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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

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 RaĂșl 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.

FactChecking President Trump on wind power and more

Here's another installment of an occasional series we run listing some of the most relevant items from FactCheck.org and other nonpartisan fact checkers. FactCheck found fault with several President Trump statements last week:

"During an April 2 speech to the National Republican Congressional Committee, President Donald Trump once again attacked wind power, falsely claiming that noise from turbines causes cancer and that turbines sink property values by 75 percent," Jessica McDonald reports. "The president has repeatedly erred when it comes to wind power. As we’ve explained before, when the president said living near turbines is noisy enough to make someone 'go crazy after a couple of years,' there’s no direct evidence that the sound is harmful to human health."

Last week, Trump said that "for the first time, really, in decades" Mexico "has been starting to apprehend a lot of people at their southern border coming in" from other Central American countries. That's untrue, though. "In fiscal year 2018, Mexico apprehended 110,000 migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and over the previous four fiscal years the total was more than 500,000," Lori Robertson reports.

Trump also misstated Rep. Jerrold Nadler's 1998 position on releasing special counsel Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton. Nadler, A Democrat from New York and the House Judiciary Committee chair, has said that special counsel Robert Mueller's unredacted report on Trump should be released to the committee. On April 2,  Trump tweeted: "In 1998, Rep.Jerry Nadler strongly opposed the release of the Starr Report on Bill Clinton. No information whatsoever would or could be legally released. But with the NO COLLUSION Mueller Report, which the Dems hate, he wants it all. NOTHING WILL EVER SATISFY THEM! @foxandfriends"

Trump based his tweet on a video clip aired on Fox & Friends that day. "The video clip gives the impression that Nadler was against making any of the Starr report public, which wasn’t the case," D'Angelo Gore reports. "The fuller video and transcript show that Nadler said the report and other documents would have to be reviewed by members of Congress to determine what could be released or not."

Finally, Trump claimed that Puerto Rico received $91 billion in hurricane aid, and that that amount was "more money than has ever been gotten for a hurricane before." Neither statement is true. Puerto Rico has received $11.2 billion in disaster relief payments since 2017, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"In all, the federal government has allocated nearly $41 billion, and has obligated about half of it via binding agreements, but as we said, so far just a portion of that — $11.2 billion — has been distributed in Puerto Rico," Robert Farley reports. "To get to the $91 billion figure, a senior administration official told us Trump is including the total allocation for Puerto Rico — $41 billion — plus an estimated $50 billion in future FEMA costs 'over the life of the disaster,' which can stretch decades."

Small towns in Western U.S. are doing better economically than those in the East; one Montana town illustrates why

Washington Post chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Small towns all over the United States are declining, but Hamilton, Montana, is thriving. What's the town's secret? And why are small towns in the Western U.S. outstripping growth in the rural East?

"Based on measures of new-business formation, migration and job churn, Western states are significantly more dynamic than those in the East," David Lynch reports for The Washington Post. Since 2010, small towns in the West have been "by far the fastest-growing region in the country, according to the Census Bureau, expanding output two-thirds faster than the Midwest and more than twice as fast as the Northeast."

According to John Lettieri, president and CEO of think tank the Economic Innovation Group, many small towns in the West have a big advantage over their Eastern counterparts: their age and their history. Most small towns in the West were never heavily dependent on manufacturing, and therefore escaped the job losses that came with globalization. 

Sperling's Best Places map
"These are newer economies. They have fewer concrete cinder blocks to drag around behind them as they’re trying to grow," Lettieri told Lynch.

Hamilton, a town of more than 4,700, "has parlayed distinctive attributes into population growth, including proximity to the state’s second-largest city, majestic surroundings, a good supply of college graduates and a dependable base of federal government employment," Lynch reports.

A local microbrewery, launched by two Hamilton natives who came back after college, brings in more than $1 million in annual sales, and a federal laboratory that investigates deadly viral diseases provides high-earning jobs and the college-educated workers to fill them, Lynch reports. The town is also home to a GlaxoSmithKline plant that produces a vaccine ingredient, and has a thriving recreation industry.

"It’s a pretty sweet spot to be in," economist Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics in nearby Bozeman told Lynch. "You can have the same job you’d have in Seattle and go fly-fishing in the afternoon. . . . It’s the quality of life. It attracts talent. Pretty soon, talent builds on itself, and word gets out."

The 'new NAFTA' is still not ratified, and may be in trouble

The trade agreement that the U.S., Mexico and Canada negotiated last fall still hasn't been ratified by any of the legislative bodies of the three nations, and "All of a sudden there are clouds on the horizon in all three places," Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib reports.

First, Democrats, who control the U.S. House, say the agreement lacks adequate labor and environmental standards, and want side agreements on those points first, but that idea is not popular in the other two counties, Seib says in his video report.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and House Speaker Nacy Pelosi
Axios' Jonathan Swan reports that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who "has more power than anybody to decide whether [the treaty] gets Congress' approval," has invited AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to speak to House Democrats about it, and "some Republicans close to the process are taking that as an ominous sign."

Second, Canada's foreign minister said his country wouldn't ratify the treaty until President Trump lifts the tariffs that he placed on steel and aluminum from Canada. Then Trump said he might put a 25% tariff on cars and parts coming from Mexico, and that such tariffs would supersede the treaty.

It all adds up to "a very important trade agreement that's sort of flying below the radar screen but hitting some turbulent air as it does so," Seib says. The agreement would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and be called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Vice President Mike Pence promoted the treaty to Indiana farmers last week, and Axios reports that Pence "has more dates around the country lined up to sell the USMCA."

