Friday, November 29, 2013

Drones offer new approach to rural journalism; FAA plans to OK six test sites for various uses soon

Sometimes the best vantage point for a story, such as a wildfire or storm damage, is from the air, and aerial photography can add much to many stories. Soon, journalists will be able to put cameras in the air without going up themselves and paying fees for aircraft rides. The age of drone journalism is about to arrive.

Students of University of Missouri journalism professor Bill Allen "have used drones over the Missouri River for a report about hydraulic fracturing, and over the prairie for a story about controlled burns," and the University of Nebraska has a similar program, Leslie Kaufman and Ravi Somaiya report for The New York Times. However, in August, the Federal Aviation Administration "ordered journalism schools to stop flights unless they obtained permission from the agency." A 2012 law "requires that the FAA safely integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into United States airspace by 2015," and the agency planning to authorize six test sites by Jan. 1, 2014.

Chris Anderson, a former Wired magazine editor who runs a drone company, told the Times that the devices will soon be used in journalism. "The technology is getting cheaper and better, he said. Soon it will be possible to open an application on an iPhone or iPad, click a map coordinate and have a drone fly to that point with little or no technical skill."

Drones, which the FAA calls "unmanned aerial systems," could be used more in rural areas. "Using drones around people is more problematic," the Times reports. "The aircraft are often heavy, powerful machines. In recent episodes they crashed into skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan and fell to a sidewalk, and spun out of control and into the crowd at a bull-running event in Virginia." We reported on the use of drones in agriculture here.

The FAA has a "roadmap" for integrating drones into the U.S. airspace system. They raise privacy issues, and the FAA has a few broad privacy rules for test-site operators, including law-enforcement agencies. The agency says it "believes that test sites' operators will be responsive to local stakeholders' privacy concerns and will develop privacy policies appropriate for each test site." Only "public entities" such as governments and their instrumentalities, including universities, will be allowed to test. It noted that state and local governments can impose privacy laws on their own.

Book argues that journalists need deeper knowledge to cover public policy, resist manipulation

In Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism, Tom Patterson of Harvard University "argues that journalists need to deepen their knowledge base in order to deal with the increased complexity of public-policy issues and the heightened efforts of others to manipulate news coverage," writes Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"Tom’s book builds on the journalism discussions and studies we have conducted . . . during the past decade," Jones writes. "I strongly believe that the book is one of the most important works on journalism of recent decades, one that has a place in nearly every journalism or mass communication classroom. Journalism is in need of genuinely new thinking, and Informing the News is groundbreaking."

In an excerpt from the book, published on Salon, Patterson (@tompharvard) says journalism is too often driven by conflict, which it can drive itself, sometimes by reporting false claims without question. "By airing deceptive claims and pairing them with opposing claims, the journalist leaves open the question of where the truth lies," Patterson writes, citing several examples, including global warming and climate change, where a scientific consensus has been obscured. (Read more)

Additional information, including how to obtain an examination copy of the book, can be found here.

Water wells should be tested at least once a year, industry group says; offers fracking brochure

The National Ground Water Association says household well owners should test their water at least once a year for bacteria, nitrate and other pollutants, and more frequently if there is a change in the taste, odor, or appearance of the well water; if the well has a history of bacterial contamination; if a local septic system has recently malfunctioned; if family members or house guests have recurrent gastrointestinal illness; if an infant is living in the home; if a problem occurs such as a broken well cap, inundation by floodwaters, or a new source of pollution; or if they simply want "to monitor the efficiency and performance of home water treatment equipment."

The NGWA offers a brochure with tips on testing wells in oil- and gas-drilling areas, especially those with hydraulic fracturing. It says well owners should check with their local health department or environmental officer for recommendations on the type and frequency of testing in their area. "For help in interpreting water test results, and what might be a health risk or an aesthetic issue, the lab that conducted the test or the county health department should be contacted," the group says in a news release.

Bacterial contamination is usually indicated by coliform bacteria. That is a broad category, most of which pose no threat to humans, and not all come from fecal matter; others naturally occur in soils, vegetation, insects, and so forth. The presence of coliforms "can be a harbinger of worsening water quality," NGWA says. "In some cases, more specific tests for fecal contamination, such as E. coli, may be used.

