Friday, April 01, 2016

GOP nominating rules shortchange rural districts

The rules for choosing the Republican nominee for president, which could prove crucial as a contested convention looks more likely, give disproportionate influence to urban areas and shortchange rural areas, Josh Kraushaar reports for the National Journal.

In most states, many or most of the Republican delegates are allocated by congressional district, so that means urban, liberal districts with relatively few Republicans get as many delegates as rural districts with strong Republican majorities. "It’s the dis­pro­por­tion­ate in­flu­ence of urb­an voters in the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion pro­cess that makes it dif­fi­cult for Sen. Ted Cruz to make ser­i­ous head­way against Trump," Kraushaar writes.

Trump has been doing well in liberal areas partly because his "mainly-white sup­port­ers are dis­pro­por­tion­ately con­cen­trated near areas with many minor­it­ies, sug­gest­ing that strained race re­la­tions may have played a role in their back­ing of Trump," Kraushaar reports. "He has won over white Republican voters in rur­al South­ern counties where Afric­an Amer­ic­ans make up a ma­jor­ity of the vote, and he has per­formed well in urb­an neigh­bor­hoods where the ra­cial com­pos­i­tion of sur­round­ing areas has changed over the years." Also, "Some of the urb­an con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts are ger­ry­mandered in or­der to take a small slice of Re­pub­lic­an sub­urb­an ter­rit­ory along with heav­ily Demo­crat­ic urb­an turf."

The situation is different in Wisconsin, where next Tuesday's primary seems likely to be crucial. "In an upside-down version of a traditional campaign, the Republican front-runner is immensely unpopular in the reddest part of the state—the outer suburbs and exurbs that ring Milwaukee," Craig Gilbert reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "The picture is dramatically different at the other end of the state, in the small cities, towns and countryside of northern and western Wisconsin. Here Trump’s favorability score is 'plus 21' among Republicans: 53 percent view him positively and 32 percent view him negatively." (Journal Sentinel graphic; click on it for a larger version)

Trump had an early lead in Wisconsin but now trails Texas Sen. Ted Cruz by about 10 points.

USDA reports not much help for already struggling grain prices; corn acreages projected to soar

The Grain Stocks and Prospective Plantings reports released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service offered little help for struggling farmers, Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. Don Roose, of U.S. Commodities, "categorized the reports as negative, primarily due to the increase in corn acres." He told Chase, "From here forward, to get anything positive going, particularly on corn, you're going to have to have weather issues.”

The Prospective Plantings report states that corn acreage is projected at 93.6 million acres, a 6 percent increase from last year and the third highest planted acreage since 1944. Soybean is estimated at 82.2 million acres, down less than 1 percent from last year; wheat is estimated at 49.6 million acres, down 9 percent from last year; and cotton is 9.56 million acres, an increase of 11 percent from last year.

The Grain Stocks report states that corn stocks on all positions, as of March 1, totaled 7.81 billion bushels, up 1 percent from last year. Soybeans stored in all positions totaled 1.53 billion bushels, up 15 percent from last year; all wheat stored in all positions was 1.37 billion bushels, up 20 percent from last year; and durum wheat stocks totaled 41.5 billion bushels, up 10 percent from last year.

"Within 30 minutes of the reports releases, the corn market had suffered double-digit losses, mainly on the potential for increased acres, Roose said," Chase writes. "Despite the jump in stocks, very little movement was observed in the corn or wheat markets because the increases were largely in line with analyst projections. Since prices are low across the board, Roose said current language in farm programs could be driving producer decisions to plant more corn." Roose told Chase, “I think the producer looked at the insurance rates on corn and soybeans and looked at the profitability and thought . . . that gave us the best chance in a negative year to come up with at least a better chance of profit probability."

Roose said that "while growing more and more corn could, in turn, continue to lower prices and hurt the farm bill programs that are based on 5-year Olympic averages," Chase writes. Roose, who said the producer's hand is somewhat forced, told Chase, "Insurance is coming down, the coverage is coming down, but what do you do? It's mainly a reflection of the market conditions that are driving everything.” (Read more)

Powder River Basin suffers first major coal mining layoffs, with 465 jobs slashed

The Powder River Basin on Thursday suffered its first major coal layoffs when the nation's two largest coal mines, both located in Wyoming, announced they were cutting 465 jobs, or 15 percent of their workforce at each mine, Benjamin Storrow reports for the Billings Gazette. Peabody Energy cut 235 people at North Antelope Rochelle, and Arch Coal said it was cutting 230 people at its Black Thunder Mine. "The layoffs are notable as they come at what are generally reckoned to be the largest and most cost effective mines in the country. North Antelope Rochelle and Black Thunder generally mine around 100 million tons of coal annually." (Peabody map)

"Layoffs in the Powder River Basin have been relatively limited," mostly due to efficiency of the region's operations, Storrow writes. "In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated the average Wyoming miner was responsible for 29 tons of coal per hour, whereas a West Virginia miner was credited with an average of 2.4 tons of coal per hour." Bob Hodge, a coal analyst at IHS Energy, told Storrow, "You’re talking about good, good mines. In the east, if you wanted to point a finger at a villain it would be the EPA. I think in the PRB the biggest villain is natural gas."
"Powder River Basin coal generally becomes economically competitive when natural gas prices reach $2.25 per million British Thermal Units or higher," Storrow writes. "Natural gas prices nationally have remained mired below $2, a dynamic industry analysts expect to continue throughout 2016. An unseasonably warm winter has only furthered coal's suffering. Peabody officials noted 2016 heating degree days—those when the temperature falls below 65 degrees Fahrenheit—are 17 percent below 2015 levels year-to-date. March heating degree days are down 30 percent against their 10-year average." (Read more)

Swedish proposal to list Maine lobster as invasive species could cost industry $150 million a year

A proposal by Sweden for the European Nation to list American lobsters, also known as Maine lobsters, as invasive species could ban exports from the U.S. and Canada to 28 countries, costing the industry $150 million a year, including $10.6 million in Maine, Matt Byrne reports for the Portland Press Herald.

