Thursday, August 21, 2014

Some rural states allowing pastoral counselors to become licensed mental health providers

Six states with large rural populations—Arkansas, Kentucky Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Tennessee—are using religion to help people with mental health problems, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. All six states have passed laws allowing pastoral counselors to become licensed mental health counselors. Proposed laws in other states, such as Pennsylvania and New York, failed to pass. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Jack Brammer: Kentucky pastoral counselor Glenn D. Williams)

Kentucky, the most recent state to pass the law, has 20 licensed pastoral counselors, Ollove writes. Kathy Milans, a pastoral counselor and chairman of the Kentucky Board of Licensure for Pastoral Counselors, "said many pastoral counselors wanted the new law so they would be on an equal footing with other mental health professionals." She told Ollove, “It just moved us up a notch professionally. All the other helping professions had that license after their names, and we did not.”

The Kentucky law was spearheaded by State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R-Lexington), who said "boosting the number of mental health providers, particularly in rural areas, was a major motivation," Ollove writes. She told him, "Of course, any parishioner can now go and seek advice from his or her pastor, but we are talking about a professional degree."

And the need is great, especially in Kentucky, which has one of the nation's lowest per capita number of psychologists and mental health counselors, Ollove writes. A study by the Health Resources and Services Administration found that 89.3 million Americans live "in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, compared to 55.3 million Americans living in primary-care shortage areas and 44.6 million in dental health shortage areas. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that the current mental health workforce is only able to meet about half of the nation’s demand for behavioral health services." (Read more)

Metro areas are much hotter than surrounding rural areas, as city temperatures keep rising

It's cooler to live in rural America. A study by Climate Central, which ranks extreme heat as the No. 1 killer in the U.S., said urban areas are warmer than adjacent rural ones, and the disparity between temperatures in the two regions continues to grow, Alan Neuhauser reports for U.S. News and World Report. (Climate Central graphic)

Co-author Alyson Kenward told reporters, “Every year, cities are seeing more extremely hot days than rural areas. The fact that they’re happening that much more frequently—10, 20, 30 days more—in the cities than in the rural areas, that really was surprising to me.” She said that "cities, in particular, feel the heat each summer. Home to about 80 percent of the country's population, they’re coated in asphalt and concrete, which retains more heat than dirt and grass; they have far greater concentrations of cars and industrial facilities, which emit more heat-trapping greenhouse gases; and they have fewer trees and vegetation, which help keep rural areas cool."

Using data going back to 1970 looking at the country's 60 largest metropolitan areas compared to surrounding rural areas, researchers found that 45 of the metro areas were hearing up faster than their rural counterparts, with daily temperatures averaging 17.5 degrees hotter in some cities, and in extreme cases, city temperatures were as much as 24 degrees hotter than in surrounding rural ones, Neuhauser writes. "Cities, on average, had eight more days that were hotter than 90 degrees compared to their rural counterparts. In 50 of 51 cities with reliable air-quality measurements, hotter temperatures correlated with measurably worse air quality." (Read more)

Teachers still feel unprepared for Common Core, group rates textbooks for alignment to standards

The Common Core State Standards, a set of requirements outlining what students should learn each year in school, were designed by states to help standardize and improve education across the U.S. As states adjust to the new system, some are calling for modifications, teachers are trying to prepare and public opinion of the project is sliding.

Some states are taking education into their own hands, modifying the standards or creating their own. In at least 12 states, lawmakers are trying to set their own standards. "In several states, legislators have placed new restrictions on state boards of education, which typically write and update academic standards," Lyndsey Layton writes for The Washington Post. "In others, lawmakers have opened up the development of standards to greater scrutiny, requiring that proposals received public vetting."

A law in Oklahoma allows them to modify any standards they don't like. Originally they planned to get rid of the standards altogether, but "It's just completely an overreaction for state legislatures to believe they can develop and manage and implement academic standards," said Reggie Felton of the National School Boards Association. "They don't have the capacity to do that." However, Indiana and South Carolina officials have scrapped the Common Core, which would have been set in motion this year, Layton writes.

In April, Wisconsin lawmakers tried to pass a similar law, but the state's schools superintendent campaigned against the idea. "This bill would hand over what is taught in our schools to partisan politics," Superintendent Tony Evers wrote in a public plea. Nelson disagrees; he said though academic standards have always been political, the state's new legislation will help democratize the process.

"According to Daniel Thatcher, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures who has been tracking the issue, 12 states passed 14 laws since 2013 that change the way state academic standards are adopted. In most cases, the laws add the number of people who must review and approve of new academic standards, he said," Layton writes.

In Missouri, a new law dictates that the state board of education has to make "work groups" to review the standards and report findings to the Speaker of the House and the Senate president. In Utah, the state board of education must publicize potential standards on a website and invite public discussion. (Read more)

As for the states still striving to meet the standards, it's important to note that many teachers still feel inadequately prepared for Common Core, and a new group of experts will post free online reviews of textbooks used for the standards. The Education Week Research Center surveyed a diverse group of 457 teachers and asked them to express how prepared they feel to teach the using the Common Core, Catherin Gewertz writes for Education Week. Respondents answered on a scale from 1 ("not at all prepared") to 5 ("very prepared"). Fewer than half of the teachers gave themselves 4s or 5s. However, though last year's report showed that 71 percent of teachers attended professional development or training for the Common Core, this year 87 percent attended such training.

The preparedness drops when it comes to teaching students with more challenges. "Fewer than four in 10 teachers said they felt well prepared to teach the common core to students who were from low-income families or were academically at-risk," Gewertz writes. Even fewer reported confidence in teaching students with disabilities or those learning English.

Another concern is the quality and alignment of curriculum. "Nearly six in 10 said their main curricular materials were not aligned to the new standards," Gewertz reports. (Read more) Soon there may at least be a reliable and widely accessible way for teachers to know which book and materials align well to the standards. A group called "Consumer Reports for school materials" will soon post free reviews of major textbooks that claim to be aligned with the Common Core, Liana Heitin writes for Education Week.

The nonprofit organization, which is now called, is comprised of 19 educators—and half of them are classroom teachers. They will begin with 21 series for K-8 mathematics then work on K-12 English/language arts curricula. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wililam and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust are funding the project. "This kind of information is just desperately needed," said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California. "There's just no question there's immense demand right now."

According to another survey by the Education Week Research Center, fewer than one-third of educators have access to high-quality textbooks aligned with the standards. Other groups offer textbook evaluation services, but usually for a fee. will be free and available to a larger audience. "Our hope is these reviews will influence purchasing decisions, . . . and one of our greatest aspirations is that publishers will look at these and that [their] materials will continue to improve," said Eric Hirsch, the recently appointed executive director of (Read more)

More and more people have become aware of the Common Core State Standards and what they mean for education, and support for the standards is dropping. According to a Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans think school boards should have the most influence on what students learn in public schools, while only 15 percent think the federal government should have the most influence. Approximately eight in 10 Americans know something about the Common Core, and 59 percent are opposed to them, while only 33 percent favor them. (Read more)

Arkansas community reporter resigns after police chief attacks her on social media

Saying she feared for her safety, a community newspaper police beat reporter in Arkansas quit her position after the local police chief attacked her credibility and the newspaper on social media, Max Brantley reports for the Arkansas Times.