Addict in recovery resumes writing column for Appalachian newspapers after relapsing and going into treatment

Lee's book
A recovering drug addict who writes a column for newspapers in Appalachian Kentucky and Tennessee, and published a book, has relapsed, gone back into treatment and resumed his column.

Phillip Lee's return column for the Clinton County News in Albany emphasizes the nature of addiction as a chronic, relapsing disease; the humanity of those suffering it, and the promise of treatment. Kentucky Health News has a report.

How will beef industry weather rising popularity of plant-based burgers that taste good? Here are two views

The beef industry needs to pay attention because meatless burgers are here to stay, according to Eric Bohl, public-affairs director for the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Burger King, White Castle and a slew of other fast food restaurants are testing the waters to see whether the newest generation of plant-based burgers will be a hit with customers. The product of choice is the Impossible Burger, created by Impossible Foods Inc., which Bohl found to be nearly indistinguishable from real beef in a taste test. "If I didn’t know what I was eating, I would have no idea it was not beef," Bohl writes for MFB.

Bohl's positive review of the burger puzzled many readers, since MFB was instrumental in getting a state law passed last year banning companies from using the word "meat" to describe plant-based products. But Bohl wrote the day after his burger review that the column was meant to be a "wake-up call" to the beef industry, which is a major player in Missouri: only Texas has more cows.

New fake meats are increasingly tasty, and marketed to meat-eaters who worry about animal welfare, the environmental impact of meat, and health, Bohl writes. But he offers reassurance: The new meat analogues are more expensive than real beef, and "our industry has the tools to make a stand and remain the dominant way of providing the protein and nutrients our bodies need," he writes. "These companies are playing on emotions, making hugely misleading claims about the impact of animal agriculture on our bodies and planet, and claiming to be saving the world from our evil industry."

David Von Drehle of The Washington Post is not so sure that the beef industry will be unaffected. He observed that Impossible Burgers are not just tasty (he tried one) but that it and other meat analogues such as Beyond Meat are increasingly well-funded and enjoy a "cool factor" as celebrities increasingly invest in and promote them. "Face it: Tastes change. Bottled water is now more popular than soda pop," Von Drehle writes. "A new day is dawning for the meat industry, and the Word of the Day is: 'smaller'."

Six months after Hurricane Michael, rural Florida panhandle still struggles to recover; some federal relief still delayed

Some rural Florida panhandle residents still live in temporary housing. (Washington Post photo by Charlotte Kesl)
Six months after Hurricane Michael killed 49 people and caused more than $5.5 billion in damage in the Florida panhandle, rural areas east of Panama City are still struggling to rebuild, Patricia Sullivan and Joel Achenbach report for The Washington Post.

"Government agencies have cleared the roads and utilities have restored power, water and communications, but thousands of people are still desperate for permanent housing, competing not only with one another for the scarce supply of rental units, but with construction workers who have come into the area," Sullivan and Achenbach report. "Many residents are living in damaged homes or trailers unfit for human habitation. Some live in tents. Homeowners are frustrated by stingy insurance companies and bewildering government paperwork, and they’re wary of shady contractors."

The area has received less in charitable donations than other areas hit with recent hurricanes, the Post reports: The American Red Cross said that donations earmarked for Michael were at $35 million, compared to $64.3 million for Hurricane Florence, which hit Virginia and the Carolinas a month before; $97 million for Hurricane Irma, which hit Naples, Florida in 2018; and $522.7 million for Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in 2017. That's likely because Michael affected relatively few people and the public was paying more attention to victims of Florence and wildfires in Northern California.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency "said it has poured $1.1 billion into Florida in Michael-related response and recovery efforts, the bulk of that in the form of low-interest Small Business Administration loans," Sullivan and Achenbach report. "It has approved $141 million in individual assistance to 31,000 households affected by Michael, numbers similar to disaster relief provided to North Carolina after Florence."

But Congress has not passed a $13.5 billion bill to fund long-term recovery from natural disasters, at first because of the partial federal shutdown, then because of partisan fighting over hurricane recovery funding for Puerto Rico. Congress authorized $35 billion in long-term recovery aid more than a year ago, but the Housing and Urban Development Department program that disburses the aid is so dysfunctional that almost none of the funding has been given out.

Rural panhandle residents are frustrated with Congressional delays. Philip Griffitts, chairman of the Bay County Commission and a Republican, told the Post: "We have as many Democrats suffering as Republicans, and we need help. We’re all in the same boat."

Sunday, April 07, 2019

13 journalists win rural health journalism fellowships to attend Association of Health Care Journalists conference

Thirteen journalists have been awarded rural health journalism fellowships to attend the annual Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Baltimore May 2-5, with funding from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. They are:
  • Kara Ardron, Appalachia health news coordinator, West Virginia Public Broadcasting
  • Kristen Consillio, reporter, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
  • Melodie Edwards, reporter/anchor, Wyoming Public Radio
  • Berenice Garcia, reporter, The Monitor, McAllen, Texas
  • Markian Hawryluk, health reporter, The Bend Bulletin, Bend, Oregon
  • Erica Hensley, health and data reporter, Mississippi Today, Ridgeland, Miss.
  • Mary Hodgin, health and science reporter, WBHM, Birmingham, Alabama
  • Lori Kersey, health reporter, Charleston Gazette-Mail, Charleston, W.Va.
  • Andrew Kitchenman, state government and politics reporter, Alaska Public Media and KTOO, Juneau
  • Kamila Kudelska, northwest reporter, Wyoming Public Radio, Red Lodge, Montana
  • Michaela Ramm, health care reporter, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
  • Bram Sable-Smith, independent journalist, Madison, Wisconsin
  • Kat Stromquist, reporter, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock