Friday, April 05, 2013

FAA delays closure of 149 air-traffic control towers until June 15; locals may keep some going

The Federal Aviation Administration announced this afternoon that it would delay the closure of 149 air-traffic control towers until June 15. The FAA had planned to start the process Sunday, as part of the budget cuts forced by the sequestration measure passed by Congress. (Photo by Jim Urquhart, Reuters)

"After the list was released on March 22, airports in Washington, Indiana and Florida filed a lawsuit to block the closures, contending that the FAA had not done proper studies before deciding to shut down the towers, which are run by FAA contractors," Lori Aratani reports for The Washington Post. "More than 1,000 contract air traffic controllers were expected to lose their jobs as a result of the closures."

Aratani adds, "FAA officials said authorities at about 50 airports and others with ties to the targeted airports said they would examine whether they could assume financial responsibility for operating the towers. By delaying the closures, FAA officials said they would work with the entities to make those transitions." (Read more)

Ky. governor allows hemp bill to become law, but appears unlikely to help implement it

The governor of Kentucky has allowed to become law a bill to allow limited farming of industrial hemp if the federal government grants the state a waiver. The idea had been considered dead, because of law-enforcement opposition, but was revived in an eleventh-hour compromise at the end of the legislative session.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear could have issued a veto without fear of a legislative override, but said he allowed the bill to become law without his signature because in the event of a federal waiver, "We will have time to work with the legislature and law enforcement to make any further changes necessary to ensure the public’s safety and alleviate those concerns."

Left unanswered was whether Beshear would join the bill's chief advocate, Republican Agriculture Commssioner James Comer, and the state's two Republican U.S. senators in seeking a waiver. The state's only Democratic congressman also supports the idea. UPDATE: Courier-Journal reporter Mike Wynn said on KET's "Comment on Kentucky" that it is probably safe to assume that if Beshear wouldn't sign the bill, he won't sign a waiver request.

Kentucky is now the ninth state to pass such a law," notes Ben Finley of The Associated Press. "But so far the DEA has granted only Hawaii a permit for a quarter acre plot to grow hemp for university research." (Read more)

Texas district attorney considers wearing firearm to court in wake of recent D.A. shooting

A district attorney in Texas is considering wearing a firearm to court, and allowing her two assistants to do the same, in the wake of a recent shooting in the state that left three people dead, including a district attorney and a prosecutor, Ben Tinsley reports for the Daily Progress in Jacksonville, a town of 15,000 people in the eastern part of the state near the Louisiana border. Jacksonville, in Cherokee County, is about 80 miles from Kaufman County, where the murders took place.

“I have not yet made any firm decisions,” Patton said. “I do not currently carry one at work, but that might change. No one should allow violence perpetuated on them by the very people they are sworn to fight against.” Defense attorneys are not permitted to carry firearms into court in Cherokee County. (Read more)

Rural Missouri hospital one of many fearing hard times if states don't expand Medicaid

Medicaid has helped provide care to low-income families, especially children, the elderly and long-term care patients. States have the choice whether or not to expand Medicaid coverage under federal health reform, and while politicians argue about its merits, rural hospitals fear that without it they will suffer dramatically.

Jennifer Davidson of KSMU Radio in Springfield, Mo., offers an example of local reporting on the subject, describing how the loss of special Medicaid payments would affect rural Ozarks hospitals in Southern Missouri if the state does not expand the program. Ozarks Medical Center, left, in West Plains, near the Arkansas border, "serves over 150,000 people in one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation," she reports. One in five patients is covered by Medicaid. Missouri and Arkansas plan to expand Medicaid, but nearby Oklahoma does not and Kansas is undecided.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act included a 75 percent reduction in Disproportionate Share Hospitals payments under Medicaid, which have been made to hospitals that are dependent on the program. The theory is that adding more people to the system will bring hospitals more revenue.

David Zechman, president and CEO of Ozarks Medical Center, told Davidson: "If you count the cut if the Medicaid expansion doesn’t happen, we’re going to see a 60 percent reduction in our bottom line. There aren’t very many businesses, or companies, that can survive in America with a 60 percent cut into their operating margin that keeps the current programs going, and allows you to recruit really good people to provide care, that allows you to pay people competitive salaries, that allows you to buy decent equipment and technology." (Read more)

Nobel-winning professor tells Montanans climate change is real, and close to home

University of Montana professor Steven Running, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore, told students and faculty Thursday at Rocky Mountain College in Billings that climate change is real and can be seen in places such as Montana, Mary Pickett reports for the Billings Gazette. (Gazette photo by Bob Zellar)

