Friday, August 30, 2013

Child-labor laws go easy on farmers, despite high death rate among farm workers aged 15 to 17

Jacob Mosbacher, 10, drives a tractor on his
grandparents' farm near Fults, Ill. (AP photo)
"In most states, a girl or boy as young as 12 could work long hours in the broiling summer sun picking the fruits and vegetables for your Labor Day picnic, and it’s legal," Marsha Mercer writes for Stateline. "Federal child labor laws set a minimum work age of 16 for most occupations, but the laws exempt minors who work in the agriculture and entertainment industries."

The law bars workers under 16 from hazardous jobs on farms but "protects workers under 18 in non-farm jobs," Mercer notes. "Teens from 15 to 17 working on farms are four times more likely to die on the job than teenagers in all other jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports."

States also have child-labor laws, and Mercer gives a rundown of them. Mary Miller, child labor specialist in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry, who has worked in child labor for about 20 years, told Mercer, “I’m constantly skunked that there’s no constituency for child workers. They don’t vote.” Two years ago, the Obama administration abandoned its efforts to "revise the list of hazardous duties children could perform," Mercer notes.

Rural residents less likely than urban ones or suburbanites to believe blacks are treated unfairly

Rural residents are less likely than their urban counterparts to believe African Americans in their communities are treated more unfairly than white people, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, Eileen Patten reports for the organization. The study consisted of a survey that asked participants of all races how black people are treated relative to whites in urban, rural and suburban settings, by the police, the court system, at work, in stores and restaurants, schools, and when it comes to health care and voting. Numbers in every category were lower in rural areas than urban and suburban ones.

Regional location wasn't much of a factor in responses, though those in the South are more likely than those in the Northeast to say that none of their community institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites, at 53 percent vs. 43 percent, Patten writes. The survey had 376 black respondents and 1,471 whites, with 750 from urban areas, 637 from suburbs and 460 from rural areas. That gave the rural sample a statistical error margin of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points; the urban sample's margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 points.

"The gap in perceptions between urban and rural residents is widest when it comes to the treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system," Patten reports. Half of urban residents said blacks are treated worse than whites by police, while 44 percent in suburbs thought so, but only 30 percent in rural areas did. Numbers were similar when it came to courts. (Click on charts for larger versions)

When all seven items are combined into one measure, 52 percent of rural residents "say none of these institutions treat blacks less fairly than whites in their community, compared with 42 percent of suburbanites" and 33 percent of urbanites, Patten writes. "And while similar shares of urbanites and suburbanites see disparities in the treatment of blacks in at least four of these institutions, the share of rural residents who say this is much smaller." (Read more)

Power of the printed paper helps rural South Carolina sheriff clear up outstanding warrants

The sheriff in rural Darlington County, South Carolina (Wikipedia map), is using the power of the press to clean up outstanding arrest warrants in his jurisdiction of 68,000 people, and is earning praise all the way to Nebraska for his efforts. Sheriff J.W. Byrd, who was re-elected in June, turned to the local paper, the News and Press, to help clear out old warrants through a public notice that each week fills a quarter of a newspaper page with names of people names in the warrants, encouraging them to clear up the issues, Kent Warneke writes for the Norfolk Daily News. "Of the 200 names listed in the newspaper over four weeks, 70 citizens came forward to resolve their warrants. Many more people came forward who had not been named because they wanted to avoid having their names in the newspaper."

The sheriff's department also lists names of people with outstanding warrants on its website, but only 10 of those people have come forward to clear up their warrants, Warneke writes, making a point newspapers like to make in their efforts to stop state legislatures from letting local governments put legal notices online instead of buying public-notice ads in newspapers. The sheriff's office "has fielded 800 to 1,000 calls about outstanding arrest warrants within that four-week period when normally, the office gets only a few calls a year on the same topic," Warneke reports.

"Kudos to the sheriff for being willing to work with his local newspaper on this experiment. The response may have surprised him, but it probably didn’t surprise his local newspaper editor, and it didn’t surprise me," Warneke writes. "What I also found interesting was that the South Carolina sheriff said he received many calls from people wanting to clear up warrants — before their name appeared in the newspaper. That speaks volume to the impact a print publication still possesses. You can see something on a website, but until it’s in print, it takes on a whole new level of significance." (Read more)

The South Carolina Press Association correctly notes this week that legal ads can provide good news stories, and announces that its next contest will include a $200 prize for best news story developed from a legal ad. "It doesn’t take long for an editor or reporter to scan the legals," the association notes. "Graham Osteen of The Item tells of the time his newsroom found out about the proposed location of a huge pig farm in their area through a legal ad. Coverage that followed led to abandonment of the plan, much to the relief of neighbors."

