Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ky. leads in development of commercial hemp, but crop's potential in needy Eastern Ky. is limited

In 2014, the University of Kentucky grew the state's first
legal hemp since World War II. (Photo by Chase Milner)
Hemp offers limited hope for Eastern Kentuckians looking for an economic alternative to the region's shrunken coal industry, Rachel Cramer reports in the "Crossing the Divide" series produced by the Ground Truth Project and Boston's WGBH. Her story aired on West Virginia Public Broadcasting's "Inside Appalachia."

Kentucky is a leader in the development of commercial hemp, under special provisions that its representatives put the 2014 Farm Bill. In the state this year, 200 approved growers planted 3,000 acres, Cramer reports. Most crops are in Central and Western Kentucky; hilly Eastern Kentucky has much less land for farming, and a limited history of commercial agriculture.

"We can't expect Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia to become major contributors to hemp as a commodity crop," University of Kentucky agronomist David Williams told Kramer. He is among researchers who are trying to determine what varieties and growing methods produce the greatest yields at Kentucky's latitude and climate, under a program overseen by the state Department of Agriculture.

Hemp has a reputation of growing anywhere, but that doesn't mean it can grow productively anywhere. Nathan Hall told Kramer that he tried it on strip-mined land and failed, but Williams said there is potential in Appalachia's narrow valleys for growing seeds and seedlings that could be sold to hemp farmers elsewhere.

Kramer reports that some of Kentucky's hemp was planted for for fiber, but most was for cannabidiol, an oil with medicinal properties. "The hemp strains with the highest CBD levels also have higher levels of THC," the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, another product of the cannabis plant. "If the THC content is higher than 0.3 percent, the grower is required to burn the crop."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Innovative program brings attorneys to rural S.D.

After five years, an innovative program to attract attorneys to rural South Dakota is not only thriving, it's growing. More than 60 percent of attorneys in the state live and work in four cities: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, and the tiny state capital of Pierre, so rural residents often have to travel great distances to access legal representation.

Project Rural Practice was launched in 2013 by the state's Unified Judicial System and the South Dakota Bar Association to address the disparity. They and the legislature pay 35 percent of incentives to help keep attorneys in rural areas. Each attorney receives about $60,000 over five years. After the fifth year, the attorney can choose to stay in the community or move elsewhere. The program's creators hope that, by the fifth year, the attorneys will choose to stay because they've put down roots.

By all accounts, the program is doing well. Two years ago the state expanded it to include an internship program and to let most counties to qualify for the program. "The pilot 16 attorneys of Project Rural Practice have only seen one dropout, and the program has funding to expand to 32 attorneys by 2022," Libby Leyden reports for The Daily Republic in Mitchell. Another group of 16 attorneys is in the process of being accepted and placed in communities, said Suzanne Starr, director of the Division of Policy and Legal Services.

But, "The true measure of real success will be who from the program stays after their fifth year," Starr told Leyden. "We have a lot of kids in law school that want to go home, back to these rural areas and practice law. We are probably going to fill up the next round pretty quickly."

EPA plan to scale back renewable fuels puts Trump at odds with Grassley, rest of Iowa delegation

The Environmental Protection Agency's plan to scale back the amount of renewable fuels that have to be blended with gasoline and diesel fuel could cause problems for President Trump, Dino Grandoni writes in today's "The Energy 202" for The Washington Post.

Sen. Chuck Grassley
In his campaign and in June rally in Iowa, Trump promised to support biofuels, and that helped him with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who "began embracing Trump long before the rest of the GOP establishment did," Grandoni notes. But EPA's plans for the Renewable Fuel Standard have brought the two into conflict, and put the administration and the Iowa congressional delegation "on a collision course over an issue central to the economic viability of biofuels — and to the farmers in Iowa growing the corn and other agricultural products that go into them," Grandoni writes.

Trump's promises to support ethanol helped him place second in the Iowa caucus and go on to win that and other Midwestern states in the general election, said Grant Kimberley, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa and executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board. "Rural America elected President Trump, and that was one of the key factors in the Midwest," he told Grandoni. Then, as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were confirmed, they "promised, unprompted, to support ethanol," Grandoni reports. "Yet in none of Grassley's conversations — with Pruitt, with Perry or with Trump — did the administration make specific assurances about RFS levels going forward, the senator said." Grassley is to meet with Pruitt next week.

Other issues of more interest to the president may be in play. Grassley is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in last year's election, and this "is in a better position than most other Republicans in Congress to tighten the screws on the Trump administration."

