Friday, April 20, 2012

After battle between doctors and cops, Ky. passes bill to crack down on prescription drug abuse

A man gets arrested at a pain clinic in Lexington.
(By Charles Bertram, Lexington Herald-Leader)
The Kentucky legislature passed a bill today to crack down on prescription drug abuse, a national epidemic that began in Central Appalachia. There was national attention to the battle in the General Assembly between law enforcement officials and doctors who said they were trying to protect patient privacy.

"Kentucky is ground zero of the effort to move prescription-drug monitoring programs out of the health-care arena into law enforcement," said Even Jenkins, executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, a physicians' trade group and a Democratic state senator, told Timothy Martin of The Wall Street Journal.

The doctors won in West Virginia, and they largely won in Kentucky, because the final version of the bill did not move the state's prescription-monitoring system to the attorney general's office from the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services and the doctor-controlled Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure. But it will require doctors who prescribe painkillers to use the system; only 25 percent do now. For more details on the bill, from Tara Kaprowy of Kentucky Health News, go here.

"The struggle over the Kentucky bill highlights the complicated path policy makers and law enforcement are traversing nationwide in their attempts to fight abuse of prescription painkillers," Martin reports. "Unlike importers and dealers of illicit drugs such as cocaine, the supply chain for prescription drugs is made up largely of legitimate businesses and professionals."

Legislative pushes in Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and other states have been met with fierce opposition from physician and pharmacy lobbies, Martin writes. About 48 states have legislation requiring prescription drug-monitoring programs. That's up by 16 from 10 years ago, but restrictions for who can access the data varies by state, Martin reports. Kentucky law enforcement officials have complained they cannot access the data in time to single out problem prescribers. (Read more)

Coal industry looks to exports to shore up its future

After the Environmental Protection Agency announced stricter regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, officials in coal-producing states and industry representatives said the agency was ending the coal industry. Environmentalists hailed the proposal as the end of coal, or at least as we have known it. But experts are saying "coal may not be in quite as much trouble as its supporters sometimes claim, or as its enemies might wish," Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. (Stateline photo)

Coal's share of markets is shrinking and will continue to dwindle over the next few decades, but many coal-fired power plants decades of life left in them, and Malewitz reports U.S. coal companies are expanding their markets overseas. While the oldest coal plants are closing and new ones aren't likely to be built without carbon-capture technology that is not yet economical, this trend was underway before the EPA guidelines were announced. Cheap natural gas is making coal less attractive in comparison.

Utilities' shift from coal to gas will be a slow process, experts say. Some utilities can't afford to make the switch yet, Malewitz reports. And even though U.S. coal use is declining, exports are surging, particularly to Asia. Exports have doubled since 2006, increasing by 20 percent from 2010 to 2011. (Read more)

Report: Rising sea level threatens coastal utilities

Sea levels are rising as a result of global warming and will double the risk of coastal flooding at locations 4 feet or more above sea level by 2030, according to a new Climate Central report. Rising ocean levels will threaten 287 coastal utilities in 22 states, report authors Ben Strauss and Remik Ziemlinski write. The report says many more facilities at higher elevations will become more at risk as sea levels continue to rise.
More than half the facilities are in Louisiana, and most of them involve natural gas. Florida, California, New York, Texas and New Jersey each have 10 to 30 at-risk facilities. Overall, 130 natural gas, 96 electric and 56 oil and gas facilities are at risk. Other states with at-risk sites are Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maine, maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. (Read more)

VA is recruiting clergy to help rural veterans

In response to the increasing number of veterans with mental health issues, the Veterans Health Administration has started a program to enlist clergy members to connect with rural veterans and help them find VHA resources, reports Andy Matarrese of the Marine Corps Times. About 30 to 40 percent of new veterans return to rural areas, and they often suffer more health problems because many Department of Veterans Affairs facilities are in urban centers, far from their homes. When rural veterans seek help, they often turn to ministers, Matarrese reports.

