Saturday, July 21, 2012

Time to check your local hospital's credit rating

What is your local hospital's credit rating? Did you even know it had a credit rating? It might be a good time to check it, since many hospitals are getting lower ratings these days.

Nick Tabor, senior staff writer for the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, found that Jennie Stuart Medical Center's rating dropped, meaning that "The hospital may have to pay a higher interest rate if it needs to borrow money in the near future." Tabor wrote.

Fitch Ratings, one of the global agencies whose ratings guide investors, said uncertainty about the expansion of Kentucky's Medicaid system and how federal health reform will affect the hospital's finances were other reasons for the downgrade. The hospital has lost money in two of the last four years. Last year, it had a 1.9 percent loss.

Tabor explains there are eight ratings above the BBB level. If the facility's rating "were to slip two levels lower, to BB+, it would be on the level of 'junk bonds,' no longer considered investment grade," he reports.

There are three major rating companies in the U.S.: Fitch, Moody's and Standard and Poor's. Moody's expects downgrades of nonprofit hospitals to outnumber upgrades by the end of 2012, reports Jeffrey Young for The Huffington Post. Fitch expects the same will happen, said Senior Director Emily Wong. Smaller hospitals will especially feel the pinch since they "don't have as much ability to offset expense, inflation or reimbursement reductions," Wong said.

AA- and A-rated facilities are reviewed every two years. BBB and BBs are reviewed once a year, and B- and below-rated facilities are reviewed every six months. The easiest way to check ratings for hospitals is to get an account at each of the three major rating companies. "These accounts are free and easy to set up," Tabor tells us. (Read more)

Drought prompts some representatives to press House leaders to vote on Farm Bill

Lawmakers in both parties are pressing House Republican leaders to bring the stalled 2012 Farm Bill to a vote, some citing the oppressive drought that continues to worsen, devastating crops and increasing corn and meat prices. The Senate passed its version of the bill, and the House Agriculture Committee passed its own version, but sources say House leaders won't bring the bill to the full House, at least before the Nov. 6 election.

Led by South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem and Vermont Democrat Peter Welch, 38 Republicans and 24 Democratic House members sent Speaker John Boehner, right, and other House leaders a letter asking them to "make this legislation a priority." The letter does not specifically mention the drought, but does say the bill should be discussed by the House to ensure that "we have strong policies in place so that producers can continue to provide an abundant, affordable and safe food supply." Both the Senate version of the bill and the one stalled in the House would provide increased crop insurance to farmers to help protect against losses like those being caused by the drought.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow told Kim Geiger of the Los Angeles Times that Boehner needs to bring the bill to the floor, and "We need to add some additional disaster assistance for 2012 as part of that." Boehner said last week that no decisions about the bill will be discussed at this point, Geiger reports. Aleta Botts of the University of Kentucky's Cooperative Extension Service created a set of flow charts outlining the different courses of action lawmakers could now take to get the bill passed. Find the chart here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

For-profit colleges targeted for pitches to veterans; press call set for 3:30 Mon. on cost transparency

UPDATE: Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray will hold an embargoed press call with reporters at 3:30 p.m. ET today to make an announcement on college cost transparency. The call and all related materials will be embargoed for publication online until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and in print Tuesday morning. To receive the dial-in information, send an email to agreeing to the embargo terms.

For-profit colleges have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars in GI Bill benefits, and veterans' groups, the White House and some in Congress say it's beginning to look suspicious. "They say the schools prey on veterans with misleading ads while selling expensive and woefully inadequate educations," David Zucchino and Carla Rivera of the Los Angeles Times report. This is a rural story because military members come disproportionately from rural areas, and there are indications that abuse by for-profit colleges may also be disproportionately rural.

Eight of the 10 colleges that have collected the most GI Bill benefits since 2009 were for-profit institutions, and they got 86 percent of their revenue from the program, Zucchino and Rivera report. It generally costs twice as much to attend a for-profit school as a public one, and congressional investigators say dropout rates, interest rates and default rates at for-profit schools are higher than at public institutions. Also, credits veterans earn at for-profits don't always transfer.

In April, President Obama issued an executive order requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark "GI Bill" so it couldn't be used by for-profits to deceive veterans. The order also required the 6,000 colleges that receive GI Bill funds to offer "Know Before You Owe" information packets to veterans. (Read more)

Obama silent on guns, but NRA still calls him foe; here's a handy guide to guns and gun control

UPDATE: Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, who has owned guns since he was 13 and growing up in Kentucky, tells us "What journalists need to know about guns and gun control."