Craft breweries can revitalize small-town economies, attract millennial residents

Chris Hernstrom at the Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine, Neb. (NPR photo by Kirk Siegler)
Small-town revitalization can come from many sources; why not beer? Small-town economies all over the Midwest are getting a lift from microbreweries, and maybe helping attract millennials to live there. One of those towns is Valentine, Nebraska, a town of 2,700 in Cherry County, the state's largest in land area. Chris Hernstrom was once a brewer in Bend, Oregon, but decided to open up the Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine. "It just seemed like an interesting challenge to come out to basically the exact opposite of Bend, some place where the brewing industry is still in its fledgling stages," Hernstrom told NPR's Kirk Siegler. Many of his customers are Millennials who love living in a small town but crave city amenities. Some are completely new to town, but many moved back after college or living in a city.

Cherry County, Nebraska
(Wikipedia map)
"While it's probably too early to call it a trend, what is happening in Valentine is part of a broader cultural phenomenon in rural America," Siegler reports. "Young people who grew up in small towns and have been watching them struggle from afar are feeling this calling to come home."

Valentine's 35-year-old mayor, Kyle Arganbright, is himself a recently repatriated resident. Valentine was already doing fairly well, with a thriving agricultural economy and plenty of tourists drawn to the nearby Sand Hills. But Arganbright says he sees a lot of opportunity in Valentine, and sees the brewery as a springboard for that--in fact, he and a friend are two of Bolo's main investors, Siegler reports. "If you're not growing, you're dying," he told Siegler. "You can't sit there stagnant, particularly when all these urban populations are exploding."

Simmering conflict between mining and clean water come to a head in northern Minnesota

Ely, Minnesota, is "a focus of a national debate about the proper use of public lands," Reid Forgrave writes in a long but interesting story for The New York Times Magazine. "The place also distills the political fault lines in today’s America, pitting an angry working class against progressive activists."

Boundary Waters Canoe Area; blue dots mark entry points
(Map from Boundary Waters Outfitters, Ely, Minnesota)
Since its founding in 1888, people have come to Ely mostly "to make a living off the rocks. The ore supported abundant mining jobs for generations," Forgrave reports. "For almost as long, however, people have been coming to this area for another reason, too: to visit America’s most popular national wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which encompasses roughly a million protected acres and thousands of lakes and welcomes 150,000 visitors annually. "

The simmering conflict between the two interests has come to a head because "An international mining conglomerate has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade toward potential copper-nickel mines a few miles outside the Boundary Waters," Forgrave writes. "Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta  . . . hopes to process 20,000 tons of mineralized ore a day. The company believes the area’s valuable metals — copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver — can be extracted in an environmentally responsible way and can provide hundreds of jobs to the job-starved economy of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, along the northwestern coast of Lake Superior." The mining would be underground, just southeast of Ely.

The Obama administration refused in December to renew Twin Metals’ leases and imposed a moratorium pending a study on mining near the Boundary Waters. "Depending on its findings, the stoppage could be a prelude to what conservationist groups here hope for most: a 20-year prohibition on mining in a 230,000-acre portion of the Rainy River Watershed that includes land surrounding the Boundary Waters," Forgreve writes. "That could lead to a permanent end to mining around the Boundary Waters."

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents the area, and others are trying to abolish the moratorium. "The battle is being fought on both moral and economic grounds," Forgrave reports. "Mining advocates stress the hundreds of tangible construction and mining jobs this copper-nickel operation could create in the coming decades. Boundary Waters activists argue that the very presence of mining — its disruption of this area’s natural character, not to mention the specter of pollution — could hamper the region’s “amenity-based” development in a multitude of tangible and intangible ways, from destroying property values to stripping away jobs that feed off this area’s natural beauty."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Childhood trauma can cause long-lasting harm to rural adults; help less available in rural areas

People living in rural areas are more likely to deal with poor physical and mental health; the reasons are a complicated web of interconnected factors such as smoking or drug use, workplace hazards, lack of access to physical or mental health care, poverty, and despair. But another reason for poor health is adverse childhood experiences, which are "significant disturbances in a child’s life that affect their security and ability to function in healthy ways. ACEs include all forms of child abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), or household dysfunction (divorce, violence, incarceration, substance abuse, or mental illness)," Jenn Lukens reports for the Rural Health Information Hub. ACEs can cause a self-perpetuating cycle of poor life outcomes that in turn create more ACEs for the next generation.

ACE exposure in rural adults. (Source)
According to a 1998 study by insurer Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to experience chronic health conditions, anxiety disorders, a lack of accomplishment in life (career, etc.) and even early death. Subsequent studies confirmed that research and found that "because the central nervous system closely interacts with the body’s immune, hormone, and clotting systems, adverse experiences in a child’s life, especially repeated ones, can change how the organ systems function later on. This process is known as 'biological embedding' and could take years or even decades before symptoms start to show," Lukens reports. And rural children are more likely to experience certain ACEs such as poverty, living with a mentally ill person, and living with a person who abuses drugs or alcohol.

