Saturday, September 14, 2013

Obamacare recruiters hit resistance in rural Ky.; outreach in key part of rural N.C. is lacking

Promoters of the new health-insurance system being created under the federal health-reform law are running into resistance in rural Kentucky, where "tend to be less connected to the Internet and less exposed to ad campaigns under way in the state," The Wall Street Journal reports. "And they are typically more conservative, sometimes with deep antipathy toward President Barack Obama and anything linked to him."

Erin Hoben
“In rural areas, they’re not getting a lot of the positive messaging” about the law, Erin Hoben, an outreach coordinator for Kentucky Voices for Health, a coalition of pro-Obamacare groups, told reporter Arian Campo-Flores, who writes: "Among the worries expressed by audience members at forums she has attended: that the law will cause taxes to rise and bankrupt federal and state governments. At one recent event, “One guy called me a ‘Yankee’ and stopped talking to me,” said Hoben, who is from Louisville.

But others in the far eastern town of Pikeville, from which Campo-Flores reported, indicated positive interest in the state health benefits exchange, Kynect, that will go online Oct. 1 with standard policies with subsidies for most people, or a Medicaid program being expanded by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, at 100 percent federal expense for the first three years, 90 percent by 2020.

Rural signups are critical in states like Kentucky, where 45 percent of the estimated 640,000 uninsured people live outside metropolitan areas. Nationally, only 17 percent of the uninsured are rural, Campo-Flores notes.

"Cara Stewart, a health-law fellow at the not-for-profit Kentucky Equal Justice Center, has been driving 6,000 miles a month traversing the state to reach residents," Campo-Flores reports. "She said she has enlisted local pastors and choir leaders to help connect her with their congregations. Another avenue she is pursuing: the Cooperative Extension Service offices of Kentucky’s two land-grant universities." Stewart said, “They’re a neutral, trusted source of information.” (Read more)

University of Kentucky Extension Service Director Jimmy Henning said in an email to The Rural Blog, "We are doing a lot of education relating to health, just as we always have done, and that would include helping people evaluate their options" under the reform law, but agents are not acting as paid navigators. That's in keeping with their roles as independent providers of information. Henning said, "The ‘fit’ for Extension relative to it being a health navigator varies by state, depending on who is administering the health exchange and setting up the conditions for the grant."

In North Carolina, which has a large rural population, "There are few details about how uninsured people in some of the state's least healthy counties will receive help navigating the system," reports Justin Smith of WECT-TV in Wilmington. In Republican-controlled North Carolina, the federal government is running the exchange and Medicaid is not being expanded.

None of the 14 non-profits that the federal goverment is using to help people navigate the new system is "based in the southeastern part of the state," Smith reports. "Most of the organizations serve other parts of the state or specific populations, like people with disabilities or substance abusers. The only organization that appears to have a physical presence in the region is Legal Aid of North Carolina, which has an office in downtown Wilmington." (Read more)

Coal's hopes that exports will make up for domestic decline are dashed

"The ailing American coal industry, which has pinned its hopes on exports to counter a declining market at home, is scaling back its ambitions as demand from abroad starts to ebb as well," Clifford Krauss reports for The New York Times. "A global coal glut and price slump, along with persistent environmental opposition, are reducing the likelihood that additional exports could shield the industry from slipping domestic demand caused by cheap natural gas and mounting regulations." (Read more)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Pa. attorney general brings charges against Marcellus Shale production company for spill

Kathleen Kane
The office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has entered unprecedented waters. Kane's office is the first ever to bring criminal charges against a Marcellus Shale production company, after charges were announced Tuesday against XTO Energy Inc. for discharging more than 50,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from storage tanks at a gas-well site in 2010 in Lycoming County, an area that has 116,000 residents and includes Williamsport, Andrew Maykuth reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "XTO in July settled federal civil charges over the incident by agreeing to pay a $100,000 fine and deploy a plan to improve wastewater-management practices. The consent decree included no admissions of liability."

Kane's decision "has sent shock waves through the industry," Maykuth writes. "But environmentalists Wednesday hailed the prosecution of the Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary as a departure from the soft treatment they say the industry has received from Pennsylvania regulators." Industry leaders and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry have protested the charges, saying they could create a hostile business environment 

XTO is charged with five counts of unlawful conduct under the Clean Streams Law and three counts of unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act, Maykuth writes. They face a fine of $25,000 per day for each violation. (Read more)

Missouri governor's veto of bill criminalizing enforcement of federal gun laws stands

The Republican-dominated legislature in Missouri failed to override Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a bill aimed at criminalizing enforcement of federal gun laws, Jason Hancock reports for the Kansas City Star. The gun bill, "dubbed the Second Amendment Preservation Act, declared invalid any federal policies that 'infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.' Federal authorities who attempt to enforce those laws could have faced state misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Similar penalties would have applied to anyone who published identifying information about gun owners." (Associated Press photo by Orlin Wagner: The Missouri Senate held a special session Wednesday)

Jay Nixon
Nixon vetoed the bill "because he said it infringed on First Amendment free-speech rights and violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives precedence to federal laws over conflicting state ones," Hancock notes. Republican Sen. Brian Nieves, who sponsored the bill, "said an override seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago. But that quickly changed after Attorney General Chris Koster, the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association and chiefs of police in Kansas City and St. Louis came out in opposition." (Read more) Earlier this week in a recall election Colorado ousted two Democratic senators who supported state gun control legislation.

