labeling appears to be dead, after losing its final appeal with the World Trade Organization, "where Canada and Mexico, with support from the multi-national meat packing industry, charged that COOL was undermining their meat exports to the U.S. and costing them lots of money," National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson opines for Agri-Pulse. COOL was recently repealed by the House but could still be revived by the Senate in the form of a voluntary "Made in the USA" label, where "consumers win, producers win, our trading partners win and the WTO ruling becomes a moot point." It's worth noting that there are serious questions whether the compromise would be legal under the WTO rulings.

Here's an excerpt from Johnson's column:
Roger Johnson
The bill is the only politically viable means of preventing Congress from completely stripping away a clear national label for livestock born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. It mandates the development of a clear, strong and honest “made in the USA” label that we know consumers want. And it defangs the WTO ruling by making the law voluntary, not mandatory. Consumers win, producers win, our trading partners win and the WTO ruling becomes a moot point.

Yes, international trade laws are being used to overturn a very popular domestic food policy, and we don't like that. But that is the reality of the world we live in and something that we should all consider before rushing into future trade agreements.

Canada and Mexico both suggested the adoption of a voluntary system in the 2012 WTO Appellate Body Report, and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) noted that repealing the mandatory requirement and replacing it with a voluntary system has the "potential to constitute compliance with U.S. WTO obligations.” That gives voluntary COOL a green light in every direction.

National Farmers Union (NFU) has championed mandatory COOL for three decades, so this clearly wasn't an easy pill to swallow. But it is the only way to retain some semblance of clear and accurate food labeling that allows consumers to know where their food comes from, and it offers farmers and ranchers an avenue to allow that to happen.

Of course, the repeated beatings that COOL received at the WTO have opened the door for those who have always opposed food labeling in the Senate to lead the charge for complete repeal. In fact, a bill sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts would repeal COOL completely and allow packers to determine their own definition of what a product of the U.S. is. The multinational meat packers would undoubtedly use it to go back to deceiving consumers into believing that foreign meat was a product of the U.S. when it is not. The Hoeven-Stabenow alternative would prevent those packers from such deceptive practices by requiring that in order for any meat to be labeled as product of the U.S. that meat must be from an animal that was born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

Finding the right time to talk about gun control in a year averaging one mass shooting per day

Following a shooting death that makes national news—such as the one in June in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead and the one last week in Lafayette, La., that resulted in two deaths and nine injuries—talk of gun-control laws often come up. Supporters point to the incident as reason why stricter laws are needed, while critics say it's not a good time to discuss the issue when emotions are high after a tragedy.

While it probably rings true that emotions should be discarded from important debates, that means it's never a good time to talk about gun-control, according to figures from a website called Mass Shootings Tracker, a crowd-sourced tally of mass shootings maintained by the GunsAreCool subreddit, which says that the U.S. hasn't gone more than eight days in 2015 without a shooting incident, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. The website provides a list of every shooting this year, with several incidents occurring in rural areas.

"We've averaged exactly one mass shooting per day since the start of the year," Ingraham writes. "Forty eight days saw more than one mass shooting take place. On 18 days there were at least 3 shootings. On three days this year —April 18, June 13 and July 15—there have been five shootings." It has to be noted that the website classifies a mass shooting as four or more people injured by gunfire, while the federal government's version says three or more people killed by gunfire, meaning the government doesn't consider the incident in Lafayette as a mass shooting.

"In the end, it often seems that the goal is to put off the conversation about the role of guns in America or quibble about methodology while the number of people killed or injured by guns rises," Ingraham writes. "On the other hand, some people, like the Telegraph's Dan Hodges, argue that we've already had the conversation and that it's already over. They may be right." (Read more)

Dems ask watchdog to examine any link between rural broadband access and poor USPS service

A pair of Democratic senators who have been critical of the U.S. Postal Service's reduced hours and longer delivery times in rural areas have asked the Government Accountability Office "to examine whether there's a link between access to broadband and poor service," Bernie Becker reports for The Hill. "Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), both strong supporters of strong rural postal service, said that rural residents had a greater need for efficient mail delivery—in large part because they have less access to broadband."

