Saturday, January 14, 2012

In Miss., pardons require notice in local paper, which many recipients of Barbour favors didn't run

UPDATE, March 8: The state Supreme Court ruled the pardons valid, though some recipients did not meet the newspaper-publication requirement.

One facet of the controversy about the pardons given by Haley Barbour as he left the Mississippi governorship that has not received much national notice is that many of the felons may be re-incarcerated because they failed to publish a timely notice of their pardon application. Such a notice is required by Mississippi law, and such public-notice laws are under attack in many states, from local governments who don't like having to pay newspapers to print them.

"Many public notices pertaining to cases in counties all over the state weren’t published in the proper local newspaper far enough in advance of the issuance of the pardons," writes Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association. "Many more evidently didn’t run at all. Even a cursory check of ads placed in a Jackson newspaper showed some of the public notices were scheduled to begin running Jan. 12, two days after the pardons themselves had been signed."

Bruce said the episode is just the latest example of a problem with public-notice scofflaws. "The circumventing of public notice law has been a problem at all levels of government since we formed one," he wrote. "And, quite frankly, I’m not sure whether it’s better to say the governor’s office was unaware of what is constitutionally-required or simply didn’t bother to check."

Bruce concluded, "This is a prime example of the importance – and too often overlooked  – principle of public notices that appear in newspapers and on their websites in this state and nationwide. They serve the public’s right to know about what is happening with government and public officials within their communities. And when public notice laws are abused – either by mistake or on purpose – a serious right of citizens, taxpayers and voters is compromised. . . . a number of murderers were nearly handed back the right to own a gun. And some molesters were almost excused from registering as sex offenders. Victims of such crimes deserve better. And the public at large has a right to know. Always."

Like many of its counterparts, the Mississippi Press Association puts public notices on a searchable website for free, in an effort to blunt local governments' lobbying arguments that the notices should be placed on government sites, not printed in newspapers. To see that site, click here.

Top unionist Trumka, ex-coal miner: Carbon must be cut, but coalfield concerns should come first

Former coal miner Richard Trumka, who once headed the United Mine Workers and is the nation's top labor leader as president of the national AFL-CIO, told the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk on Thursday that global warming is caused by burning coal and other human activity, "and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now." (Photograph of Trumka by Rainer Hosch, which accompaied a great profile of Trumka in Esquire magazine by John H. Richardson)

"We need dialogue between environmentalists and workers and communities about the future of coal," Trumka said. He said the call to "end coal" makes no sense, and in Nemacolin, Pa., where he grew up, "It sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are." He said labor unions want power plants retrofitted to "create good jobs [and] save lives."

Congress is "effectively controlled by climate-change deniers," and "mass unemployment makes everything harder and feeds fear," Trumka said. "Sometimes it seems like fear, and the power of money, has paralyzed our government. But the antidote to fear is trust." To build that trust, he said, there must be a measured approach that is gauged not by "how well it fits the needs of the well-positioned. We must ask ourselves, 'How well does this pathway serve the least, the hardest to reach, the most likely to be left behind?' Places like West Virginia and the Ohio Valley must come first, not last." (Read more)

Local health departments hit hard by recession; lose 23,000 jobs (15%), core budgets cut

Funding and job cuts as a result of the economic recession have weakened the impact public health departments have on their communities, says a series of articles published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

"Continued cuts to public health services will have an unsatisfactory impact on the health of individuals and the community," said Dr. Lloyd F. Novick, the journal's editor-in-chief. "There is a heightened vulnerability at the present time for adverse health outcomes. Above all, the realization of the vital need to maintain resources for our public health delivery system is imperative."

In 2009, 23,000 jobs in public health departments were eliminated, 15 percent of the total. By 2010, more than half the agencies had a cut in core funding. As they scramble to make do with their new bottom lines, more cuts are expected. "The current, alarming trend of diminishing resources, reduced workforce and impaired capacity to maintain public health programs pose major hurdles for local agencies, with consequences that will be felt well into the future," said Dr. Rachel Willard of the University of California.

To view an article on the impact of the 2008-2010 economic recession on local health departments, one on a local health department that is providing only essential services, and one on enhancing public health value in an era of declining resources, click here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Utilities dump more coal ash in impoundments

Utility companies are dumping more coal ash than ever into impoundments, with plants in the South dumping the highest amount, according to an Environmental Integrity Project analysis published last week, Sue Sturgis of The Institute for Southern Studies reports. Researchers said they based their findings on the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory.

