Saturday, March 10, 2012

Owner of Utah coal mine where 9 died will pay $500,000 fine for 2 misdemeanors; that's it

A four-year investigation of a nine-fatality disaster at a Utah coal mine has ended "with only minor charges" against the operator, who "will plead guilty to two misdemeanors for willfully violating safety laws in the mine and will pay the maximum fine of $500,000," Mike Gorrell reports for the Salt Lake Tribune. "Loved ones of Crandall Canyon mine disaster victims reacted with indignation and frustration."

U.S. Attorney David Barlow said the two violations were those his prosecutors could prove "beyond a reasonable doubt." Neither contributed directly to mine's collapse on Aug. 6, 2007, which buried six miners. "Three rescuers died and six more were injured in a second implosion 10 days later," Gorrell notes. One charge "stemmed from the company’s failure to quickly report a devastating March 10, 2007, implosion that did not injure anyone but stopped mining in a section relatively close to where the fatalities occurred five months later. The second count involved evidence that, just three days before the fatal collapse, the company mined into a 'barrier pillar' of coal left behind to hold up the mine roof," in direct contravention of orders from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The case settlement says no more charges will be filed. (Read more) The mine is owned by Robert Murray of Murray Energy Corp. of Ohio, left. (Photo and document link from Coal Tattoo, The Charleston Gazette)

Friday, March 09, 2012

Tulsa concert marks Woody Guthrie's centennial

The 100th anniversary of the birth of folksinger Woody Guthrie is July 14, but his centennial is being celebrated all year, and one of the biggest events will be a concert tomorrow in Tulsa with his son Arlo Guthrie, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp, Hanson, the Del McCoury Band, Jimmy LaFave, the Old Crow Medicine Show and Flaming Lips, "Oklahoma City's world-famously weird psych-pop show band," The Oklahoman reports.

The Woody Guthrie Centennial website says, "His songs have run around the world like a fast train on a well oiled track. They've become the folk song standards of the nation, known and performed in many languages throughout the world. Pretty Boy Floyd, Pastures of Plenty, Hard Travelin', Deportees, Roll On Columbia, Vigilante Man and This Land Is Your Land are among the hundreds of his songs that have become staples in the canon of American music."

The South by Southwest festival will include a panel discussion about Guthrie March 15 at the Austin Convention Center, with LaFave, daughter Nora Guthrie, historian Douglas Brinkley, music critic Dave Marsh and folksinger-songwriter Joel Rafael, whose Woodeye and Woodyboye albums honor Guthrie's songs and include "five previously unpublished Guthrie lyrics for which Rafael composed music," the SXSW site says.

Leaders of tornado-blasted community cite weekly newspaper's reappearance as a sign of revival

Yesterday we wrote about the newspaper in a tornado-devastated Kentucky town struggling to publish after its office and the home of its publisher were destroyed. Today, at a press conference timed to start exactly a week after the storm hit, Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley held up a copy of West Liberty's Licking Valley Courier and said it was a sign the community will return, independent journalist John Flavell reports. Standing next to Conley is West Liberty Mayor Jim Rupe. The headline reads, "Thank God for sparing so many." (Flavell photo)

The weekly newspaper established its first online presence in the wake of the tornado, as reporter Miranda Cantrell (at right in photo with co-worker Ricky Adkins) started a Facebook page that includes news updates and the paper's story about the disaster. She told us, "It was one of the proudest moments of my life when I saw that press rolling our papers" at the Mount Sterling Advocate, the paper's normal printing location.

Santorum looks to rural vote for in in Kansas; analysts try to explain why he loses Catholic vote

Santorum in Mobile, Ala.
(Photo by Eric Gay, Associated Press)
Rural voters could account for about half the turnout in tomorrow's Republican caucuses in Kansas, and that should help Rick Santorum, Felicia Sonmez reports for The Washington Post: "Four years ago, 44 percent of Kansas’ general-election voters hailed from rural areas. That percentage is likely to be even greater in tomorrow’s GOP caucuses. In this year’s contests, Santorum has tended to do well in the rural Midwest — in Iowa, for instance, where 50 percent of the GOP caucus electorate was from rural areas, Santorum placed first among those voters with 26 percent."

Ron Paul is hoping for his first victory in the midday caucuses, but "From the climate of the state, I would think Santorum ought to do OK," University of Kansas political-science professor Allan Cigler told David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers. Mitt "Romney will get some support, but by and large, only people like Paul and Santorum issue-wise fit many parts of the state." (Read more)

CNN's Jim Acosta reported on "The Situation Room" this afternoon, "The Romney campaign, it looks like has essentially given up on Kansas." Acosta reported from Birmingham; Alabama and Mississippi hold primaries Tuesday. For details on the Kansas caucuses, from The Wichita Eagle, click here.

