Saturday, November 02, 2013

Judge tosses out lawsuit humane groups filed to block horse slaughter and processing; they appeal

A federal judge in New Mexico has dismissed a lawsuit aimed at keeping a horse slaughter and processing plant from opening, "potentially clearing the way" more horsemeat plants in the U.S., six years after after Congress effectively banned equine slaughter for human consumption. The ruling is being appealed by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-protection groups.

The plaintiffs "alleged that the Department of Agriculture failed to carry out environmental reviews before it gave approval to Roswell-based Valley Meat Co." and two other companies, reports Tim Gaynor of Reuters. District Judge Christina Armijo rejected the groups' contention "that horses are given medications not approved for livestock, so the waste products of slaughter plants may include pollutants."

Responsible Transportation of Sigourney, Iowa, gave up plans to slaughter horses after the judge  issued a temporary restraining order in August, but Valley Meat said it planned to open in seven to 10 days and its attorney "said Rains Natural Meats, in Gallatin, Mo., was poised to open as early as Monday," reports Jeri Clausing of The Associated Press. The Humane Society said it would "work with the states to block the plants from opening . . . and step up its efforts in Congress to stop the slaughter of American horses."

U.S. plants exported horse meat to other countries until 2007, after Congress barred the Agriculture Department from spending money to inspect the plants. "The ban had been extended a year at a time as part of USDA funding bills, but the language was omitted in 2011," Gaynor notes. That was after a Government Accountabilty Office study suggested that the lack of slaughter plans as a bottom for the horse market was worsening the abandonment problems that became prevalent during the Great Recession.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Website offers detailed, county-by-county migration statistics by decade from 1950 to 2010

Migration is a major factor in rural areas, and now there's a useful tool to find county migration numbers over the past 60 years. A University of Wisconsin website has the numbers from 1950 to 2010, breaking down the data by age, race, Hispanic origin and sex. To use the tool, click here. Users can enter any county, pick a decade in which to look, and compare two or three counties in a graph. Or they can choose multiple decades to see migration broken down by age in a single county. Here's a comparison of migration by age in Harrison County, Kentucky, comparing the 1950s (yellow) to the 2000s (red), indicating that out-migration by young people in the last decade was only slightly less than it was in the 1950s. 
The information is based on data released in April and culled by researchers from Wisconsin, Michigan Tech University, the University of North Carolina, and the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. (Read more) (UW-Madison graphic: Net migration rates in each county in 2000-2010, per 100 people; click on map to enlarge)

Youth athletes more at risk for head injuries; small-town sports editor localizes the issue

College football instituted a controversial new rule this year called targeting, in which a player who creates a head-to-head collision is ejected from the game and the first half of the next game, plus a 15-yard penalty for his team. For years, professional football has adjusted its rules to protect players from head injuries, and several retired players have suffered so much pain from multiple concussions that they have asked for their brains to be studied then they die. 

Youth football practice in Hopkinsville, Ky. (Ky. New Era)
But what about younger athletes? The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released a report this week that looked at concussions in sports for athletes ages 5 to 21, finding that concussion rates are higher for high-school football players than those in college, according to a press release. The study found that the number of athletes under 20 treated for concussions and other brain injuries increased from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009. The most dangerous sports for boys are football, ice hockey, lacrosse, wrestling and soccer; for girls they are soccer, lacrosse and basketball. (Read more)

Youth football players "are at an even greater risk than players at other levels, according to Dr. Robert Cantu, co-founder and medical director of the Sports Legacy Institute," reports Les Johns, recently appointed sports editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville. Cantu told Johns, “The reason it’s more dangerous to the brain is that brains at that age are not nearly fully myelinated — which is the coating of nerve fibers, like coating of a telephone wire, which gives it better transmission and better strength. The young child’s brain fibers are much more easily torn than they are as adults.”

Cantu, who believes tackle football should be banned for players under 14, said it doesn't matter if they don't hit each other with the same ferociousness as college and pro athletes, Johns writes. Cantu told him, “That youngster’s brain is lighter than an adult brain, and it takes less acceleration for it to violently shake inside the skull. There’s less inertia than an adult brain would have. It is also housed in a very weak neck attached to a very big head. That ‘bobble-head’ affect also puts it at great risk.” Cantu also said studies have shown that "youth recover more slowly than adults from head trauma, especially those who suffer repetitive brain injuries."

Youth leagues are making changes to create a safer environment, Johns writes. Terrence Davis, commissioner of Bud Hudson Youth Football in Hopkinsville, told him, “We have two high-school certified referees on the field, so they’re over all health issues.” Cantu was skeptical, saying “God bless ‘em if it’s true, but I doubt it. They don’t have doctors at those games, unless it’s a parent. They don’t have medics or athletic trainers. They don’t have anybody that could recognize a concussion, or is trained to do it.”

Mark Graham, a former high school football player, who has been a league referee for 20 years, told Johns, “The coaches are ultimately responsible for the kids, but the officials here are licensed with the [Kentucky High School Athletic Association]. We get extensive training through the state of Kentucky to recognize what a concussion is. If we see it as an official, we can determine that he sit out until he gets a medical release.” (Read more) What are youth coaches in your area doing?

Private 'mini-Smithsonian' opens in rural Tenn. town that hopes visitors boost struggling economy

A Stearman PT-17 hangs suspended over a helicopter
at Discovery Park. 
(AP photo by Adrian Sainz)
Officials in Union City in rural northwest Tennessee are banking on Discovery Park of America, a museum, education center, and tourist park, to stimulate visitors and the local economy for the town of 11,000. The museum, which opened today, has "exhibits about natural and regional history, dinosaurs, Native Americans, energy, transportation, science, the military and space flight, can be described as a mini-Smithsonian Institution," The Associated Press reports.

The museum features "an earthquake simulator, a 120-foot glass-encased observation tower and a 50-foot metal replica of the human body that includes a 32-foot slide," the AP writes. "The 50-acre complex also boasts an old train depot, a century-old church and flower gardens, plus enough land for outdoor events and future expansion." Local resident Robert Kirkland, owner of a chain of home-furnishing stores, spent $80 million to build the museum on a former corn field, and has said he plans to spend $3 million annually to keep it fresh and unique.