Impoundments are often located in rural areas and the ash they contain is laced with toxic materials. EIP found 9 percent more ash was put into impoundments in 2010 than in 2007, despite the recession, and 20 plants were responsible for more than half of it. Of those, 10 are in the South. An impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston plant in East Tennessee blew in 2008, sending billions of gallons of ash into a nearby subdivision and rivers. (Knoxville News-Sentinel photo by Clay Owen) EPA considered designated coal ash a hazardous waste, but backed off after lobbying by electric companies. (Read more)

Paramedics could help patients with preventive and non-emergency care in rural Colorado

Rural medical personnel in Colorado are vetting a new method of health care that could help rural patients with preventive care, Reid Wright of the Cortez Journal reports. The community paramedic program "aims to have emergency medical personnel provide health care to patients in their home before an emergency arises." The program is helpful in rural areas where doctors are scarce, especially in Montezuma County, which recently was designated an area deficient of primary-care providers by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It could also become a model for other rural areas of the country.

Almost 80 percent of emergency-room visits in Montezuma County are for non-emergency treatment, which costs patients three times more than visiting a doctor's office. The community paramedic program would employ paramedics to do home visits with patients that have serious illnesses, but don't require full-time care. Paramedics will also determine other needs while visiting patients' homes that may require help from other organizations like the American Red Cross, social services, substance-abuse treatment groups or energy-assistance programs. They can also check homes for environmental hazards. The program will cost an estimated $1.5 million over five years, but will save an estimated $9.9 million in health-care costs. Interested parties have already donated $800,000 to the program. (Read more)

EPA map locates largest carbon-dioxide emitters

The Environmental Protection Agency has unveiled a searchable, interactive map identifying the country's largest emitters of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The map offers detailed information about large industrial sources, including power plants, refineries, chemical factories and paper mills. Data were compiled from 6,157 sources and are current through 2010. The database covers almost 80 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emitters.

the head of EPA's air and radiation office, Gina McCarthy, told John Broder of The New York Times she hopes the information "would eventually lead to pressure for emissions cuts." The administration is drafting regulations for carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, but it's unclear when they will be released.

Data shows power plants create 72.3 percent of all greenhouae-gas emissions. The three plants emitting the most CO2 are in Georgia and Alabama and are owned by the Atlanta-based Southern Co. Texas has the highest total emissions from power plants and refineries, and Pennsylvania is second. Broder reports the map has limitations, like not including emissions from agriculture, forestry or transportation, not reflecting the nature of the electric system, and not showing information about efficiency of emission sources. However, David Doniger, Natural Resources Defense Council policy director, told Broder the database is a "very powerful small-d democratic tool." (Read more)

Army Corps ignores ecologists' call not to rebuild Mississippi River levees it blew up

Missouri farmers lost millions last spring when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dynamited levees holding back the swollen Mississippi River to save many more millions in flood damage in more populated areas along the river. Though soybean crops have rebounded in the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway, farmers are still angry and have filed lawsuits against the corps, and pressure from lawmakers has forced the corps to rebuild levees taller than it had planned. However, Paul Quinlan of Energy & Environment News reports a plan from ecologists about not rebuilding the levees at all has been largely ignored. (E&E photo: levee blows)

The plan calls for buying out landowners at high cost, but ecologists say taxpayer money would be saved long-term because flood-related property damage payments would be avoided. Ecologists say the levee system doesn't allow natural flood basins to absorb periodic floods. They also say removing levees would provide pollution control and wildlife habitat. The levee system makes the river more prone to frequent and intense flooding, they say. Quinlan reports calls to change management of the river have been ignored or met with hostility from Congress, which would have to pass legislation to open the floodway. (E&E News map of Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway)

Quinlan reports the Corps considers the levee, pump and reservoir system for the Mississippi River and its tributaries one of its greatest accomplishments. It was built after massive floods in 1927 took 256 lives and caused the modern equivalent of $5 billion in damage. Before floods last spring, the system had brought a 27 to 1 return on investment to taxpayers, according to the corps, and prevented an estimated $350 billion in damage. Critics such as Robert Criss, earth and planetary science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, say the benefit analysis ignores levee-building and channelizing, which is making flooding worse.

