Wednesday, July 01, 2020

GAO report finds increase in repeatedly flooded properties, suggests changes to flood insurance program

Despite billions of dollars the federal government has spent over the past 30 years on flood mitigation projects, a new Government Accountability Office report says the number of properties damaged by floods more than one time has increased in the past decade, especially in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.

It also notes that premiums for federal flood insurance "do not fully reflect flood hazards for insured property, leaving the federal government financially exposed to this risk," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. The report says reducing the flood risk of insured properties and/or increasing premiums will mitigate the program's financial shortfalls, but says "structural reforms" to premium rates will also be necessary.

The flood-insurance program has been struggling for years, but because of big spikes in claims paid due to disasters, not a gradual increase. The Federal Emergency Management Agency' "has borrowed about $36 billion from the Treasury to pay claims during disasters over the past 15 years or so. Congress cancelled $16 billion of this 'debt' in 2017, but about $20 billion remains outstanding," Lucia reports.

The report dovetails with recently released scientific research showing that far more U.S. properties are at substantial risk of flooding than FEMA maps indicate, since FEMA maps don't factor in climate change and don't use the most recent data available.

Chesapeake Energy declares bankruptcy, others may follow since 1/3 of U.S. shale-oil producers 'technically insolvent'

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing pioneer Chesapeake Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to eliminate $7 billion in debt, and others could follow soon, Alexandra Scraggs reports for Barron's.

Lower demand during the pandemic triggered an oil crash that's hitting the fracking industry hard. The U.S. became a top oil producer recently because of the fracking boom, but keeping up with that boom means most fracking companies are heavily leveraged and can't afford a downturn.

But bond yields for Chesapeake have been distressed since August 2019, long before the pandemic, Scraggs reports. She lists 10 other oil and gas companies that could also declare bankruptcy, including drilling equipment maker Forum Energy Technologies.

According to a Deloitte study, one-third of U.S. shale-oil producers are "technically insolvent," with crude oil prices so low, meaning they will have trouble repaying debts. Oil prices have gone up a bit since April, "but the rebound will do little to prevent 15 years of debt-fueled production growth catching up with many shale producers,"  Kevin Crowley reports for Bloomberg.

Medicaid expansion squeaks by in Okla.; ballot initiative process was key in sidestepping state Republican leaders

A ballot initiative to expand Medicaid benefits via federal funding passed narrowly in Republican stronghold Oklahoma, with 50.48 percent voting yes and 49.52% voting no out of more than 673,000 cast. Most of the "yes" votes were concentrated in urbanized areas.

The move could help at least 200,000 lower-income adults, according to The Associated Press.

"Low-income households earning 133% or less than the federal poverty line will now be eligible for government subsidized Medicaid coverage with the state picking up 10% of the cost and the federal government paying the balance," the Tulsa World reports. "Under 2019 poverty guidelines, expanded Medicaid coverage would provide health insurance to a single adult making less than $17,236 annually, or adults in a family of four making less than $35,535 annually."  Oklahoma has the second-highest percentage of the population without health insurance, with 14.2%, or 548,316 individuals, lacking it, the World reports.

The referendum makes Oklahoma the 37th state to expand Medicaid (38th if you count Washington, D.C.). The ballot initiative process may have been a key factor in the vote in Oklahoma and other red states that have expanded Medicaid, enabling voters to make an end-run around conservative state leaders, Glenn Daigon reports for Who What Why.

Part of Roundup settlement could help some Midwestern row-crop farmers hit by dicamba drift stay afloat

"Largely overlooked in Bayer’s $10.5 billion Roundup settlement last week was a $400 million agreement to settle claims of crop damage from dicamba drift, a deal that could help some struggling farmers stay afloat," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Claims from the 2015 to 2020 growing seasons will be covered by the settlement, and farmers not involved in the litigation are still able to submit claims if they provide proof of damage to crop yields and evidence that it was due to dicamba, according to a Bayer spokesperson."

Some rural Californians illustrate political divide in attitudes toward wearing masks in public during pandemic

Despite ample evidence that masks work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many refuse to wear them, especially as the pandemic has become increasingly politicized. In rural areas of California, many are rejecting Gov. Gavin Newsom's June 18 order to wear masks while in public.

"Why the split? Some of it’s cultural; as a rule, rural Californians are more suspicious of what they see as government intrusion into their lives," Dale Kasler reports for The Sacramento Bee. "Some of it’s political; rural areas tend to vote Republican, and some residents are taking their lead from President Donald Trump, who has been disdainful of wearing masks. Polls show Democrats are more likely to wear masks than Republicans."

Kasler's interviews with rural residents illustrate some of the reasons. Lorenzo Smith, a retailer in Placerville, pop, 10,389, told Kasler he won't wear them out of principle and because he thinks it's unnecessary. "Most people up here do not like the governor," Smith told Kasler. "The deal is, you have no right to tell me I have to wear a mask. I’m an American. … I refuse to bow to anybody."

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Miami entrepreneur, others indicted in alleged $1.4 billion scheme to route lab tests to rural hospitals for higher pay

Miami entrepreneur Jorge Perez and nine others have been indicted for allegedly scamming insurers by fraudulently routing lab services bills through rural hospitals that are allowed to charge higher rates. Perez owned, co-owned, had a financial stake in, or helped manage over a dozen hospitals, but most have since declared bankruptcy or closed.

"The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Florida, alleges Perez and the other defendants sought out struggling rural hospitals and then contracted with outside labs, in far-off cities and states, to process blood and urine tests for people who never set foot in the hospitals. Insurers were billed using the higher rates allowed for the rural hospitals," Lauren Weber and Barbara Ostrov report for Kaiser Health News. "Perez and the other defendants took in $400 million since 2015, according to the indictment. Many of the hospitals run or managed by Perez’s Empower companies have since failed as they ran out of money when insurers refused to pay for the suspect billing. Half of the nation’s rural hospital bankruptcies in 2019 were affiliated with his empire."

The insurers may not be the only possible victims. A former employee at one of Perez's hospitals told KHN that "money was so tight under Perez’s management of her former hospital that the electricity was shut off at least twice and staffers had to bring in their own supplies," Weber and Ostrov report. "She said she is owed about $12,000 in back pay, as well as money for uncovered dental expenses and a workplace injury that would have been covered had employees’ insurance or workers’ compensation premiums been paid."

