Friday, April 28, 2017

Trump's order puts at least 24 national monuments at risk of losing federally protected status

President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order tasking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with reviewing national monuments created since Jan. 1, 1996 that are at least 100,000 acres, reports the Los Angeles Times. "These monuments were set aside as public land under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which gives presidents the power to limit use of public land for historic, cultural, scientific or other reasons." (Times graphic)
Trump's order puts at least 24 national monuments "at risk of losing their federally protected status," Gregory Korte reports for USA Today. "The executive order also allows for a review of sites smaller than 100,000 acres 'where the Secretary determines that the designation or expansion was made without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders'." All 24 national monuments were created by former Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush.

Oklahoma prison system has record number of offenders; many states facing overcrowding

Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Okla.
(Oklahoma Department of Corrections photo)
Oklahoma officials say there is a record number of offenders in the state's prison system, which is operating at 109 percent capacity, Graham Lee Brewer reports for The Oklahoman. Of the 62,000 offenders in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections system, "nearly 34,000, are outside prison walls, either on parole or probation or in a community supervision program or on GPS monitoring. More than 26,000 are incarcerated in a state or private prison or halfway house. Another 1,700 are in county jails awaiting transfer to a state facility."

Most of Oklahoma's prisons are located in rural areas. Oklahoma also leads the nation in female prisoners. Prison overcrowding is a problem in many states. For example, "Ohio’s 27 prisons are a third over capacity with more than 50,000 inmates," Karen Kasler reports for WKSU radio in northeast Ohio. Nebraska state prisons are at 159 percent capacity, Paul Hammel reports for the Kearney Hub.

Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, told reporters, "When you think about one in 80 Oklahomans is incarcerated or under supervision, you know somebody who's in prison, or you love somebody who is." Allbaugh in January asked the Oklahoma Legislature for $1.64 billion in appropriations, saying nearly $849 million would go toward building two 2,000-bed medium security prisons.

"The legislature awarded $484.9 million for the 2017 fiscal year," Brewer writes. "The department's total budget for the current fiscal year, including federal funding and revenue from revolving funds and other sources, is $612 million."

A lack of American workers forcing farmers to spend more for H-2A program

A farm in Platteville, Colo.
(Tribune photo by Joshua Polson)
Agriculture producers are struggling to find American workers willing to put in long hard days of working on a farm for lower wages than other fields, such as oil, natural gas and construction, Samantha Fox reports for The Greeley Tribune in northern Colorado. That means many farmers are forced to spend more money to hire H-2A workers—non-immigrant workers who come to the U.S. for seasonal jobs—to fill the void.

One problem is that H-2A workers "cost more, require extensive paperwork and take a while to reach the fields," Fox writes. For example, Weld County, Colorado farmer Dave Petrocco said "he's spending about 25 percent more per year because of the H-2A program," but he said at least the participants are willing to do the work. Petrocco told Fox, "In my opinion, (H-2A) is a last-resort option to get seasonal farmworkers."

Another problem is that workers in the H-2A program are guaranteed pay—with a minimum of 40 working hours per week—regardless of crop yields or weather disasters that hurt producers. "Plus, the harder it is to get U.S. workers, accompanied with the obstacles H-2A presents, there's the question of how long producers can continue. The additional dollars spent on H-2A workers hurts that much more when low commodity trends come into play," Fox writes. Also, for dairy farmers, H-2A is not an option, because it's not seasonal work.

To combat workforce shortages some producers are switching to using genetically modified organisms in crops, because "it reduces the amount of workers needed," Fox writes. "That's why many organic farms are either small or have large staffs. But as many producers find, large staffs are hard to get and keep."

Booming dairy industry in Wisconsin county causing concern that too many cattle hurts rural life

Kewaunee County, Wisconsin
 (Wikipedia map)
A thriving dairy industry in one Wisconsin county is causing a divide over whether too many cattle is hurting rural life, Lee Bergquist reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture says that since 1983, cattle numbers in Kewaunee County have increased 62 percent to 97,000, while statewide numbers have dropped 20 percent. But the increase in cattle also has led to concern about large-scale operations hurting small farmers, manure's effect on the environment, odors, pollution and increased truck traffic.

Department of Natural Resources data shows that Kewaunee County ranks third statewide with 16 mega-sized dairy farms, trailing only neighboring Brown County, 20, and Manitowoc, 18, Bergquist writes. "In Wisconsin, the number of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has grown by 400 percent from 50 in 2000 to 252 in 2016, agency figures show, and has played a key role in growing milk production as farm numbers are falling." A report by University of Wisconsin-Madison economists "estimated that farms of 500 or more cows accounted for 40 percent of state milk production in 2013 compared to 22 percent in 2007."

For some, those numbers are out of control, Bergquist writes. Lee Luft, a retired executive and a member of the Kewaunee County Board who "said farming and water pollution have become inextricably tied in local politics," told Bergquist, "There’s simply too many cows."