Nixon's veto of a $700 million tax cut also stood, but the Legislature did vote in favor of overriding Nixon’s veto of an agriculture bill "that a state ag leader says will send a strong message to cattle rustlers and animal rights activists," Julie Harker reports for Brownfield Ag News. Mike Deering, Executive Vice President of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, told Harker, “It’s not just about stealing cattle. It’s not just about stealing livelihoods. It’s about blatant animal abuse. These rustlers don’t care how they treat animals. They don’t load them properly. They’re not Beef Quality Assurance Certified. I mean, these people don’t care about the animal.” (Read more)

Alabama paper plant, town's leading employer with 1,100 workers, closing due to lower demand

"International Paper, the largest employer in Lawrence County, will close its Courtland (Ala.) plant by early next year, leaving 1,100 workers jobless," Lucy Berry reports for the Alabama Media Group. "The decision to close International Paper, a paper mill built in 1971 with an annual production capacity of 950,000 tons, was finalized Tuesday afternoon during a board of directors meeting. The mill will be shut down in stages, with full closure expected by the end of the first quarter of 2014." (Alabama Media Group photo by Mary Sellers: International Paper Company)

A press release from the paper mill states that the demand "for uncoated freesheet in North America has been in decline since 1999 and has recently accelerated as consumers continue to switch to electronic alternatives such as online publications and electronic billing and filing." Printing and Communications Papers Senior Vice-President Tim Nicholls said in a statement: "We explored numerous business and re-purposing options for the Courtland Mill, but concluded that permanently closing the mill best positions the business for the future." (Read more)

Farm Safety and Health Week kicks off Monday; farming is the most dangerous profession

It's time to celebrate safety. National Farm Safety and Health Week, observed since 1944, runs from Sept. 15-21, with the theme this year being "Working Together For Safety in Agriculture," says a press release from the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety. This year's theme "is one that hits home and reminds us that it is everyone’s responsibility for safety both on the farm and the rural roadways of America," states the press release. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, agriculture is the most dangerous profession in the country, with 475 fatalities last year, or 21.2 deaths per every 100,000 workers. (Read more) (University of Missouri Extension photo by Emily Kaiser: The slow-moving-vehicle emblem is 50 years old)

Leading up to safety week, University of Missouri Extension has been publishing a series of safety and health stories on its website. Karen Funkenbusch writes about the slow moving vehicle emblem, which is now in its 50th year of use, and she also writes about grain bin safety. John Worden has a story about how parents and students should periodically review bus safety rules. Zoe Martin has a story for Iowa Farmer Today about how educating at a young age can eliminate bad farming habits before they form. Allan Vhynalek of University of Nebraska Extension, offers some added tips for traveling through rural areas in a story for The Banner Press in Butler County, Nebraska.

Some states are focusing this year on specific safety measures, with the Kansas Farm Bureau making tractor safety its goal for the week, according to a story in the Daily Rx. There are plenty of stories to write about farm safety and health, and we encourage journalists to seek out ones that would be of local interest.

Fracking boom in Pennsylvania goes bust

"It's been a little more than two years since a then-new Gov. [Tom] Corbett famously pledged to make Pennsylvania 'the Texas of the natural-gas boom,' but already it's beginning to look as if the (Republican) governor was all hat and no cattle, at least on this issue," Will Bunch reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Unconventional drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation has dropped by more than 50 percent since its peak in 2010, the year Corbett was elected. "Experts say that's because of several factors, but the biggest by far is a steep plunge in the price that natural gas was getting on the open market, in part a result of so much fracking here and elsewhere." 

Drillers are leaving Pennsylvania for the prospect of richer finds in places such as Ohio and North Dakota, a stark contrast to five years ago, when "large oil and gas companies were flooding the zone with rigs in upstate and western Pennsylvania, at a time when natural gas was fetching $13 per million British thermal units, and the U.S. was a major importer of liquefied natural gas," Bunch writes. "But the rise of fracking technology -- breaking apart shale and capturing trapped gases that once were inaccessible -- brought so much natural gas onto the domestic market that the price collapsed as low as $2 per million Btu before rebounding to the current $3.30. . . .Today, the Baker Hughes survey shows just 50 fracking wells operating in Pennsylvania."

The natural gas bust in Pennsylvania has had a major impact on residents who allowed fracking on their land, Bunch writes. One resident in Bradford County, near the New York border, said she received $300 to $400 per month from Chesapeake Energy Corp., which was drilling on her land, but in March she didn't receive a check. She told Bunch, "They didn't have a buyer [for the gas] that month. We're paying for their bad management." (Read more)

Committee Chairman Lucas: Congress must 'think outside the box' to save the Farm Bill

Rep. Frank Lucas
"House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) says more 'outside the box' thinking will be needed to pass a new Farm Bill this fall and he is prepared to support 'bigger ideas' to get the task done," David Rogers reports for Politico. Lucas told Rogers, “The positions are locked in so tight on so many issues, that to achieve a consensus that we can pass on both floors, that we get the president to sign, we may have to think outside the box. I’m not opposed to bigger ideas. I just want to get it done.”

Lucas wouldn't reveal any specifics about new ideas, "but his comments reflect the pressure on the agriculture community to take a bolder approach if a new farm bill is to be salvaged this year," Rogers writes. "Already the historic farmer-food aid alliance has been fractured in the House by Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s strategy of stripping out the nutrition title and cutting up to $40 billion over 10 years from the food-stamp program. Huge regional differences remain over the commodity title. And if any compromise is to be reached on nutrition programs, it will most likely require new savings from crop insurance to make the package salable."