Union City has struggled in recent years, with Goodyear closing a tire plant that employed 1,800. Locals hope the museum, which is conveniently located near Interstate 55, US 51 and the unfinished I-69 corridor, making it easily accessible to travelers, will boost the local economy. While many hope the museum attracts more businesses to the area, one concern is the lack of lodging in the area. Still, locals hope the lure of the new attracting, and the relatively low prices ($15 for single-day passes, $20 for two-day passes) will have people making the trip to Union City. (Read more) (AP photo by Adrian Sainz: A Stearman PT-17 hangs suspended over a Marines helicopter at Discovery Park)

Magazine looks at finer points of how barrels play a major role in the taste of bourbon

Making the perfect batch of bourbon often depends on the barrel, and where it's placed and what weather and temperature conditions it endures. It's something bourbon makers have been grappling with for 2,000 years, as they try to produce gold. In a story for The Atlantic, Wayne Curtis looks into the science, in some cases accidental science, of bourbon making. (Atlantic photo)

"It’s well known that a good portion of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel it ages in, but less well known is just how large a portion we’re talking about," Curtis writes. "I recently asked a dozen or so people involved in the bourbon industry how much of the flavor comes from the barrel, and how much comes from other elements, such as the grains used or the distillation method. Most said that 60 or 70 percent of the flavor comes from the barrel, and one went as high as 80 percent. No one I spoke with estimated the proportion at less than 50 percent—meaning one of the trendiest liquors on the contemporary cocktail scene owes most of its flavor to a technology that’s thousands of years old."

"Barrel flavoring takes place in part because alcohol is a solvent that gradually breaks down elements in the wood over time. White oak in particular has an abundance of appealing flavors, including vanilla, nuts, and coconut, as well as butterscotch notes from sugars in the wood, which are caramelized during charring," Curtis writes. "During the summer, heat increases pressure inside a barrel, and some liquor pushes itself through the char in the barrel’s wooden pores, enabling the carbon to filter out impurities. During the winter, the liquor moves in the reverse direction. The process is repeated with less vigor during the heating and cooling cycles of day and night. So merely by sitting in a barrel, whiskey is slowly being filtered through the barrel."

Bourbon makers have experimented for years with new ways to create new tastes and flavors, switching from small barrels to larger barrels, aging it for different lengths of time, trying different ways of moving barrels to interact the liquor with the wood and where and how to store the barrels. Sometimes nature does experiments; Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky., which turned out one its best batches after opening barrels that survived a tornado but were exposed to the elements. (Read more)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kentucky teen aims to be professional hunter

Every town has unique individuals doing all kinds of interesting things with their lives. One challenge of being a community reporter is to find those stories. The Crittenden Press, a weekly newspaper in Western Kentucky, has just such a story, chronicling the adventures of 16-year-old Katie Davies, an aspiring professional hunter who recently traveled to Georgia to hunt black bears, and whose adventures have been recorded for an outdoors television show, Chris Evans writes for the Press.

Davies "is an accomplished archer on the national stage. She has a long list of professional endorsements and sponsorships from manufacturers in the archery and hunting industries," Evans writes. "Her rigorous schedule of competitive shooting events and hunting opportunities puts her on the road quite often, out of state many weekends and sometimes during the week."

With the support of not just her family, but school officials, Davies has been working towards making her dreams come true, creating an individual learning plan for her that allows her time for her studies and hunting. Her principal, Rhonda Callaway, told Evans, "Most people don’t realize how disciplined she has to be to keep everything in balance. She is a junior in high school with professional adult responsibilities. Katie works extremely hard to perform well academically while pursuing a rigorous, junior-level schedule." (Read more) Davies detailed her hunting trip in the Press, which is a subscription only paper, but puts some stories online. It shared the text with us, and we have posted it here. Davies story can be found on the website on Oct. 23.

States pass privacy laws, rushing in where Congress fears to tread

In light of increasing public apprehensiveness about the privacy of personal data, and lack of action by Congress, state lawmakers around the U.S. have speedily passed privacy laws regarding concerns such as email searches, cell phone tracking, and even Facebook passwords, Sominni Sengupta writes for The New York Times.

"Many lawmakers say that news reports of widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency have led to more support for the bills among constituents," Sengupta writes. More than 10 states have passed at least 24 privacy laws this year. "Congress is obviously not interested in updating those things or protecting privacy," Jonathan Stickland, a Republican state representative in Texas, said. "If they're not going to do it, states have to do it."

The new laws have prompted caution among Internet companies. "It can be counterproductive to have multiple states addressing the same issue" and that it can create "burdensome compliance," Michael D. Hintze, chief privacy counsel at Microsoft, told Sengupta.

Texas passed a bill requiring warrants for email searches, and Oklahoma made a law to protect student data. California has passed several personal information-related laws such as one that makes it a misdemeanor to publish an identifiable nude picture online without permission from the subject.

Not all information-protection efforts have come to fruition. California legislators attempted to pass a bill requiring any business that retains a customers' information to give a copy to the customer and tell the customer who else has the information, but lobbying prevented the bill from passing. "The practice of sharing customer data is central to digital advertising and to the large Internet companies that rely on advertising revenue," Sengupta notes.

"'Right to know' is an example of something that's not workable," said Jim Halpert, a lawyer with the national firm DLA Piper who leads an industry coalition including Amazon, Facebook and Verizon. "It covers such a broad range of disclosures. We advocated against it." (Read more)

Two proposals regarding personal information privacy await Congress's approval. One is a consumer privacy bill of rights, which was proposed more than a year ago. The second is an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which is 27 years old. This update would make law enforcement agencies present probable cause and get a warrant before reading emails.

"Several legislators said they felt compelled to act because Congress had not," Sengupta writes. Daniel Zolnikov, a Republican legislator in Montana, said, "They don't act in the best interest unless it's in their best interest." Montana is the first state in the U.S. this year to pass a law forcing police to get a search warrant before tracking a suspect through cellphone records.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in July and found that most Americans do not think existing laws are enough to protect their online privacy, and many states have responded to those concerns. "In the last couple of years, about 10 states have passed laws restricting employers from demanding access to their employees' social media accounts," Sengupta reports. However, these things take time, and some of the bills never pass.

John Pezold, a Republican representative in Georgia, said, "They're becoming increasingly wary that their lives are going to be no longer their own. We have got to protect that." (Read more)

Alabama officials agree to scrap controversial parts of law aimed at immigrants in state illegally

Following a series of defeats in court, Alabama officials who backed a law to discourage illegal immigration have consented to remove some of its controversial features. Luther Strange, Alabama's Republican attorney general, signed a settlement that "bars the state from enforcing many key provisions of the law, pays $350,000 in attorney fees to immigrant rights groups that challenged it and restricts when local police can check the immigration status of suspects in custody," Daniel Vock reports for Stateline.

Provisions blocked include: requiring schools to disclose how many students and/or their parents are in the country illegally, forbidding undocumented residents to participate in business transactions, negating unauthorized immigrants' contracts, prohibiting unauthorized immigrants to look for jobs, and limiting police officers' checking the immigration status of criminal suspects, Vock writes.

Though Alabama's law has been modified, it's still in effect. Alabama businesses have to use E-Verify, a federal database, to ensure new employees are in the country legally. It also prevents unauthorized immigrants from attending public colleges and pursuing business licenses and other documents, Vock reports.