Bergquist notes, "Kewaunee County’s three major rivers—the Ahnapee, East Twin and Kewaunee—all violate state standards for phosphorus pollution. Manure is a source of phosphorus. In excess, it promotes algae blooms. The rivers were placed on a state list of impaired waters in either 2014 or 2016."

"Alarmed by reports of polluted wells, Kewaunee County residents in 2015 voted overwhelming to support an ordinance restricting manure spreading in winter and early spring on fields with 20 feet or less of soil," Bergquist reports. "It was the first time a Wisconsin county took such action."

"CAFO critics wanted higher fees for big farms," Bergquist writes. "But Republican Gov. Scott Walker did not boost the fees in his budget, which is now before lawmakers. Walker did propose a study that could turn over regulation of CAFOs to the state agriculture department — a measure pushed by a farm group, the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, and opposed by environmental groups."

Minnesota power plant that partially runs on turkey feces faces closure

Benson Power plant (MPR photo by Tim Post)
A Benson, Minn. power plant that burns turkey feces and wood chips to generate steam that powers the plant’s turbines could close by the summer of 2018, Reed Anifson reports for the Swift County Monitor-News. Employees of Benson Power, LLC were told Tuesday that owners were in negotiations with Xcel Energy for sale of the plant. "If the sale goes through, Xcel Energy would seek regulatory permission from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to decommission the plant and close it." The plant, the first of its kind in the U.S., has 45 employees.

"Xcel Energy would explain to the PUC that it wants to close the plant to save its customers a substantial amount of money by reducing the cost of energy it purchases," Anifson writes. "Biomass power can be as much as 10 times more expensive than natural gas. Its other sources of green power, solar and wind, are far cheaper and are becoming an increasing segment of Xcel Energy’s portfolio."

The plant, launched in 2006, "gave area turkey farmers a new market for manure and created work for truckers who deliver some 500,000 tons of biomass to the plant annually," Elizabeth Dunbar reports for Minnesota Public Radio. Anfinson, who also serves on the city's economic development authority, said "the plant accounts for a quarter of the city's current property tax revenues."

East Ky. leadership group honors scholar, seed saver, women's advocate, photographer and others

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

RICHMOND, Ky.Now 89, Appalachian scholar and humorist Loyal Jones has seen his native region evolve from a land of coal camps, mine wars and mechanization to one looking for new industry and lots of help. And he still looked ahead Thursday night as he accepted the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation's top award.

"We have a viable culture here," the Berea resident told the dinner audience at Eastern Kentucky University. "We have a lot of problems, but we have a lot of people with great values."

Several exemplars of those values received awards. David McFaddin, an EKU vice president, won the Public Individual Award; Chris Hall of Perry County won the Youth Leadership Award for his work on weather and safety; and Bruce Parsons of Hazard won the Media and Technology Award for starting The Holler, a social learning network.

Loyal Jones, Warren Brunner, Bill Best and Jane Stephenson, all
of Berea, Ky., won East Kentucky Leadership Foundation awards.
Three other winners live in Berea. Jane Stephenson's Berea-based New Opportunity School for Women received the Organization Award for its work to help women face challenges and improve their lives. She said the award "really goes to the 900 women" who have completed the program.

Bill Best, who collects, raises and sells heirloom seeds and new varieties of plants at his Berea farm, won the Private Individual Award for service to the region. He is the author of a new book, Kentucky Heirloom Seeds. He told the crowd, "We may be the only place on Earth where there are more seeds available than there were 100 years ago."

Appalachian photographer Warren Brunner of Berea won the Culture and Arts Award. He said of his career, "What got it all started was Loyal Jones," who sent him to Pike County to photograph the first group of Appalachian Volunteers in 1964.

Jones won the Tony Turner Award, named for the late news director of Hazard's WYMT-TV and given for major contributions to the betterment of the region, and not every year. Jones recalled a story about an Old Regular Baptist minister whose congregation gave him an award for humilty, which it took back when he bragged about it. "I'm going to brag about this award," he said, "modestly, of course."

Earl Gohl did a little bragging earlier. The federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission said "We're on the right track" in Eastern Kentucky, a chronically poor region that has lost more than half the jobs in its major industry, coal. "There are great things happening here," Gohl said, citing new philanthropy, development of entrepreneurs, job training, a better education system, the University of Pikeville, and a regional broadband network, which he called "a tough slog."

"We're able to get past county lines," Gohl said, citing a chronic obstacle to unity in the region. "We're able to get past other lines that limit our ability to think, work and get things done." He said that is thanks in large part to Shaping Our Appalachian Region, an economic-development effort launched when the coal industry began to tank.

"Make no mistake, we are in a time of great transition," said Peter Hille, chair of the foundation and head of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. "We relied too much for too long on a single industry, and we were not prepared for this transition."

Hille added, "To have a fair shot at building a new economy requires a level playing field. It’s hard to build a new economy in a place where broken markets make it harder to start new businesses; where the natural environment has been compromised; where the infrastructure is sorely lacking; and where long-term economic distress has impacted health, education, demographics. The people of Eastern Kentucky deserve a level playing field." For Hille's full remarks, click here.