Interactive map shows each county's non-English speakers, by number and percentage

The Washington Post has updated its county-by-county map of languages spoken by at least 10 percent of the residents of a county at home, with additional languages. The data are from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Here's a screen grab of the latest version; for the actual, interactive version, click here.

California prison program teaches inmates about the Internet without letting them online

Most Americans use the Internet every day, many jobs rely exclusively on it, and many rural residents have to deal with the frustration of slow speeds, if they can get service at all. Still, they can usually use the Internet at work, school, the local library or other public places. But what's it like for an adult who has never surfed the web, or really even knows how it works? Many inmates serving long-term sentences who were incarcerated before the information technology boom took off, have never been online, and may not be prepared to use it when they are released.

U.S. prisons housed 1,571,013 inmates in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Several Southern states with large rural populations have high incarceration rates; Louisiana is highest, with 893 per 100,000 residents imprisoned. It is followed by Mississippi (717) Alabama (650), Oklahoma (648) and Texas (601).

What do inmates who have never been online think it's like? Justine Sharrock, of Buzz Feed, decided to find out. She visited San Quentin State Prison in California, which has a program called Last Mile, launched in 2011. It doesn't provide Internet access, but "Through twice-weekly sessions over a six-month period, the program provides information and practical experiences to increase participant knowledge and awareness about the role of social media, build skills in relevant areas for employment in the high-tech sector, including communication, business formation and operations, and foster confidence and a sense of hope that they can succeed as free men," says the website.

One prisoner told Sharrock he thinks the Internet is “like pages that connect to other pages endlessly. I know [on Facebook] you can find someone if they list their high school or something, and click on it, but it doesn’t make much sense. I’ve seen apps on the Ellen DeGeneres show. It’s a button that leads you somewhere, like an Internet page, but in a quicker way.”

Another told her, "I’ve never seen the Internet in person. I was locked up in 1997. CDs were a big deal. I knew the Internet was called the information superhighway for a reason, but I had no idea how connected society really is through the Internet. I didn’t understand how big and new it is. It was a global name that has changed the world." (Read more)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Rural residents, especially poor, would suffer from emergency postal rate hike, NNA head says

UPDATE, Sept. 5: The Postal Board of Governors today postponed action on the proposed rate increase until its next meeting, Sept. 24-25 in Kansas City.

"The rural poor will be hit hard" if the U.S. Postal Service gets an emergency rate increase as Congress dithers about its future, Merle Baranczyk, publisher of the Mountain-Mail in Salida, Colo., writes in an op-ed piece in The Albuquerque Journal. He is president of the National Newspaper Association, which is lobbying hard for a postal-reform bill.

"The inaction of Congress does not justify the possibility of a major postage increase next January," Baranczyk writes. "The law permits an annual postage increase, which usually occurs in mid-January, so long as the Consumer Price Index sets the ceiling for the increase. It allows much larger increases if the Postal Service faces an 'exigency' or emergency. This allowance has not yet been used since the price cap went into effect in 2007, so no one is quite sure what qualifies as an 'exigency.' But the completely foreseeable creep of digital technology into Americans’ communications habits is not an exigency. It is just a reality."

An "exigent" rate hike from USPS's Board of Governors would come "from the pockets of the public, especially small businesses and rural customers that are most dependent upon the mail," Baranczyk argues. "In a state with sweeping expanses of rural areas, like New Mexico, the burden of major postage increases will fall heavily upon small towns and ranches. When barely two-thirds of the state has access to the Internet and many who do simply cannot afford to use it, the mail is the lifeline." (Read more)

Local and state goverments cut part-time hours to avoid health coverage requirement

"Many cash-strapped cities and counties facing the prospect of shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in new health-care costs under the Affordable Care Act are opting instead to reduce the number of hours their part-time employees work," Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post. "The decisions to cut employee hours come 16 months before employers — including state and local governments — will be required to offer health-care coverage to employees who work at least 30 hours a week." Some cuts are being made now out of fear "that employees who work at least 30 hours in the months leading up to the January 2015 implementation date would need to be included in their health-care plans."

Middletown Township, N.J.,  which spends about $9 million of its $65 million budget on employee health coverage, announced Tuesday "it would reduce the hours of 25 part-time workers to avoid up to $775,000 in increased annual health-care costs," Wilson reports. Anthony Mercantante, Middletown’s township administrator, told Wilson, “It’s not something we prefer to do, but the cost of health insurance is significant and would really impact municipal budgets. It’s not something we can take on, particularly when we don’t know some of the other ramifications of the Affordable Care Act. There are far more questions than answers right now.” (Read more)

Middleton isn't alone in making cuts. Bee County, a 32,000-population area just north of Corpus Christi, will be "capping the number of hours a part-time worker can work to 24 per week," starting with their fiscal year starting October, Andrew Ellison reports for KRIS 6 News in Coprus Christi. In Virginia the City of Lynchburg, "which has about 100 part-time employees, cut hours this year for about 35 to 40 people to keep them under the health insurance threshold," Eleanor Kennedy and Amy Trent report for The News and Advance. In Chippewa Falls, Wis., pop. 14,000, officials "announced they are dropping about 15 three-quarter time positions," Rich Kremer reports for Wisconsin Public Radio. Many other cities and counties have also announced cuts.