Nearly 70% more U.S. properties at high risk of flooding than federal government estimates; see county-level data

New York Times maps; click here for an interactive, county-level map.
Nearly 6 million more U.S. properties face a substantial risk of flooding than federal data indicates, according to new peer-reviewed scientific research. That could have big repercussions for rural residents who live near waterways.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which assesses properties' flood risk for the government via the National Flood Insurance Program, shows that 8.7 million properties are at a high risk of flooding. But the new research shows that 14.6 million properties face such risk. "The discrepancy exists, the group says, because it uses more up-to-date climate data, analyzes precipitation as a stand-alone risk, and includes areas FEMA has not," Amy Harder and Maema Ahmed report for Axios. Click here for interactive content from Axios, including ranked states, counties and areas at risk.

Residents of high-risk areas are required to buy federal flood insurance. "When FEMA does issue updated maps, politicians and homeowners often object, hoping to avoid higher federal flood insurance rates," The New York Times reports. Poor, rural residents lose out either way: increased insurance payouts could price them out of their communities, but without insurance, they could be left without help and unable to afford repairs when flooding hits, as happened in Florida after Hurricane Michael.

Recent studies found that the federal government needs to spend up to $12 billion to improve its flood maps. In the meantime, First Street is developing a free online database called Flood Factor aimed at helping real estate agents and prospective buyers get a more realistic idea of a property's flood risk.

First Street is a non-profit research and tech firm that developed its flood model with researchers and hydrologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University and more.

Nominate an outstanding journalist or news media staffer over age 50 for new Editor & Publisher honor by July 10

For years, Editor & Publisher magazine has published a list of 25 outstanding journalists under age 35, but the publication's leaders apparently believe they've been remiss in not honoring veteran journalists.

So, E&P is seeking nominations for its new "15 over 50" Award. Nominees should be someone who has "spent their career moving the news publishing industry forward by leading, inspiring and motivating others." Nominees must be at least 50 years old as of July 1, and can come from newspapers, TV, radio or online, and can come from sales, editorial, production, or audience development.

Nominations are due July 10. Click here for more information or to submit a nomination.

Funds launched to help local news organizations fund-raise from audiences, increase local coverage of covid-19

Several news-media organizations have launched funds aimed at helping local newspapers more quickly and easily begin fund-raising and accepting tax-deductible donations.

The New England Newspaper & Press Association announced the creation of its News Fund of New England in late April; the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation announced its Wisconsin Community News Fund on June 27. Both seek to help local newspapers stay afloat at a time when advertising revenue has taken a steep dive.

A similar venture has a slightly different focus: the Local Media Association has launched the Covid-19 Local News Fund, which aims to help independent and family-owned news organizations fundraise donations so they can increase coverage of covid-19 issues at the local level.

Ensuring that local news media can provide clear, reliable information about the pandemic is imperative, since conflicting messages about the pandemic from scientists, politicians and social media has likely helped the virus spread. Because the pandemic has become so politicized, Republicans—who are disproportionately rural—tend to take the threat of the virus less seriously, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News.

New rural covid-19 cases hit record – and increasing – highs for at least four days straight through June 26

New covid-19 cases in nonmetropolitan counties. Red bars are days in which the record for most new cases was broken.
(Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
Rural counties saw record numbers of new covid-19 cases for at least four days in a row last week.

"The streak started on Tuesday, June 23, when there were 3,885 new cases of covid-19 in nonmetropolitan, or rural, counties. The figure climbed each day, reaching 4,550 new cases on Friday, June 26," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. The previous rural record was 2,655 new infections on June 12.

Covid-19 cases are rising overall in the U.S., but rural cases are increasing at a slightly faster rate than the national average. From June 20 through 26, covid-19 cases increased 9.5 percent, while rural cases climbed 11.9%. Cities with populations between 500,000 and 1 million saw the steepest increases in that time frame, at 13.9%. Click here for more Daily Yonder information and analysis on covid-19 cases, including links to county-level data.

New covid-19 cases in non-metropolitan counties. Red bars are days in which the record for most new cases was broken.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Federal Reserve will start buying bonds from major food and agribusiness firms to prop up the economy

The Federal Reserve will buy bonds from large corporations, including several major food and agribusiness firms, "as part of its broad efforts to prop up the economy and financial markets," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank announced nearly $7 billion in individual corporate bonds and exchange-traded funds from nearly 800 companies. "The program is part of the central bank’s unprecedented efforts to pump money into the economy and keep cash moving through financial markets," McCrimmon reports. "The Fed is buying bonds on the open market from companies that meet its eligibility standards. The purchases will lower borrowing costs for those firms should they seek more credit."

Click here for a full list of companies that will receive help.

Opioid epidemic caused OD deaths on tribal lands to spike; Natives in Okla. 50% more likely to die than non-natives

Native Americans on tribal lands are facing some of the highest per-capita rates of coronavirus infections because of struggles with health disparities, infrastructure and housing problems, isolation and poverty. "But tribal leaders say they have not lost sight of the ongoing devastation caused by prescription opioids," Sari Horwitz, Debbie Cenziper and Steven Rich report for The Washington Post. "As more than 3,000 cities and counties — along with most states — pursue billions in settlement dollars from opioid manufacturers and distributors, tribal leaders are fighting for a fair share of the proceeds through a series of lawsuits filed by Indian tribes. At the height of the opioid epidemic, Native Americans overdosed and died at a rate that rivaled some of the hardest-hit regions in Appalachia. Nationwide, from 2006 to 2014, Native Americans were nearly 50 percent more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-natives."

Oklahoma was particularly hard hit, with opioid-overdose death rates three times higher than the nationwide rate for non-Natives from 2006 to 2014. "At least 370 Native Americans in Oklahoma overdosed and died — with a death rate roughly equivalent to that of West Virginia, federal data shows. Experts say the number of deaths for Native Americans is likely to be far higher because they are often mistakenly classified as white on death certificates," the Post reports.

Pennsylvania attorney general releases 'scathing' grand jury report on state fracking industry, regulatory industry

"Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday released a scathing grand jury report on the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas industry that not only outlines health and safety issues caused by hydraulic fracturing, but also takes to task the chief agency in charge of enforcing regulations on the industry," Frank Kummer reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

At a press conference, Shapiro described a "revolving door relationship between the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the industry, saying officials from the agency 'repeatedly failed to exercise their duties and responsibilities,'" Kummer reports. He characterized their relationship as "too cozy" and said DEP officials who testified to the grand jury were repeating fracking industry talking points. He also noted that an energy company hired seven former DEP employees from the same office.

"The grand jury report was the result of a two-year investigation that included 287 hours of testimony. It examined an industry that has drilled over 12,000 unconventional wells, as well as what the jurors called a 'chemical cover-up' that allows companies to keep secret complex chemical compounds used in the fracking process," Kummer reports.

A 2017 study linked low birth weight and other health problems for infants who lived near fracking wells. 

Rural food banks face new challenges amid pandemic

Food banks across the nation are struggling to keep up with demand as unemployed families seek help during the pandemic. But rural food banks are dealing with "the additional challenges of getting food to those who live in isolated places with fewer volunteers and donations," Emily Ness reports for WDIO-TV in Duluth.

According to the director at Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Duluth, food must be packed up and distributed instead of allowing people to come in and take it from the shelf, in order to maintain social distancing. That takes more volunteers, and volunteers tend to be senior citizens. But Second Harvest, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has barred seniors from volunteering during the pandemic. That leaves them with fewer volunteers, Ness reports.

Second Harvest is also spending more money distributing the food in rural areas since there are so many new people who need help from the food bank. That means increased costs for gas and mileage, Ness reports.

Telehealth expansion for pandemic has made mental health care more accessible in some rural areas

Aggressive efforts to expand telehealth care in rural areas during the pandemic are bringing the unexpected side benefit of making mental health care more accessible in some areas, Raga Justin reports for the San Angelo Standard Times. Though Justin's story centers around Texas, the same thing is likely happening in other states.

"In April, Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily waived restrictions on telehealth, allowing mental health care providers and local mental health authorities to broadly expand services and collect reimbursement for online appointments more easily," Justin reports. "The state also implemented a mental health hotline in March that offers free over-the-phone support and provides resources and information to callers who need help."

Andy Keller, president and CEO of Texas-based Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, told Justin that "in some ways, people in rural Texas have better access to health care than they’d ever had before" and noted that expanded telehealth access has lifted barriers to accessing physicians in other parts of the state.

Telemedicine appointments at Texas Tech University's Psychiatry Department—a telemedicine pioneer—have been skyrocketing since the pandemic began, according to department chair Sarah Wakefield.

But lack of broadband access in rural areas has stymied further expansion of telemedicine. About 500,000 Texas households lack broadband access in Texas, and about 440,000 of them are in rural areas, Justin reports.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rural counties set record over past week for new covid-19 cases; see the latest county-level data

New rural cases from June 17-24. (Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
"For the second week in a row, rural counties have had the highest number of new cases of covid-19 in a seven-day period since the pandemic began. From June 17-24, rural (nonmetropolitan) counties had 23,366 new cases of covid-19," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder. "The most recent figure broke the previous rural record of 19,022 new cases, which was set the week of June 9-16. Rural America’s cumulative total of covid-19 cases climbed by 13 percent over the last week, from approximately 180,000 cases to 203,000 as of June 24, according to USA Facts. That’s faster than the national rate of growth, which was 9% during the same period.

The Yonder continues to do an outstanding job in tracking and mapping rural coronavirus cases and trends. Click here to read more, including an interactive county-level map, more figures, and charts showing the progression of the pandemic in non-metropolitan counties compared to other counties.

Wall Street-owned timber companies in Oregon reap tax-cut benefits while rural counties lose logging jobs, revenue

Logging has long been a critical industry in Oregon, though timber sales dropped in the 1990s because of federal efforts to protect endangered species in national forests. That meant lost jobs and revenue in rural counties.

"For decades, politicians, suit-and-tie timber executives and caulk-booted tree fallers alike have blamed the federal government and urban environmental advocates for kneecapping the state’s most important industry," but that narrative ignores another reason for the decline of rural timber towns, and one that's still happening even though logging is booming again these days, according to an investigation created in partnership with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

"Wall Street real estate trusts and investment funds began gaining control over the state’s private forestlands. They profited at the expense of rural communities by logging more aggressively with fewer environmental protections than in neighboring states, while reaping the benefits of timber tax cuts that have cost counties at least $3 billion in the past three decades," Tony Schick of Oregon Public Broadcasting, Rob Davis of The Oregonian, and Lylla Younes of ProPublica report. "Half of the 18 counties in Oregon’s timber-dominant region lost more money from tax cuts on private forests than from the reduction of logging on federal lands, the investigation shows."

Investigation: several financial tools meant to ensure cleanup of abandoned coal mines near insolvency

As more and more coal companies go bankrupt, the question of abandoned mine cleanup becomes more important. A 1977 federal law required mining companies to set aside money to pay for reclaiming mines, but that system is in jeopardy.

An investigation by climate scientist website DeSmog "found that several key financial instruments meant to guarantee environmental cleanup have been pushed to the brink of insolvency, potentially leaving taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars in reclamation costs," Mark Olalde reports.

Internal watchdog says USDA used iffy data for regulation allowing faster line speeds in pork processing plants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not evaluate the accuracy of worker safety data it used to make its case for a new hog inspection system that allows plants to run processing lines at unlimited speeds, the Office of Inspector General has concluded," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. "The report, which was released Wednesday, also found that USDA was not transparent about the raw data it used in its worker safety analysis, making it impossible for outside experts to evaluate the agency’s conclusions."

Outside experts were unable to evaluate the USDA's conclusions because the agency wasn't transparent about the raw data used in its worker safety analysis, the report also found. 
"When USDA proposed the new rule, which is voluntary for plants, it concluded injury rates for workers would likely be lower in the plants using the new system," Kindy reports. "The new system, which was finalized in October, shifts many food-safety tasks from federal inspectors to pork industry employees and reduces the number of USDA inspectors on slaughter lines in some plants by 40 percent, records show."


Expert offers tips to metro journalists on covering rural pandemic

As the coronavirus continues to spread in rural areas, urban and suburban journalists may want to cover the rural aspects of the pandemic.

Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center, offers journalists four tips for covering rural health and health care in the context of covid-19, Sari Boren reports for Journalist's Resource.

Journalists must look at covid-19 rates at the county and town level, not just at the state level, she advises. It's also important not to cover rural areas as homogeneous, and recognize that racial and ethnic minorities face many of the same systemic disparities in rural areas as they do in cities, Boren reports.

Though rural health care systems are often hurting financially and have fewer resources than their larger counterparts, journalists need to recognize that many rural systems are independent, which can be an advantage because it allows them to take action more quickly, Henning-Smith notes. She also recommends that journalists take cues from news outlets experienced in covering rural America, such as The Daily Yonder, Boren reports.

Quick hits: State fairs the latest casualty of pandemic; federal court blocks cancer label on Roundup

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

For Appalachian pastors, reopening means walking with the poor and vulnerable. Read more here.

Dartmouth College report finds that rural New Hampshire and Vermont adapted well to the pandemic. Read more here.

Federal court blocks California cancer label on Bayer's Roundup herbicide. Read more here.

State fairs are the latest casualty of covid-19, with at least 15 states canceling theirs. Read more here.

Pandemic proves need for rural grocers. Read more here.

