Friday, April 11, 2014

A woman dies because a rural county skimps on its ambulance service; weekly digs deep, points way

The need for better emergency services in rural areas is illustrated in the tragic story of Rita Sue Jenkins. The Western Kentucky woman lived just four miles from an ambulance station in the small county seat of Elkton. But when her family called 911 on March 24, it took the ambulance 43 minutes to get there. She never made it to the hospital, dying five minutes later in her home, reports Tonya Grace of the Todd County Standard, a weekly paper that has earned the title of best small newspaper in the state for seven straight years.

The problem, which is one that many rural areas face, is a lack of services. Todd County only has two ambulance crews. One was at a call in a neighboring county because that county's services were already occupied, and the other was sent out to another call that came within minutes of the call for Jenkins, Grace writes. That meant that despite Jenkins' close proximity to the ambulance station (a relative said it took him four minutes to drive there) the ambulance that responded to her call came from another county.

Jim Duke, owner of the Todd County service, told Grace that anytime two calls are received at the same time, dispatch personnel and the ambulance crew decide which is worse and respond to that one, arranging for another crew to get the second one. Since the other caller reported a cardiac arrest, and Jenkins' family reported weakness and someone sick, the other call got top priority.

Since the incident, suggestions have been made to improve service, such as having one truck on duty all the time with a paramedic and emergency medical technician, and the other to have two trucks, a 24-hour and a floater crew truck on duty for 12 hours during the day, with an crew on call the other 12 hours, Grace writes. One ambulance is staffed 24 hours a day and another one floats between Todd County and adjoining Logan County. Todd County can't afford two full-time ambulances, Judge-Executive Daryl Greenfield told Grace. In her long, richly detailed story, she notes that the service, whose contract is up for renewal, has been "criticized for not hiring local people who would be familiar with the local community, its roads and neighborhoods."

But if rural residents in places like Todd County want better services, they're going to have to pay for it, writes Ryan Craig, editor and publisher of the Standard. "What we see as the real issue is the funding of, not only this service, but other services in the county," Craig opines in a front-page column. "For too long we have kept our funding levels about the same while other counties around us have upped their level of services through smart funding."

Craig concludes: "It is time we no longer condemn and threaten to run off our local officials at even the mention of higher taxes, especially if it is to improve our lives. As the old sayings go, we are at the nub, and all the blood is out of the turnip. The family of Rita Jenkins told the Standard that they don't want something like this to happen again. I couldn't agree more. It is time we became serious about our services. We owe that to Rita Jenkins and her family."

To read both articles click here.

Study finds decline in property value of homes supplied by wells and located close to fracking sites

A study by researchers at the University of Calgary and Duke University found that property values of groundwater-dependent homes near shale-gas developments have suffered from being located near the sites, Jeff McMahon reports for Forbes.

Researchers studied property values in 36 Pennsylvania counties and seven New York counties from 1994 to 2012, mapping "sales against the locations of shale-gas wells" and comparing "homes connected to public drinking-water systems to homes with private wells," McMahon writes. "Properties with private wells suffered a loss in value compared to properties connected to a municipal water system, they found, offsetting gains in value from mineral-rights royalties. The loss varied with distance from the nearest shale-gas well. At 1.5 kilometers, properties with private wells sold for about 10 percent less."

"Within 1 km of shale gas wells, properties with private drinking water wells dropped 22 percent in value. Properties connected to public water suffered no losses, but also showed no net gains," McMahon writes. Lucija Muehlenbachs, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, told him, “If you get closer, if you look at the properties that are only 1 km from a shale-gas well, then for the ones that are on groundwater we see a 22 percent loss in property values, and for the ones that have access to pipe water, there’s zero gain, so essentially all of the positive benefits get wiped out by these negative externalities of having this well pad nearby.” Negative externalities include truck traffic, noise, light, and air pollution.

"At distances greater than 2 km from shale gas wells — what Muehlenbachs calls the vicinity level — the researchers found a net increase in property values that declines over time — evidence of a small boom-bust cycle at the vicinity level," McMahon writes. (Read more)

Family Dollar to close 370 stores, slash prices; company says bad winter hurt sales

It was only last year that dollar stores, a staple in rural areas, were experiencing a boom, as shoppers sought cheaper alternatives to the ever-increasing prices of grocery and department stores. The boom appears to be over for Family Dollar, which announced Thursday it is closing 370 stores "in response to falling sales and business disruptions caused by bad winter weather," Roger Yu reports for USA Today. The chain, which has 8,100 stores in 46 states, also plans to cut prices on about 1,000 items. (Associated Press photo) 

The move "could generate about $40 million to $45 million in annual operating profit benefit" for the company, which said its net income for 2014 fiscal second quarter, which ended March 1, was 35 percent lower than the same quarter last year, Yu writes. Annual sales were down 6 percent. "Performance was affected by one fewer week of business during the quarter and disrupted merchandise deliveries caused by harsh winter weather, the company said." (Read more)

Writer examines how a pair of national magazines recently covered the topic of clean coal

A story about clean coal in the latest edition of Wired magazine overstated its conclusions, while one on the same topic in the latest National Geographic, did not, writes Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post on the paper's Wonkblog.

"The article in Wired by Charles Mann is thoroughly reported and makes for a fascinating read, but nothing in it supports the magazine's thesis about clean coal: 'Because it could allow the globe to keep burning its most abundant fuel source while drastically reducing carbon dioxide and soot, it may be more important—though much less publicized—than any renewable-energy technology for decades to come'," Ehrenfreund writes.