Referring to Jonesboro Sun reporter Sunshine Crump, police chief Mike Yates wrote on Facebook: “Wonder if ole Sunshine could pass a drug test. Why yes, she has been arrested before,"  "Pro-dope smoking, law license revoked, left wing liberal, smelly, arrested by police, unscrupulous reporter," “Reminds me of a song . . . ‘ain’t no Sunshine when she’s gone’ etc," and “Dealing with ole Sunshine is like trying to pick up a dog turd by the ‘clean end.’” Yates, who also attacked the paper, saying “I intend to help that ship sink . . . torpedoes away!" defended his comments by saying they were protected under the First Amendment.

Crump, who denies drug charges, said in a letter to the Sun: “I do not feel safe here, and I will not continue to be put in a position of self-defense. I am an innocent person and an American citizen . . . The level of stress and anxiety created by a public official who commands a small army and who targets someone in such a manner for First Amendment protected activities is hard to measure.”

Sun publisher David Mossesso has called for Yates to be fired, Brantley writes. The paper accused Yates of changing "police procedure to slow reporters' access to public information—logs, police reports and affidavits for arrest warrants. Reporters are getting reports later and only after review by an information officer. They also no longer may speak directly to detectives." City attorney Phillip Crego said the city was investigating the claims, while the mayor had no comment. The Jonesboro Sun requires registration to access the story on Yates and Crump, but the newspaper can be viewed by clicking here.

This isn't Yates' first brush with controversy. Locals say Yates and his police department have a history of racially motivated acts, reports Daily Kos. "John Marshall, who was president of the NAACP while Yates was Americus’ (Ga.) police chief, says he found the leader of the force to be a negative influence." Marshall told reporters, “He is a rogue police chief. We did everything to get him out of here, and it’s been a great relief to have him away from here. But he left a lot of his men that were abusive and violent. And that’s his nature. He’s the worst thing we’ve ever seen.”

Family Dollar rejects Dollar General's takeover bid; cites antitrust issues

Family Dollar on Thursday rejected a takeover bid by Dollar General "citing 'significant antitrust issues' related to that offer," Michael de la Merced reports for The New York Times. Dollar General earlier this month offered more than $1 billion more than Dollar Tree offered last month for Dollar General, which is mostly located in poor rural and urban areas. (Associated Press photo by Lance Murphey: Howard Levine, the chief executive of Family Dollar)

"The move sets up a potentially bruising battle for control of one of the country’s biggest dollar discount stores, as retailers seek to cater to America’s working poor," de la Merced writes. "Raising antitrust as an issue—as opposed to simply objecting to the price—suggests that the target company plans to resist, since that defense could hurt any combination of the two down the road."

"Family Dollar acknowledged that it had held talks with Dollar General several times over the last year and a half. During that time, its advisers were studying—and becoming more convinced—that a union would not pass regulatory muster," de la Merced writes. "Compounding matters, Dollar General declined to attend a meeting in June to discuss antitrust issues."

"By the time the two sides met again, on June 19, Dollar General expressed no interest in pursuing a deal," de la Merced writes. "And Family Dollar had by then signed a nondisclosure agreement with Dollar Tree that prevented any mention of their deal talks." (Read more)

Drones banned over Appalachian Trail; Utah, Colorado national parks also ban use

The National Park Service has banned drones over the Appalachian Trail, which runs through parts of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, reports The Associated Press.

"The Park Service said Wednesday the interim rule prohibits launching, landing or operating unmanned aircraft from or on Appalachian National Scenic Trail lands," AP writes. "The ban takes effect immediately and lasts until the Park Service can develop an appropriate policy. The Park Service says drones could affect resources and visitors in ways it has yet to analyze so more study is needed."

The Park Service also released two press releases on Wednesday banning drone-use in southeast Utah national parks and in Colorado National Monument. 

"Given the rapid increase in the number and use of drones nationwide and in the Southeast Utah Group national parks, Superintendent Kate Cannon has determined it necessary to prohibit their use in order to protect public safety, minimize visitor-use conflicts and prevent unacceptable impacts to scenic values, natural soundscapes and wildlife," The Utah release says.

The Colorado Monument release says: "There has been dramatic growth throughout the country in the numbers and use of unmanned aircraft during recent months with visitor and staff complaints of noise and nuisance, harassment of park wildlife and safety concerns." Superintendent Lisa Eckert said, "Simply put, experiencing quiet and solitude is a value that people seek and want protected within their national park units." (Read more)

Federal judge rules that Army Corps of Engineers can ignore mountaintop removal studies

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not have to consider scientific studies linking mountaintop removal to public health problems when the agency approves new Clean Water Act permits for mining operations, a federal judge ruled this week in Charleston, W.Va., Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

In a 57-page ruling, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. "concluded that the corps was 'not unreasonable' in excluding the studies from its permit review because the articles 'do not contemplate that the health effects were caused by the type' of water discharges authorized by the corps’ permit," Ward writes. The case concerned a permit application on a proposed 725-acre surface mine in Boone County, West Virginia. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interactive charts show state-by-state analysis of where people were born, where they ended up

Where were people currently living in your state born? And where are people who were born in your state currently living? Those are questions answered through a series of charts by of The Upshot, a New York Times blog that did the analysis.

"The patterns of migration continue to change," The Upshot writes. "California has long been the destination of American dreamers from other states. It no longer plays that role; residents are leaving for greener pastures out East. Today, the state is still pulling in foreign immigrants, but the percentage of American-born transplants has shrunk significantly as fewer people move into the state. In 1960, half of California residents were born in another U.S. state. Today, that's down to 18 percent."

"There are growing pools of Californians in nearly every state," The Upshot writes. "It's quite a switch because through 1990 California led the nation in retaining its native-born population. There are now about 6.8 million California natives living elsewhere, up from 2.7 million in 1980."

On the flip side, 82 percent of people born in Texas remain in the state, while 43 percent of Kansas-born end up living somewhere else, "a rate that hasn’t changed much since 1940," The Upshot writes. To view the charts click here. To see the results broken down by state, click here(Up Shot graphic: Nevada, where about 75 percent of residents were born in other states )

Federal regulators call hearing to question railroad operators about crop shipping delays

Federal regulators want answers from railroad operators about why the transportation of grain crops in the upper Midwest has been delayed, Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The U.S. Surface Transportation Board issued a notice late on Monday directing executives of BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to appear at a Sept. 4 hearing to discuss the delays. The board also chastised Canadian Pacific over a 'sizable backlog' on its system." (Bloomberg News photo)

Delays have been blamed on increased competition from oil and coal shipments, a bumper grain crop, an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods and a bad winter. As a result, prices have significantly decreased, and many farmers have put crops in storage rather than sell at reduced prices.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, "estimated that 35 million bushels of North Dakota's hard red spring wheat—or about 15 percent of last year's crop—remains in storage on farms and in grain elevators across the state," Bunge writes. "Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, said higher costs for grain companies to secure railcars have contributed to lower prices paid to farmers for the grain. Farmers currently are being offered around $3 a bushel for their corn, a 70- to 80-cent discount to Chicago futures prices. Typically, the discount is 30 cents, she said." (Read more)

In Minnesota, a report by researchers at the University of Minnesota said 330 million bushels of corn remaining in on-farm storage bins across Minnesota as of June 1 was worth $122 million less because of rail bottlenecks," Steve Karnowski reports for The Associated Press. "It said the remaining 9.2 million bushels of hard red spring wheat stored at farms was worth $1.7 million less." (Read more)

Coal is a tricky subject to tackle for candidates in states where the industry is in decline

As political season begins to heat up—advertisements for November elections are already appearing on local television—and candidates begin pushing their stance while attacking their opponents, in some states where coal is king, or at least it used to be, the issue is a sensitive one that could sway voters one way or the other. And saying the wrong thing about coal could be political suicide in states like Kentucky, where even in areas that have never mined coal voters are strong supporters of the practice.