Gun enthusiasts across the country seem to fear what President Obama might do to their Second Amendment rights if re-elected, despite the fact that he's done very little to inhibit their right to bear arms, Darren Samuelsohn of Politico reports in a story published before this morning's movie-theater shooting just outside Denver in which 12 people were killed.

Obama hasn't pushed an assault-weapons ban or tried to force background checks on people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows. He's barely mentioned anything about restricting gun use, even after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last year in Arizona and has made no such suggestion in the wake of the killings in Aurora, Colo., today.

Still, the National Rifle Association distrusts the president, Samuelsohn reports. The group has allotted $40 million to help defeat him in the November election, continues to claim he would "gut the Second Amendment" in his second term and rallies its members to keep believing that. Samuelsohn also reports that gun and ammunition sales are again on the rise, as they were immediately after Obama took office. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group, has said sales are rising because gun owners are afraid weapons won't be available if Obama is reelected.

The NRA seems to be exploiting the sensibilities of rural people in its attack ads, as Samuelsohn reports: "In 2008, the NRA went after Obama with a $15 million ad campaign aimed at gun enthusiasts in a dozen swing states, plus $25 million more for member communications about the election. A similar plan for the next four months is expected to revive Obama’s 2008 comment at a supposedly private fund-raiser that when Americans in rural and poor parts of the country "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion." (Read more)

Safety-net hospitals could get hit hardest when Medicare reimbursement changes in October

When hospitals start getting paid based on the quality of care they provide to their Medicare patients, so-called "safety net" hospitals, a last resort for the poor, could be the losers in the equation. That's because a main way of measuring quality will be patient experience ratings, and safety-net hospitals tend to get poorer marks from patients, according ta new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Since hospitals have had to publicly report their patient experience ratings, the gap between how patients rated these facilities and the scores that other hospitals got widened. "We found that [safety-net hospitals] performed more poorly than other hospitals on nearly every measure of patient experience and that gaps in performance were sizeable and persistent over time," the authors write.

When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services agency starts using the scores to hand out bonuses and penalties, safety-net hospitals could be at a disadvantage, especially since penalties could mean a 2 percent cut on regular Medicare payments. Starting in October, patient experience scores will determine 30 percent of a facility's bonus. "The hospitals that perform best will gain money, while those that lag in scores and improvement over time will end up with less," reports Jordan Rau for Kaiser Health News. (Read more)

Federal agency finds elevated levels of problematic substances in air, soil and water near strip mines

After a year of testing air, water and soil around mountaintop removal mine sites in Central Appalachia, the U.S. Geological Survey has found high levels of toxins in the soil and water, concluding that people in southern West Virginia living close to these sites are living in an environment "with significant chemical discrepancies from the rest of the state," reports Alice Su of The Center for Public Integrity. The findings are the first conclusive scientific evidence by a federal agency that mountaintop removal mining could cause human health risks.

USGS research geochemist Bill Orem, the principal investigator, said water in mining areas had unusually high acid and electrical conductivity levels in the water, air had abnormal levels of particulates, and soil and streams had irregular levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. "Several PAH compounds are probable or possible human carcinogens," Su notes. Orem said results are preliminary and research is still being conducted, but soil samples from mining areas were "certainly different" from those in non-mining areas, and that airborne silica particles, known to cause lung disease, were "definitely higher."

Orem said the USGS will be "prudent" to connect preliminary data to actual health problems in the region that have been documented in controversial correlation studies by West Virginia University public health professor Michael Hendryx. "You have to be conservative in your statements," Orem said. "It can't be driven by people's feelings. It has to be a scientific, data-driven process." (Read more)

More Appalachian coal than ever being exported

U.S. coal exports have doubled since 2009, reaching 107 million tons last year, and three out of every four tons exported come from mountaintop-removal mines in Appalachia, according to Democrats in the U.S. House.

The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. says coal exports "make up a small share of coal production" in Appalachia, but the report by House Natural Resources Committee staff members did find that 97 surface mines in the region exported overseas in 2011 compared to 73 in 2008, exports in the region have grown by 91 percent since 2009, and those 97 mines exported 27 percent of their overall production in 2011. To read the report, click here.

Extension services create drought-help websites

The U.S. drought has become the most severe since the Dust Bowl, in some respects, and experts are now predicting it could get worse, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying earlier this week that food prices will soar because of higher corn and soybean prices. Farmers are struggling, but at least two Midwest universities are attempting to help them deal with the oppressive dryness.