The law, House Bill 56, shared similarities with an Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected last year. Georgia and South Carolina have tried and failed to pass similar laws. "Today's settlement should remind legislators in both Montgomery and Washington that a person's constitutional rights may not be legislated away," said Linton Joaquin, general counsel of the National Immigration Law Center.

Oklahoma official encourages residents to get insurance for rise in earthquakes linked to drilling

Federal and Oklahoma officials aren't quite ready to blame deep injection of drilling wastewater for a recent increase in earthquakes, but last week's swarm warning by the Oklahoma Geological Survey and its federal counterpart has the state's insurance commissioner encouraging people to buy earthquake insurance, Mike Soraghan of EnergyWire reports. (University of California Berkeley Seismological Laboratory graphic)

"Commissioner John Doak may be the first statewide elected official in Oklahoma to publicly react to the U.S. Geological Survey announcement," Soraghan writes. Republican "Gov. Mary Fallin's office last week referred calls to the state's Department of Energy and Environment, which did not respond to a request for comment. But Doak's statement left out what USGS and the Oklahoma Geological Survey said was likely causing the increase: deep injection of waste from oil and gas drilling."

Earthquakes in Oklahoma have risen dramatically since 2009, up from three per year to 40 per year, with more than 200 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher in the past five years, including the "largest recorded earthquake in the state, a magnitude-5.7 rupture in November 2011, as part of the whole man-made central Oklahoma swarm," Soraghan writes. "USGS officials say earthquakes are now six times more likely in central Oklahoma than they were four years ago. The state and federal agencies said their analysis 'suggests that a contributing factor to the increase in earthquakes triggers may be from activities such as wastewater disposal.' Oklahoma is dotted with more than 4,500 such wells accepting waste fluid from oil and gas operations, " which increasingly use horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a method that requires large volumes of water. (Read more)

Nominations sought for Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, seeks nominations for this year’s Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. The deadline was today, but has been extended to next Friday, Nov. 8.

The award is named for Tom and Pat Gish, right, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 51 years. Tom died in 2008; Pat has health issues but remains publisher, and their son Ben is editor. The Gishes have withstood advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office to give their readers the kind of journalism often lacking in rural areas.

Tom and Pat Gish were the first winners of the award named for them. Other winners have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Tex.) Record; James E. Prince III and Stanley Dearman, current and former publishers of The Neshoba Democrat of  Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, editor and publisher of the Headlight Herald in Tillamook, Ore., for her work as editor of the Corbin, Ky., Times-Tribune and managing editor of the Jacksonville (Tex.) Daily Progress; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; and for 2012, Jonathan and Susan Austin of the Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.  All have shown courage, tenacity and integrity in pursuing difficult stories. For more about them, click here.

The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of previous winners. Nominators should send detailed letters to Director Al Cross, explaining how their nominees show the kind of exemplary courage, tenacity and integrity that the Gishes demonstrated in their rigorous pursuit of rural journalism. Documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Questions may be directed to Cross at 859-257-3744 or al.cross@uky.eduLetters should be postmarked by Oct. 31 and mailed to: Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042.

'Nightline' to examine hospitals paid by coal companies to examine claims of black lung disease

UPDATE, Nov. 4: Johns Hopkins Medicine has suspended its black lung program pending a review in response to the "Nightline" report, ABC News reports. "Officials with the United Mine Workers, the labor union that represents coal miners, expressed outrage at the ABC News report and called on the federal agency that oversees the nationwide network of doctors who read X-rays in black lung cases to prohibit Wheeler from further involvement in black lung cases." (Read more)

Earlier this week the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism center, reported that Jackson Kelly, the leading law firm that defends coal companies when miners file lawsuits over black-lung disease, has a record of withholding evidence. In some cases, Jackson Kelly's own doctors found evidence of cancer, but the law firm kept quiet about it, referring instead to doctors hired by the plaintiff who didn't search for, or find, evidence of black lung disease. The issue has now drawn national attention, and the next episode of "Nightline" will delve into the issue.

The head of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions "unit that interprets X-rays in black lung cases, Dr. Paul Wheeler, found not a single case of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion, a review by ABC News and the Center found," ABC reports. "In recent court testimony, Wheeler said the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung, a finding that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits under a special federal program, was in 'the 1970's or the early '80s.'" For each X-ray Wheeler reads, coal companies pay Johns Hopkins $750, about 10 times more than a miner might pay for the same service. Wheeler told ABC, "It would matter to me if I were wrong, and no one's proven to me that I'm wrong."

ABC reports: "Doctors like the team from Johns Hopkins are part of a professional corps of lawyers and experts that have helped coal companies tamp down the number of black lung awards to mine workers. The most recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that only 14 percent of miners who claim to be sick are initially granted benefits. A 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office found that coal companies appeal about 80 percent of those cases. After appeals, about half of the miners who initially were awarded benefits—or less than 10 percent who initially applied—actually receive them." (Read more) (Here is an excerpt from the story. The full report will air on ABC at 12:35 a.m. ET.)

Law allows Montana hunters to donate to processing fees for wild game for food banks

A law passed earlier this year in Montana makes it easier for hunters heading out into the wild this fall to help those in need. Generous hunters in the many states have long donated wild game to food banks, but the new law and the Hunters Against Hunger program of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department, allows hunters to help pay for the processing fees of the meat, Brent French reports for the Billings Gazette. Hunters can not only donate the meat, but when they buy a license, they can donate as little as $1 to go to meat-processing fees. So far this fall the program has $12,000. (French photo)

Last year the the Food Bank Network distributed 7,000 pounds of venison to its 200 service providers, and the Billings Food Bank distributes about 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of meat a year, French writes. "In the past, though, the nonprofit groups would sometimes have to pay all or a portion of the wild game processing costs. None of the money will be distributed this season. Instead, the donations will collect in an account until next fall. By then, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will have a process worked out for how to fairly allocate the funds to the many food banks and senior centers around the state." (Read more)

Don't use Google Glass and drive at the same time

Cecelia Abadie, a Google Glass tester, was pulled over for speeding in San Diego and given a citation for wearing the device while driving, though she claimed she was not using it at the time, Mike Freeman writes for U-T San Diego.

Cecilia Abadie, Google Glass tester
Abadie says she didn't think it was illegal, and she usually wears the device all day. "Most people don't understand that technology is design to be out of your way," she told Freeman. "It's off unless you turn it on or talk to it or touch it." Google Glass is voice controlled and can do such tasks as checking email or displaying maps, Freeman notes.

Abadi was cited under California Vehicle Code Section 27602, which prohibits drivers from watching television or video signals aside from navigation systems and the like. She may fight the ticket. Robert Punta, a San Diego lawyer who works on traffic cases, said, "If there is no communication going on, I believe that would be the same as a GPS device or a heads up display on your windshield, which I know some vehicles have."