Digital conversion cost threatens rural theaters; five lucky drive-ins will get new projectors

When movie distributors stop printing reels of 35-millimeter film and convert all movies to digital, which some say could happen as early as next spring, many small-town theater owners will have to shell out a hefty sum to stay in business. And for local mom-and-pop operations, investing $70,000 per screen, plus the cost of renovating projecting rooms for equipment that needs to be in climate-controlled conditions, might be a little too expensive to keep the doors open -- especially for a drive-in theatre, which primarily operates during the summer, Michael Morain reports for the Des Moines Register. (Register photo: the Valle Drive-In in Newton, Iowa)

The United Drive-In Theater Owners Association estimates that 50 to 60 of the nation's roughly 350 drive-in theaters have already converted to digital, Morain writes. There is an industry incentive program that reimburses theater owners 80 percent of the cost of converting to digital, but some small business owners are struggling to find ways to drum up the money to convert, and those that can't afford the conversion could be left out in the cold.

Walt Effinger, who owns the Skyvue Drive-In, which has been open in central Ohio since 1948, told Morain, “You’ll be digital or you’ll close your doors. If you’re not doing enough business to justify the expense, you’re just going to have to close up.” The theater has already converted to digital. For those operations that can't afford the change, there's a Honda-sponsored online contest (with promotional video) that ends Sept. 9 that will award the top five vote-getters a new projector. (Read more) Ben Kleppinger of The Interior Journal in Stanford, Ky., wrote a story subtly promoting votes for the Stanford Drive-In.

Coal county takes yet another stab at farmers' market to promote healthier living

After a study labeled Letcher County in southeastern Kentucky as one of the least healthy counties in one of the least healthy states, residents decided they needed to make changes. After five failed attempts to keep a farmers' market going, there are signs that the sixth time will be the charm, with the goal of this version "to create access to local, healthy food by promoting traditional foodways," Kelli Haywood reports for the Daily Yonder. (Haywood photo)

"Organizers want it to be a small boost to their community’s declining economy," suffering with the region's coal industry, Haywood writes. Local disc jockey Ben West hopes it will encourage residents to resume planting gardens and vegetable patches.  “I drive by large fields that I remember being covered in corn when I was younger.  But now they are just grown up with grass and weeds,” he told Haywood.

Haywood reports that the market is a success, but getting it started wasn't easy, especially after the previous failed attempts. West told her that this time around, organizers "compelled growers to think like a farmer that is going to have some income from their efforts. Another key element not included in the past was the marketing. This time, people were much more aware of it.”

Valerie Horn, coordinator of Letcher County’s branch of Grow Appalachia, a program of Berea College that teaches Appalachian people to grow their own food to feed themselves, told Haywood that tough economic times have played a key role in the markets' success. She said, “Perhaps our community realizes that we are the change that needs to happen for both our health and our quality of life. And the farmers' market enhances each of these. There seems to be almost an underlying desperation in our efforts to be successful, to provide not only healthy food choices for the community but economic opportunity as well.” (Read more)

Webinar to help journalists cover health reform available on Kaiser Family Foundation website

Journalists who missed the Kaiser Family Foundation's first of a series of webinars on covering health reform for the Affordable Care Act, can still view, or listen to the one-hour webinar, by clicking here. The first webinar included an explanation of the law’s individual mandate, its new coverage options, including new state insurance marketplaces, subsidies for people with low and moderate incomes, and new rules prohibiting insurers from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions.

New EPA chief's Alaska visit focuses debate over proposal for huge gold-and-copper mine

Last week new Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy was in Iowa winning over agriculture workers and farmers who were impressed with her sincerity to build a strong relationship with them. This week McCarthy stepped right into a heated mining dispute in Alaska, with some saying the proposed mine could bring much needed jobs and boost the economy, while opponents say the mine could destroy streams, wetlands and salmon populations, Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. The proposed mine is in the watershed of Bristol Bay, the easternmost arm of the Bering Sea. (Anchorage Daily News photo by Bill Roth)

"The EPA is considering using the Clean Water Act to block the Pebble Mine even before it applies for permits," Cockerham writes. "The area of the mine is a massive green expanse bursting with lakes and streams, a sweeping land of moose, caribou and grizzly bears surrounded by mountains. The Pebble Partnership says the region’s deposit is one of the largest of its kind on the planet, with potential to produce 80.6 billion pounds of copper and 107.4 million ounces of gold over three decades." (New York Times map)

Janessa Woods, a mother of two who is employed by the mining company, told Cockerham, “There are no other job opportunities, absolutely none. If Pebble weren’t here I’d probably be on welfare, probably be on food stamps, probably be on energy assistance.” But others only see the harm the mine can bring. Nondalton Tribal Council President William Evanoff told McCarthy, "No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life. The threats are real.”