All the glaciers in Glacier National Park could be gone by 2020 if current trends continue, Running said. "In the Northwest, snowpacks are melting two weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago, and runoff happens earlier in the summer," Pickett writes, reporting on Running's speech. "Warmer temperatures also are causing moisture to evaporate more quickly, leaving less water for everything from agriculture to recreation. Since 1950, late summer stream flows in major rivers in Montana have declined by 20 percent. Some streams have so little water at the end of the summer that Fish Wildlife and Parks has to shut down fishing." If current trends continue, Running said Montana could end up with a climate like Utah's. (Read more)

Isolated Alaskans in danger of losing free TV service that connects them to rest of the world

More than 100,000 people in Alaska may soon lose their connection to the outside world, if lawmakers don't step in to keep the Alaska Rural Communications Service from going dark in 2015, Jill Burke reports for the Alaska Dispatch. (Dispatch photo by Loren Holmes)

"Since the early 1980s, a patchwork of broadcast transmitters across Alaska have captured a mish-mash satellite feed in order to deliver free, over-the-air television into the homes of the state's smallest communities," Burke writes. The programming reaches 110,000 people in 230 small or isolated communities, and is considered a crucial service that connects people to the "blitz of information most urban residents take for granted – sitcoms, politics, local and national news, government, sports, weather, emergency announcements."

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that low-power television stations upgrade to digital by Sept. 1, 2015, Davidson reports. Without a $5.3 million investment by the Alaska Legislature, free television in the state will be eliminated. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has requested funding for digital conversion and "broadcasters and the Alaska Federation of Natives have lobbied in favor of keeping the system alive, arguing it's a crucial lifeline for communities that would otherwise have few, if any, alternatives."

Wife of slain W.Va. sheriff succeeds him, will continue his campaign to crack down on drugs

Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury swears in Crum.
(Photo by Chris Dorst, The Charleston Gazette)
The widow of a slain West Virginia sheriff will serve out the rest of his term, after being sworn in as interim sheriff Thursday following a unanimous vote by a commission that said Rosie Crum was the best person to continue her husband's quest to rid Mingo County of its drug problem, Rachel Baldwin writes for the Williamson Daily News.

We reported Wednesday that Eugene Crum, who was elected in January on a promise to clean up the county's drug problem, was killed that day while eating lunch in his car. Tennis Melvin Maynard was arrested for the crime.

County Commission president John Mark Hubbard said at Thursday's meeting that Gene Crum was elected "because of his platform, beliefs and promises," and "the best plan to fulfill this obligation is with the person who knew Eugene the best. The person who knew his stand on crime and drugs, who knew his plans for Mingo County and who was his best friend and soul mate. To appoint someone outside of the Crum family would be unacceptable, and our deputies have told us they would be honored to serve under Rosie as the interim sheriff." (Read more)

UPDATE, April 6: The local prosecutor says there is no evidence that the shooting "was in retaliation for [Gene Crum's] stance against prescription pill abuse," despite "rampant speculation and conjecture," Travis Crum of The Charleston Gazette reports. The shooter's father said the son "was mentally disturbed and had no particular vendetta with law enforcement," Crum writes.

UPDATE, April 12: The local prosecutor said Maynard should have been barred from owning a gun, but got his hands on a weapon after his background check was delayed by "kinks in the chain," Matthew DeLuca reports for NBC News.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Death rates rising at critical-access hospitals for heart and pneumonia patients on Medicare

Death rates are rising at rural critical-access hospitals for Medicare patients who have heart attacks, heart failure and pneumonia, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Hospitals designated as critical-access get slightly higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements in exchange for limiting their size, procedures and patient stays. In 2002, they had a death rate of 12.8 percent for such ailments, under the 13 percent rate at other hospitals. But from 2002 to 2010, mortality rates at critical-access hospitals increased 0.1 percent each year, to 13.3 percent, while the rates at other hospitals fell 0.2 percent each year, to 11.4 percent.

There are 1,331 hospitals in the critical access program, Jordan Rau reports for USA Today. "Congress started the critical access program in 1997 to stave off hospital closures in places where patients had no good alternative because the next hospital was at least 35 miles away by regular roads or 15 miles by secondary roads. To qualify hospitals need 25 or fewer beds."
 
The authors of the study "suggested that the hospitals' care may suffer because they don't have the latest sophisticated technology or specialists to treat the increasingly elderly and frail rural populations," Rau reports. "Since hospitals are not required to submit performance evaluations to Medicare, the government may not realize that facilities could need additional assistance in caring for sicker patients."

