Friday, September 19, 2014

Americans favor censoring media on national security; many know little about government

More than one-third of Americans are opposed to freedom of the press when it comes to stories concerning national security, says a poll by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, which also found that many Americans know surprisingly little about the U.S. government, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

The survey, which polled 1,416 adults, found that 19 percent of respondents favor requiring the media to get government approval before reporting on an issue of national security and 18 percent somewhat favor requiring approval. Meanwhile, 19 percent somewhat oppose requiring government approval, and 35 percent strongly oppose it. (Post graphic)

Those numbers pale in comparison to the lack of knowledge Americans have about the government, with 35 percent of respondents unable to name even one branch of the U.S. government. Only 27 percent know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, and 21 percent incorrectly believe a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

As for current politics, 44 percent said they had no idea which party controls the House, and 17 percent incorrectly answered Democrats. Asked the same question about the Senate, 42 percent said they did not know what party was in control, and 20 percent incorrectly said Republicans. (Read more)

White House declares war on superbugs; bugs responsible for 23,000 deaths annually in U.S.

The Obama Administration is fighting against superbugs that have developed a resistance to antibiotics, Monte Morin reports for the Los Angeles Times. "In an executive order signed Thursday, President Obama identified drug-resistant bacteria as a threat to national security and the economy and directed the creation of a special task force that will be co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services."

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are responsible for two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morin writes. "Officials estimate that drug-resistant bacteria have cost the nation $20 billion annually in direct healthcare costs and another $35 billion in lost productivity." (CDC photo)

The task force "will oversee public, private and academic efforts to minimize the spread of superbugs by promoting the proper use of antibiotics; the acceleration of scientific research into new antibacterial drugs and novel therapies; and the creation of new diagnostic technologies that will identify drug-resistant bacteria," Morin writes.

"The president's action calls on federal agencies, including Veterans Affairs, to review their current use of antibiotics and to formulate new policies for their employment," Morin writes. "It also directs the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate use of 'medically important antibiotics' for growth-promotion purposes in poultry and livestock. The plan also urges the improvement of international collaborative efforts for bacterial surveillance and control, as well as for the research and development of new drugs." (Read more)

One big TN county has highest income inequality except New York's; another did best at equalizing

Lydia DePillis of The Washington Post wrote a very interesting story this week about Robertson County, Tennessee (Wikipedia map), because it has had the largest growth in income equality in the U.S. over the last five years among counties with at least 60,000 people, large enough for reliable analysis. That was caused by "a reduction in the number of people making very little money and in the number of people making lots of money," more commuting to Nashville and more manufacturing jobs, DePillis writes.

But we were more intrigued by a datum buried at the bottom of one of the charts with her story. The U.S. county over 60,000 with the greatest income inequality, except New York County (Manhattan), is another Tennessee county: Putnam. It straddles the Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau. On the plateau, where the coal gave out long ago, it is "very Appalachian," one regional observer told us. But down on the Highland Rim, there are many good-paying jobs at places like Tennessee Technological University and the headquarters of Averitt Express, a large trucking company. We suspect it also has dozens of millionaire entrepreneurs.

Putnam County in Tennessee (Wikipedia)
This seems to be a case where geology begets geography begets socioeconomics. We invite your observations.

Rural Texas seeing a rise in deported sex offenders trying to get back into the U.S.

Border security in rural towns along the Mexican border is facing a growing crisis in Texas with a rise in deported sex offenders trying to illegally re-gain entrance into the U.S., Kristin Tate reports for the Breitbart News Network. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection map)

The Del Rio Sector, which covers 59,541 square miles in 41 Texas counties, apprehended 16 deported sex offenders last year, but 32 have been caught trying to get into the U.S. during the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2013, Matt McDaniel reports for San Angelo LIVE.

Jose Castro, a spokesman for the Del Rio Sector, told Tate, "Individuals who have committed violence are going to go to less populated areas to try to come into the country. The Rio Grande Valley is more of an urban place, but Del Rio is more rural. People who pose a threat to our country are going to try to exploit that." (Read more)

Hosting rural weddings has cost central Oregon couple more than $2,000 in ordinance fines

The soaring popularity of rural weddings is costing a central Oregon couple thousands of dollars. John and Stephanie Shepherd, whose 216-acre property in Deschutes County is zoned exclusively for farming, have been fined more than $2,000 for violating county ordinances by hosting 18 weddings this summer, Ted Shorack reports for The Bulletin in Bend, Ore. Several complaints were made about the high number of weddings and fear about noise and increased traffic. (Bulletin photo by Andy Tullis: John Shepherd officiating a wedding on his farm)

The Shepherds, who began hosting weddings in 2011, were told in 2013 that they needed the necessary permits in order to continue, Shorack writes. The couple said they applied for an agritourism and commercial event ordinance in 2012 but were told it wasn’t applicable for their property.

"They went another route and sought permitting for 2 acres of their property for use as a private park. That application was initially rejected because wedding events weren’t considered recreational," Shorack writes. "After reworking the permit two more times to try and gain approval from the county, the Shepherds estimate they’ve spent about $15,000 in fees."

John Shepherd, a pastor who officiates the weddings, said they have continued to host weddings because they were already booked but have stopped advertising for 2015 after the county filed an injunction, Shorack writes. He told Shorack, “I’m feeling bullied by my government." (Read more)

Farmland prices, equipment sales in Midwest continue to fall; grain prices down 29.4 percent

The Rural Mainstreet Index—based on a survey of bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming—declined for the fourth straight month and reached its lowest level in more than two years, Steve Jordan reports for the Omaha World-Herald. Farmland prices dropped for the 10th consecutive month, while equipment sales hit a record low.

The index dropped from 48.3 to 48.2 and is down from 60.5 in June, 2013, Jordan writes. Anything below 50 indicates economic decline, while figures above 50 show growth. Equipment sales are expected to decline 13.8 percent for the year, with some dealers forced to go out of business.

Grain prices are the biggest concern, Jordan writes. Prices are down 29.4 percent from this time a year ago, and with low prices farmers are not recouping their costs, said economist Ernie Goss of Creighton University, which produces the index. Goss told Jordan, “This huge decline has had a significant negative influence on most of the factors from our surveys over the last several months.” (Read more)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Rural poverty rate down, household income up

Fewer rural Americans are living in poverty, says a report by the U.S. Census Bureau. The number dropped from 8.5 million in 2012 to 7.6 million in 2013, reports Christoper Doering of The Des Moines Register. "The poverty rate outside of urban areas dropped to 16.1 percent in 2013 from 17.7 percent." Nationally, the poverty rate dropped from 15 percent to 14.5 percent, says the Census Bureau.