"According to a recent estimate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a new clean-coal plant built now costs about as much as a new solar plant per unit of electrical generation—and that estimate looks optimistic next to the even higher costs Mann reports in Wired. Wind and natural gas are much less expensive sources of electricity. Meanwhile, the cost of solar panels is falling steadily and predictably, and solar energy is no more expensive than the market price for electricity in parts of Europe."

Ehrenfreund says "National Geographic's editors handled the story well, being careful not to overstate their conclusions. It would have been great to read a piece in Wired about any of the various fascinating new energy projects that truly aren't well publicized: supercapacitors, fusion reactors, batteries made out of air. These technologies might not be as far along in their development as clean coal, but their implications are arguably just as broad. Then again, stories that are uncomfortable for the environmental movement have always been popular with editors and their audiences, probably because they give a publication an aura of iconoclastic thinking, however undeserved it may be." (Read more)

Local Media Assn. allows non-newspaper members

The Local Media Association, formerly Suburban Newspapers of America, is expanding its membership to allow non-newspaper members "such as TV stations, radio stations, directory publishers, pure plays and more to join the association," LMA says in a news release.

LMA is a business-oriented organization that refers to itself as "the only non-profit, professional trade association specifically serving the local news-media industry," but it has offered little to newsrooms beyond an annual contest, winners of which include some rural news outlets.

LMA President Nancy Lane said in the release,"We are thrilled to welcome all local media companies into LMA membership. We can quickly showcase new revenue streams and sustainable business models by being all-inclusive. There is common ground on the digital side; we can all learn from each other.” (Read more)

April 16 deadline for journalists to register for free climate-change seminars April 23-25 in D.C.

Two free climate-change seminars for journalists are scheduled April 23 and April 24-25 in Washington, D.C. The seminars, sponsored by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, will focus on economic and public-policy issues and the marine and coastal effects of climate change.

The first seminar, designed for political and business reporters, is described as "a top-level summary of the state of climate-change science, underscoring global and regional observations, predictions and social and economic impacts from the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, as well as an overview of domestic policy and politics related to climate change mitigation and adaptation."

The second seminar "is open to all journalists who want to improve their coverage of climate change and will provide a foundational understanding of the most critical climate change impacts affecting the ocean and coastal communities. This seminar will include an interactive session with award-winning environment reporters who will provide guidance on how to craft compelling stories for local and regional audiences out of globally significant climate change research, an extraordinarily challenging topic for both reporters and news audiences."

The registration deadline is April 16. For more information or to register, click here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

States look to unload local roads in rural areas; localities want states to keep sending road money

A battle over responsibilty for roads is brewing in some states, especially West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, where states own a large percentage of roads, some of which they want to transfer to local communities because they are getting too expensive to maintain, Daniel Vock reports for Stateline. Nationally, state governments own about 19 percent of roads, but the number is 89 percent in West Virginia, 84 percent in Delaware, 78 percent in Virginia, 75 percent in North Carolina and 63 percent in South Carolina.

"Each state amassed its huge network in a different way. But generally, state officials took over county roads and other farm-to-market routes because localities did not build enough of them or failed to maintain them adequately," Vock reports. "Decades later, states that gobbled up local roads no longer have the appetite to keep them. In growing areas, highways that once linked distant towns are now major local arteries."

"States increasingly see their shorter, less-traveled roads as a drain on resources at a time when resources are increasingly scarce. Inflation and fuel efficiency are sapping revenues from state and federal gas taxes," Vock writes. "The federal government, which provides a third of the money that states spend on transportation, expects to run short of road money as early as July. This year’s brutal winter, which added expenses for snow plowing and pothole repair, further strained state transportation budgets."

Some local communities are more than willing to take over the roads, and want the freedom to control their fate, as long as they keep receiving assistance, Vock writes. Beaufort, S.C., city manager told Vock, "Our council feels there should be some quid pro quo. If we take the roads, we should be able to do what we want with them in a reasonable and responsible manner. Secondly, we should have funds that come with it.”

Leslie Wollack of the National League of Cities told Vock that designating federal money for maintenance is another concern. Federal laws channel more transportation money through states, which then decide how much to turn over to their cities. “That creates a very large problem for the local governments, because they’re not getting the money,” she said. “They may not have chosen to build these roads in the first place, yet they are suddenly being given the responsibility to spend a lot of money.” (Read more)

Without Medicaid expansion in their states, some rural hospitals are struggling to remain open

Some rural hospitals in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform are struggling to keep their heads above water, and continue to fall deeper into financial danger. One such state is Mississippi, which would have gained an addition $2.1 billion a year through federal Medicaid payments, netting the state $431 million, Jerry Mitchell reports for The Clarion-Ledger in the state capital of Jackson. But without expansion, Dr. Luke Lampton, chairman of the state Board of Health, told Mitchell, “A lot of the rural hospitals aren’t going to survive. Most have low censuses, with poor, elderly and vulnerable patients and are barely making money.”

Without expansion, "Lampton said, hospitals are still having to pay the additional costs of the new regulations, which some have estimated as high as billions nationally," Mitchell writes. "He said many rural hospitals in Mississippi are hurting, with some slashing operational costs and laying off employees. Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center of McComb recently announced hundreds of layoffs."