Brock Slabach of the National Rural Health Association told Rau that the statistics don't always tell the complete story and that "The association's own research has found that rural hospitals do better in patient satisfaction surveys than do urban hospitals," Rau writes.

Travel magazine looks at town squares, writes up 13

Decatur, Ga.
A travel magazine takes a look at how small-town public squares offer a unique, rewarding experience to guide people through the wonders and beauty of the communities.

Town squares were built to "be the hearts of their communities, often with stately landmarks like a courthouse and surrounding colorful shops and cafés," April Orcutt writes for Travel + Leisure.

As part of the April edition, the magazine took a close look at towns with populations of less than 50,000. Towns the article focused on were Corning, N.Y.; Prescott, Ariz.; Canton, Miss.; Healdsburg, Calif.; Portsmouth, N.H.; Bardstown, Ky.; Dover, Del.; New London, Conn.; Oskaloosa, Iowa; Jackson, Wyo.; Decatur, Ga.; Bar Harbor, Me.; and San Marcos, Tex. (Read more)

Western counties with protected public lands could have economic edge over other rural areas

Rural counties in the western U.S. with a national park, wildlife refuge or other protected public land may have an economic edge over other rural counties, the Daily Yonder reports. A study by Headwaters Economics found "on average, for every 10,000 acres of public land that were located in non-metro counties in the West, the county’s per capita income was $436 higher." (Headwaters Economics map)

A possible reason for the edge is that "counties with natural amenities like national monuments and wild and scenic rivers are more likely to attract talented workers, who have above-average earning power," the Yonder reports. "The study looked at the West’s 286 non-metro counties. Researchers measured the acreage of protected public lands and looked at 10 economic indicators such as per capita income, average earnings per job, migration, college education levels and others." (Read more)

Ranchers, hunters at odds with Ore. animal-rights activists about using dogs to hunt cougars

Oregon has about 6,000 wild cougars. Ranchers and hunters are on one side of the debate against animal-rights activists as the legislature debates a pair of bills that could allow dogs can be used to hunt or trap the big cats, Harry Esteve reports for The Oregonian. (Oregonian photo)

House Bill 2624 would "exempt counties from the statewide prohibition on using dogs to hunt cougars and black bears, if county voters approve. It also would allow the use of bait to hunt bears, which voters banned in 1994," Esteve reports. House Bill 3395 "would require the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to design a pilot program that would allow hunters to use dogs to track down and tree cougars. Counties could opt in."

Scott Beckstead, Oregon director of the Humane Society of the United States, told Esteve that cougar complaints fell from a high of 1,072 in 1999 to only 287 in 2012, while the number of cougars killed by hunters rose from 157 to 242. Beckstead said the bills "allow the use of dogs and bait for sport. The voters of Oregon have said they don't want that."

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, sponsor of House Bill 3395, told Esteve she has no doubts that cougars are becoming braver and more willing to come into contact with people. "I hear over and over, no one has been killed by a cougar yet in Oregon," she said. "Is that what we're waiting for?" (Read more)

Writer says rural life needs to get back to basics of sustaining the environment

Timothy Collins, assistant director for research, policy, outreach and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, writes a story for the Daily Yonder expressing what his feels is the need for struggling rural areas to get back to basics and focus on sustaining the environment in order to get the communities back on track. Some have already figured this out, he writes.

Humboldt, Kan., "developed an amphitheater along the Neosho River, installed walking trails, fishing areas and river access, improved the park restrooms, were able to improve water quality and educate citizens on water quality protection and more than doubled its grant match for community improvements," 

Collins writes. "Larned, Kan., cleaned up the Pawnee River area and installed a dock at Camp Pawnee, making it more accessible for fishing, canoeing, and camping. The initial $5,000 grant project was matched with more than $130,000 in additional grant and gift dollars to transform the campground into a place for families and friends to gather in the great outdoors."

Other states have followed suit and are working with rural areas to improve life for residents. In Wisconsin, groups worked with the Menominee Nation to explore how the tribe can "best adapt to changes in the Menominee Forest that are resulting from climate change," Collins writes. In Iowa, groups are working to alleviate concerns about high nitrogen levels caused by agricultural runoff to the Raccoon River.

"Sustainable, self-interested community development may be the last resort," Collins writes. "We now must link democracy with building and healing local environments. Healthy and accessible food, green energy, clean water, and affordable housing are more than amenities. They represent essential human and community needs that are being denied in times of widening geographic discrimination. At the same time, they offer opportunities for smaller-scale, more sustainable community development that can help put people to work helping themselves and each other."