Dr. Jean Talbot of the Maine Rural Health Research Center led research for a 2016 study that looked at how ACEs affect adults in both rural and urban areas. "ACEs cluster together. People who report having an ACE are more likely to have more than one," Talbot told Lukens. "It’s easy to think of ways that this could happen. For example, if a parent experiences incarceration or mental illness, this in itself is an ACE for the children in the family, but it can also impair the adult’s ability to care for kids. So it may open up the fault line exposing children to other types of adversity."

Helping kids deal with ACEs could have a big impact on rural health. "We know that ACEs are linked to high-risk health behaviors like smoking and alcohol abuse," Talbot said. "These, in turn, contribute to health outcomes like heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes – some of the major causes of the widening rural-urban mortality gap. So, if we want to close this gap, we may need to address rural ACEs as part of that effort."

Some rural community clinics and school districts are trying to address ACEs with programs that train teachers to watch for kids facing adverse conditions, and other programs that help children process trauma. Pediatricians are often the first professionals to see that a rural child has had an adverse experience, so the CDC and some nonprofit groups are raising awareness with doctors about the importance of keeping an eye out for them.

Farmers looking to space to limit crop damage

Instead of looking out to their fields to keep an eye on their crops, farmers are increasingly looking upward: to space.

Farmers can't see what's happening in the middle of their fields once the crops start growing, so they've turned to alternative measures like drones in recent years. But drones "just weren't logically feasible," said Wade Barnes, president Farmer's Edge, a Winnipeg-based agriculture analytics company.

Satellite imagery is a promising avenue, though. On Oct. 11, Farmer's Edge and San Francisco-based Planet announced a partnership to "combine precision agriculture programs with what they say is the world’s largest fleet of earth-imaging satellites to better monitor the health of crops," Ian Bickis reports for The Canadian Press. "The snapshots of the field, taken almost daily by Planet’s current 190 earth imaging satellites, provide what they say is a clear and regularly updated picture of the growing conditions in the field, possibly alerting a farmer to something like a growing infestation of army worms eating at their wheat field."

Though farmers have used government and private satellites for some years to get a bird's-eye view of their fields, the new Farmer's Edge-Planet collaboration will provide more frequently-updated data than government satellites. That can help farmers find out about crop damage and stop it before it destroys the whole field, Bill Spiegel reports for The High Plains Journal.

Report: National energy mix forecast bright for renewables and gas, not for coal

Renewable energy makes an increasing part of our national energy mix, and a data and chart-laden report from Standard & Poor's Global says the trend is likely to continue. "Although Washington is sending mixed messages on renewables, states are likely to continue encouraging their use, especially as the price of renewable power decreases," says the report, which contains data for each state and serves as an excellent resource for any reporter writing about energy trends. Because of a pro-coal administration, renewable energy use may not expand as sharply in the near future, but it will still likely rise.

One reason is market forces. Many utilities are buying power from wind farms (or buying the wind farms outright) because it's cheaper. Solar is on the rise too: in 2016, 79 percent of added renewable energy capacity was for solar, though it makes up only 34 percent of the overall renewable energy mix. 

Another reason for the increasingly popularity of renewable energy is state laws. In 32 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia (but not the federal government) utilities are required to sell some electricity generated by renewable power. And federal tax credits have helped wind power-generated electricity to quadruple in the U.S. between 2001 and 2014.
What's on the horizon? Despite the Trump administration's ambivalence about renewable energy, "as long as the marginal cost of renewable generation remains negligible, federal efforts to revive languishing coal and nuclear assets may prove fruitless," the report says. But the report has a little good news for coal, whose main competitor is gas: "According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) annual energy outlook (Jan. 5, 2017) a modest recovery of natural gas prices from 2016-2020 will create favorable economics for electricity generation from coal vis-√†-vis electricity generation from gas."
The make-up of the national energy mix. (S&P graphic; click on it to enlarge)
Gas will probably overtake coal permanently, but because of the administration's withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan, it'll likely happen by 2035 instead of 2030. "Similarly, renewable generation starts to converge with, but does not overtake, coal generation by 2040. This, of course is a consequence of the gradual retirement of coal assets, which we expect to occur as a result of shifting economics," the report says.

Wildfires hit recreation spending in rural areas

Rangers keep track of a fire in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Lisa Jones)
The 2017 wildfire season is already the most expensive in history due to the cost of fire suppression. Meanwhile, reduced recreation spending is also hurting state and local budgets, and probably the federal budget in a small way. Recreation and adventure tourism accounts for $887 billion in the U.S. economy each year, and some rural communities depend on that money.