The heated race in Kentucky between Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, "has thrust the subject back to the forefront," Erica Peterson reports for of WFPL in Louisville. Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, told Peterson, “Coal is sitting like the 800-pound gorilla on the U.S. Senate race right now."

Voss "said this is partly because of the 2012 Congressional race in Kentucky’s sixth district," Peterson writes. "That’s when now-Congressman Andy Barr defeated incumbent Ben Chandler, in part by calling in question Chandler’s support of coal. And this was in a district without any coal mines." Voss told her, “And so it showed that the coal issue has a resonance, it has a potential with a lot of voters who are not coal miners. This isn’t just about the coal miner vote.”

At issue is "also about the effects of cheap coal-fired electricity, like manufacturing jobs," Peterson writes. "In a state with less than 12,000 actual coal miners left, it’s cultural." Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Peterson, “There are a lot more former miners than miners. There are a lot more coal miner’s daughters than people who get up and go to work every morning mining coal.”

Even though coal mining has been rapidly declining in Eastern Kentucky "it’s still risky for a politician to express any lukewarm feelings about the industry’s future. Or, as Davis put it: 'No politician wants to be first to say the emperor has no clothes. Nor does he want to be the last.'”

That's the case in the state's 2015 race for governor, where current candidate and Agriculture Commissioner has asked for support from coal backers while backing away from statements from last year when he said, “A lot of leaders in Eastern Kentucky keep talking about ‘coal is the answer and there is a war on coal,’ I’m a friend of coal. I support the coal industry. But the coal industry’s future doesn't look bright and we have to look beyond that and learn to develop a new economy in Eastern Kentucky.”

Former legislator Roger Noe said Eastern Kentuckians "need to hear people like Comer speaking honestly about the future of the coal industry, and begin talking about economic diversification," Peterson said. "But he still doesn’t think telling that truth will translate into Election Day victory—at least not for now." (Read more)

Kentucky coal operator admits to hundreds of violations in multi-million-dollar settlement

Jim Justice (AP photo)
"A billionaire coal operator has admitted to hundreds of reclamation violations in Eastern Kentucky and agreed to post $10.6 million in bonds to fix the problems," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Under the deal with Kentucky regulators, Jim Justice of West Virginia also will pay $1.5 million in fines."

Justice, who owns coal mines in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama faced at least 266 violations, including 129 in Kentucky.

His companies "already had paid $419,635 under citations included in the settlement but owed an additional $4,498,995, which was cut to $1.5 million as part of the deal," Estep writes. "In addition, Justice and his son, Jay Justice, pledged their personal assets to guarantee payment on the reclamation work and fine."

The settlement covers a wide variety of land reclamation work, such as cleaning out sediment ponds, stabilizing landslides, fixing drainage problems and monitoring water in several counties, mostly at surface mines but also some underground mines, Estep writes. "It also specifically mentions fixing three highwalls—sheer walls left when a company cuts a large notch in the side of a mountain to reach coal. Federal law requires restoring the approximate original contour of the slope, but in one case, a Justice company left a highwall more than a mile long and 80 feet high in Harlan County." (Read more)

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N.C. legislators reach compromise on coal-ash bill

More than six months after a Duke Energy spill that leaked as much as 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River, North Carolina legislators have reached a compromise on a coal-ash bill to have Duke drain its 33 state ash ponds within 15 years, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. A vote could come as early as today. (AP photo by Erica Yoon: Madeline Schreiber, a Virginia Tech University associate professor of hydrogeology, pulls sediment samples from the Dan River in Danville, Va., in July for testing.)

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Duke and state officials had argued about who was responsible for paying for the clean-up, but Duke reached a compromise with the Environmental Protection Agency in May and with the state in June. 

"The legislation mandates that ash be excavated at only four of Duke’s 14 North Carolina coal-fired power plants," Henderson writes. "Low-risk ponds can be capped in place without removing ash. House and Senate members had split earlier over a House move to ensure that ponds could not be deemed low risk if they sat below the level of groundwater, which could become contaminated. The compromise bill doesn’t prohibit capping those ponds, according to a copy obtained by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Instead, it allows the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to permit capping if DENR is convinced ash elements won’t contaminate groundwater." (Read more)

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Federal health agency says West Virginia can't handle chemical incidents like the one in January

Last week it was revealed that West Virginia American Water Co. delayed for eight years plans to review potential contamination sources upstream of the treatment plant that was responsible for a January chemical spill that dumped thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical into a major regional water supply.

A review by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, released to the public on Tuesday, says the state Department of Health and Human Resources lacks a program and properly trained staff to assess community-wide chemical exposures like the one that contaminated the Elk River, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

Epidemiologists who normally work on infectious disease issues handled the Bureau for Public Health’s response to the January water crises, said the ATSDR, Ward writes. The report said, "Currently, there are no epidemiologists in positions that respond to acute chemical or radiological releases or specifically tasked with natural disaster response. There also are no programs to enhance occupational safety and health of responders.” (Read more)

USDA awards $25 million to help 247 rural businesses expand and create new products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Tuesday that it is investing $25 million to help 247 rural businesses in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Micronesia expand their operations and create new products, said a press release from the agency. The funding "helps agricultural producers grow their businesses by turning raw commodities into value-added products, expanding marketing opportunities and developing new uses for existing products."

The grants, through the agency's Value-Added Producer Grant program, can be used to "support local and regional food systems, further the development of the growing bioeconomy and finance the distribution of local and regional products," said the USDA. For a full list of grant recipients, click here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

More rural post offices will reduce hours on Oct. 1; Ky. reporter finds little concern among patrons

While Congress has deferred the issue of Saturday mail delivery for another year, the U.S. Postal Service has cut costs in rural America by reducing the operating hours of more than 9,000 post offices, and thousands more will be cut back on Oct. 1. This is a nationwide story that can be localized in most counties.

In the area around Danville, Ky., Todd Kleffman of The Advocate-Messenger found only one person "in a handful of interviews" who seemed concerned that rural post-office hours will be reduced. Brett Benton, who uses the Parksville office, told Kleffman, "I hate to see the little post offices go away, but it doesn’t really affect me much. If they’re not open, I just use the drop box outside, mostly to pay bills.” (Kleffman photo: Parksville's office will be open only four hours, not eight)

Another reason residents aren't concerned is that post-office boxes will remain available 24 hours a day. Local resident Jessica Johnson told Kleffman, "Besides, if you need a stamp or something, you can just go to Danville. It’s not like you’re 500 miles away from another post office.”

Kleffman writes, "That kind of no-big-deal reaction bears out the Postal Service’s decision to cut back the hours at a smaller, mostly rural facilities rather than close them down completely. ... Downsizing has occurred or is planned at some 33,000 post offices around the country, including 317 in Kentucky."

"Though postal patrons seem to be adjusting the new hours with little difficulty, many who were interviewed for this report expressed concern that the shortened hours are just the first death rattles that will ultimately lead to the demise of small, rural post offices," Kleffman writes. And while David Walton, spokesman for the USPS’s Kentuckiana office in Louisville and Tom Adkins, manager of operations for the Kentuckiana district, insisted that there are no plans to close any post offices, "folks suspect it won’t be too far into the future when they disappear." (Read more)

Mid-income rural families can figure on spending about $193,590 to raise a child, less than urban ones

Middle-income rural families consisting of two parents earning between $62,500 to $108,210 annually with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about $193,590 up to age 18 on the child, says the annual Cost of Raising a Child report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Families earning less than $62,500 can expect to spend an average of $145,500, and those earning more than $108,210 can expect to average $307,920. Rural costs are considerably lower than overall costs. (USDA graphic)
Costs are broken down by housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care and education and a miscellaneous category. About 30 percent of costs will go to housing, 18 percent to child care and education, 16 percent to food, 14 percent to transportation, 8 percent to health care and miscellaneous and 6 percent to clothing.

For a middle-income rural family it will cost $10,430 annually for children under 3. For children 3 to 5, annual costs are $9,940; 6 to 8, $10,320; 9 to 11, $10,660, 12 to 14, $11,430; and 15 to 17, $11,750. For lower-income families costs are $8,000 for children under 3, $7,510 for 3 to 5, $7,660 for 6 to 8, $7,960 for 9 to 11, $8,590 for 12 to 14, and $8,780 for 15 to 17.

In one-child households, 21 to 32 percent of expenditures go to the child; in two-child households, 31 to 47 percent is spent on children; in three-child households, it is 38 to 57 percent. (Read more)

Wal-Mart opens primary-care clinics in Texas, South Carolina in bid to win over patients, boost sales

Rural areas are facing doctor shortages and hospital closures at a time when millions of previously uninsured Americans have gained coverage through federal health reform. With more people seeking care and fewer places to get it, there's a gap in rural areas for much-needed services. An unlikely source is making a bid to add rural health care to its resume. The biggest retailer in the U.S. has entered the medical field. Yes, Wal-Mart is bidding to be your primary health-care provider.

Wal-Mart "has opened six primary care locations in South Carolina and Texas and has plans to open another six by the end of the year," Laura Lorenzetti reports for Fortune. "Unlike existing urgent care centers at CVS or Walgreens stores, the Wal-Mart clinics are billing themselves as primary medical providers." (NYT photo by Rex Curry: Wal-Mart clinic in Carrollton, Tex.)

"Walmart’s clinics are partnering with QuadMed to staff their offices with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who are fully qualified to diagnose illnesses and write prescriptions, but don’t have the full training of a medical doctor," Lorenzetti writes. "Each location will have a supervisory physician, although they will not actually treat patients." And costs will be cheap. "Patients are charged $40 a visit, while employees and dependents who are covered under Walmart’s insurance pay $4 a visit. The clinics accept Medicare and are starting to enroll some locations in Medicaid, but do not yet accept third-party insurance."

About 15 to 20 patients use the primary clinics in South Carolina and Texas every day, but a large percentage of them don't have another primary doctor, according to Dr. David Severance, the corporate medical director at QuadMed, Rachel Abrams reports for The New York Times. "For patients with complex issues, Dr. Severance said, the goal was for Walmart to be a patient’s first stop and part of a continuum of care."

"Walmart’s same-store sales, or sales at stores that have typically been open for more than 12 months, have been on the decline in recent months, and 10 percent of sales have evaporated at big retailers as more consumers shop online, according to Matt Nemer, a retail analyst with Wells Fargo," Abrams writes. But getting people in the store can help drive up sales, especially at the pharmacy, which does accept insurance. (Read more)

Oregon denies coal export terminal to Aussie firm

"Oregon's Department of State Lands on Monday dealt a serious blow to Ambre Energy's proposed coal terminal, denying a key permit needed for a project to export 8.8 million tons of coal annually to Asia," Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. "The state agency said despite a two-year review, Australia-based Ambre Energy hadn't done enough to analyze alternatives that would avoid harming tribal fisheries at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, where the company had proposed to build a dock to load coal onto barges." (Oregonian graphic)

The $242 million project would have used railways to move coal from Wyoming and Montana to the Oregon terminal, where barges would take it to the coast to be shipped to Asia, Davis writes. "The terminal, one of three export facilities planned in the Pacific Northwest, is the smallest and furthest along. Industry analysts said it had the best chance of being built. Analysts said it could fill a niche for Asian countries like South Korea willing to pay more to diversify against interruptions from more volatile suppliers such as Indonesia."

But the project met strong resistance from opponents, including Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, as well as environmental groups and Native American tribes concerned about the project's affect on fisheries, Davis writes. Ambre "has 21 days to file for an appeal before an administrative law judge, whose decision can be reviewed in state appellate courts." (Read more)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Advisories about toxic algae are common summer occurrence in lakes that supply public water systems

Recent instances of toxic algae blooms that have led to water advisories in Toledo, Wisconsin, and brought fear to Des Moines, are a common late-summer occurrence that can affect any drinking water supply that relies on lakes. Stories shouldn't wait for local warnings and advisories; check with your local water-system operators to see how they are dealing with the threat. Besides drinking water, stories can also include suggestions about ways to avoid algae-fouled water, or what to do after coming into contact it.

In Kentucky, 10 lakes that provide drinking water for thousands of people are under advisories, James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "None is closed to swimming, fishing or boating. Instead, authorities advise not swallowing lake water, and washing well after swimming." State officials said there are currently no immediate threats to drinking the water.

Kansas also has 10 public waters under a warning and one under an advisory. In addition to the basic advisories, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment also suggests to avoid areas with visible algae accumulation.properly clean fish, not let pets consume dried algae, and immediately wash any parts of skin or fur that come into contact with water. (Read more)

Oregon has two advisories, one in Devil's Lake that has been in effect since Aug. 1 and another in Waterville Pond that has been in effect since Aug. 5, says the state Public Health Division. Two other advisories were issued this summer, one in Lost Creek Lake that ran for 22 days, ending on June 26, the other in Odell Lake, that lasted for 18 days, ending on Aug. 8. (Read more) (Public Health Division map: Current and earlier advisories)

Measure that puts focus on urban development has hurt rural population in California county

While the overall population in California's Santa Cruz County has continued to increase, the rural population has decreased by about 20,000 people since 1990, due in large part to a 1978 state measure designed to prevent new developments in the county's mountainous regions, Jason Hoppin reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Population numbers from 1978 were unavailable.

"The county's population has grown slowly but steadily over time," Hoppin writes. "But those overall numbers have masked a massive migration to the urban areas of the county's cherished coastline, a shift that comes with profound public policy implications for traffic, housing, public transportation and more. It could be the work of social forces — baby boomers wanting to be nearer services as they age, children growing up and moving away — but also appears to be the result of a foundational land-use policy put in place by county voters in 1978: Measure J." (The county's urban services boundary, put in place by 1978's Measure J, limits services to rural areas of the county and focuses development on the urban core)
Measure J was a pro-environment ballot measure that "aimed to protect a region, the Santa Cruz Mountains, that had been teeming with people for more than a century," Hoppin writes. "The backbone of Measure J is the urban services line, a boundary that includes the incorporated cities of Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville, and divides steep mountains from coastal prairies in unincorporated areas. On one side of the line would be one set of land-use policies; on the other, a second set."