Google spoke up on the Google Glass website, without taking sides: "Read up and follow the law! Above all, even when you're following the law, don't hurt yourself or others by failing to pay attention to the road. The same goes for bicycling: whether or not any laws limit your use of Glass, always be careful."

It may be tempting to use Google Glass improperly or pay less attention when driving on country roads with no traffic, or rural interstates. Give the road your undivided attention—not only because it might be the law, but also in the interest of safety.

45 House Republicans who confront Obama have districts more rural and worse off than most

Forty-five House Republicans have been especially confrontational toward President Obama, and some reasons become apparent when one notes the economic struggles of the districts they represent, Jim Tankersley writes for The Washington Post. The districts, as a whole, are significantly more rural than a typical district. Here's a cropped screenshot of the Post's interactive map; to use it, click here.
People in these districts, who are "poorer and more likely to be unemployed than in the nation at large," are displeased with Obama and hoping someone will stand up for them, Tankersley reports. He notes that the 45 districts' median income last year was 7 percent lower than the national median, and their unemployment rate averaged 10 percent, 2 percentage points above the national rate.

Four of these districts are in North Georgia. Roger Smith, the chief executive of River City Bank in Rome, Ga., told the Post, "There is a lot of frustration over the way the government's acting" when it comes to the economy. "There's a lack of confidence in the leadership. That starts with the president. It certainly hampers the ability to recover." People throughout the town are concerned about what is or is not happening in Washington, including the implications of Obama's health-care reforms. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Federal judge gives EPA 60 days to come up with a deadline for new rules on coal-ash disposal

The Environmental Protection Agency has been working for almost four years on new regulations for coal-ash disposal, since soon after after a dam ruptured at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash impoundment in Harriman, Tenn., in December 2008, spilling 1.1 billion gallons of coal slurry into the Emory River. One federal judge is tired of waiting, and has ordered EPA "to come up with a deadline for finalizing the rules within the next 60 days," Kate Sheppard reports for the Huffington Post. (Associated Press photo: 15 homes were flooded by coal ash sludge in 2008)

"The EPA proposed draft rules in October 2009. The rules went to the White House Office of Management and Budget and came back seven months later with some alternatives for the EPA to consider -- the original rules the agency drafted and a weaker version that would leave most of the regulation up to the states," Sheppard writes. "The EPA hasn't made any movement to finalize either of those options since." Last year environmental groups filed a lawsuit to force the EPA to move on the rules. (Read more)

Grass carp in Lake Erie system 'ominous' sign that more damaging species could invade Great Lakes

In July, the Obama administration unveiled a $50 million plan to keep invasive silver and bighead carp out of the Great Lakes, where they pose a threat to native species and the fishing and tourism industry. This week, scientists announced that another type of Asian carp have begun to reproduce in the Lake Erie watershed, which The Associated Press called "an ominous development in the struggle."

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey and Bowling Green State University analyzed four small grass carp caught last year in Ohio's Sandusky River, which runs into Lake Erie, and determined that they had spent their entire lives in the water, "were not introduced through means such as stocking" and "could become spawning adults."

The grass carp "are less worrisome because they eat larger plants instead of plankton and don't compete with native species, although they could harm valuable wetland vegetation where some fish spawn," AP reports. "Of greatest concern in the Great Lakes region are bighead and silver carp, prolific breeders that gobble huge amounts of plankton — tiny plants and animals that are vital to aquatic food chains. Scientists say if they gain a foothold in the lakes, they could spread widely and destabilize a fishing industry valued at $7 billion." (Read more)

Grass carp, which are used to keep ponds clean, cannot be legally sold unless they are sterile. There are several ways fertile grass carp could have been introduced into the Sandusky River, but the only one that is really worrisome when it comes to silver and bighead carp is that an angler who bought minnows for bait in the Mississippi-Ohio River system got some carp minnows (which look like minnows of other fish) and released them into the river or Lake Erie, Duane Chapman, a USGS biologist on the project, told The Rural Blog. “These findings are significant because they confirm recent USGS research indicating that shorter rivers, like the Sandusky, are potential spawning sites for grass carp and other Asian carps as well,” Chapman told Matt Markey, outdoors editor of The Toledo Blade. (Read more) Read more on Asian carp here, here, here, and here.

USDA proposes faster poultry processing lines; critics say more animals will be inhumanely killed

Each year at poultry processing plants, 825,000 chickens and 18,000 turkeys are boiled alive, because the rapid pace keeps employees from making sure the birds have been killed, but that hasn't stopped the Department of Agriculture from "finalizing a proposal that would allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines, with the aim of removing pathogens from the food supply and making plants more efficient," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post. (World News photo)

USDA inspectors say "much of the cruel treatment they witness is tied to the rapid pace at which employees work, flipping live birds upside down and shackling their legs," Kindy writes. "If the birds are not properly secured, they might elude the automated blade and remain alive when they enter the scalder." The USDA's proposal "would revamp inspections in poultry plants and increase the maximum line speed — to 175 birds per minute from 140 in chicken plants and to 55 per minute from 45 in turkey plants." Mohan Raj, a British-based poultry-slaughter expert who helps advise the European Food Safety Authority, told Kindy, “One of the greatest risks for inhumane treatment is line speed. You can’t always stop the abuse at these speeds. It’s so fast, you blink and the bird has moved away from you.”

The slaughterhouses are designed to render birds unconscious "before their necks are cut and their bodies are dropped in the scalding tank. This is often achieved by running the birds’ heads through an electrified water bath to stun them," Kindy writes. "But the low voltage used — about half of what is required in the European Union — and the high speed mean the birds sometimes do not lose consciousness, according to several poultry-slaughter experts and recent academic studies."

More than 35 percent of citations by the USDA from January 2011 to July 2012 were for birds being boiled alive, according to the animal welfare groups Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Sanctuary, Kindy writes. Ten percent of the citations were for birds being removed from the line because their necks were not properly cut before entering the scald tank. (Read more)

West Virginia struggles with growing meth problem; some want limits on pseudoephedrine

With still two months left in 2013, law enforcement officers in West Virginia's Kanawha County have already seized a record number of methamphetamine labs. While the county and state struggle with a drug epidemic, pharmacists have their own struggles when it comes to shady-looking customers looking to purchase legal decongestants that are used to make meth, Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette. Pharmacist Donn Neurman told the county substance abuse task force, "We have the ability to challenge them, but it is very, very difficult. It's very difficult to block a sale."

Kanawha County, site of Charleston, easily leads the state in sales of a common cold and allergy medicine, pseudoephedrine, that is used to make methamphetamine, The Associated Press reports. Through July 29, 52,000 boxes had been sold in the county, 22 percent of all sales in the state. Thus, it's no surprise that 56 percent of all meth labs seized in the state were in the county. Through Aug. 7, the state’s National Precursor Log Exchange, or NPLEx system, a real-time tracking system for pseudoephedrine sales, has blocked the illegal sale of 9,965 boxes sold, but 236,033 boxes were sold overall, and there have been more than 300 meth-lab busts during the year, with 103 in Kanawha County, Zack Harold reports for the Charleston Daily Mail.