Lucas said he expected talks on the Farm Bill to begin soon, but "suggested it could very well be delayed until the week of Sept. 22," Rogers writes. "But first up is a floor vote, now expected late next week, on Cantor’s food-stamp cuts. The leadership has begun whipping the vote, and Monday now appears to be the probable date for the legislation’s release, according to GOP staff. . . . Even when he gets to conference with the Senate, Lucas acknowledged that party leaders will have a big say in the final outcome of the nutrition title." He told Rogers, “We’ll try on nutrition; we won’t be able to get to a consensus." (Read more)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Maine drive-in is first to win projector to convert to digital; others to be announced soon

UPDATE, Sept. 23: Four more theaters were awarded digital projectors on Monday. Winners were: Stateline Drive-In, Elizabethton, Tenn.; Starlite Drive-In, Cadet, Mo.; Monetta Drive-In, Monetta, S.C.; and Ocala Drive-In, Ocala, Fla.

UPDATE, Sept. 16: The contest has been extended to Sept. 23, when four more winners will be announced, in addition to the first five winners. Winners announced Friday, Saturday and Sunday were Graham Drive-In in Graham, Tex., McHenry Outdoor Theater in McHenry, Ill., and 99W Drive-In in Newberg. Ore.

UPDATE, Sept. 13: The 60-year-old Cherry Bowl Drive-In in Honor, Mich. was selected Thursday as the second recipient of a digital projector. Michigan has 10 drive-in theaters, but once had more than 150, Garrett Ellison reports for MLive Media Group. (Read more)

People in Saco, Maine, love watching movies at the Saco Drive-In (Portland Press Herald file photo). On Wednesday Project Drive-In announced that the  in the town of 18,000 is its first of five to receive a new digital projector in a national contest. The second winner is being announced today, the rest on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A sixth theater will receive a digital projector paid for with donations collected in a campaign coupled with the contest.

When all motion pictures are converted to digital, which could happen as early as next spring, theters will need digital projectors that cost $70,000 to $80,000, plus the cost of updating projection rooms to fit the needs of the new projectors. With most of the roughly 400 U.S. drive-ins being seasonal, mom-and-pop operations, that price has many worried they can't afford to remain open.

But not in Saco, where the 74-year-old theater is the proud owner a new $80,000 projector, thanks to a Facebook campaign by owner Ry Russell, Gillian Graham reports for the Portland Press Herald. Russell, who said he faced closure if he didn't win the projector, told Graham, "The drive-in is so much bigger than just a small business or anything I've put into it. It's an escape for families from the financial difficulties everyone is facing today. For me to be a part of preserving that is a feeling like no other. It feels like we've accomplished a lot more today than just saving the drive-in."

The Facebook page has more than 26,000 followers, and some of Russell's daily posts were shared as many as 500 times, Graham writes. Saco native Justin Chenette told Graham, "This is a good example of what you can do with social media. This was a long shot, but it shows how tight-knit Maine communities can be. The community rallied behind this. We've saved a piece of our cultural history and an important job generator."  Main has five drive-in theaters. (Read more)

Wind farms responsible for at least 85 eagle deaths in last 15 years, maybe many more

Golden eagle
Wind farms have killed 85 eagles in 10 states over the past 15 years, with Wyoming and California reporting the most casualties, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, Phil Taylor reports for Environment & Energy News. Eagles were killed at 32 wind facilities, with 13 in California being responsible for 27 deaths; seven in Wyoming had 29. "Six of the fatalities were bald eagles, which were killed in Iowa, Maryland and Wyoming," Taylor reports. Eighty percent, or 67, occurred during the past four years. Eagle deaths from wind farms violate federal law.

The study said that the numbers could substantially underestimate the actual number of eagles killed by wind-turbine blades, because monitoring and reporting are not rigorously enforced. "The study also did not include eagle deaths from the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area in California, where previous studies have estimated that as many as 75 eagles have been killed annually," Taylor reports. There are an estimated 30,000 golden eagles in the U.S.

"Wildlife advocates have criticized the Obama administration for failing to prosecute wind farms that kill eagles, which are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act," Taylor notes. "But the wind industry argues it has taken significant steps to avoid and mitigate harm to eagles and that mortality from turbines is 'far lower' than from other leading causes including lead poisoning, electrocutions from power lines, vehicle collisions, drowning in stock tanks and illegal shootings." (Read more)

Tennessee artist captures portraits of hundreds in his small, coalfield community

The small town of Petros in East Tennessee is best known for coal mining, and a now-closed state penitentiary that housed 500 to 600 prisoners, about equal to the number of permanent Petrosians. But the town has its own public portraitist, a lifelong resident who has been capturing the town and its people in paint and also serving as unofficial archivist, Dale Mackey and Shawn Poynter report for the Daily Yonder. His name is Ricky Beene, but most people call him Bear. And his art has helped a struggling community attain a new vision of itself. (Poynter photo)

Ricky "Bear" Beene
Beene, who began his foray into art by taking photographs of local residents after his wife bought him a digital camera in 1993, told the Yonder, “There were actually only two stores here when I was growing up. Now there's really not a store downtown. Downtown is a misnomer, sorta, ’cause all it is really is a wide place in the road. I understand that the world goes on and the world changes. That doesn't mean it always goes on and changes in the best ways, I don't think.”

But in artistic terms, the town is prospering. Even though he had no formal training in painting, he just decided to start doing it, using computer-altered photos as his bases, and "has painted more than 300 portraits: mothers and daughters, great grandfathers and their grandsons," the writers report. "He’s painted the same person multiple times over several years, each portrait portraying the man’s descent into drug addiction. He’s been asked to photograph a man on his death bed, and plans to create a painting from those photographs."