"Rural hospitals have also been hurt by cuts in reimbursements, totaling $170 billion in recent years, according to the American Hospital Association," Mitchell writes. "Nationally, hospitals have an $8 billion shortfall from Medicaid reimbursements, a $24 billion shortfall from Medicare reimbursements and a $41 billion shortfall from uncompensated care, according to the association."

As a result, "Mendal Kemp, program director for the Mississippi Hospital Association’s Center for Rural Health, said some rural hospitals are aligning with bigger hospitals to survive," Mitchell writes.  "Thirty-two rural hospitals in Mississippi have signed up as critical-access hospitals, which promises them cost-plus-1-percent payments from the federal government. But Kemp said cuts to that funding could come if another government sequestration takes place." (Read more)

Maine, which has the largest percentage of rural population in the U.S., is the latest state choosing not to expand Medicaid. On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Paul LePage "vetoed a bill that would have expanded MaineCare coverage to more than 60,000 low-income Mainers," Steve Mistler reports for the Portland Press Herald. "The measure also would have established a managed care system for all 320,000 beneficiaries, an effort to control costs in the $2.5 billion program, which is Maine’s version of the Medicaid health insurance program." It was the third time LePage has rejected expansion. (Read more) (Advisory Board Co. map: Many states with large rural populations and Republican governments chose not to expand Medicaid)

USDA's emergency assistance program lacks funds to cover loss of pigs due to spreading virus

The Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program in the new Farm Bill doesn't have enough funds to compensate hog farmers who lost pigs due to porcine epidemic diarrhea, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists, meeting in Washington this week.

Available funds in the Department of Agriculture program are capped at $20 million per fiscal year, which isn't enough to cover the millions of piglets killed by the disease, which some suspect is caused by feed ingredients, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Vilsack said, “If you were to suggest that that’s a source of compensation, it would have to be 10 times that size to deal with the losses that have occurred.”

Vilsack "says it would be up to Congress to approve disaster assistance for pork producers," something Senate Agriculture Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the biggest hog-producing state, said would be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, Agri-Pulse reports. "David Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said NPPC has asked USDA to use ELAP funds to compensate hog producers who have suffered PEDv losses. To qualify, a producer’s adjusted gross income needs to be less than $900,000, so the program would benefit mostly 'smaller' farmers, Warner said." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here. (USDA graphic: The department's most recent update of reported PEDv cases)

Tennessee House passes anti-meth bill to further limit purchases of pseudoephedrine

The Tennessee House passed an anti-methamphetamine bill Wednesday to limit the amount of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in making meth. It would make the number of tablets that can be purchased without a prescription to 48 per month and 240 a year. The bill, which passed 81-17, would lowers the current monthly cap of 75 but falls short of what other major players in state government want. 

"Opponents of the bill argued that legitimate purchasers should not face even more restrictions when most of the methamphetamine used in Tennessee is made outside the state," Chas Sisk reports for The Tennessean. "But supporters said tighter limits will discourage meth production in Tennessee, which ranks second in the nation in meth lab seizures."

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has argued for even lower limits, having pushed for a maximum of 40 tablets per month and 120 tablets per year without a prescription, Sisk reports. Gov. Bill Haslam also favors that limit. He is a Republican, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers. (Read more)

Group labels America's 10 most endangered rivers

The advocacy group American Rivers announced its 2014 list of the nation's 10 most endangered rivers, topped by the San Joaquin River in California. Its "outdated water management and excessive diversions leave the river dry in stretches, threatening water quality, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and leaving communities vulnerable in the face of drought," the group says.

Citations of other rivers mention oil and gas wells, industrialization, pipelines, levees, dams, excessive agriculture demands, pollution and safety concerns. The list varies widely from year to year, presumably to bring more rivers to public attention. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Federal spending for low-income rural homebuyers continues its downward spiral

Federal spending for affordable housing programs in the U.S. Department of Rural Development has been declining for years, and based on President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, that trend is likely to continue, Housing Assistance Council employees Mike Feinberg and Joe Belden report for the Daily Yonder. The problem is that funds are moving away from direct loans for low and very low income families and instead steered toward guaranteed loans for moderate income families.

Section 502 direct loans, which have helped more than 2 million low and very low income families purchase homes, are for homebuyers with an average income in 2013 of $28,268, while Section 502 guaranteed loans went to those with an income of $54,224, Feinberg and Belden write. Direct loans peaked in the 1970s but have been steadily declining since, while guaranteed loans took off in the 1990s and continue to rise. (Direct loans (blue) keep decreasing, while guaranteed loans (red) keep increasing)

The reason is that the USDA "can make many more guaranteed loans at a lower cost because these loans do not have deep subsidy and because private sector lenders fund the loan," Feinberg and Belden write. "The cost to the government comes only if there is a loss on the loan." In Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014 Congress approved $24 billion per year for guaranteed loans and $900 million a year for direct loans.

President Obama's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 slashes that even more, with $360 million proposed for direct loans, as opposed to $24 billion for guaranteed loans, Feinberg and Belden write. Other low-income programs share the same fate. Section 523 self-help grants are down from $25 million to $10 million, and the president "includes proposed cost saving changes to the Rental Assistance program such as minimum rents (which will affect only those tenants with the lowest incomes) and a provision giving USDA discretion on whether to renew existing Rental Assistance contracts."