Iowa State University's and Kansas State University's extension services have created drought websites with resource lists to help farmers in those states. On Iowa State's website, farmers and ranchers will find several areas of information to help them deal with drought: crops, livestock, dealing with stress, home and yard, financial concerns and tips for businesses. Visitors to the site will also find disaster preparedness fact sheets about drought from the Extension Disaster Education Network. Visitors will not only find information about dealing with crops and livestock during a drought on Kansas State's website, but they can also access details of both the 2008 and 2012 Farm Bills and a weekly drought update for the state.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Study: Rural schools employ more new teachers, who are usually less effective in the classroom

Schools in rural and poor areas, as well as those with a high number of minority students, employ a higher percentage of beginning teachers than schools without those characteristics, according to new research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. (Boomer Highway blog photo)

The research shines a light on a conundrum known to most educators: The first years of one’s teaching career provide vast opportunities for professional growth, but new teachers have fewer experiences to draw on in plan­ning lessons, managing classrooms and creating assessment strategies.

Thus, authors Douglas Gagnon and Marybeth Mattingly write, "Beginning teachers are typically less effective than their more experienced colleagues, as mea­sured by student achievement gains. In addition, beginning teachers are more likely to leave the profession than those who have weathered at least a few years in the classroom. Thus, employing a large percentage of beginning teachers is costly both to a district and students."

The inescapable conclusion: The percentage of beginning teachers is an important dimension of school quality. Gagnon is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of New Hampshire and research assistant at the Carsey Institute, and Mattingly is director of research on vulnerable families at Carsey and research assistant professor of sociology at UNH.

Republican appropriators, including chair from coalfield, try to block new rules aimed at black lung

The House Appropriations Committee passed a spending bill yesterday with a provision that would prohibit the Mine Safety and Health Administration from issuing or enforcing new coal-dust regulations aimed at preventing the continued rise of black-lung disease among Central Appalachian coal miners. The move comes just days after the Labor Department said it would create a team of experts and lawyers to determine how best to increase regulation.

Recent investigative media reports from The Charleston Gazette, National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity found black lung is again on the rise in Central Appalachia -- Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia -- and has quadrupled since the 1980s. Many new cases are showing up in surface miners.

Lexington Herald-Leader photo
Committee Chair Hal Rogers of Kentucky, left, whose 5th District has some of the highest rates of black lung, defended the panel's move. He said the proposed coal-dust rules rely on 15-year-old studies and questionable data, reports James Carroll, Washington correspondent of The Courier-Journal. “The health and safety of our coal miners should take precedent above all else, which is why these rules should be based on sound, up-to-date scientific evidence,” Rogers told the Louisville newspaper. (Read more)

Some experts say the current rate of black lung has reached "epidemic proportions," the Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. wrote on Coal Tattoo. He quotes California Democratic Rep. George Miller: "Republicans are sending a message that profits for their wealthy campaign contributors are more important than the lungs and lives of America's coal miners." West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller said regulations to limit black lung are "essential, especially when we know that black lung rates are rising in a new generation of miners." (Read more)

Vilsack warns drought will worsen, raise prices; organic stock get a double hit as pastures dry up

The worst drought in decades is getting worse and will mean higher food prices for consumers, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a briefing in the White House Press Room yesterday. He also said the suggestion of waivers from ethanol mandates on oil companies isn't necessary because it's not affecting the price of corn, as some farmers have suggested.

Vilsack said an additional 39 counties have been designated as primary natural disaster areas, raising the total to 1,297 in 29 states. Here is the list. Russ Blinch of Reuters reports. Vilsack urged Congress to work with the administration to improve aid to farmers, something the new Farm Bill could do. The House has stalled on voting on its version of the bill. Peter Baker of The New York Times reports. Vilsack said more than three-quarters of U.S. corn and soybean crops are in drought-affected areas, and more than one third of those are now rated poor to very poor.

Corn prices have risen to almost $8 a bushel, making it difficult for livestock producers to buy animal feed. This will likely cause the price of beef, poultry and pork to rise late this year or early next. Iowa Pork Producers Association President Bill Tentinger told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids that high corn prices would force many pork producers out of business, and the new Farm Bill would only help crop farmers, not livestock producers. Analysts predicted a 4 to 6 percent increase in beef prices pre-drought, but Hibah Yousuf of CNNMoney reports consumers could see 10 percent increases if the drought and high corn prices continue.

Meanwhile, Bob Meyer of Brownfield reports, "The drought presents a particular challenge for organic livestock and dairy producers. Organic standards require a portion of the ration to include pasture, and when pastures have dried up that is a problem. Another problem is while the price of conventional corn and soybeans hits record highs, the price of organic corn and soybeans is even higher." For Meyer's eight-minute audio interview with Harriet Behar, outreach coordinator for the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, click here.