McCaskill and Heitkamp wrote in a letter to the Government Accountability Office: "Without efficient service from USPS, rural Americans are put at a significant economic and personal disadvantage. The planning and execution of the USPS' restructuring have raised some troubling questions and had a disproportionate impact on the nation's rural communities." (Read more)

EPA draft on selenium water pollution limits causing complications in West Virginia

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday "issued a draft recommendation for new selenium water pollution limits, complicating an ongoing debate over a coal industry-based proposal for a state-level change," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "EPA’s criteria, once finalized, will not be mandatory for states. But under the federal Clean Water Act, state water quality standards must be approved by EPA before they can be implemented. And if states choose not to adopt the federal guidelines, they must have a good scientific explanation."

Citizen groups say the EPA recommendation is better than the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection proposal "but still needlessly complicates the ability of government agencies or environmental organizations to enforce selenium limits," Ward writes. "The new EPA recommendation contains at least slightly more stringent standards than the state proposal for both the amount of selenium legally allowed in rivers, streams and lakes and for the amount of selenium in fish tissue that is considered a water quality violation."

"Over the last decade, selenium discharges from mountaintop removal have been increasingly linked with water-quality problems, and scientists are concerned about developmental damage and reproductive problems in fish populations downstream from large-scale surface mining operations," ward writes " Citizen groups’ lawsuits have forced mining companies to begin reducing selenium pollution and pressing the DEP to include selenium limits in mining company discharge permits."

"Responding to calls for help from the coal industry, West Virginia lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at pressing the DEP to adopt more favorable selenium standards," Ward writes. "Currently, the DEP’s water quality rules contain a long-term selenium standard of 5 parts per billion in water and a short-term standard of 20 parts per billion in water. Agency officials have proposed to retain those standards but also add a new portion of their rule that would substitute limits on selenium in fish tissue for the water-based limits. Selenium in whole-body fish tissue would be limited to 8.3 parts per million and in fish eggs or ovaries to 20 parts per million."

"The draft EPA recommendation published on Monday also includes new language to base selenium limits on fish tissue," Ward writes. "But EPA recommends a whole-body fish tissue limit of 8 parts per million and an egg/ovary limit of 15.8 parts per million. The EPA draft includes a water-based limit of 3.1 parts per billion for streams and 1.2 parts per billion for standing water, such as lakes." (Read more)

Oklahoma earthquakes linked to oil and gas industry increasing in magnitude and frequency

Oklahoma earthquakes linked to wastewater disposal wells used in oil and gas operations are increasing in frequency and magnitude, Heide Brandes reports for Reuters. On Monday, the state had three earthquakes above magnitude 4.0 and are averaging two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 per day, with 40 total earthquakes recorded in the past seven days, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Prior to the oil and gas boom of 2009, Oklahoma averaged two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year, Brandes writes. In 2014, Oklahoma led the lower 48 states in earthquakes with 585 of magnitude 3 or higher, more than the state had in the previous 35 years combined. The Oklahoma Geological Survey, which originally denied any link between seismic activities and fracking operations, has since said that most quakes are 'very likely' triggered by oil and gas activities.

"The state's oil and gas regulator released a directive this month expanding 'Areas of Interest,' parts of the state that have been worst-hit by the quakes, and adding restrictions for 211 disposal wells," Bradnes writes. "In March, the regulator—the Oklahoma Corporation Commission—also directed 347 wells to reduce their injection depths to above the Arbuckle formation. High-volume injections into the Arbuckle, the state’s deepest formation, have the highest potential for seismic activity, according to the USGS. Twenty-one of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are under the order, and oil and gas drilling operators have until Aug. 14 to comply with reducing injection depth." (Read more)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Fracking sites drilling much shallower than previously thought, says Stanford study

"The nation's first survey of fracking well depths shows shallow fracking is more widespread than previously thought, occurring at 16 percent of publicly recorded sites in 27 states, posing a potential threat to underground sources of drinking water," says a study by Stanford University researchers published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Zahra Hirji reports for InsideClimate News. Researchers found that 7,000 of 44,000 wells reviewed were fracked less than one mile below the surface.

