Friday, September 23, 2011

Grant will help rural journalists in South Dakota collaborate on coverage of rural issues

The nation's largest journalism foundation has given a South Dakota group $242,000 to "create an alliance of rural journalists to provide in-depth reporting on topics vital to rural South Dakota," the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation said in a news release.

The money will go to the South Dakota Community Foundation to create Dakotafire Media, which will connect rural journalists "through online meetings, social networking and collaborative writing software – allowing them to cover topics they couldn’t meaningfully address alone," the release says. The grant is for three years.

"The journalists, many of whom come from newspapers with staffs of three or fewer people, will also be able to exchange ideas and learn from each other. As some of these newspapers don’t have websites, Dakotafire will offer an online presence for them. The funding comes at a time of great change in the rural Dakotas, where the population is declining and aging, and metro newspapers are retreating to urban centers."

The editor and program administrator of Dakotafire is Heidi Marttila-Losure, right, most recently a copy editor at the Center for Independent Media and previously the chief copy editor and Facets editor at the Ames Tribune in Iowa. She has long been interested in rural issues, and in 2005 was a participant in "Rural America, Community Issues," a week-long program of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Rural/urban poverty gap smallest since 1950's but overall poverty report looks bleak

Rural poverty rates increased less than 0.1 percent from 2009 to 2010, while the urban poverty rate rose one percent, a new report from the Economic Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows. (ERS graphic) As a result, the gap between rural and urban poverty rates is the smallest it has been since the 1950"s, the Daily Yonder reports. (Read more)While the percentage of people living in poverty — household income below $22,350 for a family of four — has remained relatively constant in rural America, the U.S. Census Bureau report shows a 20 percent increase poverty from 2007 to 2010 in 20 states. The report also shows median household income fell more than 7 percent in 16 states, Carla Uriona, Mary Mahling, Evan Potler and Pamela Prah of Stateline report. To see whether your state was among those with a rise in poverty or drop in median income, see the Stateline infographic below. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

Pa. court will decide if Marcellus gas should be redefined as a mineral, voiding leases

Marcellus shale gas drillers and landowners must wait for a lower court to determine whether thousands of drilling leases are legitimate, following the Pennsylvania Superior Court's ruling that oil and gas ownership rights are unclear, Jim Polson and Mike Lee of Bloomberg report.

This ruling comes following a legal dispute in which the defendants argue shale gas is contained within rocks and should be considered part of the mineral rights, despite the state's century-old practice of considering oil and gas rights separate, Bloomberg reports.

"The case may take as long as two years" to make its way through the lower court, Davide Fine, attorney for K&L Gates LLP said in a phone interview. Meanwhile, many gas and oil companies "may need to check the title to thousands of oil and gas properties they've leased," David Poole, general counsel of Range Resources Corp. told Bloomberg.

Ken Komoroski, attorney with Fulbright & Jaworski LLP in Pittsburgh, suggests a trade association or gas producer petition the Supreme Court to expedite the appeal process, Bloomberg reports.

Federal nutrition program may mean higher lunch prices for most school districts

Schools may have to raise lunch prices as a result of the child nutrition bill signed last December after President Obama's latest attempt to provide free meals to school children in poor areas failed. The bill, calling for more fresh produce and less whole milk in school cafeterias, requires districts to raise prices to cover the cost of meal preparation. The changes will happen next school year and will make the national average paid for lunch $2.46, Fernanda Santos of The New York Times reports.

This increase marks the first time since 1946, when the school lunch program started, that the federal government has involved itself with lunch prices. Under the $10 billion program, the government reimburses districts $2.72 for free meals, $2.32 for reduced-price meals and 26 cents for the full-price version. Along with proceeds from meal and snack sales, this money is put into a larger pot, but the range of what schools across the country charge for lunch varies greatly in order to make meals affordable for all students.

The undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition and consumer service, Kevin Concannon, oversees the school lunch program. He told Santos the price increase will allow districts to make adjustments in order to serve kids healthier meals. Some school officials see it differently. Eric Goldstien, who is in charge of New York City Schools' food program, said the bill might make more parents completely skip paying lunch fees, already a problem for districts that have to absorb the unpaid fees, which can reach into the millions of dollars.

There's also a worry that families whose income is just above a threshold for their children to receive free or reduced-price meals may be saddled with a larger financial burden in order to pay higher lunch prices, Santos reports. Diane Pratt-Heavener, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria administrators, told Santos: “We could be shooting ourselves in the foot here if we’re not setting prices at a level that parents are able or willing to pay." (Read more)

Rural residents unhappy with president's endorsement of ending Saturday mail delivery

President Obama's endorsement of the U.S. Postal Service's wish to end Saturday mail delivery will affect rural areas the most, Todd Kleffman of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky., reports.

Local resident Holly Henson told Kleffman people living in the Kentucky town of about 16,000 rely on Saturday mail delivery. She receives prescriptions and vitamins for cancer treatment through the mail and worries delivery could be delayed if the post office is closed on Saturday.

Carolyn Smith, postmistress in Hustonville, a very small town near Danville, told Kleffman that the two hours her post office is open on Saturday morning are busy because people who don't have time to come in during the week do so then. She said if the post office wasn't open on Saturday, "it would make people unhappy." (Read more)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Education Dept. will offer to waive No Child Left Behind Act in return for states' policy changes

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan will announce tomorrow that they will waive major parts of the No Child Left Behind Act if states "adopt changes that could include the expansion of charter schools, linking teacher evaluation to student performance and upgrading academic standards," Lyndsey Layton reports for The Washington Post. "As many as 45 states are expected to seek waivers."

Many rural schools and districts have had difficulty complying with key components of the law, a bipartisan measure passed early in the presidential term of George W. Bush. Duncan, senators and representatives had been discussing legislation to change the act, but Duncan recently said "There’s a level of dysfunction in Congress that’s paralyzing." Now the administration is effectively rewriting the law on its own, Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, told Layton: “It’s a momentous development.”

Republicans question Duncan's authority to grant waivers in return for changes, and one of those who had been working on legislation with him, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has "filed a bill to restrict Duncan’s ability to issue waivers," Layton reports.

UPDATE, Sept. 23
: The Obama Administration said it will approve waivers for "specific NCLB mandates that are stifling reform." They will be granted only if states can prove they are moving schools toward college and career-ready standards, developing new accountability standards and making reforms supporting instruction and school leadership. These factors will be determined based upon an overall index score that tallied through a set list of indicators including things like assessment, yearly progress and teacher and principal readiness.
For the administration statement, click here. For a report from Stateline Daily, go here.

On a conference call with Duncan, Kentucky Education Secretary Terry Holiday and Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge,
Duncan said these reforms are intended to "encourage local solutions," and will allow states to decide what is best for their students. He said if he hadn't seen leadership from states like Kentucky and Georgia these reforms would not have happened.

The impact this change will have on rural schools was not discussed during the call, though much was said about identifying "low-achieving" schools, typically those in rural and urban areas where resources are limited, so funding needed to improve achievement could be funneled to them. Duncan said he anticipated the first waivers to be approved late this year and early next. Congressional authorization of more in-depth reforms to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are pending.

Ohio-based webinar will tell farmers fracking risks

The controversial method of gas-well completion known as hydraulic fracturing continues to draw attention in rural America. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association thinks farmers who may lease their land for natural gas and oil should be made aware of the risks involved in fracking. The group will present a free webinar for farmers Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. It will feature analysis from the Ohio Environmental Council about fracking and its impact on the environment. For more information, click here.