The EPA released a study in April that "said the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. The EPA said it is finalizing the study, which is based on preliminary mine plans submitted to government agencies," Cockerham writes. McCarthy, who didn't take questions from reporters, "said before leaving she’s open-minded about Pebble." (Read more)

McCarthy's visit "drew positive reviews from combatants on both sides," reports Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy News. For an audio report from Mike Mason of KDLG Radio in Dillingham, about McCarthy's meeting with residents of Iliamna, click here.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Some students are refusing to eat healthy foods, costing schools in federally funded program

"After just one year, some schools around the country are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money," Carolyn Thompson reports for The Associated Press. "Federal officials say they don't have exact numbers but have seen isolated reports of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food."

The program "is a federally assisted meal program operating in over 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions," according to the Department of Agriculture. In 2001 the program, which "provided nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day." More fruits, vegetables and whole grains were added to the program during the last school year.

Gary Lewis, superintendent of Catlin Community Unit School District in eastern Illinois, told Thompson his district saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales last year, leading to a $30,000 loss: "Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat. So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."

Some students are going outside school to get their junk food fix. Callahan Grund, who plays football at Wallace County High in Sharon Springs, Kan., said the calorie limit (750-850 calories for high school students) isn't enough for athletes who have practice after school. He told Thompson, "A lot of kids were resorting to going over to the convenience store across the block from school and kids were buying junk food. It was kind of ironic that we're downsizing the amount of food to cut down on obesity, but kids are going and getting junk food to fill that hunger."

So many students and parents have complained in Harlan County in southeastern Kentucky that the school board held a special meeting to address the issues, Mark Bell reports for the Harlan Daily Enterprise.  "Complaints ranged from not being fed enough to food received not being good enough. While fruits and vegetables are offered freely and students can take their fill of those, meats and carbohydrates will continue to be served in limited portions only, so students complain of not getting enough food."

Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA deputy undersecretary who oversees the program, those opposed to the program are in the minority. She told Thompson, "The vast majority of schools across the country are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, which is so important to help all our nation's children lead healthier lives. Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn."

Only 1 percent of the 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move, according the School Nutrition Association, Thompson writes. But not every district can afford to quit. The program "provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor youngsters." (Read more) (USDA graphic)

Wal-Mart to begin offering benefits to domestic partners, regardless of sexual orientation

Wal-Mart, the largest employer of rural Americans, "told workers this week that it will begin offering health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of U.S. employees next year," Shelly Banjo reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The extension of health benefits marks a major change for the country's largest private employer of 1.3 million U.S. workers, which has been targeted by gay-rights advocacy groups for failing to do so. Previously, Wal-Mart had offered benefits to the domestic partners of employees in states that required the retailer to do so by law."

To qualify for the benefits "employees and their domestic partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, must live together for at least a year and engage in an ongoing, exclusive and committed relationship," Banjo reports. "The company says it won't ask employees for verification but will act on an honor system." Wal-Mart, which is also extending vision coverage to its employees, "has faced criticism in recent years for the number of workers that can't afford or qualify for coverage due to rapidly-increasing premiums and the retailer's decision to spike benefits from employees who work fewer than 30 hours in recent years. At one time, it offered health-care coverage to all part-time employees." (Read more)

Controlling wild horses is becoming too costly, and numbers are too high for contraceptive darts

The wild horse population in the western U.S. is growing so fast that the government could soon be unable to manage the herds, according to a study published in Science magazine, Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. In their paper, Robert A. Garrott of Montana State University and Madan K. Oli of the University of Florida "argue that it’s long past time to get America’s horse issues under control. That would start with an aggressive vaccine contraceptives program to cut the birthrates of the wild horses by half," which won't be cheap, because the horses are hard to find and need to be shot annually with contraceptive darts. 

But there are too many wild horses to rely solely on contraceptive darts, which have been used successfully on a relatively small number of wild horses in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. The Bureau of Land Management would still need to find other ways "to remove many of the existing wild horses from public lands to bring the base population down to around 23,622," Plumer writes. There are an estimated 33,000 on public lands, and another 45,000 horses are in facilities, mostly on private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma. (Graphic by Science magazine)

The problem with keeping all the horses in captivity is that "BLM’s horse budget has soared from $19.8 million in 2000 to $74.9 million in 2012," Plumer reports. And researchers calculate "that if current trends continue, BLM would have to spend some $1.1 billion over the next 17 years just to keep storing horses in these long-term facilities — a level far beyond anything Congress seems willing to contemplate."