"Swedish scientists have said that 32 American lobsters have been found in that nation’s waters in the past eight years and that the species poses a risk of disease and health problems for native European lobsters," Byrne writes. But language in the risk-assessment report by Sweden’s agency for marine and water management "suggests the proposed ban may be motivated by a desire to expand the European lobster fishery, said Annie Tselikis, director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association." She said the report states: “It should be stressed that a ban on live imports would potentially be beneficial in terms of profits and jobs if the commercial fishery of Homarus gammarus (European lobster) is positively affected by the ban."

American scientists have "said they were skeptical of Sweden’s rationale, which identified three diseases it considers the biggest threat to European lobsters: epizootic shell disease, gaffkemia or 'red-tail,' and white spot syndrome. Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said there is no scientific basis for Sweden’s proposed ban. Shell disease, a fatal bacterial infection, has been shown not to be contagious, he said," Byrne writes. "Red-tail, also caused by bacteria, has not been seen in American lobster in a decade. And white spot syndrome affects only shrimp, not lobsters, Bayer said." (Read more)

White-nose fungus in bats reported for the first time on West Coast

White nose syndrome, a disease that has killed an estimated seven million bats, has for the first time been reported on the West Coast, in North Bend, Wash., about 30 miles outside Seattle, Lewis Kamb reports The Seattle Times. "The first detection of the disease in a Western state represents 'somewhat of a game-changer,' said Jeremy Coleman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The closest state with confirmed detection of the fungus is Nebraska, about 1,250 miles away, officials said." (Progressive Animal Welfare Society photo)

The disease, which gets its name "from the powdery, white substance that appears around muzzles, ears and wings of affected bats, has swept across 28 states and five Canadian provinces," Louis Sahagun reports for the Los Angeles Times. "White-nose syndrome has killed mostly little brown bats, which have lost more than 20 percent of their population in the northeastern U.S. over the past nine years. Mortality rates among colonies of some species in eastern states, such as northern long-eared bats, have reached 99 percent."

"Bats feast on such night-flying insects as mosquitoes, which transmit West Nile virus, and agricultural pests damaging to cotton and corn crops," Sahagun writes. "They also pollinate plants, including the saguaro cactus. The current value of pest control provided by bats each year is at least $3.7 billion nationwide."

Beware of GPS and Google Maps; you might end up at the wrong location or invade the wrong country

Flawed GPS and Internet maps are leading drivers to the wrong destinations, Karen Turner reports for The Washington Post. "A Google Maps error has been sending tourists seeking 'Mt. Rushmore, SD' to the wrong location for nearly five years now. Storm Mountain Center, a retreat center located some 13 miles from the real Mt. Rushmore, has repeatedly asked Google Maps to update the Mt. Rushmore address. Eventually, the center has resorted to installing a large sign (Rapid City Journal photo by Sean Ryan) at the front of their driveway instructing travelers that their electronic devices are wrong about Mt. Rushmore’s location. But whatever fixes proved temporary for unknown reasons—and as of this writing, the address is still wrong."

"Although Google Maps is fast becoming the ultimate authority on navigation, the program is proving vulnerable to mistakes and hackers with results that at times can be catastrophic," Turner writes. "One of the latest blunders involved a company accidentally bulldozing the wrong house due to faulty Google Maps directions. Google took responsibility for the maps error. In this case, two different houses were shown as being in the same location, a Google spokeswoman told CNN. In 2010, Nicaragua blamed an accidental invasion of Costa Rica on incorrect Google Maps information."

"These cases shed light on the software's susceptibility to errors and hacks," Turrner writes. "Google Maps is built on layers of information obtained from satellite images as well as photographs taken by Street View cars, which have driven and photographed more than 7 million miles of roads. Google also crowdsources location information through Map Maker, which allows users to directly update local addresses and details. An unknown number of people are employed by the company to comb through these maps for inaccuracies. But despite this multi-faceted system, location bugs and mistakes still happen. Trolls and pranksters have taken advantage of the crowdsourced feature by changing businesses to offensive names or by doodling on the map interface."

McGill University conducted research that "compared the brains of GPS versus non-GPS users and found that non-GPS users had more grey matter and higher functionality in their hippocampuses than those that relied on their devices," Turner writes. "Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist who worked on McGill's GPS study, suggests that we limit our GPS use to new destinations only and attempt to build up our cognitive maps by navigating to frequently visited destinations on our own, she said in an article on Phys.org."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

EPA unveils voluntary effort to reduce natural-gas industry's methane leaks, fight climate change

"The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a new partnership with 41 energy companies that have agreed to voluntarily reduce methane emissions from natural gas operations to help combat climate change," Michael Biesecker reports for The Associated Press. Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the voluntary program, called the Natural Gas STAR Methane Challenge Program, "is meant to protect public health and combat climate change while providing a platform for companies to report actions taken to reduce methane emissions. The announcement comes after the worst methane leak in the nation's history was finally plugged last month at an underground storage facility owned by Southern California Gas Co."

President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this month committed "to reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sectors by at least 40 percent over the next decade, compared to 2012 levels," Biesecker writes. "Such reductions are seen as essential to achieving national targets for greenhouse gas reductions agreed to in December as part of the landmark climate accord reached in Paris. Republicans in Congress have opposed such measures, saying they will cost the U.S. economy jobs while doing little to reduce climate change."

Soda sales hit 30-year low, with diet drinks taking the biggest hits; bottled water sales are up

Sales of soda—especially diet drinks—have hit a 30-year low, according to Beverage Digest, an industry tracker. Total volume of soda consumed in 2015 was down 1.2 percent, "an acceleration from 2014’s 0.9 percent drop," John Kell reports for Fortune. "The group also reported that annual per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks dropped to about 650 eight-ounce servings in 2015—the lowest since 1985."