While fewer rural Americans are living in poverty, the average rural household income increased 2.6 percent to $42,881, while in metropolitan areas the median household income was $54,042, Doering writes. Overall, the median household income rose from $51,759 to $51,939, says the Census Bureau. (Census Bureau graphic: National poverty numbers and rate since 1959)

USDA approves Dow's Enlist on GMO corn and soybeans; critics fear weed resistance

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday gave final approval to new genetically modified corn and soybeans developed by Dow AgroSciences that, while heavily criticized by environmentalists and some farmers, are portrayed by Dow as an answer to weed-resistance problems that limit crop production," Carey Gillam reports for Reuters. If approved by the Environmental Protection Agency the product could be on the market in time for the 2015 planting season.

"Like the popular Roundup Ready system developed by rival Monsanto Co., farmers who plant Enlist crops can spray their fields with Enlist herbicide and kill weeds but not the crops," Gillam writes. Roundup Ready—used on about 90 percent of U.S. corn and soybean plantings every spring—has wiped out milkweed plants in Midwestern corn and soybean fields and has been blamed for decreasing the nation's number of monarch butterflies. Roundup is also being blamed for an explosion of hard-to-kill super weeds.

Dow says Enlist addresses that problem, because weeds have yet to build up a resistance to it, Gillam writes. "But critics say 2,4-D can cause potential health and environmental problems, including increasing weed resistance. And they fear the chemical will damage neighboring farm fields. Fruit and vegetable farmers are particularly concerned that 2,4-D drift will lead to crop damage. But Dow has said the Enlist system is safe if properly used." (Read more)

Chairman testifies in favor of FCC's net-neutrality plan, admits rural broadband remains a concern

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler testified in a House Small Business Committee hearing on Wednesday in support of net neutrality and elimination of "the 'digital divide' that has saddled rural areas with slow-or-no Internet and dropped calls," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Critics have been skeptical of the FCC's proposed net neutrality rules, saying the rules will hurt consumers and small businesses instead of creating Internet equality.

Wheeler "pointed out that the record 3.7 million comments the FCC has received since May on its proposed new Internet rules 'are wildly in support of open Internet requirements,'" Agri-Pulse reports. Wheeler told legislators: “I bring 30 years of experience as small business person, including the scars of my companies being denied access to networks and I am a fervent believer in open Internet.”

But not all his congressional questioners were pleased with Wheeler's fervency, Agri-Pulse notes. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) a farmer, said he has “concerns about how a more heavily regulated Internet is going to affect small businesses.” Tom Rice (R-S.C.) a tax attorney, "pressed the issue further, asserting that enforcing rules to require net neutrality 'will stifle innovation.'” 

Wheeler admitted that the FCC has yet to come up with answers to connect the 12 million rural Americans lacking broadband access, Agri-Pulse reports. "Wheeler reported that Phase I of the FCC's Connect America Fund (CAF) will 'make broadband available to 1.6 million unserved Americans' and that Phase II will connect another 5 million. He said these 'rural broadband experiments will help us achieve our goal of delivering world-class voice and broadband networks to rural America.'” (Read more)

Most teachers in rural, remote Alaska are from out of state; few stay more than a year or two

Most of the 400 teachers hired each year from outside Alaska to teach at the state's rural schools—many of the towns are located in remote areas only accessible by boat or plane—end up leaving after one or two years, Michelle Theriault Boots reports for the Alaska Dispatch: "While teacher turnover is down slightly in recent years, rates reach nearly 50 percent in a few rural districts." (Dispatch photo by Loren Holmes: New teachers arrive participate in a program to prepare them for rural, remote areas)

About 75 percent of the state's teachers are hired from outside Alaska, Boots writes. One of the problems is that many of the new teachers are hired fresh out of college and lack teaching experience, especially in schools where they might be asked to teach multiple grades and subjects. Others are all ill prepared for living in rural, remote areas.

The revolving door affects students, from their grades to college-readiness to struggling to trust teachers they fear will be gone next year, Boots writes. "In the five highest-turnover districts, which have an average yearly turnover rate of 37.9 percent, less than half—an average of only 46.9 percent—of students score 'proficient' in reading on state test. By comparison, in the five districts with the lowest turnover, 85.8 percent of students score 'proficient.'”

In response to the turnover, Alaska created a program called Creating Cultural Competence of Rural Early Career Teachers, Boots writes. Known as C3, the third-year programfunded by a three-year, $1.92 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education that ended in Augustuses “culture camps,” to expose teachers to Iñupiat culture.

"The idea is that teachers can build 'cultural competency' and arrive at their job sites better equipped to relate to their students and communities," Boots writes. "So far, the results have been promising: According to program manager Carmen Davis, 87.2 percent of teachers who participated in the first two years of the C3 program in the Northwest Arctic and Lower Kuskokwim school districts returned to their districts for a second year on the job."

Experts say the best way to keep teachers in Alaska is to hire from in-state, Boots. But that has been a problem. "While about 80 percent of rural students are Alaska Native, fewer than 5 percent of licensed teachers working in the state are. Ten programs intended to bring more Alaska Natives and rural residents into classrooms graduated a total of 172 teachers between 1970 and 2014, an average of four teachers per year." (Read more)

USDA to spend $68 million on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in rural areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "will spend $68 million on 540 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in rural areas, 240 of which are for solar power" as part of an initiative by the Obama administration to improve energy efficiency, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

The plan is one of several announced Thursday by The White House to "reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 300 million metric tons by 2030, the equivalent of 60 million cars’ emissions in a year," Cama writes. "They will also save $10 billion in energy costs."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

USDA meat inspection system is understaffed, in disarray, food safety advocates say

New U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry inspection rules could have a negative impact on a meat inspection business that food safety advocates, members of Congress and some inspectors contend is in disarray, Mike McGraw reports for the Hale Center for Journalism. The poultry rules "will allow poultry plant employees—instead of USDA inspectors—to help determine whether chicken is wholesome and safe to eat. It’s a move critics see as a 'privatization' of meat inspection that could spread to beef and pork processing plants."

"Meanwhile, years of preparations for the Oct. 24 changeover have helped generate what critics see as a severe shortage, at least for now, of federal inspectors in all kinds of slaughterhouses nationwide, a shortage so widespread that inspectors and food safety advocates say some meat in supermarkets stamped as 'USDA inspected' may never have been inspected at all," McGraw writes.

The USDA, which has 7,500 meat inspectors nationwide, has "acknowledged that it has an 8.2 percent nationwide staffing vacancy rate and insisted that it was not deregulating or privatizing the inspection system," McGraw writes. "They said USDA inspectors will continue to inspect carcasses at poultry plants, as required by federal law. But the agency acknowledges that the new chicken inspection rule would phase out up to 630 poultry inspector positions nationwide and replace them with poultry plant employees."

"To prepare for that, the agency has been instituting partial hiring freezes and making other staffing changes," McGraw writes. "Those changes, along with existing nationwide staff shortages, mean some inspectors must drive from plant to plant, working up to 80 hours a week to keep up with workloads so heavy that federal auditors fear they could lead to catastrophic mistakes. The beef and chicken industries said the inspection system is still working effectively, but acknowledged that inspector shortages have required some plants to slow production." (Read more)

Last week the advocacy group Food & Water Watch "filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the implementation of new poultry inspection rules that would allow poultry companies to take over some inspection functions currently assigned to USDA," Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

FWW Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a news release: “These rules essentially privatize poultry inspection and pave the way for others in the meat industry to police themselves. The USDA's decision to embrace the scheme—an initiative lobbied for by the meat industry for more than a decade-flies in the face of the agency's mandate to protect consumers. What's more, we believe it's illegal.” (Read more)

Livability ranks 100 best small to mid-sized cities to live in the U.S.