Wood heaters that U.S. regulators deemed too polluting to sell can now be donated to tribal nations and Appalachian communities. Read more here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

U.S. lost 1/4 of its newspapers in last 15 years, 1/3 of them non-metro, says updated study by UNC journalism professor

Click here for the interactive version of the map, with data by county.
Since fall 2018, 300 more U.S. newspapers have disappeared, bringing the 15-year death toll to 2,100, almost 25% of the 9,000 newspapers that were being published in 2005. That's the upshot of “News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?,” a report published Wednesday by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Abernathy writes that the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact have "exposed the deep fissures that have stealthily undermined the health of local journalism in recent years, while also reminding us of how important timely and credible local news and information are to our health and that of our community. This is a watershed year, and the choices we make in 2020 – as citizens, policymakers and industry leaders – will determine the future of the local news landscape. Will our actions – or inactions – lead to an “extinction-level event” of local newspapers and other struggling news outlets, as predicted by some in the profession? Or will they lead to a reset: an acknowledgment of what is at stake if we lose local news, as well as a recommitment to the civic mission of journalism and a determination to support its renewal?"

Abernathy's report, the fourth in a series, tells a national audience something it may not realize, that the vast majority of U.S. newspapers are community papers, and those papers are by far weeklies.

"Weekly and nondaily papers often have an outsized impact on their communities, but in contrast to the dailies, their closing rarely makes headlines outside the community where they are located," Abernathy writes, citing some examples from The Rural Blog.

One-third of the closed newspapers were outside metropolitan areas, the report says. "More than 200 of the nation's 3,143 counties and equivalents have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues. Half of the counties have only one newspaper, and two-thirds do not have a daily newspaper," Abernathy writes. "About 1,800 of the communities that have lost a paper since 2004 do not have easy access to any local news source – such as a local online news site or a local radio station. . . . These are news deserts, with no coverage of issues such as the quality of schools in that community or the spread of an infectious disease. Many are in economically challenged rural places . . . "

The average poverty rate in "news deserts" is 18%, half again the national rate of 12%, the report says. Abernathy cites the Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia, Ark., which GateHouse Media closed in September 2018, with "only 1,600 subscribers in a community of 10,000."

"Most communities that have lost a newspaper are struggling economically," Abernathy reports. "When a community loses its newspaper, coverage of routine local government meetings almost always declines. Without a professional journalist covering those meetings, transparency and government efficiency also decline. Residents in those communities frequently end up paying higher taxes as the cost of government borrowing rises."

And due to the pandemic, "there is “the threat of dozens — even hundreds — more before year’s end.” But Abernathy offers a path for reinventing local news: strong journalism, bolstered by outside sources such as philanthropy; public policies that treat journalism as a public good, including public funding; better digital infrastructure to serve struggling rural areas, and much more.

Project to bring high-tech agriculture jobs to Eastern Kentucky gets boost from the Netherlands government

A start-up that aims to bring more high-tech agriculture jobs—and fresh produce—to Eastern Kentucky, has announced agreements with more than a dozen partners to help make the project a reality, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

AppHarvest founder Jonathan Webb announced last summer that ground had been broken on a 60-acre greenhouse near Morehead, set to open this fall, that he hopes will be the first of many.

The new partners include the government of The Netherlands, several Dutch companies, the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Pikeville and Berea College, Estep reports.

"The Dutch government would put a trade office in Kentucky to boost Dutch investment in the state as part of the plan. The Netherlands is a leader in indoor agricultural production, making it the second-largest exporter of agricultural products behind the U.S. despite its tiny land area," Estep reports. "The technology AppHarvest will use was developed in the Netherlands."

White House creates online toolbox to connect rural leaders to federal funding, data and info to help fight drug addiction

White House officials announced Wednesday the launch of the Rural Community Toolbox, an online clearinghouse meant to connect rural leaders with federal funding, data and resources to help fight drug addiction in their communities.

The toolbox includes resources from 16 different federal departments and agencies on more than 40 addiction-related topics, touting itself as a "one-stop shop" for those seeking aid.

The Rural Community Toolbox includes an updated Community Assessment Tool, an interactive resources with county-level data on drug overdose deaths and correlated socioeconomic factors such as education attainment and unemployment. The update includes more data layers, including broadband availability, available drug treatment facilities, concentration of health-care professionals, poverty, and economic development districts. The update also has a rural prosperity index.

Bayer to settle, for more than $10 billion, cases alleging Roundup-cancer link, dicamba crop damage and more

"Bayer will pay more than $10 billion to end tens of thousands of lawsuits filed over its Roundup weedkiller, the company announced Wednesday. The settlement also resolves many other cases over the herbicide dicamba as well as water contaminated with toxic chemicals called PCBs," Bill Chappell reports for NPR. "Many plaintiffs say Roundup's active ingredient — glyphosate — caused them to develop cancer. Roundup was developed by Monsanto, which Bayer bought in 2018 for $63 billion."

The settlement, parts of which are pending court approval, doesn't cover three cases that have already gone to trial, including the case in which a jury awarded a Missouri peach farmer $265 million. "The settlement calls for Bayer to pay from $8.8 billion to $9.6 billion to resolve current Roundup lawsuits. The company will also set aside $1.25 billion to fund payouts for potential claims in the future," Chappell reports.

States and counties with the highest share of speeding-related fatalities are ranked; local data are available

A new report shows which states and counties have the most speeding-related fatalities as a share of overall vehicle fatalities. Several largely rural states, including Alaska and Vermont, made the top 15 list, with New Hampshire in the top spot. All 50 states and 593 counties were ranked. Most of the top 30 counties were metropolitan, but many rural counties were on the list of those with the highest proportions of speed-related fatalities.

To create the report for the Governor's Highway Safety Administration, researchers at car-shopping app CoPilot analyzed state and county data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Census Bureau, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2014-18.

Speeding-related fatalities were associated with a number of factors, including alcohol consumption, age, seat-belt usage, driving conditions, and road maintenance. A 2019 GHSA report found that curvy roads, more common in rural areas, are frequently a factor in speeding-related crashes, and that a higher percentage of fatal curve-related crashes happen on rural roads.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Herbicide dicamba is blamed for millions of tree deaths

Leaves on oak tree show damage from herbicide.
(Photo by Illinois Department of Natural Resources)
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting effort found that dicamba, a herbicide known for drifting over and damaging nearby crops, is also responsible for killing millions of trees in the Midwest and South. That could be devastating news for orchards.

"Forest health experts said trees are being damaged from Indiana to Kansas, from North Dakota to Arkansas. Cupped-up leaves, the most easily recognized symptom, can be seen in towns miles away from agricultural fields, as well as in nature preserves and state parks set aside as refuges for wildlife, experts said," Jonathan Hettinger reports. "In some areas, the damage is so severe that tree mortality is higher than from the Emerald Ash Borer, an insect that has killed tens of millions of trees across 25 states."