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

New, drug-fighting sheriff is murdered as he sits in his car in downtown Williamson, W.Va.

UPDATE, April 6: The local prosecutor says there is no evidence that the shooting "was in retaliation for [Gene Crum's] stance against prescription pill abuse," despite "rampant speculation and conjecture," Travis Crum of The Charleston Gazette reports. The shooter's father said the son "was mentally disturbed and had no particular vendetta with law enforcement," Crum writes.

A new West Virginia sheriff, both elected and delivering on promises to clean up Mingo County's drug problem, "was gunned down at midday Wednesday in downtown Williamson," on the Kentucky border, The Charleston Gazette reports.

Sheriff Eugene Crum, left, "who took office at the beginning of the year, has led an effort dubbed Zero Tolerance," writes Julia Roberts Goad of the Williamson Daily News. "His crusade to address the drug problem in the county has brought a lot of attention to the sheriff."

Shot and arrested after a chase and shootout with a deputy sheriff was Tennis Melvin Maynard, 37, of Delbarton, where Crum had been police chief before serving as a county magistrate. Witnesses said Maynard shot Crum as the sheriff sat in his car. "The scene in Williamson was one that came straight out of a nightmare," writes Rachel Baldwin of the Daily News. "You could hear crying, screaming and shouts of anger as the family, friends and co-workers strived to deal with the loss of one of their finest."

"Crum took office in January," the Gazette notes. "He campaigned on ridding the county of drugs, particularly prescription painkillers," and "had been aggressive as a county magistrate in setting up a drug task force with local police departments," which seemed successful.

"Drugs are a terrible plague and scourge facing much of southern West Virginia, but at least here in Mingo County, Eugene was working very hard to eradicate this problem prior to becoming the sheriff but had stayed aggressive in his pursuit in stopping pill mills around the county," local state House member Harry White said. "To think he was gunned down in broad daylight highlights the dangerous position our men and women in law enforcement place themselves in every day." (Read more)

Agriculture could benefit most if immigrants in U.S. illegally are allowed to remain

Congress is debating whether the 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally can or should be allowed to become citizens or at least be granted the right to stay. A reform bill expected to come from the Senate would aim to "overhaul the nation’s agriculture worker program to create a steady supply of labor for farmers and growers, who rely more than any other industry on workers who have come to the country illegally," Erica Werner reports for The Associated Press. (AP photo by David Goldman)

"At least 50 percent and as much as 70 or 80 percent of the nation's farm workers arrived illegally," Werner reports. "Growers say they need a better way to hire labor legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence." Giev Kashkooli, United Farm Workers vice president, told Werner: "One thing that we know is that there's not an industry that will benefit more from a new immigration program than agriculture. The problem is industry needs people who are both willing and able to do the work. And it's difficult work."

Congress is looking at several approaches to illegal immigration, Ashley Parker reports for The New York Times. One is that "young immigrants in the country without legal papers, who often call themselves 'Dreamers,' and low-skilled agricultural workers, would qualify for an expedited road to legal status, people familiar with the negotiations said." Other plans would allow for illegal immigrants to keep permanent residence if they have family or employment that qualifies them for legal status, or if they admit to breaking the law, pay fines and back taxes and learn English.

Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter, reports that the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, which has been working with several senators, has introduced a plan that includes an "uncapped Agricultural Worker Visa Program." As part of the plan "employees would have the freedom to move from employer to employer without any contractual commitment. They would have a visa term of up to 11 months with U.S. Department of Agriculture registered employers and then return home for 30 days. There would be no limit on the number of times a person could obtain the 11-month visa. Contract employees would commit to work for an employer for a fixed period of time and would have a visa term of up to 12 months (renewable indefinitely), and conditioned upon a commitment to return to their home country for at least 30 days over a 3-year period." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here.

AP revises its style to remove 'illegal immigrant'

The Associated Press announced today that it would no longer sanction the use of "illegal immigrant" to describe someone living in or moving to a country illegally. The action came after years of objections from groups and individuals who said the phrase implied that such immigrants were illegal people.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll wrote in explaining the change, "We had in other areas been ridding the Stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was 'diagnosed with schizophrenia' instead of schizophrenic, for example. And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to 'illegal immigrant' again. We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance."

The AP Stylebook's revised entry on illegal immigration defines it as "entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law" and advises, "Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or undocumented. Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution. Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality? People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story."

"Will the new guidance make it harder for writers? Perhaps just a bit at first," Carroll writes. "But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate." For more background, history and reaction, compiled by Andrew Beaujon and Taylor Miller Thomas of The Poynter Institute, click here.