"Across the Northwest, businesses that rely on recreation and tourism dollars have faced one of the most disruptive wildfire seasons on record. For Cycle Oregon alone . . . 2,000 cyclists either changed plans or canceled their trips altogether because fire and smoke made conditions hazardous and unhealthy. Disruptions like that can have a big cumulative impact on recreation-dependent communities," Bryce Oates and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

For example, visits at Glacier National Park were down 14 percent in August from last year, while the main attraction, Going-to-the-Sun Road, was closed. The nearby town of Whitefish depends heavily on hotel revenues from park visitors; this summer "was the first time that lodging tax collections decreased during the summer since the economic recession of 2009," said Dylan Boyle, the executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But Whitefish recreation promoter Lisa Jones told the Yonder that it's not all bad news: The park had a record high number of visitors this summer. Part of that is because of social media, she says. Nervous would-be tourists can find out quickly whether conditions are clear at the park and plan accordingly. "In 2015, I sent a letter to all of the local media, and some national media, telling them basically to not scare people away. The wildfires are not going to shut down the whole region. We’ve built a community infrastructure of diverse activities in diverse places," Jones said.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Charter schools reluctant to open in rural N.C.; online-only charters may not help, as Pa. shows

"One of the goals in erasing [North Carolina's] charter-school limit was for the schools to be able to open in rural counties. Yet more than six years after the legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools, 40 of 100 counties still have no brick-and-mortar charter," Lynn Bonner reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh.

State leaders are promising to fix that. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest says he's trying to bring more charters to rural areas. And Dave Machado, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, told Bonner the same thing. Both acknowledged the difficulty in luring charters to rural, high-poverty areas. Forest told Bonner that rural and poor areas are less attractive because charters would have to spend more to provide student support services. Machado told Bonner that per-pupil spending is lower in rural counties. That matters because charter schools get a share of county education funds.

Some organizations are trying to bring more charters to rural counties. "The Carolina Small Business Development Fund announced in May that it is offering up to $5 million in loans to charter and private schools that want to expand. The fund is a community development financial institution that focuses on rural businesses and those owned by women or minorities. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina will review applicants and pass its recommendations to the lender," Bonner reports.

Some have championed online charter schools as an alternative to brick-and-mortar charters, but that approach is problematic. For one thing, rural areas often lack reliable, inexpensive internet access necessary for online schools. And too, the success rate of such ventures is questionable. "In Pennsylvania, an early adopter where more than 30,000 kids log into virtual charter schools from home most days, the graduation rate is a dismal 48 percent. Not one virtual charter school meets the state’s “passing” benchmark. And the founder of one of the state’s largest virtual schools pleaded guilty to a tax crime last year," Kimberly Hefling reports for Politico.

"The state’s 14 virtual charter schools have flourished in rural communities over the last 15 years — so much so that Pennsylvania, along with Ohio and California, now account for over half the enrollment in the nation’s full-time virtual charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools," Hefling reports. "But as the virtual schools have expanded, so have questions about their effectiveness. Large swaths of Pennsylvania kids leaving a brick-and-mortar school for one of the virtual charter alternatives went to one with lower math and reading performance, according to research based on the 2009-2010 school year compiled by the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania."

Virginia governor's race is a test for Democrats who have trouble appealing to rural voters

Northam (L) and Gillespie afterward (AP photo: Steve Helber)
The race for governor of Virginia is shaping up to be a prime example of Democrats' discomfort with rural issues, and its outcome may serve as a coal-mine canary for the party's efforts to win over rural voters in other states.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who grew up on the rural Eastern Shore, has been reticent to reach out to rural voters. He has spent little time campaigning in rural areas, and was "visibly uncomfortable" addressing coal Monday night in the latest gubernatorial debate, held at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in the Central Appalachian coalfield, James Hohmann reports in "The Daily 202" for The Washington Post.

"Northam struggles to talk about cultural issues like Confederate monuments and economic issues like coal in a way that resonates with these voters but does not alienate progressives who he needs to turn out for him in places like the D.C. suburbs," Hohmann reports. Republican Ed Gillespie, on the other hand, has spent considerable time and money campaigning in rural Virginia, especially in the southwest, where President Trump won 80 percent of the vote last year. The former chairman of the Republican National Committee was eager to go on the offensive about coal, promising to reinstate a coal tax credit if elected. He also celebrated the Trump administration's rescission of the Clean Power Plan and warned viewers that Northam would try to enact a Virginia version of the bill if elected, Hohmann notes.

The debate "brought political and media attention to a part of the state whose residents often feel left out of the discussion," reports Stuart Burrill of The Coalfield Progress in Norton. "This was the first time candidates for governor have debated west of Roanoke." That sounds like it was Gillespie's idea, and the non-rural orientation of Northam's campaign became clearer today with the announcement that Barack Obama will make his first post-presidency campaign appearance for Northam in Richmond Oct. 19, The Associated Press reports.