Is your town one of the best places to live in the U.S.? Livability has announced its second-annual ranking of the best small to mid-sized cities in the U.S. "As Livability’s editors and writers crisscross the U.S in search of great stories, we find that time and again, the best tales are told in the Main Street diners, corner churches, park benches and even the mayor’s offices of small to mid-sized cites and towns," says Livability. "Far from letting time pass them by, these communities are doubling down on livability for their residents." 

Missoula, Mont.
Towns were judged based on amenities, demographics, economy, education, health care, housing, social and civic capital and transportation and ranked based on the total score of the eight categories. Madison, Wisc. was ranked No. 1, followed by Rochester, Minn.; Arlington, Va.; Boulder, Colo.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Berkley, Calif.; Santa Clara, Calif.; Missoula, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; and Iowa City, Iowa. (Read more

Despite success of Obamacare in Kentucky, newly insured residents still plan to vote Republican

Kentucky's success with federal health reform appears to be having little impact on voters in a state that traditionally favors Republicans, Abby Goodnough reports for The New York Times. In fact, many residents who now only have insurance because of President Obama's Affordable Care Act still openly dislike the current administration.

About 10 percent of Kentuckians have obtained health insurance "through the state’s online insurance marketplace—albeit mostly through Medicaid, not private plans—and none of the technology failures that plagued other enrollment websites," Goodnough writes. "The uninsured rate here has fallen to 11.9 percent from 20.4 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll that found only Arkansas had experienced a steeper decline."

"But there is little evidence that the expansion of health coverage will help Kentucky Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections," Goodnough writes. "Republicans hold all of the state’s congressional seats except for one, in a district centered in Louisville, and none are considered vulnerable this year. Republicans, who already control the State Senate, have a chance of taking the State House of Representatives, where Democrats hold an eight-seat majority. And several recent polls have put (Senate Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell ahead of his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, even though his approval ratings are tepid."

Obama is so unpopular in Kentucky that McConnell links the president to Grimes when attacking her in ads. Grimes has done little to offset McConnell's attacks. "Some party activists and political analysts say Grimes is missing an opportunity to excite the Democratic base—and perhaps siphon votes from McConnell in places like southern and Eastern Kentucky, where the drop in the uninsured rate has been especially steep—by not vigorously defending the law," Goodnough writes. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes the Rural Blog, told Goodnough, “It may be her last, best chance."

Goodnough writes, "In many ways, the role that the law is playing in Kentucky politics reflects what is going on nationally as the midterm elections approach. The law remains deeply unpopular among Republicans and independents, and Republican candidates still use it to flog their Democratic opponents." Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who supports ACA, told Goodnough, "The campaign by the Affordable Care Act’s critics against it has been very effective in demonizing the phrase Obamacare and anything to do with the president. So I think you find a reluctance on the part of people, even though the law is benefiting them, to publicly acknowledge it.” (Read more)

Study links injection wells to earthquakes in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico

A dramatic rise in earthquakes since 2001 in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico can be linked to deep injection of wastewater underground, says a study by the the U.S. Geological Survey to be published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

The study said that the Raton Basin, which straddles New Mexico and Colorado, had one earthquake of 3.8 magnitude or higher from 1972 to 2001, but since the area has seen an increase in drilling, the area had 16 earthquakes from 2001 to 2013, Tamara Audi reports for The Wall Street Journal. "A magnitude 5.3 quake in August 2011 occurred near two injection wells. The wells were just a few miles from the site of the quake and were injecting 'more than 400,000 barrels of wastewater per month' in the 16 months before the quake, the study said." (WSJ graphic)

Researchers said that since mid-2000 the total injection rate of the 21 high-volume wastewater disposal wells in Colorado and seven in New Mexico, have ranged from 1.5 to 3.6 million barrels per month," Daniel Wallis reports for Reuters. "They said the timing and location of seismic events correspond to the documented pattern of injected wastewater and that their findings suggest seismic events are initiated shortly after an increase in injection rates." (Read more

Documentary shows life in a booming North Dakota oil town through the eyes of children

A documentary short about the North Dakota Bakken Shale boom making the rounds at film festivals is scheduled to be screened this week at the Logan Film Festival in Utah. What makes the award-winning film "White Earth" unique is that it is almost exclusively shot from the point-of-view of children whose lives have been affected by living in White Earth, N.D., either because their lifelong home has been overrun by large numbers of people, because their family relocated to the town to find work or because high costs of living have have adversely affected their lives.

One 10-year old girl said, "I've lived in North Dakota all my life, and lately new people have been coming and coming, and it just doesn't stop." A 10-year-old boy, whose family moved to White Earth a year earlier when his dad got a job driving a bulldozer, said, "I moved here in the summer. Whenever it came to be winter time, I was like wow, this is awesome, and then I was like wow, this is horrible." The film was directed by J. Christian Jensen. To view the Facebook page click here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Farms increasing in size, decreasing in number, says USDA report

Farms are increasing in size but decreasing in number, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its September Agriculture and Food Statistics report. The number of U.S. farms fell from nearly seven million in 1935 to around two million in 2012, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. "Meanwhile, the average farm size has more than doubled, and the amount of total land being farmed has, more or less, remained the same."

"At first glance, it might seem like this is the simply a story of big, corporate farms," Ferdman writes. "And in many ways it is—the big farms have only gotten bigger over the years. As of 2011—much as is true with the country's wealth—the vast majority of America's farm land was controlled by a small number of farms. The top 10 percent of farms in terms of size account for more than 70 percent of cropland in the United States; the top 2.2 percent alone takes up more than a third. What's actually happening is that while a number of farms continue to grow on one end of the spectrum, the rest are shrinking on the other, leaving fewer and fewer mid-sized farms."

Farm with sales less than $10,000 account for 53 percent of all farms, but only 1 percent of production, the report says. Corn, cattle and soybeans made-up 39 percent of the farm value of U.S. agricultural production in 2013. Export to China increased from $13.1 billion in 2009 to $25.9 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, food prices have posted annual increases of between 0.8 and 5.5 percent over the past decade. (USDA map: About 46 million people, or 15 percent of the population, live in rural areas. Non-metro areas make up 72 percent of U.S. land and are home to 57 percent of farms)

September is National Honey Month; U.S. gets a large portion of its honey from imports

September is National Honey Month—a time to celebrate honey-making in the U.S.—but a large portion of American honey comes from imports, especially over the past few years when honeybee deaths and severe drought in the South and West severely reduced supplies. An estimated 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers live in the U.S., and production from U.S. beekeepers with five or more colonies totals 149 million pounds in 2013, up 5 percent from 2012, says the National Honey Board. But Americans consume far more than that. U.S. consumption totaled 410 million pounds in 2010.

