Friday, November 21, 2014

President Obama's immigration plan does little to help agriculture, farm groups say

Agriculture has the most to gain—or lose—from an immigration bill because many of the 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally work in agriculture because of estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. farmworkers are in the country illegally.
 

But most farm groups say President Obama's immigration plan that he unveiled on Thursday "will do little to to address the crisis in agriculture that exists from lack of action on immigration," Gary Truitt reports for Hoosier Ag Today. Chuck Conner with the National Council of Farmer Co-ops told reporters, “In practical terms, we do not expect the president’s initiative to help America’s farmers deal with the real labor challenges they face. Our nation loses millions of dollars in fruit and vegetable production every year because farmers cannot find labor to harvest everything they grow. This order will not change that."

In fact, Obama's plan barely affects agriculture and "will likely provide relief to about 250,000 farmworkers, a small fraction of the tens of thousands toiling on agricultural operations across the country," Christoper Doering and Bill Theobald report for USA Today. "Senior administration officials told reporters the new immigration plan will not allow farm workers to apply for protection just because of their job, but they could qualify if they meet other criteria, including having been in the United States longer than five years."

"Agriculture groups said a failure to reform the labor policy would drive more production outside the country, leaving more fruits and vegetables vulnerable to rotting in fields and putting at risk the nation's abundant and safe food supply," Doering and Theobald writes. "Some producers say they are finding it increasingly difficult to hire the labor they need to package meat and tend to livestock or pick strawberries, flowers, tomatoes and other crops."

Farm workers are not even "specifically mentioned in the president's plan, and there are no agriculture-related provisions included in his actions," Sarah Gonzalez reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Either way, farm groups don't want executive orders from the president; they want new immigration laws. And farm groups are worried that an executive order could deter an immigration bill.

Frank Gasperini, CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, told Gonzalez, “Our chief concern is that the squabbling between Congress and the administration will only intensify and further delay real legislative reforms in the general immigration arena, making meaningful improvements in administration of the H-2 programs that much more difficult.” (Read more) (Washington Post map)

Electronic cigarettes reduce tobacco cravings, make it easier to quit smoking, study finds

In some wealthy areas, smoking rates have declined, while smoking rates in working class and rural areas have remained stable. Use of electronic cigarettes among rural teens has also risen in recent years, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose rules to give it authority over e-cigarettes, an industry that accounts for about $2.5 billion in annual sales. (Getty Images photo by Joe Raedle)

But e-cigarettes could actually be a healthy alternative to regular cigarettes by reducing tobacco cravings and making it easier to quit, says a study by Belgian researchers published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

"Over an eight-month period, Belgian researchers tracked 48 smokers who were unwilling to quit smoking," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. "The smokers were divided into three groups: two who were given e-cigarettes over the entirety of the period and a third that switched from tobacco to e-cigarettes two months into the study period."

By the end of the study, 21 percent of the subjects had quit smoking entirely, and another 23 percent cut their daily smoking in half, Ingraham writes. Overall, tobacco consumption fell by 60 percent.

Authors Frank Baeyens and Dinska Van Gucht wrote: "The nicotine e-cig offers many smokers a successful alternative for smoking less—or even quitting altogether. E-cig users get the experience of smoking a cigarette and inhale nicotine vapor but do not suffer the damaging effects of a tobacco cigarette.” (Read more)

Falling oil prices could cost local governments millions of dollars in lost tax revenue

A drop in oil prices could cost local governments in oil-producing regions millions of dollars in lost tax revenue, Mark Haggerty, an economist with Headwaters Economics reports for the Daily Yonder.

For example, if oil prices drop from $98 to $78 per barrel in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil fields, "the change in price could result in about $200 million less for local governments over five years and $350 million less for state government," Haggerty writes. "Losses for that state’s permanent investment fund would be even higher. Those figures include only an estimated 2,500 new wells and don’t include lost revenues on the state’s existing wells, which number in the tens of thousands."

"In North Dakota, local governments could see about $80,000 less from each well over five years at $78 compared to $98 per barrel," Haggert writes. "Multiply that by the 2,500 wells completed annually, and the potential revenue impact is about $200,000 million for these new wells. That does not count the tens of thousands of already producing wells that pay annual severance taxes, too." (Read more) (Headwaters Economics graphic)

EPA delays 2014 Renewable Fuels Standard to 2015

The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that it would not "finalize a 2014 rule for the Renewable Fuels Standard, saying a glut of comments will push action back into 2015," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

EPA said in a notice posted to the Federal Register Friday morning, “The proposal has generated significant comment and controversy, particularly about how volumes should be set in light of lower gasoline consumption than had been forecast . . . and whether and on what basis the statutory volumes should be waived.” The agency said it plans to “take action on the 2014 standards rule in 2015 prior to, or in conjunction with, action on the 2015 standards rule.”