Veteran journalist leaves regional community daily to start online news outlet in his N.Y. county

A community newspaper journalist in western New York is going digital. After 17 years at small-town papers, the last 15 at the Batavia Daily News, Tom Rivers has started an online publication called OrleansHub.com to serve Orleans County, population 42,000, on Lake Ontario west of Rochester, Howard Owens reports for The Batavian, an online publication in the county that borders Orleans on the south. (Owens photo: Rivers and financial backer Karen Sawicz)

Rivers will be competing with The Journal-Register, a Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper in Medina that was a daily until recently and now prints three times a week, and the Daily News, a Johnson Newspapers publication in Genesee County that covers and circulates in Orleans County and in Wyoming County, to the south.

OrleansHub has financial backing from Karen Sawicz, owner of the Lake Country PennySaver. Rivers will be the editor, reporter and photographer, the PennySaver will supply technical, advertising and back-office support, and Sawicz will pay Rivers' salary until online advertising revenue can carry the site on its own.

Rivers hopes to reach out to younger readers, Owens writes. "They're not newspaper readers," Rivers told him. "They might realize they can get plugged into the community with the history society or youth baseball. As you show them more of the community, they will see more ways to get plugged in, and I think that's what we need to be a viable, vibrant community." (Read more)

Webinar to take a look at business strategies for provide healthy food to underserved communities

Many rural areas are designated as "food deserts" because they lack easy access to supermarkets. The Healthy Food Access Portal will be hosting a webinar called "New and Innovative Models from the Field: Alternative Retail Strategies" at 1 p.m. EDT April 11. "This webinar will detail successful strategies and highlight important impacts such as reductions in diet-related diseases and the revitalization of communities by providing needed job," a press release says.

"Across the country, markets are adopting unique and innovative business strategies to provide healthy food to underserved communities," the release says. "The range and diversity of these alternative models run the gamut from farmers’ markets that incorporate community health clinics to large urban farms serving grocery stores and institutional clients." Register here.

Another example of local reporting on rural population decline, in three states

Population continues to decline in rural areas across the country. Last month we reported new  census estimates that deaths are exceeding births in 36 percent of rural counties (1,135 of 3,143). We then noted local reports on the trend in Nebraska, Oregon and Idaho. Now, Gary Rotstein of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes about the phenomenon in southwest Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia.

Twenty-two of 24 counties in the tri-state area, excluding Pittsburgh and Morgantown, home of West Virginia University, lost population between 2000 census and 2010, "and continued to shrink again in the next two years," Rotstein notes. (Post-Gazette map)

The "areas tend to be older, to attract few immigrants, to have low birth rates and to lose many of their young people to (Pittsburgh or Morgantown) or other places where they sense greater economic opportunities than in their hometowns. In most of those rural areas, more people die than are born each year," Rotstein reports.

Jonathan Johnson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, told Rotstein, "Western Pennsylvania is not alone in this. If you look at all of Appalachia, if you look at eastern Ohio, the traditional Rust Belt, you see a similar thing, out-migration and more deaths than births. This has not been happening overnight. You're not going to see tumbleweeds going down the street or anything like that. It's a slow, incremental process -- these places cannot grow naturally." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

'Buckwild' production suspended as key player is found dead after mudrunning; 2 others afoul of law

UPDATE, April 4: Carbon-monoxide poisoning was confirmed.

MTV has indefinitely suspended shooting for the second season of the West Virginia reality series "Buckwild" after one of its stars, Shain Gandee, right, was found dead with his uncle and another man. "Shain and David Gandee were last seen at Larry's Bar in Sissonville at about 3 a.m. Sunday, and said they were planning to go four-wheeling in the younger Gandee's Ford Bronco," reports Zac Taylor of The Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo)

The truck was found "partially submerged in deep mud," the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department said. "The truck's muffler was completely below the surface of the mud," Taylor reports. "That might seem to indicate the men were overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning, but a cause of death was not released. Humphreys said the bodies would be taken to the state medical examiner's office."