Student photo essay has 'poignant illustrations' of resource extraction, development in West

SAGE Magazine, a student-run environmental magazine at Yale Forestry School, recently ran a collection of photographs that amount to photo essay of the West, and High Country News has featured some of those photographs on its website. The photos were submitted by students and people living in the region, and "include beautiful wildlife photography and poignant illustrations of humans' relationship to the natural world," HCN says.
The photographs highlight issues surrounding natural gas extraction, climate change, wildfires, urban development and Superfund sites, and their impact on the vast rural landscapes of the American West. The above picture shows a helicopter battling a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, which scientists think are increasing in frequency thanks to climate change. (Photo by Benjamin Goldfarb)

New book focuses on Appalachian health

A new book, which compiles health reviews and studies from the 13-state Appalachian region, reveals greater health care disparities between counties within the region than between Appalachia and the rest of the U.S.

Kevin Kavanagh reviewed Appalachian Health and Well-Being for The Courier-Journal, and reports that the rural Central Appalachia region is "extensively discussed" in the book as having some of the nation's highest rates of poverty, tobacco and drug use, obesity and diabetes.

"The vast majority of the chapters are a well-written, comprehensive discussion of the problems affecting Appalachia," Kavanagh writes. "An important concept is that unhealthy lifestyles are not just the patient's fault, but also a social problem; making substantial headway requires improvement in poverty, education and employment."

The book, edited by Robert Ludke and Phillip Obermiller of the University of Cincinnati, is available from the University Press of Kentucky.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Rural Blog makes the list of top blogs for students of journalism

The Rural Blog is published mainly for rural journalists, but we have long known that it is also read by many people interested in rural policy. And now we know that others see a value in it for students of journalism. We're No. 27 among "The 40 Best Blogs for Journalism Students," selected by Online Education Database.

OEDb says the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, through The Rural Blog, "turns a keen eye toward the news and views impacting such towns and villages." And, we would add, the places between towns and villages, with an occasional look at rural news media, which can provide good examples for student journalists.

The Institute does have a journalism-student blog, the Midway Messenger, but it's primarily by students, not for them. We do it for the community of Midway, Ky., halfway between our base at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and the state capital of Frankfort. There's also a website,

Wendell Berry getting another big award, this time for his conservative values

Agrarian poet-philosopher Wendell Berry has astounded us again, this time with the continuing length, depth and political sway of his admirers.

Witness first the unabashed love letter to him from National Review reporter and essayist John Miller, in the form of a profile as Berry prepares to receive the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize this Friday. It seems the 77-year-old liberal-talking, Democratic-voting sheep farmer who was honored to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at The Kennedy Center in April is getting a prize named for the author of The Conservative Mind. The prize is awarded by the CiRCE Institute, which promotes Christian classical education, for “cultivating virtue and wisdom.” If that weren't enough, notes Miller, last year ISI Books, part of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, published The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, a collection of essays that seek to illuminate, according to the dust jacket, the “profoundly conservative” ideas of its subject.

Miller's trip to Berry's Henry County, Kentucky farm informs his essay, "A Jeremiah for Everyone: Why Left and Right like Wendell Berry." It's here where Miller remembers old-time conservative Kirk's words to make his case. Kirk, a longtime National Review contributor who, like Berry, opted for a rural life, discovered the Kentuckian around 1978. Kirk, writes Miller, "was probably the first prominent conservative to detect an undercurrent of conservatism in Berry’s work: suspicion of progress, support for local autonomy, and a preference for the old ways of doing things. Berry certainly doesn’t view himself as a conservative, and he seems both puzzled and amused that his work would find favor with conservatives." But he has conservative streaks, telling Miller, "Abortion for birth control is wrong. That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices."

Miller concludes, "As Berry enters the final stage of his career . . . he appears content with the way he has lived out his convictions, no matter how they’re labeled. 'It’s been an extraordinarily rich life,' he says. At the same time, the contentment always fades to worry. The world is going to pot, and, if you leaf through Berry’s body of work, you’ll see that it’s been going there for a long time." (Read more)

GAO suggests more clarity, oversight in use of funds sent to counties with federal lands

In rural counties with federal lands, a share of the revenues from the sale or use of the natural resources on that land came back to the counties. So when Western counties dependent on federal timber revenue steeply declined in the 1990s, Congress passed a law to provide for roads and schools in rural counties. In 2008 it allowed those counties to use the funds to protect themselves from the threat of catastrophic wildfire and provide emergency services on federal lands.

Now the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, has found that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have provided little oversight of that program, and the counties, given vague guidelines on how to use the money, have used it on projects that appear inconsistent with federal law and failed to properly disclose their spending to the public. The GAO contacted 44 counties in 22 states across the nation.