Northam has posted single-digit leads in polls, but Gillespie remains viable. If Northam loses, "It will set off Democratic alarm bells about the wisdom of their midterm strategy and generate a wave of nasty recriminations in the escalating civil war between the pragmatists and the leftists," Hohmann writes. "For Democrats, figuring out how to get a toehold back into rural territory is imperative. The biggest Senate battlegrounds in 2018 are in states like North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri."

Colorado media get better at exploring issues raised by bigger residential impact of wildfires

To view a larger version of this map, click on it.
The latest round of major wildfires, in Northern California, again raises the question of whether news-media fire reporting goes far enough beyond the events to the issues raised by the increasing fire damage along the "urban-rural interface," often a sharp boundary between near-wilderness and densely populated suburbs and exurbs.

"As wildfire trends worsen, it is increasingly important for communities in fire-prone regions to learn from past blazes and adapt to a more flammable future," Adrianne Kroepsch of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Division of the Colorado School of Mines, writes in The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academic researchers, first excerpted on The Daily Yonder.

Rural communities must face thse and other questions, Kroepsch writes: "How much more development should local governments allow in landscapes that have evolved to burn? How should federal agencies manage the overgrown forests generated by wildfire suppression in the past? And as climate change further amplifies wildfire hazards, how can residents of the wildland-urban interface adjust?"

News coverage can be important in such discussions, but "Past research has argued that the press is more interested in fanning the flames than digging down to root causes and finding a smarter way forward," Kroepsch writes. "But in a newly published study of wildfire coverage in Colorado, my co-authors and I found a more complicated story. When communities face multiple wildfires in a row, local media do in fact raise the tough policy questions that need to be asked in communities at the wildland-urban interface – at least for a little while."

Kroepsch and her colleagues studied Colorado news coverage of the state's worst fire season, in 2012. "An unexpected trend appeared: Articles published on wildfires’ anniversaries were more likely to bring up tough policy questions than stories published at other times of year," she reports. However. "On later anniversaries, local media backtracked on this dialogue. As time passed, reporters took to comparing Colorado’s three major burn zones against each other with a focus on which was rebuilding faster and bigger, framing these later commemorations as a race back to the status quo instead of asking what communities should be doing differently."

As NAFTA negotiations get to farm products, agricultural leaders speak up

As the North American Free Trade Agreement is renegotiated at President Trump's behest, American farmers want to make sure the administration knows how much the treaty has helped them. "U.S. farm leaders turned up the volume in the debate over the new NAFTA, worried that the success story of food and ag exports isn't being heard among the clamor for tougher U.S. trade rules," Chuck Abbott reports for Agriculture.com. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said during a recent teleconference, "We have to be a player in the trade arena so we can move our product out of the country and feed the world." This round of negotiations is expected to be the first to focus on trade in agricultural commodities.

Those who favor NAFTA as it is have reason to worry. Trump said in an interview with Forbes that the U.S. would need to withdraw from NAFTA in order to negotiate better trade deals. And U.S Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue said in a speech in Mexico yesterday that "There are several poison-pill proposals … that could doom the entire deal." Phil Levy of Forbes writes, "These include measures such as a 'sunset clause' that would terminate NAFTA after five years unless there was unanimous agreement that it should continue. Or new restrictive rules of origin, dictating which cars would qualify as ‘North American’ for tariff preferences."

Two groups representing wheat farmers, U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, are bucking the trend, favoring withdrawal from NAFTA so the U.S. can negotiate better deals. "The head of U.S. Wheat said there have been no new trade agreements for a decade 'and zero additional market access for wheat farmers,'" Abbott reports.

Documentary shows sharp turn in environmental policy from Obama to Trump, mainly via Pruitt

Fossil-fuel industries have quickly turned from losers to winners with the change in the White House, and the big change is documented in "War on the EPA," a PBS "Frontline" documentary to be broadcast and posted online tonight. "The entire Obama environmental legacy is at stake," producer James Jacoby said this morning on MSNBC.

The show is essentially a profile of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who fought Obama's EPA as attorney general of Oklahoma and is trying to dismantle much of its major work, reports James Warren of The Poynter Institute, who saw an early version of the show. He writes, "Its strength is on-the-record interviews with key players on both sides, ranging from bombastic Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray and Southern Co. lobbyist Andrew Miller, on one side, to former top Obama aides and officials, as well as reporters [Jane] Mayer of The New Yorker and The New York Times' Eric Lipton on the other."

Warren adds, "Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize for astonishing disclosures about the relationship between the attorneys general, led by Pruitt, and the industry that supported them. It's as vivid a demonstration as one can find about the nexus of money and power. But, lest one get too cheery about the positive impact of great journalism, watch one Republican strategist on 'Frontline' declare that Lipton's revelations not only didn't hurt Pruitt in Oklahoma, they may have helped a man whose acts included copying energy company-crafted letters, and putting his letterhead on them, in filing protests with the EPA."