One problem is in California, where drought has knocked The Golden State from the country's top honey producer to fourth, Anna Christiansen reports for PBS. In 2010, California produced 27.5 million pounds of honey, compared to only 10.9 million pounds in 2013. This year's numbers are expected to be even worse.

Drought and the decline in honeybee populations have "pushed prices to unprecedented highs," Christiansen writes. "According to the National Honey Board, retail price for the sticky sweet natural product has increased by 65 percent over the past 8 years." That also forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue honey guidelines earlier this year, barring manufacturers from adding other substances (like corn syrup) that would save them money.

While California struggles to produce honey, North Dakota has become the nation's top producing state, says the National Honey Board. In 2013 North Dakota produced 33,120,000 pounds of honey valued at $67,565,500. Montana was second, producing 14,946,000 pounds of honey, and Florida was fourth, producing 13,420,000 pounds of honey.

"The drop in U.S. production, coupled with high domestic honey prices, increased honey imports to 288.3 million pounds in 2011, twice the amount imported a decade ago in 2001," writes Big Picture Agriculture. "The top three foreign suppliers of natural honey to the United States—Argentina, Vietnam and India—accounted for two-thirds of total U.S. imported honey in 2011."

The U.S. imported 44,239 metric tons (one metric ton is about 2,200 pounds) of honey from Argentina in 2013, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The U.S. also imported 33,586 metric tons from Vietnam, 25,867 metric tons from India and 11,677 metric tons from Brazil. Other imports came from Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, Ukraine, Turkey, Taiwan, Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Chile and Thailand. (Big Picture Agriculture graphic)

County fairs are struggling to get funds from urban legislators; some fairs are forced to cancel

County fairs are facing a crisis and getting little support from urban politicians. "The number of U.S. farms has dropped six straight years, and with them demand for entertainments that convened growers who spend much of the year in their fields," Elizabeth Campbell reports for Bloomberg. "With state budgets under pressure and industrial agriculture helping to drain the countryside’s population, urban legislators face tough choices. Illinois cut support for county fairs by 38 percent as attendance fell by almost a third from 2000 to 2013."

As a results, events like the Macon County Fair, which has been a staple in central Illinois for 158 years, was canceled and replaced with a scaled-down festival, Campbell writes. "Rural and small-town America face a 'growing demographic challenge,' according to a November 2013 report by the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Macon County hasn’t been spared. Its population fell 1.3 percent from April 2010 to July 2013, while the state’s grew 0.4 percent." (Campbell photo: Ride at the Macon County fairgrounds)

Funding for Illinois’s 104 county fairs has fallen from $8.16 million in 2000 to $5.07 million in 2013, Campbell writes. Similar numbers have been reported in other states. Dominic Vivona Jr., a controller at Amusements of America, a carnival operator based in Florence, S.C., that serves 30 to 40 fairs a year, told Campbell, “It’s definitely not atypical. It’s a common occurrence throughout the country.” (Read more)

Small portion of bird deaths are from wind farms; cell and radio towers are more deadly

Critics of wind farms sometimes use the argument that turbines kill a large number of birds and bats.  A peer-reviewed study published Monday in PLOS ONE by Western Ecosystems Technology (WEST) says the number of birds killed by wind farms pales in comparison to bird deaths from other human-related sources.

"Wind turbines kill between 214,000 and 368,000 birds annually—a small fraction compared with the estimated 6.8 million fatalities from collisions with cell and radio towers and the 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion deaths from cats," Wendy Koch reports for USA Today.

The study, which used data from 116 studies in the U.S. and Canada, says that 63 percent of reported fatalities were small birds of 156 different species, Koch writes. Lead author Wallace Erickson said, "We estimate that on an annual basis, less than 0.1 percent ... of songbird and other small passerine species populations in North America perish from collisions with turbines." (Read more) (WEST graphic: The dots show the locations of the 116 studies)

Last month was the hottest August ever; global temperature slightly higher than in recent years

Last month was the hottest August ever, and through the first eight months of the year 2014 is the fourth hottest year since the first records kept in 1880, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies reported on Monday. Although it was the warmest month ever globally, the August temperature was only slightly higher that in previous years, Terrell Johnson reports for The Weather Channel.

"Last month was the top-ranked August, with an anomaly of 0.70ºC above the 1951-1990 baseline temperature average," Johnson writes. "The difference, however, is very small compared with previous Augusts, said NASA-GISS Director Dr. Gavin Schmidt in an email interview with weather.com, adding that August 2014 'is basically in a statistical tie' with 2011, 2008, 2006 and 2003." (Read more) (NASA map)

Northeastern community newspaper chronicles life inside a Vermont foundry

Have you ever wondered what goes on inside a foundry? James Patterson, photographer for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and white River Junction, Vt., took an inside look at the Vermont Castings Foundry, which moves 85 tons of brake rotors and scrap iron each day. "It is melted, molded, drilled and ground into the parts that become wood stoves at the company's assembly plant in Bethel," Patterson writes. 

Joe Beauchemin, who has worked at the foundry for 28 years, told Patterson, "I can remember being in high school and seeing people come out of here and saying, 'I'm never going to work there.' It grows on you." Patterson writes, "The work's physical demands and the extreme temperatures in parts of the foundry are daunting to some, but long-term employees like Beauchemin have made it their lives and project a sense of pride into their product." (Read more)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Antibiotics used by major poultry companies pose risks for humans, Reuters investigation finds

Major U.S., poultry companies, including Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s and Koch Foods, are using antibiotics at such high rates that the drugs are killing off weaker bacteria while allowing drug-resistant bacteria to flourish, posing a potential risk to human health, Brian Grow and P.J. Huffstutter report for Reuters. Seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg linked to Foster Farms have made more than 600 people ill since 2013.

Around 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock, Grow and Huffstutter write. "About 390 medications containing antibiotics have been approved to treat illness, stave off disease and promote growth in farm animals. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reviewed just 7 percent of those drugs for their likelihood of creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a Reuters data analysis found."
Reuters reviewed more than 320 feed tickets from six major poultry companies during the past two years, finding that in every instance "the doses were at the low levels that scientists say are especially conducive to the growth of so-called superbugs, bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines used to treat people," Grow and Huffstutter write.

Two producers, George’s and Koch Foods, "have administered drugs belonging to the same classes of antibiotics used to treat infections in humans," Grow and Huffstutter write. "The practice is legal. But many medical scientists deem it particularly dangerous because it runs the risk of promoting superbugs that can defeat the life-saving human antibiotics."

The poultry industry said the antibiotics pose little threat to humans, Grow and Huffstutter write. Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told Reuters, "Several scientific, peer reviewed risk assessments demonstrate that resistance emerging in animals and transferring to humans does not happen in measurable amounts, if at all." He said using antibiotics to prevent diseases in flocks “is good, prudent veterinary medicine. . . . Prevention of the disease prevents unnecessary suffering and prevents the overuse of potentially medically important antibiotics in treatment of sick birds.”