So, what happens next? Some people have suggested that the best alternative is to "kill off thousands of healthy horses to bring the numbers down," Plumer writes. There is also fear that the western U.S. could end up like Australia, "where the wild horse population has soared past 400,000, and the government is now reportedly considering shooting tens of thousands of horses in the outback, both to stop the destruction of range land and to alleviate the suffering of horses that have been slowly dying of thirst during a recent drought."

Garrott told Plumer, “Some horse advocates have argued that we should just let the horses self-regulate on public lands. But what do we do when animals are destroying rangeland, competing with livestock and other wildlife and dying due to starvation and drought? That’s not good for the horses, it’s not good for the range, it’s not good for anyone.” (Read more)

King speech still soars from his moral imagination, oratorical skill and use of Bible and history

UPDATE: If you haven't seen today's speech by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the last living speaker at the march, we strongly recommend it.
Photo by The Associated Press
Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, remembered most for the "I have a Dream" speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated less than five years later, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Why does the speech "exert such a potent hold on people around the world and across the generations?" asks Michoko Kakutani of The New York Times.

Kakutani, a Times literary reviewer, answers: "Part of its resonance resides in Dr. King’s moral imagination. Part of it resides in his masterly oratory and gift for connecting with his audience — be they on the Mall that day in the sun or watching the speech on television or, decades later, viewing it online. And part of it resides in his ability, developed over a lifetime, to convey the urgency of his arguments through language richly layered with biblical and historical meanings.

"The son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers, Dr. King was comfortable with the black church’s oral tradition, and he knew how to read his audience and react to it; he would often work jazzlike improvisations around favorite sermonic riffs — like the 'dream' sequence — cutting and pasting his own words and those of others. At the same time, the sonorous cadences and ringing, metaphor-rich language of the King James Bible came instinctively to him. Quotations from the Bible, along with its vivid imagery, suffused his writings, and he used them to put the sufferings of African-Americans in the context of Scripture — to give black audience members encouragement and hope, and white ones a visceral sense of identification." (Read more)

Though the speech is the focus of coverage of the anniversary, you won't be reading it in newspapers or seeing it on TV outlets this week, unless they paid for it, because King copyrighted it and his family "has been aggressively litigious" in defending the copyright, Ezra Klein notes in his Wonkbook for The Washington Post.

"The work won’t enter the public domain until 2038 which means, until then, the only way to legally use it is to pay up," Klein writes. "But that’s not the only way to read it. The National Archives — who I assume have figured out the copyright issues — have a version you can read. So go do that." The speech is available on YouTube.

Michael Fletcher of the Post reports, "Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963. When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites." (Read more) Fletcher's story has 10 charts to illustrate its point; the Post's Brad Plumer offers 10 others that show how the country has changed for the better, here.

Nuclear power plant that Vermont lawmakers tried to shut down will close

Less than two weeks after a federal appeals court rejected the Vermont Legislature's attempt to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant for safety reasons, owners of the plant announced "plans to close and decommission the power station following its current fuel cycle," reports the Brattleboro Reformer, a daily paper that covers Windham County, where the plant is located. The plant is scheduled to close next year.

The plant's owner, Entergy Corp., said in a press release Tuesday that the decision was "driven by sustained low power prices, high cost structure and wholesale electricity market design flaws for Vermont Yankee plant."

Leo Denault, Entergy's chairman and chief executive officer, said in the release: "This was an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call for us. Vermont Yankee has an immensely talented, dedicated and loyal workforce, and a solid base of support among many in the community. We recognize that closing the plant on this schedule was not the outcome they had hoped for, but we have reluctantly concluded that it is the appropriate action for us to take under the circumstances." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wildfires are getting worse, and costlier

Wildfires in the U.S. are getting worse and costlier every year, and "for the second straight year the federal government has run through its budget for fighting wildfires amid a grueling, deadly season and will be forced to move $600 million from other funds, some of which help prevent fires," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. "More than 31,900 fires have burned 3 million acres in the United States this year, according to the Forest Service."(Getty Images: The Rim fire near Groveland, Calif. close to Yosemite National Park)

As of Aug. 19, the U.S. Forest Service "had spent $967 million to pay for firefighters and the equipment that supports them," Fears reports. "That included more than $200 million in the congressional Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement supplemental account known as FLAME. That left only $50 million to control at least 40 fires burning hundreds of thousands of acres in Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other states." Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, "was forced to transfer $2.2 billion from other accounts to fight wildfires when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service.” (Read more)

Why are wildfires more prevalent? Climate change in the West "has heated up and dried out the region, making forests more flammable," Brad Plumer reports for the Post. "Certain forest management and fire-suppression techniques over the past century have also made forests more susceptible to truly gigantic blazes."

Another key is an increase in population, Plumer writes: "Some 250,000 new residents have settled in Colorado’s 'red zone' over the past two decades, for instance. Not only can that increase the odds of a fire starting in the first place, but more crucially, it increases the cost of suppression, as firefighters focus on protecting nearby homes."