Experts on both sides say environmental regulations have little overall effect on jobs

Despite much political rhetoric about "job-killing regulations," they do little overall damage and in some cases create jobs, according to experts, including some with ties to regulated industries. While there are many examples of regulations hurting particular businsses or industries, regulations mostly force jobs to be shifted, reports Marian Wang of ProPublica, an online investigative news service run by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

Richard Morgenstern, who was with the Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan and Clinton administrations and now works for Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, directed research 10 years ago which found "higher production costs pushed up prices, resulting in lost sales for businesses and some lost jobs, but the job losses were also offset by new jobs created in pollution abatement," Wang writes.

She reports that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows in the first half of 2011, employers reported regulations caused them to layoff 0.2 to 0.3 percent of their employees, but the data don't factor in the number of jobs created as a result of regulation. This is a very narrow way to determine whether or not a regulation is good or bad, Wang writes, noting that the real measure of a successful regulations is "whether it improves waterways or lengthens lives or protects the public as promised."

Cutting through "job-killing" rhetoric is key to understanding that. As Roger Noll, co-director of the Program on Regulatory Policy at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, told Wang: "The effect of regulation on jobs has nothing to do with the mess we’re in. The current rhetoric about regulation killing jobs is nothing more than not letting a good crisis go to waste." (Read more)

Why new roads take years: environmental and historical concerns, politics, economics and more

It took Kentucky 14 years to replace this road.
Ever wonder why it takes so long to build a new highway? Sean Slone of The Lane Report in Kentucky takes almost 4,000 words to tell us, but he makes it an easy read. It's the first part of the magazine's look at the state's "complex and labyrinthine road construction process." Next month's will be about the "dozens of revenue sources" that can be used to build roads. Outside the money, the process differs relatively little from state to state, especially if federal funds are involved, so Slone's report is a good reference for those not familiar with the details of highway planning, design and construction.

The process "is composed of at least six smaller processes, each with its own challenges, requirements and procedures," Slone writes. "Each contributes to the lengthy overall timeframe, some more than others. Projects all must follow a similar linear progression of required milestones (particularly when federal funds are used), but each also is unique and subject to an array of delays, setbacks, renegotiations, unexpected discoveries and changing priorities."

One of the most time-consuming elements is the study process required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. "The linear nature of the NEPA process takes projects that could otherwise be approved in two or three years and makes them be approved in seven or 10 years, or sometimes never,” Phil Logsdon, assistant director for environmental analysis at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, told Slone.

“The NEPA process is an incredibly burdensome process that is so slow and so costly that for 20, 25 or 30 years public officials at all levels of government, Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural, everyone has tried to determine how the NEPA process can be made more efficient. And I suspect 20 years from now we’ll be talking about it as well. We need to be able to do more things simultaneously.” (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 25: The second part of the series "explores the maze of requirements attached to federal money and issues created by dozens of tightly restricted revenue source. Part 2 also presents reform options being considered," The Lane Report says.

Congress will end direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, USDA economist says

Farmers are enjoyng record exports and high prices, but those successes make them more vulnerable to cuts to agriculture subsidies, reports veteran congressional correspondent David Rogers of Politico. Direct cash subsidies from taxpayers total about $5 billion a year, much of it going to households earning more than $100,000 a year, making them an easy target that Congress will eliminate, a Department of Agriculture economist told Rogers.

Last April's 10-year House Republican budget called for agriculture cuts of $30 billion. On Monday, President Obama proposed a 22 percent cut, including an end to direct payments and an $8 billion cut in crop insurance. Rogers says those two proposals mean that change will happen, and agriculture's challenge will be to transition smoothly and maintain a "safety net." The going in Congress may not be so smooth; Rogers notes clashes have already occurred between leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees on one side and the 12-member deficit "super committee," who Rogers says are not "equipped to write agriculture policy."

Advocates for subsidized crops are showing up at political fundraisers, trying to earn support for their industry. Some, such as the National Cotton Council, have written plans that doen't include direct payments. Corn interests have written a plan relying on insurance-premium subsidies. One thing is sure, USDA economist Keith Collins told Rogers: "The argument for direct payments is their economic neutrality . . . but their downside is the same as their upside: They are unrelated to price and production, and thus income. They get made even in boom times. In this budget environment, they are going to be eliminated." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Students who need funding are less appealing to some financially squeezed universities

As tuition at higher education institutions continues to climb, Tamar Lewin of the New York Times reports on a survey by Inside Higher Ed, an online resource for higher-education professionals, that reveals college admissions officers are now actively avoiding recruiting students who require financial aid, thus excluding many from poor and middle-class homes.