There was also a transitional feel in the entertainment, compared to past annual awards dinners of the foundation. The Local Honeys, a banjo-fiddle duo, performed an anti-coal song, "Cigarette Trees." Here they are doing the tune on YouTube:

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Lack of education, jobs, training keep too many rural youth not in work or school

The number of "disconnected" rural youth—meaning they are not in school or the workforce—has overtaken the number of similar youth in urban areas, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, said 4.9 million youth between 16 and 24 are disconnected, with 20 percent in rural areas and 24 percent in the South.

One example of the rise in rural areas is Worcester County, Maryland, which has a disconnected youth rate of 25 percent, higher than Baltimore's 20 percent, Henderson notes.  "About 20 percent of young people in extremely rural areas—those like Worcester County with no cities larger than 10,000 people—were jobless and not in school, on average, over a five-year period, from 2010 to 2014, Measure of America said in a March report. That’s much higher than the rate for counties in urban centers (about 14 percent) or for suburban counties (12 percent)."

The number of disconnected rural youth has been on the rise in recent years, Henderson notes. It was 11 percent in rural areas in 2000, compared to 15 percent in urban areas, "but since 2013, the rural rate has been at least 3 percentage points higher than the urban rate. In 2016, 17 percent of young people in rural areas were disconnected, compared to 13 percent in urban areas." (Stateline graphic: Disconnected youth)
Henderson notes that "the shift is due mostly to a decline in high school enrollment in rural areas after 2011 and an increase in college enrollment in urban areas over the same period. Rural employment also is a large part of the issue, as jobs in many parts of the country have failed to recover from the recession while urban jobs have bounced back and climbed from pre-recession peaks." Rural isolation, which can lead to a lack of good jobs and training centers, is another problem.

The Measure for America report said: “These vulnerable young people are cut off from the people, institutions, and experiences that would otherwise help them develop the knowledge, skills, maturity, and sense of purpose required to live rewarding lives as adults. And the negative effects of youth disconnection ricochet across the economy, the social sector, the criminal justice system, and the political landscape, affecting us all.”

Michigan to raise speed limits on rural highways to 75; studies show increased speeds more deadly

About 600 miles of rural freeways in Michigan will soon see speed limits increased to 75 mph and 65 for semis and school buses, reports The Associated Press. New signs are expected to be installed on three major freeways next month. Also, 900 miles of roads will have limits increased from 55 to 65. 

"The higher speeds are required under a new law that Gov. Rick Snyder signed in January. It allows the new limits only if engineering and safety studies indicate it is OK and if 85 percent of traffic survey already is traveling at those speeds on the affected highways," reports AP. Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, director of the state police, said "The 85th-percentile speed analysis is a 'national scientifically proven method to determine and establish safe speed limits.'"

Last year in Michigan traffic accidents 1,021 people were killed, the most since 2007 when there was 1,084, Robert Allen reports for Detroit Free Press. "Since dipping to a record low of 817 in 2009, the number of traffic fatalities in Michigan has increased, gradually, by about 15 percent during the six years that followed, according to data from Michigan State Police." In 2016, 963 people died in traffic fatalities in Michigan, 11th most in the U.S.

An April 2016 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) showed that nationally increasing speed limits led to 33,000 traffic deaths from 1993 to 2013, including 1,900 deaths in 2013. (Michigan State Police map: Traffic fatalities from 2010-14)

Study: Older Americans more likely to die from prescription painkillers, younger from heroin

A divide exists in heroin and prescription painkiller deaths. Analysis of drug overdose and emergency room data from 2013-14 by University of Maryland professor Jay Unick, who has written several studies on health consequences of heroin use, found that people in their 50s and 60s are more likely to die of prescription drug overdoses, while people in their 20s and 30s are more likely to die from heroin overdoses. Unick presented his findings last week at the National Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. (Vox graphics)
Unick "thinks the age divide is an unintended consequence of states moving to crack down on opioid prescriptions," Sarah Frostenson reports for Vox. Unick told her, “Older people have greater access to pills. But younger people are just starting with heroin and aren’t even making that shift from pills to heroin.” Opioids have become a particular problem in rural areas, especially Appalachia.
Heroin, for the first time in 2015, killed more people than prescription painkillers, Frostenson notes. But the difference in heroin and prescription painkillers is regional. Unick found that hot spots for heroin deaths were largely concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, where emergency room admissions have steadily increased, compared to the South and West, where it has remained mostly stable. On the other hand, emergency room visits for prescription painkiller overdoses are highest in the South and West, although data shows numbers have been declining in all four regions since 2012.

Rising number of coal-fired plants slated for closure are newer facilities; too soon to call it a trend

While many shuttered U.S. coal-fired plants have been older facilities, a rising number of plants scheduled for closure are newer, Benjamin Storrow reports for Climatewire. Of the five coal plants utilities have announced plans to close since the start of 2017, "four boast a generating capacity greater than 1,000 megawatts, and all were built after 1970. By comparison, eight plants out of more than 150 retired between 2010 and 2015 listed generation capacity over 1,000 MW, according to an E&E News review of federal figures. All those larger facilities came online after 1970."

"Experts say it is too soon to say whether the upcoming retirements constitute a trend," Storrow writes. "The sample size is too small and, in some cases, the announcements are so recent that the plant's fate has yet to be finalized. It nevertheless represents a troubling development for an industry battered by years of low wholesale power prices, tepid demand and increasing competition from natural gas and renewables."

"The upcoming closures represent a stark change from previous coal plant retirements," Storrow reports. "Many of the plants to retire in recent years were among the oldest and least efficient in the generating fleet. While U.S. coal generation fell by 28 percent between 2012 and 2015, 5 percent of that decline was attributable to the 238 coal units closed over that period, according to researchers at Columbia University. Much of that decline, they found, was attributable to reduced electricity demand and coal plant running times."

"Even the largest plants to close between 2010 and 2015 were relatively old by industry standards," he writes. "Six of the eight plants with capacity greater than 1,000 MW began operating in the 1950s. The other two began operating in the 1960s. The plants' advanced age made compliance with U.S. EPA's Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) costly. In all eight cases, utilities cited compliance with federal air quality rules as the reason for the shutdowns."

Texas 'hog apocalypse' on hold after maker of deadly pesticide withdraws registration request

The feral "hog apocalypse" in Texas has been shelved. "Citing the threat of lawsuits, Scimetrics, the company behind the only Environmental Protection Agency-approved pesticide for feral hogs, announced Tuesday it had withdrawn its request for registration in Texas," Morgan Smith reports for The Texas Tribune. Scimetrics said in a statement: "Under the threat of many lawsuits, our family-owned company cannot at this time risk the disruption of our business and continue to compete with special interests in Texas that have larger resources to sustain a lengthy legal battle."

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in February "announced a rule change in the Texas Administrative Code that classifies a warfarin-based compound called 'Kaput Feral Hog Lure' as a state-limited-use pesticide" to combat the state's feral hog problem, which is estimated to cause more than $50 million in damage a year. Miller's decision led to protests that the pesticide is inhumane and that other species might eat it.

Miller, in a statement, called the decision by Scimetrics to pull its request for registration, "just another kick in the teeth for rural Texans," Smith writes. The decision "comes a week after a bill that would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs overwhelmingly passed the Texas House." 

Mark Loeffler, a spokesman for the Texas Agriculture Department, said "there are no restrictions on the company seeking re-registration in the future," Smith writes. He said "the department was honoring the company’s request to remove its application but would continue an already-in-motion process to establish rules governing the use of the poison in the state. The department held a public hearing on the rules in Waco on Monday."

Wolves in most of Wyoming can be shot on sight

A wolf at Yellowstone (Tribune photo)
Wolves in 85 percent of Wyoming are considered a predator and can now be shot on sight, Christine Peterson reports for the Casper Star Tribune. The Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday upheld a state management plan that had been in place since 2012. A coalition of environmental groups sued in 2012 over the management plan.

Wyoming will now manage the 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation, Peterson notes. Wolves "are classified as a trophy animal in the northwest corner of the state and subject to fall hunting seasons," which will be set by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission after a public comment period.

Tyler Abbott, Wyoming field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said "preliminary estimates showed Wyoming had about 240 wolves at the end of 2016," Peterson writes. "The feds killed about 115 wolves in 2016 because of livestock depredations, he said. In 2015, the service killed about 54 wolves. In 2012, 42 wolves were killed by hunters in the state’s trophy area and 25 were killed in the rest of the state. The next year, 24 wolves were shot in the trophy area and 39 taken in the rest of the state."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

White House adviser promoting task force says agriculture is top driver of rural economy; it's not

Ray Starling, special assistant to President Trump on agriculture, trade and food assistance, told reporters Monday that the White House's new Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity would focus on agriculture because it's "the No. 1 driver in these rural communities." However, data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show agriculture is not the top job in rural areas, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. The agency, which ranks seven rural economic sectors, says agriculture is fifth in earnings and sixth in jobs. (Yonder graphic: Dominant economic sectors in each rural county)
"Like the rest of America, the lion’s share of earnings and jobs for rural Americans comes in service sectors such as health care and retail; business services such as insurance and leasing; the public sector; and manufacturing," the Yonder reports. Agriculture accounted for 11 percent of rural earnings in 2014. That's because the counties that depend on it "as their primary economic engine are also less populous than other types of non-metropolitan counties." About 2.8 million people, only six percent of the U.S. rural population, live in farm-dependent counties.

Trump said "the task force’s work would be identifying regulations that impede agricultural productivity," writes the Yonder. "Included in the executive order is elimination of the Obama administration’s White House Rural Council. That body, started in 2011, was created to foster cooperation among federal agencies to promote 'economic prosperity and quality of life in our rural communities,' according to the executive order that established the council. One charge of the new task force will be to determine whether there is need for a structure similar to the Rural Council in the Trump White House. If so, that body might also work across departments and agencies but would focus on agriculture," Starling said.