And the federal government has been slow to react, Plumer writes. The Forest Service "has proposed new forestry practices to reduce the risk of fires, including a greater use of smaller prescribed fires and 'mechanical thinning' to clear out the tangled overgrowth in many forests. Yet these measures are expensive — the price tag to treat 4 million acres comes to about $1 billion — and the agency is already struggling with funding as is." (Read more)

Island paper flourishes under 20 locals' ownership

Those who think newspapers are doomed need only to hear the story of the Island Observer to see how much small communities value their local papers. In fact, residents of Washington Island, Wis., the only year-round town in Door County, just miles off the northeast tip of the Door Peninsula, loved their paper so much that when it went up for sale last year, 20 local families purchased it through contributions ranging from $500 to $5,500, Chad Stebbins reports in the latest newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. (Washington Island Chamber of Commerce photo)

Washington Island has a population of 750, which rises to several thousand in the summer. The paper publishes 30 times a year: weekly from July 4 to Labor Day, and bi-weekly the rest of the year. "Paid circulation has increased 33 percent to 1,100 in the 18 months the families have operated the newspaper," reports Stebbins, the executive director of ISWNE. The staff is three part-time employees, more than 70 volunteer writers and photographers, and all the content is local. (Google locator map)

Lucia Petrie, president of Washington Island Community News LLC, and one of the seven board members that operate the paper, told Stebbins, "The families who bought it believed that the island needed a paper that addressed civic issues, such as the apparent dissatisfaction with the school elections, the town meeting, economic development, etc., and celebrated the special land qualities. The Paul Newman model, where the owners do not profit from the paper, is appealing to a community with seasonal and full-time residents." (Read more)

Maryland officials withdraw proposal aimed at reducing farm pollution of Chesapeake Bay

Two days before a scheduled legislative hearing on a proposed regulation aimed at reducing farm runoff polluting the Chesapeake Bay, the Maryland Department of Agriculture on Monday withdrew "its request to make immediate changes to rules governing where farmers may use chicken manure to fertilize their crops, after chicken growers warned it could cripple the state's lucrative poultry industry if imposed now," Timothy Wheeler reports for The Baltimore Sun. "According to researchers, more than 80 percent of the fields sampled on the Lower Eastern Shore and nearly 50 percent statewide are saturated with phosphorus, one of the plant nutrients in manure and a contributor to the algae blooms and dead zones plaguing the bay and its tributaries."

Last year the relatively small state of Maryland ranked eighth in chicken production, raising 304 million birds worth more than $800 million, according to Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., a trade group. "But those birds produce hundreds of millions of pounds of manure annually, and manure runoff accounts for 26 percent of the phosphorus getting into the bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency," Wheeler notes. "Crop farmers, chicken growers and others had complained that uncertainty about where manure could be used for fertilizer, and the lack of ready alternatives, threatened to disrupt the poultry industry," and the Maryland Fram Bureau said they needed more time to adjust to the proposed changes. "While farm groups had been pressing for a four-year delay on the new rule, Connelly said they're willing to consider sooner if suitable alternatives have been fleshed out." (Read more)

Cattle and horse rustling are on the rise in Texas, in spite of recently toughened penalties

In 2009, Texas toughed penalties against cattle rustlers, making it so those convicted could spent 10 years in prison. But despite the new law, and despite droughts that have decreased the number of cattle, more livestock have gone missing or been stolen since the law passed, notes Grits For Breakfast, a blog that examines the Texas criminal justice system.

"Ranchers saw a sharp jump in cattle rustling last year in Texas and Oklahoma," GFB reports. "Over 10,000 cows and horses were reported missing or stolen. That’s an almost 40 percent increase from the year before. It’s a trend that’s surprised some in law enforcement." Doug Hutchison a special ranger commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety, told GFB, “I was really starting to think that maybe we’d start to see a downturn, because these ranchers are watching so close to what they have with the downsizing of the herd, it’s a little easier to track.”

But some are not surprised at the increase in thefts. Richard Hartley, who chairs the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Texas-San Antonio, told GFB that it goes to show that tougher sentencing doesn’t generally serve as a deterrent. After all, cattle rustlers plied their trade even when the penalty was death. Hartley said, “If you read a lot of the research or even just the historical writings on that era. When there was hangings in the town square crime would actually go up. Because when you had a lot of people congregated in an area where pickpockets would know that we steal stuff from them.” (Read more)

Kentucky houseboat manufacturer turns $7,500 state grant into $3 million in sales, much in Dubai