The Secure Rural Schools Act, which was recently reauthorized for one year as part of the transportation bill passed in late June, is now under review to be renewed for another five years. In a letter to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the GAO reported that since 2008 the law has provided more than $2 billion in federal assistance, with more than 350 counties receiving $108 million for fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2011, with individual counties receiving anywhere from $3,600 to more than $2 million a year.

The GAO's recommendations to Bingaman and to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources included regulations and clearer guidance so counties can make better funding decisions. In addition, Congress should consider revising the law to clarify whst types of projects are allowable under the act. (Read the GAO report)

Three reports start to answer questions about surface mining's link to human health problems

Three new scientific reports have begun to answer questions about how mountaintop-removal coal mining could play a role in higher levels of illnesses among residents in the Appalachian coalfields. Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette notes that "researchers have found higher levels of certain types and sizes of pollution particles in communities near mountaintop removal sites, and also believe they've identified one potential mechanism for that pollution impacting public health.(Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)

The findings, presented at recent academic conferences and in the peer-reviewed publication pipeline, add to the results of nearly two dozen West Virginia University papers that found higher levels of health problems -- including cancer and birth defects -- among residents living in the shadow of large-scale surface coal mining." The studies showed only correlations, not causations, so further research was needed.

"It moves beyond the epidemiological data to examine what the real environmental conditions are in the communities where people live near mountaintop removal operations," said WVU researcher Michael Hendryx, who co-authored the previous papers and the new reports. Ward notes that environmental groups have not funded Hendryx, "but those groups have seized on his findings to argue that mountaintop removal isn't just an issue about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountain streams. Coal lobbyists have disputed the study findings and industry lawyers have so far kept the science out of courtroom battles over new mining permits." (For more reporter's notes and commentary on this item, see Ward's blog, Coal Tattoo, go here.

Manuel Quinones of Energy & Environment News writes about the debate between Hendryx and Jonathan Borak, a clinical professor of epidemiology and public health and medicine at Yale University, who rebutted Hendryx's mortality study with an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Expanding research paid for by the National Mining Association, he said Hendryx put too much weight on coal when other factors could be to blame. "This month, Hendryx and co-author Melissa Ahern, an associate professor in Washington State University's College of Pharmacotherapy, published a letter to the editor in the journal responding to Borak," Quinones reports. "Borak also penned a response to the response. . . . Amid the disagreements, a collection of several university scholars, including some from West Virginia University, have joined forces to increase scientific understanding of the coal industry and its effects. Even though the consortium receives industry funding, companies have no say in the research." (Read more; subscription may be required)

House plan to cut GMO crop oversight rings alarms

"An array of consumer and environmental organizations and individuals are ringing alarm bells over moves they say will eradicate badly needed safety checks on crops genetically modified to withstand herbicides, pests and pesticides," Charles Abbott and Carey Gilliam of Reuters report. "The measures could speed the path to market for big biotech companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical that make billions of dollars from genetically altered corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops."

"They are trying to change the rules," Center for Food Safety lawyer George Kimbrell, who has lawsuits pending against government regulators for failing to follow the law in approving certain biotech crops, told the wire service. "It is to the detriment of good governance, farmers and to the environment."

Abbott and Gilliam note that the House could take up a measure that would allow biotech crops to be planted even if courts rule they were approved illegally. That could happen as early as next week. Opponents call it the "Monsanto Rider" because Monsanto's genetically altered alfalfa and sugar beets have been subject to court challenges for illegal regulatory approvals.

Last week 40 food businesses, retailers, family farmers and others sent a protest letter to House Agriculture Committee leaders "calling on them to strike pro-biotech provisions added to the draft of the Farm Bill," Reuters notes. "The measures followed several court rulings that regulators did not follow legal requirements in approving some biotech crops, and would nullify just such legal requirements in the future. Environmental hazards associated with biotech crops, including the rapid rise of 'superweeds' that cannot be killed with traditional herbicides, would not have to be taken under consideration by regulators in new approvals, the critics say." (Read more)

Small towns in Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico and Florida win Best of the Road contest

What happens when 30 small towns vie for a big prize, taking on tough critics who require winners to have the nation's friendliest people, best scenery, hottest patriotic fervor, most excellent food and endless fun, fun, fun? USA Today's Laura Bly reports many miles were driven, lots of food was eaten, countless smiles were exchanged, and the winners of the "Best of the Road" contest sponsored by the newspaper and map maker Rand McNally will get their own Travel Channel special hosted by Bert Kreischer on July 25 at 8 p.m. ET. And the winners, named Wednesday, are:

Bardstown, Ky., better known for its bourbon, won "Most Beautiful." Judges loved the Outer Bluegrass region, with the Knobs in the distance. "We realized that maybe we're not just here to see mountains and rivers, maybe there's something else," they wrote. "Our hearts are still in this place." (USA Today photo: Old Nelson County courthouse, with historic Talbott Tavern in background.) Gainesville, Tex., took "Most Patriotic" honors. "It's not just the number of flags or monuments, memorials or programs; it's not even just for the people who serve. It's how you care for the people who were fought for," the team of judges wrote.