UPDATE, March 10: Dan Balz and Scott Clement of The Washington Post explore why the devoutly Catholic Santorum is losing the Catholic vote to Romney. University of Akron political scientist John C. Green, a specialist in the influence of religion in politics, told Tom Suddes of The Plain Dealer: "I suspect that Santorum did much better with the more traditional Catholics, especially in western Ohio, and Romney did better with middle-of-the-road and the more progressive Catholics in the three major metropolitan areas. Exit polls didn't have a good measure of religiosity, such as Mass attendance. . . . Regular Mass-attending Catholics are more Republican, [while] less-observant Catholics are more Democratic." (Read more)

Mail sorting center closures could affect rural areas

The U.S. Postal Service announced last year it would consolidate 250 regional processing centers to save $3 billion a year. When the agency presented its case to the advisory Postal Regulatory Commission in December, it said savings would be $2.1 billion, but Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office says final studies of 134 plants show the USPS "may not save anything at all." The National Postal Mail Handlers Union released the studies, and despite being heavily redacted, Hutkins says they contain "a lot of numbers on cost savings and eliminated positions." Most plant closures will be in urban areas, but if the savings fall short, there could be more pressure to close rural post offices. (Also, closure of the centers will delay mail, especially that coming from or going to rural areas.)

If you add numbers for the 134 facilities and estimate the savings for all facilities slated for consolidation, total savings would be $874 million, Hutkins says. Subtract the $500 million in lost revenue the USPS anticipates the reduced service standards would cause, and total savings would be $374 million for the entire plan. Hutkins says the studies don't just provide rough estimates; postal management "looked very closely at the operations in each case, the reports are lengthy, and the numbers should be reliable." He says the studies raise more questions than they answer, and that communities are looking closer at them and challenging the USPS decision to consolidate.

The Buffalo News in New York noticed the discrepancies, too, saying the USPS initially said savings from closure of the Buffalo center would be far more than the final study reports. "You have to wonder how were any of these numbers calculated and how much lower will the next study put the numbers?" the paper asks. (Read more)

Greyhound track owners, reliant on casino games, want relief from state rules on number of races

Greyhound racing parks are losing millions because casino gambling in track basements, which owners lobbied for and won years ago, is drawing more people than the races they were founded on. Despite the lost revenue, tracks are required to maintain a certain level of greyhound racing, such as six days a week in Iowa, reports A.G. Sulzberger of The New York Times(NYT photo by Steve Hebert)

More than half the greyhound tracks in the U.S. have closed over the last decade, but a few survived by adding slot machines and poker tables under the condition that some of the profits go to the races, subsidizing one form of gambling for another, Sulzberger writes. According to Grey2K USA, a nonprofit focused on ending greyhound racing, there are 22 tracks in seven states, with some in rural areas or supported by rural people.

Greyhound track owners in Iowa, Arizona and Florida have been lobbying for changes in the law that would allow them to cut the number of races or shut down tracks while keeping the gambling operations open. Sulzberger reports a legislative win in any state is unlikely in the short term, but the effort "has intensified concern that the end may be near for a century-old pastime." The move is being seen as a betrayal by "those who earn their paychecks -- or lose them -- at the greyhound tracks."

Many say the sport can't survive financially without expanded gambling, but argue track's shouldn't be allowed to abandon racing for greater profits after using it to justify expanded gambling. Animal-rights advocates say the newfound alliance with track owners, whom they've fought for decades about the mistreatment of greyhounds, has broadened their case from a moral argument to a business-focused one against government mandates. (Read more)

Appeals court blocks parts of Ala. immigration law

A federal appeals court has blocked two parts of the controversial Alabama immigration law, which allows police to ask for papers and arrest those without valid documentation, John Schwartz of The New York Times reports. One provision stated courts could not enforce contracts involving illegal immigrants, and the other prohibited illegal immigrants from doing business with the state. Farmers who rely on immigrants to harvest crops saw almost immediate impacts from the law when the number of workers declined. The court's decision blocks the provisions, pending action by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case against the Arizona immigration law.

Several civil-rights groups and the federal government challenged the law, saying the restrictions are unconstitutional and harm citizens and legal residents who might be mistaken for illegal immigrants. Supporters say the law is necessary to restrict illegal immigration. The American Civil Liberties Union's Cecillia Wang said the ruling provides "immediate and enormous relief for countless people in Alabama who were being stymied in doing their everyday business." The court left untouched two parts of the law that require police to check papers of people they believe with "reasonable suspicion" to be in the country illegally. (Read more)

Small earthquakes 'almost certainly' caused by drilling wastewater injection, Ohio officials say

Backing up a geologist's opinion, Ohio state regulators said Friday that a dozen small earthquakes in the northeastern part of the state were "almost certainly" caused by the injection of natural-gas drilling wastewater into the earth, Julie Smith of The Associated Press reports. The regulators also announced "a series of tough new rules for drillers," including submission of more comprehensive geological data when requesting a drill site, and electronically tracking the chemical makeup of all drilling wastewater.