The corps predicted blowing the levees would cost $314 million in damages and prevent $1.47 billion in destruction elsewhere. Ecologists' proposed buy-out would cost about $582 million. The corps has chosen to rebuild levees to pre-demolition height for about $30 million. Quinlan reports the corps has failed to assign a dollar value to avoided flood costs and enhanced ecological benefits of not rebuilding levees and restoring floodplains. (Read more) For a New York Times story on Birds Point, click here.

West Virginian promotes state's past with coal-labor wars as tourist attraction, breaks even, expands

Not many outside, or even inside, the Central Appalachian coalfield know much about its bloody past with coal-mine labor wars. In the early 20th Century, mines were not unionized, and miners and their families walked onto the picket line often facing deadly retaliation from local and federal officials. Perhaps no state has a more influential and extensive labor history than West Virginia, where miners were shot at, bombed and killed in places like Matewan, Blair and Holly Grove. Doug Estepp (AP photo) is attempting to turn this history into a tourist attraction, reports The Associated Press' Vicki Smith.

Estepp grew up in a coal mining family in Mingo County and started giving bus tours of labor-war historical sites last summer, with no previous tour-bus experience. He told the stories he learned as a history student at West Virginia University in an effort to prove the area, perhaps best known for mine disasters, could become a tourist destination. He broke even last year, and is expanding his tour this year with six new trips, departing from as far away as Washington, D.C. He will extend the trip to four days to allow more interaction with active and retired miners and those who re-enact the Matewan Massacre.

Smith reports Estepp's tour shows "everything from the squalor of company-run camps to coal barons' mansions in Bramwell." Donna May Paternio, who leads the Matewan re-enactment, told Smith the tours allowed her to stage 12 street-theater shows last year, the most she's ever directed. She said if Estepp continues his tours, she may be able to raise money for an outdoor amphitheater. (Read more)

Young people return home to rural Kansas county, boosting economy and school enrollment

It's a constant worry in rural areas that young people will leave after high school and not return. However, in a northern Kansas county, people from their mid-20's to early 40's are returning, bringing with them children to increase local school enrollment and their college education to boost local economy. Tim Unruh of the Salina Journal reports this trend has filled downtown storefronts, clogged housing and stabilized the population of Republic County (Wikipedia map).

Luke Mahin, 24, told Unruh more than 20 people who completed college degrees within five years of 2005 have moved back to Courtland, a 300-person town in western Republic County. He added more are planning to come back. Troy Newman, 38, who co-owns Ag Marketing Partners in Courtland, said most young people who came back were lured away by big-city living, but "it sounds a lot cooler to go places than it actually is," he told Unruh. He said strong farm economy and Internet service made the move back to his hometown possible. Young residents were welcomed home, busting the myth that returning to small hometowns equals failure. Some returners work in established agriculture businesses or wind farms; others start their own businesses. They report an improvement in their quality of life.

Many wanted to move back to raise their children "in the safe confines of a tiny hometown," Unruh reports. This has reversed thinking that the Pike Valley School District would have to consolidate the Courtland elementary school, which averages about 18 students per class. Kindergarten enrollment for 2013 is expected to be 11, but in 2016 that number should rise to 16 thanks to growing young families, Superintendent Chris Vignery told Unruh. (Read more)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

State regulators struggle to keep up with gas boom

The natural gas drilling boom is moving fast, and state regulatory agencies are having a hard time keeping up, reports Renee Schoof of McClatchy Newspapers. She provides a good overview of concerns about disposal of drilling wastewater and how regulations are lagging behind technology. Twenty-four states contain wells that use hydraulic fracturing to break up deep, dense shale deposits, and since the chemicals used in fracking are exempt from federal environmental rules, it's left to state agencies to pick up the slack.

Pennsylvania's geology doesn't allow wastewater to be stored underground, so companies recycle it. Still, some ends up in landfills and wells in Ohio. Schoof reports state regulators are scrambling to protect water supplies and human health. In Ohio, officials have blamed injection of drilling wastewater for minor earthquakes. New York is taking a cautious approach. It's nearing the end of a three-year fracking study and will decide next year whether or not to provide drilling permits. The state has outlawed wastewater storage in natural deep wells. In Texas, where the shale-gas boom began, there are thousands of waste water storage wells. The state will require disclosure of fracking chemicals and amount of water used to drill after Feb. 1.