The VHA wants to take advantage of that trend. It is hosting five workshops in Southern states in the next few months to train clergy to better understand mental health needs of veterans and the resources offered by VHA. Response from ministers about the workshops has been "overwhelming," said VA psychologist James Goalder. He said since the release about the program was sent, he's received calls from 23 states, four congressional offices, and people in Guam and Uganda. (Read more)

Use of SNAP (food stamps) rose 70% in 4 years

Use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, originally known as food stamps, increased by 70 percent in 2011, and the number of Americans using the program would continue growing until 2014, according to a Congressional Budget Office report. Many rural residents rely on SNAP to help them buy groceries every month.

Damian Paletta of The Wall Street Journal reports spending on SNAP rose to $72 billion last year, up from $30 billion in 2007. The CBO said one in seven people received SNAP benefits last year, and two-thirds of the increase in spending was directly related to increased enrollment in the program. Another 20 percent of the increase was attributed to the 2009 economic stimulus.

The agency estimated the number of people using SNAP will decrease in 2014 because the economy will improve, but enrollments are forecast to remain high. In 2022, CBO estimates, 34 million people will be using SNAP, and spending on it will be the nation's most expensive support program for low-income people that is not related to health care. (Read more)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Atlas of Small Town and Rural America is online

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released the Atlas of Small Town and Rural America through its Economic Research Service. According to the atlas website, the ERS "promotes the well-being of rural America through research and analysis to better understand the economic, demographic, environmental, and social forces affecting rural regions and communities."

Screenshot of Atlas population map
The agency says the objectives of the atlas are to provide spatial interpretation of economic and social conditions in terms of people, jobs, agriculture and county classification; to highlight the importance of data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey; and, to allow use of socioeconomic indicators with county types to "better understand the diverse opportunities and challenges facing rural regions and communities." The atlas allows users to view county-level maps for more than 60 socioeconomic indicators and download a spreadsheet containing all the data for a selected county.

To access the atlas, click here.

Report: Rural high school students in Florida more likely to earn college credit than urban ones

Sarah Gonzalez of State Impact reports an interesting story in Florida that could be a topic in many states: performance of rural students versus urban students in college-level classes. High-school teachers in rural Florida counties say they can't afford to offer as many college-level classes to their students as urban schools, but rural students are more likely to earn college credit for the courses they do take.

Florida schools are partly graded by the state education department based on a formula that gives points to schools for participation and performance in college-level classes, which includes advanced placement, international baccalaureate or dual enrollment classes. Out of 1,600 possible total points, the state gave 175 points for participation and 125 for performance, which is measured by whether students actually earn college credit for the courses they take, based upon a test at the end of the year.

State Impact picked out schools that were graded A through F in urban and rural counties to compare. Gonzalez reports urban schools have higher participation but students are less likely to earn college credits. Reasons for this are unclear, but Gonzalez offers two: rural students only take one to two college-level classes at one time and the class sizes are smaller.

EPA releases emissions standards for gas drilling

In the first federal effort to cap emissions at natural-gas drilling sites, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new air quality standards this week. John Broder of The New York Times reports the rule is an effort to limit "serious air pollution associated with ... hydraulic fracturing," which releases into the air toxic and cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and methane. The rule will be fully effective in January 2015.

Industry groups say the standards "would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and slow the boom in domestic natural gas production," Broder reports. The rule allows two years for compliance. Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, said the rule would reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds by 190,000 tons a year, and other air pollution by 12,000 tons a year. The agency speculates the industry could recoup $11 to $19 million a year because it will be able to capture methane that's typically burned off.

Anti-pollution standards were proposed last summer after environmental and citizens groups complained that gases escaping from wells were affecting human health and causing widespread pollution. (Read more)

Ash borer found east of Hudson River for first time

Emerald ash borers, the invasive beetles that have destroyed tens of millions of ash trees over the past decade, have been discovered east of the Hudson River for the first time, George Walsh of The Associated Press reports. However, discovery of the beetle in Dutchess County, New York, could mean a victory in the battle to stop the beetle's spread into New England, Walsh reports. Foresters believe the colony was found less than a year after it was established, suggesting there is time to stem the eastward spread.

Beetle larvae tunnel under ash trees' bark, slowly killing the them. Walsh reports entire stands of trees have been "ravaged" in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic and Northeast since the Chinese beetle was first discovered in Detroit in 2002. The main population of borers has spread at about two to three miles a year, but "satellite colonies leapfrog ahead, mostly by hitchhiking in loads of logs or firewood," Walsh reports.