Meanwhile, today the Senate "will weigh whether to confirm as the chemical industry’s top regulator a scientist who over the past two decades has helped companies argue against stricter government regulation of potentially harmful compounds in everyday products," writes Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. "Critics say Michael Dourson, a University of Cincinnati professor and longtime toxicologist, is too closely tied to the chemical industry, and has too many conflicts of interest, to be considered for such a post. They point specifically to the nonprofit consulting group he founded in 1995, which over the years has produced research for chemical companies that showed little or no human health risks for their products." Other EPA nominations are also before the Senate today.

Pruitt and President Trump are playing to their partisan base, Dino Grandoni writes for the Post: "Although only 32 percent of U.S. adults approve of the Trump administration's handling of environmental issues, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June, a large majority — 69 percent — of Republicans favor it. . . . A few swing states crucial to Trump's margin of victory in the electoral college — Pennsylvania and Ohio — have a disproportionate number of voters working in fossil-fuel industries, while a few others — Iowa and Indiana — are full of farmers. Many of them were worried about how the Obama administration's water-pollution regulation . . . would hamstring the agriculture business." But “Even for those who don’t live in areas that are dependent upon energy-industry jobs, the energy issues became a line in the sand: If you can’t stand with us on energy, you can’t stand with us, period,” Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant, told the Post.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Readers save a small-town Michigan newspaper

Longmoore covers a public meeting in Saline. (Bridge photo by Jack Nissen)
And now for some heart-warming news from Michigan, where readers stepped up to save the local paper. The Saline Post is an online-only publication that has been the only source of news coverage for the town of 9,000 for the past five years. Bills were piling up for the one-man operation, so Tran Longmoore announced Aug. 5 that he was ceasing publication.

Within 20 minutes, Longmoore said that messages and calls began flooding in from readers, all offering support and asking what they could do to keep the Post alive, Jack Nissen reports for Bridge magazine, published by The Center for Michigan. Words weren't the only thing he got: the community started sending checks, too. "In 24 hours, Longmoore had enough money to keep publishing. Saline’s community newspaper had been saved by, of all things, the community itself," Nissen reports.

Sperling's Best Places map
At at time when some small newspapers are closing, Nissen wonders if the key to saving them isn't from "industry focus groups and page-view algorithms, but from readers themselves."

Longmoore said sometimes it's difficult to tell whether his work has an impact on the community, but locals say his presence is important. "When he was close to going out of business, I suddenly thought, 'How else would we know what’s going at city council meetings or the school district?'" said Lori Hall, who donates money monthly to the newspaper.

"By covering all these meetings and the field hockey team and the school board, you’re showing the community you are standing by them," Longmoore told Nissen. "You’re not just there to make money off of clicks. You’re providing a community service."

Complaints surge about dicamba damage to oak trees, older soybean and cotton strains

Oak trees with cupped leaves, a sign
of dicamba damage.
(MCIR photo by Darrell Hoemann)
Thousands of complaints allege the controversial herbicide dicamba is responsible for widespread damage to oak trees and older strains of corn and soybeans. "Monsanto and BASF, two of agriculture’s largest seed and pesticide providers, released versions of the dicamba this growing season. The new versions came several months after Monsanto released its latest cotton and soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist dicamba in 2016," Johnathan Hettinger reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "Since then, farmers across the Midwest and South have blamed drift from dicamba for ruining millions of acres of soybeans and cotton produced by older versions of seeds."

Complaints about damaged oak trees have come from Iowa, Illinois and Tennessee. Retired University of Illinois biologist Lou Nelms says he's documented damage to oaks and has filed complaints with the state Department of Agriculture. He told Hettinger that he's seen signs of pre-planting damage to plants from dicamba for 40 years.

Monsanto and BASF have said that crop damage is caused by improper use of dicamba, but don't deny that it caused the damage. "But, in the cases of oak tree damage, internal Monsanto emails indicate that the company has tried to shift blame away from dicamba to other pesticides," Hettinger reports.

The Environmental Protection Agency considered a ban on dicamba, but is now leaning toward allowing its use, but with more restrictions aimed at making it safer. Some states have restricted its use.

Report: Coal will continue to dwindle because of market forces

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the nation's energy mix will include less and less coal in the coming years, mostly because of market forces. "The availability of low-cost natural gas, flattening electricity demand, and the rapidly declining cost of renewable energy such as wind and solar have together made coal power less economically competitive," the report says.

"In 2008, coal represented about 52 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. By 2016, that share had fallen to 31 percent. Fifty-nine gigawatts, or about 17 percent of the nation’s coal-fired generating capacity, was retired and another 13 gigawatts switched to other fuels during that period," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.