Health authorities disagree. The "World Health Organization called antibiotic resistance 'a problem so serious it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,'" Reuters writes. The annual cost to battle antibiotic-resistant infections is estimated at $21 billion to $34 billion in the U.S., WHO said. Each year, about 430,000 people in the U.S. become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics, according to a July report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, the CDC estimates that 2 million people are sickened in the U.S. annually with infections resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die. (Read more)

Most severe form of black lung disease on the rise, says federal health and safety agency

Complicated black lung—the most severe form of the disease—has reached levels not seen since the early 1970s, says a study by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Erica Peterson reports for WFPL in Louisville. NIOSH, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been testing underground coal miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia for the disease for 40 years."

Evan Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, told Peterson, “What we’ve seen since especially the '80s is that there’s been under-enforcement of the rules, there’s been major loopholes that have meant that even if you look at the book and say, ‘This is what the dust level is,’ that’s not what miners have been exposed to.”

The study's authors "hypothesize that the increased toxicity of what miners are breathing could play a part," Peterson writes. "Smith said because technology is allowing miners to mine thinner coal seams, they’re breathing things other than coal dust." He told Peterson, “The mix of dust they’re being exposed to isn’t as much as pure coal as what maybe my grandfather would have been breathing. Instead there’s a lot more rock, sandstone, shale. And what’s in those rocks ends up being more damaging to miners’ lungs.” (Read more)

Farm Safety and Health Week begins Sept. 21; farming is the most dangerous profession

National Farm Safety and Health Week, observed since 1944, runs from Sept. 21-27, and this year's theme is “Safety Counts—Protecting What Matters,” says a press release from the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, which offers a list of resources for story ideas.

The U.S. Agricultural Centers' YouTube channel "features more than 40 videos available for Extension agents/educators, agricultural science teachers, producers/owner/operators, first responders and agricultural families," says Wisconsin Ag Connection.

Agriculture has the highest rate of fatalities of any profession in the U.S., reports the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, "fatalities decreased 6 percent to 479, the third straight year of declines. However, the sector’s injury rate was 22.2 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers in 2013, far ahead of transportation (13.1/100,000) and mining (12.3/100,000)."

In rural Louisiana rookie police officers with little to no training are patrolling the streets

Some police officers in Louisiana, particularly in rural and poorly-funded areas, have a gun and a badge but lack the necessary training for carrying either one, Maya Lau reports for the Shreveport Times. The reason is a state law "allowing full-time officers to serve a year before finishing academy and obtaining their Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) certification." (Times photo by Jim Hudelson)

"Officers working part-time (39 hours a week or fewer) are not required to attend police academy, which typically lasts around 16 weeks, even if they work under such an arrangement for years on end," Lau writes. "And some departments simply violate the law, never sending full-time officers to academy for years, according to a prominent police trainer."

While state numbers are difficult to attain, in the most recent class at the Caddo Sheriff's Regional Academy—which serves 10 parishes and 110 state agencies—27 of the 40 cadets had already been working as law enforcement officers, Lau writes. Capt. Kenny Sanders, director of the academy, "says every class includes at least a few who have already been working as officers. Some pipe up and admit they've served as full-time officers who have somehow gone undetected for several years without going to an academy."

Some departments defend the one year waiting period, saying it ends up being a waste of money if rookies don't pan out as an officer, Lau writes. Lt. Melvin Ashley, patrol supervisor and training officer, "said rookies are accompanied and taught on-the-job by veteran officers, who then determine when the new employee is ready to patrol alone. There's no minimum amount of time for that training, he said. When responding to a call, new officers are met by experienced officers and also must receive firearms training." Other departments have similar routines.

"But Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans-based watchdog group, says small departments are still exposing themselves to serious liability issues by putting uncertified officers on the street even if they're accompanied by a veteran," Lau writes. "Rookie officers are 'there to observe, learn and follow proper instructions. If he winds up in a foot chase, he could be separated from the other officer, and he could be called on to make decisions that a trained officer should be making,' said Radosti." He told Lau, "If an explosive situation occurs, he may be put in a situation he's not trained to handle. It only takes one incident to make all the money you've basically saved by holding off the training go down the drain." (Read more)

Contaminated water in Barnett Shale and Marcellus Shale from gas well leaks, study finds

A study by five universities found that contaminated drinking water in wells in North Texas’ Barnett Shale and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania were not caused by drilling or hydraulic fracturing, but from gas that "leaked from defective casing and cementing in gas wells meant to protect groundwater or from gas formations not linked to zones where fracking took place," Randy Lee Loftis reports for The Dallas Morning News.

The study, by researchers from Ohio State University, Duke University, Stanford University, Dartmouth College and the University of Rochester, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers "took samples from wells in which gas levels had risen over time, clustered in seven locations in western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and one in the Barnett region."

Lead author Thomas Darrah told Loftis, "This is relatively good news because it means that most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity." He said the gas “is definitely not released by hydraulic fracturing breaking out of the shale and migrating into groundwater.” (Read more) (To view the interactive map click here)

San Antonio Express-News investigates the impact of flaring in the Eagle Ford Shale

"Oil and gas companies rushing to drill in the Eagle Ford Shale since 2009 have burned and wasted billions of cubic feet of natural gas—enough to meet the needs for an entire year of every San Antonio-area household that relies on the fossil fuel," John Tedesco and Jennifer Hiller report for the San Antonio Express-News in the first of a series about the impact of flaring in the Eagle Ford Shale. (Express-News photo)

"Faced with a pipeline shortage in rural South Texas, companies bleed off the gas into flares that release air pollutants and greenhouse gases in amounts that collectively rival the output of a half-dozen oil refineries," Tedesco and Hiller write. "Not even the state's top regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas who oversee the oil and gas industry know how much gas is going to waste and polluting the air in the Eagle Ford Shale."

"Analyzing millions of records, the newspaper found the volume of wasted gas in Texas has reached levels not seen in decades—and the South Texas shale field is largely to blame," Tedesco and Hiller write.

Among the newspaper's findings:
• No region in Texas flared as much gas as the Eagle Ford Shale. Since the early days of the energy boom in 2009, statewide flaring and venting in Texas surged by 400 percent to 33 billion cubic feet in 2012. Nearly-two thirds of the gas lost that year—21 billion cubic feet—came from the Eagle Ford.
• The rate of Eagle Ford flaring was 10 times higher than the combined rate of the state's other oil fields.
• The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet—enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy's service area, which includes San Antonio.
• Despite assurances by the Railroad Commission that gas flares are safely regulated, the Express-News found seven Eagle Ford operations with some of the highest amounts of flaring had failed to obtain the necessary permits from the agency.
• Eagle Ford flares pumped more than 15,000 tons of volatile organic compounds and other contaminants into the air in 2012, state pollution estimates obtained by the Express-News state.