Nitrate can come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal manure and leaking sewers. Nitrates also occur naturally from the breakdown of nitrogen compounds in soil and rock. High nitrate levels "present a health concern and can also indicate the presence of other contaminants, such as bacteria and pesticides," NGWA says. "Drinking large amounts of water with nitrates is particularly threatening to infants (for example, when mixed in formula).

NGWA has state-by-state information on testing of private water wells at That is part of the group's site. It also has a hotline at 855-420-9355 (H2O-WELL).

Bear season creates community events in rural Pa.

Patriot-News photo by Christine Baker
Black bears have made a comeback in the Eastern U.S., to the point that that more states have established hunting seasons to keep their population in check. "Pennsylvania is considered a model for how to conserve and manage the species," reports Nick Malawskey of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, after witnessing bear check during the commonwealth's four-day season. It's become a show in some parts.

"Up until 10 years ago, the bear check station in Antes Fort was at the Game Commission office on state Route 44. It was shifted to the fire hall to handle the crowds that began attending," Malawskey writes. "Each year the game commission considers ending the check station program. It isn't really a necessity, they'll admit, to keep tabs on the now-healthy bear population. But the program's effect on the community, the people who gather to watch the bear come in, the sheer popularity of the check stations, are some of the reasons the program continues, year after year." (Read more)

Talk of Farm Bill extension rises, Grassley says

Talk of extending current farm law is increasing, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa told Mike Adams on Farm Journal's "AgriTalk" program Wednesday. "There's a lot of talk about a two-year extension," Grassley said, adding that even without a new Farm Bill, "direct payments" to farmers would end because the votes are not there to continue them.

"With the budget problems we have and everything else, and farmers themselves with a new Farm Bill willing to give up direct payments, and the fact that you have a two-year Farm Bill, it’s almost a foregone conclusion, with the budget deficit, that money would go," said Grassley, a farmer. "Now, Southern agriculture isn’t going to like that, and of course, that’s why they’re after [basing subsidies on] planted acres, and after the higher target prices. But they kind of come from a philosophy it’s okay to farm the farm program rather than farm it according to the marketplace."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a separate interview on the same program that the idea of extending farm law for a year or two is unrealistic, "There don’t appear to be the votes for an extension," he said, and even if there were, "It’s probably at the risk of losing direct payments, and if you lose direct payments without using some of the savings from losing direct payments to reconstruct a new safety net, you will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to fashion a new Farm Bill. So it’s clear to me that there’s really only one option here, and that is that they’ve got to get their work done.”

Vilsack also discussed the turmoil that would result if current farm law expired at year's end, reverting to a 1949 law whose dairy price supports could double the price of milk. "We have a pretty good sense of what we would need to do," he told Adams. "We’ve reached out to some of the folks, particularly in the dairy industry, to get their views about this. So we would be in a position, in short order—I don’t want to put a timeline on it—but in short order to get something done on the permanent-law side." For an unofficial transcript of the show, from, click here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Central Appalachian coal, especially in East Ky., may be at tipping point of being uncompetitive

"Unprecedented pressures on the U.S. coal industry and nearly two years of mine closures and layoffs are reshaping the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfields in ways that many experts believe could be permanent," Kris Maher and Tom McGinty report for The Wall Street Journal. "While the coal industry overall is losing market share to abundant natural gas, mines in Central Appalachia have become increasingly uneconomical. Natural gas is cheaper, and so is coal mined in two other big coal basins centered in Wyoming and Illinois."

Harlan, Ky. (David Stephenson for The Wall Street Journal)
The reporters learned from Mine Safety and Health Administration data that the bleakest part of the coalfield (it's singular, not plural) is Eastern Kentucky, and at least one of the writers went to Harlan County, which had 22 producing mines in the second quarter of 2013, exactly half the number it had at the start of 2011. "We're at a difficult crossroads," County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop told the Journal. "I have to ground people in a reality where the jobs won't come back." The county's 16.3 percent unemployment rate is the 13th highest in the nation, and adjoining Knott and Letcher counties have lost an even higher share of coal jobs.

Nearly all the unemployed miners interviewed followed the lead of regional politicians and blamed President Obama's environmental policies, but "Most coal industry executives see the situation as more complex. They say the stepped-up regulations have exacerbated a market depression brought about by new fracking technologies that have revolutionized natural gas drilling and made it possible to tap massive reservoirs of gas from deep shale layers," the reporters write. Also, Central Appalachia's best coal seams have been mined out, and the field is the nation's most expensive to mine. Kentucky has less higher-grade coal, and less direct rail access.