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study about effects of fracking on drinking-water supplies that is expected to be complete by 2014. In a draft of the report, the agency reveals it found fracking chemicals in water wells in Pavillion, Wyo. Burning gas creates much less air pollution than burning coal, but Schoof says smog hot spots show up where drilling engines and other equipment are at work. The EPA has proposed new air pollution standards, which the industry opposes. (Read more)

Gas boom drives more of mining 'frac sand,' and that raises more environmental questions

The natural-gas drilling boom in rural areas of the East and West is having an impact on a piece of the Midwest as well. Steve Karnowski of The Associated Press reports drilling companies are flocking to western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota to harvest soft sandstone that is integral in the controversial drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, in which fine sand is mixed with water and chemicals and shot underground at a high pressure to crack shale formations, releasing natural gas. Though the debate over fracking has largely ignored the mining of "frac sand," Karnowski reports the issues facing the towns where it's mined are very similar to those faced in drilling towns. (AP photo: Dust blows from frac sand piles in Wisconsin)

Industry representatives say frac sand mining brings good jobs to rural areas with little other opportunities, but opponents are concerned about the environmental and human health impacts mining will create. Activists say mining frac sand creates a fine silica dust that travels for miles by wind. They told Karnowski they fear this dust will make people sick, spoil the landscape and contaminate groundwater. Representatives of Houston-based EOG Resources, a company that mines frac sand, told Karnowski it has worked to address citizen concerns at its mines and sand processing plant in Wisconsin. Some counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota, though, have enacted mining moratoriums to "buy time for more study" about the impacts of silica dust, and to determine whether or not to ban further mining.

Nearly three-fourths of the nation's frac sand comes from the Midwest. Frac sand producers sold more than 6.5 million tons of sand worth $319 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those numbers are likely to double in 2010 data when released. Sand is shipped mainly to gas drilling operations in Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota. (Read more)

All families of 29 miners killed in West Virginia coal disaster have agreed to settlements

All families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in Montcoal, W.Va., in April 2010 have agreed to settlements with Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine's former owner Massey Energy after the disaster. The families settled Tuesday after a conference call with Alpha lawyers and more than four days of closed-door mediation. The families' lawyers emphasized that families still want top Massey officials held responsible and prosecuted for safety violation that led to the explosion.

Details of the settlements were kept secret and are subject to confidentiality agreements, including the amount to be paid to each family. Most believe the settlements will exceed the $3 million offered to families by Massey in the weeks after the explosion, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. West Virginia law sets a tough standard for successfully suing employers over workplace deaths, but a "trial in the Upper Big Branch disaster -- which government investigators have blamed on Massey's culture of deliberately evading safety standards -- could have carried serious risks of punitive damages. And a settlement helps Alpha in its continuing efforts to put behind it Massey's history of environmental and workplace disasters," Ward writes.

The lawyer for two of the families, Rachel Moreland, called the settlements "a milestone for our clients," and said it provides a small measure of closure. Alpha officials told Ward they were not commenting out of respect for the families. At least eight families settled with Massey before Alpha's buyout; another three settled with Alpha by the time the company reached a $209.5 million deal with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to avoid criminal prosecution for the company. Goodwin has said his criminal investigation of Massey employees who may have committed crimes or played a role in the disaster is continuing. (Read more)

Situation wanted: Reporter with urban roots and vegetarian diet seeks fulfilling places to eat his fill

Attention, journalists and others in Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas: If you know a restaurant that serves good vegetarian food, especially in small towns, where it is hard to find, email us and we will pass the information along to A.G. Sulzberger, right, of The New York Times' Kansas City bureau, who wrote this week about the difficulties he faces finding vegetarian fare in a region that loves meat and animal fat. (No, he didn't ask us to do this.)

Sulzberger, who is the son of Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, says he decided at age 5 that he would be a vegetarian and does his best to not sound like an East Coast elitist: "It should be stated right up front that the Midwest, with its rich culture, stark natural beauty and superlative decency, quickly defies stereotypes. Living in the middle of the country is very different from living in the middle of nowhere. But make no mistake: meat-loving is one stereotype that the region wears with pride. Lard still plays a starring role in many kitchens, bacon comes standard in salads, and perhaps the most important event on Kansas City social calendars is a barbecue contest."