Farmers have been increasingly spraying dicamba and other volatile herbicides, such as 2,4-D, in recent years, Hettinger reports. In early June, a federal court essentially banned sales of dicamba-based herbicides for the next six months, after finding that the Environmental Protection Agency hadn't done its due diligence in 2018 when reauthorizing the chemical until December 2020. The same environmental groups filed another lawsuit with the same complaint about 2,4-D, but it's still pending in court. The EPA said farmers can still spray already-purchased dicamba through July.

In February, a Missouri peach farmer was awarded a $265 million verdict in court after suing Bayer and BASF, alleging that their dicamba-based herbicides had damaged his orchards.

Route Fifty webinar to cover local government crisis response, how reporters can cover pandemic locally

Route Fifty will host a live town hall from noon to 4 p.m. ET Thursday, June 25, to discuss local and state government preparedness in the face of crises, from the pandemic to severe weather to cyberattacks.

The town hall will kick off with a reporter roundtable on coronavirus coverage, featuring Route Fifty Managing Editor Laura Maggi, Senior Editor Alisha Powell Gillis and staff correspondent Kate Queram.

Click here for more information or to register.

Dominion Energy invests in new form of biodigester that helps farmers turn manure and food waste into natural gas

Biodigesters aren't a new concept: Farmers put cow or pig manure in one end, let it percolate for a while, and it produces methane and carbon dioxide. The biogas gets filtered and then added to natural gas pipelines, and farmers get paid for it. Large dairies have been increasingly experimenting with them, trying to make money by tapping into carbon credit programs in California and Oregon.

Biodigesters are fiddly and many don't work well, so they haven't been widely adopted. But that may change, because one energy consultant recently realized that they work much better when farmers add food waste to them in addition to the manure, Jim Morrison reports for The Washington Post.

Consultant Bill Jorgenson theorized that adding food waste would "increase the energy output and boost the income for farmers through tipping fees from manufacturers, retailers and others looking to unload food waste," Morrison reports. "Best of all, it would use methane from the manure, instead of venting it into the atmosphere to contribute to climate change.

Five farms partnered with Jorgenson to found AGreen Energy LLC, which was snapped up by Vanguard Renewables in 2014 and expanded in New England. Now Dominion Energy, "which is now investing more than $200 million to join with Vanguard to capture manure methane from dairy farms in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Georgia and Nevada and convert it into natural gas," Morrison reports. "Dominion will own the projects and sell the gas. Vanguard will design, develop and operate the biodigesters. Farmers get paid for hosting the digester and benefit from the byproducts of the process, including heat for their property, livestock bedding and fertilizer."

Dominion's investment could make biodigesters much more common; there are 255 in the U.S. today. It's unclear how much biodigesters could help the environment. Cows produce methane when they burp, but that accounts for only a small percentage of the overall methane in the atmosphere. "But processing methane from farms into natural gas helps reduce the carbon footprint for companies such as Dominion, which has pledged to reach net zero emissions from methane and carbon dioxide by 2050,: Morrison reports.

A small number of counties, most in the Southeast, have over half of new rural covid-19 cases; see county-level data

Rural covid-19 hotspots (Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
"More than half of the latest new covid-19 cases in rural America came from a small number of hotspot counties, most of which are in the Southeastern United States," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "A total of 138 rural counties accounted for approximately 11,300 of the 18,400 new cases originating in rural areas from June 14-21. Those localities represent just 7 percent of rural counties but over 50% of new cases. Seventy-seven of the hotspot counties are in the Southeast: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia."

Click here for an interactive map, a searchable database, and lists with state- and county-level rankings.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Trump adviser walks back comment that trade deal is 'over' as China says it will step up U.S. crop purchases

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro on Monday walked back his earlier remarks that the U.S.-China trade pact was 'over', stoking volatility in markets already frazzled by the coronavirus pandemic," Eric Beech reports for Reuters. "Navarro said his comments were taken 'wildly out of context'." President Trump said in a tweet that the deal was "fully intact."

Earlier on Monday, Navarro said "it's over" when Fox News asked him about the trade agreement, saying it began going downhill immediately after the Phase 1 deal was signed Jan. 15. He said U.S officials learned about the pandemic immediately after the trade delegation left, and China "had already sent hundreds of thousands of people to this country to spread that virus," Beech reports.

Navarro, a longtime critic of China, said his remarks had nothing to do with the trade deal itself, and was only speaking to his lack of trust in the Chinese government, accusing them of lying about the origins of the coronavirus and causing it to spread to the rest of the world, Beech reports. 

The pandemic and other factors such as African swine fever and recent national security disputes have jeopardized the trade deal, in which China has promised to increase purchases of American farm products by $32 billion over two years. But the deal has been in trouble since nearly the beginning, since China has not sufficiently increased its purchases. In fact, farm exports to China recently fell behind pre-trade-war levels, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Chinese officials announced yesterday that they plan to increase purchases of U.S. farm goods to catch up on its commitments under the trade deal, McCrimmon reports.

Rural lawyer, 50 years on, offers ideas on police reform

Larry Webster
After 50 years of working as a criminal-law attorney in far Eastern Kentucky, Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Larry Webster offers insight on rural law enforcement and suggestions for what must change, in light of the thousands of recent demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism.

Some of the best people he's ever known are police officers, but he's also known a few bad eggs, including one officer "who was hell-bent on killing somebody someday, and one day did," Webster writes. "Everybody knew he would kill, but how do you get rid of such a person? I have presented cases to juries of handcuffed old men being beaten in public by uniformed officers, of shootings without cause done by law officers, and have yet to get a single vote from one of those jurors against the police. This enables the occasional policeman who would cross the line. The fact that juries are afraid of the police also means that a very few horrible cops can embarrass the rest by public murder."

Webster suggests two fundamental changes to law enforcement, but warns that they're not quick fixes. "First, police must quit honoring their unwritten code of silence by which it assumed that one policeman will not tell on another. That is dishonorable and should be taught as such. That code instantly makes any bystanding cop an accomplice to a crime being committed by another policeperson," Webster writes. "Secondly, they have got to quit arresting people for piddly stuff."

Rural families struggle with finding child care

Rural families are more likely to live in child-care deserts, meaning areas where demand for licensed child-care programs far outstrips local supply, according to a newly published data analysis by University of Minnesota researchers and the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

"The first-of-its-kind nationwide portrait shows that . . . rural families nationwide had the fewest child-care slots relative to demand across all categories, the researchers found," Amanda Becker reports for The Washington Post. The study also found that, on average, areas with large Latino populations and households with a combined income of $75,000 to $85,000 were the most likely to be in child-care deserts.