"While Shain was outgoing and adventurous, some of his recklessness may have been fueled by the MTV show itself," Taylor writes, quoting Swanna Frampton, a close friend of the Gandees: "'Buckwild' made him famous, and he took risks that I didn't think he would normally take." Taylor reports that Gandee was "referred to by some of the other cast members as a 'redneck MacGyver' [and] was the architect of many of the show's stunts and hijinks." (Read more)

The Associated Press notes that other cast members have made news lately: One "was sent back to jail for violating the terms of her bond following a February arrest" on drug-possession charges and another was charged in February with driving under the influence." (Read more)

The New York Times ' Bill Carter notes, "During its first season of 12 episodes, which began in early January, 'Buckwild' was the No. 1 show in cable television with viewers ...12 to 34, the base audience for MTV. Overall the series averaged 3.2 million viewers per episode, a good total for cable television. MTV had already ordered a second season of the show. But its future is now in some doubt." (Read more)

University of Kentucky philosophy instructor Alexandra Bradner, who has written about "Buckwild," opines on Salon, "We know Shain, because he was the one who wanted, but never quite got, the prettiest girl in the room." She says comments on MTV's website make "clear that his edited character was an audience favorite. Viewers found him 'real' and unaffected, contrarian and creative, the perfect wingman. They liked everything about him — his accommodating attitude, his reckless love for his truck(s), and his 'can do' spirit. They’re wondering if the series, renewed for a second season, can possibly survive such a loss." (Read more)

The Berry Conference will ask: What will it take to resettle an under-populated rural America?

Photo from The Poetry Foundation
Novelist, essayist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry has long been active at the intersections of culture, economics and agriculture. Two years ago, he and his daughter Mary founded The Berry Center to address issues of land use, agriculture and food, and this weekend the center will hold its first conference in his honor. Writers, environmentalists, farmers and others have already spoken for all the available seats, but Bill Moyers is covering it (and so will The Rural Blog).

“We wanted to get some great people together to talk about what it’s going to take to resettle an under-populated rural America,” Mary Berry, the center’s executive director, told Erica Peterson of WFPL Radio in Louisville. The two-day event will focus partly on the work of Wes Jackson, the director of The Land Institute in Kansas. "Jackson says America has a deficit of people in rural areas who will grow food and resettle communities," Peterson writes. "He says colleges should offer students more skills that will let them return to their rural homes and improve the communities, rather than setting graduates on paths that take them, and their talents, out of rural America forever."

Berry Center board member Sarah Fritschner told Peterson: “It is a Wendell Berry function in a way that the simplicity of buying the right thing and eating the right thing can translate into something so much more complexly wonderful.”  Peterson says Fritschner, a former food editor of The Courier-Journal, "thinks a lot of people connect with Wendell Berry’s message through the local food movement, and they see buying locally as a way to exercise his philosophy." (Read more)

Recent graduates attracted to rural Kansas by state incentives to rural Kansas are almost all finding jobs

Recent college graduates are finding success in moving to small, rural counties in Kansas to take advantage of an incentive program called Rural Opportunity Zones, which offers $15,000 in loan debt repayment, and in some cases waives income tax for up to five years, Jen Cornreich Geller reports for The Street, an online financial news publication.

Jobs, which are more elusive in other parts of the country, are not a problem in one of the 50 rural counties in the program, Geller writes. According to Chris Harris, program manager with the Kansas Department of Commerce, 98 percent of the 420 people in the program have secured employment. Only 10 percent of the jobs are in farming.

"We need skilled labor in these areas," Harris said. "The population is aging. We need doctors, lawyers, teachers and people to take over small businesses as the older generations retire here. It's an aging and shrinking population and we need educated people to do these jobs."

"Still, there are perils to the programs," Geller writes. "Necessities like housing have proved problematic in some counties." One participant says he has to drive 20 minutes to get to his job, another says it's a 90-minute drive to the nearest Target. "The lack of a social life and opportunity to meet potential partners may limit how long people in their 20s and 30s stay in these areas once they get their loans paid down." (Read more)

Commission that oversees USPS seeks contractor to study impact, cost of ending Saturday mail delivery

The Postal Regulatory Commission, which oversees the U.S. Postal Service, is seeking proposals "to create a report on the impact of discontinuing Saturday delivery service," Larry Frum of Federal News Radio reports. "Lawmakers from rural districts have been resistant to any delivery changes for their constituents."

The request for proposals would help USPS "determine the impact of stopping street delivery of letters and flats on Saturday while maintaining the delivery of packages," Frum notes. "The PRC also issued a second RFP for analysis on 'the costs and contribution of discontinuing the street delivery of letters and flats on Saturdays, while maintaining the delivery of parcels on Saturdays.' The Postal Service said altering Saturday delivery would save $2 billion annually." (Read more)

Thousands march to protest Patriot Coal's benefit cuts; 16 arrested include UMWA president

"An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 union members and supporters rallied at the Charleston Civic Center on Monday, then marched a few blocks to Patriot Coal's state headquarters, to protest a proposal from the company to cut employee and retiree health benefits," Rusty Marks reports for the Charleston Gazette. "Sixteen people were arrested at the end of the peaceful demonstration, including United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts." (Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce)

Patriot Coal wants a federal bankruptcy judge to void the terms of its UMWA contract. Marks notes, "The company filed for bankruptcy, and company officials have said reducing health-care benefits for employees is a key part of reorganizing the company's finances."