Beene told the Yonder, “When I'm painting, I may be looking and thinking a whole lot about color, but I'm also thinking about other things as well – the tragedies of the people's lives I'm working on or their victories, or a combination of the two, and how sometimes one is hard to be delineated from the other.” Each time he has a show, Beene says, the people of Petros try their best to see it. "They feel a sense of pride that someone in their community paints – and wants to represent them." (Read more) (Video from Center for Rural Strategies)

Study measures mountaintop removal's effect on the Central Appalachian landscape

"To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area of the Central Appalachians the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined every 81 days," says a press release from Duke University(Google Earth image) Researchers at Duke, Kent State University and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies conducted a study that calculates the true cost of a ton of mountaintop-removal coal, finding that "a one-year supply of coal would require converting about 310 square miles of the region’s mountains into surface mines. This would pollute about 2,300 kilometers of Appalachian streams, and cause the loss of enough carbon sequestration by disturbed trees and soils to offset all the greenhouse gases produced that year by 33,600 average U.S. single-family homes." The study was published in PLOS One, the journal of the Public Library of Science.

The study’s authors "used satellite images and historical county-by-county coal production data to measure the total amount of land area mined and coal removed in the Central Appalachian coalfield between 1985 and 2005," states the press release. "They found that cumulative coal production during the 20-year period totaled 1.93 billion tons, or about two years’ worth of current U.S. coal demand. To access the coal, nearly 2,000 square kilometers of land was mined – an area similar in size to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."

Emily S. Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry at Duke, said, “Given 11,500 tons of coal was produced for every hectare of land disturbed, we estimate 0.25 centimeters of stream length was impaired and 193 grams of potential carbon sequestration was lost for every ton of coal extracted. Based on the average carbon sequestration potential of formerly forested mine sites that have been reclaimed into predominantly grassland ecosystems, we calculate it would take around 5,000 years for any given hectare of reclaimed mine land to capture the same amount of carbon that is released when the coal extracted from it is burned for energy."

Brian D. Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State, said, “Even on those rare former surface mines where forest regrowth is achieved, it would still take about 2,150 years for the carbon sequestration deficit to be erased." (Read more)

State takes over grantmaking from greatly shrunken N.C. Rural Economic Development Center

The North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, with auditors finding in July that funds weren't being used for the purposes intended, and contributions to a retirement fund for then-President Billy Ray Hall were unreasonably high. Hall and board chair Valeria Lee resigned, and the state froze the center's funding, which includes about $90 million in grants left in limbo.

While the center may never fully recover, it will continue to serve the people and communities it was intended to help, Caitlin Bowling reports for the Smoky Mountain News in Waynesville. CeCe Hipps, a board member, told Bowling, “The best news is all the grants that were promised will be paid. Those are in the pipeline to get final approval by the state budget director.”

But "the first full-year budget of the new Rural Center will only amount to about $1.5 million — about $30 million less than it is used to operating with," Bowling writes. "All the state money previously in the center’s budget will now go to the state Department of Commerce, which will take over the grant-making functions of the center with a new rural economic-development division. The center is expecting to then operate on about $1.5 to $2 million a year, a combination of private donations, corporate sponsorships and grants — and as a backup can draw from about $11 million in savings," form interest accrued from unused state appropriations.

The new division "will also hire some of the center’s employees and will use part of the center’s building in Raleigh. Already the center has trimmed its staff. A couple weeks ago, 15 people were handed pink slips," Bowling writes. "The 50-person operation will eventually be whittled down to between 10 and 15 people. The Department of Commerce is expected to hire 15 of the center’s employees by the end of this month to run the grant programs under the rural division." Many of the center's programs will continue, though some that were previously free could now require a fee. "One thing’s for sure, though, the nonprofit won’t be what it was." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

County boss calls lawmakers into daily session; weekly paper challenges legality of the call

Have those of you who have covered and watched county governments for a long time ever seen anything like Shannon Brock reports for The Spencer Magnet in Taylorsville, Ky.?

"After receiving criticism for his spending from several magistrates during the Fiscal Court’s regularly scheduled meeting last Wednesday, Judge-Executive Bill Karrer decided to call daily special meetings for the court so that magistrates can have the option of approving all of the county’s expenditures — down to each can of Coca-Cola," Brock reports. "Approximately 15 minutes after the meeting concluded, a notice of a special meeting on Friday at 2 p.m. was emailed to magistrates and The Spencer Magnet."

A file photo of Fiscal Court ran with the story.
Not enough magistrates (technically, justices of the peace) showed up at the meeting to make a quorum. "However, Karrer used the gathering as an opportunity to make a public announcement that he will call a special meeting every work day to approve spending requests from the different departments," Brock writes, quoting Karrer: “We’ll do this every work day and on Saturday and Sunday if I have to to keep the county moving.”

"Another notification for a special meeting on Monday went out Friday afternoon," Brock reports, but she filed a complaint with Karrer, contending that the agenda, “approve county expenditures, purchases, bills and transfers,” wasn't as specific as required by state law and attorney general's opinions, which have the force of law in open-government matters in Kentucky. "The complaint asked that the meeting be canceled until a more specific agenda could be provided or, if the meeting wasn’t canceled, the complaint asked that any action taken at the meeting be nullified and addressed again at a meeting called with proper notice and a specific agenda."

A quorum showed up for the next special meeting, but it broke up after the county attorney said she got the complaint only 15 minutes beforehand and hadn't gotten a call back from the attorney general's office, from which she wanted advice. One of the two magistrates who didn't attend either special meeting said in an email that he wouldn't attend unless the need could be shown. "If this continues I will file and prove ‘abuse of power,’" he said.

"Still, a special meeting notice was distributed Monday for a meeting on Tuesday afternoon," when the Magnet was going to press. The Landmark Community Newspapers weekly puts most news behind a paywall, but offers free access to a limited number of stories with registration. Brock's story offers the sort of precise detail that is needed in such cases, especially when a news outlet is reporting on itself.