More than a third of the 462 admissions and enrollment directors at four-year colleges and universities said they worked harder the previous year to enroll students who could pay full price without assistance. Many admitted the poor economy was driving their decisions. Meanwhile, one-fourth said they felt pressure from trustees or development officers to admit certain applicants. “We certainly have standards, but there needs to be awareness that when the economy starts to crumble, the standards may start to go out the window,” David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told Lewin.

The top priority for admissions officers at four-year institutions was to recruit international students who pay higher tuition, but at community colleges, officers reported being most concerned with providing financial aid to low and middle-income students, and were more focused on cuts to state funding than whether or not students can pay without financial aid, Lewin reports. (Read more)

Feds' money for tutoring required by NCLB seems ineffective; schools want to spend it differently

School districts across the country are finding that taxpayer-funded tutoring required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act has not helped their schools, and in rural areas where tutoring services are not readily available, districts have found it consistently difficult to comply with NCLB standards.

Julie Hubbard of The Tennessean reports that the tutoring provision was added to NCLB as a way to help low-income students in schools that fail to meet testing benchmarks for three or more years. This forced districts to set aside 20 percent of federal funding for tutoring services. Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, told Hubbard that only about a fifth of students qualifying for tutoring actually apply to receive it, and what tutors teach doesn't line up with what students encounter in the classroom. Only one of four research studies showed tutoring had a positive effect.

Tennessee is one of three states whose education departments are asking the federal Department of Education to let them use money set aside for tutoring services in other ways that have been proven to help students, such as instituting longer days. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has written a draft waiver proposal that would give districts discretion in how they spend this money, but House Republicans oppose the plan because they say parents should have options and tutoring allows private industry to be involved in schools. (Read more)

Breaking down Obama's deficit-reduction speech: Parts were misleading and confusing

Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post believes certain statements from President Obama's speech about taxes and spending on Monday may be "misleading and probably confusing" for many Americans, so he breaks down major points from the speech and examines the facts behind them.

Obama claimed his plan would cut $2 in spending for every $1 gained in revenue. Kessler says that depends upon how you define the "baseline for spending." He reports that Obama is including $1.09 trillion in savings from ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this same measure was included in Obama's February budget and he never intended to spend this money in the first place. An unnamed administration official argued to Kessler the earlier budget was never enacted, so this still counts as a cut.

The president also said the American Jobs Act would not add to the national debt, but that is untrue in the short-term. Kessler found the bill would add $303 billion to the deficit, but would slowly start to decrease it around 2013 and pick up speed in subsequent years. Kessler notes that those future numbers are all estimates and would depend on decisions of future Congresses. (Read more)

Severe drought in the Southern Plains could stretch into a multi-year event

La Nina, the weather phenomenon that cools the Pacific and warms the center of North America, is causing a year-long drought in the Southern Plains, and its return could prolong the toughest season farmers say they've ever seen.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the drought could become a multi-year event. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, told Tiffany Stecker of Environment & Energy News that recovering from severe droughts is a slow process, and the fear is that a multi-year drought would have dire consequences on farmers in the Southern Plains. Here's an interactive map illustrating the drought:

The drought has already caused damage in several states and is keeping farmfor the year ers from planting crops at the proper time. Stecker reports that Texas agriculture has already suffered $8.7 billion in losses, with $2.3 billion in the state's leading cash crop, cotton. Growers in Oklahoma report being 15 to 20 inches short of rain for the year and wheat farmers are finding it difficult to plant at all. (Read more)

Telemedicine helps rural hospitals use drug to prevent death and disability from strokes

Telemedicine may be a cost-effective way for rural hospitals without adequate neurology staff to gain the ability to treat stroke patients with a clot-busting drug that is little used in rural areas, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal Neurology suggests.