The Rural Blog has reported much the same, but the Journal reporters offer a global perspective: "Analysts have started to compare Central Appalachia to other mined-out areas around the globe, such as Germany's Ruhr valley, or Great Britain, which employed 6,000 coal miners last year, compared with 150,000 in 1983, according to the British government." They quote Lucas Pipes, an analyst with Brean Capital LLC, a New York-based investment bank: "There are tipping points where the basin is simply uncompetitive against new supply sources, and one could argue that this may have occurred for Central Appalachia."

Farm income, adjusted for inflation, is forecast to be higher than in any year since 1973

U.S. farm income, adjusted for inflation, is expected to be the highest in 40 years, thanks mainly to a record corn harvest and the third-largest soybean crop ever, the Department of Agriculture says. The $131 billion forecast is 15 percent above last year, when drought cut yields.

"Corn and soybeans are the nation's largest crops by value, but the strong incomes this year extend beyond the row crops of the Midwest to almond and vegetable farms in places like California. Alfalfa and hay sales to China also have been strong," Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. Corn prices have fallen sharply in the last few months, but "Many growers were able to lock in higher prices earlier this year through contracts—a tactic that is unlikely to be repeatable next year." (Read more)

Here's some spicy political dressing and economic gravy for tomorrow's turkey

(By Keith Srakocic, Associated Press)
"Turkey is America's most political meat," Christopher Leonard, former national business reporter for The Associated Press, writes for the New America Foundation, where he is a senior fellow. "The president pardons a bird in the Rose Garden. And Ben Franklin even compared the turkey favorably to the bald eagle . . . The turkey tells a story about our nation. But today, the story of turkey in America has seen independence replaced by servitude, and open markets by opaque contracts. If the Pilgrims had seen this coming when they sat down for the first Thanksgiving, they would have lost their appetites."

Leonard notes that four companies produce more than half the country's turkey, and only three produce half the chicken. Red meat is more concentrated; four companies have 84 percent of the beef market, and four have 64 percent of the pork trade. And while turkey prices have risen 47 percent since Thanksgiving 2007, and meat companies' profit margins grew during the Great Recession, "Poultry farmers are living on the edge of bankruptcy. . . . A lot of them took raw deals with the companies for no better reason than they loved their home towns and there weren’t any better opportunities around."

Leonard gives thanks for Sonny Meyerhoffer and farmers like him in and around Hinton, Va., who were about to be left high and dry when Pilgrim's Pride closed the local slaughterhouse and canceled their contracts. They formed a cooperative, borrowed $8 million from the Department of Agriculture, and bought the plant. "If other pilgrims follow Meyerhoeffer’s example, it could inject competition into the meat business and give farmers more freedom," Leonard writes. "And that’s something to which we should also raise a cup around this year’s Thanksgiving table." (Read more)

Virginia forming task force to fight feral swine

Feral swine, the most invasive species in the U.S., have become so bothersome in Virginia that the state government is creating a task force to mount an attack on them.

Darryl Fears of The Washington Post sums up the reasons: "They eat like hogs. Turtle eggs are on the menu, along with the eggs and newly hatched young of wild turkeys and quail that nest on the ground. Buried roots and tubers are dug up for snacks. Acorns and chestnuts that bear the next generation of trees go down their gullets. Farmers lose millions of dollars in yearly revenue to wild pigs that are established in 47 states, including massive populations in Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. They cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage nationwide each year, prompting some state game officials to shoot them from the air." (Read more)

Here's a map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing counties where it has found feral swine (click on it for a larger version):

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Study based on air measurements suggests U.S. emits 50% more methane than previously estimated

The U.S. may produce half again as much methane, a strong greenhouse gas, as has been thought, according to a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Scot Miller, a doctoral student in earth sciences at Harvard University. If true, it would not be good news for energy and livestock producers, the main sources of methane released by human activities.