UPDATE, Oct. 31: Attorney General Jack Conway ruled that the special-meetings notices were not specific enough to give "fair notice to the public" and thus comply with the state Open Meetings Act.

Coal's fall in Colorado illustrates national decline

In recent years coal mining has taken a serious hit in Central Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky, where coal mining jobs are diminishing, some coal mines are closing, and towns that have always relied heavily on coal are facing a future without their main economic source. But the downturn in coal mining is nationwide. The Colorado Mining Association announced in August that coal production in the state was down 19 percent during the first half of this year compared to last year, and is down nearly 25 percent from 2004, business writer and researcher Howard Rothman writes for The Motley Fool, a multimedia financial-services company.

"Five of Colorado's nine operating mines are reporting year-over-year cuts in production," including an Arch Coal Inc. mine near the 500-population town of Somerset in Gunnison County (Wikipedia map) which reportedly reduced output by almost 25 percent, Rothman writes.

Overall, U.S. coal "consumption has dropped 24 percent since 2007 as utilities switched to the lower priced and cleaner-burning alternative for instance, and new federal clean-air regulations led to the closing of a record 57 coal-fired power plants in 2012 alone — with another 61 set to shut down by 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration," Rothman notes. (Read more)

Ex-official gets 3½ years for long conspiracy to hide coal-mine safety violations: 'common practice'

"A former longtime Massey Energy official will spend three and a half years in prison for his admitted role in a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal safety inspectors," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette: "David C. Hughart was sentenced Tuesday afternoon to 42 months in jail and three years of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to two federal charges as part of an ongoing federal probe of Massey's safety practices." Hughart told U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, "It was very common practice." (Image from WOAY-TV)

The probe, which started with the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, has prompted four convictions, Ward writes. "Hughart is cooperating with prosecutors, having pleaded guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the government by thwarting U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspections and one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to violate MSHA standards. During a plea hearing in February, Hughart had implicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in the conspiracy, and Hughart's family has said Hughart is being wrongly scapegoated while Blankenship and other top Massey executives have faced no criminal charges. Blankenship has denied any wrongdoing." Massey no longer exists; it was bought by Alpha Natural Resources.

Former miner Thomas Harrah "was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he admitted to faking a foreman's license when he performed key mine-safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009, and then lied to investigators about his actions," Ward writes. Former Upper Big Branch security director Hughie Elbert Stover was sentenced to 36 months in jail after he "was convicted of two felonies: making a false statement and obstructing the government probe of the mine disaster." And in January, former Upper Big Branch superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in jail and a $20,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to plotting to skirt safety rules and cover up the resulting hazards. (Read more)

Two state senators in Colorado who supported gun-control bills are ousted in recall elections

A pair of Democratic state senators in Colorado who supported stricter gun-control legislation were defeated in recall elections Tuesday. Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) will be replaced in office with Republican candidates who petitioned onto the recall ballot. Even with the changes, Democrats still control the Senate, the House and the governor's office, note Lynn Bartels, Kurtis Lee and Joey Bunch report for The Denver Post.

Morse's election was close, with 50.9 percent voting for his recall. The gap was larger in Giron's election, with 56 percent voting to oust her. (Post map)

At issue were three gun laws that Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law in March. "One bill limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, another requires universal background checks, and the third charges gun customers for the cost of the checks," Bartels and Lee noted in March.

Gun-rights advocates tried to recall two other Democrats who voted for the bills, Rep. Mike McLachlin of Durango and Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, but failed to get enough signatures to force elections. (Read more)

Study: Expanding Medicaid would help many young white men, thus may cost less than expected

Many people "who would become newly eligible for Medicaid are going to be younger white males who aren’t sick yet – but who are more likely to be smokers and drinkers who would benefit from getting medical care now," according to a University of Michigan study published in the Annals of Family Medicine, Maggie Fox reports for NBC News. Dr. Tammy Chang, co-author of the study, told Fox that if more younger people are eligible, as opposed to more older people (which is what most people thought would happen with the expansion), providing Medicaid to more people could cost less than expected.

"Currently, the average Medicaid patient is 38.7 years old," Fox reports. "If all the states expanded Medicaid – and not all will – the average age would go down to 36.3. Right now a third of patients are male; under a full expansion, 49 percent would be. Right now, almost precisely half of beneficiaries are white; under the expansion, nearly 59 percent would be." The study states: “Overall, potentially eligible adults are expected to have better health status (34.8 percent 'excellent' or 'very good,' 40.4 percent 'good') than current beneficiaries (33.5 percent 'excellent' or 'very good,' 31.6 percent, 'good'.”

Chang told Fox that fewer eligible people "would be obese and fewer would be depressed. But more would be smokers and heavy drinkers. Because these potential patients said their health was good, this could mean there’s an opportunity for doctors to help them stop smoking and cut back on their drinking before they do get sick." (Read more) (Kaiser Family Foundation map)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

USDA program leads to contaminated meat; packers urge workers to ignore safety procedures

A U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program designed to speed up the rate of meat processing is leading to a higher rate of contaminated meat, Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. Faster lines make employees work harder and faster, and in some cases they have been strongly encouraged to ignore safety procedures by not slowing down or stopping production.

"The program allows meat producers to increase the speed of processing lines by as much as 20 percent and cuts the number of USDA safety inspectors at each plant in half, replacing them with private inspectors employed by meat companies," Kindy reports. But three of the five processing plants in the program "were among the 10 worst offenders in the country for health and safety violations, with serious lapses that included failing to remove fecal matter from meat." The contaminated meat was caught by government inspectors and never left the plants.