Forester Jeff Rider said plans are being made to quarantine moving ash-tree material in Dutchess County, limited to particular towns. He said the infestation likely involved borers crossing the river last summer. Meanwhile, foresters in the rest of New England are preparing for an infestation. "They're gearing up, knowing they're eventually going to have it," Rider said. "We're just trying to buy them some time." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bill on Senate floor would make USPS consult on post-office closings, keep Sat. delivery for 2 years

The U.S. Senate is debating a bill that would reshape the U.S. Postal Service as the moratorium on closing processing centers and post offices, mostly in rural areas, nears its end. The agency has been struggling with finding ways to recoup billions of dollars worth of debt, from the closings to delaying first class mail and ending Saturday delivery. (Getty Images photo by Justin Sullivan)

The Senate bill would delay by two years the end of Saturday delivery, allow mailing of alcohol, leave overnight first-class delivery in place and require the agency to downsize processing centers rather than close them, reports Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. It would also require USPS to work with communities before closing post offices to determine what postal services best meet local needs, giving communities a range of options, from leaving the office open or opening a postal kiosk in a store. Affected communities would still be allowed to appeal any closure to the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Senators supporting the bill say it's a balanced approach to solving the agency's problems for the long term, but a Government Accountability Office report released last week said delaying an end to Saturday mail delivery "could make it difficult" for the USPS to save $22.5 billion by 2016 as planned. To compensate for that and help the agency meet that deadline, the bill would give USPS money to buy out as many as 100,000 eligible workers. (Read more)

The National Newspaper Association, the main lobby for papers that use the mail, sent out an urgent plea this afternoon for members to contact their senators in support of the bill, saying "It gives USPS financial tools for survival." NNA said the bill would keep postage rates for periodicals under inflation-based limits. "USPS argues that Periodicals postage does not cover costs," NNA said. "NNA argues that the costs themselves are out of control and cost measurement is not accurate for newspaper mail."

Small weekly's special section has original reporting on farm industries in county and state

The Todd County Standard, a small weekly newspaper in Elkton, Ky., went beyond the usual canned copy in its annual farm section this month and published original stories about the beef, dairy and tobacco industries in the county and the state. It shared those stories with members of the news service operated by the Kentucky Press Association. (Wikipedia map)

The number of beef farmers is shrinking statewide, Tonya Grace reported. Farmers are selling their cows and growing more grains because of their high prices. Beef prices are also good because of the declining number of cows, allowing those who sell cattle to turn a big profit. Grace told the story of Daysville farmer Tony Berry, whose cattle are among the 19,300 in the county, which has only 12,460 people at the 2010 census. Grace reported the state has lost more than 200,000 beef cows since 2007, when there were 1.2 million.

Grace also reported about the state of small, family-owned dairies in the state. There are 863 dairies in Kentucky, 48 of which are in Todd County. University of Kentucky agricultural extension agent Jeffrey Bewley told her the dairy industry in the state is experiencing growth because of young farmers who intend to stay in the business a while. But many farmers, like Alvin Frogue, are worried small farms will be pushed out of business by corporate dairies. The Standard does not have a website, but the stories can be read here.

More evidence coal's energy dominance is slipping

Utilities are using less coal to produce electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Shipments of coal by train, the typical delivery mechanism for power plants, during the first quarter fell 18 percent to 1.55 million carloads, the smallest since 1994.

Coal remains the largest single fuel for electricity production, but its percentage of the total power supply mix has been slipping; we previously reported that its share dropped below 40 percent at the end of 2011 for the first time since 1978. EIA cites mild weather that made people use less energy and competition from natural gas as reasons for the decline. Natural gas is selling cheaply, trading at 10-year lows on the New York Mercantile Exchange. There's also a domestic abundance of it because of hydraulic fracturing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week approved conversion of terminals at ports to export natural gas.

Coal is shipped mostly from Central Appalachia and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Thomas Content of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Wisconsin relies more heavily on coal than any other state. (Read more)

Greenpeace says Apple, other Internet firms moving east to use cheaper coal-fired energy

Internet companies are moving eastward in a mass migration from Silicon Valley, and one environmental group claims they want to take advantage of cheaper energy prices provided by reliance on coal and nuclear power, reports James Glanz of The New York Times. According to the Greenpeace report, "How Clean is your Cloud?" Internet companies that "cloak themselves in an image of environmental awareness" want to take advantage of "dirty energy," Greenpeace's trem for nonrenewable types.

