Thursday, April 18, 2019

EU threatens tariffs on $20 billion in U.S. goods in latest salvo of 15-year airplane manufacturer subsidy dispute

The United States and European Union are threatening each other with import tariffs after the latest development in a 15-year feud over airplane manufacturer subsidies. The latest update: the EU threatened to impose tariffs on $20 billion worth of U.S. imports yesterday, following a recent World Trade Organization ruling that the U.S. government had failed to end illegal support of Boeing. Philip Blenkinsop reports for Reuters.

The 11-page list includes various seafood, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, chocolates, vegetable oils, nuts, wines and other spirits, soups, and non-food items such as handbags, motor vehicle components, and equipment for construction and farming.

"In a mirror-like situation, Washington has previously said it is considering tariffs on approximately $11 billion worth of EU goods, which it said was in line with economic damage the U.S. had sustained by European subsidies to aeroplane and defense firm Airbus," Blenkinsop reports. "Both sides have agreed to open talks designed to reduce trade barriers."

The tension comes just as trade talks between the EU and US are about to begin. The upcoming talks will focus on "two sets of negotiations — one to cut tariffs on industrial goods and another to make it easier for businesses to show that products meet EU or U.S. standards," Sam Meredith reports for CNBC. "The European bloc has insisted it does not want agriculture to be included, putting it at loggerheads with the U.S., which wants farm products to be part of future discussions."

Arkansas legislature repeals ban on cities and towns building broadband; N.C., other states may follow

After years of voter complaints about the lack of high-speed internet access, Arkansas legislators have passed a bill to repeal the ban on cities and towns building their own broadband networks; Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he will sign it. Such locally sourced networks are an increasingly popular and effective way to bring broadband to rural communities, Nick Keppler reports for CityLab.

Other states with similar bans may follow suit, including North Carolina, Keppler reports. The Arkansas ban went hand in hand with federal subsidies to encourage telecoms to expand broadband. The Federal Communications Commission gave $250 million in subsidies to AT&T, Windstream and CenturyLink for Arkansas broadband, but it didn't work, Keppler reports.

State Sen. Breanna Davis, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, observed, "We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation . . . and almost last in broadband." Instead, Arkansans are losing out on remote jobs, can't do homework or take online classes, and some have trouble selling houses because buyers want a neighborhood with good internet, Keppler reports.

The new law won't give municipalities complete control to set up networks. They'll have to get a grant or loan from a second party, which Davis hopes will allow rural towns to get funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's $600 million e-Connectivity pilot program., Keppler reports.

"That this is happening at all is significant. That it’s happening in a deep-red state is perhaps monumental," Keppler reports. "Arkansas outlawed municipal broadband in 2011 as a wave of other states passed similar laws. It was, in part, a factor of the Tea Party movement, which ushered small-government Republicans into state capitols. By 2018, 21 states had some law banning or restricting municipal broadband; many were cut-and-paste 'model legislation' from the American Legislative Exchange Council, backed partly by telecom giants. They sought to kill municipal broadband under the belief" that government shouldn't compete with the private sector.

Rural Texas newspaper publisher deletes reference to same-sex partner in obituary, citing religious reasons

Olton, Texas (Wikipedia map)
A rural Texas newspaper is under fire after the publisher omitted a man's husband from an obituary because of religious convictions, KDFW-TV in Dallas reports.

Barry Giles and John Gambill have been together for 31 years, and both had a close relationship with Giles' mother, Brenda Light. When Light passed away in February, the Dallas couple bought an obituary in her hometown paper, the Olton Enterprise. The submitted obit said "Those left to cherish her memory include her son, Barry Giles and his husband, John Gambill of Dallas." But when the obit came out, Gambill wasn't in it, KDFW reports.

Gambill said that when he called Publisher Phillip Hamilton and asked why, Hamilton said only, "Because I wanted to." Hamilton is also a Baptist pastor, and though he declined an interview with KDFW, he issued a statement saying: "It is my religious conviction that a male cannot have a husband. It is also my belief that to publish anything contrary to God's Word on this issue would be to publish something in the newspaper that is not true."

The statement went on: "The newspaper respects the First Amendment rights of those who express such opinions. The newspaper’s decision to edit the obituary is both ethical and lawful. It would be unethical to publish a news item that is known by the editor to be false. Based on the truth found in the Word of God, I could not in good conscience identify Mr. Gambill as the husband of Mr. Giles."

The couple is considering legal action, but an appellate attorney not involved with the case told KDFW Hamilton has a stronger legal footing: "A newspaper cannot knowingly or recklessly publish false information," said Chad Ruback. "Other than that, the First Amendment grants the newspaper extremely broad rights in deciding what information to publish and what information not to publish."

Farmers getting smaller share of money from food spending

"The share of food spending that goes to America’s farmers fell for the sixth straight year in 2017, according to the USDA Economic Research Service," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Meanwhile, "The share of American food spending that goes to the foodservice industry has increased for six consecutive years."

Farmers got 14.6 cents for every dollar spent in the U.S. on food in 2017, compared to 17.6 cents on the dollar in 2011, according to the ERS's Food Dollar Series, which tracks American food spending and farmer income, Marema reports.

The ERS said farmers are getting a smaller share of food spending because food makes up a smaller share of total costs these days; that's because restaurants' costs for food prep and service have increased, Marema reports.

Local investors buy bankrupt Mississippi hospital, plan to help it thrive with focus on 'niche' development

Batesville in Panola County (Wikipedia map)
Rural hospitals are closing at alarming rates: about one per month since 2010, 99 total as of March. Mississippi is no stranger to the trend, since half of its rural hospitals were deemed in danger of closing in 2019. Here's how local investors brought in bigger financial firepower to save one such hospital, Giacomo Bologna reports for the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

Panola Medical Center in Batesville went into bankruptcy in August 2018 after a string of problems: a medical-fraud scandal, a 2009 bankruptcy, and several owners. Nearly 400 people in the community of 7,000 would lose their jobs if the hospital closed, the town would have a hard time attracting new businesses, and locals could face greater injury or even death if a hospital wasn't close enough, Bologna reports.

Four investors partnered to buy the hospital for $2.5 million, less than a tenth of the $27.3 million it fetched about 15 years ago. "There were hiccups, but now, a month into ownership, they're not scrambling to keep the hospital open — they're making plans to grow it," Bologna reports.

One of the new owners is Quentin Whitwell, a lawyer and former Jackson city councilman and the chief operating officer for Alliance HealthCare System. The CEO of Panola's bankrupt owner, Curae Health, reached out to Whitwell, saying Panola had a lot of promise, since the main facility was fairly new (built in 2004), the location was convenient to the interstate, and the staff was dedicated. He said it was important for Panola to stay open because there are no other emergency rooms within 30 miles, Bologna reports.

Whitwell put together a roughly equal partnership with three other owners: his boss, Kenneth Williams, who owns Alliance; Vizion Health, a new company founded by health-care industry veterans; and Ashoke Mukherji, who owns Java Medical Group and who grew up in a rural Tennessee town where his father was sometimes the only surgeon, Bologna reports.