Fatal accidents are now more likely to involve drugs than alcohol

Fatal accidents, for the first time, are more likely to involve drugs than alcohol, says a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. In 2015, the last year for which figures are available, 43 percent of drivers tested in fatal crashes had drugs present in their system, compared to 37 percent with alcohol, Ashley Halsey III reports for The Washington Post. She reports that 33,000 people fatally overdosed on opioids in 2015, "almost equal to the 35,095 people killed that year in all traffic crashes." (Study graphic: Percent of drivers with drugs detected)
"Although the liberalization of marijuana laws and increase in drug-use fatalities might lead to an easy conclusion, the report cites European studies that found marijuana use slightly increased the risk of a crash, while opioids, amphetamines and mixing alcohol with drugs greatly increased the risk of a crash," Halsey writes. "Counterbalancing that assessment of crash risk is this stark statistic: In Colorado, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 48 percent after the state legalized recreational use of the drug."

Halsey adds, "The challenge to police in attempting to enforce laws against drug-using drivers is compounded because many officers lack training to identify those under the influence of drugs, and delays in testing may allow the drug to metabolize so the results do not accurately measure the concentration in the driver’s system at the time of the incident."

Travel ban exacerbates rural doctor shortages, even in New Jersey

Like many states, New Jersey's rural and underserved areas are facing doctor shortages, largely because few want to practice in rural areas and President Trump's travel ban is chasing away foreign doctors, Nicole Leonard reports for The Press of Atlantic City. Another problem is the state's high cost of living and lower salary offers for doctors, say experts who estimate that New Jersey will be short about 2,500 physicians in the next few years.

The 2016 New Jersey Survey of Medical Students, published by the New Jersey Council of Teaching Hospitals, found that "45 percent of the state’s medical residents and fellows planned to work in suburban locations, while 27 percent planned to go to inner cities or rural areas," Leonard writes.

There are about 15,000 doctors in the U.S. from the seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen—targeted by President Trump's travel ban, Donald G. McNeil Jr. reported in February for The New York Times.

Cumberland County
 (Wikipedia map)
John Slotman, vice president of graduate medical education policy and teaching hospital issues at the New Jersey Hospital Association, said international graduates are more likely to work in rural and underserved areas, such as Cumberland County, which has one of the state's worst doctor to patient ratios, with 2,099 patients per primary-care doctor, Leonard writes.

Dr. Yaser Mourad, an international graduate from Syria who is now the chief medical quality officer at AtlantiCare, told Leonard, “With all this diversity, it gives us strength, because people bring different things to the table. We came here as immigrants and, while big cities are always attractive, it’s more serene here, and giving back to the country and communities that accepted us is extremely important.”

Waste from livestock operations is polluting Shenandoah River, environmental group says

Red arrow marks confluence of the Shenandoah River
(55.6 miles long plus two forks) with the Potomac River
The Shenandoah River is being polluted from waste from 176 million animals that defecate in or near the water, says the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization.

One of the group's main concerns, especially with summer approaching, is that the river is a popular swimming location, Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post.
Animal waste raises the level of E. coli and other bacteria in the area. While ingesting bacteria-infested water rarely leads to human death, it can lead to serious gastrointestinal illness, such as diarrhea and vomiting.

"According to the report, which relied on 2014-2016 data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, about 160 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and half a million cows account for 410,000 pounds of poultry litter and a billion pounds of liquid manure each year in the section of the Shenandoah Valley that includes Page, Rockingham, Augusta and Shenandoah counties," Fears writes.

"Farmers apply much of the manure to their fields to grow crops, but the earth can hold only so much before it releases it into the water, usually during rains," Fears notes. "Manure is rich with phosphorous and nitrogen, pollutants that algae greedily feed upon. That creates spectacular algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water, creating an environment in which fish can’t breathe — and zones where everything dies."

"Virginia tells rafters, swimmers, anglers and boaters to avoid waters where 10 percent of the samples far exceed the state’s limit for E. coli contamination," Fears reports. "But the state tests the Shenandoah Valley and its tributaries only twice a year. Nearly all the stations where the water is monitored were above the threshold 10 percent of the time, and about 20 of the stations exceeded it 'at least half of the time,' the Environmental Integrity Project found."

Drones search Grand Canyon for missing hikers

AP photo by Brandon Torres
Drones are being used for the first time in a major search at a national park, in an attempt to locate two lost hikers in the Grand Canyon, Astrid Galvan reports for The Associated Press. "Grand Canyon is the only national park with its own fleet of unmanned aircraft for locating people who have gotten lost, stranded, injured or killed. Under a program that began last fall, it has five drones and four certified operators."

Drones have been used before at Grand Canyon in other capacities, Galvan writes. "In November, after a visitor drove off a cliff and died, drones were sent in to examine the trees and brush and make sure it was safe for a helicopter to fly in and lift the car out." One month later, "rangers used a drone to locate a woman who had jumped to her death. Then they rappelled down to retrieve the body."

Matt Vandzura, chief ranger at Grand Canyon, told Galvan, "Our historic model was to take the helicopter to look and see," but he said now drones can offer "that same close look but without putting any people at risk. It has dramatically increased our ability to keep our people safe."