The state Department of Natural Resources said the earthquakes in the Youngstown area were based on "a number of coincidental circumstances:" The drilling began three months before the first quakes, seismic activity was clustered around the well bore, and a fault has since been identified in the deepest, oldest bedrock where water was being injected." Geologists believe it is very difficult for all conditions to be met to induce seismic events," the report states. "In fact, all the evidence indicates that properly located ... injection wells will not cause earthquakes."

Experts told Smith earthquakes have long been linked to energy exploration and production. "They point to recent earthquakes in the magnitude 3 and 4 range -- not big enough to cause much damage, but big enough to be felt -- in Arkansas, Texas, California, England, Germany and Switzerland" as being linked to wastewater injection, Smith reports. Improper placement of the Youngstown well stemmed from inadequate geological data, which official should be fixed in the future by the new regulations. (Read more)

Read more here:

Fracking could cause death and illness in livestock, Cornell researchers say

A new Cornell University study has concluded that hydraulic fracturing of natural-gas wells could be causing illness, death and reproductive issues in livestock, pets and wildlife, reports Krishna Ramanujan of the land-grant university's news service, Chronicle Online. Study authors interviewed animal owners in Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas, and found 24 cases of affected animals. The study is awaiting publication in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.

Some cases include: 17 cows died in Louisiana within an hour of direct exposure to fracking fluids; 21 of 60 cows on another farm died after exposure to a creek containing fracking fluids and 16 couldn't have calves the next spring; 70 of 140 cows on another farm died after exposure; and there were several cases of stillborn and stunted calves.

The authors admitted making a clear link between illness and fracking is difficult because of incomplete testing, limited knowledge about what chemicals are used, and sealed evidence in settled lawsuits against companies. They said they don't have evidence about the prevalence of problems, but do see a pattern of how things could happen. (Read more)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Bill to resolve rural school districts' gripes about distribution of federal funds loses in committee

The "All Children are Equal Act," which would have changed the formula that determines most federal allotments to school districts, was defeated this week in the U.S. House Education Committee. The proposal would have lessened the Title I program's use of number weighting, which ends up diverting money from rural districts to urban districts regardless of poverty rates, Diette Courrege of Education Week reports.

Advocates like The Formula Fairness Campaign aren't giving up, Courrege reports. "This vote is a short-term defeat, and may or may not be the only time this Congress will address the number weighting issue this year. But clearly this issue has made the grade as a legitimate issue that both parties acknowledge must be addressed. In a less partisan atmosphere, it might have been this year," according to the group's Website. Ed Money Watch, the New America Foundation blog, found the Title I formula gives urban districts more funding per poor student than rural districts. (Read more)

Federal government spent even less per capita in rural areas in 2010 than it did in 2009

The rural disadvantage in federal spending grew from 2009 to 2010, according to figures released by the federal Economic Research Service, reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. Per-capita federal spending in metro counties has been higher than spending in rural counties five of the last seven years, according to the ERS, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Per-person spending in rural counties was $285 less than in urban areas in 2009; that amount almost doubled in 2010 to $683.

Bishop says this data contradicts the "continuing belief that the federal government must spend more to maintain a resident in rural America than a person who lives in a metro county," as reflected by The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and David Leonhardt of The New York Times, who wrote suburbs and rural areas receive "vastly more per-person federal largess than cities." Bishop points out, with illustration in the following chart, that per-person spending in rural areas in lower.

The ERS counts all federal spending tracked to a county, but Bishop says the spending breakdown varies by the kind of spending measured. For instance, spendign on agriculture and natural resources is much higher in rural counties; defense spending is higher in metro counties. If it did cost the federal government more to maintain rural population, "you'd expect to see that in spending on community resources," including transportation, Native American assistance, environmental protection, development, business assistance and community facilities, Bishop contends. But community-resources spending in rural counties is far lower than in urban, he says. (Read more)

University salutes Extension crew working with no office after tornado; newspaper also demolished

Last week's string of violent storms and tornadoes left a path of destruction across rural Kentucky. The most severely hit community was West Liberty, the county seat of Morgan County (Wikipedia map), where the entire downtown was leveled. The University of Kentucky's Cooperative Extension Service office in the county was destroyed in the storm, but that hasn't stopped extension agent Sarah Fannin from helping her community rebuild. On UKnow, a university site, UK President Eli Capilouto saluted Fannin and other agents working without an office.