PepsiCo took the biggest overall hit, with sales declining 3.1 percent in 2015. More Americans are shying away from diet drinks, not the higher calorie choices linked to higher rates of obesity, which is especially problematic in many rural areas. Diet Pepsi and Diet Coke each reported declines of more than 5 percent, while Diet Mountain Dew’s drop was 4.8 percent.
Declining diet sales are blamed on consumers "becoming increasingly skeptical of artificial sweeteners, most recently fretting about the health implications of consuming aspartame, which is still deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration," Kell writes. "Another beverage category that soared in 2015 was bottled water, which is counted in the broader 'liquid refreshment beverages' channel. Dasani, Aquafina and Poland Spring reported volume increases ranging from 6.5 percent to 11.4 percent. The growth for Aquafina was so strong that it helped lift the brand back to the top 10 'Megabrand' list. It ranked ninth last year, pushing Arizona off the list." (Read more)

Appalachian cuisine catching on, could help revitalize region's economy

Appalachian cuisine, which is quickly growing in popularity, could help revitalize a struggling economy, Jane Black reports for The Washington Post. "The foods of Central Appalachia constitute America’s own cucina povera, as rich and unexplored in the American culinary scene as Tuscan food was in the 1980s. It’s a scrappy, intelligent way of cooking that, out of necessity, embraced preserving, canning, fermenting and using every part of the animal long before all that was trendy. There are leather britches, beans that are strung up whole to dry, then brought back to life with water and a smoky ham hock. There is vinegar pie, a mountain version of the South’s lemon chess pie, with vinegar providing the acid in place of expensive or hard-to-find citrus."

"Last fall, scholars, chefs and activists hosted an Appalachian food summit in Abingdon, Va., to examine how the region’s food heritage can boost local economies," Black writes. "In February, the James Beard Foundation hosted its first-ever salon for Appalachian chefs." The Blind Pig, an Asheville, N.C. supper club, hosted six chefs for a dinner called Appalachian Storytellers, in which Tennessee chef Travis Milton served smoked venison, drizzled with a sauce made of malted sassafras and black birch syrup, and smoked collard greens (see photo above). The event, which hosted 140 people, sold out in a day. 

Milton, who later this year will open Shovel and Pick, an Appalachian restaurant in Bristol, Tenn., is seeking traditional Appalachian ingredients by growing them himself, Black writes.  He "is sowing 10 acres with greasies and other heirloom beans, cowpeas, creasy greens (a type of field cress), Candy Roaster squash, goosefoot (an Appalachian cousin of quinoa), blackberries, huckleberries and more. What he doesn’t use at his restaurant he will pickle and preserve, or share with other chefs who also are committed to promoting Appalachian cuisine. It’s all part of Milton’s grand plan to use food to ignite economic development in the region and end, once and for all, the pervasive stereotype of Appalachians as a bunch of toothless hillbillies." Milton told her, “There’s real beauty in these dishes. They yield amazing flavors, the flavors of a subsistence culture. A humble pole bean tastes like a pot roast. You work with what you have because you have to eat.”

Valdosta Daily Times wins open records complaint against organization that held closed door meeting

Score one for freedom of information for The Valdosta Daily Times. "The State Attorney General’s Office has ordered the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County to pay a $500 civil penalty to the State of Georgia and to participate in an open government training session with the Attorney General’s Office" in response to a complaint from the Times that the authority violated the Georgia Open Meetings Act when it held a closed door meeting prior to its Feb. 17 advertised public meeting, Jennifer Dandron reports for the Times. The authority oversees South Georgia Medical Center (SGMC). (Best Places map: Valdosta, Ga.)

The Georgia Open Meetings Act requires governing bodies to meet in an open, public meeting after proper notification before voting to go into executive session, Dandron writes. "In a March 3 letter addressed to Walter New, general counsel for the Hospital Authority and SGMC, Jennifer Colangelo, the assistant attorney general, listed allegations that the authority violated the act when it: conducted an executive session prior to the scheduled starting time of the meeting, discussed matters in executive session that were not permitted, failed to properly notify the public of the topics being discussed in executive sessions and failed to properly notify the public of matters being voted on. In New’s response to the assistant attorney general dated March 11, the authority admitted to violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act by meeting prior to the scheduled start time."

Colangelo wrote in her letter to the authority: “Although I understand that the Hospital Authority has already taken steps to bring its meeting notices into compliance with the Open Meetings Act, the Hospital Authority has in the past violated the Open Meetings Act by starting executive sessions at 8 a.m., even though the start time of the regularly scheduled meetings has been announced to be 9:30 a.m. In addition, the Hospital Authority has failed to approve meeting minutes by the time of the next regular meeting in violation of O.C.G.A 50-14-1(e)(2)(B).” (Read more)

Alaska state budget proposal would eliminate rural Internet program that serves 40 communities

Twenty-four libraries in rural Alaska say they will "go dark" under proposed state budget cuts that eliminate "a state subsidy that supports fast Internet in rural Alaska public libraries," Lisa Demer reports for Alaska Dispatch News. Lawmakers are trying "to address a budget gap approaching $4 billion." The rural Internet program, Online With Libraries (OWL), "costs the state about $760,000 and draws four times that from the federal government." (Demer photo: This videoconferencing system in the Bethel consortium library was purchased OWL)

OWL "covers on average 19 percent of the broadband cost at the small, rural Alaska libraries that participate in the program, and the federal government picks up 79 percent through its e-rate subsidy, which is funded through surcharges on telecommunications bills, according to the Alaska Library Association," Demer writes. "Just 2 percent of the costs are paid by local communities. In all, 40 communities currently receive funding for the Internet through the program. Some say they would pick up the difference of what the state would have spent. Another 45 libraries use the OWL program’s videoconferencing network for training, meetings and classes."

Librarians are organizing to save the program, which they say has dramatically changed who comes to libraries and how libraries are used, Demer writes. While the state's urban areas have plenty of places that offer Wi-Fi, "rural Alaskans without home Internet often rely on computers in public libraries for essentials, said Katie Baxter, director of the Kodiak Public Library and chair of the advocacy committee of the Alaska Library Association." Linda Thibodeau, a retiring official who oversees the state library, told Demer, “Without public Wi-Fi, in a lot of places people live on subsistence and can’t afford to have their own devices. If local communities cannot afford the local share without OWL help, then they don’t have broadband. They don’t have Internet." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Editor in rural Colorado wins national ASNE award for editorial leadership

Randy Essex
Randy Essex of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, on Colorado's Western Slope, is this year's winner of the Burl Osborne Award for Editorial Leadership, which recognizes editorial writing that is excellent journalism and makes a difference in a community. The award from the American Society of News Editors is sponsored by The Dallas Morning News in memory of Burl Osborne, a former DMN editor and publisher who died in 2012.