Whitwell acknowledges the challenges facing Panola and other hospitals, but hopes the owners' entrepreneurial mindset will help the hospital survive and thrive. They plan to begin offering physical therapy within the month, expanding the wound clinic, set up a telemedicine service, and increasing preventative services. Instead of trying to compete with bigger hospitals, Whitwell told Bologna they plan to focus on excellence in specific areas. "We can build niches," he said. "Building niches is critical to success."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feds indict 60 on illegal-prescribing charges in Ohio, W.Va., Ky., Tenn., Ala.; some doctors allegedly traded sex for drugs

Sixty health professionals in five Appalachian states were charged Wednesday with "illegal prescribing of more than 32 million pain pills, including doctors who prosecutors said traded sex for prescriptions and a dentist who unnecessarily pulled teeth from patients to justify giving them opioids," report Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham of The Washington Post.

Those indicted included "31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals" who wrote more than 350,000 illegal prescriptions in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, according to federal indictments filed in Cincinnati.

“That is the equivalent of one opioid dose for every man, woman and child in the five states in the region that we’ve been targeting,” Brian Benczkowski, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told the Post. “If these medical professionals behave like drug dealers, you can rest assured that the Justice Department is going to treat them like drug dealers.”

The department says it has targeted doctors, health-care companies and drug manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the opioid epidemic that killed 47,600 Americans in 2017. "Benczkowski said he created the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force late last year to target the region, which has been devastated by the epidemic," the Post reports. "The department analyzed several databases to identify suspicious prescribing activity and sent 14 prosecutors to 11 federal districts there. . . .Once they had the data indicating suspicious prescriptions, investigators used confidential informants and undercover agents to infiltrate medical offices across the region. Cameras and tape recorders were rolling as they documented how medical professionals used their licenses to peddle highly addictive opioids in exchange for cash and sex, officials said."

The indictments merited a statement from Attorney General William Barr: “The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region.”

U.S. pork and poultry industries seek inroads in trade talks

The United States and China have been in trade talks for months in an effort to end the trade war that has been hurting American farmers. The U.S. pork industry is hoping for a favorable resolution to one particular request: American negotiators want China to lift its ban on ractopamine, a drug about half of U.S. pork producers use to boost hog growth, Chris Prentice and Tom Polansek report for Reuters.

"Huge losses in China’s hog herd due to African swine fever have left the world’s largest pork market facing a protein deficit, stoking hopes among U.S. pork and poultry producers," Prentice and Polansek report. "Up to 200 million pigs could be culled or die from infections as the disease spreads through China, reducing the nation’s pork output by 30 percent from 2019."

Because of that loss, Iowa State University agricultural economist Dermot Hayes predicts China will need import 4 to 6 million tons of pork in 2020. That could strengthen America's hand in negotiations, according to independent U.S. livestock market analyst Bob Brown: "I think that China will do anything possible to make it easier for them to import protein."

The U.S. has also asked China to once again allow imports of U.S. poultry and eggs, which it banned in January 2015 because of an avian flu outbreak that is long over. "China lifted a similar restriction on poultry from France last month, and last year dropped duties on U.S. white-feathered broiler chickens. A total lifting of the ban would reopen the gates for U.S. poultry to compete in the world’s largest, and best-paying, market for products like chicken feet," Prentice and Polansek report. "While it looks increasingly likely China may lift its ban on U.S. poultry, Beijing is seeking a 'two-way street' and would want to be able to export some poultry products to the United States as well, two sources said."

What the Ag Census tells us about rural connectivity

The recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture is a gold mine of information about the nation's farmers and rural communities. Here's what it tells us about rural internet connectivity and what progress is (or isn't) being made, Margy Eckelkamp reports for AgProfessional.

Connectivity varies by farm size; big operations generally have better internet access: fewer than 3% of farms with more than 140 acres have slow, dial-up access. The most prevalent means of internet access has shifted from DSL to mobile wireless between 2012 and 2017. And though fewer farmers rely on dial-up, broadband adoption percentage has remained about the same, Eckelkamp reports.

Those reviewing the data must be careful about comparisons because of varying definitions and question parameters, though. The 2012 census included a "broadband" category, but that wasn't included in 2017. And the 2017 census included a "don't know" category that wasn't included in 2012, Eckelkamp reports. Moreover, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission don't use the same definitions of internet connectivity.

Dee Davis: Rural residents, largely abandoned by major papers, vulnerable to partisan influence and 'fake news'

Sources of credible, comprehensive local news have been drying up in rural America over the past 20 years, and people are getting skewed information from other sources, changing rural Americans' political views, writes Dee Davis, publisher of The Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

"The change helped get Donald Trump elected," Davis writes. "It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be."

Dee Davis (NPR photo)
Davis notes the decline in circulation of, and reporting by, major newspapers in his native Appalachia, and writes about a little-known topic, the increasing prevalence of evangelical Christian radio broadcasters. Before 2000, low FM frequencies had been devoted to secular education and nonprofit news. After the law changed, religious broadcasters became a tour de force in rural America, and by 2006 small evangelical radio stations were the second largest radio format in the nation, Davis writes.

"What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by Evangelical church networks," Davis writes. "Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons, and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million."

Social media, too, have created online echo chambers where users find only the news that confirms their biases and friends who share the same opinions. Davis saw the power of social media to mislead during the 2016 presidential election, when several people in Whitesburg, Ky., where he lives, believed a fake story that Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, abused a girl. Though the story was easily proven false, "when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor," Davis writes.

Midwestern workers moving away from flooded areas

Last month's heavy flooding caused more than $3 billion in damage in the Midwest, but lost crops, infrastructure and buildings aren't the only likely consequence of the disaster.

Fed-up workers are moving away from the Midwest, according to LinkedIn, the leading social network for professionals. "Data showed a spike in members changing their work location from areas flooded last month to cities in the Southwest and on the West Coast," Sebasian Malo reports for Reuters. Meanwhile, "Hiring rates tracked through the platform dropped across the Midwest."

Though it's not clear whether the workers will come back eventually, repeated disasters could trigger a "sustained bleed of talent," said Guy Berger, chief economist at LinkedIn.

Those who stay, especially farmers, have tough decisions to make. "Flooded farmland isn’t expected to recede in time for many affected farmers to plant a crop this season, so they may lose a year of income," April Simpson reports for Stateline. Several Midwestern states are working on state-level disaster aid for affected citizens, but federal aid may be a while coming since Congress left for a two-week break without approving disaster aid.

Compounding the problem for farmers: the recent floods have damaged or destroyed fertile topsoil, which could make future farming difficult, Jim Ippolito and Madi Al-Kaisi write for The Conversation. Ippolito is an associate professor of environmental soil quality/health at Colorado State University. Al-Kaisi is a professor of soil management and environment at Iowa State University.

It's difficult to leave though. "I got my life in this ground," Nebraska farmer Jeff Keithley told Simpson. "I spent my life here. It’s almost an extension of me. I raised all my children here."