But Kansas City isn't the big challenge for someone who covers a huge swath of mostly rural territory: "Most difficulty comes on the road during reporting trips in an area that stretches from Oklahoma to North Dakota. And though many meals, particularly in small towns, are of the bread-and-water variety, I have stumbled upon some decent restaurants as well: Japanese in Tulsa, Okla.; Indian in Lincoln, Neb.; Ethiopian in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Italian in Minot, N.D.; and, my favorite place to stop on a reporting trip, Thai Spice, just outside Joplin, Mo."

OK, he knows a few places. Let's let him know about others, especially in small towns. Email me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In front-page editorial, rural weekly demands that board members of county-owned hospital resign

In our experience, most weekly newspapers don't have editorial pages, much less editorials, so when one puts an editorial on the front page and also runs an editorial about the decision, and the work is well-written and well-argued, it's worth noting.

The Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., noted county government's bailout of the "collapsing" county-owned hospital; elected officials' request that they have "a say in any final decision to sell the hospital" and that "the hospital administration will try just as hard to keep the hospital independent as they will to sell it;" and some appointed board members' dislike of the requests.

"It seems like little to ask of someone who is $13 million in debt and asking you for $1.7 million," the editorial said, noting that one member said the board had been "a rubber stamp" for agents who secured the bonded debt. That admission "saves us the trouble of trying to prove that board members acted irresponsibly in overseeing the hospital’s business," the editorial said. "Now the question has to be, 'Why are they still on the board?'" It said the board not only "ran the hospital into the ground" but is "in control of a document that will show if any criminal activity took place," a forensic audit that gives board members "a personal stake in any damaging evidence that may come out."

In her explanatory editorial, Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton said she put the editorial out front because "We believe this is a critical time for our community, and we believe bad decisions will continue if the board is left as it is. We believe it’s our job to bring the issue to the forefront, and there is no better place to do that than on the front page of the Community Voice." The explanatory editorial also included useful background and perspective, including: "At small newspapers we don’t have the luxury of separating the people who cover the news from the people who write opinion pieces. Instead, we work hard to provide fair and unbiased coverage of local news. Then, we look at how that news impacts the people in our community and take a stand as needed on our editorial page."

Burton told us in an email that the editorial generated responses by phone, emails, Facebook messages "and of course being stopped at church and the grocery store," all of them positive except a letter from the daughter of a board member, which is running this week. The Community Voice doesn't put editorials or most news on its website, but PDFs of the pages with the editorials are available on the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues website. The front page, with color, is 3.5 MB; the inside page is 682 KB.

Poverty, diversity, enrollment up in rural schools

Almost one in four children attend rural public schools and enrollment in these schools is increasing at a faster rate than in suburbs and cities combined, according to a biennial report released by the Rural School and Community Trust, a national nonprofit organization addressing relationships between schools and communities. The report, "Why Rural Matters 2011-12," also reveals increasing rates of poverty, diversity and students with special needs in rural schools. These trends are most prevalent in the South, Southwest and Appalachia.

In a press release, co-author Jerry Johnson said the data show "It is becoming impossible to ignore in the quest to improve achievement and narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. The day of closing our eyes and hoping rural education will just go away are ending." In total, 11.4 million children attend rural public schools, making up more than 23 percent of all public-school students. From 1999 to 2009, rural enrollment increased by 22 percent, or 1.7 million students. The top five states with the largest numerical increases are Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arizona. Comparatively, non-rural enrollment only increased by 1.7 percent, or 673,000, over the same period. (Read more)

USDA to close hundreds of offices in rural areas in response to budget cuts

The Department of Agriculture will close 131 Farm Service Agency offices and another 118 other offices, facilities or labs to save more than $150 million, in response to more than $3 billion in cuts to USDA's discretionary budget since 2010, Secretary Tom Vilsack announced during the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual meeting in Hawaii. Most of the offices that will close are located in rural areas; this list indicates that Arkansas will take the biggest hit.