Murray, Ky., in the southwestern end of the state, wowed judges who dubbed it "Most Friendly." Coloradans Jennifer, Jordan and Robert Schatz remarked, "It feels like home in Murray more than anywhere else." Residents "had a way of bringing you in, and we made friends. This is the only town where we went into people's homes." Santa Fe, N.M., won "Best Food." As one local chef told Best of the Road, the state capital's cuisine is unique because of "the vibrancy of the city" and the tapestry of cultures — Native American, Hispanic and European. Delray Beach, Fla., took the trophy for "Most Fun" for its "Miami meets Manhattan in the '60s"vibe. Think Panama hats and individually owned shops, not flip-flops and chain restaurants. You can be a yogi beach bunny one minute, on a boat crusing the marina the next, then get your taste of great locally-sourced grub decked out in a dress you got at one of the many awesome vintage stores before you hit one of the town's night spots," the team says.  (Read more)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Farm Bill and much of rural policy controlled by House committee amendments

Forget the title of the bill Congress passes, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder writes. Instead, "check out the amendments -- especially when it comes to bills that come out of the House. Over the last several months, we've seen an increasing number of very important decisions in federal policy being made through amendments to bills in the House of Representatives. Many of these affect rural businesses, people and communities in ways that spell the difference between life and death." For instance, last year the House passed a bill that provided money for agriculture, rural development and the Food and Drug Administration. But it also affected how cattle were sold at auction. Or, just this last week, deep inside a 165-page bill designed to fund the Labor Department, there's language that bars the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration from implementing or enforcing new rules aimed at reducing the exposure of miners to the coal dust that causes black-lung disease. (Photo: House Agriculture Committee Room)

Now, Bishop warns, the House Agriculture Committee has approved a new Farm Bill and "they are at it again" with their amendments. "Just a few dozen House members are telling the USDA to accept genetically engineered crops quickly. Just 30-odd members of the House Agriculture Committee are re-writing rules governing food labeling and the contracts made between poultry growers and the few companies that control the chicken business. All it takes is an interested representative and the entire direction of federal policy can be changed in the blink of an amendment." (Read more)

As prescription drug abuse worsens, America's war on drugs is less a foreign fight than a domestic one

Policeman in Tegulcigalpa, Honduras
(NYT photo by Tomas Munita)
Surprising hardly anyone in rural America, the rest of the country is waking up to the fact that the drugs most likely to land us in emergency rooms cannot be interdicted at a border. Studies show that prescription painkillers, and stimulants to a lesser extent, are the nation’s biggest drug problem.

Of the 36,450 overdose deaths in the United States in 2008, Damien Cave and Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times report, 20,044 involved a prescription drug, more than all illegal drugs combined. And while cocaine and heroin have been concentrated in big cities, prescription drug abuse is everywhere. “Today there is drug use in every county in Ohio, and the problem is worse in rural areas,” said Mike DeWine, the attorney general of Ohio.

So far, government and the health care industry response has been slow, Cave and Schmidt write. But momentum for a broader change in domestic drug policy appears to be building. Drug Enforcement Agency officials say they have recently created 37 “tactical diversion squads” focusing on prescription-drug investigations, with 26 more to be added over the next few year. The move has been prompted in part by the realization that drug interdiction in Mexico and Central America not only wasn't working but wasn't the problem, says Morris Panner, a former counternarcotics prosecutor in New York and at the American Embassy in Colombia, who is now an adviser at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Times reporters note that the decades-old priority shift would have immediate impact throughout Mexico and Central America: "With the drug wars in Mexico inflaming violence, some argue that the money now used for interdiction could be better spent building up the institutions — especially courts and prosecutors’ offices — that would lead to long-term stability in Mexico and elsewhere." (Read more)

Postal service's POStPlan for small post offices gets a hearing, and an unexpected cross-examiner

The good folks at Save The Post Office have provided a handy recap of the history of the proposed POStPlan, the U.S. Postal Service's plan for small post offices. This refresher course is pertinent after last week's testimony by Jeffrey Day, USPS retail-operations manager, before the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Day, the only USPS witness for the plan, was there to be cross-examined about the reduction in hours at 13,000 post offices. "There wasn’t much in the way of Perry Mason moments, and judging by the questions from the commissioners and the PRC’s public representative, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of opposition to POStPlan," Save The Post Office reports. "With the two postmasters associations both on board, it appears that only the [American Postal Workers Union] is interested in challenging the plan, and its concern seems to be who’s going to be staffing the POStPlan offices."

