Sunday, July 21, 2019

Editor of Louisville newspaper reaches out to Eastern Ky.

Rick Green
The Courier Journal was among the last newspapers to close its news bureaus in the far reaches of states the size of Kentucky and larger. That was in 2005. Since then, the paper's reporters made occasional forays from Louisville to cover issues in the rural swath that runs from the Appalachian ridges to the Mississippi River, but no longer is there regular coverage of the coal industry, poverty and local politics that connected those areas to the rest of the state. The vacuum was felt especially in Eastern Kentucky, where those issues remain critical. Last month the paper's editor, Richard Green, marked his one-year anniversary in the job with a trip to the region, and now he's written a long story about it.

"I want to ensure the Courier Journal fully understands both the progress being made in Eastern Kentucky and the longstanding challenges still confronting those who live there," Green wrote. "That knowledge is essential in shaping our news coverage of November’s gubernatorial election and next year’s races involving President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, as well as surfacing issues our newly reconfigured editorial board should consider."

Here are two key passages of Green's piece:
Everyone wanted to talk politics, but few wanted to put their names next to the opinions they shared.
As one store owner in Pikeville told me: “Both sides so dislike each other and the politicians on both sides. I risk losing business if I say anything negative or positive about either Trump or the Democrats. And trust me, I need every dollar.”
There are many frustrated voters in Eastern Kentucky, I surmised. Despite polls that indicate President Trump remains highly popular in the state, I was surprised how many took swipes at him and his 2016 promise that mines would reopen and coal jobs would return.
A Prestonsburg merchant told me, “We had Hillary Clinton tell us she was going to put miners out of work, and Trump promised us we’d be better off with him. What choice did we have? Our desperation for jobs and a better economy became a throwaway line in his campaign speeches to get elected. He made promises he has not kept. But who will be a better alternative than Trump in 2020? Some crazy liberal who doesn’t reflect our values?” . . .
One other sentiment — perhaps stronger than any other — emerged over the four days: There is a new entrepreneurial spirit sweeping across Eastern Kentucky. New jobs are being created. New careers are being charted. New companies are being launched. . . . Many want to move beyond the unforgiving statistics on everything from unemployment to drug addiction that remind of the challenges still handcuffing Eastern Kentucky." Gary Ball, editor of the Mountain Citizen newspaper in Inez, told Green, “People are tired of being defined strictly by drugs and wars on poverty.”

Friday, July 19, 2019

3 children die, 33 are injured per day on U.S. farms; prevention workshops in Ky. Aug. 6-7 and Pa. Sept. 17-18

The National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety will host two workshops soon on preventing injuries of children on farms and ranches. Coverage by the news media is welcome.

The first workshop will be in Lexington, Ky., Aug. 6-7, and the second will be in Hershey, Pa., Sept. 17-18.

The workshop website says, "Learn how you can help safeguard children and youth who live, work and play on farms and ranches. This information can be used to develop and enhance childhood agricultural safety strategies for your organization. Interactive sessions will be facilitated by safety experts and leaders in the field of childhood agricultural injury prevention."

Registration is limited to 60 participants. Registration is $249, but only $199 for early birds. Click here for more information or to register.

Joan Mazur of the University of Kentucky, who is helping with the Lexington workshop, attended an earlier one in Iowa, and The Rural Blog asked her to write about it and her work. Here's her report:

By Joan Mazur
     I have been at the University of Kentucky College of Education since 1993 and have been associated with the Southeast Center for Agricultural Health & Injury Prevention with continual federal funding since 1994. The interdisciplinary nature of this center, housed at the UK College of Public Health, as well as its focus on solving real-world issues on family farms, has supported my research interests at the intersection of public education and public health. My husband and I also own a 70-acre farm in Washington County, Kentucky, so my interests in farm safety and health are also personal.
     Over the years I have developed with colleagues many educational programs, most of which involve technology and are targeted at a high at-risk group of teenagers from 14 to 19. Narrative simulations, digital games and other online interventions for preventing injuries and fatalities have been used at schools in farming and rural communities in the Southeast.
     While many of our more horrifying statistics on youth injury and fatality and injury in agriculture are decreasing, one segment of the at-risk younger population has resisted efforts. Every day on farms in the U.S., three children die and 33 are injured. These injuries and fatalities are preventable, and there are guidelines and best practices to assure that children can take advantage of the many benefits of living or working on family farms in safe and healthy ways.
     Recently I attended a Childhood Agricultural Injury Prevention (CAIP) Workshop in Iowa hosted by the National Children’s Center for Agricultural Safety & Health, whose national mission is to prevent agricultural injuries and fatalities to children. Many of us in all fields over the years have attended workshops, even entire conferences that disappointed despite a promise of improved professional learning. However the CAIP Workshop was excellent!
     Every session was highly informative -- delivered to the entire group, with many interactive small-group components to practice and absorb the various techniques and approaches to engaging stakeholders in preventing injuries to children, whether working or non-working, on farms or even in specialized settings such as agritourism sites (orchards, farms, petting zoos etc).
     We have now scheduled a CAIP for Lexington Aug. 5-7. I hope some of you can consider going, as journalists, teachers, counselors and other educators or others such as insurance personnel, FFA, bankers or other community member in positions to influence individual families and policy makers in decision making that can promote the economic, social, educational and personal mental and physical health of rural farm families and children.
     This KY-CAIP workshop is also a partnership between the National Childrens Center for Ag Safety & Health, the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and the Florida Coastal Center for Agricultural Safety & Health, which will be providing expertise for regional agricultural safety and health issues.

How a top climate scientist, an evangelical Christian, is working to convince skeptics about climate change

Katharine Hayhoe
(Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)
Katharine Hayhoe walks a fine line: an evangelical Christian, she's also a climate scientist who speaks to dozens of audiences a year and has made it her mission to help skeptical Americans understand climate change, Dan Zak reports for The Washington Post.

Hayhoe, a director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and the lead author on the U.S. government's latest National Climate Assessment, believes that caring for the environment is a divine commandment. "We humans have been given responsibility for every living thing on this planet, which includes each other,” Hayhoe said at a recent conference. "We are called to tend the garden and be good stewards of the gifts that God has given us."

The major barrier she faces in convincing Christians isn't that they believe the Bible doesn't value conservation, or that they reject the conclusions of scientists. "Religious people who deny climate science are generally spurred not by theology but by an assumption that climate science is based on political beliefs — namely, liberal ones. Converting nonbelievers on political grounds seems next to impossible," Zak reports.

Hayhoe makes headway though, mostly because of her ability to speak the language of her audience. "Her skills of communication do seem miraculous by the standards of modern climate politics: She can convert nonbelievers — or, to put it in her terms, make people realize that they’ve believed in the importance of this issue all along," Zak reports. "She knows how to speak to oilmen, to Christians, to farmers and ranchers, having lived for years in Lubbock, Texas, with her pastor husband. She is a scientist who thinks that we’ve talked enough about science, that we need to talk more about matters of the heart."