Other stories in the series are Flares emitting more pollution than refineries, Top flaring sites lacked state oversight and While the gas burns, companies explore solutions.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Contest to award millions to towns and cities to stimulate growth and revitalization

Communities in 27 states have a chance to earn millions of dollars to stimulate growth and revitalization as part of America's Best Communities, an initiative designed by Frontier Communications and DISH Network, says a press release from Frontier. The contest is open to all towns and cities in Frontier's service areas with populations between 9,500 to 80,000. Smaller communities can collaborate on projects.

Entrants are required to submit and implement their best plans for future growth and prosperity. "Judges will then select up to 50 qualified applicants in February 2015, each of which will be awarded $35,000 to develop their plans and proposals," the release said. These communities will then have seven months to refine and submit their final proposals in September 2015."

"Up to 15 semifinalists will be selected in November 2015, and will attend America's Best Communities summit in January 2016 to present their proposals," the release said. "In early 2016, eight finalists will be selected and will be awarded $100,000 each. The prize money awarded to the eight finalists will be used to implement the communities' plans and bring them to life, while sharing their stories—and successes—along the way." The top three proposals will be awarded a total of $6 million in grand prizes in Oct. 2017. The application deadline is Jan. 12, 2015. (Read more) (Frontier map of service areas)

Democrat says rural voters in Ga., Ky. are key to elections that could determine Senate control

Rural voters could be the deciding factor in two key Senate races in Kentucky and Georgia that could allow Democrats to retain control of the Senate or help swing control to Republicans, Democratic activist Matt Barron writes for The Hill. UPDATE, Sept. 14: Barron is involved in a radio campaign in the Kentucky race.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to displace Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who was first elected in 1984. In Georgia, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is vying with Republican David Perdue over a seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

McConnell campaigned against President Obama, especially in rural areas, in a state where the president fared poorly in the 2008 and 2012 elections and even less so in current polls. His ads say a vote for Grimes is a vote for Obama's policies. While Grimes is expected to do well in Louisville and Lexington—cites in which Obama won the popular vote—Barron says the outcome will be decided in the rural areas, which have decidedly supported Republicans in previous elections.

Keith McCants, who runs the Peanut Politics blog, "said Nunn has two tasks in wooing rural voters," Barron writes. "First, she must motivate 'Obamacrats,' the rural black voters in the 1st, 2nd and 8th Congressional Districts who don't come out to midterm elections like they do when Obama's name is on the ballot. Second, McCants says Nunn needs independents and voters 55 and older to break her way. He told Barron, "She needs to talk about issues that resonate with rural areas (such as her religious affiliation) That's something Democrats haven't done a lot." (Read more)

High levels of cancer-causing gas found in oil and gas sites, CDC study says

Oil and gas workers are being exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, a colorless gas that can cause cancer, says a study by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control.

NIOSH—which recommends that workers limit benzene exposure to an average of 0.1 of a part per million during their shift—said that 15 of 17 samples from a 2013 study at six Wyoming and Colorado gas and oil sites were over that limit, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times. "The amounts were still below the far higher limit of 1 part per million set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

Workers are exposed to benzene when they open hatches atop tanks at well sites "to inspect the contents of these tanks, which could include oil, waste water or chemicals used in high-volume hydraulic fracturing," Banerjee writes. "The real-time readings taken by researchers show that benzene levels at the wells 'reached concentrations that, depending on the length of exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers.'”

The study's authors said benzene “is of major concern because it can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver and kidneys at high concentrations," Banerjee writes. The CDC said benzene "can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.” (Read more)

Opposing lawmakers team up to introduce House legislation that benefits displaced miners

A pair of House lawmakers plan to introduce a bipartisan bill "to create a program that provides paid job training and benefits to coal industry workers to make them marketable in other workforce sectors," Emma Dumain and Lauren Gardner report for Roll Call. Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are modeling their bill after the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, "a successful and relatively noncontroversial federal initiative that re-trains individuals who are unemployed as a result of certain trade agreements."

The key is to get Republicans and Democrats to put away their bitter feud concerning the coal industry, climate change and the perceived "war on coal" by keeping "the bill so narrowly focused that members won’t be tempted to turn it into a dumping ground for politically loaded amendments," Dumain and Gardner write. McKinley told Roll Call, “The debate will continue on over climate change, and I hope we can have an adult conversation about that. At the same time, we want to make sure these people are not the collateral damage.”

Dumain and Gardner write, "For such a contentious issue, it’s significant that McKinley, whose state’s economy has historically been fueled by the coal industry, should partner up with Welch, whose state is so 'green' it’s the only one the Environmental Protection Agency won’t regulate under its proposed carbon pollution limits for power plants—because Vermont doesn’t have any coal-burning facilities."

In fact, the pair are like The Odd Couple, with McKinley frequently blasting the Obama administration for promoting environmental regulations “based on ideology and not science,” while Welch criticizes the Republican-led House for “climate change denial,” Dumain and Gardner write. But they have teamed up before to promote energy efficiency.

Welch told Roll Call, “In order for us to move ahead, there has to be some serious acknowledgement on the part of those of us who think climate change is an issue … that workers in the coal fields have been American heroes for years. You can buy into the importance of helping folks who … suddenly had the rug pulled out from them.” (Read more)

Rural areas to be focus of next ACA enrollment; distance, lack of broadband remain problems

States and non-profit groups will focus on rural areas in the next round of strategies to get more people enrolled in federal health reform, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News. While millions of Americans have signed up for health care under the Affordable Care Act, a large portion of rural residents did not, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid. One problem is distance. Many rural residents lack broadband and live far from enrollment assistance centers.

"About $2.5 million from the Department of Health and Human Services was specifically directed to rural outreach for the initial open enrollment period," Luthra writes. "For 2015, a total of $60 million will be available to bolster navigators’ work in states that are using the federal marketplace, but it’s not clear what portion of this amount will be directed to rural enrollment."

In Virginia 13 percent of the population is rural, and 13 percent of state residents are uninsured, Luthra writes. Jill Hanken, health attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the state's principal navigator agency, told Luthra, "We're spread thin throughout the state, but that means in rural areas there are additional challenges in terms of finding the people and getting out to groups." Virginia did not expand Medicaid.

In Minnesota, where some people have had to travel more than 50 miles to get assistance, 23 percent of the state is rural, and 9 percent of residents lack insurance, Luthra writes. Ralonda Mason, a supervising attorney at St. Cloud’s branch of Mid-MN Legal Aid, said MNsure, the state's online enrollment plan, "doesn’t let navigators and consumers use computers in different places to simultaneously log into the application and fill it out over the phone. They must review it in person. Site crashes or application failures, which navigators said they hope to see fewer of this year, add burdens for consumers or navigators already traveling far." (Read more) (Advisory Board Company map)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rural residents less likely than urban ones to live alone; map has county-level data

Rural Americans are less likely to live alone. The number of Americans living in one-person households has risen from 5 percent in the 1920s to 27 percent in 2013, but the highest concentrations of single-person households are in cities such as Manhattan and Washington, D.C., Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. To see an interactive map of county-level changes from 2000 to 2010, click here.