"In powerful and persuasive editorials, Randy Essex champions Latino immigrants, both legal and undocumented, in his own community and beyond," the judges wrote. "He uses solid research and searing sentiment to reach readers' minds and hearts."

The three editorials entered in the contest were:
• “Release money for immigrant licenses” called for the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee and Rep. Bob Rankin to break a partisan deadlock last winter and authorize spending of fees for issuing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
“We stand in support of immigrants” called for a broader path to residency and citizenship and banned the use of “illegal” and “anchor babies” as labels in letters to the editor and guest opinions.
“We need immigration law grounded in reality” decried Donald Trump’s plan to deport 11 million immigrants as a humanitarian and economic disaster.

Sperling's Best Places locator map
Publisher Michael Bennett said for a story in the 10,000-circulation paper, “In less than two years, Essex has transformed the PI from a good paper to a newspaper that provides compelling storytelling daily. And in the case of his editorials on immigration, he has helped us take a stronger leadership role in our community.” Essex, most recently an editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, said, “It’s a great honor that a small newspaper’s editorials can be amplified through this award to call for decency toward Latinos in our nation of immigrants. These are our neighbors, and our communities are enriched by their experiences, their work and their voices.”

World's first-ever carbon capture project on a large coal plant off to a rocky start

SaskPower's Boundary Dam—the world's first-ever carbon capture project on a large coal plant—"was equipped with a technology that promised to pluck carbon out of the utility’s exhaust and bury it underground, transforming coal into a cleaner power source," Ian Austen reports for The New York Times. "In the months after opening, the utility and the provincial government declared the project an unqualified success. But the $1.1 billion project" has seen rising costs, "requiring tens of millions of dollars in new equipment and repairs." (Reuters photo: The Boundary Dam Power Station in Saskatchewan, the first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage project at a coal-fired plant)

"The project has been plagued by multiple shutdowns, has fallen way short of its emissions targets, and faces an unresolved problem with its core technology," Austen writes. "A chart covering the first year of operation showed that the system often didn’t work at all. When it was turned back on after shutdowns for adjustments and repairs, the amount of carbon captured sometimes even dropped." Repeated shutdowns have caused the Saskatchewan utility to miss multiple carbon-dioxide deliveries to the Canadian oil company that signed a 10-year contract with the utility to buy most of the gas, leading "7 million Canadian dollars in penalties, offsetting most of the 9 million Canadian dollars in payments received."

Confidential documents unveiled in November in the provincial legislature and authenticated by the government "showed that the system was working at only 45 percent of capacity," Austen writes. "One memo, written a month after the government publicly boasted about the project, cited eight major problem areas. Fixing them, it said, could take a year and a half, and the memo warned that it was not immediately apparent how to resolve some problems."

SaskPower and advocates for carbon capture "argue that the setbacks are typical teething problems associated with any new and complex technology," Austen writes. But "the carbon system is a voracious consumer of the electricity generated by Boundary Dam, which has 150 megawatts of capacity." Mike Marsh, the chief executive of SaskPower, "testified that about 30 megawatts of capacity were consumed by the system and an additional 15 to 16 megawatts were needed to compress the carbon dioxide. The utility cut its emissions reduction target for this year to 800,000 metric tons, from one million."

Air pollution caused partly by industrial activities leading to rise in premature births, says study

Pollution from traffic, factories and other industrial activities may be causing thousands of premature births each year and costing the U.S. billions of dollars, according to a New York University’s School of Medicine study published Tuesday in Environmental Health Perspectives, Chelsea Harvey reports for The Washington Post. The study, which "focuses on a type of pollution known as fine particulate matter—tiny particles, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter," found that more than 3 percent of preterm births in 2010—nearly 16,000 in all—"could be attributed to fine particulate matter," leading to direct medical costs of $760 million and an estimated $4 billion lost in reduced economic productivity.

A study published last month in Nature Climate Change found that reducing carbon emissions to avoid a 2-degree Celsius increase in global warming could prevent up to 175,000 pollution-related premature deaths nationwide by 2030 and generate health benefits of about $250 billion annually.

The mechanisms behind premature births caused by particulate matter "are not entirely understood, but it’s believed that exposure to air pollution can cause inflammation of the placenta during pregnancy, which can ultimately lead to an early delivery," Harvey writes. "Preterm birth—which is usually defined as delivery that occurs more than three weeks ahead of term—is associated with a variety of medical problems including an increased risk of infant mortality, breathing and feeding difficulties, cerebral palsy, increased risk of developing other diseases and developmental delays that can lead to cognitive impairment throughout life . . . Researchers were interested in estimating the economic losses that result from these disabilities—essentially, the economic productivity that’s lost over the course of an individual’s lifetime as a result of cognitive impairments and the reduced ability to work." (Read more)

Scientists link fracking to water contamination in Wyoming; state report said industry not responsible

A study by researchers at Stanford University published in Environmental Science & Technology found that hydraulic fracturing from oil and natural gas operations contaminated groundwater in the area around Pavillion, Wyo., Neela Banerjee reports for InsideClimate News. The Environmental Protection Agency recently criticized a report by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that said fracking likely played little role in polluted water wells in the area. A 2011 EPA study linked fracking to water contamination in the area. (InsideClimate News graphic)

"The Stanford study identified chemicals in Pavillion's water related to substances that companies reported using in local fracking operations and acid stimulation, an oil and gas production method," Banerjee writes. "Researchers also found that energy companies frequently fracked at much shallower depths than previously thought, sometimes very close to drinking water wells. In addition, companies fracked into underground sources of drinking water, or USDWs, defined under federal law as aquifers that could supply a public water system. Fracking into USDWs is legal, but the oil and gas industry has long insisted that fracking occurs far deeper than where aquifers are located."