Fannin her house has become a temporary supply and donation drop-off point: "We are a community. Extension is a community. There’s not much difference between opening up [an office in my home] and opening up an office [somewhere else]. That’s how we operate in extension." She and the other agents are working on several "vital projects," including gathering school supplies, feed and supplies for livestock, barbed wire for temporary fencing and helping rebuild the local school, Capilouto reports, calling Fannin and her colleagues "a beacon of hope amid the darkened depths of despair."

Capilouto said he's not surprised by Fannin's quick action and service to her community: "In a sense, I knew Sarah Fannin before I ever spoke with her. Several months ago, I was moved by a national story in The New York Times that recounted the efforts of Sarah and her co-workers in UK’s Morgan County Extension Office. They are working with people throughout Eastern Kentucky, teaching them how create gardens of their own." (Read more)

The office of the local newspaper, the weekly Licking Valley Courier, "was demolished," and Publisher Earl Kinner's home across the street, left, "was leveled" as Kinner took refuge in the basement, Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson reports. Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader has a story about the paper's struggle to recover. (Photo by Keith Kappes, The Morehead News)

KPA's Kentucky Journalism Foundation has created a fund to assist the paper and any others in Eastern Kentucky that suffered damage. "If you wish to make a donation, please make the check payable to Kentucky Journalism Foundation and mail to 101 Consumer Lane, Frankfort, KY 40601," Thompson writes. "I'm pleased to report that contributions are on their way to the foundation from newspapers in other states as well as state press associations. And I’ve been in touch with Xerox Corporation to request the donation of a printer or two." The paper is printing a day late, in a truncated format, and has started a Facebook page

Small hospital groups will likely be absorbed by larger groups at a faster pace

Big hospital groups are expected to get bigger as they absorb smaller, stand-alone groups that often serve rural places. The trend is probably a response to a difficult business environment and changes in health care, reports Reed Abelson of The New York Times. Larger hospital groups have more funding and resources than smaller groups, Moody's Investors Service's Lisa Goldstein told Abelson. She co-authored a report about the trend, released today.

Hospitals will likely start getting less Medicare reimbursement, and find it hard to persuade private insurers to pay more. Public and private insurers are "demanding that hospitals work better with doctors both to coordinate care and to improve the quality of care so people stay out of emergency rooms and avoid hospital stays altogether," Abelson reports. These changes are forcing mergers and "strategic alliances," like that between North Shore-LIJ Health System, one of the largest nonprofit hospital groups in the U.S., and Hackensack University Health Network in New Jersey.

Goldstein told Abelson there could be a surge in partnerships between for-profit hospital groups and private equity firms, which has already happened in Boston with Catholic hospitals. Other equity groups could enter the market depending on how well existing equity partnerships perform. Health-insurance companies could also become possible buyers as a way to improve competitiveness and become a health care "one-stop shop," a co-author of the Moody's report said. As a result of the restructuring, patients will likely have less hospitals from which to choose, but there will still be some small, stand-alone hospitals in rural areas, Abelson reports. (Read more)

Speed kills, but states keep raising speed limits

Enforcement of speeding violations has lagged over the last decade. Speed-related deaths have risen 7 percent since 2000; in 2010, 10,530 people died in speed-related crashes, Larry Copeland of USA Today reports. Nevertheless, states continue to raise speed limits. This is especially troubling for rural areas, where roads are more dangerous. Not much progress is being made to reduce speeding and aggressive driving, according to a survey from the Governors' Highway Safety Association.

Use of automated speed enforcement is limited, as are funds for road safety promotion and education. GHSA director Barbara Hersha said that speeding is "more of a cultural thing" that comes from the 1995 repeal of the national 55 mph speed limit. People didn't take the speed limit seriously after that, she said. The National Motorists Association says roads "have never been safer," though, and favors setting speed limits based on "sound traffic engineering principles." GHSA recommends states address speeding with aggressive driving crackdowns, Copeland reports. (Read more)

Anti-hate center says more hate groups are forming

The number of hate and anti-government groups has continued to grow, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. Kim Severson of The New York Times reports the trend results from antagonism toward President Obama, resentment toward changing racial demographics and the economic rift between rich and poor. The center recorded 1,018 active hate groups last year, a number that has risen steadily since 2000.

The center said there's been a "stunning" rise in patriot and militia movements, whose ideology stems from deep distrust in the federal government, with 1,274 last year. "They represent both a kind of right-wing populist rage and a left-wing populist rage that has gotten all mixed up in anger toward the government," said author of the report, Mark Potok. The number of some hate groups has declined, including the Militiamen and Ku Klux Klan. California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and New York contain the most such groups. (Read more)

Conservative blogger Martin Cothran of Kentucky writes on Vital Remnants that the list "includes groups who support the 10th Amendment and any group that has anything good to say about the South." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Farm cuts will be more than $23 billion suggested last year, House agriculture panel chairman says

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, right, said this week he thinks Congress will cut more than the $23 billion in Farm Bill spending recommended by agriculture committee leaders last fall during the "super committee" hearings, Agri-Pulse reports.