Hayhoe doesn't like being called a climate evangelist, though. "She sees herself more like Cassandra, who predicted the fall of Troy but was not believed, or Jeremiah, whose omens were inspired by selfish kings and cultish priests in ancient Jerusalem," Zak reports.

"We are warning people of the consequences of their choices, and that’s what prophets did," Hayhoe told Zak. She gets a lot of backlash on social media, including occasional death threats, but told Zak that the Bible tells people not to live in a spirit of fear.

EPA rejects ban of widely used pesticide linked to brain damage in children; clears way for likely court challenge

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided not to ban chlorpyrifos, a controversial pesticide linked to neurological damage in children. In a Federal Register notice filed Thursday, the agency rejected a petition from environmental and public-health groups seeking a ban. In rejecting the petition, the EPA echoed its earlier arguments for keeping the pesticide on the market, saying that the data was insufficient to conclude that chlorpyrifos is dangerous, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. In April a federal appeals court ordered EPA to make a final decision within 90 days on whether it would ban the pesticide.

For now at least, the decision is a coup for agriculture and pesticide lobbyists who have been working for years to keep chlorpyrifos on the market. The EPA proposed a total ban in the Obama administration, but President Trump's first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed that decision using the same argument: that the science was inconclusive, the Post notes. In the weeks leading up to Pruitt's decision, internal documents obtained by The New York Times show he had secretly promised farm lobbies that he was listening to their concerns.

Pesticide lobbyists had also convinced Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, then the deputy secretary, to block a 2017 Fish and Wildlife Service study that found that chlorpyrifos was so toxic that it threatened the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species. Some states, like California and New York, are in the process of banning chlorpyrifos, but many farmers say they want to keep it legal because it works, the Post reports.

Though the EPA's decision angered groups who have pushed for a chlorpyrifos ban, "the decision to deny the petition could bring the country closer to final resolution of a decades-long battle," since "critics can now challenge the EPA’s conclusion that the pesticide is safe," the Post reports.

"This is the entry ticket to the actual main event," Kevin Minoli, an attorney who served in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel under Republican and Democratic administrations, told the Post.

California wildfires are eight times bigger, burn 500% more land, because of climate change, study says

Because of climate change, California wildfires have increased in size by eight times since the 1970s and burn nearly 500% more land annually. That's according to a study published in Earth Future.

Since the early 1970s, warm-season days got an average of 1.4°C. hotter, which has made for drier conditions. That has had a much bigger impact on forest fires than on non-forest fires. Strong fall winds, which spread fire and dry out vegetation, and delayed winter precipitation are the major promoters of wildfire, Jordan Evans and Brandon Miller report for CNN.

The researchers expect the trend to continue, and warn Californians to prepare for the financial and human costs of continued increases in wildfire activity. The state endured some of the most destructive and widespread wildfires in history in 2017 and 2018. "In these two years, the state spent over $1.5 billion, more than any previous two year period," the study says.

As miners head to D.C. Tuesday to seek black-lung funds, NPR and PBS set screening of documentary on disease

NPR and the PBS program "Frontline" will hold a special screening of their documentary Coal's Deadly Dust from 7 to 8:30 p.m. July 23 at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Howard Berkes (Salt Lake Tribune photo)
The film, first released in January, explores the rise of advanced black-lung disease among coal miners and the government's limited response. After the screening, there will be a panel discussion with people in the film, including recently retired NPR reporter Howard Berkes, who reported tirelessly on black lung for years and whose reporting was the basis for the documentary; coal miners Greg Kelly and Danny Smith, who both have black lung; epidemiologist Scott Laney of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; respiratory therapist Marcy Tate; and former federal mine safety official Celeste Monforton.

The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is requested. Click here for more information or to reserve a seat. If you're not able to attend, click here to view the film.

Also Tuesday, about 120 coal miners, many with black lung, will be in Washington to urge Congress to restore a tax that finances the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The tax, paid by coal companies, helps pay medical expenses of black-lung patients, but in January the tax was cut in half. The fund is at least $4.3 billion in debt, The Associated Press reports.

Quick hits: Amtrak gets backlash for proposed cuts in rural routes; 'Stranger Things' gets 1980s newspaper wrong

WSJ graphic shows Amtrak lines and the one a reporter took.
Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Amtrak is facing rural backlash over a proposal to cut long-distance routes, Jason Bellini reports in a seven-minute video for The Wall Street Journal, after taking the Crescent from New York to New Orleans. Ted Mann of the Journal wrote a story about the proposal a few months ago; it has a map of all lines and how much each loses.

The third season of "Stranger Things" features a subplot in which a teenage girl, interning at the local paper in 1985, is ridiculed and humiliated by her male colleagues. The show nailed many aspects of '80s life, but it got that one wrong, Kelly McBride writes for Poynter.

A biotech company CEO lays out a roadmap for how the biotech industry could help revitalize rural America. Read more here.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Aided by global warming, ticks spread to new areas of U.S., bringing diseases that threaten humans and animals

InsideClimate News graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
It's the peak time of year for ticks, and they are spreading to new areas of the U.S. as the planet warms, bringing with them infectious diseases that can hurt or kill humans like Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, Nina Pullano reports for InsideClimate News. Warming helps ticks and other pests spread since warmer winters don't kill them off.

"While the total number of tick-related illnesses is difficult to gauge, since so many go unreported, the trend is clear," Pullano reports. "The number of cases of reported tick-borne diseases has been on the rise in the U.S., doubling from 2004 to 2016, and reached a record high in 2017, the latest annual data reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

Ticks can threaten livestock, too. One species called the Asian longhorned tick has spread to at least 11 states since 2013, aided by the fact that it can clone itself. It carries a parasite that has likely killed cattle in three Virginia counties. "In a study published last week about the infections, researchers warned that the tick could put the Virginia cattle industry at risk. Once an animal becomes infected, there is no treatment or cure," Pullano reports.

University of Rhode Island researchers are gathering data about the spread of ticks through TickSpotters, which invites people all over the country to photograph or mail in tick samples they've found for analysis. Thomas Mather, who runs the project, "said there's been a clear increase in submissions over the past few years: From the site's inception in 2014 until 2017, he saw fewer than 8,000 entries. Last year alone, he saw nearly 15,000," Pullano reports.

Study finds that adverse childhood experiences increase risk of opioid addiction, relapse after treatment

A newly published study quantifies how trauma experienced during childhood, called adverse childhood experiences, can lead rural people to become addicted to opioids. Common ACEs include having an alcoholic or depressed parent, and being abused or neglected.