Farm interests have objected to EPA's proposed reduction of the required blending requirement for ethanol and other renewable fuels. The livestock and oil industries want the RFS scrapped entirely.

October was sixth straight month to have record high temperatures; 2014 could be warmest year ever

October was the sixth consecutive month of global record high temperatures since records began being kept in 1880, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The past five months—May, June, July, August and September—were the hottest months on record for those respective months. The first 10 months of 2014 have been the warmest on record.

"It also marked the 38th consecutive October with a global temperature above the 20th century average," says NOAA. "The last below-average global temperature for October occurred in 1976."

For October, the combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces was 1.33 degrees warmer than the 20th century average of 57.1 degrees, NOAA says. The global land surface temperature was 1.89 degrees above the 20th century average, and the global sea surface temperature was 1.12 degrees above the 20th century average of 60.6 degrees. The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature through October of 2014 was 1.22 degrees above the 20th century average of 57.4 degrees. (Read more) (NOAA graphic)

Two weeks after being re-elected, lawmaker to resign to focus on running weekly newspaper

Would you rather be a politician or run a newspaper? State. Rep. Jonathan McNiven (R-Mont.) has decided that journalism is the better way to go. Less than two weeks after being re-elected to the Montana House of Representatives by earning 65 percent of the vote, McNiven announced on Thursday he was leaving his position to concentrate on running the weekly Yellowstone County News, which he purchased last month, Tom Lutey reports for the Billings Gazette. (Wikipedia photo: Yellowstone County)

McNiven told the Gazette, “It has been my passion to serve the people of Lockwood, Huntley, Briarwood and Blue Creek as well as Yellowstone County. This summer the opportunity to serve the community in a new manner came my way with the purchase of the Yellowstone County News, where I will serve as owner and publisher.” (Read more)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Despite the Farm Bill and a bumper harvest, farmers could get $10 billion in subsidies

Despite a bumper harvest of corn and soybeans and a Farm Bill that was supposed to save taxpayers money, subsidies for farmers could soar to $10 billion this year, double the typical amount of payouts from the previously used direct cash payments to farmers, Ros Krasny and Christine Stebbins report for Reuters. "If payments for 2014, the first year the farm bill takes effect, do come in at that level—as some private economists have calculated—they would be more than 10 times the U.S. Department of Agriculture's working estimate and more than double the forecast by the Congressional Budget Office."

"Farmers will be in line for payouts if revenues fail to meet benchmarks tied to long-term price and production averages," Krasny and Stebbins write. "Both the USDA's and the CBO's estimates were made before crop prices tumbled this year on oversupply from a huge harvest." (Associated Press photo by Seth Perlman: Harvest corn)

Beginning on Monday farmers could start signing up for the compensation programs, Krasny and Stebbins write. "Most participants will be the families who own and operate about 98 percent of all U.S. farms, large and small." Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wisc.) told Reuters, "The (farm) bill actually did little to rein in costs. What we're seeing is a program that still costs far more than it should and fails to include reforms that actually save taxpayer dollars." (Read more)

Oil and gas states producing 60 to 70 million gallons of contaminated water every day

Oil and gas states are producing more contaminated water than oil or gas, John Kemp reports for Reuters. "In 2007, when the shale revolution was still in its infant stages, the U.S. oil and gas industry was already producing more than 20 billion barrels of waste water per year, according to researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory. (Reuters photo by Brett Carlsen: Trucks carrying water to natural gas rigs in Monroeton, Penn.)
 

"The industry’s daily output was 5 million barrels of oil, 67 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 55 million barrels of water, according to federal government statistics," Kemp writes. "Argonne estimated that more than 7.5 barrels of water were produced for every barrel of crude—and 260 barrels of water for every million cubic feet of natural gas—based on state and federal records for onshore oil and gas production." 

"Older wells produce a higher proportion of water, so states with a long history of oil and gas production and large numbers of aging stripper wells tend to have the highest volumes of water production and the highest water-to-oil and water-to-gas ratios," Kemp writes. "The five old oil- and gas-producing states of Texas (7.4 billion barrels of water), California (2.6 billion), Oklahoma (2.2 billion), Kansas (1.2 billion) and Louisiana (1.1 billion) accounted for almost three quarters of water production in 2007."

For example, Illinois produced 43 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, Kansas 22 barrels of water for every barrel of oil and California 10 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, Kemp writes. "Unfortunately, there are no more-recent comprehensive nationwide estimates. But the amount of produced water being handled is now much higher thanks to the shale revolution." 