"The analysis comes as the coronavirus pandemic has upended an already tenuous child-care landscape," Becker reports. "Industry groups predict that one-third to half of child-care programs may close permanently without significant public investment, and many economists warn as much as $50 billion may be needed to assist the industry as parents attempt to return to work."

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have proposed bills with billions in funding for the Department of Health and Human Services' already-existing Child Care and Development Block Grant, which gives states and tribes funding to help lower-income workers access child care, Becker reports.

Rural stroke survival rates worse, partly because rural hospitals don't quickly transfer patients to bigger hospitals

Rural stroke patients have less access to newer treatments and substantially higher mortality rates than their urban counterparts, according to a newly published study in the journal Stroke.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis examined records for more than 790,000 patients who had strokes in 2012-17. The study is the first of nationwide rural-urban comparison after modern stroke treatments became available. Past studies have focused on single medical centers or individual states, or were conducted before modern care was available.

The researchers found that the more rural the hospital, the higher the mortality rate, with 27 percent of patients in the most rural areas dying. They also found that more rural patients were less likely to get either of two advanced stroke treatments.

It's unrealistic to expect small, rural hospitals to be able to perform advanced, specialized procedures, senior author Karen Joynt Maddox, an assistant professor of medicine, said in a press release. But such hospitals must recognize when patients need more advanced treatment and transfer them quickly, and health systems don't have consistent, widespread procedures in place to do so.

"Our data suggest rural patients are missing out on access to more advanced stroke therapies and that action is needed to address these disparities and ensure that people can get the care they need, no matter where they live," Joynt Maddox said. "In this day and age, it’s unacceptable that people don’t have access to advanced care. But since stroke therapy is complex, solutions are not going to be one-size-fits-all. We need to think fundamentally differently about how we deliver stroke care in rural areas to begin reducing these disparities."

Weekly's subscription appeal says it swims against trends that are killing newspapers, some self-inflicted, and gets support with investigative journalism and profiles of success

Les Zaitz
By Les Zaitz, Editor and Publisher
The Malheur Enterprise, Vale, Oregon

Allow me to share with you observations about what's happening to the press these days.

The Independent Observer in Payette is scheduled to put out its last weekly edition this week, the final turn for a paper that’s been around since 1890.

The paper is owned by Wick Communications, an Arizona-based company that also owns the Argus Observer in Ontario. The Argus has had its struggles, stopping one day of publication as the pandemic took hold.

This isn’t isolated in today’s America and it’s something that should matter to you. When sources of news disappear, people know less about their community. There is nothing good to come from that.

In state after state, communities are about to experience what it’s like to not know what public officials are doing with their money, to not know about plans for school in the fall, to not know how local businesses made it through this awful time.

The toll grows of local newspapers gone.

The Hastings Star Gazette in Minnesota. The De Smet News in South Dakota. The Hendricks County Flyer in Indiana. The Keota Eagle in Iowa.

Gone.

The reasons newspapers fail or trim back print days or cut staffing are as varied as the communities they serve.

Advertising that sustained newspapers plummeted. Businesses have shifted billions to digital marketing.

Across the country, locally-owned businesses closed down, run over by chain-store behemoths. When they close, their support for community news disappears.

And big corporations want strong profits for their shareholders. They run newspapers first as a source of cash, not of community service.

But some newspapers have done this to themselves. They don’t pay enough attention to serving the community. They don’t provide the watchdog reporting that is the duty of a free press. And they demonstrate bias, leaving readers wondering if they are reading a newspaper or a political organ. That’s especially true of big national newspapers.

At the Malheur Enterprise, we are swimming hard against every one of those currents.

Our business model relies increasingly on readers paying for our work. That’s why we charge separately for a print subscription and a digital subscription.

Our team at the Enterprise works hard to make that service is worth $5 a month.

No one else has more closely monitored on county spending and the questionable Nyssa rail project. No one else questioned an Ontario city councilor over allegations about his behavior. And no one else questioned a powerful local medical provider over its troubling service to the community.

And no one else spotlights local success like the Enterprise. We’ve been running a series, for instance, highlighting teachers who found a way to make distance learning work for kids. That’s an antidote to lots of coverage elsewhere about the failings of such schooling.

This blend of investigative work and community profiles in success appears to be what you and other readers want.

As a result, our subscription rolls grow by the week, contrary to national trends. We have more followers on our Facebook page and our Twitter page than our daily competitor in Ontario. That’s striking because until just a few years ago, the Enterprise had neither.

We’ve been creative at bringing in resources. Our partnerships in recent years with national organizations such as Pro Publica, Report for America and the Solutions Journalism Network have brought us expertise – and money. That money circulates right here in Malheur County.

We’ve created a donor base and gotten financial support from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication to support our paid intern program. Four interns are at work for the community right now – four jobs bringing four paychecks into Malheur County.

Will this all keep the Enterprise alive and strong? That’s the idea, of course.

But nothing is for certain and there remains the reality that economic forces could one day shutter the Enterprise.

That day won’t come if we keep up our promise to serve the community and readers keep up their support. This is a partnership, and the Enterprise counts on you. If you are a subscriber or donor, you can claim a share of our success. If you don’t subscribe, do so. Maybe getting news for free seems like a good deal – until there is no longer any news to get, as the folks in Payette County are finding out.

Subscribe to Malheur Enterprise

Monday, June 22, 2020

Fox poll shows Trump's rural edge way down from 2016

The margin by which the Republican presidential candidate won the nationwide rural vote in the last three elections, compared with the rural margin in the most recent Fox News poll. (Daily Yonder chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
The latest Fox News poll found that President Trump has only a 9-point lead over former vice president Joe Biden, less than one-third of Trump's rural advantage in the last election.

"In 2016, Trump won the rural vote by 33 points — 64 percent compared to Hillary Clinton’s 31 percent. In key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Trump’s advantage with rural voters was decisive," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder. "If Trump’s rural support really is running at about one third of the 2016 level, that spells trouble."

However, Bishop and Marema note that the electoral college tends to give more weight to rural states, so it's unclear how much trouble Trump is in. Read more here for a deeper dive into how the rural vote played out in 2016 and what today's numbers could mean for Trump this November.

Tuesday livestream on rural disaster response in pandemic

The Rural Assembly and Southerly Magazine will host a livestream at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday, June 23, to discuss how frontline communities are preparing for and adapting to climate change-spurred disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires during the covid-19 pandemic. Southerly founder Lyndsey Gilpin will moderate a panel of experts from across the country, including:
  • Dr. John Cooper, assistant vice president for public partnership and outreach and director of Texas Target Communities'
  • Shirell Parfait-Dardar, traditional chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw;
  • Steve Wilensky, President of Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions and former supervisor of Calaveras County, California.
Click here for more information.