"Researchers found that because of Pavillion's distinct geology, where natural gas often exists alongside water, hazardous chemicals could migrate from fracking zones along fissures into the aquifer," Banerjee writes. "Faulty cement barriers around the steel casing inside an oil or gas well also create the potential for fracking chemicals to seep underground. Finally, as many as 44 unlined earthen pits were used before 1995 for disposal of diesel- and chemical-laced fluids from drilling and production. Tests of nearby groundwater showed dangerous concentrations of diesel-related and volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and the neurotoxin toluene." (Read more)

President Obama: Congress needs to fund rural areas to treat heroin and opioid addiction

Saying efforts to fight heroin and opioid addiction are grossly underfunded, President Obama called on Congress "to open the purse strings to help expand treatment, particularly in rural areas, and applauded bipartisan legislation designed to combat the problem," Jeff Mason reports for Reuters. Obama, who was speaking on a panel at a drug summit Tuesday in Atlanta, "said opioid overdoses killed more people in the U.S. than traffic accidents did and compared the importance of addressing the issue to that of fighting Islamic State militants." He said, "It's costing lives, and it's devastating communities."

Mason writes, "Obama, who earlier this year asked the U.S. Congress for $1.1 billion in new funding over two years to expand treatment for the epidemic, has faced criticism for not doing more to fight the problem sooner." The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week made $1.4 million in grants available to rural communities to fight heroin and painkiller abuse.

Obama said on Tuesday: "Part of what is troubling about the opioids epidemic is that we're seeing significantly higher spikes in rural areas. And part of that is because there has been a lot of under-resourcing of treatment facilities, mental health facilities. There may be, in some of those cases, more stigma than there might be in big cities about getting help. If you're in a small town, everybody kind of knows you—you may be more hesitant, right? I don't know if that's an experience that you felt."
Treatment needs to be available in every county in the U.S., Obama said. "The problem we have right now is that treatment is greatly underfunded. And it's particularly underfunded in a lot of rural areas. Our task force, when we were looking at it, figured out that in about 85 percent of counties in America, there are just a handful or no mental health and drug treatment facilities that are easily accessible for the populations there."

"So if you get a situation in which somebody is in pain initially because of a disk problem, they may not have health insurance because maybe the governor didn't expand Medicaid like they should have under the ACA—they go to a doctor one time when the pain gets too bad, the doctor is prescribing painkillers, they run out, and it turns out it's cheaper to get heroin on the street than it is to try to figure out how to refill that prescription, you've got a problem," he said. "And that's why, for all the good work that Congress is doing, it's not enough just to provide the architecture and the structure for more treatment. There has to be actual funding for the treatment. And we have proposed in our budget an additional billion dollars for drug treatment programs in counties all across the country."

Also participating in the panel was Crystal Oertle, a mother of two from rural Shelby, Ohio, (Best Places map) who became addicted to opioids. She said her story is similar to that of many people—she started using painkillers recreationally and eventually became addicted. "It slowly happened from weekend to then needing it throughout the week, needing something to go to work," she said. "Eventually I needed something stronger than the Vicodin. I was doing OxyContins, Dilaudid, things like that, until that eventually led into me doing heroin. And the higher milligram things like Oxycontin and Dilaudid to me are pretty much like heroin. They’re like synthetic heroin—almost as strong. So when it came to the point and I couldn’t find those kinds of pills, I had to go to the street to prevent my withdrawal symptoms, so that I could participate in my life—my children, getting them to school, me going to work. So that’s how I got into using heroin after the pills."

Obama said, "What we have to recognize is, in this global economy of ours that the most important thing we can do is to reduce demand for drugs. And the only way that we reduce demand is if we're providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem. Now, this is a shift that began very early on in my administration. And there's a reason why my drug czar is somebody who came not from the criminal justice side but came really from the treatment side—and himself has been in recovery for decades now."

"Part of what has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system has to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were viewed as, or stereotypically identified as poor, minority, and as a consequence, the thinking was it is often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities, and it's not our problem they're just being locked up," Obama said. "And I think that one of the things that's changed in this opioid debate is a recognition that this reaches everybody."

The only good news about the drug epidemic is that it's affecting so many people in so many areas that "we're seeing a bipartisan interest in addressing this problem—not just taking a one-size-fits-all approach, not just thinking in terms of criminalization and—which, unfortunately, too often has been the response that we have to a disease of addiction—but rather, we've got an all-hands-on-deck-approach increasingly that says we've got to stop those who are trafficking and preying on people, but we also have to make sure that our medical community, that our scientific community, that individuals—all of us are working together in order to address this problem," Obama said. (Read more)

Bangor Daily News: National park would help revive economies in rural areas where paper mills closed

The decline of paper mills in Maine has left rural areas that relied on the industry with high rates of unemployment, plummeting property values and declining populations, leaving many rural communities trying to find ways to diversify local economies, reports the editorial board of The Bangor Daily News. "There is a project on the table that promises to aid in economic development and diversity—the proposal to create a national park in the Katahdin Region, a part of the state hit hard by the closure of paper mills." But so far state lawmakers "have been resistant to a national park or national monument." (Best Places map: The Great Northern Paper Co. in Millnocket closed in 2014, laying off 200 employees. The region has been proposed for a national park )

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Independent Sen. Angus King "wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, asking her to assemble an Economic Development Assessment Team to help rural regions in Maine inventory their assets and identify challenges and opportunities to diversify their economies," states the board. "Among the senators’ requests to Pritzker, three are crucial: strengthening the workforce and workforce training efforts in rural Maine, developing strategies to support bottom-up economic development and sharing national best practices for economic development in rural regions affected by the decline of industry."

"But the majority of Maine residents, including those in Maine’s more rural 2nd Congressional District, support a national park," states the board. "Nationally, areas surrounding national parks saw larger population gains between 1970 and 2010 than the U.S. as a whole—and certainly much more than rural Maine. These areas also outpaced the U.S. in income growth and employment gains during that period. This is the type of growth—especially an influx of new people—that the Katahdin region needs. Many want to live in scenic places with ample recreational opportunities. Some of these new residents will bring businesses and entrepreneurial skills with them."