"Using well data from the website FracFocus spanning 2008-13, the researchers found well depths ranged nationwide from deeper than 3 miles to as shallow as 100 feet," Hirji writes. "Of the 27 states reviewed, 12 had recorded at least 50 shallow wells, defined as those drilled less than a mile deep. The three top states for shallow wells include Texas with 2,872 wells, Arkansas with 1,224 and California with 804." Reseachers said those estimates are probably low because of limited reporting to FracFocus. (Stanford graphic)
"Not all shallow wells pose the same threat to groundwater," Hirji wries. Researchers say "the 'riskiest' fracked wells are both shallow and use high levels of water—1 million gallons or more. Studies have shown that when these high-pressure wells fracture the bedrock, the cracks can extend as much as 2,000 feet upward. This provides an opportunity for the chemical-laced water used in fracking to migrate to the shallower depths of the water table. And the smaller the gap between drilling and surface water, the greater the chance of interaction." (Read more)

Photographer capturing Central Appalachian images, stories for Facebook page

Earlier this year Bristol, Tenn., photographer Malcolm Wilson began a Facebook page, Humans of Central Appalachia, to profile the people of Appalachia, Cassandra Sweetman reports for WCYB-TV. Wilson said he based the idea on the Humans of New York project. He told Sweetman, "It used to be about the photography; now it's more about the stories. Just to hear these people's stories and be able to share them with the world." (Wilson photo: Hailee Dietz of Big Stone Gap, Va.)

In only eight weeks the page has garnered more than 14,500 likes, Sweetman writes. "For Wilson, everyone has a story, and each is worth telling." Wilson told her, "It's incredible to see the different variety, the types of people we have. Every single one—you never know what somebody's going to tell you." (Read more)

Ogallala Aquifer quickly running dry for Western Kansas farmers, ranchers

Farmers and ranchers in the Great Plains are pumping water faster from the Ogallala Aquifer—which covers 174,000 square miles in eight states—than it can be naturally replenished, putting Western Kansas' water source in danger of drying up, Lindsay Wise reports for McClatchy Newspapers. The Ogallala, which is Western Kansas' only significant water source, replaces less than one inch for every 10 inches pumped out. Once it empties, it would take 6,000 years to naturally refill. (USDA map)

"The vast freshwater reservoir beneath the prairie formed 5 million to 10 million years ago as streams draining from the Rocky Mountains deposited water in the clay, sand and gravel beneath the Great Plains," Wise writes. "The water lay there undisturbed for epochs until enterprising homesteaders who settled the West discovered the liquid bonanza that would make their arid land bloom. Now, in a geological blink of an eye, the Ogallala, which made the Great Plains the nation’s breadbasket, is in peril."

"The disappearing water supply poses a twofold danger," Wise writes. "It could end a way of life in a region where the land and its bounty have been purchased by the toil and sweat of generations of farmers. It also threatens a harvest worth $21 billion a year to Kansas alone and portends a fast-approaching—and largely unstoppable—water crisis across the parched American West."

Farmers are turning to "cutting-edge technologies to make the most efficient use of the water they have left," Wise writes. "They’re contemplating something almost unimaginable just a generation ago: voluntary pacts with their neighbors to reduce irrigation. And many are investing their long-term hopes in an astronomically expensive water transportation project that isn’t likely ever to be built."

"The Arkansas River, which once flowed out of Colorado into western Kansas, is nothing but a dry ditch now, its riverbed reduced to a rugged obstacle course for all-terrain vehicles," Wise writes. "And average rainfall here is just 14 to 16 inches a year, nowhere near enough to replace the water that farmers draw from the Ogallala." (Read more)

More than 70% of pollen and honey from Massachusetts honeybees contains insecticides

"More than 70 percent of pollen and honey samples collected from foraging bees in Massachusetts contained neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide that has been linked to colony collapse disorder," said a study published this week in The Journal of Environmental Chemistry, Sindya Bhanoo reports for The New York Times. (Associated Press photo by Andy Duback)

The study consisted of 219 pollen samples and 53 honey samples from 62 hives in 10 counties in Massachusetts, Bhanoo writes. Honeybees, which pollinate $15 billion worth of crops, lost 42.1 percent of colonies last year, but overall colony numbers are the highest in 20 years. The study is behind a paywall.