By comparing the costs and quality-adjusted life years of patients who were treated with telestroke, a new telemedicine technique for strokes, with those treated through standard care, researchers found "the cost of telestroke over a person's lifetime was less than $2,500 per quality-adjusted life year," WIAT-TV CBS 42 in Birmingham, Ala. reports.

Only 2 to 4 percent of stroke patients now get tPA, a clot-busting drug that can prevent death and disability if administered in the first few hours following a stroke, "with the lowest percentages in rural areas largely because there aren't enough stroke experts with experience using tPa," Jennifer J. Majersik, researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said in an interview. If reimbursement rates and high equipment costs improve, "Telestroke has the potential to greatly diminish the striking disparity in stroke care for rural America," Majerik added. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Topix seems to enjoy dragging small towns into the gutter; here's our invitation for it to get out

We reported early this year that local forums run by Topix were both revealing and creating problems for rural places; today The New York Times picked up on the story and got down to the nitty-gritty, with examples from several small towns. Kansas City-based reporter A.G. Sulzberger, son of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, went to the Ozark town of Mountain Grove and Dee's Place, a local hangout where "people are not happy" about Topix:
A waitress, Pheobe Best, said that the site had provoked fights and caused divorces. The diner’s owner, Jim Deverell, called Topix a “cesspool of character assassination.” And hearing the conversation, Shane James, the cook, wandered out of the kitchen tense with anger. His wife, Jennifer, had been the target in a post titled “freak,” he said, which described the mother of two as, among other things, “a methed-out, doped-out whore with AIDS.” Not a word was true, Mr. and Ms. James said, but the consequences were real enough. Friends and relatives stopped speaking to them. Trips to the grocery store brought a crushing barrage of knowing glances. She wept constantly and even considered suicide. Now, the couple has resolved to move.
Sulzberger writes that the concerns about Internet bullying and privacy are familiar, "but in small towns there are complications. The same Web sites created as places for candid talk about local news and politics are also hubs of unsubstantiated gossip, stirring widespread resentment in communities where ties run deep, memories run long and anonymity is something of a novel concept."

UPDATE: The story quotes Christian Sandvig, an associate professor in communication and media at the University of Illinois, as saying “Something about rural culture seems to make people want to have conversations in public.” But on the Huffington Post, Sandvig writes, “There are problems. Yet it's not clear to me that these are rural problems.” And the Daily Yonder says the Times should have noted Speak Your Piece, a feature of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., in which anonymous, phoned-in comments are published after being filtered by the weekly's staff.

Topix has found "an unexpected niche in communities of a few hundred or few thousand people — particularly in what Chris Tolles, Topix’s chief executive, calls 'the feud states.' One of the most heavily trafficked forums, he noted, is Pikeville, Ky., once the staging ground for the Hatfield and McCoy rivalry."

That's about enough, Mr. Tolles. You and your newspaper paymasters (Gannett Co., the McClatchy Co. and Tribune Co.) are hereby invited to take your foul product out of rural America. And perhaps newspapers in towns where Topix draws many readers should ask themselves if that's partly because they don't turn over enough rocks and/or run vigorous editorial pages that inspire responsible debate.

Illinois officials are out to get the Asian carp, and hunger, simultaneously

Asian carp keep swimming to the surface of the news, as people along the Great Lakes and the Illinois River try to decide how to deal with the invasive fish. To keep them out of the lakes, perhaps ruining their fisheries, officials have tried to use electric shock; now others are placing the fish on "invasivore" dinner menus. In Illinois, the state Department of Natural Resources hopes the fish can be removed from the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers and served in food banks and kitchens across the state.

Pamela King of Greenwire reports that the campaign, Target Hunger Now, builds off the 30-year-old Illinois Sportsmen Against Hunger program in which hunters donate a portion of their venison harvest to poor families through independent processors and distributors. Through Target Hunger Now, the state agency contracts anglers to catch Asian carp and handles processing and distribution.