The report says that 38 percent of today's coal fleet faces an "uncertain future" because of high operating costs for some coal-powered plants and planned retirement or conversion to alternate fuel sources for others.
Operating coal units as of 2016, color coded to show which have announced retirement or conversion to another fuel source, and which are "uneconomic", meaning the power they put out could be produced more cheaply with natural gas. At bottom is a comparison of units by state. Click to enlarge it. (Union of Concerned Scientists graph)

Coal jobs have been dwindling for years, though an increase in demand for steel-making coal has brought a recent uptick in jobs, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. "Most experts agree, though, that the coal downturn was driven mostly by competition from low-priced natural gas, and that any coal rebound is likely to be small and short-lived in the state," Ward reports.

USC, it must be noted, is pro-clean energy, but provides soundly-sourced data. The report was released Oct. 9, the day after Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

Farmers worried about EPA's notion to lower biofuel requirements in Renewable Fuel Standard

Some farmers, senators and other biofuel advocates are up in arms after "the Environmental Protection Agency, repeatedly citing the concerns of big oil, signaled this week it is considering lowering the amount of ethanol and other renewable fuels required in transportation fuels and heating oil," reports Kerry Murakami, Washington correspondent for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Such a move would break President Trump's repeated promises to protect the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The standard was created to expand the renewable fuels industry, reduce dependence on imported oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Producers of oil-based fuels must include increasing amounts of renewable fuels such as ethanol in their products each year. The volume standards for each year through 2022 were laid out when the law was first expanded in 2007, but the EPA can alter those in order to protect the economy.

"Critics said the policy change would harm agricultural communities by reducing the demand for soy, corn and other crops used in alternative fuels. Indeed, soybean prices dropped the day after EPA’s announcement," Murakami reports.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, sent an open letter to EPA Oct. 5 protesting the proposed changes. "The rule unjustifiably flatlines biomass-based diesel, reduces advanced biofuels and reduces the cellulosic biofuel blending target by about 25 percent," the letter said. "The final rule should address these shortfalls."

"Opponents of the mandate, including the oil industry, object to the law on the basis [that] blended fuels are less efficient than pure fuels, and end up costing consumers more money at the pump and also in higher food prices due to the diversion of corn and other crops used in alternative fuels," Murakami notes.

Farmers, meanwhile, remain nervous about the proposed move. "The heartland is what put him (Trump) over the top in the election," Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Assocation, told Murakami. "We'd be very disappointed if the first action the administration takes affecting the heartland is this."

Probe of crop-insurance fraud nets indictment of Ky. agent who worked in tobacco warehouse

"A crop-insurance agent defrauded taxpayers of $169,000 by helping farmers inflate tobacco crop losses and collect insurance money and then helping them sell their burley at market, according to a federal indictment," reports Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The indictment is the result of a federal investigation of crop-insurance fraud that was revealed in December 2015.

Sperling's Best Places map
Crop-insurance agent Debra Muse was also a seasonal worker at Clay's Tobacco Warehouse in Mount Sterling, Ky. Part of her job there was to record tobacco purchases, sales and shipment. The alleged scam worked like this: As an agent, Muse obtained crop insurance for the farmers. As a warehouse worker, she didn't record the sale of some tobacco. The farmers filed false insurance claims saying the tobacco had been lost to bad weather, then collected insurance payouts.

The indictment says that the co-conspiring farmers (who are not named or charged in the indictment) "profited under the scheme because they were paid twice for each pound of tobacco: once through the false crop-insurance claim, and also through the sale of the unreported hidden tobacco." The indictment says that "Muse profited by collecting the original insurance commission and by retaining and expanding the business of her crop insurance clients and securing business for her employer, Clay’s Tobacco Warehouse," Kocher reports. According to the indictment, she caused three different growers to be awarded payments for $6,144; $23,651; and $139,456 for claims. The burden of paying out these claims is mostly on taxpayers.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Pruitt says nation's biggest challenge is re-defining the meaning of environmental protection

Pruitt speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
listens. (Image from Kentucky Farm Bureau video)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told an audience of farmers and Kentucky officials Monday that "The greatest challenge we have in this country is re-orienting thinking about what environmental protection is."

Pruitt said at a Kentucky Farm Bureau event in Bourbon County, "True environmental protection is not 'do not touch,' and that's what the other side says . . . we shouldn't harvest or use those natural resources. We should just put up a fence and say 'Do not touch." That's not true environmental protection. True environmental protection is using those natural resources to truly feed the world and power the world, and doing so with stewardship in mind, responsibility in mind, for future generations, and you do that every single day. We at EPA can learn a lot from you in that regard."

Pruitt reminded farmers that he is withdrawing the Obama administration's definition of "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act, which he and farm interests said was too broad. "Make no mistake about it, the EPA's definition in 2015 was about one thing, and one thing only: power. The power over land-use decisions across this country; the power to make you check in with Washington, D.C., before you use your land as you always have."