The measure has led to expensive housing in urban areas and limited housing in rural ones, Hoppin writes. "Because Measure J's urban services boundary essentially bars sewer extensions into rural areas, multifamily housing is largely limited to the urban core." Urban areas haven't responded with enough housing, and the county has 3,500 homeless people, "one of the highest concentrations of homeless persons in the country."

"As part of Measure J, the county sets annual limits on new building permits," Hoppin writes. "A third of those go to the rural areas and the rest set aside for urban development. Last year, those numbers were modest by any measure: 84 and 168, respectively. But the availability of 252 new permits went barely noticed. The county issued 32 in all of 2013, and just 11 in rural areas."

"Further, the county is projected to fall short of state housing goals set by the California Department of Housing and Community Development," Hoppin writes. "Seven years in to a nine-year program, the county has built only 55 percent of its commitment, according to annual reports filed with the agency." (Read more)

Dollar General joins bidding war for Family Dollar, offering $1.2 billion more than Dollar Tree

The dollar wars are heating up. Last month mostly suburban Dollar Tree agreed to buy Family Dollar, which is mostly located in poor rural and urban areas, for about $8.5 billion. On Monday, Dollar General stepped into the ring, offering $9.7 billion for Family Dollar, Ely Portillo reports for the Charlotte Observer. (Associated Press photo)

"Dollar General’s proposal would create the nation’s largest discount variety retailer, Portillo writes. "Dollar General is No. 1 in the category, trailed by Family Dollar. The combined company would have almost 20,000 stores, $28 billion in revenue and more than 160,000 employees." Family Dollar has about 8,100 stores nationwide. Dollar Tree has around 5,000 stores.

Rick Dreiling, CEO of Tennessee-based Dollar General, "told investors that his company’s offer is a better deal for Family Dollar’s shareholders both because it has a higher price and doesn’t include stock," Portillo writes. "Dollar Tree’s cash-and-stock deal includes $59.60 a share in cash and $14.90 worth of Dollar Tree stock for each share of Family Dollar." (Read more)

For years W.Va. American Water put off review of watershed where chemical leak occurred

Eight years before the January chemical spill that dumped thousands of gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical into a major regional water supply in West Virginia, officials from West Virginia American Water Co. "told state regulators they were planning to review the Elk River watershed to find out what potential contamination sources were upstream from their Kanawha Valley water treatment plant," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. The review was never completed.

That meant that when the leak occurred, "West Virginia American officials knew next to nothing about the material that had contaminated the source of drinking water for 300,000 people across the region," Ward writes. In fact, lawyers for the agency said they had to obtain information about the leak via the Internet and through requests to the Bureau for Public Health and Freedom.

The information was disclosed "as part of a commission investigation into West Virginia American’s response to the Jan. 9 leak and the water crisis that followed," Ward writes. "West Virginia American and the other parties are embroiled in a dispute over what sorts of documents the water company should have to turn over to those other parties, and the outcome of the matter likely will decide just how broad of an investigation the PSC ends up doing. Water company lawyers want a narrow review that considers only what the company did or didn’t do after Jan. 9. Consumer advocates, business intervenors and citizens want a broader probe that examines what kind of planning West Virginia American did — or didn’t do — to prepare for an incident like the Freedom leak."

"Anthony Majestro, a lawyer for local businesses that intervened in the PSC case, said understanding what sort of emergency plans the company had is critical," Ward writes. Majestro said, “Had a plan been in place, in compliance with industry standards, WVAWC should not have lost critical minutes and hours while it fumbled through the identification of the chemical, how to treat it, what to tell the public, and whether to close the intake or not." (Read more)

Rural broadband availability still lacking; counties need to adopt technology and learn how to use it

Providing greater access to broadband in rural counties doesn't do much to further economic growth unless those areas choose to adopt the technology and are taught how to use it to better themselves, says a study published in Telecommunications Policy by researchers at Oklahoma State University, Mississippi State University and the University of Texas.

"Researchers found that broadband availability alone was far less important to growth than adoption," reports the National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Center. "Counties with a high level of broadband adoption — those in which 60 percent or more of the households had a wired high-speed internet connection — experienced higher income growth and saw a smaller increase in unemployment rates than did counties that did not reach the 60 percent threshold. Similarly, counties with low adoption rates — those in which less than 40 percent of the households had broadband — saw lower growth in their numbers of businesses and total numbers of employees."

"Researchers used 2010 U.S. county-level data to compare all non-metro counties in terms of their broadband availability and adoption," the center writes. "They then compared these counties in terms of their economic growth between 2001 and 2010, using indicators like household income, employment growth, and number of firms. When they analyzed the two data sets together, they found a significant relationship between broadband adoption and economic growth."

Author Brian Whitacre, from OSU, said: “If you look at how we’ve been spending money, the vast majority goes to establishing infrastructure in rural areas. There’s not much being spent on showing people what can be done with broadband, or getting people to use it productively. We might want to spend more public funds on promoting adoption, as opposed to just giving people access by subsidizing the providers.” (Read more)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Urbanization shrinking firefly population; species can be indicators of the health of the environment

Urbanization is destroying firefly populations in the South, Alan Blinder reports for The New York Times. "Scientists have for years been warning that the world’s estimated 2,000 species of fireflies are dwindling, partly because expanding cities are altering water flow patterns and yielding more light pollution, which researchers say can hamper the mating rituals of the insects." (Firefly Experience photo)

The Selangor Declaration, named for the Malaysian site of a 2010 symposium about fireflies, says: “Fireflies are indicators of the health of the environment and are declining across the world as a result of degradation and loss of suitable habitat, pollution of river systems, increased use of pesticides in agro-ecosystems and increased light pollution in areas of human habitation. The decline of fireflies is a cause for concern and reflects the global trend of increasing biodiversity loss.”

In response, Clemson University is conducting a unique experiment called The Vanishing Firefly Project, which asks "people to step outside, peer into the darkness and, for a single minute, count the fireflies that sweep through their field of vision," Blinder writes.

Participants in the experiment include Greenville, S.C., resident Jeremy Lyons and his 6-year-old son Ryan. Jeremy told Blinder, “Kids are naturally drawn to fireflies, so it’s a good building block to teach them lessons about the environment. It’s a good little icebreaker activity for a kid, so then their attention is gotten and you can talk to them about it and they don’t even realize that you’re teaching them something.” Separate studies are being conducted in other parts of the country. (Read more)

Whites respond more negatively to immigration news about Hispanics than about Europeans

White Americans are more likely to feel negatively about immigration if news stories portray immigrants in a negative light, but are even more inclined to respond in a negative manner if the immigrants are Hispanics, not Europeans, Scott Clement reports for The Washington Post. "What immigrants look like – and where they come from – changes how we see the issue. When immigrants are Hispanic, white Americans worry a lot more."