“My friends on the ‘left’ don’t want to spend any money on rural America and my friends on the ‘right’ just don’t want to spend any money on anybody for ANY reason!”  the Oklahoma Republican said. That statement underscores how difficult it will be to secure 218 votes for a Farm Bill in the House, Agri-Pulse reports. Lucas said some of his "friends on the right" are freshmen who sit on the agriculture panel and would like to make “some dramatic” cuts to nutrition programs, which includes SNAP, formerly the food stamps program.

He told Agri-Pulse that it will be a "challenge" to get Republicans and Democrats on the committee to "mark up a Farm Bill that can clear the floor." He said he'll work on a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill this summer if it seems unlikely a compromise will be reached. "I want a Farm Bill this year," he said. "I just don’t know whether the environment I’m working in up here – budget, the political mix, the presidential campaigns – I don’t know whether the circumstances are going to let me have one."

Agri-Pulse is available only by subscription, but a four-week free trial is available here.

Feds probing Chesapeake drilling jobs in W.Va. after citizens filmed activity they considered illegal

Chesapeake Energy Corp., the second-largest natural gas company in the U.S., said last week that the federal government has started an investigation of alleged criminal activity at its West Virginia drilling sites. It's an investigation that may have never started if not for three Wetzel County residents: Ed Wade Jr., Bill Hughes and Rose Baker. They started building a case against the company after becoming "fed up" with truck traffic, toxic fumes and polluted or filled creeks, reports Mike Soraghan of Energy & Environment News. The trio filmed Chesapeake's operations, which they considered illegal. (Wade stands in a creek Chesapeake was forced to restore)

"The community's biggest defense is a camera," Wade told Soraghan. "They don't know where I'm going to show up. They don't know who is going to show up where." The Environmental Protection Agency took notice and sent a team to Wetzel County in September 2010. The agency's Philadelphia office "hit Chesapeake at least eight times under the Clean Water Act for wetland violations," Soraghan reports, and they were "aimed right at the top," at company CEO Aubrey McClendon. The matter got little media attention until the company announced the U.S. Department of Justice is leading the investigation at three Chesapeake sites, noting it believed the investigation would warrant fines more than $100,000. It maintains the issues happened two years ago.

Soraghan sums it up: "People on both sides of the issue say some of the things Chesapeake is charged with doing have been common practice in the rural area for years. But the company's critics say there's a big difference between occasionally driving a pickup in a creek and flattening a waterfall for heavy truck traffic. And the criminal investigation indicates someone thinks there's evidence the company knew the activities violated the law."

Wade and his neighbors said they were just as upset with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which they say allowed Chesapeake to destroy their property. They weren't satisfied with response from the department, so they started calling and sending photos to the EPA regional office. "When citizens can't get responsiveness, they call whoever they can," Hughes said. When DEP chief Randy Huffman learned of the EPA visit, he said he was "flabbergasted" that the company "got away with this." (Read more)

Several states considering 'ag gag' bills like Iowa's

Several states are considering legislation similar to the recently enacted "Agricultural Production Facility Fraud Bill," also known as the "ag-gag" bill, passed in Iowa this year to thwart animal-rights activists. The states include Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Indiana, Illinois and Utah. While proponents like Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad say coming onto someone's property under false pretenses is "a serious violation of people's rights," opponents say the bills would increase animal abuse, human health risk, endanger workers' rights and hinder freedom of the press.

In Illinois, the "Animal Facility Bill" would make it a felony to "go undercover and make a recording at a farm facility without consent of the owner," reports Steve Tarter of the Peoria Journal Star. Vandhana Bala, lawyer for Mercy for Animals, told Tarter the bills protect "Big Ag" because the industry "doesn't want the public to know how animals are being treated." She said there are already laws in states considering the bills that protect against trespassing and invasion of privacy, and that "ag-gag" bills are unnecessary.

Joe Maxwell, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, said the Iowa law is a "backward way of addressing the issue." He told Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News that "you wind up with horrendous outcomes" when whistleblower activity is blocked, and undercover activities might not be necessary if the industry would compromise on animal-rights issues. The HSUS was one of 27 national groups that signed a statement opposing "ag-gag" bills across the country. They contend the bills would "perpetuate" animal abuse, threaten workers' rights, consumer health and safety, and the freedom of journalists.

Rural health group in Ariz. one of 50 finalists for telemedicine grant; who's applied in your area?