The lowest percentage of single-households is in Madison County, Idaho, an area settled by Mormons, where only 10 percent of people live alone, Henderson writes. Utah has the lowest number of single-person households at 19 percent. Experts say overall single-person numbers are higher because people are living longer and getting married later in life.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg told Henderson, “Most of the people I talk to, when I ask why they live alone, they say, ‘Because I can.' Living alone is a luxury. You’re better off doing it in a densely populated urban area that’s high in amenities. It’s more difficult if you live in a rural area or a suburban area designed for families." (Read more) (Stateline map: In Wayne County, Tennessee, with a population of about 17,000, 27 percent of people live alone)

Yale, Penn State studies offer different takes on health issues related to Pennsylvania fracking

A pair of recently released studies in Pennsylvania—one supported by environmental groups, the other backed by the oil and gas industry—found vastly different results of how wells affect health and water supplies, David Conti reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

A Yale University study published in Environmental Health Perspectives "found increased reporting of certain health issues by people who live within a kilometer of working wells in Washington County," Conti writes. A Penn State University study funded by the industry and published in the peer-reviewed journal Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources "found that fracking water that remains deep underground after a well is finished will stay trapped in shale, far away from groundwater supplies."

The Yale study, which surveyed 180 households in 2012, "found 39 percent of those living within a kilometer of a working well reported upper respiratory or skin problems, compared with 31 percent of those living between 1 and 2 kilometers, and 18 percent of those living farther away." The study was supported by the Heinz Endowments, which has taken a strict anti-drilling stance in the past year, Conti writes. Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition told Conti that the Yale survey was “done in partnership with a local activist group and was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative.”

Penn State's geosciences professor Terry Engelder "said his research shows injecting frack water into deep shale is safe," Conti writes. Engelder said, “The practical implication is that hydro fracture fluids will be locked into the same ‘permeability jail' that sequestered over-pressured gas for over 200 million years." Environmentalists said the Penn State study, funded by the drilling industry and including a researcher from Royal Dutch Shell, could not be trusted. (Read more)

Senators grill railroad operators about shipping delays for crops

Senators at a congressional hearing on Wednesday accused the railway industry of purposely delaying shipments of agricultural products—leading farmers to store large amounts of crops, sell at lower costs or lose crops altogether—in favor of shipping more profitable crude oil, Patrick Rucker reports for Reuters.

"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. With record wheat and soybeans crops expected this year, farmers fear the situation will only get worse.

To remedy the problem "the rail sector has promised to spend $26 billion this year to improve service, but Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was not placated," Rucker writes. In addressing BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway Rockefeller said, "You pretty much get what you want and stop what you want around here. You are doing a great job for your shareholders. What about these folks?" Rockefeller said, referring to officials from the farm, auto and chemical industries who also testified at the hearing.

Arthur Neal, who analyzes market and transportation issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture "said the massive grain harvest could exceed permanent storage bins by about 694 million bushels this harvest season or about 3.5 percent of expected totals," Rucker writes. "That glut could fill roughly 174,000 jumbo hopper rail cars with South Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, among the states most impacted, he said, adding that much of last year's crop is still lying around." (Read more)

Rural minority is the majority when it comes to keeping Republicans in control of the House

Securing the urban vote has helped Democrats take control of the Senate and win the popular vote in most of the recent presidential elections, but that doesn't work in the House, where rural voters, who tend to be more conservative, have a larger say in the outcome of elections, Nate Cohn reports for The New York Times. Rural voters have helped give Republicans control of the House, which doesn't appear to be ending any time soon.

"The gap between staggering Democratic margins in cities and the somewhat smaller Republican margins in the rest of the country allows Democrats to win key states in presidential and Senate elections, like Florida and Michigan," Cohn writes. "But the expanded Democratic margins in metropolitan areas are all but wasted in the House, since most of these urban districts already voted for Democrats. The result is that Democrats have built national and statewide majorities by making Democratic-leaning congressional districts even more Democratic, not by winning new areas that might turn congressional districts from red to blue."

President Obama focused most of his campaign on metropolitan areas, winning the 2008 and 2012 elections by large margins in cities, Cohn writes. His opponents won the rural areas, but Obama's margin in urban areas was too great to overcome. Obama's strategy was to largely ignore rural ideals and "unabashedly campaigned on social issues, like gay rights and funding for contraception, that past Democratic candidates would have tiptoed around for fear of alienating more conservative, rural voters."

"More than ever, the kind of place where Americans live—metropolitan or rural—dictates their political views," Cohn writes. "The country is increasingly divided between liberal cities and close-in suburbs, on one hand, and conservative exurbs and rural areas, on the other. Even in red states, the counties containing the large cities—like Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Birmingham—lean Democratic." (Read more)

Most cities lean toward Democrats, but "the majority of Americans who live in cities and close-in suburbs are stuck with having their government tilted in favor of the rural minority," David Horsey reports for the Los Angeles Times. This means "that a Democratic presidential candidate can roll up big numbers in the cities where the young, liberal and nonwhite voters tend to live and win the electoral votes of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. But in the non-urban areas of those states, Democrats are in shorter supply and have a tougher time winning congressional seats."

"Imagine a state with three congressional districts and assume that two-thirds of the state’s voters are Democrats," Horsey writes. "You’d guess that two of the three members of Congress would be Democrats. But you just might be wrong. If most of those Democrats live in a large city located in one of those districts, that means the rest of the Democrats are divided up in the other two districts where Republicans will probably outnumber them. The result is two GOP congressmen and one Democratic representative, even though Democrats are the big majority in our hypothetical state."

"A real-life example of this phenomenon is Pennsylvania, where President Obama carried the state in 2012 by running up huge vote totals in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," Horsey writes. "Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in the state, which would indicate that a majority of Pennsylvania voters favor the Democratic Party. And yet, of the state’s 18 House members, 13 are Republicans."

"This phenomenon is repeated through much of the country," Horsey writes. Add to that a slight bias toward giving small states more representation than their populations merit, plus Republican success at drawing district lines that favor the GOP, and the Democratic Party is left with a daunting problem. If they cannot recapture the kind of support they once had in farm communities and small, working-class towns, Democrats will find it nearly impossible to win back a majority in the House for years to come." (Read more)

College named after Robert E. Lee removes Confederate flags after students complain

A college named after Robert E. Lee has removed Confederate flags from its campus after law students "complained because they had to pledge an honor code in the presence of the flags, something they said glorified Lee’s actions," Carmen Forman reports for The Roanoke Times. Kenneth Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., said Wednesday in his convocation speech that all flags had been removed as "a way of building a community of diverse views and respect on campus." Lee was president of the school when it was named Washington College. The school was renamed after Lee's death. (Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis: Confederate flags on campus)

Ruscio said he had support from the Lee family, citing a letter he received from Lee's great grandson Robert E. Lee IV, which said: “It is clear to me that president Lee would wholeheartedly support your goals of making Washington and Lee a welcoming environment for all students who choose to come there today. As a proud alumnus, I, too, support those goals. In my view, removing the flags from the statuary chamber is overdue. I am proud of my alma mater. I am certain that my great-grandfather would be proud of the institution he once led.”