A Southern Kentucky town of 6,000 that calls itself the "Houseboat Manufacturing Capital of the World" went from high times when the economy was good, to devastating times when the economy took a downturn, to getting back on top thanks to innovation and initiative -- when one company turned a $7,500 state grant into $3 million in sales much of it in Dubai, reports The Lane Report, a Lexington business publication. (Stardust Cruisers photo: A Kentucky-made houseboat in Dubai)

Monticello, near Lake Cumberland, was the center of a cluster of houseboat manufacturers that provided the region with around 1,000 jobs. The Wall Street collapse and the Great Recession slashed demand for the luxury product and reduced the number of plants in the area to four. One of those was Stardust Cruisers, which once sold houseboats all over the world, but had cut its staff from 70 to as low as 15 employees in 2007-09. But a $7,500 export initiative grant from the state Cabinet for Economic Development "helped company officials travel to Dubai, where luxury houseboats are in high demand," the story says. "On the trip, Stardust Cruisers made valuable contacts, setting up a distributor list that has resulted in more than $3 million in boat sales. The company now employs more than 50 people and continues to hire more workers."

Stardust, which predicted in June its annual sales would pass $6 million, triple the sales from 2009, is continuing to look for new ideas to improve its company, as well as partnering with other businesses and towns in the state to continue to build local economies, the Lane Report writes. One project is to work with a local company to build new structural insulated panel used in houseboats, and another is to create Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences, which are energy-efficient homes designed for affordable housing that will be constructed in a small town. Stardust chairman Bruce Chesnut told The Lane Report, “This is an example of how the government can make a difference in the future livelihood of folks here." (Read more)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dallas paper finds that government is clueless about number of chemical accidents in the U.S.

A study by the Dallas Morning News found that the U.S. government has no idea how often serious or potentially serious industrial chemical accidents occur, Jon McClure, Daniel Lathrop and Matt Jacob report for the newspaper: "In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information." (DMN file photo: The National Response Center said one person died in this 2005 incident when oxygen tanks exploded on a bus near Dallas, though 24 died)

Following the disastrous fertilizer explosion in West, Tex., the reporters analyzed more than 750,000 federal records and "found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300," they report. "As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety."

Reporters analyzed data from the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Response Center, the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Chemical Safety Board, and "if a serious accident was recorded in any data set, the paper attempted to match the records in other data sets according to date and location of the accident, number of fatalities or injuries, or whether there was an evacuation."

"The results were disappointing," the Morning News reports. "During the 2008-11 study period, for example, there were 158 calls to the NRC related to potentially serious chemical accidents at facilities in Texas. But only 12 percent of those could be confirmed in any of the other databases." The reporters did the same study in California, finding that "a total of 174 reports were made of serious chemical accidents in California, with only 10 percent confirmed in the other data sets."

They concluded "that there was no systematic way to identify serious accidents among the hundreds of thousands of records in the four datasets. The only way forward was to loosen the matching criteria and read through more than 500 individual accident narratives to identify serious chemical accidents." They were able to confirm at least 24 serious or potentially serious chemical accidents in Texas between 2008 and 2011 that resulted in deaths, injuries or evacuations. "On rough average, that’s one every two months — a lot more than make headlines." (Read more)

USDA loan-backing unit doesn't create as many jobs as it claims; some deals have been losers

A federal loan-guarantee program, created as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009 to help bring jobs to rural areas, claims to have brought many more jobs to small towns than the actual workers employed by companies, Gretchen Morgenson reports for The New York Times. (Peninsula Daily News photo by Keith Thorpe: Peninsula Plywood in Port Angeles, Wash., closed in 2011)

The program is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development unit, which "has called its $1.6 billion business and industry loan program a rousing success," Morgenson writes. "Not surprisingly, the department often trumpets the number of jobs that are expected to result from these loans — figures that it gets from the borrowers themselves."

For example, the USDA website says  Carolina AAC, a company that got $10.4 million in late 2010 to build a concretecplant in Bennettsville, S.C., population 9,000, would create around 197 new jobs," Morgenson writes. "But Carolina AAC said in a January 2011 news release that only 36 jobs would be created," and a spokesperson for the company said it has only 10 employees. "Troubling for taxpayers is that the government backs 90 percent of the loans and they are in liquidation."

Singleteary Food Solutions, which received $4.36 million in USDA-guaranteed loans to create 220 jobs in Wells, Minn., population 2,300. "Singleteary was expected to be the second-largest job creator in the program; it also received a Small Business Administration loan for about $4 million," Morgenson writes. The plant, which only had 30 employees, never opened, the loans are in default, "and the bank that wrote the guaranteed loan and sold it to investors took back the property in May."