"In the atmosphere over some regions — Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma — the study found more than 2.5 times the methane that the EPA and other groups have measured," reports Christopher Joyce of NPR. The Environmental Protection Agency has usually estimated methane emissions by "plugging into a computer model, for example, the estimated individual outputs from all the nation's gas drilling sites, swamps, refineries and herds of cattle that belch and otherwise excrete the gas as a normal part of digestion. The new study — a collaboration of scientists from universities, the U.S. government and Europe — instead took almost 13,000 measurements directly from the atmosphere in 2007 and 2008. They collected their measurements from cell towers as tall as the Empire State Building, as well as from airplanes." The scientists "found that what's airborne is more than the sum of the ground measurements."

Duke University environmental scientist Rob Jackson told NPR that the "bottom-up measurements are lower because we miss the few percent of sites that are really leaking a lot of gases. We probably have 90 percent of oil and gas operations that are pretty clean, and a few percent that leak like a sieve." He said the higher levels in the south-central states "suggests that oil and gas operations there are emitting more methane than previously thought," Joyce writes.

UPDATE, Dec. 2: EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said of the study, "We intend to take a close look at it," Jason Plautz of Greenwire reports.

Food-stamp rollback complicates Farm Bill talks, could end 'one of the great untold policy battles'

If the Obama administration's position on food-stamp cuts is that there should be none, "it could kill the Farm Bill outright," David Rogers writes for Politico. "Then again, the warring commodity groups are doing a pretty good job themselves — frustrating hopes of a deal before the House goes home Dec. 13."

Rogers, who specializes in covering the politics of agriculture, says the two-year wrangle over the Farm Bill has been "ignored by the national press," but is "one of the great untold policy battles of this Congress. But it’s also now reached a breaking point," with the House seeking $40 billion in food-stamp cuts over the next 10 years and the Senate holding out for no more than $4 billion.

"The Nov. 1 rollback in food stamp benefits — for which President Barack Obama shares responsibility — has greatly complicated the partisan debate over nutrition funding," Rogers reports. "A compromise still seems possible in the range of $10 billion in savings. But the White House dug in deeper Tuesday when Cecilia Munoz, director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council, told reporters that she saw 'no reason' for any further savings from the nutrition program."

"Matched against this bleak picture is the fact that farmers back home are waking up to the price of inaction as corn cash sales have dropped to the $4 per bushel range — down dramatically from a year ago. And after last week’s historic Senate blow-up over filibuster rules, members of both parties see the farm bill as a last beacon of sorts in Congress for bipartisan action," Rogers reports. He goes on to explain other reasons a compromise has been hard to find.

Rural areas worry about another cut in food stamps

The prospect of another cut in food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,  is worrying rural areas in the heart of the country, Peter Gray of WUIS in Springfield, Ill., reports for Harvest Public Media.

University of Illinois economist Craig Gundersen, who researches hunger and food security issues, told Gray, “There are a lot of rural areas with a great deal of challenges -- especially in some very small rural counties. There are definitely pockets of rural counties with really high unemployment rates, really high poverty rates.”

Pastors Curt and Kim Matthews in their food pantry in Odin, Ill.
They say their clientele has increased nine fold in the past 16 years.
(Photo by Peter Gray, Harvest Public Media)
Gray notes, "Since the year 2000, the number of rural counties experiencing high poverty has gone up nearly 30 percent." He went to one of them, Marion County in southern Illinois, which "has a higher percentage of food stamp eligibility than the city of Chicago and is one of many rural counties across the Midwest that depend on the SNAP program – one of five families there qualifies for SNAP."

Kathy Donnelly, the local schools' truant officer, "says many of the families she deals with don’t have a vehicle, so whether they are getting SNAP benefits or not, it’s not easy for them to get access to healthy food," Gray reports, quoting her: “The only public transportation that we have in the area is a transit system that costs a boatload of money to be able to ride, so that’s kind of a dead end. So a lot of these people are on foot.” (Read more)

Food-stamp cuts put more pressure on food banks

Photo from Feeding America
As the holidays arrive, food banks are about to experience the annual rose in demand for food as some Americans struggle to assemble their holiday meals. The $5 billion reduction in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps)—with the Nov. 1 expiration of a temporary boost from the 209 economic-stimulus package—will affect approximately 48 million Americans, Jake Grovum reports for Stateline. To see an interactive map of the cuts by state, click here. Meanwhile, Farm Bill negotiators will hold a conference call Monday to reconcile differences, including the proposed cuts in the program over the next 10 years; the House wants to cut $40 billion, the Senate $4 billion.

"Everyone's scared to death about these SNAP cuts," said Ross Fraser of Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks that supplies 63,000 agencies around the country. An estimated 15 percent of Americans are "food insecure," and food banks were already struggling to help these people through the Great Recession. Even though enrollment in food stamps is nearly three times what it was in 2000, the number of Americans receiving help from food pantries and similar services has risen nearly 50 percent, Feeding America says. The holiday rush has prompted food banks to hold extra food drives and ask companies to make seasonal donations such as turkeys, Grovum reports.

An unanticipated benefit of the increased demand is that fresh food and produce are less likely to sit on the shelves for too long and spoil. "A lot of those are fairly rural counties," Jake Bruner of the Hoosier Hills Food Bank in Bloominton, Ind., said about the areas his food bank serves. "We're seeing agencies, a mom-and-pop food pantry, being able to take full bins of bananas and distribute them quickly." In Fort Smith, Ark., the River Valley Food Bank has given out 8 million pounds of food in 2013, a record for them. Director Ted Clemons said, "When you can distribute 8 million pounds and the pantries are still taking that food, that shows there is a demand."

Even before the food-stamp cuts, food banks weren't able to distribute enough food. "By Feeding America's estimate, the benefit cuts will cost 1.9 million meals for low-income Americans next year—more than half the number of meals the organization distributes in a given year," Grovum writes. In Washingon, D.C., almost one in four citizens is on food stamps. The area food bank bought 50 percent more food to prepare for the holidays than it did last month. Even so, "organizers know they can't feed everybody who is hungry," Grovum writes. (Read more)

Weekly newspaper owns a national, tragic story

For the last week, The Recorder, a weekly newspaper serving Virginia's Bath and Highland counties, has been on top of a national story -- the attempted murder of state Sen. Creigh Deeds, the 2009 Democratic nominee for governor, by his mentally ill son, for whom a mental-health bed was not available in the area. The paper is still on top of it today, with an interview in which Deeds says he will fight for better mental-health services for rural Virginia.
I am alive for a reason, and I will work for change,” Deeds told Editor-Publisher Anne Adams. “I owe that to my precious son,” who killed himself with a rifle after repeatedly stabbing his father Tuesday, Nov. 19.

Deeds said he thinks the Rockbridge Community Services Board, the regional mental-health agency, is responsible for the incident because it said there were no mental-health beds available in western Virginia after Bath Community Hospital evaluated Gus Deeds, 24, and "recommended he be admitted to a mental-health facility," Adams and reporter Margo Oxendine write.

“I hope we can make a positive change as a result of this tragedy,” Deeds told Adams. “My life’s work now is to make sure other families don’t have to go through what we are living. . . . I hope the justice we can get for my son is to force change in the delivery system for mental health services. Bath and Highland are the end of the line. . . . It seems inconvenient for those people to provide services here. I have heard from people in Rockbridge [County] about lack of services, too, so I think there may be a bigger problem here.”

Deeds' remarks are already circulating nationally, but The Recorder's coverage is now behind a pay wall, and you can hardly fault Adams for that. She owns the story, as she should, and has allowed free access to the paper's earlier stories. The Richmond Times-Dispatch's story today is based largely on The Recorder's interview with Deeds.

Adams told us in an email that the paper reported the incident online no more than 90 minutes after the news broke, and confirmed the involvement of Gus Deeds for its readers and other news media after they picked up the story. She said the paper posted several stories and also used Facebook, then had a full story in its Thursday print edition, all of which was online Wednesday night.

Adams said she reached out to Deeds Monday morning, and "I gather from the volume of calls I'm getting he has not chosen to respond to other reporters yet, but I'm sure he will when he's ready. Lots of healing ahead of him."

Conservative editor faults Common Core concept, arguments on both sides of it

Much of the debate about the new Common Core Standards for the nation's schools is misinformed, obscuring more fundamental issues, National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru writes in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News.

"Proponents of the Common Core tend to view its critics as an ignorant mob. Support for it is, in certain circles, a sign of one’s seriousness about education reform," Ponnuru writes. "Yet the reform strategy it represents hasn’t been thought through well, and it seems unlikely to work."

Ponnuru argues that the case for common set of standards is weak. "High standards may be valuable, but why do they have to be common? It isn’t as though different state standards are a major problem in U.S. education. There’s more variation in achievement within states than between them. Common standards may make life a bit easier for students who move across state lines, but they also mean that we lose a chance for states to experiment." (Read more)

Webinar about fracking, and why it matters beyond the oil and gas fields, is scheduled for Dec. 4

Marilyn Geewax
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing of deep, dense hydrocarbon deposits has changed the face of the oil and gas industry in the United States, and is causing change in the nation at large. In a one-hour, free webinar on Dec. 4, NPR’s Marilyn Geewax will explain how the unleashing of these vast deposits is changing all our lives. "The Fracking Revolution: Finding Energy Stories Everywhere" is designed to help journalists cover fracking’s local economic impact – even if they aren’t in one of the 31 oil and gas states.

The webinar will be presented by NPR and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University. It is for journalists who want to familiarize themselves with the economic effects of expanded energy supplies on manufacturing, transportation and, ultimately, jobs nationwide. Geewax is a senior business editor on NPR’s national desk and its national economics correspondent. The live webinar will begin at noon ET and a repeat will begin at 4 p.m. ET Dec. 4. For more about it, and free registration, click here.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Feds: Standards for construction, communications, shelter needed for protection from tornadoes

Federal officials say national standards for building construction, storm shelters and emergency communications would decrease tornado-related deaths and damage, Greenwire reports.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 135 of 161 deaths caused by the 2011 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., resulted from building failures. The tornado damaged more than 8,000 homes and buildings, and "People died in commercial, retail and residential structures due to lack of emergency shelters and basements," Kevin Murphy reports for Reuters. 

Model building codes used in many states protect homes and public buildings from hurricanes, floods and earthquakes—but not from tornadoes, because of their extraordinary wind speeds, Murphy writes. "Officials recommended 16 code and regulation changes that could be implemented on the federal, state and local levels," Greenwire reports.

"The time is right to develop and implement codes and standards that better protect our citizens and help communities recover more quickly from these powerful, but not invincible, natural forces," said Eric Letvin, director of disaster and failure studies at NIST. Letvin approximated that the upgrades required to make building more tornado-resistant would add between 5 and 15 percent to the cost of a new home—and more for a commercial structure, Murphy reports.

"The release of the agency's reports comes in the wake of tornadoes that have hit the Midwest this week, causing $1 billion in damage and killing eight people," Greenwire reports (subscription required).

Some rural schools close for start of deer season

Thanksgiving and Black Friday make this a short school week for many students, but another element may make it a complete holiday week for some: deer season. In some states, schools close at the start of the season because they know absenteeism will be so high if they hold classes.

One such state is Missouri. Jennifer Davidson of the KSMU Radio Network reported Friday, "Several small school districts across the rural Ozarks were closed earlier this week—Dora, Winona, Eminence.  That’s because it’s the start of deer firearms season."

Merlyn Johnson, superintendent of Summersville Public Schools, estimated for Davidson that three-fourths of his students hunt: “This is a country community, and it means a lot to the people here. They hunt with their dads and their grandfathers. It’s part of a family tradition—boys and girls. In fact, I’d say the percentage is about the same for boys and girls.”

"And these kids aren’t missing class just for the sport," Davidson reported. "Family tradition and food have as much to do with it as anything, particularly in rural areas." Francis Skalicky of the state Department of Conservation told her, “For some people, it spices up the menu of pork, chicken and beef. But for some people, this is meat on the table that they plan on having this time of year.” (Read more)

Duke Energy among utilities dealing with mounting evidence that coal ash is a threat to health

As evidence mounts that coal ash from power plants is a threat to the environment, one of the nation's largest electricity generators "is beginning to waver on its long-held assertion that coal ash stored at its North Carolina power plants doesn’t threaten public health," Bruce Henderson reports for The Charlotte Observer.

Duke Energy "agreed last month to pay up to $1.8 million for a water line to a low-income community in the path of groundwater contamination from its Wilmington plant," and then the state ordered the utility "to supply water to an Asheville-area home whose well was apparently contaminated by ash from the power plant there," Henderson notes.

Trace elements such as arsenic have been found at levels above state standards in groundwater "around ash ponds at all 14 of Duke’s coal-fired power plants in North Carolina," Henderson writes. "Still unsettled is how much came from natural sources, how much from ash and how far the contamination has spread." The state has sued Duke, claiming "a serious danger" to public health near the Asheville plant and the closed Riverbend plant near Charlotte. (Read more)

Coal ash is regulated largely by states. The Obama administration has moved slowly on the issue, and in late October a federal judge gave the Environmental Protection Agency two months to propose new rules on coal-ash disposal.

Affordable rural broadband access is still a goal

Internet access is slow or nonexistent in many rural areas of the United States. In spite of the money and time invested in the endeavor, the goal of nationwide broadband remains illusive. "A recent second quarter 2013 State of the Internet survey by Akamai showed the U.S. ranking eighth in the world in average connection speed," Hembree Brandon writes for the Farm Press Blog.

"According to a Rural Business white paper by Carl Johna-Torarp and Mark Coronna, the USDA, through its Rural Utilities Service, had spent $3.4 billion through April 2013, funding 297 rural broadband network projects, which had reached a grand total of 99,424 comsumers and 6,358 business, or $32,075 for each of the 106,000 recipients," Brandon reports. The Senate's version of the Farm Bill calls for more funds for rural broadband, but the House version would stay with the $25 billion yearly budget. 

Rural leaders are looking for ways to provide better broadband access. In Storm Lake, Iowa, rural school districts are struggling to find enough bandwidth for students and staff. According to the 2012 TechNet State Broadband Index, Iowa has the worst ranking for high-speed Internet access when compared with seven nearby states. According to Connect Iowa, a nonprofit that tracks Internet access in the state, 680,000 Iowans don't have broadband Internet access. "John Stineman, executive director of the Heartland Technology Alliance, a regional advocacy group, said the lack of access is a quality-of-life issue that affects economic development and education," Nate Robson reports for the Sioux City Journal. 

Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad set up a broadband committee in September to strategize methods to improve access; recommendations are due Dec. 2. "I would say it's going to be bigger than bringing electricity to rural America. It's going to be a printing-press moment for mankind," said Howard-Winneshiek Community School Supt. John Carver, a co-chair of Brandstad's committee, told Robson. Turner said children without Internet access are at a disadvantage. "Giving one kid a textbook and not giving one to a second student would not be a good thing. Access to the Internet is the same thing."

Leaders in Kentucky are also facing the issue. "Kentucky's county-centric parochialism, legacy of undervaluing education, and geographic terrain, have presented formidable obstacles in the past, but information and communication technologies offer the potential to overcome these traditional barriers," University of Kentucky Communications Dean Dan O'Hair and researcher Michael Childress write for the Lexington Herald-Leader. while about 82 percent of U.S. households have access to sufficient Internet speeds, only 61 percent of Kentucky homes do. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has cited the importance of expanding broadband. "High-speed Internet is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for building and prosperous future in rural Kentucky," O'Hair and Childress write. Other factors include an educated population, adequate investment capital and an abundance of entrepreneurial energy.

Brandon writes for Farm Press, "There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, even for areas of rural states, as private entities, rural cooperatives, and others compete for the prestige factor—and growth—that come with providing super-fast gigabit service." (Read more)

Arrival of big-box store in nearby city prompts a 'shop local' editorial in a country weekly

With Black Friday turning into Brown Thursday and some big stores already offering holiday discounts, it's also the season for "shop local" editorials in rural newspapers. But sometimes such editorials run out of season, when a big-box store comes to a nearby town and threatens the retail base of a small town and the advertising base of its paper. One leads the latest edition of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors newsletter; it's by Tim Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Responding to mailers from a new Costco store in Sioux Falls, 45 miles away from his town of 1,300, Waltner wrote, "It’s all good for Sioux Falls, which gets 2 percent of every sale in municipal sales tax revenue to help fund Sioux Falls infrastructure and Sioux Falls services. But it’s not so good for small towns like Freeman. In fact, it’s really bad for small towns like Freeman. . . . On the other hand, every dollar spent at a Freeman business bolsters one of our local businesses. . . . We enjoy a vibrant local retail community—two full-service grocery stores, for example—because we support it by purchasing our goods there."

Waltner acknowledges that there are things in Sioux Falls that you can't find in Freeman, "But the overwhelming majority of all our basic needs can be filled with purchases in Freeman. Buy them here and support our local businesses and our local economy. Buy them in Sioux Falls and support the Sioux Falls businesses and the Sioux Falls economy (or Mitchell's or Yankton's). It's really that simple." (Read more)