One of reason is that Americans often only think of Hispanics as immigrants, said Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, who did the 2003 study about which Clement writes. Valentino told him, "Latinos trigger an anxiety in some Americans that other ethnic groups simply do not trigger. It changes both attitudes and behaviors on immigration policy.”

Valentino's study had white participants read fake stories about immigration, with half the stories showing immigration in a positive light and the other half in a negative light, Clement writes. Stories also altered the ethnicity of some subjects, telling the exact same story, except changing the name and origin of a subject from Mexican to Russian. While participants who read negative stories were more likely to say the story lessened their support of immigration, "the impact of seeing a negative story featuring a Mexican immigrant was double the size of a negative story about the Russian immigrant."

"Valentino and his colleagues investigated the differing reactions, and found that negative news featuring a Latino immigrant raised whites’ worries and anxieties about increasing immigration, but not for those about Russian immigrants," Clement writes. "Whites who read a negative story featuring an Hispanic immigrant had a strong political reaction. In addition to higher opposition to immigration, they became more supportive of an 'English-only' law, asked for more information about the issue and were more apt to send an e-mail  to their congressional representative advocating reduced immigration levels when asked in the survey. Negative news about a Russian immigrant had little impact on political motivation."

"Just 26 percent of respondents chose to e-mail a member of Congress advocating a reduction in immigration after reading a positive story featuring a Latino immigrant," Clement writes, but "45 percent sent congressional e-mails when the Latino-focused story was negative. But the negative stories had no impact when the subject of the story was Russian." Valentino said a separate study using Mexican and Dutch subjects in the fake stories had similar results. (Read more)

Midwest farmland prices drop overall, but some areas still see increases

Farmland values in the Corn Belt have hit a plateau, dropping 0.4 percent in the second quarter, the Federal Reserve Bank said Thursday, Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. "In the Kansas City Fed district, prices for irrigated cropland and farmland without irrigation systems rose less than 1 percent over the same period, with year-over-year gains moderating in states like Kansas and Missouri. Meanwhile, the Chicago Fed district, which includes Iowa and other big farm states, reported a 2 percent increase in farmland values, far less than quarterly gains seen in recent years."

"Bankers surveyed by the St. Louis Fed said the average value of quality farmland in the district fell to $5,473 an acre in the second quarter from $5,496 an acre in the first," Newman writes. "Prices fell 3.5 percent from the same time last year and 6.7 percent from their peak in 2013. For the fourth survey in a row, a larger share of rural bankers in the district said they expect quality farmland values to decline in the next quarter relative to the same period last year.

In the Kansas City region, values increased more than 2 percent "due to strong demand for pasture from livestock producers, whose revenues have climbed this year thanks to low prices for corn, a primary ingredient in livestock feed, and record prices for cattle and pigs," Newman writes. "The Chicago Fed said a temporary jump in commodity prices last spring pushed farmland prices higher in the district in the second quarter, before corn and soybean futures resumed their descent in May. Land values in Indiana fell 1 percent, the bank said." (Read more)

Prices are expected to keep falling, Christopher Doering reports for The Des Moines Register. "The survey, compiled with input from 230 agricultural bankers, found only 2 percent of responding bankers expected farmland values to increase in the third quarter of 2014, while 30 percent anticipated a decline."

A major reason for the decline is that "corn and soybean prices have posted sharp declines as farmers are on track to produce record amounts of each crop this year," Doering writes. "Corn futures for December delivery are at $3.75 a bushel on the Chicago Board of Trade, down from an average of $6.89 two years ago; while November soybeans are averaging $10.56 a bushel compared with $14.40."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in February that farm income will fall 27 percent to $95.8 billion in 2014 "as farmers feel the impact of lower corn and soybean prices and reduced government payments," Doering writes. "Still, the data released by the government showed the farm economy will remain historically strong, with 2014 net farm income the seventh highest since 1973 after adjusting for inflation, and $8 billion higher than the average of the previous 10 years." (Read more)

Ohio fertilizer law aimed at toxic algae blooms has a loophole exempting big manure users

A loophole in Ohio's pending law to require farmers to get fertilizer licenses "exempts many large dairy, hog, and poultry farmers who spread manure on their fields," Karen Schaefer reports for Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. The law was created in response to algae blooms found in Lake Erie that threatened water drinking water supplies for 11 million people and made Toledo's water toxic.

Roger Wise uses grass-covered buffer strips to help keep
phosphorous out of local watersheds.(Schaefer photo)
Fourth-generation farmer Roger Wise, former president of the Ohio Farmers Union, told Schaefer, "The original legislation was going to require that all the fields that were going to have the manure applied to, all the fields were going to be labeled, there was going to be a cropping plant and soil tests, and nutrient management – and all of that’s been done away with." 

Jack Shaner, deputy director of the Ohio Environmental Council, said the law, which doesn't go into effect until 2017, "requires only chemical fertilizer applicators to be certified, not those who use manure," Schaefer writes. "Shaner wants to see a watershed-specific nutrient management plan for Lake Erie’s western basin. Agricultural scientist Andrew Ward of Ohio State University agrees. But he says fixing the agricultural practices behind Lake Erie’s algae problem won’t come cheap." Ward told her, "We’re probably talking something like a hundred million dollars a year would be needed in Ohio every year, for many, many years." (Read more)

W.Va. station shuns candidate, ex-news chief who called local TV news waste of time

Ed Rabel
An ABC affiliate in Charleston, W.Va., owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, is refusing to report about a congressional candidate — who was once the news director for the station — in response to an article the candidate penned for the Charleston Gazette in which he said local television was a waste of time, Kevin Eck reports for Media Bistro. Ed Rabel, a former CBS correspondent, is running as in independent for the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for a Senate seat.

WCHS-TV News Director Matt Snyder "issued a directive that no story would be aired on the station about Rabel’s independent campaign for Congress," reports Morgan County USA, an online news source in the West Virginia county. Twice a WCHS reporter tried to interview Rabel for stories, but was told Rabel "would not be appearing on any of the station’s news programs and prohibited the reporter from interviewing Rabel," and was also told not to mention that Rabel was launching a campaign.

To read the article by Rabel, click here. Here is an excerpt:
Instead of focusing on original reporting, the local stations are focused on cosmetics. Not a country for old men and women, the local television ‘news’ landscape is populated by bubble-heads and glib, young, sometimes pretty know-nothings. The truth is, they wouldn’t know a news story if it slapped them in the face. When was the last time you saw an investigative piece about, let’s see, the Massey mine disaster? Or, how about, God forbid, an exclusive story that penetrated the precincts where politicians hide their secrets from the public?

There are reasons you don’t get the news on local TV. Station owners and managers forbid their news departments from stepping on toes and ruffling feathers, out of fear that such stories might insult local advertisers or offend politicians on whose toes reporters might stomp. And investigative or original reporting is costly, meaning real reporters must be hired to do real reporting, a job that requires lots of time and money that the stations have no time for. Instead, I remember one Huntington TV station leading its newscast last December with the astonishing news that Christmas tree sales were on the rise. Hold the presses!

Someone once said that owning a local TV station is like having a license to steal. But the real license to broadcast calls for the people to be informed. People, isn’t it time to revoke the license?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams' death raises concern about reporting of suicides; here are some tips and ideas

On Monday, the world lost someone special. Robin Williams was found dead at age 63, and authorities said the cause of death was suicide. Williams' publicist said the actor had been dealing with severe depression and recently spent time in rehabilitation.