"A national park or monument is not a panacea, but it can be an important part of the region’s remaking," states the board. "That’s why the assessment Collins and King are requesting must examine all possibilities for rural economic development—tourism included." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

USDA announces $1.4 million in grants available for rural areas to fight heroin and opioid addiction

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made $1.4 million in grants available to rural communities to fight heroin and painkiller abuse, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday during a drug abuse summit in Atlanta, states a press release. Vilsack also will hold town hall meetings in rural areas hit particularly hard by drug abuse—New Hampshire, Missouri, Nevada, Mississippi and Appalachia—to "bring together local and state government partners, the health community and other stakeholders to raise awareness of the issue and discuss possible solutions."

Vilsack said in a statement: “The opioid epidemic is a fast-growing problem all across America, and we know that rural communities are facing an even higher burden than those in urban areas. We’ve identified ways to use existing resources to help rural towns and organizations address this challenge head-on and potentially save lives, and I look forward to meeting with community leaders to better understand how we can further support their efforts to create healthier, safer futures for families and individuals who may be struggling.”

The $1.4 million is made available through USDA's Rural Health and Safety Education competitive grants program, states the release. "Administered through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the program’s goal is to enhance the quality of life in rural areas through improved health and safety education efforts, including expanding the focus to address the critical challenges of substance abuse in rural communities across the nation. For the first time, USDA is encouraging applicants to develop projects that specifically work to educate the public about opioid abuse and overdose. USDA will also consider projects that target other health outcomes." The application deadline is June 1.

USGS for the first time releases maps of potential man-made earthquakes

About seven million people in the U.S. live and work in areas "with potential for damaging shaking from induced seismicity," says a report released Monday by the United States Geological Survey that for the first time includes maps identifying "potential ground-shaking hazards from both human-induced and natural earthquakes," Jessica Fitzpatrick and Mark Petersen report for USGS. "In the past, USGS maps only identified natural earthquake hazards. This is also the first one-year outlook for the nation’s earthquake hazards and is a supplement to existing USGS assessments that provide a 50-year forecast."

Petersen, Chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project, said, “By including human-induced events, our assessment of earthquake hazards has significantly increased in parts of the U.S. This research also shows that much more of the nation faces a significant chance of having damaging earthquakes over the next year, whether natural or human-induced.” (USGS map)
"The list of places at highest risk of man-made earthquakes includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio and Alabama," Joel Achenbach reports for The Washington Post. "Most of these earthquakes are relatively small, in the range of magnitude 3, but some have been more powerful, including a magnitude 5.6 earthquake in 2011 in Oklahoma that was linked to wastewater injection."

Scientists said "they do not know if there is an upper limit on the magnitude of induced earthquakes; this is an area of active research," Achenbach writes. "Oklahoma has had prehistoric earthquakes as powerful as magnitude 7. It's not immediately clear whether this new research will change industry practices or even whether it will surprise anyone in the areas of newly estimated risk. In Oklahoma, for example, the natural rate of earthquakes is only one or two a year, but there have been hundreds since fracking and horizontal drilling, with the associated wastewater injection, became commonplace in the last decade."

Competition from chain stores hurting rural grocery stores struggling to stay in business

Rural grocery store owners in Minnesota and North Dakota are facing the same fears as similar owners in other states—that competition from chain stores that offer cheaper prices will force them out of business, Grace Lyden reports for The Forum of Fargo‑Moorhead. Closing grocery stores could turn the community into a food desert and harm elderly residents who rely on deliveries. Karen Lanthier, the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships assistant program director for sustainable local foods, said in a news release, "Grocery stores are the primary source of healthy food. When they close, consumers face serious access challenges and in some cases rely on less-healthy food as part of their diet."

A survey released this month by the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and the Minnesota Center for Survey Research found that 34 percent of rural Minnesota grocery store owners expect to no longer own the store in five years. Twenty-eight percent of stores have customers who travel 30 or more miles to shop, and 61 percent of respondents said the nearest discount grocery store was 20 or more miles away, with only two percent saying there was one was less than 10 miles away.

"Almost all of those grocers said high operating costs and narrow profit margins were challenges for their business, and 29 percent said their most significant challenge was competition with large chain grocers," Lyden writes. That's a problem Tony Laddusaw, who owns a local store in in Hawley, Minn., (Best Places map) can understand. "Unlike his peers, Laddusaw has seen business grow in recent years, thanks to the swelling population of Fargo-Moorhead about 20 miles west. But Hawley's nearness to the metro area also means potential patrons often bypass the local store in search of a better deal." Hawley, who bought the store from his parents in 1999, told Lyden, "We're losing probably 35 percent of the business to Fargo-Moorhead, and it's convenient for people because they work there."

A 2014 survey of 53 grocers conducted by the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives found that "more than 40 percent of rural grocers said narrow profit margins were a major challenge for their stores," Lyden writes. "About two-thirds said they were challenged by the availability of satisfactory labor, and more than 80 percent said a major challenge was residents shopping out of town." Laddusaw said in a good year profit margins are about 3 percent. He told Lyden, "That's why there aren't that many grocery stores anymore because people can't survive on that 3 percent net." (Read more)

Political lawn signs increase vote share by 1.7 percentage points, says study

Do lawn signs actually have an impact on political elections? A study by researchers at five U.S. colleges published in Science Direct found that signs on average increase vote share by 1.7 percentage points. The study, by researchers at Columbia University, Binghamton University, Knox College, High Point University and Old Dominion University, looked at lawn signs planted in random locations for "a congressional candidate, a mayoral candidate, an independent expenditure campaign directed against a gubernatorial candidate, and a candidate for county commissioner," finding that "signs increased advertising candidates’ vote shares. Results also provide some evidence that the effects of lawn signs spill over into adjacent untreated voting precincts."