The Mongollon Health Association in Arizona is hoping to win a $25 million federal grant "to establish an integrated telemedicine system" in the small city of Payson (red in Wikipedia map of Gila County) that will provide digital medical records and real-time links between local doctors and specialists in metropolitan areas, reports Pete Aleshire of the Payson Roundup. The group hopes this will "compensate for the debilitating shortage of specialists in rural areas." MHA is one of 50 national finalists applying for the grant; who has applied in your area?

The MHA would create a telemedicine hub to serve "a wide expanse of northern Arizona," Aleshire reports. The grant would cover nine rural counties where poverty rates and the number uninsured people are high and average income is 20 percent behind the national average. One-third of households in the region make less than $25,000 a year. There are also high numbers of poor seniors and single mothers who face challenges getting health care. There are 300,000 medical helicopter transports a year from the area to urban hospitals, which costs $20,000 each. MHA concludes in the grant application that if 10 percent of those flights could be avoided, it would save $750 million annually.

The program would allow local doctors to consult with specialists in real-time with the patient present, preventing patients from getting "shuffled from specialist to specialist," Aleshire reports, reducing delays between referrals and diagnosis and repeated trips to urban centers. Insurance companies would also have to pay less to specialists who only advise a patient, but never meet them in their office. It would also allow specialists to consult with more patients in a day. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Santorum carries rural voters but falls short in Ohio; Romney has obstacles in rural, religious South

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania carried rural voters in key states in today's presidential contests, according to exit polls taken for national news organizations, but that does not appear to have been enough to give him the edge in the big prize of the night, Ohio.

Santorum easily carried Tennessee, but did as well if not better among the Volunteer State's suburban voters as he did among the rural ones, and he also carried its urban areas. The primary results appeared to resemble those in Oklahoma, where there was no exit poll was immediately available. Santorum won 37 and 34 percent of the vote in those states, respectively, and also carried North Dakota, which held caucuses.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts swept that state and adjoining Vermont, where two-thirds of the vote was rural. The Green Mountain State has no metropolitan areas, the exit poll's definition of "urban." Romney also won Virginia, where Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who won his native Georgia) weren't on the ballot, and the Alaska and Idaho caucuses. (Composite table via CNN; click on image for larger version)
In Ohio, Romney appeared headed to a narrow victory, thanks to a small edge among the suburban voters who made up almost three-fifths of the vote, according to the exit poll. He won urban voters by a slightly smaller margin than Santorum won rural voters in the state.

"This should be Rick Santorum country," Alana Semuels of the Los Angeles Times wrote early from Troy, Ohio (Wikipedia map). "The conservative farmland of Ohio, one of 10 states to cast votes on Super Tuesday, is dotted with churches and Victorian homes with green John Boehner signs in the lawns," and on Saturday, Santorum "drew big crowds interested in his values-heavy message. But voters in this city, which sits in John Boehner's congressional district, seemed divided at the polls, between those who had decided, grudgingly, to accept Mitt Romney, and those who just couldn't do it." (Read more)

Today's voting will determine more Republican convention delegates than all the previous primaries and caucuses combined.

UPDATE, March 7: More than three-fourths of the voters in the Tennessee exit poll identified themselves as evangelical Christians, the highest share yet, The Washington Post reports. "In the rural religious South, Mitt Romney just doesn't connect," the L.A. Times reports. "They prefer him over Obama, conservative Republicans concede, but their wariness of his wealthy lifestyle reflects a national drag on his campaign." For the story by Michael Finnegan, click here.

Community-supported agriculture expected to grow

Community-supported agriculture, which includes selling farm products directly to consumers, farmer's markets and agri-tourism, "will only continue to grow with the next generation of farmers," Agri-Pulse reports. "Enough data exists to show that there is a significant trend towards retail and consumer-oriented agricultural marketing practices," said Gary Matteson, Farm Credit Council vice president of Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach. He said the next farm bill should "lay the groundwork" for understanding this sector of agriculture. (Council map)
The economic impacts of these activities aren't measured, but in 2007, 136,000 farmers had direct-to-consumer sales totaling more than $8 billion, according to researchers at the Center for Rural Economy. CSAs "enthusiastically embrace" direct-to-consumer sales, Agri-Pulse reports. This business model allows farmers to offer "shares" of his or her production to the public, the dividends being a weekly box of produce or other farm products. Erin Schneider of Hilltop Community Farms LLC, a CSA in Wisconsin, said she and her husband use it for supplemental income. She said they chose to operate a CSA to grow sustainably "from an ecological, economic and social standpoint." Many large-scale and conventional operations use "on-farm diversification" to market products and support their income.

Agri-Pulse reports there's not a lot of data about "retail" agriculture, and this makes it hard to track the trend. But young farmers' interest in online marketing and entrepreneurship makes Matteson confident the trend will continue to grow. "Young farmers are willing to engage in this and use communication skills to open those markets. Young people who grew up in the internet age are finding ways to capitalize on those skills," he said. Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a four-week free trial is available here.

Verizon has new rural broadband service @ $60/mo.

Verizon Wireless announced today it will offer broadband services to rural homes that can't have DSL or cable Internet, The Associated Press reports. The service, HomeFusion, could provide "potent competition for satellite broadband providers, which are often 'providers of last resort' for rural homes," AP reports. Users would have to install an antenna about the size of a five-gallon bucket on an outside wall, for about $200. Service starts at $60 a month for enough "allotment to download the complete works of Shakespeare 2,000 times, or to watch 10 hours of HD-quality video" using a streaming service such as Netflix.

The Rural Blog has extensively covered rural broadband expansion and the importance of such an endeavor. Verizon doesn't mention plans to help low-income rural residents who likely can't afford $200 worth of equipment or $60-a-month broadband. It also says HomeFusion service will launch first in three metropolitan areas: Dallas, Nashville and Birmingham. (Read more)

U.S. agency says its inspectors ignored violations at W.Va. coal mine where 29 miners were killed

According to its own internal review, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's inspectors failed to properly inspect key parts of the mine that exploded, killing 29 miners in April 2010, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. They also failed to increase enforcement actions and missed coal-dust violations before the blast at the Upper Big Branch Mine, the report says.

Enforcement efforts at the West Virginia mine were "severely compromised" because "agency officials -- from rank-and-file inspectors to top managers -- did not follow established MSHA policies and procedures," the report states. The agency posted the report after briefing families of miners killed in the disaster.

The report says MSHA inspectors didn't report potential criminal violations for investigation and didn't check company safety reports. Internal investigators "found no evidence that missteps by agency employees caused the explosion," Ward writes. Breakdowns in the report "mirror those from nearly a dozen other 'internal review' reports published after major coal-mining disasters over the last 20 years," Ward reports.

The new report says MSHA's internal accountability programs have been successful at identifying problems, but top agency officials haven't done enough to eliminate those problems. Ward outlines "the most serious areas in which MSHA fell short of its mandate to protect coal miners" in the story. The internal review team blames problems mostly on lack of money and staff, lack of experience of new inspectors and high turnover of MSHA management in its Southern West Virginia office. (Read more)

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward says two things "jumped out" at him on first reading: MSHA made a big deal about Massey Energy, the mine's former owner, keeping two sets of safety logs, one supposedly filled with fake information and shown to inspectors, the other real, but the review shows inspectors didn't look at any safety books; and MSHA records showed agency officials completed mine inspections, but didn't actually inspect the mine "in its entirety" as required by law because no one at MSHA knows "exactly what it means to inspect a mine in its 'entirety'."

Biggest polluters get most coal from Powder River

The Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana supplies most of the fuel for the 13 biggest air polluters in the U.S., all of which are coal-fired power plants. Danielle Venton of High Country News has compiled Environmental Protection Agency data into an infographic map showing the connection of the basin to the plants, mostly in the East. It's important to note that utilities are using more western coal to lower sulfur dioxide emissions. Eastern coal contains high amounts of sulfur, the burning of which can be blamed for higher rates of power plant related illness and death.

"Though our region's inhabitants feel fewer of the impacts of burning coal, we're not in the clear: Already-arid Western regions will become disproportionately drier than the more verdant East as a result of climate change," Venton writes. The map, which also highlights all coal plants' estimated county-by-county effect on death rates, can be found here.

Child poverty is still highest in rural counties

The percentage of children living in poverty "increased dramatically" from 2000 to 2010, and remained highest in rural areas, but the largest increase was in cities between 10,000 and 50,000, Roberto Gallardo of the Southern Rural Development Center reports for the Daily Yonder. His analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that 21.6 percent of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2010, up from 16.2 in 2000, and that there was "considerable variation based on geography." ( map shows county-by-county child poverty rates; click to make larger)

"The majority of counties in Michigan, through the mid-South to Florida and from Missouri to North Carolina experienced significant increases in their child poverty rates," Gallardo reports. The top 10 counties with the highest percentage increase of child poverty were in five states: Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota, Alabama and Texas. Of those, five are in Mississippi, and five are rural.

The rural rate of child poverty rose to 27.2 percent, from 21.2 in 2000. In cities of 10,000 to 50,000, it rose to 25.1 from 18.5. In urban areas it rose from 20.8 to 15.5 percent. (Read more)

Monday, March 05, 2012

Keystone pipeline would likely increase Midwest gasoline prices in the short term

Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline say building it would help "ease supply bottlenecks" and lower gas prices for consumers, but John Schoen of msnbc reports they're only half right. The pipeline would distribute the "glut of crude oil backing up in the Midwest," he writes, redirecting it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be shipped overseas and sold at higher prices. This would mean higher short-term prices for Midwesterners, though, since low pipeline capacity keeps supply high and prices low in the region.