Every year about 30,000 Americans take their own lives, more than the number who die of homicide, and "there are twice as many deaths due to suicide than HIV/AIDS," according to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. Of those who seek treatment, 80 percent are treated successfully, while 15 percent of people who are clinically depressed take their own lives.

"Journalists in small towns are often reluctant to report that a person died by suicide if the death occurred in private, no one else was involved and the individual was not prominent in the community, but in the age of social media, more and more see a need to be an authoritative voice that quashes rumors quickly," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of the Rural Blog. Others say covering up suicides reinforces the stigma surrounding them, which is a tragedy in itself. As one weekly editor publisher put it, "We don't do the widow any favors when we don't do our job informing people about the important events in their community and they approach the widow and ask, 'I was sorry to hear about Fred. How did he die?'"

Social media have complicated the topic in other ways. Robin Williams was praised for his stellar performances in "Good Will Hunting," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Jumanji." He was also the voice of Genie in the animated film "Aladdin." His death generated massive coverage of his passing, including tributes to him and his quotes from movies. On social media, many have posted a picture of Genie and Aladdin with the quote, "Genie, you're free."

Such posts carry the message that suicide is "freeing" or an acceptable way to deal with depression, so some experts fear media about Williams' unfortunate choice may prompt others to commit suicide, Linda Carroll writes for NBC News. More people than usual called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on Tuesday, and Lisa Furst of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York said Williams' death was one reason why.

Dr. Alex Crosby, a medical epidemiologist in the division of violence prevention at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that following Marilyn Monroe's 1962 suicide when she was 36, "Researchers found a statistically significant increase in suicides across the nation in white females in their 30s and early 40s in the year after she died."

This is a "contagion effect," Dr. J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told NBC. "I believe it also accounts for things like these mass shootings. Almost anything you see, there can be copycats and a contagion."

Taryn Phaneuf of the Bowling Green Daily News in Kentucky used the attention focused on Williams to do a local story in which experts and families that had suffered suicide urged more discussion of it.

Journalists should guard against coverage that could lead vulnerable people or those who identify with the dead celebrity to believe that suicide is the way to deal with their pain, said Dr. Lanny Berman, senior adviser to the American Association of Suicidology, told NBC: "When someone is suffering from a non-specific loss of hope, they may think, 'My god, if Robin Williams couldn't hack it given all his fame and fortune and adoration, what hope do I have?'"

How can writers avoid perpetuating that idea? The suicidology association has recommendations for writing about suicide. It makes three main points: More than 50 research studies have shown that particular types of news coverage can increase in suicide among some people; the risk rises when stories detail the method of suicide or use "dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage" that "sensationalizes or glamorizes death," Al Tompkins writes for The Poynter Institute.

The experts ask that the suicide not be referred to as "successful" (or, if the attempt fails, "unsuccessful"); that pictures of grieving family and friends be avoided; and that a suicide not be described as "inexplicable" or "without warning." They urge journalists to present suicide as a social issue, ask experts for advice, provide crisis-center phone numbers and run a list of "Warning Signs" and a "What to Do" list so people can learn how to respond if they think a family member or friend is contemplating suicide. They sau nearly all people who commit suicide show warning signs, which include:
  • Expressions of suicidal thinking in words, poems, diaries, posts, etc.
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Little sense of meaning or purpose
  • Struggle with anxiety, agitation and insomnia
  • Expression of feeling trapped, or like being between a rock and a hard place
  • Feelings of hopelessness, that things will never change for the better
  • Moving away from things that represent a reason to live: work, school, hobbies and people who matter
  • Excessive anger or rage
  • Increased recklessness and/or risk taking behavior
  • Dramatic mood changes, such as shifts between being OK to being depressed.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please do not hesitate to get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and here is a list of crisis helpline services. Every life matters.

Robin Williams' character in the 1989 film "Dead Poets Society," teacher John Keating, said, "To quote from Whitman, 'O me! O life! . . . of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless ... of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?' Answer: That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?"

Sign up by Monday for free climate-change seminar in Chicago; travel aid may be available

Monday, Aug. 18, is the deadline to sign up for a free seminar in Chicago on Sept. 19 about covering climate change, including its effects on fisheries, forests and agriculture; public health challenges raised by climate change; and how climate change is driving policy and economic decisions in the Great Lakes states and adjoining states.

"Climate Change and the News: Impact in the Great Lakes" will also look at the physical basis for climate change science and the effects of climate change on water quality and supply in the Great Lakes region.

The seminar is sponsored by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, which is also offering "Climate Change and the News: Seminar for News Editors," focusing on what news audiences need to know about climate change and how communities are tackling the issue. The registration deadline for that seminar, to be held Sept. 18, is Monday, Aug. 25.

A limited number of participants who must travel a significant distance to attend the seminar will be eligible to receive a reimbursement of up to $250 to support travel and lodging expenses. Metcalf has reserved a block of double-occupancy hotel rooms near the seminar venue, the WBEZ Chicago offices at the Navy Pier, to provide a discounted lodging option for participating journalists. For more information, click here.

Some rural schools struggle to fill teaching slots

Across the country another school year has begun — or will start within the next few weeks — but a growing crisis, especially in rural areas, is teacher shortages, with some school districts struggling to fill positions in time for the first day of school.

In McDowell County, West Virginia — one of the poorest counties in a poor state — there are still about a dozen full-time teaching positions that have to be filled before the first day of school on Aug. 18, reports the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. School Supt. Nelson Spencer, who said about 40 teachers resigned over the summer, said "substitutes may be the board’s best option."

Many school districts in Nebraska started school today with positions still not filled, reports Nebraska Radio Network. Ted Hillman, superintendent for the Boyd and Lynch school district, told the network, “The Nebraska legislature and local schools have worked hard to maintain what they feel are attractive beginning salaries, especially for young people, to come to Nebraska, but it’s no secret, the folks in Iowa will pay better, the folks in Minnesota will pay better.”

Perhaps, but Willmar Public Schools in Minnestota are struggling to fill about a dozen openings with school starting in less than two weeks, Linda Vanerwerf reports for the West Central Tribune. The problem isn't just isolated to Willmar, but throughout the state. "In a letter to the Minnesota Department of Education early this year, the federal government acknowledged teacher shortages in the state in a long list of specialties, including agricultural education, mathematics, sciences, career-related training, many areas of special education, reading, English as a second language, and world languages and cultures."

Rural districts in Arizona are also facing shortages, and it's a trend that could continue for years, Steve Shadley reports for KJZZ 91.5. Katie Rogerson of Tucson Values Teachers, a group that asked more than 1,400 teachers in southern Arizona if they expect to still be teaching in five years, told Shadley, "27 percent are saying they are not likely to be teaching, and then you’ve got an additional 37 percent say they aren’t sure. So, when you combine those two you are looking at well over 60 percent and that’s really shocking.”

Enviros say diesel illegally used in 351 fracks; industry says that preceded EPA clarification

A report by the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Environmental Integrity Project says that "several oil and gas companies have been illegally using diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing operations, and then doctoring records to hide violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act," Naveena Sadasivam reports for ProPublica. The act requires drilling companies to obtain permits when using diesel fuel in fracking, and companies have "to notify nearby landowners of their activity, report the chemical and physical characteristics of the fluids used, conduct water quality tests before and after drilling, and test the integrity of well structures to ensure they can withstand high injection pressures."