Lauren Leatherby of Journalist's Resource, writes, "The results from each of the four individual experiments were not, on their own, statistically significant. But the researchers were able to draw general conclusions after pooling the average results of the four experiments. While lawn signs appear to have a modest effect on voting outcomes, they could, theoretically, provide an edge in certain tight elections. The authors suggest that future studies use a larger sample size and look more closely at how this campaign strategy might influence voter behavior in neighboring precincts." (Read more)

Free weekly Montana tabloid owned by Maury Povich has earned statewide respect for coverage

Maury Povich might be best known for his daytime talk show's recurring theme of paternity test results and guests embarrassing themselves with their wild antics. But not as many people might know that Povich and his wife, newswoman Connie Chung, own a free weekly tabloid in Montana that has become one of the state's most well respected publications, Heidi Gaiser reports for Columbia Journalism Review. The Flathead Beacon grew from a staff of seven publishing 24 pages in 2007 to a staff of 20 publishing 25,000 copies of 64 pages each week. The website also sees about 100,000 unique visitors each week. Povich and Chung have owned a home in the area since 1998. (Beacon photo by Greg Lindstrom: Not many weeklies would send a reporter and photographer to the Super Bowl, especially to cover an athlete who wasn't expected to even play)

"The Beacon has also earned numerous Montana Newspaper Association Awards, six times being named the state’s best large weekly, with four wins for best website," Gaiser writes. "Carol Van Valkenburg, who taught for 30 years at the University of Montana’s journalism school, calls the Beacon 'the best newsroom in Montana.'" Van Valkenburg said of Kellyn Brown, who was hired to launch the paper, “The paper does excellent journalism, and Kellyn has created a vibrant work environment. He’s made journalism fun again. I’ve sent a lot of reporters his direction, and they have thrived.”

"The Beacon’s editorial formula is a mix of in-depth pieces using bold photos and sophisticated graphics, plus a print wrap-up of the week in local news in charts, numbers and short stories," Gaiser writes. "Outdoor recreation, natural resources and the area’s relationship with Alberta, Canada, are all regular parts of the coverage mix." It also helps to have financial backing. Reporter Dillon Tabish told Gaiser, “Maury and Connie really emphasize that the Beacon should be a must-read every week. They put their money where their mouth is by giving us the opportunities and resources to make that possible.”

The Beacon sent journalists to San Francisco to cover local native and Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the Super Bowl, it has a current story on local students building robots and using drones for STEM skills and a story on scientists presenting aquifer research at a local community college.

Report: Best rural electric co-ops in states where legislation enacted to meet efficiency targets

The best rural energy efficiency programs are in states such as Minnesota and Iowa, which "have enacted legislation directing rural electric cooperatives and generation and transmissions to fund demand side management and/or meet energy savings and peak load reduction requirements," states a report by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. "In addition to the impacts of legislation, these states and G&Ts have developed a collaborative program infrastructure that helps to design and implement effective programs on a statewide or regional basis." (Southwest Energy Efficiency Project graphic)
In other states, such programs "are a mixed bag when it comes to energy efficiency, largely depending on whether state policy directs co-ops to meet efficiency targets," Robert Walton reports for Utility Drive. The report "does not broadly call out rural electrical cooperatives for efficiency failings, but it highlights weaknesses at a handful of power providers and suggests policy changes could push greater energy savings."

The report states: "The data demonstrates that in states where cooperatives are regulated by EERS, with the exception of Arizona, cooperatives achieve maximum savings levels at 1.00 percent or higher." The report found that "in states with a strong collective program design and implementation infrastructure, whether sponsored by a state or created by a group of cooperatives working together, 'cooperatives have saved more than those states where rural electric cooperatives develop and operate programs independently.'"

"Energy Central reports on the report's recommendations, including states taking legislative action to bolster efficiency efforts at cooperatives and using an integrated resource planning process to push energy saving initiatives," Walton writes. "Effective programs leadership and an emphasis on least-cost resources are also keys to promoting efficiency, the report found."

Monday, March 28, 2016

Vermont state law forcing big food companies to label GMOs on products sold nationally

Vermont, one of the smallest and most rural states, "has boxed big food companies into a corner," forcing many corporations, including General Mills, Mars and Kellogg, to announce plans to begin labeling genetically modified foods, Dan Charles and Allison Aubrey report for NPR. "Two years ago, the state passed legislation requiring mandatory labeling. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has fought back against the law, both in court and in Congress, but so far it's been unsuccessful." (Campbell's Soup Company graphic)

"Congress failed to pass an industry-supported measure that would have created a voluntary national standard for labeling—and also would have preempted Vermont's law," Charles and Aubrey write. "Which means for now, food industry giants still face a July 1 deadline to comply with the state's labeling mandate. And since food companies can't create different packaging just for Vermont, it appears that the tiniest of states has created a labeling standard that will go into effect nationwide."

"Food companies have argued that such a label will scare consumers away because they'll see it—incorrectly—as a warning," Charles and Aubrey writes. "If it has that effect, companies will react by removing genetically modified ingredients from their products. In fact, food companies see the labeling campaign as a veiled attempt to drive genetically engineered crops out of agriculture. Privately, however, many companies are hoping that consumers will disregard those labels and continue to buy the same products as always. Consumers who are motivated to avoid GMOs may be doing that already, by buying organic or non-GMO products. If that's the case, those GMO labels will turn out to be just extra words on the package."

Congress night have intervened "had the pro-GMO forces been willing to accept mandatory national labeling to avoid mandatory state labeling," Urban Lehner reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "Instead, they held out for voluntary labeling. Whatever its merits, the voluntary approach never had much chance of passing the Senate. The Democrats wanted mandatory labeling, and they had the leverage: If Congressional action failed, Vermont's mandatory-labeling law would take effect. When a voluntary bill made it to the Senate floor, it got only 48 votes."

"If the pro-voluntary camp figured mandatory in one state is preferable to mandatory nationally, it miscalculated," Lehner writes. "The battle line of toppled Goliaths underscores the miscalculation. Labeling products differently in different states is costly and cumbersome. Rather than pulling out of Vermont, these food companies are imposing Vermont's standards on the rest of the country. A state with 625,000 people is effectively making food-labeling policy for a nation of 320 million. Worse, absent Congressional pre-emption, other states remain free to pass their own labeling laws. Their mandates could differ from Vermont's, leaving the industry with the dreaded patchwork of contradictory labeling laws."