Indiana governor vetoes bill to allow fees for public records searches; legislature could override

Indiana Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has vetoed legislation "that would have allowed units of government to charge the public up to $20 an hour for producing public records," Kaitlin L. Lange reports for The Indianapolis Star. "Both chambers can still override his veto with a simple majority." The legislation "would have allowed an hourly charge to kick in for a records search requiring more than two hours of work. It also required government units to offer electronic versions of documents if requested, which Holcomb supported."

Holcomb said in a statement Monday, "I view this proposed legislation as contrary to my commitment to providing great government services at a great value for Hoosier taxpayers. Providing access to public records is a key part of the work public servants perform and is important from a government transparency standpoint." Lange notes that Vice President Mike Pence, then governor, "struck down a similar bill two years ago, saying, 'The cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know'."

The legislation passed easily in the House (63-27) and Senate (44-3), with advocates saying "fulfilling the large amount of records requests that are filed can be time-consuming for public agencies," Lange writes. Critics "worried the extra fee would be 'cost prohibitive' for concerned citizens, including journalists, to find out how taxpayer money is being spent and to hold elected officials accountable."

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Border wall won't stop flow of illegal drugs, say experts; few drugs transported through rural areas

Experts on the drug trade say a U.S.-Mexico border wall will do little to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. That's because it's a myth that the majority of drugs are transported across the border through rural and remote areas. Most drugs are actually driven across the border at checkpoints.

The Drug Enforcement Administration even acknowledges this, writing in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment that "Mexican drug cartels 'transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers," Ingraham writes. The report states that "drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers.”

Experts say "the image of drug smugglers who run drugs across remote stretches of the Southwest border is largely a fiction," Ingraham writes. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told him, "Smuggling drugs in cars is far easier than carrying them on the backs of people through a really harsh desert terrain. The higher the fence will be, the more will go through ports of entry."

Inrgaham notes that the Trump administration knows this. He writes, "At an April hearing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly acknowledged that illegal drugs 'mostly come through the ports of entry.' At a separate hearing in February, the director of a customs border task force told lawmakers that 'the Southwest land border POEs are the major points of entry for illegal drugs, where smugglers use a wide variety of tactics and techniques for concealing drugs'."

Adam Isaacson, senior associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights group, said "smart border drug policy would mean improving those ports of entry instead of building a wall," Ingraham writes. He told Ingraham, "If you really want to go after [the drug] problem, go after the ports of entry."

Pilot program lets Oklahomans check out mobile hotspots from libraries to get internet access

The library in Haskell, Okla., is part of
the pilot program (Best Places map)
A pilot program involving Oklahoma State University and four public libraries is boosting broadband access in rural areas, reports The Oklahoman. The program, which includes libraries in the towns of Elgin, Haskell, Perkins and Seminole, "allows individuals to check out a mobile hotspot device assigned to the libraries, essentially loaning out the internet."

Brian Whitacre, OSU Cooperative Extension agricultural economist and the program's principal investigator, said “These devices use cellular networks the same as smartphones. They can be used inside a home, taken to restaurants, community centers and the like, and even go on a road trip. As long as the cellular network provider used by the hot spot has service in that area, the devices will provide broadband access.”

A 2015 survey found that only 44 percent of Oklahoma households with incomes of less than $25,000 have a broadband connection, compared to 91 percent with incomes greater than $100,000, reports The Oklahoman. Holly Hughes, shared branch manager at the Reiger Memorial Library in Haskell, told The Oklahoman, “Haskell is a small community with limited household incomes. The program will allow the residents of Haskell to have access to the internet in a way they wouldn't be able to simply because of the prices involved.”

Solar industry growing rapidly; employers struggle to fill positions, says industry foundation study

The rapidly growing solar-energy industry is struggling to find qualified workers to fill positions, says a study by The Solar Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit. While the workforce grew 247 percent in 2011-16 and added 51,000 jobs in 2016, 84 percent of solar installers said they had trouble filling open installation positions. The industry estimates it will add 26,258 positions in 2017, a 10 percent increase.

The study, based on a survey of 400 solar installers, found "that 77.6 percent of solar employers reported difficulty finding candidates with any training specific to the position and 77.9 percent reported difficulty finding candidates with any relevant work experience," Maxine Joselow reports for Energywire. "About 65 percent of solar employers reported that difficulty finding qualified applicants led to increased costs, while 68 percent said it affected their ability to grow."

In Indiana, 100 percent of employers surveyed said they had difficulty hiring employees, according to the study. Rates also were high in New Mexico (95.5 percent), Oregon (93.3), Utah (91.2) and Hawaii (90.9)

Included in the study is "a Geographic Demand Index, which ranks states according to their demand for solar workforce development," Joselow writes. "Vermont tops the index because its solar jobs grew 58 times faster than its economy last year. The Green Mountain State is also projected to see the largest solar job growth relative to its total workforce this year, thanks in part to an aggressive renewable portfolio standard." (Geographic Demand Index)

Colorado budget proposal could cost rural and remote hospitals millions needed to stay afloat

A proposal by Colorado lawmakers to balance the state budget would cause about a dozen rural and remote hospitals to lose millions "by trimming hospital payments for uncompensated care," John Ingold and John Frank report for The Denver Post. "The latest projections show the largest cuts in dollar terms are felt along the Front Range at large hospitals that treat the most patients on Medicaid."