It's estimated that water production today is between 60 to 70 million barrels of water each day, Kemp writes. "The vast majority of water from onshore oil and gas wells, accounting for more than 92 percent of all produced water, is re-injected underground to maintain pressure in the reservoir (71 percent) or into non-producing formations for disposal (21 percent)." (Read more)

Colorado rural critical access hospital with troubled past to close doors

After being open for 135 years, a 25-bed rural hospital in Leadville, Colo., is closing its doors, Alli Langley reports for Vail Daily, about 48 miles north of Leadville. St. Vincent Hospital (right) announced "on its Facebook page Saturday that it will phase out its services during the next few months and no longer serve the roughly 7,300 people who live in Lake County."

Earlier this year, a story in the local newspaper, the Herald Democrat, reported allegations of a hostile work environment at St. Vincent. Employees estimated that 29 nursing staff members—a 100 percent turnover rate—quit from December 2012 to February 2014, when the story was published.

"Because of a broken heating system that didn’t meet code, the long-term care unit shut down Monday," Langley writes. "About a dozen elderly patients living at the hospital were forced to move out, and the hospital has helped place them in other nursing home facilities. The closest ones to Leadville are in Salida, Kremmling, Grand Junction and the Front Range."

"The surgery department will close this week, and the hospital’s home oxygen, home health and physical therapy services and its general practice clinic will close in January," Langley writes. "Hospital administrators are talking with local governments to see whether they can take over ambulance services, which likely would increase costs to patients, and the emergency department and its support services will be the last to shut down." The entire building is scheduled to be closed by March 31, 2015. (Read more)

Ky. environmental groups say mining company has committed 28,000 Clean Water Act violations

Environmental groups in Kentucky claim Frasure Creek Mining has for years falsified water pollution results and committed 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, James Bruggers reports for the Courier Journal in Louisville. The groups—Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and the Waterkeeper Alliance—also accused state regulators of lax enforcement of water quality rules.

In a 32-page notice of intent to sue, the groups said Frasure Creek Mining "repeatedly faked results from one water pollution monitoring report to the next, misleading government officials and the public," Bruggers writes. "It is the second time the groups have taken legal action against Frasure Creek for similar violations of the Clean Water Act."

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet said on its blog: "Contrary to inaccurate and inflammatory statements directed at the Cabinet . . . the agency has been actively monitoring compliance with Frasure Creek and other coal mining operations in Kentucky. Since 2011,  the Division of Enforcement has reviewed approximately 179,000 (discharge monitoring reports) involving 78 coal companies and over 2,200 mining permits, assessed civil penalties in excess of $3,697,000 and has entered into 67 enforcement settlements with coal companies in Kentucky. The agency has and continues to proactively review and take appropriate enforcement actions to resolve violations identified during the inspection and review of coal mining operations." (Read more)

Coal export terminals operating at 34% capacity, says group critical of proposed new terminals

More U.S. coal export terminals—such as Ambre Energy's proposed terminal that was denied in Oregon—are unnecessary because current U.S. coal export terminals are only operating at 34 percent of capacity, said a report released Wednesday by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Lead author Tom Sanzillo "forecasts that total U.S. coal exports this year may not exceed 80 million tons, down from a peak of 125.6 million tons in 2012," Hal Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.

"Coal prices on export markets also have dropped sharply from 2012 levels, and the long-term prospect for a price rebound has dimmed as international coal growth has slowed, Sanzillo said," Bernton writes. He said that weakens the financial viability of the two major coal-export terminals in Washington and one in Oregon. (Platts map: Current and planned coal export terminals)

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has often been critical of coal companies "and previously worked under contract for Power Past Coal, a coalition opposed to building new export terminals in the Northwest," Bernton writes. Proponents of coal-export terminals contest the findings in the report. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

STRIPS is a method for farmers in the Corn Belt to reduce soil loss and water runoff

Iowa, which was once 85 percent prairie but is now 85 percent cultivated, relies too much on corn and soybeans, crops that are not sustainable, opines Mark Bittman for The New York Times. The state can become more sustainable by following a new scientific approach called STRIPS, or science-based trials of rowcrops integrated with prairie strips. (Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture photo: STRIPS experiment)

STRIPS works by taking around 10 percent of farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replanting it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants, Bittman writes. "Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular."

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years, Bittman writes. She told him, "It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals, so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials—a little bit of prairie—in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

STRIPS "has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent and water runoff by 44 percent," Bittman writes. "Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive."

"By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri—a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly," Bittman writes. "And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do."

Because of the pressure to plant, many corn farmers "have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems," Bittman writes. But the STRIPS experiment "results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect—or even destructive—system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step." (Read more)

National Transportation Safety Board declares drones are aircraft, giving FAA regulatory power

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled on Tuesday that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws, giving the Federal Aviation Administration regulatory power over the industry, Jack Nicas reports for The Wall Street Journal. The board also overturned a federal judge's ruling in March that dismissed a $10,000 FAA fine on a Swiss drone operator for using a drone to film a commercial for the University of Virginia’s medical school.