In Kentucky, where lung cancer rates lead nation, initiative focused on increasing rural screenings

Health officials in Kentucky—especially in Eastern Kentucky—hope to increase lung cancer screenings by patterning the effort after a successful colon cancer screening initiative, Jackie Judd reports for PBS NewsHour. In rural Eastern Kentucky, smoking and lung cancer rates are double the national average, while the state is second in adult smoking rates and leads the nation in lung cancer and rates of death from it. The epidemic in Eastern Kentucky is "fueled by a toxic combination of poverty, medical illiteracy, limited access to care, lifestyle choices like smoking and a fatalism that says knowing you have cancer won’t save you." (CDC graphic: Colon cancer screenings are up in Kentucky)

Another problem is that statewide bans of smoking in public places have been largely unsuccessful, with two-thirds of residents living in areas with no such bans. While the state expanded Medicaid under its former Democratic governor, newly-elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has sought to change the state's program.

Fifteen years ago, Kentucky led the nation in "both the highest incidence and mortality rates for colorectal cancer," Allison Perry reports for University of Kentucky News. Rural residents didn't seek care, partly because of a lack of facilities and partly because of a refusal to schedule an appointment. If local residents wouldn't seek care, health officials decided to bring care to local residents.

"In the seven years following this new focus on colorectal cancer, the screenings rates nearly doubled, from 34.7 percent of the age-eligible population receiving screenings to 63.7 percent," Perry writes. "This raised Kentucky’s rank from 49th in the country to 23rd compared to other states. No other state has had such a dramatic increase in colorectal screenings in such a short period of time. As a result, the lives of many Kentuckians have been saved: the incidence rate for colorectal cancer is down nearly 25 percent, and the mortality rate has dropped 30 percent. Through colorectal screenings, doctors can find precancerous lesions and remove them before they become cancer. Screenings also allow physicians to find these cancers at an earlier stages, when they are more likely to respond to treatment."
In Kentucky "the challenge is to not only encourage certain lifelong smokers to get screened, but to get them to quit, and for others to never start," especially because of the addictive nature of smoking, Judd reports. "It will be even more difficult than changing the profile of colon cancer because smoking involves addiction. The hope of public health officials is that the model used to bring down colon cancer deaths can be used to the same effect, not only for lung cancer but for other diseases plaguing this depressed swathe of America."

Rapid rise of dollar stores in rural areas offers cheap goods but hurts local businesses

In rural areas across the nation, dollar stores continue to pop up "at a frantic pace, delighting residents with the convenience of big inventories and low prices while threatening local merchants who say they can’t compete," Pam Louwagie reports for the Star Tribune. "In Minnesota, Dollar General opened 42 stores in the past two years, bringing its total to 75. Family Dollar opened 16 stores in Minnesota since September 2014, for a total of 72. Many of the stores are appearing in towns too small for big-box retailers." (Tribune photo by Jim Gehrz: Dollar General in Isle, Minn.)

Nationally, about 6,000 dollar stores have opened since 2010, for a total of nearly 30,000, according to the retail research firm Conlumino, Louwagie writes. "Consumer spending in dollar stores has skyrocketed from around $30.4 billion to $45.3 billion during that time, the firm found. While price remains the top reason customers shop the stores, according to the firm’s surveys, convenience matters, too. More shoppers are also wandering in to browse." 

Advocates for dollar stores say they provide local tax money, while reducing the need for locals to travel out of town to the nearest Walmart, Louwagie writes. Owners of local stores argue that dollar stores have hurt their businesses. Bruce Schelhaas, owner of a grocery store in rural Tracy, said sales are down 10 percent, forcing him cut hours and scrap "a planned $400,000 project to replace all of the store’s freezer and refrigerator cases." He also said his store offers something the dollar stores don't: fresh meat, produce, bakery items and a deli.

Rural Nevada town goes on sale for $8 million

For $8 million, a rural town along the Nevada/California/Arizona border could be yours, Henry Brean reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The town, Cal-Nev-Ari (US-Zip.org map), located in Clark County, Nevada, about 70 miles south of Las Vegas, was built in the 1960s as a town for pilots. "The sale includes just about everything: the dirt airstrip, restaurant, bar, convenience store, post office with ZIP Code, mobile home park, 10-room motel, RV park, and the casino, which has been open since 1968 with a non-restricted gaming license. The only things not offered are the town's roughly 350 residents, some privately owned homes, the small community center and a volunteer fire station built by Clark County after the original one 'burned to the ground,'" said Slim Kidwell. Kidwell and his wife Nancy own the town.

"Kidwell is selling a full square mile along U.S. Highway 95, and more than 500 empty acres are ready to be developed, he said," Brean writes. "The Kidwells already did the hard stuff, building infrastructure and and bringing in utilities. The water system can draw from three wells and is only at about 20 percent of capacity." Based on a few of the inquiries received so far, "prospective buyers see potential for a retirement community, a renewable energy project, a motorsports park, a dude ranch, a survival school, a shooting range or a 'marijuana resort,' assuming that sort of thing becomes legal some day."

EPA criticizes Wyoming study that said fracking not responsible for contaminated wells

The Environmental Protection Agency has criticized a report by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that said hydraulic fracturing likely played little role in polluted water wells in the area east of Pavillion, Wyo. (Best Places map), Benjamin Storrow reports for the Billings Gazette. EPA said "Wyoming regulators downplayed health concerns, glossed over ambiguities and made unsubstantiated claims about the source of contamination in their study." EPA's comments "raised questions over state officials' contention that natural gas operations are not responsible for pollution found in some water wells outside this central Wyoming community of roughly 230 people."

The state report "linked contamination in the wells to naturally occurring pollutants," Storrow writes. "Methane buildup in landowners' water was more likely a product of natural seepage from shallow geologic formations than gas production, the state concluded."

"EPA repeatedly questioned those claims in its review of the state study, saying Wyoming investigators lacked the evidence, or relied on limited proof, to make their assertions," Storrow writes. "Federal regulators noted the DEQ did not cite any evidence for its claim that small amounts of fracking fluid were used to stimulate the Pavillion field's gas wells—a central tenant of the state's argument that the practice was not to blame for the polluted water. And while state investigators acknowledged a gap in the protective layer encasing many Pavillion gas wells, they failed to examine whether fracking fluids could have escaped through those openings, the EPA found." (Read more)