Federal appeals court says farmers may spray existing stores of dicamba, as EPA said they could

On Friday, a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied an emergency motion from environmental groups to force states to halt farmers' use of the herbicide dicamba and hold the Environmental Protection Agency in contempt. 

"The decision is an important win for the EPA, which obeyed the Ninth Circuit's June 3 order to vacate three dicamba registrations but allowed farmers and commercial applicators to continue applying 'existing stocks' of XtendiMax, Engenia and FeXapan through July 31," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "That means EPA's existing-stocks provision still stands, and growers can continue using any stocks of those herbicides in their possession as of June 3, as long as they obey the former federal labels and any existing state regulations on dicamba use. Keep in mind that some states have already exceeded or are nearing dicamba cutoff dates."

The case centers around the EPA's reauthorization of dicamba in 2018, which expires in December. The court had ruled that the agency did not perform due diligence regarding the chemical's tendency to vaporize and drift to other fields, damaging crops that aren't genetically engineered to resist it. EPA will likely reauthorize dicamba again in December. 

Experts say we're still in first wave of pandemic; June 25 webinar to discuss pandemic, politics, protests, economy

Coronavirus cases in the U.S., including confirmed and probably cases. Overall cases total more than 2.3 million, with 120,128 deaths. (New York Times chart. Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
Some pundits and news stories have seen or forecast a "second wave" of coronavirus cases in the U.S., but scientists generally agree that we're still in the middle of a rising first wave, driven by recent increases in the South and West. Click here (or read more below) about a June 25 webinar that will discuss the second wave of the pandemic and more.

"About 120,000 Americans have died from the new virus and daily counts of new cases in the U.S. are the highest they've been in more than a month," Mike Stobbe reports for The Associated Press. "Clearly there was an initial infection peak in April as cases exploded in New York City. After schools and businesses were closed across the country, the rate of new cases dropped somewhat." But that was more of a plateau, not a drop in cases, says disease researcher Caitlin Rivers of Johns Hopkins University, a leading tracker of coronavirus and covid-19 data.

Some areas have seen a drop in cases, but overall cases have increased. Deciding whether it's a first second wave is essentially a matter of semantics, but it matters because people may feel a false sense of security if they hear that the first wave has passed, University of Michigan flu expert Dr. Arnold Monto told Stobbe.

"Some worry a large wave of coronavirus might occur this fall or winter — after schools reopen, the weather turns colder and less humid, and people huddle inside more. That would follow seasonal patterns seen with flu and other respiratory viruses," Stobbe reports. "And such a fall wave could be very bad, given that there's no vaccine or experts think most Americans haven't had the virus."

The lingering pandemic is still weighing down the economy. While 2.5 million people have returned to work, unemployment claims remain near level because jobs are being lost at almost the same rate that the temporarily unemployed are returning to work, Lawrence Fuller writes for Seeking Alpha.

"The greatest risk to our economic recovery was that a second wave of coronavirus would hit us in the fall, forcing states to shut down a second time to contain it. That is no longer a risk, because a second wave is out of the question. The first wave never ended . . . due to the premature openings in states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and the Carolinas," Fuller reports. "This surely won't stop the younger crowd from crowding into bars and restaurants or partying on the beaches, but it will force the older crowd to curtail their activities, and they are the ones with the money. For an economy that is 70% dependent on consumer spending, that is a death knell."

Newswise will host a Zoom webinar at 2 p.m. ET June 25 to discuss the pandemic, the economy, recent protests and politics. The webinar is free and will take about an hour. Guests will include Anne Bailey, a history professor at SUNY Binghamton who specializes in African-American history; and Eli Rosenberg, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at SUNY Albany.

Baptist church in Alabama an example of how politics can fracture faith communities

Friday, June 19, 2020

Stay-at-home orders force writer to pay closer attention to changing climate around her farm, and she worries

Living in an isolated rural area can make the pandemic feel far away, sometimes, but one freelance writer who lives on a western Pennsylvania farm writes that the stay-at-home orders have made her pay closer attention to the changing climate around her.

Here's the conclusion of Daryln Brewer Hoffstot's essay for The New York Times:
"Nature is not just carrying on. Chimney swifts, which roost every summer in our 19th-century chimney, have declined by 72 percent. The emerald ash borer kills hundreds of our ash trees. Our summers are hotter and wetter. The '100-year flood' has come about five times in the last 12 years. Nearby, water is contaminated by fracking. Nary a bat can be seen in the night sky, lost to white-nose syndrome. My maple sugaring friends can’t decide when to tap trees because of climate change. 
In my small slice of the world, I see a neon sign, flashing red, and I wonder how long can we go on without seeing, and without listening — to the bats, the bugs, the bees, the birds, the trees, the land? 
My hope is that when the pandemic releases its grip, when the world speeds up again and we return to work and school, when there’s less time to watch birds and weed a victory garden, that we remember what covid-19 has taught us: that our health and our planet’s health have never been more intertwined — and to take care of the planet is to take care of ourselves."

USDA expands food-box program as some states and Democrats say rural hungry and farmers aren’t benefiting

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending contracts for some high-performing vendors for its $3 billion food-box program that buys surplus meat, dairy and produce from farmers to distribute to food banks and similar programs.

USDA says vendors with have been awarded contracts for “another $1.16 billion worth of food boxes through Aug. 30, based on their performance so far in supplying the first $2.2 billion through the end of June. The department is also considering contracts for several vendors whose initial applications were rejected because of technical errors,” Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico’s Morning Agriculture. USDA said it chose not to extend some contracts because of concerns raised during audits or difficulties delivering the food boxes. While the program is broadly popular, the launch was hampered by delays, logistical gaps and concerns about several of the contractors with little experience in food distribution or less capacity than needed to handle multimillion-dollar contracts.”

Some states have complained that the program isn’t working well to meet its goal of helping farmers and the hungry. House Democrats wrote an open letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week saying they have “‘grave concerns’ that Virginia food banks are having difficulty receiving aid, especially in rural areas,” McCrimmon reports. “Similarly, Wisconsin lawmakers have questioned why experienced milk processors and distributors based in the dairy state received less than 1 percent of the funding to source dairy products and fluid milk.

USDA said Wednesday that it’s in the “final stages” of evaluating how and where to expand the program in under-served areas, McCrimmon reports.

Emails from meatpackers show how quickly rural public-health agencies were overwhelmed by covid-19

Thousands of emails and other documents obtained by ProPublica show how patchwork regulations and underfunded public-health agencies in rural areas often left local and state governments unequipped to handle covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

"The candid, often emotional messages provide a real-time reckoning of how the companies responsible for a critical part of the food supply chain were hazardously unprepared and how a system that relied on tiny local public health agencies was quickly overwhelmed by the consequences," Michael Grabell, Claire Perlman and Bernice Yeung report for ProPublica. "The coronavirus response was complicated by a lack of clarity over which agency had the authority to order meatpacking plants to make changes or shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could only offer guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dealt with animals and food. The Labor Department had few rules that applied to a virus. And the power of local and state health officials varied from state to state."