Vilsack said the cuts would make USDA more efficient. He admitted the closure of FSA offices will cause inconvenience for farmers, but wouldn't result in a loss of services, reports Chris Clayton of DTN/Progressive Farmer. "They may have to drive five or 10 extra miles from where they once drove. They’re still going to see the same people behind the counter," Vilsack told Julie Harker of Brownfield Network. The FSA closures include 35 offices that have no employees primarily assigned to them, and the others have no more than two employees and are located within 20 miles of another FSA office.

Also slated for closure are offices in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety Inspection Service, making some concerned about effects on food safety. The Associated Press reports the FSIS office that inspects all meat, poultry and egg products for Minnesota, Montana, North and South Dakota and Wyoming will be closed, and it's not clear if operations will be shifted to another office. However, Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety, told AP "there wouldn’t be a reduction in inspectors or inspection work." (Read more)

Other USDA agencies facing office closures are the Agricultural Research Service, the Foreign Agricultural Service, the Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development. A press release of Vilsack's statement is here. There's also a USDA map showing where offices will be closed.

Wild hogs could damage Vicksburg Civil War site

The Mississippi River flooded last spring, but didn't do any damage to the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Miss., site of a pivotal 1863 Civil War battle. However, a pack of wild hogs that has taken up residence in the park since the flood are rooting up the landscape, and could damage monuments, the national cemetery, trenches and earthworks on park grounds, and could also startle or injure the park's 1 million annual visitors, Mary Foster of The Associated Press reports.

Wild hogs are an issue across the Southeast, especially in Mississippi, Jim Walker, spokesman for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Parks, told Foster. When the river crested in Vicksburg in May, it forced the hogs to seek higher ground in the northern third of the park, in dense brush. Park superintendent Mike Madell told Foster "it looks like the world's biggest Rototiller has gone through some areas." Eleven hogs have been removed since May, but another dozen are believed to be on the lose. They are not dangerous to humans, though, unless cornered.

The federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is helping park officials "deal with the hogs," which Madell said usually means killing them and discreetly burying them since Mississippi law doesn't allow them to be transported live. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The farmland boom is centered in rural Iowa

Sioux County, Iowa, where land prices have more than tripled since 2000, is the epicenter of the farmland boom. Many look to the county as a benchmark because record-setting deals there become the new mark to reach elsewherereports P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters. However, residents fear the boom may turn to bust and that people will trace the downfall to the 768-square-mile county, blaming farmers and investors for it.

Auction bidders in Sioux County (Wikipedia map) shelled out $13,000 an acre two years ago; this year, they hit $20,000 an acre. It may take farmers years to recoup that money because future estimates of crop prices don't match up to land prices. In neighboring states the phenomenon in which land values are influenced by a single auction is known as the "Iowa effect." Huffstutter reports values can "fluctuate wildly depending on who is doing the math and what income and expense factors are used."

There's also a human factor driving prices up, experts tell Huffstutter: "Extreme high-priced deals are often driven by a regional culture of competitiveness." Still, many think there's "life left in the local boom." The town of Hull, population 2,200, recently bought an 80-acre piece of land for $1 million. Now, dairy farmers are renting the land after a cheese plant announced it would double its milk production. Huffstutter reports local real-estate agents estimated the parcel is now worth $19,000 an acre. (Read more)

Former public-school buildings in rural areas providing venues for new charter schools

Some rural communities are opening charter schools in former public school buildings as a way to preserve the sites and retain a school for local kids, reports Diette Courrege of Education Week. The number of rural charter schools has increased from 273 to 785 since 2000, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The total number of charter schools has increased 39 percent since 2000, with rural charters increasing 34 percent and non-rural 41 percent.

Courrege reports the 90 residents of Canaan, Ind. (red dot on Wikipedia map), lost their school when it closed because of low enrollment, losing a third of its students since 2006, reports Ben Skirvin of StateImpact, reflecting a trend felt in many rural places across America. But the school was a community center for the small town, and when residents learned about the Rural Community Academy in Sullivan, Ind., they decided to turn their shuttered community school into a charter. Canaan Community Academy will open in the former public-school building in August.