"The NTSB ruling is a victory for the FAA, an agency that has struggled to regulate the rapidly increasing use of drones in U.S. skies," Nicas writes. "Technology has made nonmilitary drones smaller, cheaper, more powerful and easier to fly in recent years. The FAA allows recreational use of the devices but virtually bans their use for commercial purposes. Many commercial users have ignored that policy, and some were emboldened by the March ruling that dismissed the FAA’s first fine for drone use."

FAA is expected to propose rules for drones by the end of the year, but it could take up to two years for the rules to be finalized, Nicas writes. (Read more)

National Rural Health Day is Thursday; webinars available on a variety of health issues

The fourth annual National Rural Health Day is scheduled for Thursday. The yearly event is "an opportunity to 'Celebrate the Power of Rural' by honoring the selfless, community-minded, 'can do' spirit of that prevails in rural America," says the organization's website. "But it also gives us a chance to bring to light the unique healthcare challenges that rural citizens face–and showcase the efforts of rural healthcare providers, State Offices of Rural Health and other rural stakeholders to address those challenges."

"Today more than ever, rural communities must address accessibility issues, a lack of healthcare providers, the needs of an aging population suffering from a greater number of chronic conditions and larger percentages of un- and underinsured citizens," says National Rural Health Day. "And rural hospitals–which are often the economic foundation of their communities in addition to being the primary providers of care–struggle daily as declining reimbursement rates and disproportionate funding levels make it challenging to serve their residents."

National Rural Health Day consists of a series of webinars on: AgriSafe—Growing Families Strong: Protecting the People who Feed America, ORHP Quality Showcase, Rural Health 101: States & Communities at Work, ACA and You, Rural Policy and Advocacy Issues, and Collaborative Rural Success Stories. (Read more)

Fracking to be allowed in George Washington National Forest

Fracking will be allowed in George Washington National Forest but only in limited areas, Brock Vergakis reports for The Associated Press. "The federal management plan reverses an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing that the U.S. Forest Service had proposed in 2011 for the 1.1 million-acre forest, which includes the headwaters of the James and Potomac rivers. Those rivers feed the Chesapeake Bay, which is the focus of a multibillion-dollar, multistate restoration directed by the Environmental Protection Agency." (Daily News-Record photo by Nikki Fox: George Washington National Forest)

Under the plan, most of the woods atop the Marcellus shale formation will be off-limits for fracking, Vergakis writes. "A total ban would have been a first for America's national forests, which unlike national parks are commonly leased out for mining, timber and drilling. But some environmentalists were pleased that at least some balance was struck between energy development and conservation."

The plan "eliminates the potential for oil and gas leases on 985,000 acres where they could have been granted and permits drilling only on 167,000 acres with existing private mineral rights and 10,000 acres already leased to oil and gas companies," Vergakis writes. "The private mineral rights are scattered throughout the forest, which hadn't updated its management plan since 1993."

Environmental groups are concerned the drilling and its waste may pollute mountain streams that serve as drinking water for approximately 260,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley, Vergakis writes. "Another 2.7 million people in Northern Virginia and Washington get part of their drinking water from the forest." Opponents also argued that an abundanceof trucks, wells and other infrastructure would hurt a tourist business that attracts more than one million visitors annually. (Read more)

Keystone XL Pipeline bill narrowly defeated in Senate; GOP expects bill to pass in 2015

The Democratic-led Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would have approved construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, but Republicans pledge to continue the fight when the GOP gains control of the Senate in 2015, Ashley Parker and Coral Davenport report for The New York Times. The bill, which needed 60 votes to pass, lost by a count of 59 to 41, with all 45 Republicans voting in favor. Of the 14 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill, at least 10 will remain in office, while a Dec. 6 run-off will determine whether the bill's co-sponsor Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) will return.

Recently elected Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-K) "said that he would immediately bring up a Keystone bill when the new Senate convenes," Parker and Davenport writes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who is poised to replace Landrieu as head of the Senate Energy Committee, told the Times, “For so many good reasons, we’ll be back with this after the first of the year. And I believe that the momentum we’ve gained means we’ll see progress and see this bill passed.” (NYT map)

If the bill had passed, President Obama "was widely expected to veto it, a power he has used only three times during his six years in office," Timothy Gardner and Susan Cornwell report for Reuters. "Obama raised new questions about the project during a trip to Asia late last week, saying it would not lower gas prices for U.S. drivers but would allow Canada to 'pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else.'"

But Senate Republicans predicted that the bill would have at least 63 supporters next year and would be able to reach the 67 votes necessary to avoid presidential veto, Gardner and Cornwell write.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) "said the property tax revenue that will come in from building the pipeline will help sustain rural counties and school districts and potentially alleviate transportation snafus that are hurting farmers in his home state" and will create 40,000 jobs, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Opponents say the project "would increase pollution and pose a threat to environmentally sensitive lands" by transporting 800,000 barrels of oil each day from Alberta to Nebraska. Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Democratic Senators who voted in favor of the pipeline are: Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Landrieu, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), John Walsh (D-Mont.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).