Peninsula Plywood Group of Port Angeles, Wash., population 19,000, was supposed to be the program's largest job creator. It got about $2 million in 2010 to create 334 jobs. Morgenson reports, "The facility opened for production later that year but ran into financial trouble and closed in late 2011. Local news reports said it employed 130 people at most. The loan has been liquidated and the Agriculture Department paid a loss claim of $958,000." (Read more)

Vision, strategies and leadership are key to rebuilding Central Appalachia, audience is told

Central Appalachian residents already have the knowledge to create sustainable economic alternatives and strengthen communities, but what they need now is vision, development strategies that work, and leadership, Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Development, said during a speech at the recent "Appalachia's Bright Future" conference in Harlan, Ky.

"We know a lot more than we than we think we know about the way forward," Maxson said. "We have many more assets to build from than we often believe. And despite our many challenges, including rapid changes to our local and regional economy, there are innovative people providing hopeful examples all around us. What we need now is to knit these pieces together with a vision for Appalachian renewal and help grow them to a meaningful scale. To do that, we need a movement that is big enough, inclusive enough, ambitious enough, and visionary enough to build a bright future here in the mountains."

Maxson said, "Fundamentally what we are talking about is an intentional effort to improve the quality of life for people and places affected by economic distress and degradation of our land and water." He said it's important to imagine a bright future, then work towards attaining it, that creating jobs and building strong communities is key, and that the region needs a new culture in leadership, including stronger political leaders, and new leadership that includes youth, entrepreneurs, artists, and others who are willing to stand up. (Read more)

Park Service stops requiring permits for most river baptisms in Arkansas and Missouri

Ozark residents can head back to the river to baptize and celebrate without a federal permit. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways unit of the National Park Service had required residents to get a permit two days in advance to perform baptisms in streams, but dropped the policy after facing public backlash, Jennifer Davidson reports for KSMU Ozarks Public Radio. (Riverways photo: The bend in Jacks Fork River is known as 'Baptizing Hole')

Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri told Davidson that many of his constituents were “Absolutely outraged that some agency could control their religious activities. . . . A lot of times, someone may decide to be baptized on a Sunday morning. And so, then they’ll go down and do the baptism service on Sunday evening. And a baptism only lasts for a couple of minutes, yet no one needs a permit to go down there and swim in the river, which lasts a much longer time.”

Smith, who wrote a letter to the superintendent of the riverways, "said these are public waterways, and Washington shouldn’t be able to regulate traditions his area has held for generations," Davidson reports. The superintendent wrote back the next day to say the policy had been scrubbed.

Faye Walmsley, a spokesperson for the park, told Davidson that the special-use permit had been in place since 2006, saying “[It’s] so there’s no conflict of activities in certain areas, and also so that it’s managed so it protects the natural and cultural resources of the park.” Although permits will not be required for baptisms in general, Walmsley added that if a church wants to perform a baptism at a gravel bar that’s closed to vehicles, the church will still need a special use permit to get access, which often requires a locked gate to be opened by a staff member, Davidson reports.

Two-day course at MIT will teach how to write about medical and scientific evidence

The Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offering an intensive course to help journalists learn how to evaluate scientific and medical evidence. Ten to 12 journalists will be selected to participate in the course on campus in Cambridge. The deadline to apply is Sept. 13, and the course will be held from Dec. 2-3.

The "Medical Evidence" course begins with "an overview of clinical and epidemiological research methods, giving journalists the tools to understand and evaluate medical studies," a release says. "Through lectures and discussions, we’ll look at science’s ways of studying different phenomena, from diseases to oil spills, from DNA to human migration. We’ll offer practical methods for getting the numbers in the news right. We’ll explore how new drugs are tested, and look at how the FDA, the NIH and other agencies evaluate treatments, old and new. We’ll look at the rise of 'evidence-based medicine” and why expensive care may not be good care."

Participants will be reimbursed up to $750 for travel expenses. Most meals will be provided. For more information and an application, click here.

Former nun who has inspired generations of Appalachian volunteers is retiring

Marie Cirillo and Gary Garrett on a low-
water ford that floods and collects debris.
(Photo by Georgiana Vines) 
Marie Cirillo, who came to Central Appalachia 46 years ago to educate and train people in an isolated community in the mounatins on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, after deciding she couldn't do it as a Catholic nun in the Midwest, is retiring as director of the Clearfork Community Institute.

Cirillo, 82, has been an inspiration to generations of others who have come to the region to help it overcome its isolation, exploitation and lack of education and sustainable jobs. “After so many years of so much effort there is little to show but lots learned. The big question is, will the lessons we learned together be to any avail? People here anticipate result if for no other reason but that so many more people in this region are searching for ways out of past progress that now seems to be riddled with traps we can’t avoid,” she told Georgiana Vines of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

"She still intends to be a force in helping the community speak for itself on issues," Vines writes, quoting her: “I need to help them learn they have a voice.” She will be succeeded by Marie Webster, 52, an AmeriCorps worker amd Institute board chair, who will be paid with a $14,000 grant from the Knoxville office of the Green Mountain Coffee Roaster Foundation; Cirillo, a former Glenmary nun, took no salary. (Read more)