The report "found that between 2010 and July 2014 at least 351 wells were fracked by 33 different companies using diesel fuels without a permit," Sadasivam writes. "The report asserts that the industry data shows that the companies admitted using diesel without the proper permits. The Integrity Project's analysis, the report said, then showed that in some 30 percent of those cases, the companies later removed the information about their diesel use from the database." (Environmental Integrity Project graphic)

"The report asserts that the industry data shows that the companies admitted using diesel without the proper permits," Sadasivam writes. "The Integrity Project's analysis, the report said, then showed that in some 30 percent of those cases, the companies later removed the information about their diesel use from the database."

The report was based on information from FracFocus, an online registry that allows companies to list the chemicals they use during fracking, Sadasivam writes. Using information on current disclosures, compared to past ones, "The report found that six companies had changed disclosures for wells; Pioneer Natural Resources accounted for 62 of the changes." Pioneer blames the changes on coding errors. The Independent Petroleum Association of America criticized the report "for including diesel use that occurred prior to a 2014 Environmental Protection Agency rule clarifying the types of chemicals considered 'diesel fuels'," Sadasivam reports.

Low crop prices have some farmers opting to store product; prices hurting farm equipment sales

Record harvests that have led to an overabundance of crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat are causing prices to plummet and having a negative impact on other areas of agriculture, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. With corn prices falling 35 percent, soybeans 13 percent and wheat 12 percent, overall crop revenue is expected to be down 12 percent this year, compared to a 3 percent decrease in 2013. U.S. crop sales will generate less than $190 billion this year, a $35 billion drop from 2012. (Post graphic)

That means that "U.S. farmer profits are expected to plummet by nearly 27 percent in 2014 after several years of historic highs, according to USDA estimates from earlier this year," Ferdman writes. And agriculture businesses are suffering. After years of sustained growth John Deere has reported a drop in sales in each quarter this year, with sales falling 6 percent in the third quarter and an expected drop of 8 percent in the fourth quarter. The company said it expects to sell even less equipment in 2015. Overall, industry-wide sales are down 6 percent this year.

One problem is that some farmers are either selling crops at prices that are too low to be profitable, or aren't willing to sell at the low prices, which means large portions of crops are going into storage, Ferdman writes. "Large stockpiles of corn today should give way to commensurately large cash piles of profit down the road, even if it means storing much of it until prices recover."

Gregory Ibendahl, associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, told Ferdman, "If you're a farmer facing continual low prices, you might have to take some land out of production. Somewhere along the line you might even reach a point where you have to go out of production." (Read more)

Rural electric lobby opposes proposed CO2 limits, but some co-ops are turning to renewable energy

Rural electric cooperatives, which are heavily dependent on coal for generation, are leading opponents of proposed rules to cut carbon dioxide from existing power plants by 30 percent in the next 16 years. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association "is a 47-state network of 905 cooperatives and keeps the lights on for more than 42 million consumers, roughly 13 percent of the U.S. electricity market," Benjamin Hulac reports for Environment and Energy Publishing.

"Seventy percent of the power from NRECA's generation and transmission cooperatives is fueled by coal, and 58 percent of the fuel mix sold by distribution co-ops is coal-based," Hulac writes. But not long ago, coal provided 80 percent of generation, so some co-ops have been moving toward renewable energy. Farmers Electric Cooperative in Iowa has spent nearly four years building the state's largest solar farm. "Solar is coming on strong," co-op CEO Warren McKenna told Hulac. "Our goal is to have 15 percent of our power produced locally by 2025," through renewable energy. About half the co-op's electricity comes from coal.

The small co-op, which serves only 650 members, "has an expanse of 2,900 panels spanning 4½ acres along a gravel road in southwest Johnson County," Josh O'Leary reports for the Iowa City Press Citizen. "The solar farm, which cost $2.2 million to build, will generate more than 1 million kilowatt hours each year. That's enough energy to power about 120 homes, and eliminate more than 2 million pounds of carbon pollution each year, project leaders say." (O'Leary photo)

McKenna said the array can generate up to 1,800 watts per customer, "giving the cooperative the highest per-capita solar generation rate of any utility in the nation," O'Leary writes.

Other co-ops have also turned to renewable energy, Hulac writes. "The Cloverland Electric co-op in Dafter, Mich., can produce up to 36 megawatt-hours with its hydroelectric plant, and the Peninsula Light Co. in Gig Harbor, Wash., operates a 20-megawatt wind-powered system. And the chapter with perhaps the most audacious renewable energy goals — the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in Lihu'e, Hawaii — plans to generate half of the power it distributes from renewable sources by 2023."

"NRECA-backed cooperatives sell power to 93 percent of the country's impoverished counties  — home to approximately 4 million citizens," Hulac reports. In recent years the lobby has donated $2,336,547 to a variety of politicians from almost every state, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with 69 percent going to Republicans. (Read more)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Audit criticizes EPA's cost analyses for regulations; Hispanic groups rally around EPA water rules

The Government Accountability Office released a report on Monday that "finds fault with the Environmental Protection Agency’s analyses of the costs and benefits of its regulations," Benjamin Goad reports for The Hill. Meanwhile, Latinos are putting their political weight behind EPA's controversial proposed rules on agricultural runoff, saying the rules would benefit the large numbers of Hispanics who live near polluted waterways along the Colorado River Basin, Goad writes in a separate story.

The GAO report "found that the agency did not always monetize the costs and benefits of proposed actions and that the EPA had estimated effects of its regulations on employment by, in part, using a study that is more than two decades old," Goad writes.

In looking at seven EPA regulations designated as "major rules," meaning that they carry an annual economic impact of $100 million or more, the report "examined the EPA’s analyses for each rule against 2003 guidance from the Office of Management and Budget that lays out best practices for how agencies should evaluate the costs and benefits of rules making their way through the federal pipeline," Goad writes. "The EPA’s rules lacked transparency, the GAO found."

The report said information EPA included in its regulatory-impact analyses "was not always clear. According to OMB guidance, RIAs should communicate information supporting regulatory decisions and enable a third party to understand how the agency arrives at its conclusions." Goad writes, "The report recommends that the EPA take steps to improve the agency’s adherence to the existing government guidance, but also that the OMB clarify the best way to apply that practice to the thorny process of estimating costs and benefits of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions." (Read more)

The proposed water rules, which have caused confusion among farmers who fear the regulations will expand EPA's jurisdiction, are being advocated by 28 Latino organizations, Goad writes. "The groups say the threat of polluted waterways disproportionately affects Latinos, both in terms of economic and public-health concerns. More than a third of the nation’s Hispanic population lives along the Colorado River basin."

The groups say politicians should support the rules, saying that polling shows that Hispanic voters are overwhelmingly in support of them, Goad writes. "More than 200 House members, primarily Republicans have voiced opposition to the rule, which has also raised concern among some congressional Democrats." But the Hispanic groups say that more than 90 percent of Latinos, "a coveted segment of the voting block, believe that the nation has a 'moral responsibility' to protect its waters." (Read more)