Tracy Smith, director of a partner organization to Target Hunger Now, Feeding Illinois, told King the public has been receptive to the idea of eating Asian carp. The fish are rich in protein, a nutrient often overlooked by struggling families during hard times. However, a spokesman for the agency told King this solution is a short-term one; they are looking for a way to completely eradicate the fish.

CNN discovers that rural communities rely on themselves to help students achieve

Rural schools face issues and problems that their urban counterparts don't, pushing schools in rural areas to rely on community support to help students achieve, reports Sally Holland, education producer for CNN. (Photo: East Hickman School in Tennessee, from the Hickman County Times)

Though less than a fourth of Americans are now classified as rural, Department of Education data shows that over a third of U.S. public schools are in rural areas and they have about a fourth of the nation's students. But those numbers mean rural schools tend to have fewer students, and funding usually depends upon enrollment numbers. And low funding can mean low pay that complicates teacher recruitment and retention.

On the other hand, "One of the advantages of a rural area, is that everybody knows everybody and helps support everybody," Greg Ray, superintendent of the Mediapolis School District in southeast Iowa, told Holland. While the district has too few students to have a class in Chinese, Ray found a local Chinese native to teach an online course for it and other small districts.

Despite their challenges, Holland reports that rural high schools match the graduation rates of suburban high schools. Kris Amundson of Education Sector, a nonprofit that says it is working to change education policy to benefit students, told Holland that high graduation rates in rural areas are due largely to a "tremendous commitment" from the community to encourage students to get through high school. But that doesn't necessarily mean more rural kids are going to college, Amundson said. Only 17 percent of adults in rural areas have a college degree. Holland reports that students with college-educated parents are more likely to attend college themselves. (Read more)

Activists in college towns hope to make them 1st Ky. places with fairness laws outside major cities

There are two Kentuckys: rural, where very few gay and lesbian people live; and urban, where 2010 Census found more than 10 same-sex couples per 1,000 households, compared to the state average of 7, reports Jacalyn Carfagno of WEKU News in her two-part series about the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

LGBT people living in rural areas are obvious targets, Carfagno reports, citing an incident in Hazard in which two gay men were asked to leave a public pool, and one in Harlan where a lesbian couple reported being beaten by a group of men because of their sexual orientation. The latter incident caused the Kentucky Equality Federation, a non-profit promoting equality for LGBT people, to designate seven mountain counties in southeastern Kentucky a "special operating region" in which to "raise awareness about hate crimes based on sexual orientation and the group’s mission, intercede on behalf of victims of discrimination and hate crimes," Ralph Davis reports in the Hazard Herald.

Gays and lesbians in rural Kentucky lack protections of anti-discrimination "fairness" ordinances passed in urban centers of the state. In Berea, a college town of 13,000 where the state's Bluegrass region meets Appalachia, the city council has rebuffed activists' request to include LGBT people in a broader human-rights ordinance that is awaiting passage. Peter Smith of The Courier-Journal reports the activists have planned a rally today to urge the council to add sexual orientation to the list of protected minorities. If they prevail, Berea would be the only Kentucky city outside Northern Kentucky, Lexington and Louisville to have such an ordinance. (Read more) UPDATE, Sept. 21: The council voted last night for a human rights ordinance and commission to enforce it, but not to include sexual-orientation discrimination. Some council members said that would be considered later. For Smith's update, click here. For an on-the-scene report from Greg Kocher of the Lexington Herald-Leader, go here. (Herald-Leader photo of protesters by Mark Cornelison)

Berea is in Madison County; the county seat of Richmond, a larger town and home to Eastern Kentucky University, has declined to pass a fairness ordinance. This Friday 17 businesses on or near Main Street will "show support for local anti-discrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity," Business Lexington reports.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Obama deficit plan would cut farm subsidies, let Postal Service end Saturday mail delivery

President Obama's deficit-reduction plan includes major cuts in agriculture programs, $33 billion over 10 years. It would eliminate direct payments to farmers and reduce subsidies to crop-insurance companies. It would also authorize the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail only five days a week; USPS wants to eliminate Saturday delivery, an idea opposed by rural interests and newspapers.