Family Dollar delays shareholder vote on sale to Dollar Tree to Dec. 23

"Family Dollar said Wednesday that it plans to delay a shareholder vote on its proposed acquisition by Dollar Tree nearly two weeks, to give federal antitrust authorities more time to review the deal," Ely Portillo reports for the Charlotte Observer. The vote is now scheduled for Dec. 23.

"Family Dollar said it expects to receive updated information from the Federal Trade Commission about the agency’s review of the Dollar Tree deal and update shareholders in the first week of December," Portillo writes. In July mostly suburban Dollar Tree bought Family Dollar, a staple of poor rural and urban areas, for $8.5 billion. Dollar General countered with a $9.1 billion hostile takeover bid, but it was rejected. Family Dollar cited anti-trust issues.

Family Dollar said in a statement: “The special meeting has been rescheduled to provide Family Dollar shareholders with sufficient time to review the additional disclosure in advance of the meeting." (Read more)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

FCC to propose 62 percent increase in money to wire schools; would help connect rural schools

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to propose a 62 percent increase in the amount of money the agency spends annually to wire schools and libraries with high-speed Internet connections, Edward Wyatt reports for The New York Times. The move would increase the FCC's annual cap on spending for school Internet from $1.5 billion to $3.9 billion. (NYT photo by Mark Holm: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler)

The move would most benefit rural areas, where "seven in 10 rural districts say none of their schools can meet high-speed Internet connectivity targets today," Wyatt writes. "Schools in affluent areas are three times more likely to meet speed targets as those in low-income areas, the FCC says."

"Libraries need upgrades too, and in low-income and rural areas, they are important because they often provide the only available Internet connection for many people," Wyatt writes. "Yet half of all public libraries report connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second. Mr. Wheeler has said 25 megabits per second should be considered “table stakes” in 21st-century communications."

"The new spending would lead to an increase of roughly 16 percent in the monthly fee on consumers’ phone bills," Wyatt writes. "The fee is used to finance the Universal Service Fund, an $8.7 billion effort that provides phone and broadband connections for low-income populations, rural areas, and schools and libraries."

"FCC officials say consumers would pay less than $2 a year in additional fees per phone line, or less than $6 extra per household, on average; currently the average household pays about $36 a year," Wyatt writes. "But the amount an individual household pays can vary widely, with fees assessed on both home and mobile service. Businesses pay into the program as well." (Read more)

County-level maps show U.S. stats for married, never-married, divorced, separated, widowed

FlowingData has created a series of county-level maps that show the number of married, never married, divorced, separated and widowed people in the U.S., Ana Swanson Reports for The Washington Post. "When it comes to people who were never married, America has a singles belt that stretches across much of the South and parts of the West, as well as a big chunk of Alaska." About half of the U.S. population 15 and older is married, 31 percent have never been married, 11 percent are divorced, 2 percent are separated and 6 percent are widowed, says FlowingData. (To see all the interactive maps click here)

The most married counties are: Loving and Roberts counties in Texas; Banner, Blaine and Logan counties in Nebraska; Bear Lake County, Idaho; King County, Texas;  Worth County, Missouri; Hinsdale, County Colorado; and Garfield County, Utah, says FlowingData. The most single counties are: Lexington City County, Virginia; Shannon County, South Dakatoa; North Slope Borough and Wade Hampton counties in Alaska; Radord City, Williamsburg City, Harrisonburg and Charlottesville City counties in Virginia.; Wade Hampton, Alaska; Hancock County, Georgia; and Washington, D.C.
The most divorced counties are: Esmeralda County, Nevada; Fall River County, South Dakota; Pershing County, Nevada; Skagway Municipality, Alaska; Meagher and Powell counties in Montana; Lyon and Wolfe counties in Kentucky; Terrell County Texas; and Bledsoe County, Tennessee. The most separated counties are: Concho County, Texas; Irwin, Turner and Clay counties in Georgia; Isaquena County, Mississippi; Norton City and Franklin City in Virginia; Sierra County, California; Fairfield County, South Carolina; and Dolores County, Colorado.
Texas is the nation's leader in most widowed, led by Kennedy, Hudspeth, Kinney, Culberson and Edwards counties. Also rated high are Esmeralda and Eureka counties in Nevada; Kalawao County, Hawaii; Terrell County, Georgia; and Clark County, Idaho. (Read more)

Minneapolis paper's 'Risky Riding' series examines dangers of children riding ATVs

ATVs are a common sight in rural areas—often used for work and recreation—but almost as common are accidents, often involving young riders going too fast, not wearing a helmet, riding the wrong-sized vehicle, drinking and driving or wandering too close to traffic. (Star Tribune photo by Jim Gehrz: Owen Farmer, 11, of Faribault, Minn., driving through a safety obstacle course)

Despite calls from federal regulators, doctors and even many within the ATV industry that only adults should be allowed to ride, "40 states have laws and rules allowing children younger than 16 to drive ATVs designed for adults," and 19 have no age limit, Jeffrey Meitrodt and Mike Hughlett report for the Star Tribune in Part 2 of a five-part series called "Risky Riding."