While retaining the flags had received little support on campus, the same can't be said of residents of the town of 7,000, Forman writes. Brandon Dorsey, commander of Camp 1296 of the Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "said it doesn’t matter that a distant relative of Robert E. Lee supported taking down the flags because it wasn’t right in the first place. To him, Lee deserves to have flags of the nation he fought for hang in a building memorializing him."

Dorsey told Forman, “It’s disrespectful. There wouldn’t be a Washington and Lee University if there hadn’t been a Robert E. Lee. He deserves to have that recognition remain there. Just because you have a family member that takes a position doesn’t mean that has any reflection on the father or grandfather’s views. It’s neat that he’s a descendant, but he didn’t know Robert E. Lee.” (Read more)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Employee-sponsored family health care premiums are up 3 percent in 2014, employer survey says

Employer-sponsored family health care premiums have increased 3 percent this year over last year, with workers paying an average of $4,823 annually, says the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust 2014 Employer Health Benefits Survey released on Wednesday. More than 2,000 small and large employers participated in the survey, which found that annual premiums for worker-only coverage are $6,025 this year, and workers on average contribute $1,081 toward worker-only coverage.

Deductibles are on the rise. The average deductible has increased 47 percent since 2009, from $826 to $1,217. "This year, 41 percent of all covered workers face an annual deductible of at least $1,000, including 18 percent who face a deductible of at least $2,000," says Kaiser. "Covered workers at small firms (three to 199 employees) are even more likely to face large deductibles, with 61 percent facing at least $1,000 deductibles and a third (34 percent) facing at least $2,000 deductibles." (Kaiser graphic)

Co-payments have remained stable, averaging $24 for primary care, $36 for specialists, $11 for generic prescriptions, $31 for preferred brands, $53 for non-preferred brands and $83 for specialty drugs.

Most employers offer wellness programs—98 percent of large employers and 73 percent of smaller ones—with 36 percent of those large employers and 18 percent of those smaller employers providing employees who participate financial incentives, such as a lower premium or deductible, a larger contribution to a tax-preferred savings account, or a gift card, cash or merchandise.

"Starting next year, employers with at least 100 full-time equivalent workers could face penalties if they do not offer health benefits and their workers obtain subsidized coverage through the new health insurance exchanges," says Kaiser. "The survey finds the vast majority (94 percent) of employers with at least 100 workers already offer health benefits to at least some of their workers. In 2016, employers with at least 50 workers will be subject to these penalties."

"Among employers with fewer than 50 workers, 52 percent offer health benefits," says Kaiser. "Since most employers nationally are small, this group drives the overall offer rate for employers, which stands at 55 percent this year, similar to the 57 percent recorded last year. Firms that do not offer health benefits to their workers most often cite cost-related reasons, though one in 10 cite the coverage available to workers through the ACA insurance exchanges as a factor." (Read more)

Brutal video exposes partner abuse concerns; October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Domestic Violence Awareness Month doesn't begin for another three weeks, but now might be a good time to begin writing stories, especially in light of recent brutal video of professional football player Ray Rice knocking his then fiance, now wife, unconscious, then attempting to drag her limp body from an elevator, while showing no concern about her well-being.

While domestic violence gets national headlines when it concerns celebrities and professional athletes, it's an issue that is far worse in rural areas, where the number of victims is higher and victims are more reluctant to report the abuse or leave the abuser, often because of financial concerns and the stigma of being "outed" as a victim in a small town, according to information from the Rural Assistance Center. (Charity Sub graphic)

A 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control says that domestic violence is also linked to long-term diseases, traumas and illnesses, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. The report says, "Women who have fallen victim to domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to suffer a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 70 percent more likely to become heavy drinkers and 60 percent more likely to become asthmatic than women who have not."

The 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which included interviews with more than 16,000 adults, says that 35.6 percent of women and 28.5 percent of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Overall, 18.3 percent of women have reported being raped, with 51.1 percent saying the crime was committed by an intimate partner and 40.8 percent by an acquaintance. Of the 1.4 percent of men who reported being raped, 52.4 percent said it was by an acquaintance. Also, 16.2 percent of women and 5.2 percent of men said they have been stalked.

Anglers unknowingly hurting Great Lakes by dumping unused bait with invasive species DNA

Invasive species, such as Asian carp, have been threatening Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, creating fear that the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry could be at risk. Adding to the problem is that anglers are unknowingly aiding the growth of invasive species by dumping unused bait with invasive species DNA into the waters, says a report by researchers at Central Michigan University and the University of Notre Dame published in Conservation Genetics Resources. (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant graphic)

Researchers "tested water samples from tanks containing small fish for sale as bait at more than 500 shops around the eight-state region," reports the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Results found that 27 of the samples tested positive for DNA of invasive fish, such as Asian carp. The reports "says more consistent bait fish regulation among Michigan and other Great Lakes states is needed." (Read more)

Sept. 17 forum in D.C. on EPA's proposed water rules will be audiocast

The next Farm Foundation forum is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. (ET) on Sept. 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The free event will also be audiocast and will include a PowerPoint presentation. The forum will focus on agriculture, water quality and Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). The Republican-led House on Tuesday passed a bill to block proposed water rules by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill is not expected to advance in the Democratic-led Senate, but if it does, the Obama Administration is recommending that the president veto it.

Tracy Mehan, national source water protection coordinator for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and former assistant administrator for water at the EPA, will present from a regulatory perspective. Gene Schmidt, an Indiana grain farmer and past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, will present from a farmer perspective. Farm Foundation trustee J.B. Penn of Deere and Company will moderate the event. To register for the forum or the audiocast click here.

GOP-led House blocks EPA proposed water rules: Obama expected to veto bill if it passes Senate

The Republican-led House on Tuesday "approved a bill to block the Obama administration from implementing a rule that asserts regulatory authority over many of the nation's streams and wetlands—an action that critics call a classic Washington overreach," Matthew Daly reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The bill passed the House 262-152.

The proposed rules by the Environmental Protection Agency have drawn criticism from agriculture groups, who fear the rules would extend EPA's jurisdiction, Daly writes. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that is not the case, but critics have been slow to believe her. The proposed rule has sparked confusion, and McCarthy has upset many rural residents, who say she is out of touch with rural life. Supporters of the proposed rules say it will lead to cleaner water, and opponents say it will hurt smaller businesses, farmers and jobs in coal-producing states.

In advance of the House vote, the Obama administration threatened on Monday to veto the bill, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. "Citing the need to protect waterways from pollution and the rule’s scientific grounding, the White House said it 'strongly opposes' the bill, and advisers would recommend that President Obama veto it if it reaches his desk." The bill is not expected to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. (Read more)