"USDA funding has shifted to the guaranteed programs that are less costly and do not have deep subsidy. They also serve people with higher incomes," Feinberg and Belden write. "So what’s ahead for rural housing? The proposed changes and cuts will provide fewer opportunities and less support for lower-income rural residents. Community-based nonprofits will experience reduced ability to serve these residents. USDA programs will rely more upon private sector lenders." (Read more)

USDA still not saying when it will close FSA offices and which offices will be shuttered

Last month Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced plans under President Obama's 2015 budget plan to realign and consolidate as many as 250 Farm Service Agency offices to improve service and save costs. While the move would cut 815 non-federal workers from the payroll and reduce outlays by more than $60 million, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still has not revealed which offices could be closed and where jobs will be cut, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Cuts wouldn't take place until at least the end of the fiscal year, which concludes in September.

Administrator Juan Garcia told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday that "a 2008 farm bill provision, which is still in effect, mandates that the Agriculture Department must consider closing offices less than 20 miles away from a similar facility with two or fewer permanent, full-time employees before it can contemplate closing larger or more distant offices," writes Agri-Pulse. "Beyond that, FSA will place a priority on keeping open offices with heavy workloads—something the agency did not weight heavily when it made the last round of FSA closures after the passage of the 2008 farm bill."

"Garcia said FSA would also look at the physical location of offices and how many main and sub-offices surround them. Officials also agreed that closure decisions needed to take producers’ opinions into account," Agri-Pulse writes. "Over the next three years, USDA will also work to implement what it calls the 'model service-center concept,' through which the department is hoping to streamline and modernize their field offices."

Offices will be reorganized into three tiers, Agri-Pulse writes. "Central offices will house FSA management and the bulk of agency staff; sub-offices will have fewer employees; and satellite offices will operate with even more limited staffing and hours. An improved IT system will also allow farmers to file some of their paperwork from the web, obviating the need for regular truck rides to distant field offices." Most of the lawmakers attending the hearing expressed concern about office closures. Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources accepting proposals for grants up to $1,000

Frank Allen
The Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources is accepting proposals through April 25 for grants up to $1,000 "to help defray the costs of reporting projects that focus on natural resources, the environment, energy, development, agriculture, environmental justice and public health," according to the website. The grants are a good source for rural journalists, especially ones wanting to cover important topics but lack the funds to do so.

The grants are part of the inaugural Frank Allen Field Reporting Award, named after the institute's founder, who for more than fifteen years "led journalists on intense reporting expeditions throughout North America, introducing them to the people and places involved in important environment, natural resource, energy and development issues," states the website. Allen retired in 2012.

As many as eight awards will be given each year to "working journalists, including freelancers, who have demonstrated a continued commitment to the tenets of fairness, accuracy and journalistic integrity," states the website. "Applicants may not be lobbyists, public relations personnel or communications employees writing solely on behalf of an organization or corporation. Award recipients will agree in writing to provide IJNR with a brief progress report at a mutually specified time during the reporting process and a final report after publication." For more information or to apply for a grant click here.

Interactive website allows users to share stories, photos of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky

Row houses in Auxier, Ky.
Do you have a story or photos to share about coal mining towns and camps in Eastern Kentucky? Last month the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center launched an interactive website as part of the Coal Camp Documentary Project that allows users to learn about and document historic company coal mining towns in the area.

The "open-source, collaborative site was created in direct response to community requests for Appalachian Center faculty, postdoctoral scholars, staff members and documentarians to come and record the memories shared by former residents of coal camp communities, sometimes at reunions on or near the site of the original camps," Keith Hautala and Shane Barton write for University of Kentucky News. Most of the camps in the 54 Appalachian counties are still waiting to be updated by users. (Read more)

Consumer advocacy group says FDA is allowing food manufacturers to set own safety standards

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is allowing food manufacturers to set their own safety standards, leading some companies to use chemicals in their products based on their own studies, according to a report from an environmental and consumer advocacy group, Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. 

The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council "identified 56 companies that were marketing products using 275 chemicals that the company’s hired experts decided met federal safety standards, known as Generally Recognized as Safe," Kindy writes. "However, the science behind those safety findings and the use of the chemicals was disclosed to the FDA in only six instances."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association defended the process, saying “It is a very thorough and comprehensive process that has, under the current law, provided FDA with authority to challenge the improper marketing of an ingredient as GRAS and if necessary, act to remove products containing that ingredient from the food supply,” Kindy writes. The FDA also defended it, saying that although "the law allows for food manufacturers to make their own safety determinations, the agency 'encourages companies to consult with the agency when developing new ingredients.' Ultimately, the FDA said, manufacturers 'are responsible for ensuring that their food products are safe and lawful.'" (Read more)

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Future of rural banking could be an 'ATM on steroids' that provides interactive bank tellers

The future of banking technology is getting its feet wet in rural America through a ATM-type devices called interactive bank tellers that connect users with a live person from a call center, Victor Epstein reports for the Des Moines Register. No longer will bank patrons in towns that lack a facility have to travel long distances to conduct their business. Instead, they can use the new system to make withdrawals "verify their identity, and accept stacks of up to 30 deposited checks or bills from local store owners."

NCR Corp. is rolling out the devices, which some industry experts call an ATM on steroids, "at an opportune time as national and regional banks abandon their least profitable locations in the wake of the financial crisis. In the banking industry that typically means those with the least foot traffic — rural banks — and those in high-crime areas," Epstein writes. NCR "estimates the potential market for video-enabled interactive tellers at $4 billion. It had 80 banks in the U.S. and Canada signed up as customers as of March 19 and about 400 interactive teller machines in service. It's sold more than 1,000 units since launching the new product in February 2012."