In Minnesota, lawmakers dropped the age limit from 16 to 12 for driving adult ATVs and require children to take a training class, Meitrodt and Hughlett write. "Minnesota state Rep. Tom Hackbarth, a Republican who co-sponsored the state’s current ATV regulations, contends that children will ride adult ATVs, regardless of the law or ATV warning labels." Hackbarth says required safety training and parental supervision are the best ways to protect children.

But safety training is something that is lacking, Meitrodt and Hughlett write. The Star Tribune examined 139 ATV accidents involving youth, finding that only 17 had gone through safety training. Overall, there are an estimated 10.7 million vehicles in the U.S., according to data from 2011. (Read more) To read Part 1 of the series, click here.

Pipeline agency warns about reversed, reworked or restarted pipelines, a result of the fracking boom

For the first time the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration "has officially cautioned the industry about potential safety threats from restarting, reversing or reworking pipelines to handle Canadian tar sands oil and the surge in U.S. oil and natural gas supplies," Elizabeth Douglass reports for InsideClimate News. "If not handled properly, those changes can increase the risk of pipeline leaks and ruptures," the notice said.

Most pipelines travel through rural areas, often near homes, and most have been the subject of controversy, including the proposed Energy Transfer Partners pipeline that is causing concern in Iowa, reports that some pipelines pose safety threats and lack regulations, a study that the Keystone XL Pipeline will emit high rates of greenhouse-gas emissions and the rural Massachusetts town that has become ground zero in the battle for the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline.

The PHMSA notice said "reversing oil and natural gas pipelines or switching the product they're carrying can have a 'significant impact' on the line's safety and integrity—and 'may not be advisable' in some cases, federal regulators told pipeline companies in a recent advisory," Douglass writes. "PHMSA said the advisory was triggered in part by last year's oil spills involving two reversed pipelines, ExxonMobil's Pegasus tar sands line in Arkansas and the Tesoro Logistics line in North Dakota. Those accidents, as well as 'other information PHMSA has become aware of' led the agency to issue the alert, the bulletin said."

"PHMSA said pipeline companies should consider conducting a water pressure test, known as a hydrostatic pressure test, especially in pipelines with previous failures or a history of certain kinds of cracking or corrosion," Douglass writes.

USPS spokesman says to expect more rural post office hours to be cut early next year

Rural post offices continue to see their hours cut as the U.S. Postal Service looks for ways to cut costs. And in rural remote areas in Alaska, chances are high that many post offices' hours will be significantly cut, Casey Grove reports for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

"Nationally, the list of post offices identified as those facing reduced hours grew to more than 13,000," said USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson, Grove writes. "Of the roughly 200 post offices reviewed in Alaska, about 160 offices were identified as locations where hours might need adjustment, he said."

"Of those, 44 post offices already open fewer than eight hours per day had their hours increased, Swanson said," Grove writes. Around 10 did not have a change in hours, and hours were reduced for about 40 of them, Swanson said. In January 2015 the Postal Service may reduce hours for another 60 or 70 post offices. "Surveys of the offices and community meetings have already been conducted."

Swanson told Grove, “Chances are, they’re going to be reduced. We just don’t want to reduce hours of operation during the holiday mailing season because that’s obviously our busiest time of the year. So that’s why we’re putting it off until January at the earliest.” (Read more)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Journalists' guide to covering the second open enrollment under the federal health reform law

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's second annual open enrollment period has started and brings with it many changes. Journalists play a critical role in the process because "Obamacare" remains controversial and there are many nuances that can be obscured, especially because this year's enrollment period is shorter. For a journalists' guide to covering the topic, click here.

If a state doesn’t operate its own exchange for health-care benefits, citizens who want to get covered should visit the federally-run exchange, HealthCare.gov. For the 2015 plan year, 27 states with federally facilitated exchanges, seven states in partnership with the federal goverment and three state-based exchanges will use this site. Click here to check the status of specific states.

Whether they buy a plan through the federal marketplace or an exchange in their state—or qualify for Medicaid—everyone must enroll in a plan or pay a penalty. Even those who purchased plans in the marketplace last year must re-enroll and purchase or select another plan this year because plans have changed and premiums are determined by age and other factors that can change.

Two types of subsidies are available to marketplace enrollees. The premium tax credit reduces enrollees’ monthly payments for insurance coverage. The cost-sharing subsidy is designed to minimize enrollees’ out-of-pocket costs when they go to the doctor or have a hospital stay. Here is a useful Kaiser Family Foundation brief that explains the subsidies.

Here is the foundation's embeddable Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator:

Fining mine owners for safety violations has done little to increase workplace safety

Coal mine owners facing thousands of dollars in delinquent fines for safety violations are allowed to keep operating under possibly unsafe conditions, with little to be done about it because of a fear that shutting down unsafe operations will be viewed as a "war on coal," Howard Berkes reports for NPR. He said the federal mine safety agency has no authority to shut down a mine for failing to pay fees.

NPR ran a weeklong investigative series last week that "found that during the time period when mining companies were delinquent in their payments, they committed 130,000 additional violations," Berkes reports. He writes that 2,700 mine owners who own $70 million in fines have gotten away with failing to pay fines for years with no consequences.

"According to NPR's analysis of federal mine delinquency records and Labor Department data on mine violations and injuries, delinquent fines have injury rates that are 50 percent higher," Berkes reports. "And they reported nearly 4,000 injuries while they were delinquent." He said "the government collected just 13 percent of the fines covered by federal court orders and settlement agreements."

"They can only shut down mines temporarily," Berkes reports. "Once violations are fixed, mines reopen. Some may shut down for good eventually, but they can do a lot of damage in the meantime. In 2006, Roy Middleton and four others died in a coal mine disaster in Kentucky. The mine owners haven't paid a half million dollars in penalties according to federal delinquency records. In this case, one of the delinquent mine owners controlled eight other mines. Federal records show those mines had 1,300 more violations, 20 more injuries and $2.4 million in additional delinquent penalties before those mines were closed or sold." (Read more)

Stanford study debunks landmark 1997 guns rights study; more guns do lead to more crime

study released in 1997 by economists using county-level data from 1977 to 1992 said more guns lead to less crime because allowing citizens to carry weapons deters violent crime. Researchers at Stanford University have expanded on that study, increasing the time period to 2010, and found that the opposite is now true—that more guns leads to more crime, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

Stanford law professor John Donohue said: "The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates" of aggravated assault, robbery, rape and murder, Ingraham writes. Donohue "says this number is likely a floor and that some statistical methods show an increase of 33 percent in aggravated assaults involving a firearm after the passage of right-to-carry laws."

"These findings build on and strengthen the conclusions of Donohue's earlier research, which only used data through 2006," Ingraham writes. "In addition to having nearly two decades' worth of additional data to work with, Donohue's findings also improve upon (the 1997 study) by using a variety of different statistical models, as well as controlling for a number of confounding factors, like the crack epidemic of the early 1990s."

"These new findings are strong," Ingraham writes. "But there's rarely such a thing as a slam-dunk in social science research. Donohue notes that 'different statistical models can yield different estimated effects, and our ability to ascertain the best model is imperfect.' Teasing out cause from effect in social science research is often a fraught proposition." (Read more)

Public comment period ends on EPA water rules; Republican-led Congress vows to fight rules

The comment period for the Environmental Protection Agency's controversial proposed water rules came to an end last week. Now EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will work to finalize rules, while facing scrutiny from a GOP-led Congress that had been against the rules since they were first introduced, Chris Adams reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

"In the Senate, Republicans have agreed with House colleagues on their desire to derail the water proposal but lacked the votes to do anything about it," Adams writes. "But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will assume the job of majority leader in January, now has the control to advance bills similar to one introduced earlier this year that would prohibit the administration from finalizing its water rule. If the Senate does seek to derail the rule, it could result in a veto showdown with the Obama administration."

"The water rule proposal seeks to clarify what is covered by the Clean Water Act—whether certain streams that dry up part of the year, for example, should be covered along with traditional rivers, streams and lakes," Adams writes. Farmers and ranchers have expressed fear that the rules will expand EPA's jurisdiction. While EPA denies that claim, Republican leaders have supported farmers and ranchers in an attempt to kill the bill.

The proposed rules have caused plenty of confusion, and EPA chief Gina McCarthy has done little to sway fears, often only causing more confusion with her attempts to explain the rules or to criticize rural residents for not understanding them.

Currently, the Waters of the U.S. rules regulate "traditional navigable waters; interstate waters; and all other waters that could affect interstate or foreign commerce, impoundments of waters of the U.S., tributaries, the territorial seas and adjacent wetlands," says the Center for Rural Affairs.