"State and federal lawmakers are working on legislation to force Patriot to pay and live up to the contracts it had with its retirees," WSAZ-TV in Huntington reports. "Patriot said in a statement it is not proposing to eliminate healthcare. The company says its proposal allows for continued coverage of union retirees at a level Patriot can afford."

Last week we reported that the West Virginia House was asking Patriot Coal to honor promises to retired miners.

Nebraska county seeks ways to get address signs in rural areas to guide emergency personnel

A small Nebraska county 35 miles from Omaha has been struggling for years with a simple but common dilemma – trying to find a way to post signs in rural areas to guide emergency personnel to specific addresses. Dodge County, population 37,000, has spent 15 years debating the issue, but still, there are no visible signs among nearly 6,000 rural homes.

"Rural firefighters and county officials have been in agreement that individual address signs would be beneficial, but the hang-up over the years has been how to pay for them," Chris Zavadil reports for the Fremont Tribune. Carl Nielsen, president of the Dodge County Firefighters Association, said: “Basically, the cost is going to be the big thing. I think we all realize we need them. When you’re out (on a call) at 2 o’clock in the morning, it’s pretty hard to keep your eyes open let alone try to find what you’re looking for. There have been incidents all over the county of extended response times because you can’t find places.”

An editorial in the Tribune opines, "It seems like a simple concept. So simple, in fact, that it makes you wonder why it hasn’t been done yet. But after more than 15 years of on-again, off-again debate, rural Dodge County residents still aren’t required to have one of the most basic safety features for their homes – address signs. This much is certain: It’s time to require address signs throughout the county. Neighboring counties figured out a solution years ago. It’s time our supervisors do the same thing."

Monday, April 01, 2013

At least two companies that want to open first U.S. slaughter plants since 2007 seek USDA inspections

Horse slaughter and processing plants could soon be operating again in the U.S. Elizabeth Campbell reports for Bloomberg News that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says several companies have asked that the agency re-establish inspections, which Congress defunded for a few years. The meat could only be sold outside the U.S.

Valley Meat of Roswell, N.M., filed a lawsuit against the USDA in October, alleging it was violating the Federal Meat Inspection Act by failing to offer inspection of horse slaughter, Valley Meat lawyer A. Blair Dunn told Campbell, who reports, "This week, the Justice Department asked for another 60 days to respond to the lawsuit so the USDA can make sure all the components are in compliance in order to issue a grant of inspection."

We noted last week that Oklahoma had passed a bill that would allow horse slaughterhouses in the state, ending a 50-year ban. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill Friday. Cynthia Armstrong, the state director of the Oklahoma Humane Society, said, "It's a very sad day for Oklahoma and the welfare of the horses that will be exposed to a facility like this." Tim Talley writes for the Huffington Post, "Although there are no horse slaughtering facilities in Oklahoma, the Humane Society said the USDA has received an application for horse slaughter inspection permits from a meat company in Washington, Okla., about 40 miles south of Oklahoma City."

3 years after disaster that killed 29, coal-mine safety issues haven't been fully addressed, writers say

Ginny Graley and Chuck Mooney touch the silhouette
representing their brother during the 2012 memorial
dedication. (Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp)
To mark the upcoming third anniversary of the explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the Charleston Gazette ran an opinion piece saying not much has changed to secure the safety of miners. The piece was written by J. Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for The U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration and vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University, and Beth Spence, a coalfield specialist for the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project.

"Those 29 men were killed because officials of a rogue coal company disregarded worker safety in the drive to produce coal. But that's not the entire story," the writers opine. "The miners also died because regulators, both from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operator complied with minimum fundamental safety requirements."

Safety issues are still not being met, the writers say. "In the first quarter of 2013, eight miners were killed in the nation's mines, five in West Virginia," they write. "This compares with five during the same period of 2012, two in 2011 and two in 2010. Instead of trending downward, deaths are increasing." Nineteen miners died in 2012, 21 in 2011, and 48 in 2010, the year of the Upper Big Branch accident, according to a report from the Department of Labor. The 48 deaths was the highest total since 55 died in 1992.