Opposing the plan was attorney Elaine Mittleman, who has been helping to save post offices after her office in Pimmit, Va., was closed last year. She was in the hearing room to question Day. "Whatever flaws there may be in the advisory opinion process," Save the Post Office notes, "the fact that an average citizen, officially representing just herself, could join the commissioners in the questioning says a lot about the commission’s commitment to transparency and public participation." (Read more)

3,000 agricultural groups warn Congress that looming 2013 budget cuts will 'devastate' sciences

About 3,000 agricultural, crop and soil-science organizations have joined forces to warn Congress that any automatic budget cuts set for January of 2013 will have devastating effects on what is called the "nondefense discretionary (NDD) community," especially research and education funding for food, agriculture, and environmental sciences, Agri-Pulse reports today.

The American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of Americ, and the Soil Science Society of America led the charge. In a letter sent to all members of Congress today, the groups' leaders urged lawmakers to adopt a “balanced approach to deficit reduction that does not include further cuts to NDD programs." NDD programs represent a small and shrinking share of the federal budget and of our overall economy, the groups wrote, equal to just 3.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2011. For a copy of the letter, go here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

EPA yanks rule that would have made CAFOs report number of animals, size of manure-spreading areas

The Environmental Protection Agency has withdrawn a proposed regulation "that would have required owners of concentrated animal feeding operations to report certain data about their facilities," Amanda Peterka of Environment & Energy News reports.

EPA said it pulled the rule "over concerns that it would duplicate other efforts to collect such information from CAFOs," Peterka writes. "EPA says it will work with state and other programs to collect the information using existing sources of information. . . . Livestock trade groups had harshly criticized the rule, arguing in public comments that it would violate ranchers' privacy and threaten the nation's food security."

The rule stemmed from the settlement of a lawsuit from the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Waterkeeper Alliance "that was a result of a lawsuit brought and won by the pork producers over EPA's 2008 CAFO rule," Peterka notes. "A federal court ruled that the Clean Water Act requires permitting only for CAFOs that actually discharge pollution rather than those with a potential for discharges. Under the withdrawn rule, CAFO owners would have had to report the number and types of animals they keep and the size of the area where manure would be applied. That did not satisfy the environmental groups, which argued that the settlement required EPA to gather data from CAFOs on the quantity of manure and other waste. (Read more; subscription may be required)

Farm economies dim as drought continues

The drought ravaging crops from Indiana to Arkansas to California is taking its toll on rural economies and threatening to drive food prices to record levels, Bloomberg reporters Joshua Zumbrun and Mark Drajem write. (Photo of Morse Reservoir near Cicero, Ind., by Daniel Acker for Bloomberg)

Agriculture had been one of the most resilient industries in the past three years as the country struggled to recover from the recession; now it could be a drag. “It might be a $50 billion event for the economy as it blends into everything over the next four quarters,” said Michael Swanson, agricultural economist in the Minneapolis office of Wells Fargo & Co., the nation's largest commercial agriculture lender. “Instead of retreating from record highs, food prices will advance.”

The Department of Agriculture declared last week that more than 1,000 counties in 26 states are natural-disaster areas, the biggest such declaration ever, report Zumbrun and Drajem. This makes them eligible for low-interest loans. Corn prices rose Monday to the highest in 10 months, and soybeans increased to the costliest since 2008. Ernie Goss, a professor of economics at Creighton University in Omaha, said farm income, which has underpinned the growth of many rural states, will be under “significant downward pressure."

Next year, though, farmers are expected to boost equipment, seed and fertilizer purchases as they try to recoup in production what they lose this year, said Ann Duignan, analyst for JPMorgan & Co. This year’s lost crops will force some farmers to take out new loans to get through a poor season. “In those areas hit the hardest by drought, we will have to work with those farmers to do some additional financing because they’ll be missing the revenue they were expecting,” Well Fargo's Swanson said. “Farmers have always said to me $7 corn is no good if I have no corn,” Duignan added.