Analysis by the Colorado Hospital Association "identified at least 10 hospitals, most of them in remote parts of the state, at risk for significant reductions in services, staff or facility upgrades under the proposed budget," the Post reports. "And several could face potential closure in the next few years if the payment cuts continue."

Hugo, Colo. (Best Places map)
For Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo, the proposed budget would mean cuts to services, layoffs and fear of the facility shuttering, reports the Post. It is the only hospital on the Interstate 70 corridor between the Denver metro area and Burlington, near the Kansas border, and draws patients from more than an hour away, the Post says.

In 2015, Lincoln Community finished with $150,000 at the end of the year, the Post reports. "The books are still being finalized for 2016, but officials hope to break even. And next year doesn’t look good." The Colorado Hospital Association analysis estimates that Lincoln Community would lose $283,000 under the state budget plan for the year starting July 1. A separate state analysis pegs it closer to a $300,000 reduction from the prior year."

"Three of every four Colorado hospitals are looking at cuts in payments from the provider fee program under the current budget plan, according to the association’s projections set for release Monday, with the average hit a 50 percent reduction from a year ago," the Post reports. "An effort to revamp the program to protect hospitals is stuck in the political mud after negotiations between Democrats and Republicans broke down last week. But the new analysis is expected to add urgency to the debate before the session ends May 10."

Mobile emergency medical training trucks headed to Montana's rural and remote areas

Inside a Simulation in Motion truck
Montana, one of the largest states in area but one of the smallest in population, on Monday unveiled three mobile simulation-training trucks "equipped with high-tech equipment that will be used to train emergency responders and rural hospitals," Phil Drake reports for the Great Falls Tribune. Gov. Steve Bullock said the trucks, which were provided through a $4.6 million Simulation in Motion Montana grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, "will help in times where rural departments have to decide between paying for training or paying for gasoline for emergency vehicles."

"The main goal is to provide education and training to rural emergency medical services and hospitals for training on advanced trauma and cardiac life supports," Drake writes. The trucks, which also will be available at universities, simulate "an emergency room and the back of an ambulance. The patient simulation 'manikins' are computerized training tools that talk, breathe, have heartbeats and can react to medications and other actions. They can live or die, and can be revived over and over again, officials said."

Officials say the number of people joining volunteer fire departments in the state’s rural districts is declining, Drake writes. They said it also is difficult for people to travel to take the courses, or for employers to allow staff time off to attend training. That is a common trend in rural areas.

North Dakota will check pipeline protest area for invasive species from out-of-state firewood

Protest camp near Cannon Ball, N.D. (AP photo)
North Dakota's agriculture commissioner said firewood donated from across the country to Dakota Access Pipeline protesters could have been a pathway for invasive species to enter the state, reports The Associated Press. "State and federal officials will be monitoring and surveying the camp areas and disposal sites this summer for pests such as emerald ash borer, gypsy moths and bark beetles."

In February a federal district court judge denied a temporary restraining order sought by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe "to stop drilling of the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Missouri River/Lake Oahe," Lauren Donovan reported for The Bismarck Tribune. The tribe said the pipeline "would interfere with its indigenous freedom to practice religion in pure, clean water."

AP notes that Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said after the camps "were closed and cleaned up in February, crews hauled firewood to a landfill to eliminate the risk of any pests spreading."

Monday, April 24, 2017

Funding set to end for federal program that trains doctors for rural, medically under-served areas

MedicalCodingPro.com
A program that trains doctors to practice in rural and medically under-served areas is in danger of losing its funding. The Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program, part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, "dispenses grants to community health centers to train medical residents," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "Under current law, the federal government will stop funding the program, which serves nearly 750 primary care residents in 27 states" on Sept. 30.

The American Association of Teaching Health Centers, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the ACA residency program has been successful, with 55 percent of graduates practicing in under-served areas, "compared to 26 percent of those who graduate from hospital-based residencies," Ollove reports.

"The teaching health centers have received bipartisan support in the past," Ollove notes. "But supporters worry that because the program is new, relatively small, and not as well-known as other federally funded doctor-training programs, it might fall through the federal budgetary cracks. Bipartisan support didn’t protect the program from earlier cuts. In 2010, Congress allocated $230 million over five years, or about $46 million a year. But when it approved a two-year extension in 2015, it reduced funding to about $43 million a year. That reduction was enough to cause some of the teaching health centers to train fewer residents. Some have closed."

Ollove writes, "Supporters also argue that of teaching health centers expose residents to the types of ailments and health disparities, such as higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, that they are likely to encounter if they practice primary care in under-served areas."