"USDA inspectors said company and government workers are yelled at, threatened and shunned if they try to slow down or stop the accelerated processing lines or complain too aggressively about inadequate safety checks," Kindy writes. "They also warned that the reduction in the ranks of government inspectors in the plants has compromised the safety of the meat. . . . Last fall, a Canadian beef-processing plant using the inspection system had to recall 8.8 million pounds of beef and beef products tainted with E. coli — about 2.5 million pounds of which went to the U.S. market. Canadian government safety inspectors said the faster line speeds were partly responsible for the contamination." (Read more)

Reality show features prospecting in Colorado; participants are cited for failing to get permits

Just when it seems reality television has run out of topics, The Weather Channel has started a reality series called "Prospectors," which features a group of people mining for treasures in central Colorado. But the show is causing headaches for the state, which has cited several cast members for mining without a permit, and is seeing an increase of miners flocking to the mountains after seeing the show's contestants strike it rich, Nancy Lofholm reports for The Denver Post. (Photo by High Noon Entertainment: Filming "Prospectors")

Three of the four people or families featured in the first season have been violating mining laws, Lofholm writes. "Two have been cited by state mining regulators and could be evicted from their claims if they fail to get permits. A third has agreed to apply for a permit — after the filming of 18 episodes." And the success of the participants — $1.2 million was found in the first season — is causing the state to be flooded with treasure seekers.

But prospectors are pointing to an 1872 federal law that allows miners to file a claim and start work as their defense for not obtaining permits, Lofholm writes. "The problem is that more recent laws supersede that. There is also some confusion over claims and permits. Some online prospecting forums state that a claim on public lands is enough to allow prospecting. That's not the case. A permit is still needed for any activities like prospecting that take place on that claim." (Read more)

Climate change wreaking havoc on hares that depend on seasonal coats to hide from predators

Snowshoe hares spend most of their one-year lives hiding from the many forest predators trying to eat them. The 16-to-20-inch, 2-to-4-pound animals are small enough to find many hiding places, but have also been blessed with an added cloak of invisibility, a coat that changes colors in the spring and fall in response to light, when the days get longer or shorter, Lauren Sommer reports for NPR. During the winter the hares are white, allowing them to hide in the snow, and in the summer they're brown, giving them the opportunity to hide among the forest growth. But climate change is wrecking havoc on the species, because when a season arrives early or late, the hares are the wrong color, and don't know it, meaning a brown hare could hide in the white snow, believing they are unseen by predators. (L.S. Mills Research photo: a white snowshoe hare against a non-snow background)

Alex Kumar, a graduate student at the University of Montana, who calls such hares "mismatched," told Sommer, "They really think that they're camouflaged. They act like we can't see them. And it's pretty embarrassing for the hare. If the hares are consistently molting at the same time, year after year, and the snowfall comes later and melts earlier, there's going to be more and more times when hares are mismatched."

Research is being led by Scott Mills, of North Carolina State University. "He says they're finding that mismatched hares die at higher rates. That's a concern for the threatened Canada lynx, which mainly eats these hares," Sommer writes. "Mills is trying to figure out whether hares and other wildlife can adapt as fast as the climate is changing." Mills told Sommer, "It's a picture that paints a thousand words. It's a very clear connection to a single climate-change stressor." (Read more)

Program encourages Native Americans to enter medicine, and bring those skills back home

A new program is designed to encourage Native Americans and Alaska natives to pursue careers in healthcare so they can bring their skills home to practice in areas that have a dire need for medical professionals, Lynette Mullen reports for the Daily Yonder(Yonder photo: Sammi Jo Goodwin wants to pursue a medical degree and use her skills to return home to the Karuk tribe in Northern California)

The program, Native Pathways, is offered through the National Center for Rural Health Professions. "For the last 20 years, the NCRHP has been recruiting future healthcare professionals from rural areas with the goal of returning graduates to their communities of origin to practice," Mullen writes. "Now they are expanding the program to target tribal communities."

Nearly 33 percent of Native Americans "live below the poverty line, compared to 13 percent of all Americans, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," Mullen notes. "Native Americans also suffer high death rates from alcoholism, diabetes, accidents, suicides, homicide and other causes, resulting in a life expectancy that is six years lower than the U.S. average."

Getting Native Americans interested in moving away to college, and spending years away from home, won't be easy, Mullen reports. Terry Supahan, a rural advocate and member of the Karuk tribe in Northern California, told her, “These kids are coming from a strong Native American community and have no experience outside of that, which creates a significant cultural divide. Home is comfortable and where they are with people that have shared experiences with since birth. Leaving can be lonely. Fortunately this program creates cohorts of Native students that receive the support and encouragement of their peers, which can make all the difference. . . . I’ve heard local youth say it feels like you need a passport to travel outside Indian Country. It is very difficult to understand and appreciate the challenges inherent in living in such an isolated area: the sheer size and distances between different tribal communities; the hours-long drive to the airport. Those feelings of isolation make it much less likely that tribal students will consider an education elsewhere.” (Read more)

Scientists think artificial lung technology could remove carbon dioxide from smokestacks

"The amazingly efficient lungs of birds and the swim bladders of fish have become the inspiration for a new filtering system to remove carbon dioxide from electric-power station smokestacks before the main greenhouse gas can billow into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change," Newswise reports from the meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis. The technology is a long way from scaling up, but it shows how research continues to find possible ways of keeping coal-fired power plants going in the coming era of limits on carbon dioxide.

Aaron P. Esser-Kahn of the University of California, Irvine, told audience members that "he envisions new CO2-capture units with arrays of tubes made from porous membranes fitted side-by-side, much like blood vessels in a natural lung. Once fabricated to be highly efficient and scalable to various sizes by repeating units, these units can then be 'plugged' into power plants and vehicles, not unlike catalytic converters, he explained," Newswise reports. Esser-Kahn said, “The goal is to cram as much surface area into the smallest space possible.” (Read more)

Cornscapers create a-maze-ing works of art

Anyone flying in an airplane over farm country these days might want to keep an eye out for the works of art down below. A growing number of landscapers are turning corn mazes into art, using all sorts of themes, from sports to movies to patriotism to just about any idea they can come up with to create amazing scenes.