While his overall proposal to the joint congressional committee formed to reduce the national debt is unlikely to pass, Obama's proposal sets markers for the negotiations and his re-election campaign. "The proposals provide a road map for cutting farm spending," writes Philip Brasher of the Gannett Washington Bureau. Obama said he "remains committed to a strong safety net for farmers, one that protects them from revenue losses that result from low yields or price declines, and strong crop insurance programs. But there are programs and places where funding is unnecessary or too generous."

On direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, recently been targeted by budget cutters, Obama said taxpayers continue to subsidize "farmers who are experiencing record yields and prices," and noted that "more than 50 percent of direct payments go to farmers with more than $100,000 in income." He added, "Economists have shown that direct payments have priced young Americans out of renting or owning the land needed to enter into farming."

Obama also proposes to cut conservation funding by $2 billion over 10 years, citing "the dramatic increase in funding (roughly 500 percent since enactment of the Farm Security and Rural Investments Act of 2002)," which he said has created redundancies and "difficulties in program administration." The agricultural cuts are on Pages 17 and 18 of the PDF proposal.

In addition to authorizing five-day mail delivery, on Page 23, Obama would address the USPS deficit by restructuring the funding of its its retiree health benefits, refund almost $7 billion it has paid into the system recently, allow the service "to offer non-postal products and increase collaboration with state and local governments" and allow it "to better align the costs of postage with the costs of mail delivery while still operating within the current price cap, and permit USPS to seek the modest one-time increase in postage rates it proposed a year ago." For opposing statements from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and a mailers' lobby, click here. For a story from The Associated Press, click here.

At the Interior Department, money would be gained with a fee on non-producing oil and gas leases, reform hardrock-mining leases and other measures, listed on Pages 31-32. For the White House summary sheet of the entire plan, click here.

Drug-induced deaths, fueled by prescription-drug abuse, exceeded traffic fatalities in 2009

For the first time since such data were compiled, drug-induced deaths outnumbered traffic fatalities in the United States in 2009, largely due to the increase in prescription-drug abuse, the Los Angeles Times reports today.

Using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, reporters Lisa Girion, Scott Glover and Doug Smith found that drug deaths totaled 37,485 in 2009, the last year for which the data are available. They calculated that deaths from pain and anxiety drugs have increased 284 and 256 percent, respectively, since 2000.

Prescriptions can help those who need the medicine, but can also fuel a black market of drug trafficking. The Times reports that the most commonly prescribed medication in the nation is hydrocodone, or Vicodin, which has been prescribed more than top cholesterol drugs and antibiotics.  The other most commonly abused prescription drugs are OxyContin, Xanax, Soma and a newcomer to the list, Fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine.

The reporters write that these drugs are now causing more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined, and their analysis found the types of people dying from overdoses constitutes a wide range: from teenagers to working men and women who become addicted after taking the medication for job-related injuries. Public health officials are using this report to call attention to the growing prescription drug abuse problem, which those officials label an epidemic. To view an interactive map illustrating the rise in drug deaths by state, click here. New Mexico topped the list, followed closely by West Virginia. (Read more)

Scientists say water systems probably can't filter fracking chemicals; pattern of illness found

A group of scientists has determined that municipal water systems cannot filter chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing of natural-gas wells, or "fracking." In a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the scientists said "It will be practically impossible" for drinking-water systems to protect against the chemicals, which include benzene, toxic metals, radioactive materials and surfactants and organic biocides.