Researchers from the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis conducted an in-depth study of 87 patients seeking opioid addiction treatment at a rural medical clinic. All the patients were white and 75 percent were male; almost half of them reported four or more adverse childhood events. A higher number of ACEs correlated to an increased risk of addiction relapse: every additional ACE increased the odds of relapse by 17%, according to the study.

On he other hand, each treatment visit reduced the odds of a relapse by 2%. Relapses occurred in 54% of patients, and the highest relapse rate happened after the first clinic.

Lead author Karen Derefinko said the study shows the lasting impact of ACEs, Jane Stevens reports for ACEs Connection.

"This study will help practitioners understand the importance of providing trauma-informed treatment," Derefinko told Stevens. "Because of the stigma associated with drug use, it’s hindered health care workers’ understanding of why people use drugs and has led to an assumption that they’re bad people. This shows that trauma-informed care and providing resources does impact how well people can do. It’s also validating for patients and gives them a lot of hope."

Study: Coal-reliant places risk financial ruin by not warning bond buyers of prospects, not diversifying economies

Coal-reliant communities are at an increased risk of fiscal collapse not just because of coal's decline and the prospect of tighter climate policies, but because local governments often fail to consider or disclose these threats in their municipal-bond filings, according to a newly published study from Columbia University and the Brookings Institution.

Even "moderately stringent" climate policies could create "existential risks" for the coal industry, which employs 53,000 workers in the U.S., and that would further threaten coal-reliant counties' ability to pay outstanding bond debt, Adele Morris, Noah Kaufman and Siddhi Doshi report.

Since there is growing support nationwide for stricter climate policy, it would be wise for coal-reliant counties and communities to try to diversify their economies. Federal investment and support may be required to make that happen, Morris, Kaufman and Doshi report. One logical source for such funding, they say, would be a tax on carbon emissions.

Facebook announces 23 winners of grants meant to boost community journalism; several have rural resonance

The Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism have announced the first round of Community Network grant recipients; the 23 winners each get up to $25,000 for six-month projects aimed at helping connect communities with local newsrooms.

"Whether an individual journalist or a larger news organization is trying to build a new business around memberships, or create a tool that helps local storytellers find and engage new audiences, Community Network grants provide both financial support and advisory assistance to help local news best serve its communities. The grants place special emphasis on the needs of news deserts and underrepresented communities," the FJP says.

Facebook announced the pilot program in March, saying it was an effort to shrink "news deserts" that no longer have local media coverage. However, this round of grants doesn't seem to get at that problem very much. Here are some of the winning projects with rural resonance:
  • The Native American Journalists Association will provide indigenous student journalists with specialized training and mentorship as part of an effort to increase indigenous voices in newsrooms from 0.2% to 2% within the next 10 years.
  • 100 Days in Appalachia plans to pilot of network of "context" creators to help reporters and editors cover the region with more nuance and depth, in hopes of mitigating or preventing coverage that relies on stereotypes and simplistic narratives. They're also producing a toolkit with guidelines on how (and how not to) cover Appalachia in 2020 election stories.
  • Carolina Public Press plans to embed reporters in food banks across North Carolina and conduct community forums and listening sessions with clients, and produce stories and two online toolkits aimed at uncovering root causes and potential solutions to hunger.
  • EducationNC in Raleigh will host a series of town halls to build community and audience among students at North Carolina's 58 community colleges.
  • Mississippi Today plans to reach out to more Mississippi expatriates with events in nearby states, a monthly newsletter and an expat Facebook group.
  • Nevada Public Radio is launching a collaborative reporting project focused on acute issues of rural health-care access in Tonopah, Nevada.

Report: automation likely to hit rural areas hardest

"Advancing technology and automation are likely to hit rural areas and the middle class hardest, according to a new report by McKinsey," Niv Elis reports for The Hill. "The report, entitled The Future of Work in America, looked at over 3,000 counties and 315 cities, and found that some 83 percent of the counties expected to see the highest levels of job displacement were rural areas. Those vulnerable areas house 20.3 million people."

Urban areas with more educated workers and diversified economies would feel the impact less. The trend will likely widen the rural-urban economic gap; rural areas generally have not recovered as quickly from the Great Recession as urban areas, and some still haven't hit pre-Recession employment levels.

"Another trend the report said was 'worrisome' was the hollowing out of middle-income jobs," Elis reports. "Much of that has to do with what kinds of jobs are created and lost as automation increases. Office support and food service jobs could decline, but jobs in health, STEM fields, business services and more creative fields would see growth."

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Opioid distribution database shows rural counties inundated with legal pain pills from 2006-2012; see county-level data

UPDATE: Paintsville (Ky.) Herald Editor Aaron Nelson took a look at the data and found that "Two pharmacies in Paintsville ranked number one and number four across the entire state of Kentucky for opioid shipments between 2006 and 2012." And he named the pharmacies in his story.
Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.
Between 2006 and 2012, pharmaceutical companies distributed 76 billion doses of prescription pain medicine, "enough pills to supply every adult and child in the country with 36 each year," Scott Higham, Sari Horwitz and Steven Rich report for The Washington Post. But rural counties, especially in Appalachia, received some of the highest shares of pain pills per person.

Washington Post map; click on image to enlarge it.
UPDATE, July 18: The Post has updated the story to include a link to the raw data, a portal to search for data by county, a map showing opioid deaths from 2006-2012, and more.

That's according to a Drug Enforcement Administration database, made public for the first time, that tracks the path of every DEA-regulated pain medication in the U.S. County-level data shows the places that received the most pills, fueling the prescription opioid epidemic that resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths in that time period, the Post reports.

"The states that received the highest concentrations of pills per person per year were: West Virginia with 66.5, Kentucky with 63.3, South Carolina with 58, Tennessee with 57.7 and Nevada with 54.7. West Virginia also had the highest opioid death rate during this period," Higham, Horwitz and Rich report. "Rural areas were hit particularly hard: Norton, Virginia, with 306 pills per person; Martinsville, Va., with 242; Mingo County, West Virginia, with 203; and Perry County, Kentucky, with 175." The Post's Joel Achenbach has a close-up look at Norton.

Nearly half of the pills were distributed by three companies: McKesson, Walgreens and Cardinal Health. The top manufacturer was Mallinckrodt's SpecGx, with nearly 38 percent of the market.

Because the database is partly comprised of data that drug makers gave the DEA, it shows what they knew about the number of pills they were shipping at the epidemic's peak, the Post points out. Drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies must log and report each narcotic transaction, and are supposed to report suspiciously large or frequent orders to the DEA and withhold such shipments.

Nevertheless, nearly 2,000 communities, counties and Indian tribes have alleged in federal lawsuits that the drug companies filled suspicious orders and did not report them in order to maximize profits. The lawsuits were consolidated into one case, which is now larger in scope than the lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers in the 1980s, the Post reports.

The database was released Monday after the Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail, won a years-long legal battle to access documents and data from the ongoing litigation. The West Virginia newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on drug distribution, using other data.) The Post reports that the DEA, the Justice Department, and drug companies all fought hard against release of the data. The companies said the database would reveal information that could give competitors an unfair advantage, and the Justice Department said the data could compromise ongoing DEA investigations.

Post Executive Editor Marty Baron said, “The Post has invested tremendous legal and journalistic resources in obtaining, analyzing and presenting this database. But there is more work to be done — by us, by other journalists and by individuals seeking to learn what has transpired in their own communities. With this database on our site, many others can now contribute to a full understanding of the causes and impact of a devastating opioid epidemic.” Kristen Hare of The Poynter Institute opined, "This is a remarkable display of public service reporting performed by The Post. The information, available to every journalist in every corner of the country, can be used to impact, literally, every person in America."

Interior to move most of Bureau of Land Management's D.C. staff to Grand Junction, Colo., by the end of 2020

The Trump administration plans to move most of the Bureau of Land Management's Washington, D.C., office to Grand Junction, Colorado, and other Western cities by the end of 2020. About 300 employees, mostly top managers, will be forced to move out West or resign, while 60 will be left in the D.C. office, Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears report for The Washington Post.

The Interior Department says the move will save money and put the agency closer to regional stakeholders, a nearly identical justification for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to move two of its agencies to Kansas City. The move is getting much the same kind of blowback; critics say many employees will quit rather than relocate, and that will end up costing the government more money and make the agency less effective for years, Eilperin and Lisa Rein report for the Post.

The move would also allow the agency to hire employees who might be more sympathetic to the administration. That has happened before: in June 2017, the Interior reassigned more than three dozen senior officials with only 15 days' notice, installing more administration-friendly employees, Eilperin and Reins report.

"Denise Sheehan, who worked at Interior for 33 years before retiring last month from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview that the round of reassignments had a 'chilling effect,' limiting what career officials are comfortable saying to political appointees," Eilperin and Reins report. Whether the effect was intended, it was, Sheehan said, "the most toxic thing in the senior executive corps I have ever seen."

Blackhawk 3rd major Appalachian coal producer to declare Chapter 11 since June, but says miners will keep jobs

Blackhawk Mining LLC, a coal company that employs 2,800 people in Kentucky and West Virginia, plans to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy later this week. "Blackhawk, based in Lexington, said in its proposed filings that the company has enough revenue to continue operating its mines during the bankruptcy and that it does not anticipate layoffs as a result of the reorganization," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

That no layoffs are expected is welcome news to Blackhawk employees and to a struggling region in general. Another coal company with Appalachian miners, Blackjewel LLC, declared bankruptcy just weeks ago, and soon after its employees discovered their last paychecks had bounced.

Blackhawk is a major employer in the region, operating 19 active underground mines and six active surface mines. It's one of the nation's largest producers of metallurgical coal, a relatively scarce commodity used in making steel. Though it generated $1.09 billion in revenue in 2018, the company has considerable debt. That's because Blackhawk, founded in 2010, bought mining operations through other companies' Chapter 11 bankruptcies. Blackhawk's "anticipated bankruptcy would allow the company to restructure its debt, and receive $50 million of new financing," Wright reports.

Biden unveils rural policy plan that aims to help farmers, strengthen ACA, bring green jobs, and fund broadband

Former Vice President Joe Biden, so far the leading Democratic presidential candidates in polls, has announced a plan for rural America that "includes investment in clean energy, payments to farmers to protect the environment and creating low-carbon manufacturing jobs in rural communities," Stephen Gruber-Miller and Robin Opsahl report for the Des Moines Register. "The rural plan builds on Biden's climate plan and the health-care plan he released Monday, which would involve adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act so people can buy into government health insurance."

Biden made the announcement Tuesday in Manning, Iowa, telling the crowd of about 230, "Rural communities power the nation. They feed our bodies. They fuel our engines. They are the stewards who protect our lands." Gruber-Miller and Opsahl report that the plan would:
  • Double the maximum microloan available to new and beginning farmers to $100,000
  • Foster development of regional food systems by working with small- and mid-sized farmers to deliver fresh produce and other products to schools, hospitals and other institutions
  • Increase research funding for land-grant universities to create new technologies and seeds that are owned by the public
  • Increase payments to farmers for practices that protect the environment so the American agriculture sector reaches net-zero emissions
  • Strengthen antitrust enforcement through the antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act to help farmers and ranchers who are being hurt by market concentration
  • Expand bio-manufacturing to create a low-carbon manufacturing sector in every state in the country, including bringing manufacturing jobs to rural areas
  • Invest $400 billion in clean energy and research and deployment, including researching next-generation cellulosic biofuels
  • Invest in wind and solar energy to meet a goal of a 100 percent clean-energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050 or earlier
  • Invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure and triple broadband grant funding, which Biden's plan says has the potential to create more than 250,000 new jobs"
The Rural Blog reports major statements by presidential candidates about rural policy.

Counties want Medicaid coverage for inmates awaiting trial

"County officials and sheriffs from around the U.S. are ramping up an effort to press for changes to a federal policy that strips Medicaid coverage and other federal health care benefits from people who are in jail but who have not been convicted of crimes," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "Counties and their local taxpayers end up covering medical expenses for people locked up pretrial. But the federal government and states share the cost of people on Medicaid, which provides health coverage for low-income Americans."

The current policy, outlined in the Social Security Act, restricts the use of federal funds and services to provide medical care for inmates. That also includes funds from Department of Veterans Affairs programs, the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers some pregnant women.

A task force on health care in jails, formed by the National Sheriffs' Association and the National Association of Counties, plans to lobby for change at the federal level. "Those involved in a new initiative focused on the issue say they’re not only concerned about money. The federal policy, they say, is also disruptive for the people it affects—who are disproportionately poor, minorities, or coping with mental illness and substance abuse," Lucia reports.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

New Trump emissions rule makes it easier for power plants to comply, but isn't slowing the decline of coal

Despite the Trump administration's efforts to help the coal industry, the U.S. coal business has continued to decline steadily since 2014. Even the administration's latest effort, a scaled-back replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, to lower compliance costs for power plants, doesn't seem to be helping much.

Though the new Affordable Clean Energy rule reduces the government's authority to regulate carbon dioxide, many power-plant operators who've been planning to shut down coal-fired plants over the next several years say the rule hasn't changed their minds. "Just days after the ACE rule was finalized, the Tennessee Valley Authority released an integrated resource plan that recommends further retirements of coal-fired power plants such as its 1,017-MW Paradise coal-fired plant, despite the president specifically advocating for keeping the TVA's plants open," Taylor Kuykendall, Darren Sweeney, and Ashleigh Cotting report for S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Though the new rule may slow the decline in coal-fired power generation, it won't stem the surge in energy production from natural gas and renewable energy, according to financial site Fitch Ratings.

"While the economics of natural gas and renewable energy compared to coal are driving much of the shift, Duke Energy Corp. spells out that part of the issue is growing public concern about climate change," S&P Global reports. Duke Energy Indiana wrote in a July report on its plans, "Carbon regulation is more a matter of if, than when, and warrants consideration in the plan. Given the magnitude of the change that would be driven by substantive carbon regulation, a measured transition towards a less carbon-intensive future is prudent."

Study: Youth less likely to die from guns in states with strong gun laws, even if gun ownership rate is high

A new study shows that children and youth are less likely to die from gun violence in states with strong gun-control laws, even if those states have high rates of gun ownership. Firearms are the second most common cause of pediatric death in the U.S., according to the study, which will be published in Pediatrics on Aug. 2.

Among high-income nations, the U.S. has the highest rate of firearm-related pediatric deaths, "the highest rate of gun ownership, and the loosest laws," Michelle Cortez reports for Bloomberg. "The findings are part of a new wave of research into the impact of firearms on public health."

Researchers analyzed firearms deaths of people under age 21 from between 2011 and 2015 using a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database that tracks all fatal injuries in the nation, and cross-referenced their findings with state gun-law scorecards from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. They found that the stronger a state's laws, the fewer firearm-related deaths it had, even when accounting for variables such as gun ownership, race, income, and education levels.

Of the 21,241 firearms deaths among people under age 21, most (62 percent) were from assaults. More than 87% of the deaths occurred among males, and nearly 68% were age 18 to 21.

The study results "bolster the argument that gun restrictions may help avert some of the 4,250 deaths that occur each year among Americans under age 21, already the second leading cause of death in children after traffic accidents," Cortez reports. "States with stricter gun-control laws had 4% fewer pediatric deaths, and those with universal background checks for firearm purchases in place for at least five years had a 35% lower risk, the study found."

Rural Illinois weekly shows a print-only story can go viral, but another editor says a lesson wasn't learned

Conventional wisdom in modern journalism is that the future is digital, and the bigger your news organization's online footprint, the better. Without a digital presence it's more difficult for a wider audience to hear about an important story. But there are still cases in which rural papers that rely on print subscriptions and print advertising, can break news of considerable interest, even if not online.

The DuQuoin Weekly in Southern Illinois recently broke a big story: State officials had removed a country music band Confederate Railroad from the DuQuoin State Fair in August because they considered its name racist. The paper and its sister publication, the Pinckneyville Press, didn't put the July 3 story on its Facebook page or mostly defunct website because they thought it would hurt paper sales, Jackie Spinner reports for Carbondale-based Gateway Journalism Review.

“It didn’t take long for us to learn we were competing with ourselves when we throw stories up on Facebook or on the website," Jeff Egbert, publisher and co-owner of the newspapers, told Spinner. The story went viral anyway, as readers shared pictures of the story on social media, which was then picked up by regional, statewide and nationwide news outlets (most crediting the Weekly). "It’s a reminder that for community newspapers, word-of-mouth still goes a long way," Spinner reports.

The Weekly scooped the Du Quoin Call, but the daily has followed up. In its latest story, John Homan reports, "A Marion business has lined up the band for a September concert, and the Williamson County Fair and the city of Harrisburg have also been trying to get them."

In a comment on the above report, Editor Ben Kleppinger of the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky., wrote: "Sounds like they learned exactly the wrong lesson. The story wound up online and on social media anyway, but it didn't come from the newspaper and the newspaper gained zero ad revenue or online subscription money from all those additional eyeballs. The story went viral without any financial benefit for the community journalists who did the reporting. Perhaps someday the epitaph on the DuQuoin Weekly's tombstone will read 'never competed with itself online'."

In an editorial for his paper, titled "You may not realize who originally reported the news you consume," Kleppinger wrote, "We publish our work for the benefit of our readers and our communities. Once it’s published, it often gets snapped up by other media organizations and republished for their audiences. Whether or not these secondary media outlets acknowledge the source of the story, they certainly never return any of their revenues from re-publishing back to the community journalists with boots on the ground in the communities where the news happened. The megaphones of radio, TV and national news outlets can be great for spreading important information beyond a small community, to the region, the state, the nation or even the world. But the system as it’s built now is broken. As a result, the public’s ability to get that important information in the future is at risk. . . . The redistribution of local papers’ news by other media companies has helped create an assumption among the general public that news is free."

About half of rural counties gained non-farm jobs in year since May 2018, but most new jobs went to largest cities

Job gains and losses, May 2018-May 2019; click image to enlarge it or here for interactive version. (Daily Yonder map)
About half of the nation's rural counties gained jobs between May 2018 and May 2019, but accounted for only 85,000, just 5.5 percent of the 1.5 million jobs added in that time. The rest went to urban areas, and six in 10 of the urban jobs went to cities with more than a million people. That's according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which defines rurality based on the Office of Management and Budget's definition of Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

"Job losses are more widespread in rural America. Losses were more likely in the counties that are farthest from cities. Just over 40 percent of rural counties adjacent to metro regions lost jobs since May of last year. Over half of rural counties that aren’t adjacent to metro areas lost jobs last year," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "Job losses are more widespread in rural America. Losses were more likely in the counties that are farthest from cities. Just over 40 percent of rural counties adjacent to metro regions lost jobs since May of last year. Over half of rural counties that aren’t adjacent to metro areas lost jobs last year."

Since the BLS figures measure non-farming jobs, it's difficult to measure the impact of the trade war and terrible weather on the agriculture industry.

Reporters say Iowa's new ag-gag law violates speech rights

In January, a federal judge struck down a 2012 Iowa law that banned undercover investigations at factory farms and other agricultural operations, saying it violated farm workers' and reporters' First Amendment rights. In March, the state legislature passed a new, similar law that is being challenged in federal court, and on June 27 a coalition of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 22 other media organizations filed an amicus brief supporting efforts to end it.

The brief argues that the new law criminalizes many constitutionally protected news-gathering activities. It also "notes that journalists rely on sources — including activists and members of the public — to 'take jobs intending to carry out their employment responsibilities and also observe practices to inform the public'," Simren Verma reports for RCFP.

The brief also argues that, since ag-gag laws criminalize disclosure to the press, reporter-source relationships are threatened and can prevent news organizations from informing the public about the nation's food supply. And, "according to the brief, the statue also 'stifles public debate, discourages whistleblowers from coming forward in fear of prosecution, and values profits and 'property rights' over the public’s health and safety,'" Simren reports.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is also part of a recently filed lawsuit contesting an ag-gag law in Arkansas. Because of such lawsuits, similar laws have been struck down in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Besides Iowa and Arkansas, litigation is also ongoing in North Carolina and Kansas, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Monday, July 15, 2019

States spending millions on new voting systems, but old software makes them still vulnerable to hackers

Though many counties and states have spent millions in federal funds updating their electronic voting systems to make them harder to hack, the new systems are still vulnerable to hacking, including in several battleground states.

"Many of these new systems still run on old software that will soon be outdated and more vulnerable to hackers," Tami Abdollah reports for The Associated Press. According to AP's analysis, "The vast majority of 10,000 election jurisdictions nationwide use Windows 7 or an older operating system to create ballots, program voting machines, tally votes and report counts."

Starting Jan. 14, 2020, Microsoft Corp. will stop providing technical support and software patches to fix vulnerabilities for Windows 7. That means hackers can much more easily exploit vulnerabilities, and for longer. Microsoft told the AP it would offer Windows 7 security updates through 2023 for a fee, Abdollah reports. In many states, expenses for elections are determined by local officials.

Many states are affected by the end of Windows 7 support, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Abdollah reports.

"Critics say the situation is an example of what happens when private companies ultimately determine the security level of election systems with a lack of federal requirements or oversight. Vendors say they have been making consistent improvements in election systems. And many state officials say they are wary of federal involvement in state and local elections," Abdollah reports. "It’s unclear whether the often hefty expense of security updates would be paid by vendors operating on razor-thin profit margins or cash-strapped jurisdictions. It’s also uncertain if a version running on Windows 10, which has more security features, can be certified and rolled out in time for primaries."

It's an urgent issue; U.S. officials found that Russian hackers accessed voter databases and software systems in 39 states, and warn that Russia, China and other countries are trying to influence the 2020 elections. Abdollah reports. Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, who was President Trump's chief of staff, told a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce dinner last week that Russians "made a decision about who they wanted to be president, and they were very good at what they did."

EPA allows more use of pesticide toxic to bees after USDA announces it will stop tracking bee-colony numbers

Portland Press Herald photo illustration
"The Environmental Protection Agency approved broad new applications Friday for a controversial insecticide, despite objections from environmental groups and beekeepers who say it is among the compounds responsible for eviscerating the nation’s bee populations," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post.

It could be difficult to assess whether sulfoxaflor impacts the honeybee population, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that its National Agricultural Statistics Service will stop collecting quarterly data for its annual Honey Bee Colonies report, and has not said when or if it will resume.

The EPA first approved sulfoxaflor in 2013, but its use was restricted in 2015 after the agency was successfully sued in federal court. In 2016 the EPA approved its use for crops that don't attract bees, as well as for some plants after blooming was complete. "The agency also has repeatedly granted emergency waivers to states to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on certain crops because of a lack of effective alternatives for farmers — including more than a dozen such exemptions this year alone for sorghum and cotton," Dennis reports.

Farmers will now be allowed to spray the chemical, which the EPA says is "very highly toxic" to bees, to a wider range of crops, including corn, soybeans, citrus, strawberries, pineapples and pumpkins, Dennis reports.

"The news comes during a time that commercial honeybee colonies have been declining at a startling rate. The annual loss rate for honeybees during the year ending in April rose to 40.7 percent, up slightly over the annual average of 38.7 percent, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit group associated with the University of Maryland," Dannis reports. "Some of the losses have been associated with events such as massive wildfires in the west, the wet winter in the Midwest and hurricanes in the Southeast. But the bee losses documented over the past decade are often blamed in no small part on the increased use of fungicides, herbicides and certain pesticides."

In considering whether to approve expanded use of the chemical, the EPA relied on new industry-backed studies that showed that sulfoxaflor requires fewer applications and dissipates more quickly than other pesticides, which makes it less dangerous to bees and other wildlife, Dennis reports.

In e-cigarette documentary, premiering on CNBC tonight, Juul CEO apologizes to parents of teenagers who vape

Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns, left, and NBC reporter Carl
Quintanilla tour a Wisconsin Juul facility. (CNBC photo)
A new CNBC documentary exploring the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes, especially among teens, features a surprising message from one industry CEO: an apology.

Kevin Burns is CEO of Juul Labs, which has about 40 percent of the e-cigarette market. It sells liquid nicotine pods in sweet flavors that are a prime driver in getting teenagers to try vaping. Reporter Carl Quintanilla asked Burns what he would say to a parent whose child was addicted to Juul.

Burns, who joined Juul in late 2017, replied: "First of all, I’d tell them that I’m sorry that their child’s using the product . . . It’s not intended for them. I hope there was nothing that we did that made it appealing to them. As a parent of a 16-year-old, I’m sorry for them, and I have empathy for them, in terms of what the challenges they’re going through."

Angelica LaVito reports for CNBC, "The Food and Drug Administration has declared teen vaping an 'epidemic,' citing federal survey data that showed nearly 21 percent of high school students vaped last year. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and health care advocates blame the surge in teen vaping on Juul."

"Vaporized: America's E-cigarette Addiction" will first air tonight at 10 p.m. ET.

Corn futures hit five-year high amid fears about hot weather

Corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade hit a five-year high of $4.64¾ per bushel Monday as hot, dry weather and the forecast for more of it, following heavy spring rains that delayed planting, added to concern about supply, Gus Trompiz reports for Reuters.

"Corn gave up some of its gains, however, as forecasts also predicted some rain in the Midwest this week and traders awaited a weekly U.S. Department of Agriculture crop report for an update on corn conditions," Reuters reported as the December futures price dropped to $4.61. "Wheat edged to a two-week high, drawing support from corn as well as downward revisions to world wheat supply in monthly USDA estimates published last week. Soybeans slipped lower after touching a one-year high as traders weighed up risks for late-planted U.S. soybeans in the face of hot weather."

Trompiz writes, "After initially being seen as beneficial in drying out waterlogged fields and boosting plant growth, a recent warm, dry spell has fuelled worries that crops could be damaged during crucial pollination stages. The USDA will issue its weekly crop progress report after Monday's market close in Chicago. Traders largely shrugged off the USDA's forecast for U.S.corn production in its monthly supply and demand report on July 11, holding out for a follow-up survey of plantings by the agency after its previous acreage estimates were viewed as too high for corn and too low for soybeans."

FCC approves three-year, $100 million rural telehealth pilot

Last week the Federal Communications Commission approved a three-year pilot program aimed at increasing access to telehealth services for rural residents and low-income people. The FCC seeks public comment on the proposed $100 million Connected Care Pilot, which would "give an 85 percent discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services that directly connect doctors and patients," Shannon Muchmore reports for Healthcare Dive.

Telehealth could be a big help to many in rural areas who don't live close to health-care providers, but the lack of true broadband limits its implementation: about one in five rural adults say they lack high-speed internet, according to a recent poll, Muchmore reports. It's a generally popular service; about one in four of the respondents in that poll said they had used telehealth in recent years, and most said they were satisfied with their most recent experience.

"The American Hospital Association lists better access to telehealth as a key component of propping up rural providers, along with reducing overhead IT costs and compliance requirements. Poor access to broadband has been a key barrier for rural providers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Muchmore reports. "And lack of infrastructure was cited in a recent RAND Corp. analysis that found federally qualified health centers underuse the technology."

It's Moon Week, and the earthly place called Moon will have Moon Pies, RC Colas and souvenirs on the anniversary

Wikipedia map
The commemorations of the first moon landing ramped up over the weekend, and will continue through the week, culminating Saturday with the 50th anniversary of Tranquility Base and the walk. Observances are being held all over the country, but one of the more unusual will be in a Moon you probably never heard of: Moon, Kentucky, an unincorporated community between Crockett and Relief in Morgan County. Or, to those not schooled in East Kentucky Coalfield geography, between the county seat of West Liberty and the Johnson County seat of Paintsville.

The weekly Licking Valley Courier of West Liberty announced in boldface type on its front page last week, "If you can't afford the price tag and may never go to the moon with Space X, you can go to Moon, Kentucky, on Saturday, July 20, for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing. In observance of the history-making event, Betty's Grocery at Moon will be passing out a free Moon Pie and an RC Cola to the store's first 250 customers, courtesy of the Chattanooga Bakery, West Liberty Kiwanis Club and RC Bottling Co. You can even take a giant step for Moonkind in the parking lot if you get the urge." It's a fund-raising project for the club, which will be selling "Genuine Souvenir 'Moon Rocks' from Moon, Kentucky," in a bag with a postmark even though the Moon Post Office closed in 1997, the Courier (which doesn't put news online) reports in another story.

Photo from Candy Warehouse
Chattanooga Bakery makes the MoonPie, a marshmallow sandwich of two thick, round Graham crackers with a flavored coating, usually chocolate. The MoonPie (the company merges the words) and an RC Cola are a longstanding, traditional snack (or even a meal) at country stores in Appalachia and the South, and that has been memorialized in song. The event in the coalfield community will be fitting, since "It all began in 1917 when a Kentucky coal miner asked our traveling salesman for a snack 'as big as the moon.' Earl Mitchell reported back and the bakery obliged with a tasty treat aptly named MoonPie. It was filling, fit in the lunch pail and the coal miners loved it," the website says.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Farm debt shifts to smaller banks as Wall Street lenders increasingly bail on less profitable farming sector

Reuters chart shows agricultural production loans and real estate loans backed by farmland; click on the image to enlarge.
As cash-strapped American farmers are increasingly forced to declare bankruptcy or retire early, farm loans are shifting to smaller banks as large Wall Street lenders pull out of the less profitable sector. "Fewer loan options can threaten a farm’s survival, particularly in an era when farm incomes have been cut nearly in half since 2013," P.J. Huffstutter and Jason Lange report for Reuters. "Total U.S. farm debt was $317 billion a decade ago (adjusted for inflation), but is expected to rise to $426 billion this year--almost as high as levels seen in the 1980s farm crisis."

After the subprime mortgage bubble burst in the late 2000s, many big banks dramatically expanded their farm loan portfolios. It was a profitable move at the time, since U.S. farmers were doing well and benefited from high grain and farmland prices. JPMorgan Chase & Co., for example, increased its farm loans to $1.1 billion between 2008 and 2015, a 76 percent jump, Reuters reports.

"But now - after years of falling farm income and an intensifying U.S.-China trade war - JPMorgan and other Wall Street banks are heading for the exits, according to a Reuters analysis of the farm-loan holdings they reported to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation," Reuters reports. "The agricultural loan portfolios of the nation’s top 30 banks fell by $3.9 billion, to $18.3 billion, between their peak in December 2015 and March 2019, the analysis showed. That’s a 17.5 percent decline."

Farmers rely on loans to buy and refinance land, as well as pay for operational expenses. Since demand for farm credit continues to grow, farmers increasingly turn to smaller regional and local banks. But lenders are becoming more cautious about lending to farmers, especially since smaller rural banks are more dependent on their farm lending portfolios and can't as easily afford to take on defaulted loans.

Gordon Giese, a 66-year-old corn and dairy farmer in Wisconsin, had to sell most of his cows, his house and a third of his land to pay his farm's debt last year after he couldn't get a loan. "If you have any signs of trouble, the banks don’t want to work with you," Giese told Reuters. "I don’t want to get out of farming, but we might be forced to."

Fish and wildlife agencies to employ gathering method to reduce Asian carp in Western Kentucky waterways

Using the Unified Method in Missouri
(Missouri Department of Conservation photo)
Asian carp are an increasing problem in Western Kentucky waterways, prompting officials to try everything from bounties to selling the catches to China. This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced another tactic in the war on carp: the "unified method," in which a team of fishers "gathers the Asian carp in one area by using electronic technology, then the fish are extracted from the water with specialized netting," Garrison Simpson reports for WHAS-TV in Louisville.

The method has been fairly successful in removing Asian carp in Missouri and the Illinois River, and allows a large amount of fish to be harvested quickly, Cory Sharber reports for WKMS-FM in Murray.

Ron Brooks of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said the first extraction could take place in February or March, and that the carp would then be given to nearby processors for free. "Brooks said the cost of the operation will probably not be known until after it has been completed," Sharber reports.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, who is running for re-election, announced in a press release that the move to use the unified method was at his request. Reducing the Asian carp population is the number one issue he wants to accomplish in Western Kentucky in the next few years, the press release said.

Rural Alabama editor who called on KKK to ride is finally out

Goodloe Sutton
(Montgomery Advertiser photo)
A rural Alabama newspaper publisher is out for good, months after an editorial calling for the Ku Klux Klan to "night ride again" against "Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats [who] are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama," Jay Reeves reports for The Associated Press.

Goodloe Sutton, 80, was widely criticized after the Feb. 14 editorial in The Democrat-Reporter in Linden, which he has owned for decades. After mounting public anger, in late February he handed the reins over to Elicia Dexter, who had worked as the weekly's front office clerk for six weeks. But Dexter quit in mid-March. Sutton, who still owned the paper, was still trying to control some of the content, she said.

Later in March, Sutton announced he had sold the paper to a Chicago couple. But the Alabama Political Reporter discovered that the buyers were connected to the KKK, and the sale fell through.

Now, the sale is for real, according to new owner and operator Tommy Wells. Sutton "doesn't even have a key anymore," Wells told Reeves. Wells, lately a sports publicist at a Texas college, has about three decades of experience in the newspaper business. He said he had approached Sutton several years ago about buying the paper after he heard Sutton planned to close it, Reeves reports.

Quick hits: black-lung program underfunded; media protest EPA's FOIA rule; does free trade lead to opioid ODs?

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

As black-lung cases increase, federal funding has fallen sharply for a program that helps care for those with the disease, Joe Davidson writes for The Washington Post.

Though the nationwide unemployment rate is low, lost manufacturing jobs mean rural Tennessee hasn't recovered from the Great Recession as well as urban areas have, economics student and rural policy researcher John Casey writes in an op-ed for The Tennessean.

Nearly 40 news media publications co-signed a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, protesting a new rule that gives EPA more power to refuse requests for information made under the Freedom of Information Act, Miranda Green reports for The Hill.

A new study suggests that free-trade policy plays a role in opioid-overdose deaths, Chuck Dinerstein reports for the American Council on Science and Health: "Free trade shifts the manufacture of goods to the cheapest supplier . . .trade-related job loss closes factories, eliminates middle-class jobs, and, as it turns out, disproportionately impacts those regions in the U.S. most burdened by opioids’ disruption. The displaced workers, often less-educated, have only short term unemployment benefits for what has become a long term problem. There is also evidence that one way to make ends meet, is to apply for disability benefits; benefits that require a medical examination and are associated with a greater likelihood of being prescribed opioids. That argument aside, the researchers feel that trade-related job loss has two additional impacts. It eliminates manufacturing jobs that pay relatively well; the closing of local factors ripples through the community and affects not only the directly employed but those that are working in support of the lost jobs, like luncheonettes, grocery stores, the local retail community that gives regions an economic and cultural life. Finally, manufacturing jobs are labor-intensive, they cause aches and pains often treated, rightly or wrongly, with opioids – with no source of income and a medication 'habit,' illicit drugs are a convenient substitute."

Apply for justice reporting fellowships by Friday, July 19

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the City University of New York's John Jay College is accepting applications for a second round of paid fellowships to learn more about the impact of bail and poverty on incarceration rates. The deadline to apply is Friday, July 19.

The Crime Report, published by the center, explains: "Few Americans are aware that prisons and jails confine thousands of people whose main offense is that they are too poor. Confronted with an accumulation of fees and fines associated with both felony and non-felony convictions as well as unpaid tickets and other civil penalties, they wind up behind bars in what amounts to a 21st century version of debtors’ prisons."

The fellowship will cover travel, hotel and related expenses for attending workshops in New York City Sept. 26-27. Fifteen to 20  U.S.-based reporters will be selected, based on project pitches related to the theme of "cash register justice." Click here for more information or to apply.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Iowa senators ask FCC for better rural broadband map

Sen. Chuck Grassley
Iowa's senators, Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, are pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to create more accurate maps of broadband access in rural America. As the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley has considerable clout.

In an open letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai, the senators said the maps "drastically overstate" the level of broadband access in rural Iowa, Matt Kelley reports for Radio Iowa. For instance, the map says that Chickasaw County has universal broadband access, but that's not true, said the letter: "Users’ data available from technology companies suggests that only 6 percent of Chickasaw County residents have access to the internet at broadband speeds."

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained about the accuracy of the FCC map since it was published last year. The main reason for its inaccuracy is that its data comes from telecommunications companies, which have an incentive to overstate their rural reach, since that qualifies them for state and federal grants to build out rural broadband.

Another reason: Even in places where telecoms did build out rural broadband, they often used slower, cheaper Digital Subscriber Line technology instead of fiber. DSL once cleared the minimum download speed of 10 megabytes per second required by the Connect America Fund, but the FCC increased the minimum download speed for broadband to the more widely accepted 25 mbps in February 2018.

New documentary chronicles legal battle between W.Va. landowners and owner of mineral rights on their land

A new documentary explores the impact of hydraulic fracturing on landowners. "Powerless: The High Cost of Cheap Gas" follows Beth Crowder and David Wentz of West Virginia, who battled in courts for years with natural-gas company EQT Corp. over fracking on their land, Mayeta Clark reports for ProPublica, in conjunction with the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The film is a product of ProPublica and CBS.

In June, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that oil and gas companies are trespassing if they enter private lands to use it for something the landowners didn't agree to. EQT used the well site on their land to drill fracking wells to reach adjacent tracts where it also owned the mineral rights.

When Crowder and Wentz bought their land in 1975, they knew EQT owned the mineral rights, but they could not have imagined fracking, which involves much above-ground equipment and facilities, and how disruptive the drilling technique would prove, they alleged. Eventually, they prevailed.

Dairy watchdog The Milkweed marks 40th anniversary

Pete Hardin (Isthmus photo)
The Milkweed, a gutsy watchdog of the dairy industry in Wisconsin and the nation, marked its 40th anniversary in June. The monthly's motto, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," comes from Muhammad Ali, and signals publisher Pete Hardin's willingness to bedevil and challenge the powerful.

"Year after year, Hardin has been a hard-edged voice challenging exploitative food processors, errant farm cooperatives, bullying seed companies, and self-serving agricultural groups that he feels habitually abuse the farmers who enrich them," Marc Eisen reports for Madison weekly Isthmus.

Hardin's "intensely fact-based, assiduously sourced" reporting makes him a sought-after source for reporters nationwide, and his independence from influence makes his voice all the more important. "Pete’s not beholden to the forces that other publications are," Milkweed farm reporter Jan Shepel told Eisen. "He takes to task people who have gotten too big for their britches. You don’t see a lot of that in farm publications."

Hardin's tenacity has led to some big stories over the years. "Years ahead of the national press, The Milkweed broke the story in 1991 of how Kraft General Foods drove down the price of cheese and milk by manipulating the National Cheese Exchange in Green Bay, a tiny market with outsized influence because it set the benchmark price for virtually all private cheese sales," Eisen reports. Hardin also published repeated exposés on the dangers of recombinant bovine growth hormone, which has been banned in other countries but is still sold to U.S. farmers.

Sometimes his targets punch back: The Milkweed was sued for $40 million in 1981 for reporting how his old dairy co-op got a federally insured loan to buy Mafia-linked mozzarella cheese plants. Hardin stuck by his reporting and fought the suit. Though a federal judge eventually dismissed all counts of defamation, it took a financial toll on Hardin. It also garnered nationwide attention as an example of how big businesses use courts to silence critics, Eisen reports.

Hardin, 70, is a New Jersey native with dairy farming and defending underdogs in his blood. "His great-grandfather led a rancorous three-week milk strike in 1916 that shut off the supply to New York City," Hardin reports, "and ended with the farmers winning a 50 percent pay hike and his great grandpa beating an indictment for price fixing." Hardin carries on that tradition with The Milkweed, which Eisen calls "essential reading for anyone — citizen, professor, activist, politician — who wants to understand the under-reported dairy crisis."