The report singles out Apple as leading the migration to cheaper energy, but the company disputed that, saying it plans to build two renewable-energy projects at its recently opened data center in Maiden, N.C. The project would offset the center's coal-fired and nuclear use, the company said. According to Duke Energy data, coal-fired energy supplies about half the power at Apple's data center. The company said the center consumes about 20 million watts at full capacity; Greenpeace claims it uses uses 100 million watts. Duke spokesman Tom Williams said the report failed to acknowledge the company's recent environmental improvements required by federal regulations. He said the company's emissions have reduced "substantially" over the last decade.

Greenpeace says other companies, including Google and Facebook, have shown more commitment to using renewables, creating a contrast that Glanz writes is "sure to generate debate in the hypercompetitive marketplace of the Internet." (Read more)

Mojave Desert foxes facing distemper epidemic; virus spread from solar plant construction site

Wildlife biologists say an outbreak of canine distemper has spread beyond its origins and could take a heavy toll on kit foxes in the Mojave Desert, reports Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times. The virus was first discovered in October during construction of the Genesis Solar Energy Project about 25 miles west of Blythe, Calif. in the Mojave Desert. (Times photo)

Since then, distemper has been found in kit foxes 11 miles south of the project, and though California Department of Fish and Game biologist Deana Clifford says that isn't far in the Mojave, it's enough to show efforts to stop the spread didn't work. There's a large population of desert foxes in the region, and experts fear a worst-case scenario would be an epidemic similar to one that almost wiped out the island fox population on Santa Catalina Island in 1999. Clifford said she's hopeful some foxes will develop an immunity.

Tracking the disease isn't easy. Radio collars have been put on nine foxes that indicate whether or not the fox has moved in six hours, signaling death. Twenty-nine foxes have been given a vaccine for canine distemper. But Sahagun reports California doesn't have the resources to track the whole desert. Biologists know the virus spread from the Genesis Project, but aren't yet certain of the host animal. State veterinarians think kit foxes close to the project were more susceptible to the virus because of hazing techniques used to force them from the construction site. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Small banks switching regulators to avoid new rules; new outfit helps them compete for big loans

A growing number of U.S. community banks are changing regulators because owners say they want regulators who understand them, Jessica Silver-Greenburg of The New York Times reports. The Dodd-Frank financial reform law closed their old regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, and moved them to a new one: the Comptroller of the Currency, which many community bankers say only knows how to deal with "behemoth banks."

Some banks want to become credit unions. Nationally, 35 have applied to switch from national to state charters since July 2011. Some experts, though, say the banks are "regulator shopping." Former regulator James Gilkerson told the Times that the Office of Thrift Supervision was "a notoriously easy supervisor," and that switching to state and credit union regulators is "the next best thing." He said community banks are following a pattern: after financial crisis, lawmakers close a weak regulator and consolidate under a stronger one, then many banks try to find lenient alternatives.

Jennifer Kelly of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency told the newspaper the agency is "dealing with a false perception that the OCC doesn’t understand community banks." She said the agency is committed to local regulation. Community bankers denied they are "regulator shopping." They say they want regulators that are "more in touch with the issues faced by the nation’s smaller banks, which are different from the ones faced by their larger national counterparts," the Times reports.

In an effort to help community banks, a former top adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Lee Sachs, established BancAlliance last year. The firm helps small, community banks compete for large, high-quality loans outside real estate. Deborah Solomon of The Wall Street Journal reported last January that bank lending fell during the financial crisis, and the problem was particularly bad for small banks, which relied on real estate lending to make money. BancAlliance's goal is to "help firms with assets between $200 million and $10 billion move beyond real estate by pooling the resources of about 100 banks so they can compete for larger loans traditionally financed by big banks," including Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase. (Read more)

Dark-meat sales soar, revive chicken industry

"Demand for dark chicken meat, legs and thighs, is climbing as diners tire of white meat and TV cooking shows tout dark meat's richer flavor and softer texture," reports Marshall Eckblad of The Wall Street Journal. He also writes that growing exports to countries where meat on the bone is popular is helping dark-meat sales. Poultry companies, who have spent decades breeding chickens for white meat, are now trying to switch focus. But rising prices of once "cut-rate" meat is helping pull the business out of a slump that lost the industry millions and forced some small producers to close, Eckblad reports.

Whole Foods Market is experiencing shortages of dark meat, and poultry producer Bell & Evans Holding LLC says its dark meat sales to some grocery stores have surpassed white meat sales for the first time in decades. The company says it deals with dark meat shortages every day. Industry innovation has also helped spur the surge in dark meat popularity, Eckblad reports. Customers prefer boneless meat, and because of new de-boning machines and methods, dark meat can now boneless. (Read more)

College farms profit by suiting 'high-end tastes'

Some farms operated by institutions of higher education are shifting away from producing traditional products so students can develop "product lines for high-end tastes, and hone not just basic husbandry skills but also marketing savvy in the interest of turning their acreage into profit centers," reports Kyle Spencer of The New York Times.

Sean Clark, farm manager at Berea College in Kentucky, said programs are trying to teach student how to make money on small acreage because most small farms lose money. (NYT photo by Christian Hansen: Berea student Samantha Kindred tends a hog lot)

College and university farms are often surrounded by customers who want locally grown products. At Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, foodies in Asheville, about eight miles away, are very interested in the college's grass-fed cattle and free-roaming pigs. Most farms funnel profits back into their agricultural schools, or use them to repair or update equipment. Jenn Halpin, farm manager at Pennsylvania's Dickinson College, puts the movement in perspective: “This isn’t just about being economically viable. It’s also about finding ways to connect with your community.” At Berea, students learned how to make their hog herd profitable by selling hams, bacon and homemade sausage.

Most such colleges are private, but The Farm Store at California State Polytechnic University now sells hydroponically grown bok choi, kai choi, variegated lemons, and fresh juices made from student-grown valencia oranges. It's expected to make $64,000 this year, a 23 percent increase from last year. Warren Wilson College students turned All-Heal, their all-natural version of Neosporin, into a moneymaker by consulting herbalists and through keen marketing. Salad dressing and hot sauce are raising profits at Dickinson College's farm. (Read more)

Oil-state geologists disagree with USGS colleagues who tied quakes to gas drilling waste injection

Top geologists from Oklahoma and Colorado say scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey were "too quick to conclude that disposal of oil and gas waste is linked to a rise in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country," reports Mike Soraghan of EnergyWire (a subscription-only outlet). Both states experienced earthquakes last year and were prominent in the USGS findings.

The USGS report didn't link hydraulic fracturing to the earthquakes, but did link them to use of deep injection wells to dispose of fracking waste water, notes Susan Phillips of State Impact. In these wells, waste water is shot deep into the earth under high pressure.

Soraghan reports the state geologiests didn't argue that waste-injection wells couldn't cause earthquakes, just that the data USGS used is not sufficient proof. “It is unlikely that all of the earthquakes can be attributed to human activities,” said Oklahoma Geological Survey Director Randy Keller. “We consider a rush to judgment about earthquakes being triggered to be harmful to state, public and industry interests.”

KC Fed report: High commodity prices helped rural economy in some ways, hurt in others

Rural economies languished in the midst of a commodity boom in 2011, which was buttressed by increased global demand, Jason Henderson and Maria Akers report for The Main Street Economist, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Rising oil prices sparked domestic drilling and increasing global food demand led to record highs for U.S. agriculture exports, creating pockets of "robust growth" in mining and agriculture communities. However, areas of weakness, including rising energy prices, a weak housing market and tight government budgets, hindered rural growth, they report.

Despite those challenges, Henderson and Akers write rural America is expected to see more gains this year because commodity prices are "expected to provide a foundation for rural prosperity." However, the areas of weakness continue to cast uncertainty. Henderson and Akers conclude that rural economic growth depends on U.S. economic growth. They write that "robust energy activity" could bolster rural economy this year, citing Energy Information Administration data that oil prices will rise 6 percent, and Bureau of Land Management data showing 20 percent more land auctioned for oil and gas leases last year than in 2010.