Brian Nearing of the Albany Times Union reports that 59 experts from 18 states and seven other countries signed the letter. The state has proposed to ban fracking near watersheds that provide drinking water to New York City and Syracuse, but other watersheds would not have such protection. Cornell University ecology professor and letter signer Robert Howarth told Nearing that if the risk for watersheds providing water to New York City was too high, so was the risk for any watershed in the state. The NYC watershed, in the Catskill Mountains, is especially pristine.

In the wake of the letter's release, Abraham Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica completed a review of government environmental reports, private lawsuits and interviews with many residents, physicians and toxicologists in four big gas-drilling states and found that cases of respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes, all believed to be caused by some aspect of fracking, have been occuring for the last decade in Colorado and Wyoming. Similar cases are just beginning to pop up in Pennsylvania, where drilling of the Marcellus Shale has recently increased. However, Lustgarten and Kusnetz write that the extent and cause of the problems is unknown, as neither states nor the federal government have tracked reports of such illnesses or investigated how drilling can affect human health. They also looked at Texas. (Read more)

Miner takes on coal company to protect the safety of himself and his fellow miners

Charles Scott Howard is an underground coal miner who earned the reputation of "whistleblower" in Letcher County, Kentucky, for his refusal to allow any activity that might endanger himself and his fellow miners while underground to go unchecked. For this conviction, the 30-year mining veteran has been disciplined, fired and "branded a troublemaker" for going above his superior's heads to report safety violations.

Perhaps his most famous safety violation report came four years ago when he testified to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, reports Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post. This particular hearing concerned mine seals which were intended to avoid explosions. Howard showed the panel of MSHA officials a video of mine seals from the mine in which he was working at the time, owned by Cumberland River Coal Co. The video showed mine seals that were cracked to the point where water was coming through them. MSHA immediately sent inspectors to the mine. (Photo by Jamieson)

Jamieson reports that Howard abides by his personal code of "safety first" at great personal risk. He has filed five whistleblower-discrimination complaints against his company in five years. He's lost his job twice allegedly because of his safety complaints and had to be reinstated to work by a federal judge both times. However, he never loses his lawsuits, Jamieson writes; he either wins or settles, and only the latter reluctantly. (Read more)

Removing dams benefits environment and spawning fish; also creates tourism jobs

More deteriorating dams are being removed from streams in most of teh nation, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The main reaosns are aging infrastructure and declining fish stocks, and most see the rivers as more economically viable without the dams are gone, hoping tourism will increase.

Eilperin writes that 241 dams were removed between 2006 and 2010, a 40 percent increase over the previous five years. Most were in the East and Midwest, and had been major power sources in communities supported by textile and paper mills. Many state and local governments are trying to decide what to do with old dams. Most of America's 80,000 dams were built more than 50 years ago. It's often cheaper for local governments to remove dams than restore them.

Some detractors say taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for removing dams they do not own, but removal can bring benefits for both wildlife and humans, Eilperin reports. Not only can spawning fish better navigate their way upstream, but in some cases, like in Clarksburg, Mass., dam removal saved the town from flooding during Hurricane Irene. Previously, the Briggsville Dam had raised a river's level to the overflow point during heavy rains.  and others - mostly in the Pacific Northwest - who consider dams viable hydroelectric energy producers. (Read more)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Down economy hits small, rural libraries; conference teaches them how to garner money

Small, rural libraries have an advantage over larger libraries and it has everything to do with their size. They enjoy strong connections to the people, including local government officials, of the communities in which they operate, and are oftentimes the center of these communities. This was the overarching theme at the Association for Rural and Small Libraries annual conference this month.

The conference emphasized the importance of rural libraries to their respective communities, and focused on the economic concerns many small libraries across the country are currently facing. Advocacy and funding have become central concerns, reported Miguel Figueroa of American Libraries Magazine. As a result, some programs at the conference included grant writing, endowment building and working with boards of trustees.

The conference also made technology a focus, introducing a program called "Pushing the Limits," which the National Science Foundation is trying to bring to 100 small libraries across the country. Attendees of the conference were also encouraged to make their libraries community-centered by building partnerships with local organizations, schools and workforce commissions.