Timothy Day, of Edinburg, Va., has been churning out corn-maze art since 2005. He has cut more than 50 mazes, traveling from Florida to Canada, and anywhere in between, reports The Associated Press. Day said, “It’s not out of the ordinary for us to drive 3,000 or 4,000 miles in five days and cut out 10 or 12 corn mazes in that amount of time." Once he gets to a farm, Day "drives around the field’s perimeter to establish the boundaries for the GPS system. Then he fits the design into that shape, and the computer does the rest. He said, “There’s very little room for error in our corn mazes. They’re tight-packed. The trails are close to together. So a little mistake breaks through a whole wall and changes the whole maze.” (AP photo: An maze with an African safari theme near Troy, Ohio)

Day isn't the only one turning corn into arty mazes. Ryan Richardson, of Hobart, Ind., used his skills to create two mazes to honor the Chicago Blackhawks for winning the Stanley Cup this summer, CBS News reports. He used 15 of his 40 acres just for the maze above. (Read more)

Brett Herbst, who has created 2,000 mazes since 1996, uses GPS coordinates and computer software to meticulously create mazes of eight to 60 acres by carving out the pathways with rototillers and riding lawn mowers, Morgana Matus reports for Inhabitat. His designs have included President Obama, state flags, and the above Star Wars theme above. (Read more)

Monday, September 09, 2013

One FCC commissioner crusades to save AM radio

Ajit Pai is on a one-man quest to save AM radio, a staple of many rural communities. The lone Republican on the Federal Communications Commission "is urging the FCC to undertake an overhaul of AM radio, which he calls 'the audible core of our national culture,'" Edward Wyatt reports for The New York Times. Pai "sees AM — largely the realm of local news, sports, conservative talk and religious broadcasters — as vital in emergencies and in rural areas."

AM radio once ruled the dial, but lost much of its audience to clearer FM, and has been overshadowed in recent year with the advent of satellite radio, and hurt by "rising interference from smartphones and consumer electronics that reduce many AM stations to little more than static," Wyatt writes. "In 1970 AM accounted for 63 percent of broadcast radio stations, but now it accounts for 21 percent, or 4,900 outlets, according to Arbitron. FM accounts for 44 percent, or 10,200 stations. About 35 percent of stations stream content online."

Pai told Wyatt, “AM radio is localism, it is community. AM radio is always going to be there. When the power goes out, when you can’t get a good cell signal, when the Internet goes down, people turn to battery-powered AM radios to get the information they need. I’m obviously bullish on next-generation technology. But I certainly think there continues to be a place for broadcasting and for AM radio.”

Pai said he "wants to eliminate outdated regulations, for example, like one that requires AM stations to prove that any new equipment decreases interference with other stations, a requirement that is expensive, cumbersome and difficult to meet," Wyatt writes. "In the longer term, Mr. Pai said, the F.C.C. could mandate that all AM stations convert to digital transmission to reduce interference. Such a conversion, however, would cost consumers, who would have to replace the hundreds of millions of AM radios that do not capture digital transmissions. Finally, Mr. Pai wants the FCC to consider what are called FM translators, which send duplicate AM broadcasts over FM airwaves and help to reduce interference." (Read more)

Rural expert says Congress is more likely to extend the current Farm Bill than pass a new one

"Congress returns from August recess this week, and, as we all knew would probably occur, suddenly other much more pressing business makes Farm Bill consideration by Sept. 30 highly unlikely," Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy Research Institute writes for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "After two years of work for so many good folks, in both bodies, USDA, and all our diverse interest groups, an extension [of current farm law] now appears to be our most hopeful outcome."

Fluharty writes from his home in Appalachian Ohio, "farmers all ask the same question, in almost the same way: 'Why in the hell can't those guys pass a Farm Bill?' And since our county is one of Ohio's poorest, most followed that question with a comment about why those rich congressmen are 'trying to take food stamps away from folks we know, who truly need that help?' At first, this was quite surprising to me. While they clearly were following Farm Bill discussions, it's quite amazing that in this hotbed of Tea Party rhetoric, these two questions were so often combined in my neighbors' political consciousness." House Republicans' efforts to reduce food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, cost Democratic votes for the bill in the House, scuttling it.

"When you farm so close to this much poverty, and your town's churches all host food-distribution and free-meal programs, it's very hard to objectify 'the poor'," Fluharty writes. "They are all your neighbors, and more of them are white than black. In fact, I am quite certain that if the SNAP program is significantly reduced, the one remaining service station qua small deli qua small grocery store remaining in our town will close. After I've kicked the dirt with my boots for a while, and looked around, I tell them I have no answers. These folks have never read a study of the unparalleled growth in U.S. income and wealth inequality over the past 30 years; they just can't understand why Congress can't take care of farmers and the folks that need some help 'getting by' these days. It is a pertinent question." (Read more)

Webinar on health reform at 12:30 ET tomorrow; you must sign up in advance

The second in a series of webinars for journalists covering the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will be held tomorrow from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. This one will look at insurance rates and plan offerings in the new state-based marketplaces known as health benefits exchanges.

The co-directors of the Kaiser Family Foundation's program for the study of health reform and private insurance, Senior Vice President Larry Levitt and Vice President Gary Claxton, will give a brief presentation on the early reports of rates, how and why they vary, and what consumers would pay after taking tax credits into account. They will also answer journalists' questions about the new insurance market rules taking effect in 2014, and how to interpret insurance rates.