Gas prices have risen since October mostly because the U.S. and Europe have placed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, Schoen writes. In the past month, prices have jumped 20 cents a gallon, but prices differ greatly across the country, with those on the coasts paying much more than those in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain region, where oil is plentiful. (Energy Information Administration map shows county-by-county gas prices; click on map for larger version)
"These little-publicized findings are contained in the studies and testimony of experts working for TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands across America’s heartland to Gulf Coast refineries," Mark Clayton reports for the Christian Science Monitor.

Technological advances have made more oil reserves available. According to the Energy Information Association, U.S. oil production in the Midwest has risen since 2009. This is creating "pipeline bottlenecks," Schoen reports. Cambridge Energy Research Associates chairman Daniel Yergin said the U.S. lacks infrastructure to catch up with the boom in oil production: "We need new pipelines, and the lack of those pipelines - the lack of catching up - is reflected in the disparity in prices." (Read more)

EPA announces new help for small water systems

The Environmental Protection Agency will provide up to $15 million for training and technical assistance to drinking and wastewater systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people, according to a press release. About $14.5 million will be dedicated to training and technical assistance to help small systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and improve water quality.

According to the press release, about 97 percent of the 157,000 water systems in the U.S. serve 10,000 or fewer people, and more than 80 percent serve 500 or less. There are several challenges to "providing reliable drinking water and wastewater services" in these areas, including lack of financial resources, aging infrastructure, management limitations and high staff turnover. The agency is accepting applications from communities until April 9, and hopes to award financial assistance this summer.

Appalachian farmers hope region will become truffle capital of the world

Some farmers in East Tennessee and western North Carolina are hoping to make Appalachia the new truffle capital of the world, reports Ted Burnham of National Publc Radio's food blog, The Salt. Truffles are a richly flavored mushroom that originated in France and are notoriously hard to grow since they sprout from fungus on roots of certain trees. They take years to reach maturity, and next year, Appalachian growers hope to see results from efforts started in 2007. (Reuters photo by Regis Duvignau)

Restauranteurs are taking notice of Appalachian truffles at festivals across the U.S., including the fourth annual National Truffle Fest in Asheville, and similar celebrations in Oregon and California's Napa Valley. There are several varieties of truffles, but few are edible. Perigord, which Appalachian farmers grow, "is considered the crown jewel and ... is known as the "black diamond" truffle," Burnham writes. The variety can be worth $800 or more a pound. Farmer Tom Michaels, owner of Tennessee Truffle, said he individually selects truffles to meet customer requests, and delivers them fresh. He only harvests about 3 to 5 percent of what he thinks his orchard could produce, but rapid growth of the U.S. industry and high demand could soon make Appalachian truffles a big business. (Read more)

Blog for whistleblowers in Appalachia could become font for investigative journalism

Honest Appalachia, the region's "own version of Wikileaks," could fill an investigative journalism gap that was left when large, metropolitan papers closed bureaus in the region, says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. He told Susan Svrluga of The Washington Post that most newspapers in the region generally don't have time, staff or money to "dig into long investigations," even though the stories are out there. "When you don't have reporters turning over rocks in these places," he said, "they're just not going to get turned over."

"There are other barriers to investigative reporting in Appalachia, he said, including the closeness of weekly papers’ staffs to their communities; the mountains, which make travel more difficult; and the dominance of a single industry — coal — known for playing hardball," Svrluga writes. "Cross said Honest Appalachia makes sense because the creators 'know people are scared to death of going public with anything. But they know that there's a lot going on.'"

Some think anonymous leaks are "troubling." National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said the NMA "speaks on the record" and stands by public information "in a transparent manner." She said there are systems in place for people to anonymously report "wrongdoing," and that the NMA expects others to be transparent. The site's creators say whistleblowers can upload documents and pictures to Honest Appalachia to back it up their complaint and staff will try to verify information before posting. (Read more)

Remind citizens of Sunshine Week, March 11-17

It's important for journalists at all levels to help citizens understand how freedom-of-information statutes, or sunshine laws, protect the interests of the public, not just help journalists do news stories. So, we encourage weekly newspapers to include something in this week's editions about Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and the public's right to know. It starts Sunday, March 11. There is plenty of information on the Sunshine Week website, including op-ed articles, ideas for events and logos like the one pictured here.

Sunshine Week is primarily coordinated by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Its supporters include the American Library Association, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Responsive Politics, the First Amendment Center, the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists, among many others.