Report says hydraulic fracturing laws need overhaul; Nationwide says it won't cover fracking damage

"Most states aren’t doing enough to ensure the water safety and health of communities near gas wells where hydraulic fracking takes place," according to a new report by a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, OMB Watch. Those states that do have chemical disclosure policies in place, the report says, "have loopholes that essentially allow companies to circumvent disclosure regulations." According to the report, only 13 of the 30 states with natural-gas drilling have passed some legislation regulating fracking, which pumps large volumes of water mixed with chemicals and sand into rock formations to release gas.

OMB Watch was founded to watch the federal Office of Management and Budget, often a roadblock for regulatory changes. Sean Moulton, director of federal information policy for the group, told Stateline, "No one state has established a chemical disclosure policy strong enough to protect the water supply of communities near gas wells. No state currently has laws in place requiring gas companies to test water supplies before drilling takes place, making it difficult to determine what’s causing contamination if water becomes polluted after fracking has begun." (Read more)

In related news, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. has become the first major company to say it won't cover damage related to fracking. Mary Esch of The Associated Press reports that company spokesman Nancy Smelzer announced last week that the Columbus-based company's personal and commercial policies "were not designed to cover" risk from the drilling process. Nationwide said the risks "are too great to ignore" and apply to policies of landowners who lease land for drilling.

Labor Dept. reacts to black-lung series with team to study how to improve coal-dust enforcement

The recent revelations by the combined work of three news organizations about the resurgence of black-lung disease in coal miners in Appalachia at first seemed to fall on deaf ears. This riled one of the reporters, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, who wrote early last Friday of his disgust that there had been no immediate outrage over the hard fact made plain: It was clear that miners had been made promises that weren't kept and had been lied to for decade. By Monday, he was updating with some reaction to the question he asked: Where is the outrage? (Undated photo: West Virginia University collection)

Now, the Gazette, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, the organizations which did the stories, hear that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and its parent agency, the Labor Department, "are putting together a team of agency experts and lawyers to specifically consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given the statutory and regulatory weaknesses detailed " in the stories, NPR's Howard Berkes writes. "The effort includes discussion of how the agency might be more aggressive in filing civil and criminal actions against mining companies that violate coal mine dust standards, according to an internal Labor Department communication obtained by NPR."

Another new development, Ward reports, was a filing of a new lawsuit against Alpha Natural Resources by miner Terry Evan Lilly, "who alleges that mining practices — including cheating on respirable dust sampling — led to him getting the most serious form of black lung disease. Among other things, the suit filed by Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin accuses mine management where he worked" of instructing miners to hang air sampling pumps designed to measure dust exposures in areas where the air was clean instead of keeping the sampling pumps with them in the air where they were actually working. One of the mines Lilly worked at was Upper Big Branch, where 29 miners died in an explosion two years ago. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which Alpha bought. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin confirmed to Ward that his office is examining "potential criminal violations related to dust-cheating, as part of its continuing probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster," Ward reports.

The Appalachian News-Express, a thrice-weekly in Pikeville, Ky., has some ideas for solving the black-lung problem: "First and foremost, stop letting the coal companies — who are chafing against the regulations to begin with — report their own dust sampling data to determine if the regulations are being complied with. There’s simply too much opportunity, and temptation, for companies to massage their data to suggest compliance. Second, if companies are found in violation of the coal dust standards, enforce those violations. MSHA needs to stop granting extensions when violations are found that allow unsafe coal dust levels to persist for weeks, or even months, before being corrected.
Last, increasing the fines for violations of coal dust standards may convince coal companies that complying with the regulations is more cost-effective than breaking them. And if we directed the increased revenues from fines to help pay for the health care costs of black lung victims, it’s a win-win situation." (Read more, subscription required)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Penn State not covered by state open-records law

If Pennsylvania's open-records law applied to Penn State, the Jerry Sandusky scandal might have been uncovered much earlier, saving some children from abuse, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute writes after hearing from Sara Ganim, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter who broke the story and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ganim (CNN image) "told a group of reporters and editors at Poynter that the open record exemption made it much more difficult to investigate the sex abuse story," Tompkins reports, and explains why the law doesn't apply to The Pennsylvania State University and three other "state-related institutions." He says they must file less information than publicly traded companies have to file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That is less than politicians have to file when running for state or federal office." Penn State lobbied to keep the exemption when the law was strengthened in 2008.

Tompkins says forner FBI director Louis Freeh, who investigated the university's handling of teh Sandusky matter, should have included making Penn State subject to the open-records law in his recommendations: "The abuse at Penn State is a lesson to us all about what happens when powerful people and public institutions are allowed to operate in the shadows created by what Freeh called a 'closed culture.' It is a culture that protected abusers, failed to protect victims and survived by closing its records to journalists who might have exposed it." (Read more