Some states have enacted limits on pseudoephedrine purchases or required prescriptions. Neurman, who serves on the task force, "recommended legislation that would require a prescription for Sudafed 12 Hour and 24 Hour, Claritin-D 24 Hour and Allegra-D 24 Hour," Eyre writes. "Other medications that contain pseudoephedrine in lower concentrations, such as Sudafed 4 Hour, should continue to be made available without a prescription, he said.. He suggested that pharmacies be required to post large signs that alert people that they could face fines and criminal penalties if they misuse pseudoephedrine." Another task force member, Bridget Lambert, "suggested that West Virginia set up a 'meth offender registry' that would block people from purchasing the cold medication if they're convicted of meth-related crimes. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Farm Bill talks must meld regional crop interests, but avoid making them look too greedy

Food stamps are the big divide in the Farm Bill conference committee that starts meeting at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, "but the commodity title is its own battleground," David Rogers of Politico reminds us. "Negotiators are looking at new alternatives to better align the House and Senate commodity titles and reduce the cost of rival revenue insurance plans to protect against shallow losses."

The House has indicated it would increase deductibles in its favorite crop-insurance plan to 15 percent if the Senate would so likewise with its pet plan. The deductibles are now at 10 and 12 in the House and Senate bills, respectively. "The choices illustrate the challenges for lawmakers as they try to craft a new safety net to replace the current system of direct cash payments that will be ended under both bills," writes Rogers, who has covered many such talks.

The Senate plan reflects the desires of corn and soybean interests "allied with Midwest Republicans," while "The House measure reflects more Southern agriculture," which includes rice, cotton and peanuts and has a different recent history, Rogers explains: "Southern growers have not enjoyed the same boom as the Midwest where land prices have soared with the demand for ethanol," made from corn. Southern farmers "typically don’t buy high-end coverage," and the House plan would not only be cheaper for them but includes "a significant counter-cyclical program tied to target prices."

Congress had been moving away from such programs, but that changed when Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi became top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. The Senate wants to let farmers take advantage of both programs, but that "would require scaling back individual elements. And the House would be under pressure to lower its target prices, which are significantly higher than the Senate’s for wheat, corn and soybeans," Rogers notes. "But the greatest political danger to an 'all-in' approach is perhaps that the combination of programs will seem excessive." (Read more)

Webinars on 'The Fracking Revolution' set Dec. 4

You keep hearing about horizontal hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas in Northern Appalachia, Texas and North Dakota, never thinking about how fracking might affect your community. But it could, from drilling operations to pipelines to water supplies to a broad economic impact. In a free one-hour webinar Dec. 4, Marilyn Geewax, a senior business editor with NPR, will help you understand how this unleashing of massive supplies of fossil fuels is changing all of our lives.

"The energy revolution is making U.S. manufacturing competitive again and soon could be generating millions of jobs from Maine to California. And it’s having a broad impact on the environment, tax revenues and politics," says the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, which is sponsoring the webinar, "The Fracking Revolution: Finding Energy Stories Everywhere." It will be held twice, at noon and 4 p.m. ET. For more information, or to register, go to

Immigrants drive success of rural meatpacking, but poverty remains high in places with plants

In a three-part series, Harvest Public Media is examining the lives of rural immigrant children whose parents work for Tyson Foods processing plants. The first story, which ran Monday, goes to Noel, Mo. (map); the second story, which ran today, to Garden City, Kan. Harvest reports: "The largest packing houses that were once in larger cities such as Chicago and Kansas City are now primarily located in remote rural areas. As a result, many rural communities today are struggling to serve the needs of an influx of immigrants."

Of the 220 children that attend Noel Elementary School, about 75 percent are immigrants or refugees who work at the slaughterhouse, Fentress Swanson reports. But poverty runs deep, with 88 percent of children at the school qualifying for free or reduced meals, and more than 90 percent of immigrant students qualifying. While the school's attendance has dropped from 583 students to 401 since 2008, the number of homeless children has more than doubled, from 23 to 53. Tyson, in an email, told Swanson that the Noel slaughterhouse employs 1,600, and most of them are Mexicans who came to the town of 1,800 in the 1990s. Other immigrants are from Africa and Myanmar (Burma), and it's not uncommon to hear 11 different languages spoken in a town that covers only two square miles. (Harvest Media graphic)

While many say the immigrants are more than welcome to the town, some immigrants have claimed to be victims of racist attacks, especially the Somali population, which began arriving late in the lasyt decade, Swanson reports. "In August, tires on more than a dozen cars they owned were slashed. Somalis also say they are not welcome at Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen, a diner on Main Street where servers wear T-shirts saying ‘I got caught eating at the KKK.'" (Read more)

Garden City (left) resembles Noel in its make-up. "Since 1980, when the first meatpacking plant was built in Garden City, immigrants and refugees have streamed into town, lured here by the promise of steady – if brutally hard – work and a better life," Peggy Lowe writes. "Fueled by the cattle feedlots surrounding Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal, companies built their huge beef factories out here, employing thousands with better than minimum wages." The migration has more than doubled the town's population to 30,000, and Tyson employs 3,400.

As in Noel, poverty runs deep among Garden City immigrants, with more than 75 percent of students in District 457 qualifying for free or reduced-price meals. "The school district, designated as 'minority majority' status because 76.8 percent of the students are minorities, has kids who are Hispanic, Burmese, Somali, Ethiopian or are from another 10 countries. Documents are printed in several languages and signs at the district offices are printed in English, Spanish and Vietnamese." Housing has also been a problem, with 341 homeless students, or 4 percent of the student population, compared to 43 homeless students in 2007. (Read more) (Harvest Media graphic: U.S. meat plants that employ 1,000 or more people)

FCC adopts rules to prevent dropped rural calls

The Federal Communications Commission Monday new rules to help solve the problem of dropped calls in rural areas. New rules "require phone companies to collect and report data on the number of rural calls that go through. The rules also offer incentives for phone service providers to improve their service," Edward Wyatt reports for The New York Times. Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, said before the new rules passed by a 3-0 vote, “We’ve heard about calls from doctors to nursing homes not going through, that calls to businesses aren’t getting completed, and that rural consumers are frustrated when their friends and family are not able to reach them.”

As part of the new rules, "The commission will now require telephone companies to record, retain and report data on rural call completion — information that to date has rarely been collected or disclosed.
Phone companies also will be forbidden from transmitting an audible ring to a caller’s handset when the number at the other end of the line is not actually ringing," Wyatt writes. "The FCC rules include a provision allowing providers to request a waiver to reduce their data collection requirements, provided they limit to two the number of intermediate phone companies they use to route their calls. Routing calls through multiple phone companies increases the chances that calls will be lost." (Read more)

New road plan in N.C. might be bad for rural areas

North Carolina's new Strategic Transportation Initiative will restructure funding for capital projects starting after July 1, 2015, and rural areas may have more difficulty getting funding for projects, Paige Rentz writes for McClatchy News Service.

"The program signed into law in June creates three project tiers: those with statewide impact funded solely on data and those with regional and division impact, which are both prioritized based 70 percent on data and 30 percent on local input," Rentz reports.

The data will come down to congestion, state Board of Transportation Member Ed Grannis said. "It's really hard for me to see how those folks are going to benefit and get projects in this," he said. "Places like Bladenboro and Whiteville—I think they're going to have a very difficult time competing."

Frances Bisby, coordinator for the Fayettville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said there are still ways for rural areas to get funding. She suggests that "savings in travel time, freight traffic and connection to transportation terminals are key in prioritizing projects," Rentz writes.

Non-profit journalism center says coal industry’s leading law firm has record of withholding evidence

Jackson Kelly, the leading law firm that defends coal companies when miners file lawsuits over black-lung disease, has a record of withholding evidence, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism center. (The firm is accused of withholding evidence that coal miner Gary Fox, left, had black lung disease. Fox lost his claim against the company, and went back to work in the mine. He died in 2009.)

In some cases, the firm had medical evidence to prove that a miner contracted cancer from black lung disease, but kept silent about the findings, diverting to records from doctors who didn't look for black lung disease, thus, didn't find any signs of it, Chris Hamby reports for the center. This is "part of a cutthroat approach to fighting miners’ claims that Jackson Kelly has employed to great effect for decades," Hamby writes. "Some of the firm’s tactics go beyond aggressive advocacy, crossing into unethical behavior, according to current and former judges, lawyers and state disciplinary officials. As a result, sick and dying miners have been denied the modest benefits and affordable medical care that would allow them to survive and support their families." (Statistics by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

"Jackson Kelly, documents show, over the years has withheld unfavorable evidence and shaped the opinions of its reviewing doctors by providing only what it wanted them to see. Miners, often lacking equally savvy lawyers or even any representation, had virtually no way of knowing this evidence existed, let alone the wherewithal to obtain it," Hamby writes. "In the rare cases in which miners’ lawyers have pushed for access to these materials and a judge has ordered disclosure, Jackson Kelly has fought back aggressively, arguing that it has the right to withhold them. The firm has asked higher courts to intervene and accused judges of bias. It has defied court orders, knowing administrative law judges have no contempt powers to enforce their commands, or conceded the case rather than turn over evidence." (Read more)

'Food stamp cliff,' a benefit cut, comes this week

"There is little chance that Congress will act to avert what hunger activists call the 'food stamp cliff'—a cut to the benefits that will affect some 47 million beneficiaries, including children and the elderly," Erik Wasson writes for The Hill. The cut actually would be an elimination of an increase that was part of the economic stimulus package Congress passed in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. The "cliff" reference comes from the "fiscal cliff" faced in negotiations over the federal budget.

Anti-hunger groups oppose the cut, set to take effect Nov. 1, that will reduce monthly benefits by $36 per month for families of four and by $11 per month for single adults. "We're hugely concerned . . . this will affect 23 million kids," Tom Nelson of Share Our Strength, a group focused on child hunger, told Wasson. "At a minimum we can't accept more cuts."

Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), pointed out that welfare spending at the end of 2013 will cost more than $217 billion more than welfare spending in 2008. "The current structure of welfare in America depresses cash wages and punishes work," he told The Hill. "Our compassion should compel us to reform welfare and promote wage growth."

"Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said that the food-stamp cliff was ignored by Congress because of the fiscal fights that gripped Washington," Wasson writes. DeLauro said, "Budget negotiations, sequester, the government shutdown. These are big issues, but the food-stamp cut should also be an issue."

Food-stamp cuts key in Farm Bill talks that start Wed.; dairy law creates Dec. 31 deadline

One of the main issues Congress has debated when trying to agree on a Farm Bill is the food-stamp budget, now at about $80 billion per year. The parties are widely divided on the issue, but the consequences of not passing a Farm Bill include the quadrupling of the price the government pays for dairy products. This Wednesday House and Senate conference-committee members will start negotiations.

Stacks of paperwork awaited the House
 Agriculture Committee in May as it prepared
to mark up its version of the bill. (AP photo)
The food-stamp program is officially named the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The House has proposed that $4 billion be cut every year from SNAP, and wants to change eligibility and work requirements. The Senate is pushing for a cut of about a tenth of that amount. "Republicans say [SNAP] should be more focused on the neediest people," Mary Clare Jalonick notes for The Associated Press.  "Democrats say it is working as it should, providing food to those in need when times are tough." Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, told Jalonick, "I think there are very different world views clashing on food stamps, and those are always more difficult to resolve."

Jalonick writes, "One of the reasons the bill's progress has moved slowly is that most of farm country is enjoying a good agricultural economy, and farmers have no clamored for changes in policy. However, more and more farmers are beginning to wait on news from Congress before making planting decisions," and the proposed savings in food stamps and farm-subsidy programs "has become more key as we go into budget negotiations," Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told Jalonick.

Since 1949, each Farm Bill has temporarily replaced that year's legislation. If no bill passes by Dec. 31, dairy supports would revert to the 1939 and 1949 laws, and that could quadruple the price the government pays for dairy products, encouraging processors to sell to the government rather than commercial markets. This change would make items in grocery stores more expensive for consumers, Jalonick reports.

The House version of the bill would decouple nutrition and agriculture programs by putting them on different renewal schedules, a move that Senate Democrats say would be the beginning of the end for farm subsidies because urban lawmakers have been happy to vote for a Farm Bill that included nutrition programs -- which are now the main cost of the bill.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rural lending loosens, but borrowers are still more likely to be rejected or pay higher interest rates

Last year mortgage lending in rural America improved like the rest of the nation, but rural applicants still face more rejection and pay higher interest rates than their urban counterparts. Rural African American and Native American loan-rejection rates were twice the national figure, Keith Wiley of the Housing Assistance Council writes for the Daily Yonder.
High-cost loans charge interest more than 1.5 percentage points above the prime rate. (Yonder map)
The number of of mortgage loans granted to rural applicants rose 27 percent from 2011 to 2012, but "mortgage activity in rural America is still well below the levels of the mid 2000s," Wiley writes. In 2012, about 500,000 rural requests for home loans were rejected, a rejection rate 21 percent. About 40 percent of the rejections were attributed to bad credit history or high debt-to-income ratio.

"Loan denial and high-cost lending rates were particularly acute for rural minorities," Wiley reports. "Approximately 40 percent of rural African American and 35 percent of Native American applicants were denied mortgages—twice the denial rate for all U.S. applicants."

Rural borrowers are also more likely to pay high interest rates. "High-cost" lending, with an interest rate of 1.5 or more percentage points above the prime rate, is twice as high in rural areas as the national level at 3 percent, Wiley writes. "Rural African American and Native American borrowers were also twice as likely to receive a high-cost home loan as rural white non Hispanics."

To see the Housing Assistance Council's information about mortgages and housing for specific communities, click here.

Murray Energy doubling in size as it buys mines with about half of Consol Energy's coal production

The largest privately held coal company in the U.S., Ohio-based Murray Energy, will approximately double in size with its purchase of five underground longwall mines in Northern West Virginia from Consol Energy Inc., announced Monday. Consol, formerly Consolidation Coal Co., is shifting its focus to producing natural gas, which is competing more strongly with coal as a fuel for power plants.

"Murray will double its workforce, from 3,300 employees to more than 7,000, and boost the company's annual production from 30 million tons of coal to almost 60 million tons," Manuel QuiƱones reports for Environment & Energy News. "Murray will also acquire Consol's river-and-dock operations and boost its coal reserves from 859 million tons to more than 2 billion tons, according to a fact sheet."

Robert "Bob" Murray
Murray has been as controversial as it is large. "CEO Robert Murray has been an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration and of regulators, generally, in the wake of the 2007 Crandall Canyon mine collapse in Utah that killed six miners and three rescue workers," QuiƱones notes. The five mines being sold employ 2,800 miners, represented by the United Mine Workers of America; most Murray mines are non-union, notes The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr., who reported rumors of the sale Oct. 17.

"The mines being sold represent roughly half of Consol's annual production [and] are five of the top six underground mines in West Virginia, with nearly 30 million tons of combined production in 2012, according to federal data," Ward reports. For more details, from his Coal Tattoo blog, click here.

Schools in many states still use corporal punishment; state-by-state numbers are available

It's still not uncommon for school officials, especially in the South, to get out the paddle and discipline a student with corporal punishment. The practice is legal in 19 states, almost all of them states with large rural populations, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, a nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, that provides educational information on corporal punishment and alternatives to its use, Alyssa Morones reports for Education Week.

In 2006, the last year data was available from a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 223,190 school children were subjected to physical punishment, most of them boys, and a high percentage African American. Overall, 119,339 were white and 79,613 were black. In many if not most of the 19 states, individual districts have adopted policies against corporal punishment; for example, 99 districts in North Carolina don't use it. (Center for Effective Discipline graphic)
The 2006 survey looked at 60,000 schools, finding that 35.6 percent of the students paddled were African American but only 17.1 of students in the survey were, Morones writes. Overall, 78.3 percent of the punishments involved boys. The U.S. Supreme Court has left the decision about corporal punishment up to states, and the number that allow paddling has continually decreased, down from 22 in 2004. "North Carolina schools used corporal punishment 891 times during the 2010-11 school year, according to Action for Children North Carolina. By the following school year, that number was down to 404."

During the 2005-06 school year, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, 7.5 percent of students in Mississippi, 38,124, were paddled. In Alabama, it was 34,097, or 4.6 percent. The next closest state, Arkansas, had 22,575, or 4.7 percent. The only state where practice was legal but no paddlings were reported was Wyoming. Information from each state is here.

While many districts are shying away from the practice, Marion County, in Central Florida near the Gulf coast, recently reinstated it. "The code now allows corporal punishment, administered with a paddle, to be used, though only at the elementary level and only for a 'level two' offense, such as hitting or hurting another child or other aggressive behavior like throwing a desk," Morones writes. "Parents also can opt their children out of the punishment and are called before it is administered." Carol Ely, a school board member who voted in favor of corporal punishment, told Morones, "When students receive out-of-school suspension, they miss out on instruction time, and the teacher is not obligated in any way to help that student catch up. In elementary school, that's like a vacation. That's not a punishment." (Read more)

Fracking-driven energy boom means oil and gas wells are becoming the norm in some neighborhoods

The oil and gas boom from horizontal hydraulic fracturing has led to more and more wells popping up in neighborhoods, which means extra money for landowners, but also eyesores, loud noises, and increased vehicular traffic for neighbors, Russell Gold and Tom McGinty report for The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper "analyzed well location and census data for more than 700 counties in 11 major energy-producing states. At least 15.3 million Americans lived within a mile of a well that has been drilled since 2000. That is more people than live in Michigan or New York City."

In some areas, such as Johnson County, Texas, just south of Fort Worth, the energy boom has really taken off. In 2000, the county had 18 oil and gas wells; today there are 3,914, and 99.5 percent of the 150,000 residents live within a mile of a well, Gold and McGinty write. Much the same has happened in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Mountrail County, N.D., has gone from 460 wells in 2000 to 1,808 today. Bradford County, Pa., has gone from 17 wells to 752, and Weld County, Colo., Westmoreland County, Pa. and McMullen County, Tex., have also seen big increases. (WSJ graphic)
"Nationwide some 23 counties, with more than four million residents, each had more than three new wells per square mile, according to the 2010 Census and well-location information from DrillingInfo, a data provider to the oil industry," Gold and McGinty write. "But the energy isn't coming from a small number of immense wells in some distant oil field. It is coming from hundreds of thousands of small wells that now blanket entire counties. Nationwide, the drilling shows little sign of letting up. There are more than five wells, on average, per square mile of Johnson County. In Pennsylvania, home to the Marcellus Shale, the average is a little less than one well per square mile. Parts of the commonwealth, including counties near Pittsburgh, have more than four per square mile." (Read more)

Bipartisan group starts planning effort to boost economy of hard-hit Appalachian Kentucky

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Eastern Kentucky's Republican congressman and the state's Democratic governor announced Monday they are starting an effort to stimulate the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, which includes some of the nation's poorest counties.

Appalachian Regional Commission map
shows distressed counties in red.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers announced in Hazard that they had hired the Rural Policy Research Institute to coordinate a strategic planning process that will go public Dec. 9 in Pikeville, with a "summit" that they hope will attract hundreds of people from Eastern and Southern Kentucky, the regions with almost all of the state's Appalachian counties.

The impetus for the effort is the recent loss of 6,000 jobs in East Kentucky's coal industry, which has dominated the region for a century but is suffering from depletion of easily mined coal, competition with natural gas, and new environmental regulations.

"With the difficulties in the coal industry . . . a lot of people are saying there's no hope for Appalachia," said Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. "They're saying the region's best days are over. Well, I say, hogwash." He said the region must "think outside the box." Only about half of Kentucky's Appalachian counties produce coal; Rogers once represented many of the non-coal Southern Kentucky counties and still looks after them in his powerful post.

Beshear said the region needs new strategies partly because "How we produce and consume energy is shifting, and the availability of government money has been sharply curtailed." However, the effort is being helped by the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Rural Development branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The effort has been dubbed Shaping our Appalachian Region, with a logo showing an eagle soaring. Beshear said it began with a planning team of three dozen regional leaders, primarily from the private sector, including coal operator Jim Booth, this year's Kentucky Chamber of Commerce chairman. Booth said his company has survived by diversifying beyond coal, and the region needs to do likewise.

Front row: Booth, Stumbo, Beshear, Rogers
"This is the beginning of a process," Beshear said of the Dec. 9 summit. "It's not a one-time event designed to produce a magic formula, because there are no magic formulas. . . . what will come of this, to be honest with you, we're not sure. . . . To be successful, the people of Appalachia, the people of Appalachia, must step up and take ownership and responsibility for their own future." (The registration page for the summit is here.)

Rogers agreed, saying, "The solution to our problem must come from within. . . . It cannot come from Washington or Frankfort or your county seat. It's got to come from us the people, we the people." He said the region must commit to innovation and technology. State legislative leaders from the region agreed.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said, "The target has to be a better trained, better educated workforce here in the mountains." Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said he could not "tell you we will succeed, but if we do not try, we will be doomed to failure in Eastern Kentucky."

Chuck Fluharty, CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, said "I have never begun to work with a region in deeper need of very serious assessment for its future," but "I've never started with a region that has greater commitment to its purpose and greater political leadership."

UPDATE, Nov. 4: This effort and one to increase tourism in the region will depend largely on the efforts of people in individual communities, Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, writes in his fortnightly column for The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

Maine has statewide program for emergency workers to train residents about preventive health care

Maine's emergency workers are using time between emergency calls to educate state residents about health and preventative health care "as part of a statewide effort to reduce hospital and doctor visits for emergencies," Kaitlin Schroeder reports for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, 56 miles southwest of Bangor. "The NorthStar Ambulance house call program, which will start next month, is part of a state initiative to redefine paramedics and emergency medical technicians as not only emergency responders but also medical emergency preventers." The program is one of nine state pilot programs, and expenses for most programs will only consist of fuel for travel. (Daily Bulldog photo)

Maine, which has the highest percentage of rural population in the country, "has been developing the project for the past decade to use the long waiting periods that rural emergency service workers sometimes sit through while waiting for a call," according to Jay Bradshaw, director of Maine Emergency Medical Services, Schroeder writes. Bradshaw told Schroeder, “In some places they might get a call or two a day, but there still needs to be paramedics there 24 hours a day.” While other states have similar programs, "Bradshaw said Maine will be the first state to have not just individual paramedic projects, but a coordinated state effort." Schroeder writes.

"The workers also will help patients list and compare all the medicines they are taking and make sure the combination won’t cause unwanted reactions from mixing prescription drugs," Schroeder writes. "The paramedics will offer other services such as checking vital signs, wound care, hypertension monitoring, diabetes management, ear and nose complaints, flu vaccinations and potential fall assessments. Primary-care doctors will refer patients to the program. Those patients generally will be people who are newly released from the hospital, have had a recent surgery, have multiple chronic conditions or live in a home where safety is a concern." (Read more)

Amtrak's long-distance routes are in jeopardy, threatening loss of service to many rural areas

Interstates with speed limits that keep inching higher, and airplanes that keep getting faster, have made long-distance trains a novelty for most Americans, who don't have the time or interest to travel long distances at a slower pace. As a result, Amtrak, the federally sponsored corporation that has received more than $40 billion in taxpayer money over than 40 years, is struggling to stay afloat, with its long-distance routes losing a combined $600 million in 2012. That's a fact that has not gone unnoticed by House Republicans, who have repeatedly tried to stop giving the company subsidies, "which would basically pull the plug on the long-distance trains," Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. (Wikipedia photo)

But there's more at stake than long-distance routes. Stopping federal money could put an end to daily stops in rural towns that rely heavily on trains, Tate writes. "Passenger trains have been stopping in Hutchinson, Kan., since the early 1870s. But the agricultural center of 42,000 is in danger of losing the one that still stops there every day." One route at question is the Southwest Chief, "which clicks off 2,265 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles. With the exception of Kansas City, Mo., Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., the backdrop is mostly prairie, mountains and desert. But the train also serves dozens of small towns, including several in western Kansas."

To view all routes, number of riders, and costs and earnings of each route, click here or hereTravels and Trains and Other Things map (click it for larger version) shows long-distance routes; the most heavily subsidized are the Cardinal, which runs through Cincinnati, and the Sunset Limited, which runs through Houston)
"The train travels a historic route across western Kansas that needs millions of dollars in repairs," Tate writes. "BNSF Railway, one of North America’s largest freight rail companies, owns the line but uses it sparingly. If Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico can’t come up with roughly $100 million in the next few years, the train will have to find another track." Other state are also facing big costs to keep the lines running through their states.

Many towns have already lost Amtrak service, and many more are in danger or losing it, because states are being asked to take on costs, Tate writes. Earlier this month, "Indiana became the last of 18 states to agree to pick up most of the cost to operate trains on routes of 750 miles or fewer, as required by a law Congress passed in 2008. The states consider those routes essential transportation service, from heavily Democratic California to Republican-dominated North Carolina. But states are increasingly taking on infrastructure costs they once counted on Washington to cover, whether it’s funding for highway construction or port improvements. They might not have much more room in their budgets." (Read more)

Mississippi pastor bans fried chicken at church, promotes Obamacare in a state hostile to it

The Rev. Michael Minor, pastor of Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Hernando, Miss., started encouraging his community to be healthy when he banned friend chicken at pot-luck dinners and installed a walking track around the church. Now he's volunteered for a much more daunting undertaking: trying to get "the state's nearly 275,000 uninsured people to sign up for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act," Julie Steenhuysen reports for Reuters.

When Minor became Oak Hill's pastor in 1996, he found that many in the community were obese, and people were dying young as a result. Since he took action, people have become healthier. "You can see the difference," Minor told Steenhuysen. "People are much better sized, way better. And once they get it off, they want to keep it off."

Minor and his church are one of two organizations that received a federal "navigator" grant challenge with the task of helping people sign up for coverage under Obamacare. "That man is essentially heading up outreach enrollment of the ACA for Mississippi. It's staggering," Roy Mitchell, executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, told Steenhuysen.

People like Minor will be key in determining whether the law will succeed or fail, Steenhuysen writes, citing a 2012 study about the health of the states revealed that Mississippi is tied for last with Louisiana and suffers from high rates of obesity and diabetes. Minor said, "I'm a firm believer that people are limited because someone tells them they are limited. I tell my members we can do whatever we want to do. Let's just go for it."

Republican-led Mississippi has one of the governments most opposed to Obamacare. It refused federal funds for an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor, and it was left to use the faulty federal exchange when Washington rejected its application for a state-based exchange, Steenhuysen reports.