Journalists who want to register for the September 10 webinar can RSVP by clicking here. Shortly after registering, each participant will receive a confirmation email that contains information about how to join the webinar. If you are unable to attend the second webinar, but would like to receive all future updates on the series, please email your name and media affiliation to

During the webinar series, participants are welcome to continue the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #ACA101KFF. Archived video from the first webinar, "What Do Consumers Need to Know About Health Reform's Changes," is available on the foundation website. For more information, contact Victoria Chao at 650-854-9400 or the email address above.

Colorado begins recall election of Democratic state senators who supported gun-control legislation

Colorado voters are turning out in large numbers to cast ballots in a recall election for a pair of Democratic senators who supported gun-control legislation. Nearly 4,000 people voted early Thursday in the recall election of Sen. John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) and Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo), Megan Schrader and Matt Steiner report for The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Election day is Tuesday, but voters can cast early ballots. (Gazette photo by Jerilee Bennett)

"Morse and Giron were targeted for recalls by the Basic Freedom Defense Fund after they supported gun legislation during the 2013 legislative session that later became law,"  The Gazette reports. A petition was launched, and received enough signatures to warrant a recall. After the bill was signed in March, gun supporters called for a national boycott of the state.

Sen. John Morse
The senators are drawing plenty of support from groups outside Colorado. A Denver Post review of the finance reports of 10 active issue committees involved in the recalls found that "Proponents of the recall have raised about $540,000, while opponents have collected nearly $3 million," Kurtis Lee and Zahira Torres report for the Post. Half of the money from those opposed to the recall came from out of state, while a large percentage of the money from those for the recall -- $368,000 -- came from outside Colorado. (Read more)

Sen. Angela Giron
There has been plenty of confusion revolving around the election, with some taking advantage of a new law that allows people to vote immediately after moving into a district. One such person is Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute, who "lives in Boulder, well outside Morse's district, but he said he intends to move into Senate District 11 and under the new law that is sufficient to allow him register and vote," The Gazette reports. (Read more)

Caldara's move has drawn the ire of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has asked the state's attorney general "to look into what he calls a political stunt" and "Hickenlooper said in a statement Monday attempts to disrupt the election could result in criminal prosecution," The Associated Press reports. (Read more)

Wendell Berry: When it comes to toxins in coalfield water, 'EPA needs to wipe its eyes and do its duty'

"The two-party arrangement in Kentucky really has not much to do with Republicans and Democrats. The two parties that actually matter are the Party of Coal and the Party of All Else," writer-farmer Wendell Berry contends in the Lexington Herald-Leader(Herald-Leader photo by Tom Eblen) "The Party of All Else, whose language is unintelligible to the Kentucky Division of Water, now has made its appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency. To prevent its own contamination by selenium and other toxic effluents of Kentucky politics, the EPA needs to wipe its eyes and do its duty."

In April, "The Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment may have confused lawmakers into passing a proposed regulation about the amount of selenium that can be discharged into streams by mining operations. And in passing the proposal, legislators ignored a possible conflict of interest from various organizations who worked within the system to push the bill," Ronnie Ellis reported for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns five daily and six weekly newspapers in Kentucky, all but one in or near the state's eastern coalfield.

Berry writes, "The Party of Coal arrives at its own version of an ecological solution. By political means that require no explaining, it causes the Kentucky Division of Water to propose an increase of the allowable limit on selenium in streams to 12 times the present limit. The justifications for this are famous for their subtlety: Mountaintop removal and valley fills answer Kentucky's need for more level land. The industry's sediment control ponds, which cannot leak and cannot overflow, have in effect repealed the law of gravity. If, unbelievably, some toxic pollution should escape into streams — well, bluegill and catfish don't matter except to people who fish and people who eat fish. A public issue, such as the poisoning of streams, is none of the public's business, if authentic public discussion and participation can be shortcut or prevented. And so water pollution by coal mining becomes a case so familiar in Kentucky as to seem conventional: public servants versus the public."

"The Party of All Else, on the contrary, includes people who understand that ecological damage is extremely difficult to limit; if aquatic life is damaged or destroyed in headwater streams, then the aquatic life downstream is inescapably and adversely affected," Berry writes. They understand, therefore, that humans cannot be exempted from threats to the lives of their fellow creatures. To all this, the Party of Coal responds with it own motto: We Don't Care." (Read more)

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$250 million pledge to Kentucky college withdrawn; it says it couldn't reach deal with donor in time

UPDATE, Oct. 2: BuzzFeed reports the complicated deal fell apart partly because of unusual requirements the donor wanted to place on scholarship recipients.

A $250 million gift to a college in rural Kentucky has been withdrawn. The donation, which was announced in July by Centre College, was the largest ever to a liberal-arts school. The school said Monday in a news release, "The gift from the A. Eugene Brockman Charitable Trust was linked to a 'significant capital market event'," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. "The statement didn't offer further explanation but said it put considerable time pressure on the college to structure the gift and the proposed scholarship program."

Danville, Ky., home of Centre (Wikipedia map)
"The college said the two sides ultimately decided they could not finalize the deal and get the required approval in the time available," Schreiner writes. "The all-stock donation had ranked among the 20 biggest gifts ever to a U.S. college or university, according to a list maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It had been the second-largest such gift to a U.S. school since 2011, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, surpassed only by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $350 million donation to Johns Hopkins University announced earlier this year."

Centre College President John Roush said, "I am deeply disappointed with this unanticipated development. The trust was inspired to make this gift because of the transformational education students receive at Centre, and we anticipated hundreds of young men and women benefiting from this scholarship." (Read more)

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