Initial border plan calls for just 100 miles of wall, mostly in cities, towns and nearby rural areas

A preliminary planning document for President Trump's border wall calls for construction of 100 miles of wall mainly in "high priority" areas, mostly in urban areas and rural areas that are near urban centers, Tracy Jan and David Nakamura report for The Washington Post. The document from the Department of Homeland Security puts the wall, which would cost $3.6 billion, largely in the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas and El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. Currently, 700 miles of wall exist. The entire U.S.-Mexico border runs about 2,000 miles.

Areas were selected "because of their proximity to urban centers and roads, allowing those who cross to vanish quickly, according to the document, which was made public by congressional committee staffers," reports the Post. The National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents, "hailed the targeted approach as a more practical and effective solution to illegal immigration than a 2,000-mile wall stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." Brandon Judd, the council's president, told the Post, “As long as you put it in strategic locations, it will do a good job."

Border Patrol data shows that half of the more than 400,000 illegal immigrants apprehended along the southern border in 2016 were in the Rio Grande Valley, reports the Post. Joel Villarreal, mayor of Rio Grande City, told reporters, “Donald Trump sold a seamless wall as the solution to our immigration problems, but a wall is more symbolic. I don’t believe it’s going to produce statistically significant results." (Post map: U.S./Mexico border)

Perdue is confirmed as agriculture secretary; Trump plans meeting with farm groups

Sonny Perdue
UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Perdue; here's a story from The Washington Post. Meanwhile, the White House announced that the president will issue an executive order promoting agriculture and rural prosperity, with details to be released at 9 p.m.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to be confirmed today as Agriculture secretary, Phil Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. The vote is set for today at 5:30 p.m. ET, with Perdue to be sworn in on Tuesday. President Trump already has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday with farm groups to talk about their concerns.

"The White House roundtable meeting with farmers is expected to focus at least in part on trade issues and the Farm Bill, according to two sources familiar with the plans," Brasher writes. "The president is also expected to sign an executive order dealing with ag-related issues. The White House agriculture adviser, Ray Starling, is speaking to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists [today]. NAAJ, which is holding its annual meeting this week, will hear from the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House agriculture committees on Tuesday."

CBS uses Appalachian media-arts-education center as example of effect of Trump's proposed cuts

A music student at Appalshop (CBS photo)
In response to President Trump's proposed budget cuts CBS News's "Sunday Morning" looked at how one rural community would be hurt. The same story could be reported in many other communities.

Letcher County, Kentucky, which has been hurt by the loss of coal jobs, is also the home of Appalshop, a non-profit media, arts, and education center that relies largely on funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would all be de-funded under Trump's proposed budget.

Letcher County (Wikipedia map)
"Applashop was a seed that grew out of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s," reports CBS. "Programs were established in impoverished areas to encourage young people to develop new skills in the arts, like filmmaking. The film workshop has grown into a diverse and thriving arts center, where picks and shovels have been replaced by picks and bows."

"With grants from the NEA, Appalshop filmmakers have turned the local culture into indelible images," reports CBS. Its success has given Whitesburg renovated buildings and a 15,000-watt radio station.

Some people in the arts favor Trump's cuts. David Marcus, artistic director for a theater company in Brooklyn, N.Y., told CBS, “For 20,000 years human beings have been making art. That streak is not going to end in 2018 if the NEA goes away.” But he acknowledged that might not happen in Letcher County.

Trades once dominated by men are seeking women to boost their aging, declining workforces

Bridget Booker, journeywoman ironworker,
East Peoria, Ill. (Washington Post photo)
An aging workforce and a declining interest in vocational education are leading male-dominated industries to recruit women, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. "By 2029, all of the baby boomers will be older than 65, meaning one-fifth of the U.S. population will have reached retirement age. Millennials, the workers who would replace them, aren’t as interested in pursuing careers in the trades." Data from the National Education Association show that average enrollment in vocational education has dropped since 1990 from 4.2 credits to 3.6.

Paquette notes that another reason for the decline in male workers is that men are more likely to be addicted to opioids. Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University and former chief economist for the Labor Department, told Paquette, “You hear about a lack of job readiness, an inability to pass a drug test. It makes sense that these employers regard women as a group that expands the applicant pool and at a higher-quality level.”

This month the Ironworkers union "leaped to the cutting edge of the effort, becoming the first building trades union to offer up to eight months of paid maternity leave to pregnant women and new moms," Paquette writes. "Not that many of their folks hauling rebar or scaling skyscrapers will take them up on the offer: Only 2 percent of the group’s 130,000 North American members are women."

Eric Dean, president of the union, said they "want to attract and retain more journeywomen, who tend to quit at a higher rate," Paquette reports. Dean told her, "The whole world is suffering the baby-boomer retirement tsunami. All the construction trades are in competition for capable people. We have to innovate if we want different results."

Cate Taylor, a professor of gender studies and sociology at Indiana University, said one problem is "recruiting women into a historically male space—and keeping them around—isn't as easy as adding family-friendly benefits," Paquette writes. For instance, a Labor Department study found that almost 90 percent of female construction workers have dealt with sexual harassment on the job.