While critics say the machines could eliminate more than 100,000 bank-teller jobs in the U.S., 20 percent of such positions, advocates say the machines are exactly what remote areas need, Epstein reports. James Johnson, chief operations officer of PCSB Bank in Clarinda, Iowa, 85 miles from the closest metro area (Omaha), told Epstein, "We've bought into the idea that this is the future of community banking. As rural populations decline it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a traditional brick-and-mortar facility in them, but it's very possible with this technology. This is our solution to the problem." (Read more) (PCSB video)

Anti-vaccine movement may be allowing the return of pertussis, meningitis, measles, other diseases

The anti-vaccination movement has gained momentum over the past decade, because some people do not want to risk side effects or simply do not trust governments or drug companies, Yamiche Alcindor writes for USA Today. "People assume this will never happen to them until it happens to them," said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It's a shame that's the way we have to learn the lesson. There's a human price for that lesson."

Most vulnerable are babies who might be too young for vaccination, young children who do not have strong immune systems and people who cannot be vaccinated because of medical issues, according to scientists. Kathryn Riffenburg's son died of whooping cough (pertussis). Though she was inoculated long before his birth, she later learned that a booster shot during the pregnancy could have saved her son's life. Two other preventable diseases that have recently made a comeback, perhaps because of the anti-immunization movement are measles and meningitis.

Outbreaks of measles in New York, California and Texas are warning signs of a bigger spread that could happen if more people refuse vaccinations. Officials said in 2000 that measles shouldn't be a problem anymore, but this year the disease is expected to affect three times as many people as it did in 2009. "Vaccination rates against most diseases are about 90 percent," said Anne Schuchat, the CDC's director of immunizations and respiratory diseases.

When 10-year-old Jeremiah Mitchell was 6, he was infected with meningitis, and doctors had to remove his arms and legs and parts of his eyelids, jaw and ears to get rid of the disease. He caught meningitis at school, where two children died and four others also got the illness. His mother, Michaela Mitchell, said that her son was not vaccinated against meningitis because the school didn't require it for children his age.

Some doctors have taken their own measures to safeguard their patients from people who refuse vaccinations. For example, doctors working at Old Towne Pediatrics in Mannassas, Va., will not accept new patients if the parents will not vaccinate their children. "We don't want to put our patients at risk because people for their own personal reasons don't want to vaccinate," said Anastasia Williams, a managing partner of the practice. "We are doing our due diligence to protect our children who wait in our waiting room." In Colorado, 4 percent of kindergarteners did not get vaccinated for non-medical reasons. State Rep. Dan Pabon sponsored a proposed bill necessitating parents to either get a doctor's note or view a video about risks before deciding against vaccination, Alcindor writes.

Sarah Pope decided against vaccinating her three children. All of them got whooping cough in 2006, but they recovered through treatments from a holistic doctor and natural supplements. "People only see the bad in infectious diseases," said Pope, who runs a health living website and blogs about vaccines. "But infectious diseases do help children strengthen their bodies." She says she knows vaccines are not 100 percent effective and doesn't want to be pressured into vaccinating her children (Read more)

New dust bowl is damaging farmland in Southeast Colorado, sending residents packing

Continued drought has led to a new "dust bowl" in Southeast Colorado, causing residents to begin to flee for greener pastures, Joey Bunch reports for The Denver Post. The southeast part of the state typically gets 12 to 16 inches of rain annually, but several areas have gotten less than 8 inches a year since 2010. And residents aren't sticking around for things to get better. While the state has grown in population by 4.8 percent since 2010, the population of Baca County has decreased by 2.8 percent, down to only 3,682 residents, with 75 percent of the loss occurring during the last year. (Post graphic)

"The devastation of this drought comes in three forms: pastures that have dried up or are choked by drifts of sand; tumbleweeds that blow into tall hills against fences, homes and barns; and massive dust storms that steal topsoil and could make it harder to grow grain, wheat and sunflowers for years," Bunch writes. "Since the latest drought officially set in late in the summer of 2010, the Arkansas [River] Valley has been drier for a longer sustained period of time than during the [1930s] Dust Bowl, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University."

In Baca County "about 15 percent of the farmland is irrigated, fed by high-country reservoirs," Bunch writes. "That leaves 85 percent of the naturally sandy soil turning to dust. Displaced topsoil means it could take years for the land to bounce back." Doesken told Bunch, "They're so far in the hole right now that even if they do get a few (rain) storms, ... it's not going to immediately solve the problems."

The recent problems mirror those of the Dust Bowl. Baca County's population peaked in 1930 with 10,570 residents, but from 1935 to 1938 it accounted for some of the worst soil erosion of the Dust Bowl era, and by 1940, the population had dropped by almost 42 percent, Bunch writes. Ward Williams, who "is leasing out his 200 acres north of Springfield so cattle can chew off the stubble of his last grain-sorghum harvest in 2012," told Bunch, "It's just too much of a cycle of booms and busts. Kids that grow up here, if they have anywhere else to go, they aren't staying here. If it doesn't get over soon, this (drought) might leave the land to the big corporate operations that can ride it out, and not for the people who grew up down here."

The county has received plenty of government aid, $413 million between 1995 and 2012, including $85.9 million in crop-insurance subsidies and $50 million in disaster grants, while farmers have also "received government checks to seed grass on 269,249 acres of cropland to try to hold down the soil," but weather conditions haven't done much to help. Kevin Larson, a researcher at the Plainsman Research Center in Walsh, Colorado State's agricultural experiment station for southeastern Colorado, told Bunch. "Just can't grow anything if there's not any precipitation on it. It's as simple as that." (Read more)

Loan forgiveness helps keep doctors in rural Oregon

Like many states, Oregon is trying to fill its need for more rural doctors. Help could soon be on the way. The College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest recently became eligible to participate in a loan forgiveness program that provides as much as $35,000 per school year to recipients who "promise to practice in a rural Oregon community for each year they receive the loan," reports the Albany Democrat-Herald. "Ten percent of their clinical rotations must be in rural regions."

The Primary Health Care Loan Forgiveness Program, through the Oregon Office of Rural Health, is open to all students in the classes of 2016 and 2017, the Democrat-Herald writes. The osteopathic college had 105 new students this school year.

Eligible students are ones who "intend to go into primary care residencies, including family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and general surgery," the Democrat-Herald reports. "The curriculum includes on-campus and online teaching sessions, participation in the Family Medicine Rural Health Club and a community project." (Read more)

James River Coal Co. files for bankruptcy, blaming weak economy and environmental regulations

"James River Coal Co. said Monday that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as part of its efforts to turn around its business as it struggles along with much of the U.S. coal industry," reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The company, which said "it has secured $110 million in financing to keep its operations going, pending court approval," said  "it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million. The company estimated its number of creditors at 10,000 to 25,000." (James River Coal map of operations)

The Richmond-based company, which filed for bankruptcy after missing a $208,000 debt interest payment in March, blames its financial woes on the weak economy, environmental regulations and competition from natural gas, the Times-Dispatch writes. "The company missed the payment on $13.3 million of convertible notes due in March 2018, and the company said it had a 30-day grace period — until April 14 — in which to make the payment before going into default."

James River, which"used to produce steel and for power generation in Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana, said it "is still considering options such as selling off parts of its business," the Times-Dispatch writes. "The company also delayed filing its annual 10-K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission in March. James River Coal hasn’t posted an annual net profit since 2010." (Read more)

Washington governor vetoes bill that would have set rules for drone use by governments and police

Citing privacy concerns, Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee "vetoed a bill that would have regulated the use of drones by government and police," Jim Camden reports for The Spokesman-Review. "In its place, Inslee called for a 15-month moratorium on purchasing or using unmanned aircraft by state agencies for anything other than emergencies such as forest fires. He said he hoped local police chiefs and sheriffs would issue similar orders and the Legislature would take another run at the issue next year."

The concern over the legality of drone use has been much debated. The Federal Aviation Administration said commercial drone use is illegal, but a ruling by a federal judge to dismiss an FAA fine appears to make it legal for commercial drones to fly below 400 feet.

The bill Inslee vetoed "would have set standards for state and local government use of drones, with requirements for obtaining warrants when law enforcement used them for surveillance," Camden notes. "Inslee called it 'one of the most complex bills we’ve had to analyze' and said the emerging technology of drones creates difficult issues for government. The bill had some conflicting provisions on disclosure of personal information, he added." (Read more)  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Appalachian historian tells Great Society anniversary crowd region is canary in the coal mine of inequality

Ron Eller speaks at Ohio University
(Athens News photo by Lori Cook)
Appalachia is a warning sign for a nation with growing economic inequality, regional historian Ron Eller told an Ohio University audience Friday, at an event commemorating President Lyndon B. Johnson's visit to the school on May 7, 1964, when he first used the term "Great Society" for his domestic programs, including the War on Poverty, which he had declared that January.

Eller, distinguished professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. "The ground was uneven because resources were unequally distributed, the wealth generated by hard labor was shipped out of the region to enrich others, public institutions were scattered and weak because taxes were sparse or non-existent, the political system responded more to those with economic power than to the common good, and government strategies for economic growth unduly benefited local elites or distant investors," he told the Ohio crowd. "The inequalities within Appalachia and between Appalachia and the rest of the nation are the result of relationships of power, not the deviant qualities of race or regional culture."

The LBJ anniversaries have again focused attention on Appalachia, "more often than not as a symbol of the failure of the War on Poverty to complete its mission," Eller said, quoting conservative writer Kevin Williamson's description of the region as "the big white ghetto" and liberal writer Thomas Frank's description of "the declining economic condition of the entire American middle-class as the 'Appalachification of the world'. Many of these recent accounts of poverty in Appalachia apply the same false assumptions about the culture and history of the mountains that fueled the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and most continue to ignore the structural challenges within the political economy of the region -- challenges that continue to fuel inequality."

Eller said the War in Poverty ended when the Office of Economic Opportunity was dismantled in the Nixon administration by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and "Public policy toward the poor in the last quarter of the 20th century shifted to one of maintenance. . . . If the War on Poverty failed to eliminate poverty in America, let alone in Appalachia, it was not because of some deficient culture within the mountains but because of the lack of national will to build a fair and equitable society and because of the failure of government programs to create a level playing field within the region. . . . Anti-poverty programs did little to address problems of inequitable land ownership, capital outflow, or political cronyism in Appalachia. Programs designed to provide jobs and to develop the region's economy concentrated resources in middle-class growth centers, failed to protect the landscape and water quality, encouraged the growth of consumer dependency, and facilitated the out-migration of youth."