For more on the health of rural economy and projections about its future, read the report here.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sara Ganim and Harrisburg daily's staff beat out a Maine weekly for Pulitzer Prize in local reporting

As widely expected, young reporter Sara Ganim and other staff members of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., today won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting "for courageously revealing and adeptly covering the explosive Penn State sex scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky," the Pulitzer board announced today. (Image from "Reliable Sources," CNN)

While Ganim's work has been widely recognized, little has been heard of another finalist in the category: Editor A.M. Sheehan of the weekly Advertiser Democrat of Norway, Me., and former Assistant Editor Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, "for their tenacious exposure of disgraceful conditions in federally supported housing in a small rural community that, within hours, triggered a state investigation." For the paper's story about itself, click here. The other finalist was California Watch, founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting, "for its rigorous probe of deficient earthquake protection in the construction of public schools across the state."

For the other Pulitzer Prizes, click here.

Young, rural journalists make Editor & Publisher's list of '25 under 35' with promise in newspaper business

Editor & Publisher magazine has named its 2012 edition of "25 under 35," a collection of promising newspaper professionals.

The most rural journalists in the group are Kristen Swing, 31, executive editor of the Jonesborough Herald & Tribune in upper East Tennessee, and Derek Sawvell, 29, managing editor of the Wilton-Durant Advocate News of Wilton, Iowa, which has a Facebook page but no website. It serves rural communities in northern Muscatine and southern Cedar counties between Davenport and Iowa City.

"Although Advocate News publisher Bill Tubbs has mentored many journalists who went on to distinguished careers (including a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), he said none have held a candle at their young ages to what Sawvell has accomplished in his two years at the Advocate News," Kristina Ackermann and Nu Yang write.

“He is, by every measurement, the complete package as an editor, a news reporter, a columnist, a photographer, a business manager, and an ambassador for his community and employer,” Tubbs told the magazine. “He stands out from his peers in every way and represents the future of community

Herald & Tribune Publisher Lynn Richardson said of Swing, “It is rare to see such excellence at a small weekly newspaper.” E & P says Swing has redesigned the paper, changed its content and focus, and won several state press awards. She told the magazine, “Don’t ever assume the size of your publication is in direct proportion to the impact it can have. If you make sure every story you write, every page you design connects with people, it is amazing how far-reaching you become.”

Tim Schmidt, 32, editor of the Warren County Record of Warrenton, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, also made the list. He started out as sports editor, and since he became editor, "circulation has grown from 2,600 to 5,448," E & P reports. Circulation is a top concern of Jason Cross, 33, group publisher for News Media Corp. in Watsonville, Calif. He runs the Register-Pajaronian, a thrice-weekly paper; the Paso Robles Press and the Atascadero News, twice-weeklies, and four weeklies as well as some specialty publications.

The 25 were picked "as much for their resumes as for their extracurriculars," the magazine says. "While multimedia skills are now a requirement in the newsroom, these young leaders stand out as role models, leaders, volunteers, philanthropists, and passionate human beings. Their contributions to their companies and communities have won awards, sparked policy change, increased revenue and pageviews, and reinforced the role of the newspaper as a watchdog and community ambassador."

Other rural newspapers represented in the list were the Steamboat Pilot and Today of Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Advertising Director Meg Boyer, 30); the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Me. (Sun Media Group Media Director Anthony Ronzio, 32) and the Hoosier Times of Bloomington, Ind. (Marketing Manager Brooke McCluskey, 34). (Read more)

Researcher discusses correlations between mining and health problems, not proven causes

Do people in the Central Appalachian coalfield have more health problems and shorter lives because of mountaintop-removal mining? That hasn't been proven, but a West Virginia University researcher says he has found several correlations that suggest cause and effect. Michael Hendryx discussed and defended his work in a lecture last week at Morehead State University in Kentucky, near the coalfield's western edge.

"Hendryx said factors that have the most impact on public health are really basic things, including education, income and poverty. In Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern Kentucky, upper East Tennessee, the southern half of West Virginia and southwest Virginia, those factors are all lowest in places where the heaviest mining occurs," reports Ivy Brashear of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"His initial analysis found that mortality rates in the coal-mining region of Central Appalachia are 97 percent higher than in the rest of the region. Among the obvious causes are high rates of poverty, smoking, diabetes and obesity, but Hendryx said he  and his research team found that 'There’s something left over that’s unique to mining environment' after controlling data for those other factors. High rates of chronic heart, lung and kidney disease, and some types of cancer, 'are concentrated most in those areas where mining takes place, especially mountaintop mining,' Hendryx said. The same patterns are seen with birth defects."

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said in an email, “Dr. Michael Hendryx is an anti-coal ideologue who is masquerading again as an ‘objective researcher’.” (Read more)

Rural unemployment decreases slowly, and shifts

Unemployment is declining very slowly in rural America. Though unemployment is still higher in rural areas, at 9 percent, than in urban, 8.7 percent, the rate is almost one full percentage point lower this year than last, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder says the most interesting thing about this data is the changes in location of rural workers.

There are more than 200,000 new workers in rural areas this year, and that gain was evenly spread across the country. However, some counties experienced great losses, like Mohave, Yavapai and Coconino counties in Arizona, which lost a combined 19,000 workers. Oil and natural-gas boom areas, such as Williams County, North Dakota, show great increases in workers.

North Dakota has the lowest rural jobless rate, 3.9 percent. Nebraska has the second lowest rate at 4.3 percent.The highest rates are in California (13.7) and Massachusetts (13.1). The largest gap between rural and urban unemployment was in Massachusetts, where the urban figure is 7.5. North and South Carolina continue to have one of the highest rates, both at 11.8 percent.

The 10 states with the highest rural unemployment rates are California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Michigan and Georgia. For a table and Bishop's article, click here.

Website that lets companies reveal fracking chemicals is praised by all sides of debate

The natural-gas boom has caused a secondary boom in debate about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, the method that has greatly expanded U.S. gas reserves. Fracking has stirred much media attention and disagreement, but one non-profit disclosure website may be one thing on which everyone can agree, Talia Buford of Politico reports. (Politico photo)

FracFocus, affiliated with state governments, has been praised by federal lawmakers, industry groups and environmentalists "as a model for states taking the lead in disclosing the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations," Buford reports. The site lets visitors see lists of chemicals used by participating companies. It collects data from wells in 20 states. Some state legislators have named the site in their fracking regulations and the Interior Department is considering using it to help develop its rules for wells on federal lands.

The site was created by the Ground Water Protection Council, a nonprofit made up of state regulatory agencies and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which advocates state regulation of the industry. Creators said they wanted companies to participate voluntarily. Last month, 212 companies were signed up and data for 13,000 wells from up to 150 companies was available on the site. (Read more)

Senators, representatives urge FCC to not endanger rural broadband expansion

Bipartisan groups of U.S. representatives and senators have sent letters to Federal Communication Commission chairman Julius Genachowski asking the agency to avoid proposed rule changes that they said would endanger broadband expansion in rural areas, reports Andrew Feinberg of The Hill. Forty-four representatives and 21 senators signed the letter, and all are from mostly rural districts.

The House letter reminded Genachowski that broadband expansion is "a major source of jobs" in rural places, and that the proposed October 2011 rule that could harm rural infrasturcture investment. The Senate version said "unintended consequences to all carriers serving rural areas can and should be alleviated by a clarification that the order will not be implemented in a manner that perpetuates unintended consequences." Both letters ask the FCC to respond "to ensure all rural consumers are able to fully participate in the universal communications network Congress has envisioned." (Read more)

New online program aimed at helping rural doctors provide mental-health care

More than half of all U.S. mental health care takes place at the primary-care level, and that percentage is even higher in rural areas, where mental-health doctors are often hundreds of miles away, reports Newswise, a research-reporting service. A new online training program could help rural primary-care doctors better treat patients with mental health issues.

The Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, a part of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, designed the program. Educational Director Howard Liu said primary care doctors are overwhelmed by the amount of mental health care they must provide. Newswise reports "the goal is to help primary care providers get more comfortable as they prescribe medications and refer patients to psychiatrists and therapists." The adolescent version of the program was released last fall and is being used by doctors worldwide. The adult and geriatric version will be released this spring.

Primary care doctor Angie Brennan estimates 35 percent of all visits to her practice have been mental health related. She said there are specific rural challenges to treatment, including "reluctance to see a counselor and a lack of mental health insurance coverage – combined with an intensified fear that someone in the community will find out a patient has mental health issues." (Read more)