Overall, rural charter schools make up only 16 percent of all charter schools, remain relatively scarce, and their benefits are debated. (Read more)

Data show employment patterns in rural America

Reflecting national trends, the unemployment rate in rural counties is at its lowest since 2008, with two out of three counties gaining jobs since November 2010, Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. Through an analysis of federal unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bishop found rural counties added almost 300,000 jobs in 2011, gaining jobs on pace with the rest of the country. The unemployment rate for rural America is now 8.1 percent. (Yonder map; click for larger version; green counties saw job gains, pink and magenta saw job losses; white counties were stable or are metropolitan)
Two rural counties in Mississippi, Warren and Jones, lost the most jobs during the period. Great Plains states, which had the lowest unemployment rate through the recession, lost jobs last year, often in counties with low unemployment rates. Job gains in the Midwest are a reflection of the oil and natural gas drilling boom, Bishop reports. The Southeast gained the most jobs, and data shows counties hit hard by the recession also had job growth last year. California has the highest rural unemployment rate in the country at 12 percent; South Carolina had the second-highest at 11.6 percent. (Read more)

Database of toxic-chemical releases is a good starting point or background for news stories

The Environmental Protection Agency's Toxics Release Inventory is a database on the "disposal or release of 650 potentially dangerous chemicals used by almost 21,000 facilities," as easy to use as typing in your ZIP code to get the names and addresses of polluters, but the data don't capture all the pollution and come partly from reporting by industries, which often provide estimates, not actual figures, reports Corbin Hiar of iWatch, published by the Center for Public Integrity.

"These estimates in some cases dramatically understate the extent of pollution," as the center and National Public Radio reported recently, Hiar reports. Still, the data are a good starting point for stories about the issue, or good background for stories on facilities that handle toxic materials. For EPA's latest analysis of the database, just released, click here.

Supreme Court not happy with landowners' inability to get a hearing on EPA's threat of fines

In the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, "Justices from both ends of the political spectrum seemed to think that property owners should be able to contest administrative compliance orders" from the Environmental Protection Agency, Lawrence Hurley of Greenwire reports. A court decision siding with an Idaho couple accused of polluting a wetland could affect how other federal agencies enforce regulations.

When the landowners received a notice that they could be fined $37,500 a day if they didn't remove gravel and fill dirt from their planned homesite, they sought a hearing. EPA and lower courts ruled that a hearing is required only when fines are actually levied, but justices at yesterday's oral argument were clearly not sympathetic with that position. The case raises the constitutional issue of due process, but "It may be that the justices do not have to reach the constitutional question in order for" the couple to get a hearing, Hurley writes.

"Environmentalists worry that a strong ruling in favor of the Sacketts could undermine the agency’s authority to stop polluters. But the justices sounded inclined to rule that an early hearing is called for," David Savage of the Los Angeles Times reports.

'Honest Appalachia' website created as publication outlet for whistleblowers on businesses, officials

Appalachia will soon have its "own version of WikiLeaks," according to the creators of the blog Honest Appalachia, which allows government and corporate whistle blowers to anonymously share documents for public viewing. The website launches today and will be a place where co-founder Jim Tobias said people can share information without fear of retaliation. Initially, the website will focus its efforts on West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Tobias, a 24-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate, told Vicki Smith of The Associated Press' West Virginia staff that users will download software that makes their computer anonymous. The Honest Appalachia team removes any other identifying data that could make the document traceable. It will only use documents that are "sensitive, exclusive and authentic." Before anything is posted, staff will work with journalists to verify the legitimacy of information before publication. Tobias said the team will target "people who work for regulatory and other government agencies to build awareness about the site."

Tobias said he and lead technical developer Garrett Robinson, 22-year-old Oberlin College graduate, are "trying to fill a hole as the mainstream news industry evolves." They chose to focus on Appalachia because it's a rural area with little media scrutiny because newsrooms have been closed increasing chances of unchecked corruption. (We would add that AP and Kentucky newspapers no longer have correspondents in Eastern Kentucky.)

"We believe our country desperately needs watchdogs at the local, state and regional level," Tobias said. Other members of the team are from Ohio and West Virginia. (Read more)

Monday, January 09, 2012

Female soldiers and veterans don't get the same scope of medical care as their male counterparts

Though women now account for almost 15 percent of active-duty troops in the U.S. military, the medical care they receive is often not on par with that of their male counterparts. That's a concern for rural areas, which generate more than their share of military recruits.