The proposed rules would cover:
  1. Traditional navigable waters
  2. All interstate waters, including interstate wetlands
  3. The territorial seas
  4. All impoundments of water identified in 1–3 and 5
  5. All tributaries of waters identified in 1–4
  6. All waters, including wetlands, adjacent to a water identified in 1–5
  7. On a case-specific basis, other waters, including wetlands, provided that those waters alone, or in combination with other similarly situated waters, including wetlands, located in the same region, significantly affect the chemical, physical or biological integrity of a jurisdictional water identified in 1–3.
The proposed rule also covers ditches that are excavated wholly in uplands, drain only uplands and have less than perennial flow and ditches that do not contribute flow—either directly or through another water—to jurisdictional water. Also, if you have a jurisdictional water on your farm, then you might need a permit before engaging in certain activities. (Read more)

Chesapeake Energy under federal investigation for royalty payment practices

"The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating how Chesapeake Energy pays landowners for the natural gas it drills on their property, according to disclosures made earlier this month in the company's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission," reports Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica. In March, financially-strapped Chesapeake was accused of raising $5 million by cheating landowners out of royalties, and for years landowners have complained of being underpaid.

"In lawsuits filed in several states, Chesapeake has been accused of inflating its operating expenses and then deducting those expenses from the share of income it pays for the right to drill on peoples' land," Lustgarten writes. "Chesapeake has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments and to settle some of these cases."

In 2013, Pennsylvania landowners said their payments were cut by as much as 97 percent, from thousands of dollars a month to less than one dollar, Lustgarten writes. That led to probes from the state's Attorney General.

A ProPublica investigation found "a series of complicated corporate transactions, worth nearly $5 billion, in which Chesapeake sold its pipelines for an inflated price, but then signed long-term contracts to pay the pipelines' new owner exorbitant fees to continue to use them," Lustgarten writes.

"While Chesapeake raised billions through the sale, it committed to repay all of that money and more in fees," Lustgarten writes. "The fees Chesapeake paid to the new company, called Access Midstream Partners, were then charged back to landowners, erasing much of their share of the economic bounty from the surge in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. At the same time that landowners' gas income dropped, Chesapeake was attempting to raise cash to rescue itself from enormous and mounting corporate debt." (Read more) (Chesapeake Energy map)

Payment in lieu of taxes program for counties that contain federal land is up in the air

More than 1,850 counties in 49 states and U.S. territories receive payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) from the federal government for containing federal land, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. But no one has seen any payments since June, and the program's funding—which amounted to $437 million in 2014—expired on Sept. 30.

"The continuing resolution that currently keeps the federal government open for business does not include funding for the local-payments program," Marema writes. "That resolution is set to expire in mid-December, and it isn't clear whether Congress will pass a 2015 budget by that time or resort to another stopgap measure," according to a National Association of Counties (NACo) action alert.

"The long-term future of the funding program is also uncertain," Marema writes. "A House Appropriations subcommittee has included a one-year extension of PILT funding in its workup of the 2015 proposed budget, but its Senate counterpart has not yet included the program in its version of legislation."

"Funding for PILT could also be included in some other part of the budget-making process, NACo reported to its members," Marema writes. "One possibility would be to package PILT with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which provides funding for rural schools in counties with National Forest lands." (Read more) (Yonder map: Counties that receive PILTs. For more interactive map click here)

Survey: Farmers less likely than rural non-farmers to have a regular health care provider

Farmers are increasingly facing the same health risks as the rural non-farm population but lack the same resources for prevention, says a study published on Friday in The Journal of Rural Health.

The study used a 2009 survey of 9,612 adults 20 and older—537 of whom were farmers—in seven rural counties in upstate New York that are served by a large rural hospital network that do not serve any urban areas with more than 50,000 people.

Farmers were less likely to have a regular doctor or health care provider, significantly less likely to visit a dentist for routine care, less likely to have health insurance through an employer and more likely to have individually purchased insurance. Farmers smoked significantly less and had significantly more days of hard physical labor, but there were no differences in being overweight or obese or participating in leisure exercise.

"It seems that whatever advantages may be conferred to the farm population in rural New York by an agricultural lifestyle are diminishing to the point where the population's health status is nearly indistinguishable from that of the nonfarm population," the study said. "On the other hand, screening and other forms of secondary prevention lag significantly within the farm population, most notably with having a regular health care provider. Overall, these data suggest that New York farmers are not only less engaged with their own health care than nonfarmers, but they are also less engaged than farmers in other regions of the United States." (Read more)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Foster's Daily Democrat: It's not been Democratic for a long time, and now it's not even Foster's

One of the most distinctively named daily newspapers in the U.S., Foster's Daily Democrat of Dover, N.H., is being sold by the Foster family after 143 years. The buyer is Seacoast Media Group of Portsmouth, a subsidiary of New Media Investment Group (formerly GateHouse Media), which publishes the competing Portsmouth Herald about 10 miles away.

A statement from the family said the paper will keep its name, which reflects the times in which it was founded, not modern times. Founder Joshua Foster had published a pro-slavery paper in Portsmouth during the Civil War, but today his descendants usually support Republicans on the editorial page. In October, longtime Executive Editor Rod Doherty retired after 33 years with the Democrat, which he called "a blue-collar paper."