Eller concluded that the War on Poverty may have failed to achieve its objectives, but the country has learned much from that failure, reports The Athens News. "Its goals remind us that democracy is a continuing process," he said. "Perhaps it's time for us to abandon the politics of self-interest, and recover the spirit of collective responsibility that motivated the War on Poverty. This, in fact, may be the defining challenge of our time." For Eller's remarks as prepared for delivery, click here.

Vermont moves to restrict access to new painkiller

Vermont lawmakers are taking steps to restrict access to a new kind of narcotic painkillers because public health officials across the U.S. are concerned their use could make drug abuse worse. Zohydro, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in October, has more narcotic pain reliever than pills such as Vicodin and is crushable, making it appealing to addicts who want a quick high.

While Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick moved to forbid Zohydro, "the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for U.S. patients," Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin sent out emergency rules making it more difficult for doctors to prescribe powerful painkillers, Beth Garbitelli writes for the Burlington Free Press. "What we believe this rule will do is ensure that we are very, very careful about prescribing this FDA-approved opiate in Vermont with the hope that we won't repeat the mistakes that we made with OxyContin with an even more powerful form," Shumlin said.

San Diego-based Zogenix, which makes Zhoydro, said the drug isn't more powerful than other hydrocodone medications and it has established a group of experts to ensure the drug is not abused. The company said "that its sales representatives are not being paid based on the volume of sales, but rather on their efforts to ensure prescribers, pharmacists and patients are educated to understand the risks and benefits of extended-release opioids," Garbitelli reports. Some public health officials believe that people turn to heroin after they get addicted to prescription painkillers. (Read more)

Businesses that rely on high-speed Internet leave major cities to get cheaper, better service

While some rural areas continue to lack broadband access, a new trend is emerging among businesses whose survival relies on faster Internet speed. Several are closing up shop in metropolitan areas and heading for smaller cities and towns that offer high-speed, fiber-optic cable connections at better prices and better availability, Kate Murphy reports for Personal Tech.

In the U.S. only 7.7 percent of broadband subscribers have fiber connections, which are 100 times faster than wired or wireless service, Murphy writes. Surprisingy, some of the best places to get fiber is outside major metro areas. That has resulted in businesses in places like Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver relocating to towns like Lafayette, La., Chattanooga, Tenn., Wilson, N.C., Kansas City, Kan., and Mount Vernon, Wash.

"These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected," Murphy writes. With optic fiber "web pages load instantly. Video and sound are more realistic. And giant amounts of data can be transferred at the speed of light."

While companies save money on fiber, small towns are benefiting from an increase in economy due to the new businesses, Murphy writes. Wilson, whose economy has suffered after the loss of North Carolina's tobacco and manufacturing jobs, has seen its economy grow from offering fiber, with one Los Angeles company relocating to Wilson, where they now get fiber for $150 per month, compared to $1,500 to $3,000 per month around Los Angeles.

Another business owner, Eric Blank, moved his 20-employee information security firm from Seattle to Mount Vernon, Wash., where his cost of service not only dropped from $985 a month to $250 a month, but the connection is much faster, Murphy writes. Plus, small town life is easier for the business. Blank told Murphy, “The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon and the customer service isn’t bad because all you have to do is walk down the street and knock on the door at City Hall.” (Read more) (Ookla map shows strongest U.S. broadband connections by state, and notes the nation as a whole ranks 35th in speed; click on map for larger version, which also shows rankings by Internet service provider)

Latest UN report says climate change is being felt now, and will reduce growth in crop production

A report last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that summarizes and analyzes climate science, said "ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct," Justin Gillis writes for The New York Times. 

Scientists say that we haven't seen the worst of the situation, and now the nations are trying to agree upon a new global climate treaty. "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," said Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the intergovernmental panel, Gillis reports. (Read more)

One major concern is the world's food supply, Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press. Over the past few years, scientific literature has been revealing that climate change is impeding food production, said Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science and lead author of the climate report.
The Carbon Brief graph shows projections of yield percentages for crops.
Improved agricultural techniques have boosted crop production by 10 percent per decade, and climate change is expected to "reduce yields by 1 percent a decade, so crop production will still go up, but not as fast," said David Lobell of Stanford University, one of the authors of the report's chapter on food problems. Yes, some crops might actually do better, but others will do worse—such as wheat and corn, Borenstein writes. (Read more)

The report also said demand will go up approximately 14 percent every decade, so climate change could make life even more difficult for some areas, especially poor regions, Mat Hope writes for The Carbon Brief. Of course, climate change will not occur uniformly across the planet, so some areas may experience more difficulties than others and some may benefit. (Read more)

The scientists who wrote the report say the consequences of climate change are not just waiting in the future but beginning to happen now. "Throughout the 21st Century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security and prolong existing and create new poverty traps," the Times reported.

Maps show population and economic status of African Americans and Hispanics in Appalachia

The Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Kentucky's Berea College has created a pair of useful maps that highlight minority population and economic status of African Americans and Hispanics in Appalachia and surrounding areas. The maps show the two minority populations as of 2010, and the economic status of each counties as of 2014, classified as attainment, competitive, transitional, at-risk and distressed. (Read more)

The map above shows the population of African Americans in Appalachia by quintile. The first quintile comprises the counties than rank in the top 20 percent in black percentage of a county's population; the second quintile comprises the next 20 percent, and so on. The map at left shows the same data for Hispanics. The pink and red counties are considered at-risk and distressed, respectively. The yellow line is the boundary of Appalachia as defined by Congress in laws applying to the Appalachian Regional Commission. To view larger versions of both maps click here)

Iowa bill to expand rural broadband access would cut cities' authority over cell tower sites

A House bill designed to expand rural broadband access in Iowa "also includes language that could limit the ability of local governments to regulate the placement of cell towers, prompting opposition from some city officials who say the state is trying to usurp local control," Kourtney Liepelt reports for The Associated Press.

Current law gives local governments jurisdiction within city limits, but the House bill "does not require cellular companies to provide company and business plan information to local governments when applying for a new cell tower site," Liepelt writes. "Should municipal authorities deny a request, and a cellular company then brings the case to federal court, local authorities wouldn't have the evidence necessary to justify their denial. Another provision would mean that cellular companies could attach antennae or other devices to an existing structure, such as a utility pole or water tower. Local governments wouldn't be involved, but would have to field complaints if the structure then soars above federal height limitations or residents dislike the esthetics of the attached device." (Read more)

Read more here:

Another rash of earthquakes reported in Oklahoma areas with fracking and disposal wells

Oklahoma continues to experience a rash of earthquakes in areas where hydraulic fracturing is used and injection wells are used to dispose of used fracking fluids. At least six quakes were recorded Friday and Saturday, Carey Gillam reports for Reuters. Earthquakes measuring between 2.5 magnitude and 3.8 magnitude were felt over the weekend in central Oklahoma and around Oklahoma City. 

Austin Holland, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told Gillam, "We have had almost as many magnitude 3 and greater already in 2014 than we did for all of 2013." Since 2009, when the fracking boom hit Oklahoma, the state is second in most earthquakes, trailing only California. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey, Cornell University and Columbia University blames fracking for the increase in quakes. (Read more)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Fracking's risks are manageable, but we need to do a better job of managing them, author warns

Frack job of Encana Oil & Gas near Rifle, Colo., March 29
(Associated Press photo by Brennan Linsley)
The advent of horizontal hydraulic fracturing has created an oil and gas boom that could make the U.S. energy-independent but has also raised widespread concerns about water pollution, air pollution, road damage, earthquakes and methane leakage that can worsen global warming and climate change. All are manageable, but more needs to be done, Wall Street Journal reporter Russell Gold, author of the new book, The Boom, says in an interview with Lindsay Abrams of Salon.

Gold says fracking itself poses little if any risk to groundwater, but improper well construction does. "Every time a new well is drilled and fracked we should test the water, the aquifers, so we have some sort of base-line test, and the air quality as well, so if there are significant changes to the water quality or to air emissions, we’ll know . . . We need more data," he told Abrams. "You need to make sure the wells have the right integrity and are going to stand out for thirty, forty, fifty years in the ground."

And the key to that, he said, is better state regulation. "There are still a lot of states where the oil and gas regulator, the watchdog, is the same agency that’s the cheerleader that’s trying to drum up business and encourage economic development," he told Abrams. "I really don’t think those two functions can live under the same roof. You can’t have the cheerleader and the watchdog under the same roof; they need to be split up."

Methane worries Gold too: "There’s no question — and there have been many peer reviewed scientific papers — that the industry as a whole needs to cut down on the leaks. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. It simply cannot be allowed to leak out in the amounts that it is right now.
The good news is that, even if at the current amounts of leakage, even at the high ends of what I’ve seen, it’s still better than coal in terms of its impact on the climate. And there’s a lot of low hanging fruit, there’s a lot of relatively easy plumbing that can be done to fix those leaks."

Gold says some proponents and opponents of fracking offer a false choice between "an energy system that gives us lots of good, cheap energy and trashes the environment" and one "that absolutely protects the environment, and we have really expensive energy and that’s a regressive tax. It’s a lot harder for people to get it, and you’ve got health effects because you don’t have access to energy. We need to find a balance between those two. And there is no one balance. We always have to be finding that balance. You find it once and you can’t rest on your laurels, and you need to kind of keep pushing." (Read more)

What's the most over-represented job in your state?

The online Business Insider has crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and come up with an interesting map that shows the most over-represented job in each state — not the most common job, but the one that is most disproprtionately concentrated in that state, compared to the nation. (Click on map for larger version)
Several states offer no surprises, reflecting concentration of certain industries: Hawaii tour guides, California farmworkers, Washington aircraft assemblers, Nevada gaming supervisors, Texas petroleum engineers, Arkansas food processing workers, Louisiana sailors, Florida motorboat operators, D.C. political scientists, New York fashion designers, Maine and Oregon loggers, Kentucky and West Virginia miners, Georgia and North Carolina textile workers, Idaho, Montana and Utah forestry technicians, and oil and gas drillers in Oklahoma, North Dakota and Wyoming.

The New Mexico physicists probably reflect the location of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Delaware chemists the site of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. Connecticut actuaries likewise represent the many insurance companies in the state, and Purdue University surely is proud that boilermakers are concentrated in Indiana. It's no surprise that butchers are big in Nebraska, but why are they likewise in Alaska? (Makes a cute rhyme.) And why are marriage and family therapists big in New Jersey? Could have something to do with their proximity to New York City. But psychiatric technicians (who knew there was such a thing?) are big in Missouri. Fascinating.