A 2007 Department of Defense report showed that "In half of focus groups, women expressed concerns about a lack of female-specific facilities and equipment, such as machinery to perform mammograms, in field hospitals," The Courier-Journal's Laura Ungar reports. Department of Veterans Affairs "hospitals don't provide obstetrics, for example, and most don't offer mammograms on-site."

Military officials acknowledge more needs to be done, but progress is being made. "Are we perfect? No. But we work our hardest to be," said Laura Boyd, public affairs officers for Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Hospital.

Efforts are being made to boost privacy for women and improve training. The VA has also hired managers to handle women's care and has launched an awareness program in which employers are reminded to assume that any woman who walks in is a veteran. Spending has also gone up, with the VA asking for $270 million in 2012, up $28 million from last year.

Still, the 2007 report found medical care was wanting in field centers. Women complained "about limits on access to gynecological exams, procedures and lab tests; and too few birth-control options in field pharmacies," Ungar reports. "In nearly half the focus groups, women said there was too little privacy in field facilities, and many felt they were seen as whiners for seeking care."

Officials at Blanchfield admit they can't provide all the care women need and do rely on outside providers, such as Vanderbilt University, for complicated cases and for routine wellness services. Most outside providers are within an hour's drive of a VA facility, which Patty Hayes, the VA's director of women's health, acknowledged is "not ideal." Still, there are no plans to provide obstetrics or other specialty care for women at VA hospitals. (Read more)

TV station goes to the wall in fight for public records

In 2011, a National Freedom of Information Coalition study revealed the public has a growing interest in government transparency, but media companies are shying away from open government lawsuits mostly because carrying these lawsuits forward takes time and money news organizations don't have, reports Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute. Exceptions to this trend matter, though, as Tompkins points out in a case study about TV station WGAL in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which serves a mostly rural area.

News Director Daniel O'Donnell told Tompkins the station has been in a two-year legal battle to retrieve autopsy records about a local college student. When the station asked for the records, the coroner "imposed an old Coroner’s Act statute that said he would not release the cause of death in a case until 30 days after the new year." WGAL appealed the case to the state's open-records office and lost. The Hurst Television Group owns the station and when O'Donnell approached its legal team, they told him to "press on, even though it would be costly and time consuming."

The cause of death has long since been discovered, but the legal battle continues because, as O'Donnell told Tompkins, "We simply cannot allow public officials to dictate the timing of the release of details of something as important as the cause of a person’s death. ... This is purely about legal access to vital and we believe, public, information." He said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. (Read more)

Eastern Ky. radio station gets community reaction to county's nine proposed post office closures

Response to the prospect that the U.S. Postal Service might close thousands of rural post offices and processing centers keeps popping up across the nation. Mimi Pickering and Sylvia Ryerson of community radio station WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky., spoke with residents, postal employees and American Postal Workers Union leaders to ascertain the reasons for closures and the feelings attached to rural post offices. WMMT also started a "Post Office Stories" blog on on which people from the community can share their stories about local post offices.

Nine post offices in Letcher County (Wikipedia map), where Whitesburg is the county seat, have been slated for closure. The post office in Burdine was opened in 1898, and residents told Ryerson and Pickering it is woven into the fabric of the community. "The post office is really the only identity we've got. I'm afraid the community won't exist when post office closes," Wayne Flemming, the district's representative in county government, told Ryerson and Pickering. "When they talk about shutting our post office down, it's like shutting down our whole community."

The concerns with closure are the same in Letcher County as they are in other rural places where post offices face a similar fate: longer drives to pick up mail, disabled coal miners and veterans fear they won't receive medication on time and fears about the loss of a sense of community.

Tim Reynolds, Postal Service post-office review coordinator in Kentucky, is overseeing consolidation plans in the state. He told Ryerson and Pickering the service has been in business for over 200 years and he expects it to remain in business, but it has to change the way it does business. The agency blames the economic downturn and a societal shift toward electronic media for its dire financial situation. However, Postal Workers Union Communications Director Sally Davidow told Ryerson and Pickering this is a manufactured crisis and closures could be avoided through congressional action. All the agency's financial problems stem from the enactment of the the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, she said. The act requires pre-funding of healthcare benefits of retirees. Ryerson and Pickering report the Postal Service has been running at a loss since that law passed in 2006. To hear the WMMT report, click here.