Hemp industry booms on CBD's reputed health benefits, supported by users but not very much by science

The reputed health benefits of cannabidiol are the main driver of hemp's nationwide boom, but scientific research still doesn't support the claims, Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

The problem is that hemp hasn't been widely legal for very long, and only nationally legalized this year, so scientists have had little incentive to study CBD's medicinal effects. Anecdotal evidence has attributed all sorts of health benefits to CBD, but more double-blind studies are needed to discern the science from the hype, according to Dr. Anup Patel, section chief of pediatric neurology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Niemeyer reports.

Patel has been involved in several studies in the past five years that examined CBD's effect on epilepsy. A 2018 study found that CBD reduced the frequency of seizures by more than 40 percent in patients with a severe form of epilepsy. Because of that study, the Food and Drug Administration approved  Epidiolex, which remains the only FDA-approved CBD drug, Niemeyer reports.

"There is potential benefit for certain types of patients with seizures or epilepsy," Patel told Niemeyer. "Beyond that, we have no idea. There aren’t any good studies using CBD in other areas."

That's changing, though: "Human trials, some of them double-blind, are being conducted to determine CBD’s effects for a variety of issues, from cancer therapies to Parkinson’s disease," Niemeyer reports. "Some preliminary CBD research has shown promising results toward CBD’s potential anti-inflammatory properties and how it affects brain chemistry, helping people with issues including anxiety disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and quitting tobacco." One recent study indicates CBD could increase the risk of glaucoma though.

Meanwhile, hemp farmers and CBD product sellers are pressing forward. Roger Hayes, who owns Louisville CBD product business Green Remedy, said that clinical studies are important, but consumers know CBD works. "The [studies] on what the therapeutic effects are going to be, that takes years," Hayes told Niemeyer. "America doesn’t need to wait that long to determine that something that has been around for thousands of years that people take for various reasons — we shouldn’t have to wait that long."

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pulitzers announced; here are some with rural resonance

The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism were announced Monday; some had rural resonance.

Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won for Commentary with "bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail," according to the Pulitzer website. Click here to see the prize-winning columns.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, by Eliza Griswold, won in the General Nonfiction category of Letters, Drama and Music. Griswold, an award-winning poet and journalist, "tells the story of the energy boom’s impact on a small town at the edge of Appalachia and one woman’s transformation from a struggling single parent to an unlikely activist."

The staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, won one of two special citations "for their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom on June 28, 2018, and for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief. The citation comes with a $100,000 bequest by the Pulitzer Board to be used to further the newspaper’s journalistic mission." The other special citation went to the late Aretha Franklin. Click here for the full list of winners.

Rural emergency-room visits jumped 70% in 12 years, suggesting rural hospitals are increasingly safety nets

Visits to rural hospital emergency departments have increased more than 70 percent from 2005 to 2017, according to a study at the University of New Mexico Albuquerque and the University of Michigan. Researchers said the study showed the hospitals' increased importance as safety nets.

"Increased visits by young to middle-aged white rural patients—particularly Medicaid beneficiaries and those without insurance—may indicate an increased burden of illness or challenges in access to alternative care sites,” the authors write. The jump in Medicaid-funded visits is likely because most states expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The authors also found an increase in the proportion of rural hospitals classified as safety-net hospitals, which by law must serve patients regardless of their financial status. If these trends continue, rural hospitals could face worsening financial troubles, the authors write.

Rural emergency-room visits increased to 28.4 million from 16.7 million. Urban visits increased to 117.2 million from 98.6 million, a rose of 19 percent. Applying population data, that's a jump from 36.5 to 64.5 ER visits for every 100 rural people, and an increase from 40.2 to 42.8 for every 100 urban people, the study says.

Data for the study came from the national Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Rurality was defined using Office of Management and Budget classification.

Barn wood stolen to meet demand for farmhouse-chic decor

Lois and Ann Coffey look at the gaps in Lois's barn
after thieves stole boards. (CJ photo by Matt Stone)
Farmhouse chic is all the rage in home decor these days, and some people are willing to turn to crime to help urban and suburban decorators get the look. Rural residents in several states report that thieves have been stealing the weathered wood from their barns in recent months, Tessa Duvall reports for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky.

"Sheriffs across the state have seen some barns stripped down to their frames and aluminum roofs. Law enforcement officials say there’s not much they can do to stop the thieves or to track down the wood," Duvall reports. "But it has become such a problem that buyers of weathered wood have taken to asking for W-9 tax forms from those looking to sell." Wholesalers buy the wood for up to $2 per board foot.

A few cases have been reported in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee, but the phenomenon is hitting Kentucky the hardest, since the Bluegrass State has more old barns per square mile than any other state, Duvall reports. That's probably because Kentucky has had more tobacco farmers than any other state; barns in Southern Kentucky, where thefts have been heaviest, typically house livestock, hay, equipment and, during tobacco-curing season, tobacco. Some are used only during that season.

Residents whose barn wood has been stolen are frustrated that law enforcement can't do much to catch the thieves. Most thefts happen at night, and barns are usually in remote areas where no one is likely to catch thieves in the act. Lois "Nan" Coffey of Burkesville put up cameras and floodlights around her tobacco barn after thieves stole part of it. Her daughter, Ann Coffey, told Duvall she put a notice in the local weekly newspaper about it. "Everybody knew that barn wood was being taken, but the Cumberland County News didn’t have anything about it," Coffey said.

Rural Americans more likely to die prematurely (before 75); rural blacks and Native Americans' lives are the shortest

Premature death rate in counties by population and majority
race (University of Minnesota chart; click to enlarge it)
A new study shows that rural residents are more likely to die prematurely than urban residents, and people of color are more likely to die prematurely than non-Hispanic whites; rural African Americans and Native Americans have the shortest lives.

"The study is based on the rate of premature deaths (defined as before the age of 75), among non-Hispanic blacks and American Indian and Alaskan Native groups in comparison with non-Hispanic whites in every county (or similar jurisdiction) in the nation. The data also was applied to each county based on whether it's considered rural or urban," John Lundy reports for the Duluth News Tribune. "In terms of racial and ethnic composition, Native Americans are hit the hardest. In the 26 counties with a majority American Indian or Alaskan Native population, the premature death rate per 100,000 people is 16,255, according to the report, compared with 7,872 in the 2,767 counties with a majority non-Hispanic white population. The 99 counties with a majority Hispanic population fare even better, with a premature death rate of 7,693."

Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center and lead author of the study, said there are many barriers to good health in rural areas, such as fewer available jobs, slower economic recovery from the Great Recession, lack of health care facilities in rural areas, and transportation issues, Lundy reports.

The study analyzed data from the 2017 County Health Rankings on all U.S. counties and their equivalents, compiled by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute. Racial and ethnic lifespan estimates came from the National Center for Health Statistics mortality files. Estimates for racial and ethnic composition of counties came from the Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program. Rurality was defined by the nine-step urban influence codes of the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

USDA to start taking applications for $600 million rural broadband loan/grant pilot program on April 23

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development announced it will begin accepting applications April 23 for a funding to expand high-speed broadband internet in rural areas.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipal governments with insufficient broadband service can apply for funding from the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program, commonly called ReConnect. Funds will be awarded to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring broadband to rural communities.

The initiative was announced in December and will receive up to $600 million in funding: $200 million in grants, $200 million in loan and grant combinations, and $200 million in low-interest loans. The application deadlines are:
  • May 31, 2019, for grants
  • June 21, 2019 for loan/grant combinations
  • July 12, 2019, for low-interest loans
Click here to request technical assistance in applying.

The Office of Rural Development also recently created a free toolkit aimed at helping rural communities get or improve their broadband service. It contains a list of 27 USDA programs that support broadband development, along with a user guide and examples of how some rural communities are using e-Connectivity resources to increase broadband services.

The administration may take other steps to facilitate rural broadband buildout too. On Friday, President Trump proposed a $20 billion program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand rural broadband over the next decade. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the fund could launch later this year after a period of public notice and comment.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Per capita income growth slows; check out state-level data

Change in personal income per capita, 2017 to 2018
(Stateline map; click here for the interactive version)
Per capita income in the U.S. rose from 2017 to 2018, but more slowly than in recent years, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline, the nonprofit, nonpartisan news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nationwide, per capita income rose 1.4% in 2017-18 after inflation, a bit less than the previous year's 1.6%. Between 2014 and 2015, it rose 4%, Henderson reports.

"High-paying blue-collar jobs lifted incomes in West Virginia, New York and Illinois last year, even though the states lost residents, while farmers and government workers shared the pain of more stagnant income in Nebraska, Maryland and Washington, D.C.," Henderson reports. "The new per-capita income numbers show how national policies and international markets directly affect state and local pocketbooks. Deregulation in the United States and a heat wave in China boosted coal demand in West Virginia, for example, while overseas mining and farming led to more giant truck manufacturing in Illinois. At the same time, U.S. tariffs hurt Nebraska soybean farmers."

Trump announces airwave auction to speed 5G network rollout and program to increase rural broadband access

On Friday President Trump announced a plan to speed the rollout of 5G networks and increase rural broadband connectivity.

"Under the plan, the Federal Communications Commission will release a wide swath of high-frequency airwaves for cellular use in what will be the largest trove of U.S. wireless spectrum ever to be auctioned off. As much as 3.4 gigahertz of 'millimeter-wave' spectrum could be sold to wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon in the sale, which will begin Dec. 10, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai," Brian Fung reports for The Washington Post. "The FCC also proposed a $20 billion fund to expand broadband in rural America over the coming decade, connecting up to 4 million households and small businesses to high-speed Internet, Pai said. The 'Rural Digital Opportunity Fund' could launch later this year, after a period of public notice and comment."

However, Friday's announcement had another purpose beyond informing the public about the auction and the rural broadband program, Aaron Pressman reports for Fortune: "The real agenda was to try and kill a well-funded lobbying effort to convince the federal government to take over 5G airwaves and build a nationalized network that private carriers would have to lease from the government. Supporters included prominent Republicans Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, as well as Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale. But the idea has driven the U.S. telecommunications industry, which is spending tens of billions of dollars to build private 5G networks, bonkers."

At Friday's event, Trump said that "in the United States, our approach is private-sector driven and private-sector led Government doesn’t have to spend lots of money . . . We had another alternative of doing it that would be through government investment and leading through the government. We don’t want to do that because it won’t be nearly as good, nearly as fast."

Syphilis spreading in rural U.S. because of intravenous drug use, stigma, lack of funding, and other factors

Rural counties across the Midwest and West are seeing a spike in syphilis. While the disease "is still concentrated in cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Las Vegas, its continued spread into places like Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma creates a new set of challenges," Lauren Weber reports for Kaiser Health News. "Compared with urban hubs, rural populations tend to have less access to public health resources, less experience with syphilis and less willingness to address it because of socially conservative views toward homosexuality and nonmarital sex."

How bad is the problem? In 1999 around 35,000 cases were reported, but by 2017 that number grew to 101,500, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Weber reports.

Syphilis is easily treatable and curable with antibiotics, but can cause permanent brain damage, blindness, birth defects and/or death if left untreated. It's making a comeback partly because of increasing drug use, which often leads to risky sexual behavior. In rural areas, that's compounded by the stigma of seeking help for a sexually transmitted disease or reluctance to reveal homosexual activity. Another problem: Syphilis has been so rare until recent years that many health-care providers have never seen it in patients, and don't easily recognize it, Weber reports.

In 1999 the CDC had a plan to eradicate the disease in the U.S. by focusing on hotspots in the South, California, and major urban areas, "but health officials are losing the fight because of a combination of cuts in national and state health funding and crumbling public-health infrastructure," Weber reports. "Federal funding for STD prevention has stayed relatively flat since 2003, with $157.3 million allocated for fiscal year 2018. But that amounts to a nearly 40% decrease in purchasing power over that time, according to the National Coalition of STD Directors."

Asian-carp processing industry booms in Western Ky., which will get nation's first industrial park for that purpose

The Asian carp processing industry in far Western Kentucky is getting a significant boost from abroad: Chinese investors joined state and local officials at Wickliffe Friday to announce the first industrial park in the U.S. dedicated to processing the invasive fish, which is a popular food in China.

"The investors represent seven new companies that will build in the 72-acre International Fisheries Industrial Park, spearheaded by Angie Yu, president of Two Rivers Fisheries which anchors the park along Ky. 286. Each is expected to invest $1 million and hire about 10 employees, according to Yu," David Zoeller reports for The Paducah Sun.

Two Rivers has bought, processed and sold 10 million pounds of carp in the past seven years since it opened, buying from about 30 commercial fishing groups in Kentucky and surrounding states, Zoeller reports. On Jan. 1 the state began a first-of-its-kind partnership with the fishery to pay anglers for Asian carp and sell their catches in online auctions in an effort to rid local waters of the voracious fish. 

One of the investors, Lining He, said at the ceremony Friday that Asian carp processing is a $10 billion industry in China and accounts for more than 10 percent of global seafood consumption. "It probably could be a gold mine" in Kentucky, said He, who has a doctorate in ecological economics.

"This industrial park creates economic opportunity, and something we haven't seen - a zero waste fish facility, with a cluster of industry fish companies in one area," Commissioner Erran Persley of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development said at the ceremony.

The Berkshire Eagle, bought back from a chain by locals in 2016, wins special journalism award in Massachusetts

"The Berkshire Eagle has received the 2019 John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award for 'demonstrating the enduring civic value of community journalism' from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation," the Eagle reports. The Eagle, a daily, covers Berkshire County, the westernmost in Massachusetts.

In a recognition ceremony last week, MCC's executive director Anita Walker praised the Eagle for providing a balanced source of content, and praised the paper for doing so as a locally owned paper. "It's rare today to live in a community served by a newspaper that is locally owned and that gives as much coverage to arts and culture as, say, sports," Walker said. "No newspaper has devoted more resources and energy to stories that matter about our collective public trust than The Berkshire Eagle."

A group of local investors, led by retired District Court Judge Frederic Rutberg, bought the Eagle and several sister papers from Digital First Media in 2016.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Rural teens 50% more likely to smoke than urban teens

Though teen smoking rates among rural and urban teens have fallen, rural teens are still 50 percent more likely to smoke than their urban counterparts, according to a study newly published in the American Journal of Public Health.

"Using data from more than 95,600 adolescents who participated in the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, researchers analyzed smoking rates over two periods: 2008-2010 and 2014-2016. Fifteen percent of the youth lived in rural counties," Saumya Joseph reports for Reuters. "Teenage smoking in urban areas fell by half from the first period to the second, after accounting for socioeconomic factors such as gender, race, ethnicity and family income. But it only went down by a third in rural places."

The study didn't examine why more rural teens smoke, but earlier research has found that rural teens tend to have easier access to tobacco products, start smoking earlier and are more likely to have family members in their home who smoke, Joseph reports.

Smoking cessation efforts should pay attention to the differences in rural areas and try to understand better how policies and programs might work differently there, said lead study author Erika Ziller of the University of Southern Maine.

Congress leaves for break without approving disaster aid

Congress has left Washington for a two-week recess without approving disaster aid that would help the Midwest, Southeast and Puerto Rico. The main problem: President Trump opposes more aid for Puerto Rico, which was hit by two hurricanes in 2017, and has made unsubstantiated claims that its politicians have mismanaged federal funds.

"Senate Republicans have stuck with the president so far, refusing to add more funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild its water systems or help its impoverished government with more generous disaster aid terms. Democrats in turn filibustered a $14 billion aid package over the issue last week, and the measure has languished since," Andrew Taylor reports for Fox Business.

Some Republican senators met with Trump privately on Thursday to try to make headway, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala, Jordain Carney reports for The Hill. Shelby and other GOP lawmakers from the southeast are feeling pressure to get the bill passed since farmers there still need hurricane aid and it's planting season, Taylor reports.

That has led to some unusual criticism of Trump from lawmakers who usually support him. "Never before have we seen American communities that were wrecked with catastrophes neglected like this," said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., in a floor speech this week, Taylor reports. "To this day, OMB has not even submitted a request for disaster assistance, calls to White House staff have gone unheeded, and but for one tweet on April 1, it seems the president has moved on."

Ag Census shows shows farms consolidating and farmers getting older

The 2017 Census of Agriculture was released Thursday; here are some early reports on the most interesting data:

The total number of U.S. farms declined 3% from 2012 to 2017 and 7.8% from 1997 to 2017, according to the census. Since the census is released every five years, 2012 is the most recent data before this one. "The total number of farms on Dec. 31, 2017, was calculated at 2,042,220, which was 67,110 fewer than reported in the 2012 Census of Agriculture," Greg Henderson reports for Drovers, a beef industry publication. Though the number of farms dropped 3%, the amount of land being farmed dropped only 1.5% and the average size of farms increased 441 acres from 2012 to 2017. That reflects a growing trend of farm consolidation.

Dairy consolidation is a rising trend too. "The Ag Census shows that 54,599 farms had milk cows in 2017, but only 39,303 dairy farms actually sold milk from the cows they owned. The difference: Nearly 17,000 farms reported they have one to nine milk cows, and it’s likely these small herds used the milk for home use only," Jim Dickrell reports for industry publication Dairy Herd Management. "Of those herds reporting milk sales, 25,256 farms have one to 99 cows, representing 64.3% of dairy farms with milk sales. There were 10,583 dairy farms with 100 to 499 cows, and 3,464 herds with more than 500 cows. USDA reports that 189 herds in the U.S. had more than 5,000 cows. Herds with 100 to 499 cows represent 26.9% of herds with milk sales. Those with 500 or more cows represent 8.8% of herds with milk sales."

There were 321,000 farmers under age 35 in 2017, up only 2% from 208,000 in 2012. That's concerning since the cohort of farmers over 65 increased far more in that time frame, with senior farmers now outnumbering young farmers more than 6 to 1. And even the paltry growth in young farmers' numbers might be partly because of a change in this census: the U.S. Department of Agriculture "only recently began allowing farms to list more than one 'operator'—meaning children of farm owners can now be listed along with their parents. Since over 100,000 of those young farmers—nearly the entire difference—are part-owners or tenants of the farm, the overall percentage is only up by 2 percent, from 7.6 to 9.4 percent of total farmers," Julia Hotz reports for Civil Eats.

Ag Census data shows that ranchers are making great strides in reviving the bison population, according to National Bison Association Executive Director Dave Carter. The bison population on American ranches and farms was 183,780 in 2017, a 13.3% increase from 2012. "The majority of the native habitat of bison is under the stewardship of individual farmers and ranchers, so restoration of the herds requires that raising bison is economically sustainable, as well as environmentally sustainable," Carter said.

If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of the Ag Census, listen to this hour-long AgriTalk podcast on AgWeb that breaks down the numbers with Joe Parsons of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, which administers the Ag Census.

Quick hits: Podcast examines war on drugs; how to improve rural cancer care; pigweed outsmarts herbicides

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A new podcast series examines the history of the "war on drugs" in Appalachia. Give it a listen here.

Rural residents have a harder time accessing cancer treatment and have higher cancer mortality rates. So the American Society of Clinical Oncology has formed a Rural Access to Cancer Care Task Force to examine the phenomenon and figure out what they can do. Recommended areas of focus right now: provider education and training, workforce development, tele-oncology, and research. Read more here.

NPR gives reluctant praise to the hardy pigweed plant, which seems to be defying farmers' and biotech companies' efforts to kill it off with pesticides. Read more here.

Permian Basin natural-gas boom leads to higher than expected methane emissions, analysis finds

Methane emissions from New Mexico's oil and gas industry are almost twice as much as previous estimates, according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data by the Environmental Defense Fund, Mike Lee reports for Energy & Environment News. Methane is the main ingredient in natural gas and a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat more efficiently than carbon dioxide.

New Mexico drillers and pipeline operators release about 1 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, almost three fourths of that from Permian Basin oil field, the analysis found. "EDF worked with researchers at the University of Wyoming to measure methane emissions at more than 90 well sites in the Permian Basin. After calculating an estimate for the basin from those figures, the group added estimates for other oil and gas sources to arrive at the 1 million-ton estimate," Lee reports. "Nationwide, the oil, gas and midstream pipeline industries emit about 13 million metric tons of methane annually, EDF has previously estimated."
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association disputes the analysis, and the New Mexico Environment Department said the estimates could be inaccurate if the researchers did not account for the fact that emissions are intermittent, not constant, Lee reports. "An image taken of methane emissions from an oil and gas production facility is a snapshot in time, and may not be representative of the long term steady state methane emission rate coming from the facility," said Liz Bisbey-Kuehn, the state Environment Department's air quality bureau chief.

Permian Basin production "has roughly doubled in the past three years, and so much gas is produced alongside the region's oil that exploration companies can't get rid of it," Lee reports. "America's hottest oil patch is producing so much natural gas that by the end of last year producers were burning off more than enough of the fuel to meet residential demand across the whole of Texas. The phenomenon has likely only intensified since then," Kevin Crowley and Ryan Collins report for Bloomberg.

The methane emissions in New Mexico and Texas come from either accidental venting, such as when a seal is not tight enough, or deliberately releasing gas that can't be easily captured and stored in a controversial practice called "flaring."

"The amount of gas flared in the Permian rose about 85 percent last year, according to data from Oslo-based consultant Rystad Energy. Some 533 million cubic feet a day was burned in the fourth quarter alone," Crowley and Collins report.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Trump executive orders increase presidential power, target states' power to stop oil and gas pipeline projects

President Trump signed two executive orders Wednesday that aim to make it easier for oil and gas companies to build pipelines and harder for states to stop them.

The first order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review a section of the Clean Water Act that states have used to delay projects on environmental grounds, and "requires the Transportation Department to change its rules to allow the shipment of liquefied natural gas by rail and tanker truck, Toluse Olorunnipa and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post. "And it seeks to limit shareholder ballot initiatives designed to alter companies’ policies on environmental and social issues. Trump’s order requires the Labor Department to examine whether retirement funds that pursue those investment strategies are meeting their responsibility to maximize returns."

The second order asserts that the president is solely responsible for approving or denying pipelines or other infrastructure that cross international boundaries; until now, the secretary of state had that authority, Olorunnipa and Mufson report.

"Critics said the president’s orders on pipelines would trample on authority delegated to the states under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act and other congressional legislation," Olorunnipa and Mufson report. "That authority has been upheld twice by the Supreme Court. Trump’s move would benefit, among others, Energy Transfer, whose chief executive, Kelcy Warren, was a major contributor to Trump’s campaign." Energy Transfer has the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Apply for Appalachian Leadership Institute by June 1

The Appalachian Regional Commission is accepting applications for its new Appalachian Leadership Institute, a leadership and economic development training program for community leaders in Appalachia.

The intensive nine-month program will focus on “skill-building, seminars, best practice reviews, field visits, mentoring, and networking. The curriculum will be anchored by six multi-day seminars around the region, followed by a capstone graduation in Washington, DC.,” ARC reports. Program graduates will become part of the Appalachian Leadership Institute Network, a peer-to-peer network dedicated to improving Appalachia’s future. Learn more here

Medicare expands telehealth coverage for seniors

Starting in 2020, seniors with Medicare Advantage plans from private insurance companies will have expanded access to telehealth services as a basic benefit. Under a rule that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalized Friday, seniors will be able to use telehealth in their homes instead of having to go to a health-care facility, Shelby Livingston reports for Modern Healthcare

That will help rural seniors who have a hard time arranging transportation for health care services, so long as they have sufficient internet service.

“Previously, Medicare Advantage plans could include additional telehealth services only as a supplemental benefit to be paid for with rebate dollars or enrollee premiums,” Livingston reports. “The change was called for by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. The CMS also said it is streamlining grievance and appeals process for patients enrolled in certain dual-eligible special needs plans and affiliated Medicaid managed care plans, as required by the Bipartisan Budget Act.”

Financial and transportation problems often make opioid-addiction treatment difficult for rural residents to get

Opioid addicts can take prescription drugs that conquer withdrawal symptoms without making the patients high, but some medications like methadone can only be dispensed in person. That means a daily trip to a clinic for many, making recovery "even tougher for rural residents who live miles from treatment clinics," Lurissa Carbajal reports for Arizona State University's Cronkite News. "Most clinics in the U.S., built in response to the heroin epidemic of the 1970s, are in big cities. These days, drug abuse has expanded to the suburbs and rural areas but the facilities to treat it have lagged because of funding shortages and the stigma around drug-treatment facilities."

Though opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled over the past decade, the number of people in methadone treatment has increased by less than 25%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Carbajal reports. She illustrates how difficult it can be for rural residents to seek such treatment, following homemaker and mother of three Maggie Phillips as she makes the daily trip to the clinic an hour away. She began methadone treatments at 25 when she was pregnant with her second child, and used to have to travel nearly three hours each way to a clinic in Tucson every day.

New addiction-treatment patients are generally only eligible for the once-a-day dosage, but if they stay sober long enough can sometimes qualify for a longer-acting shot. Because Phillips has been in treatment for several years and because a nearer treatment clinic opened up recently, it's much easier for her to get treatment: she now only has to drive one hour each way, once a month, to receive a methadone shot, Carbajal reports.

Phillips is fortunate that she has a reliable car and the money to make the journey, though. "Patients spend nearly $50 per week just on travel costs, and they often have to use back roads. The lack of transportation leads to patients missing treatments, which results in more relapses," Carbajal reports. "Then there are the hidden costs, such as Phillips gathering up her boys and hauling them for a journey that takes most of the day."

Why aren't there more clinics in rural areas? Opponents believe that outpatient drug centers bring crime with them, but "new research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests there may actually be less serious crime near clinics than other community businesses. The study found that there was 25 percent more violent crime around liquor stores and corner stores compared with drug treatment centers," Carbajal reports. "Government and private funding for such clinics also is lacking. Only a handful of commercial insurance plans have recently begun paying for such treatment. About a dozen states, mostly in the Midwest and Southeast,have prohibited their Medicaid programs from covering methadone-based therapy, according to the Pew Research Center."

Democrats try to revive health-effects-of-mining study that Trump administration halted in 2017; Senate stands athwart

Nearly two years ago, the Trump administration halted a $1 million study on whether surface mining in Central Appalachia has caused health problems for residents. House Democrats protested at the time but couldn't do much as the minority; now that they have the majority, several are trying to revive the study, including Natural Resources Committee chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona.

"Rep. John Yarmuth, the sole Democrat in the Kentucky congressional delegation, is seeking to halt all new mountaintop coal removal mining permits until federal officials investigate potential health effects," Lesley Clark reports for McClatchy Newspapers, including the Lexington Herald-Leader. Yarmuth's effort is almost sure to fail because the Senate is controlled by Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a friend of the coal industry.

In a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Michael McCawley, an associate professor in West Virginia University's Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, testified that he thought the study got canceled because the administration knew the results would be bad for the industry, Kate Mishkin reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "I think they believed that the study was going to come out with evidence that supported banning mountaintop mining, that they knew what the evidence was," McCawley said, adding that he knew that because "I know most of the panel members; they’re colleagues of mine."

The study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was funded in 2016 by the Obama administration, but halted in August 2017. The Interior Department initially claimed it was reviewing all projects costing more than $100,000 because of budget cuts, but that wasn't true. Nearly a year later, the Pacific Standard reported that a top Interior official met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists just before canceling the study.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Thousands of U.S. bridges need repair; look up local data

About 178 million vehicles daily cross more than 47,000 U.S. bridges urgently in need of repair, according to the 2019 Bridge Report compiled by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. The report is based on an analysis of the Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory database, and has data for states and congressional districts. (The database has local data.)

QUream writes, "Structurally deficient bridges are not 'imminently unsafe, but they are in need of attention,' according to the report. In addition to the 47,052 bridges considered in poor condition, an additional 69,000 are operating under weight limits or other protective measures designed to reduce stress on the structures. In total, there are nearly 235,000 bridges across the country that need structural repair, rehabilitation or replacement . . . Completing all the necessary repairs would cost nearly $171 billion."

The number of structurally deficient bridges declined steadily over the last five years, and very slightly over the last two – from 7.7% of the nation's bridges in 2017 to 7.6% in 2018 – partly because of the Federal Highway Administration's recent redefinition of the term "structurally deficient." The new definition is narrower, and no longer includes "bridges where the overall structural evaluation was rated in poor or worse condition, or with insufficient waterway openings," Queram reports.

Alison Premo Black, chief economist for the road and bridge builders' group, conducted the analysis. He said, "At the current pace, it would take more than 80 years to replace or repair the nation's structurally deficient bridges."

USDA to shift more inspection responsibility to pork industry

"The Trump administration plans to shift much of the power and responsibility for food safety inspections in hog plants to the pork industry as early as May, cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. The Department of Agriculture is working on similar measures for the beef industry. 

Currently, trained USDA veterinarians weed out diseased hogs when they arrive at plants. Under the proposed system, plant employees would bear a greater responsibility to identify them and contaminated pork, and plant owners would decide how much, if any, training employees receive for that. Plants would also no longer have limits on slaughter-line speeds, Kindy reports.

"Pat Basu, the chief veterinarian with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 2016 to 2018, refused to sign off on the new pork system because of concerns about safety for consumers and livestock," Kindy reports. "The USDA sent the proposed regulations to the Federal Register about a week after Basu left, and they were published less than a month later, according to records and interviews." USDA officials declined to be interviewed until the rules are final.

Basu's main objection was putting possibly untrained plant workers in charge of identifying diseased hogs. An outbreak of a contagious disease could cost pork producers and the public $188 billion and state and federal governments $11 billion, Kindy reports. 

In an unusual move, the FSIS issued a statement saying Kindy's article was false. "It’s important to understand that under the proposal, establishment employees will not conduct inspections and they will not condemn animals," the USDA said. "The Post’s decision to continue to parrot arguments that are devoid of factual and scientific evidence only serves to further the personal agenda of special-interest groups that have nothing to do with ensuring food safety."

Pennsylvania town tries rare lawsuit to oust supervisor who hasn't been to a town meeting in over a year

Wikipedia map
Here's a good example of the kind of rural reporting that's often missed when medium and large papers reduce their coverage.

In Washington Township, Pennsylvania, pop. 5,122, the town's supervisor has not attended a single township meeting in more than a year but continues to draw a salary. Since the town board only has three members, if Stephanie Diehl doesn't show up, the board might not have a quorum to be able to conduct business, Christina Tatu and Riley Yates report for The Morning Call in nearby Allentown.

"Diehl hasn’t attended a meeting since June 27, when her two colleagues voted to terminate then-Washington Township Zoning Officer Robert Scott, who is Diehl’s husband. It was a raucous meeting that devolved into a screaming match in which Diehl at one point yelled an expletive," Tatu and Riley report.

There are few options under state law for removing elected officials who aren't doing their jobs. "That’s led to the township solicitor, David Ceraul, turning to what could be a long-shot bid: He’s asked Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli to consider a little-used lawsuit to force Diehl out, under what’s known as a quo warranto petition, which questions whether someone is legally holding office," Tatu and Riley report. Such suits are the only way to challenge an official's right to hold office, and has never been filed in response to an official neglecting their duties.

Internet-driven tourist attractions can overwhelm little towns

Contestants try to put on frozen T-shirts during a
Frozen Dead Guy Days. (Photo by Liz Carey)
Small towns are usually eager for tourism, but rare or once-a-year events that bring hordes of tourists for only a few days can cause headaches for locals, Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder.

For example, nearly 25,000 tourists descend on Nederland, Colorado (pop. 1,500), for three days each year for Frozen Dead Guy Days. The holiday celebrates a local man frozen on dry ice in one town resident's freezers. "It’s something many small communities are dealing with as the internet alerts everyone to events and activities that they may not have heard about otherwise. Sometimes, while events and festivals like Frozen Dead Guy Days are boons to the places where they happen, the impact they have on small communities can be a hardship," Carey reports.

The occasional "super bloom" in Southern California, caused by unusually heavy rains, is another such tourist magnet. Lake Elsinore, the closest town to this year's biggest bloom, struggled to handle the influx, and reached out to other towns and the state and federal government for help with issues it didn't have jurisdiction over. And though it helped some local businesses, others lost money because traffic was so bad people couldn't shop, Carey reports.

"I would say that we are always balancing the needs of our residents with the needs of our visitors," said Nicole Dailey, assistant to the city manager in Lake Elsinore. "Because of the unpredictability of it, there was no way for us to plan; no way for us to estimate the number of people. Some of the measures we have had to take have been extreme, but I think now that the residents see what we’re trying to do, some of them have come around."

2017 Census of Agriculture to be released at noon ET Thur.

The Department of Agriculture will release the 2017 Census of Agriculture Thursday, April 11, at noon ET. It includes a wealth of granular data on topics such as the number of farms, land in farms, value of production, demographics and more at national, state and county levels.

This census will include new information on military service, food marketing practices, and on-farm decision-making.

The census report and related publications, including searchable data query interfaces, will be available on the National Agricultural Statistics Service website. The website has three videos up now explaining why the ag census is important, what's new in this one, and how to find data. NASS will host a Twitter chat Friday, April 12 at 1 p.m. ET to address questions about the census. You can find the chat by following @usda_nass and searching for the hashtag #statchat.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Study: Poor, rural taxpayers most likely to be audited due to earned-income credit; map has county-level data

ProPublica map from Kim Bloomquist's data; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
Poor, rural taxpayers are far more likely to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service, according to a newly published study. Eight of the top 10 most-audited counties are poor and rural, and the top five are all rural counties in the Deep South with majority African American populations, Paul Kiel and Hannah Fresques report for ProPublica.

That's by design: Congressional Republicans pushed through a 2015 law meant to ensure that taxpayers weren't improperly claiming the earned income tax credit. The EITC is a federal program meant to help low-income workers get out of poverty.

Kim Bloomquist, who served as a senior economist in the IRS' research division for two decades, did the study to illustrate how the emphasis on EITC audits affects different regions in the country. "Because more than a third of all audits are of EITC recipients, the number of audits in each county is largely a reflection of how many taxpayers there claimed the credit, he found," Kiel and Fresques report.

EITC audits can devastate some taxpayers, since they can take more than a year and taxpayers don't get their refund until it's resolved. The wait time is exacerbated by low staffing levels at the IRS. And though the IRS sponsors a program that gives free legal help to low-income taxpayers facing audits, it's not enough. In Mississippi, the most heavily audited state, the program has only one attorney to cover all 82 counties. The IRS audits about 11,000 returns in Mississippi each year.

Ethane 'cracker' plants will add manufacturing element to Ohio Valley fracking boom; environmentalists wary

Inside Climate News map; click the image to enlarge it
Appalachia once depended on coal mining and steel jobs, but the natural-gas boom could make the region a petrochemical and plastics manufacturing hub, especially in the upper Ohio Valley.

"In a year or two, Shell Polymers, part of the global energy company Royal Dutch Shell, plans to turn . . . gas into plastic pellets that can be used to make a myriad of products, from bottles to car parts," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News. Such facilities are called cracker plants because they "crack" ethane molecules into ethylene and polyethylene. "Two Asian companies could also announce any day that they plan to invest as much as $6 billion in a similar plant in Ohio. There's a third plastics plant proposed for West Virginia."

The gas boom is fueled by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling process that can extract oil and gas unreachable by conventional means. The process comes with environmental hazards: "Planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the Shell plant alone would more or less wipe out all the reductions in carbon dioxide that Pittsburgh, just 25 miles away, is planning to achieve by 2030, Bruggers reports. "Drilling for natural gas leaks methane, a potent climate pollutant; and oil consumption for petrochemicals and plastics may account for half the global growth in petroleum demand between now and 2050."

Environmental groups caution against basing economic growth on another industry that harms the environment, especially as fossil fuels and plastics are facing international pushback, and worry that the region will only benefit for a few decades. But many Ohio Valley communities benefiting from the boom don't have room to be choosy.

"We have been digging our way out of a very deep hole for decades," said Jack Manning, president and executive director of the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, just west of Pittsburgh. "When Shell [Polymers] came along with a $6-to-$7 billion investment ... we were in the right spot at the right time," he told Bruggers.

PBS documentary follows health care providers in rural N.M.

A new PBS documentary called "The Providers" explores rural health care in northern New Mexico communities ravaged by poverty and the opioid epidemic.

"Through the eyes of physician assistant Matt Probst, family physician Dr. Leslie Hayes and nurse practitioner Chris Ruge, the film shows how the health care providers from El Centro Family Health Center refuse to pass judgment on their patients who are just trying to get to the next day," Russell Contreras reports for The Associated Press. "El Centro is a group of clinics in northern New Mexico that helps people in a region four times as large as Connecticut."

The film debuts this week. Learn more about it here or watch it online here.

McConnell promises follow-up legislation, if needed, to resolve regulatory headaches in booming hemp industry

Sen. Mitch McConnell wore jeans and argyles to the event.
"As hemp enters a new era as a legal agricultural commodity, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday he’s willing to offer follow-up legislation to resolve any 'glitches' stemming from mistaken identity between the crop and its lookalike, illicit cousin," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press.

McConnell, who led the push to legalize hemp nationwide in the 2018 Farm Bill, made the comment at a hemp forum in Louisville led by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The event focused on development of federal regulations to implement the Farm Bill, Grace Schneider reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture still has not released regulations to give the cannabis industry order. In the meantime, the confusion is causing headaches for growers, shippers, inspectors and law enforcement, Schreiner reports. For example, "in January, as a shipment of 18,000 pounds of Kentucky industrial hemp made its way to Colorado for processing, police in Oklahoma arrested the rig drivers and two more men escorting them," Schneider reports.

Figuring out how to ship hemp without it being mistaken for marijuana is a "stumbling block," the CJ reports, since there is no quick way for law enforcement officers to take a sample of cannabis and measure how much tetrahydrocannabinol it contains. Cannabis with more than 0.3% THC is considered marijuana. "Agriculture Undersecretary Greg Ibach, who attended the hemp conference, said USDA has asked federal drug enforcement officials for a “coordinated effort” on interstate hemp shipment," AP reports.

There are other problems in the burgeoning industry: "Hemp growers, processors and investors also have been frustrated that banks won't loan money for crops, credit-card processors won't handle transactions for hemp products, such as soaps and chocolate, and that there's still no crop insurance program in place to help farmers," the CJ reports.

EPA watchdog warns that agency released inaccurate data about toxic chemicals released by industrial facilities

The Environmental Protection Agency reported to the public inaccurate information about toxic substances released from industrial facilities between 2013 and 2017, according to a rare "management alert" issued Monday by the Office of Inspector General, the agency's top watchdog. The data are often used by journalists to do stories about local environmental issues.

"The emergency letter from the EPA’s acting IG to the head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention warned that certain information the EPA released publicly about its toxic chemical releases did not match internal EPA data," Miranda Green reports for The Hill. "Specifically, the alert referred to missing data pertaining to releases of hazardous substances from publicly owned treatment works. The government watchdog discovered that there were substantial differences between the publicly listed data on the total number of pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment and internal data sets the EPA handed over separately to the IG."

The IG discovered the issue during an audit of the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, an annual collection of government and industry reports about carcinogenic chemical releases, and considered it concerning enough to report immediately, Green reports. The letter instructed the EPA to announce corrective action within 15 days; the EPA "developed and deployed corrections" within three business days, according to an agency spokesperson. The spokesperson also said that the "glitches" did not impact the recently released 2017 TRI National Analysis.

The EPA must take the warning seriously, since the TRI is "the most important tool guaranteeing Americans the right to know about toxic chemical pollution in their own backyards," said Ken Cook, president of nonpartisan, nonprofit research outfit the Environmental Working Group.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Inside Climate News wins awards from North American Agricultural Journalists for its stories on Farm Bureau

Reporting on the American Farm Bureau Federation by Inside Climate News won two major awards in the North American Agricultural Journalists writing contest, being presented today at the National Press Club in Washington.

ICN reporters Georgina Gustin, Neela Banerjee and John H. Cushman Jr. won the Series category for Harvesting Peril: Extreme Weather and Climate Change on the American Farm," which focused largely on Farm Bureau, including its alliance with the oil industry on the issue. Other stories looked at crop insurance and agriculture's role in climate change. The Rural Blog noted the series last fall.

Part of an ICN graphic, from AFBF statements and the 2014 NCA
"This series offers a penetrating look at the American Farm Bureau’s long history of fighting climate change regulation and undermining climate science," wrote judge Marcel Dufresne, retired University of Connecticut journalism professor and former reporter and editor at The Day in New London. "Of particular note is the series’ explanation of how the Farm Bureau has effectively shaped the views of many farmers who doubt or downplay climate change, despite its well-documented harm to agriculture. The series presents a strong point of view, but one backed by extensive reporting – studies, interviews, government records – and is effectively illustrated with clear info graphics and a short introductory video."

The three ICN reporters also won the Feature category for a story in the package, "How the Farm Bureau’s Climate Agenda Is Failing Its Farmers." The story "should be mandatory reading for every farmer – no, make that every American," wrote judge Rebecca Jones, who was a feature writer at the old Rocky Mountain News and now pastors a church. "This tells a chilling story of a lobbying organization that has gone off the rails."

Second place in the Feature category went to Debbie Weingarten of The Guardian in partnership with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project for ‘It’s not fair, not right’: How America treats its black farmers. "This story leaves me speechless," Jones wrote. "It’s a well-told tale of underscores how racism still haunts our country."

In the News category, Gil Gullickson of Successful Farming won for stories on the Humane Society of the United States, which is often adverse to animal agriculture but says it gets a bad rap.

The Column category was won by Jonathan Knutson of AgWeek for his "Plain Living" column; the three examples cited dealt with farmer suicides, the changing face of farming in the Upper Midwest, and "Why Trump’s trade war alarms me."

Urban Lehner of DTN/The Progressive Farmer won the Editorial category for pieces about food-safety problems at Chipotle; endorsing funding for the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research; and the need for rapid traceback to find sources of food contamination.