Pruitt said EPA will have new definition in 2019, and "It's going to be an objective, bright-line definition so that you know where federal jurisdiction begins and ends." He said a decision of the late Justice Antonin Scalia "is going to inspire us." In that case, Scalia wrote in a non-controlling decision that "waters of the U.S." should follow the dictionary definition and be limited to relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water.

Pruitt, a native of Central Kentucky, said he liked an idea he heard in Utah: "Don't just tell us what a water of the United States is, tell us what it isn't." For a video of the event, click here.

Poll: Trump's popularity slipping in rural America

A new Reuters-Ipsos poll of more than 15,000 rural Americans says President Trump's popularity is dipping in rural areas. In non-metropolitan areas of the U.S., his approval rating dropped to 47 percent in September, down from 55 percent during the first weeks of his presidency. His disapproval rating, also at 47 percent in September, is up from 39 percent in his first month in office. "The poll found that Trump has lost support in rural areas among men, whites and people who never went to college. He lost support with rural Republicans and rural voters who supported him on Election Day," Chris Kahn and Tim Reid report for Reuters.

Trump's waning support in rural America is significant because he won a bigger share of the rural vote of any modern president, 62 percent. "Respondents interviewed by Reuters said they were frustrated that Trump had not yet gotten his border wall, and others said they were uncomfortable with the administration’s travel restrictions, like the since-expired ban on refugees and on travelers from six majority-Muslim countries," Jacqueline Thomsen reports for The Hill.

'The war on coal is over,' EPA's Pruitt tells miners as he announces bid to repeal Clean Power Plan

"Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told coal miners in Kentucky that he will propose repealing a rule limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants," The Washington Post reports.

"Speaking at an event with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Pruitt said his agency will publish the new rule Tuesday." The move was expected, given President Trump's campaign promises. Pruitt told the miners at Hazard, Ky., "The war on coal is over."

According to CBS News, Pruitt told the miners, "When you think about what that rule meant, that rule really was about picking winners and losers. Regulatory power should not be used by any regulatory body to pick winners and losers."

Pruitt, a native of Central Kentucky, spoke at the Hazard office of Whayne Supply Co., a major supplier of equipment for the mining industry in Kentucky. WYMT-TV in Hazard has a video.

Small town builds a broadband network by charging signup fees; makes financial assistance available

Public-private partnerships are a popular way to build broadband networks in cash-strapped rural areas. Most of these are between local government and private companies, but a small Idaho town created a broadband network with a unique public-private partnership. Other towns could use this model too.

"Ammon, Idaho (pop. 13,800), today celebrates its success at thinking differently to produce a city-owned gig network. The city built the network with no debt and got an impressive 70 percent of the potential customers to sign up for service. One key is new technology. The other is that the 'private' in this PPP structure is citizens themselves," Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder.

It started when city officials were trying to find a cost-effective way of providing broadband access just to city offices. After considering offers from outside providers, city leaders realized they could build their own 10-gigabit network at a third the cost of paying others to do it. The city's IT group runs the day-to-day operations.

Ammon, Idaho (Best Places map)
When city officials were researching the cost of fiber-optic cable, they realized that they could buy cable with 144 strands for not much more than the 48-strand cable they had been planning to use. They decided to buy the larger cable and sell broadband access to local businesses and residents.

The city made an initial investment of $1 million, mostly on fiber-optic cable, but needed more. Each citizen or business that wants to get broadband pays a one-time fee of $3,000, plus a $16.50 utility fee, and their ISP's internet access fee. People who can't afford the $3,000 can get financing from one of the Local Improvement Districts set up by city officials. "Subscribers can opt in during the build-out phase and have 30 days following the completion of construction to determine if they want to pay for the installation costs in full, or take the monthly fee option of about $17.50," Settles reports. "In essence, subscribers are private partners who are paying for the cost of construction. After the city pays for the initial infrastructure, the LID takes on responsibility to retire the debt by collecting money from subscribers. The financing for the network is based on the payments made over time by the users."

Ammon's approach is different from other communities that try to finance building a network through utility fees; Ammon owns the network but wants internet service providers to interact directly with residents through that network.

Attracting internet service providers to small towns can be difficult, so Ammon sweetened the deal by providing some of the cables that ISPs would normally need to install themselves. Technology Director Bruce Patterson of the City of Ammon says four ISPs have signed up to offer internet services in Ammon. Not all will likely survive, but he thinks the competition will make for lower prices. Subscribers can also set up virtual private networks (VPNs). That can be useful for gamers, entrepreneurs, or even hospitals that want an extra layer of security.

"Ammon has created a unique and interesting model," says Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a national organization of civic leaders trying to improve local broadband connectivity. "The funding structure for Ammon’s [system] worked perfectly for them and may possibly work for others."