"One thing the Upper Big Branch disaster laid bare is the fact that high-ranking company officials who make decisions about safety in their mines are shielded from accountability when things go terribly wrong," they argue. "Upper Big Branch also offered compelling evidence that miners are not being adequately protected against black lung disease. Autopsies showed that, of the 24 victims who had sufficient lung tissue to examine, 71 percent had evidence of black lung, including men in their early 20s who had worked only at that mine. We have to ask ourselves how serious we are about protecting those at risk. So far, the answer is we're not very serious at all." (Read more)

Cobbler keeps small business going in 81st year

This photo, from the 1980s, was provided to the
Gazette by John Taylor, left, with his father, Haskell.
Sandy Wells writes a compelling story for the Charleston Gazette about a family-owned and operated shoe business that has survived 81 years in the 13,000-population town of South Charleston, W.Va. Opened in 1932, Taylor Brothers Shoe Repair is now run by 64-year-old John Taylor, one of the sons of the original owners. John "labors in a windowless back room on the same equipment used by the family founders. A stitching machine purchased in the 1960s is the newest concession to modern technology," Wells writes.

"I watched them repair shoes for years," Taylor said of his family. "I was around 20 when my dad allowed me to work on women's shoes. I had to strip the rubber heels first and set them up. My brother did all the finish work. I was only allowed to strip them and level them. The next thing was putting heels on women's shoes. I did that for years."

After being discharged from Vietnam, John  said I "wasn't sure what I wanted to be, but it wasn't a shoe repairman," Wells writes. "I did not think I would continue. But out of the military, I came to the shop. They still had me setting up women's heels. It was nothing to handle 60 pairs a day. I did finishing on the other end, dying, inking and buffing to make the shoes look pretty, both men's and women's shoes.

After his dad and uncle died, John said, "I gave myself a crash course in shoe repair. It was do it and survive or go broke or find another job. I was too old for another job," Wells writes. As far as how long he wants to remain in the family business, John says, "I'll be here until I die or they take me away." (Read more)

Pipeline dumps 12,000 barrels of oil on small town

This backyard was flooded with oil from the spill.
The 2,300-population town of Mayflower, Ark., between Conway and Little Rock, is at the center of an Exxon Mobil oil spill that has flooded the area with 12,000 barrels of oil and caused 22 homes to be evacuated after a pipeline ruptured Friday. The 848-mile pipeline is used to transport Canadian crude oil from Patoka, Ill., to Nederland, Tex., reports the Log Cabin Democrat of Conway.

Mayflower resident Joe Bradley, who was ordered to evacuate, told CBS News and The Associated Press, "We could see oil running down the road like a river." Bradley said he was "unaware of the pipeline and only lives four to five homes down from the rupture. He said he is fearful of the effects on his 8-year-old daughter."

County Judge Allen Dodson said "oil that made it to the street went into storm drains that eventually lead to a cove connected to nearby Lake Conway, known as a fishing lake stocked with bass, catfish, bream and crappie," Voice of America reports. "Local responders quickly built dikes of dirt and rock to block culverts along that path that stopped crude from fouling the lake. We were just in the nick of time." Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said Sunday that "crews had yet to excavate the area around the pipeline breach, a needed step before the company can estimate how long repairs will take and when the line might restart." (Read more)

South, especially some of poorest, unhealthiest states, mostly against expanding Medicaid

"As more Republicans give in to President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul, an opposition bloc remains across the South, including from governors who lead some of the nation's poorest and unhealthiest states," Bill Barrow points out for The Associated Press.

"From Virginia to Texas — a region encompassing the old Confederacy and Civil War border states — Florida's Rick Scott is the only Republican governor to endorse expansion, and he faces opposition from his GOP colleagues in the legislature," Barrow writes. "Tennessee's Bill Haslam, the Deep South's last governor to take a side, added his name to the opposition on Wednesday."

"Many of the citizens who would benefit the most from this live in the reddest of states with the most intense opposition," Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, told Barrow, who writes: "So why are these states holding out? The short-term calculus seems heavily influenced by politics." With several Republican governors seeking re-election next year or in 2015, "The law remains toxic among Republican primary voters," GOP pollster Whit Ayres told the AP.

Ezra Klein of The Washington Post says states that refuse to expand Medicaid will hurt their rural hospitals because the health-reform law will end "disporportionate share" payments now made to hospitals that depend heavily on Medicaid and Medicare, and those hospitals need the extra volume from Medicaid to make it up. "It’s a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite Obama," Klein writes.

One border state that has voted Republican in the last four presidential elections could still expand Medicaid. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky has said he will expand the program if the state can afford it, and is nearing a decision. He may be considering a request to use Medicaid money to help buy private insurance for those who aren't poor enough to qualify for the program, as Arkansas is doing, Molly Burchett of Kentucky Health News reports.