Plans created by meatpackers and government officials to deal with infectious diseases mostly focused on animals instead of the workers, most of whom are immigrants, refugees and African Americans. "The failure to have a coordinated plan for workers left small, often rural communities vulnerable. More than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants," ProPublica reports. "Though many haven’t suffered severe symptoms, at least 87 workers have died. More than 25 of the dead worked for Tyson," one of the nation's largest poultry processors. 

Tyson formed a coronavirus task force in January to assess the risk to its plants, but emails and other records show that social distancing protocols to protect workers weren't implemented until after outbreaks began occurring, and that Tyson and other companies seemingly spent more energy in the early weeks urging state and local officials to allow them to keep their plants open. A little less than half of Tyson's major plants have reported outbreaks, and many have been forced to close temporarily, ProPublica reports.

However, Tyson may have attempted to delay notifying some public health officials about outbreaks. After the county health department began seeing a spike in positive cases at the Wilkesboro, N.C. plant, Tyson hired a private company to take over testing, then turned over very few results until threatened with legal action, ProPublica reports.

Confederate monuments are coming down, but more than 700 remain, and removing them may be legally tricky

Map and legend by The Washington Post, enhanced by The Rural Blog; for a larger version, click on it.
More than 70 of the nation’s Confederate monuments have been removed since the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C.—some by local governments and some by protesters—and almost a third of them have come down in the weeks since George Floyd’s death. But around 700 monuments remain, “along with hundreds of names on roads, schools, parks and the like,” Bonnie Berkowitz and Adrian Blanco report for The Washington Post.

Georgia and Virginia have the largest share of remaining monuments, with more than 100 each. Many were built decades after the Civil War, even outside Confederate states, as a show of support for Jim Crow laws, and at least 35 new monuments have been dedicated since 2000. Though the monuments have attracted debate and legal issues for decades, the recent spike in attention has prompted many city leaders to remove the monuments, Berkowitz and Blanco report.

However, “laws in some states make removing Confederate symbols extremely difficult, including in South Carolina, where a law written in 2000 requires two-thirds of legislators have to approve any removal,” Berkowitz and Blanco report. “An Alabama law restricting Confederate removals was enacted in 2017, and it is unclear whether or how the recent removals square with it.”

In his first story as a New York Times reporting fellow, rural reporter Will Wright looks at the problem of where to take Confederate monuments that local governments no longer want.

Quick hits: PG&E pleads guilty to 84 deaths in 2018 fire

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

North Dakota is in an economic crunch because of pandemic fallout on oil and agriculture. That bodes ill for other less financially stable states. Read more here.

Nurse shortages in rural areas can hinder covid-19 fight. Read more here.

Murray Energy's bankruptcy still casts a shadow on coal's economic viability. Read more here.

Rural Oregon leaders consider revolt against covid-19 stay-at-home orders. Read more here.

PG&E pleads guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter from deaths that happened during the November 2018 Camp Fire. Read more here.

Blackjewel LLC has filed suit against its former president, claiming he transferred $34 million to a family business and a family-run subsidiary trust about six months before the company filed for bankruptcy. Read more here.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

'Militias' push back against some rural anti-racism protests with intimidation, threats and maybe help of police

"The demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality that have convulsed major metropolitan areas, from Minneapolis to Miami, have also made their way into small-town America, redrawing the geography of the Black Lives Matter movement," Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post. "But the activists spearheading unlikely assemblies in rural and conservative corners of the country have faced fierce online backlash and armed intimidation, which in some places is unfolding with the apparent support of local law enforcement."

The notion of rural protests might shake up the popular image of rural America as a conservative, white monolith, but about 21 percent of the rural U.S. is non-white, and many small-town residents are liberal, especially the younger ones, April Simpson reports for Stateline.

"Over 3,000 towns have held some form of protest, an explosion of political expression with far-reaching consequences," John W. Miller reports for The Daily Yonder. "Remarkably, they’re breaking out in counties Donald Trump carried by over 40 points and attracting explicit support from liberals and Trump supporters."

Some people Miller interviewed said they believed the protests are gaining popularity because of the brutality of Minneapolis resident George Floyd's death at the hands of the police, and because of the bipartisan spirit of the protests.

Many rural protests have not seen overt intimidation or had any trouble with local law enforcement. Chris Dyson, 21, organized recent peaceful protests in downtown Punxsutawney, Pa., pop. 5,800—the first such protests in the town famous for its Groundhog Day tradition, Miller reports. There was some backlash online, someone used the n-word, and one threw a beer can, but that's about it.

Punxsutawney Police Chief Matt Conrad, 33, said he's agreed to meet with Dyson to talk about ways to improve racial tolerance in town, and said he stopped by every day to talk to the protesters. "I left an olive branch for us to create something together," Conrad told Miller. "There’s enough division in this country."

Supreme Court rules against Trump order ending DACA

"The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration may not immediately proceed with its plan to end a program protecting about 700,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation," Adam Liptak and Michael Shear report for The New York Times. "The court’s ruling was a blow to one of President Trump’s central campaign promises — that as president he would “immediately terminate” an executive order by former President Barack Obama that Trump had called an illegal executive amnesty for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants."

The decision on the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals has rural repercussions, since undocumented workers frequently work in rural meatpacking plants and on farms.

The 5-to-4 opinion said the court wasn't trying decide whether the program is a sound policy, but whether Trump's executive order included a "reasoned explanation" as required by law.

"After contentious debates among his aides, Trump announced in September 2017 that he would wind down the program. He gave only a single reason for doing so, saying that creating or maintaining the program was beyond the legal power of any president," Liptak and Shear report. "But the justifications the government gave, Chief Justice [John] Roberts wrote, were insufficient. He said the administration may try again to provide adequate reasons for shutting down the program."

Senate passes bill that funds public lands conservation, reduces backlog of maintenance needs in national parks

The Senate voted 73-25 Wednesday to pass a bill to protect public lands and address part of the national park system's maintenance backlog. It would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year. "It would also provide $9.5 billion to help clear part of the Interior Department’s nearly $20 billion in maintenance projects that had been deferred because of budget constraints," Elvina Nawaguna reports for Roll Call.

The move is also meant to help its two sponsors, Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., both Republicans facing tough re-election battles, Nawaguna reports. The bill passed with little trouble, after less than two weeks of debate and with no major amendments. A Democratic aide told Nawaguna that the bill will get a House floor vote before the July 4 recess.