Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reliable trend data on police shootings doesn't exist, but rural areas are part of the phenomenon

A recent rash of reports about shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers, including some in rural areas, "feels like a national tidal wave," Allen Breed reports for The Associated Press. "And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media."

The FBI keeps data on police homicides, but relies on reporting by local law-enforcement agencies, and doesn't require information about race, age and circumstances, Breed notes in a story that focuses on the 2011 shooting by the only police officer in Eutawville, S.C., population 300 (Wikipedia map). Richard Combs had been charged with official misconduct for shooting Bernard Bailey, "who had come to the town hall to argue about a ticket his daughter had received," Breed reports.

Combs’ attorney, John O'Leary said prosecutor David Pascoe was taking advantage of national concerns to escalate the case, but the indictment was handed up the same day that a New York City grand jury declined to indict white officers in the videotaped choking death of African American Eric Garner, and "A letter dated Nov. 26, 2013, indicates O’Leary was informed of the prosecution’s intent to seek an indictment for murder," reported Richard Walker of the Orangeburg Times and Democrat.

Two other white police officers in South Carolina have been indicted in the last four months for killing unarmed black men, AP's Jeffrey Collins and Bruce Smith report.

Jenny Jarvie of the Los Angeles Times took a close look at the Eutawville case in a story published this week. "Nearly everyone knew Bailey, a 54-year-old father of five. He was the deacon of a Baptist church, his wife the elementary school librarian," she wrote in her second paragraph. "Throughout Eutawville, which is 36 percent black, there was shared relief at the former police chief's indictment. Yet . . . locals differed on whether race or bad policing was to blame."

The day after the indictment, Martha Rose Brown of the Orangeburg newspaper went to Eutawville and found likewise, but also wrote about a feeling that officials had said too little about the case. In an editorial, the paper said, "Based on the long history of the case and the questions surrounding just what happened that day, the state may have quite the task in convicting Combs of murder. Nonetheless, we do not believe that the solicitor is going forward with prosecution for political reasons any more than we believe Combs will have difficulty getting justice in a county with a majority-African-American population. . . . We believe the system will produce justice."

Agriculture, forestry and fishing is the industrial sector with the highest rate of workplace fatalities

The highest rate of fatal injuries in any U.S. industry sector is in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. More than 100 children die on farms each year, but only about one in five of them are working. Those are some of the statistics on a fact sheet issued by the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America. ASHCA says the annual cost of occupational injuries in agriculture is $8.3 billion in medical costs and lost productivity. Tractors are the leading cause of death and the typical cost of one overturned tractor is $1 million.

This is one part of the fact sheet. For a larger version, click on it. For the entire document, click here.
Effective safety programs can save $4 to $6 for every $1 invested, according to ASHCA, which says it is "a not-for-profit coalition of agribusinesses, producer organizations and safety professionals." Other facts on the sheet include: Although 87 percent of farms are operated by individuals or families, hired workers perform 60 percent of the work on U.S. farms, and 80 percent of those employees are foreign-born; and the world will need 70 percent more food by 2050 for the predicted 9.5 billion people. "Productive, efficient agriculture includes the preservation and well-being of agricultural workers at every level," ASHCA says.

Wages declined in 1/3 of counties in last decade; what happened in your county? This map shows

Even before the Great Recession, there was concern about wage stagnation, which has left millions of households with effectively less income than they had a decade ago. "One-third of all U.S. counties have seen their pay decline, when the figures are adjusted for inflation," Brian McGill and Dante Chinni report for The Wall Street Journal, with a handy map, emendated example below. (Click here for the interactive version.)
Overall, "Wages haven't budged in a decade," the reporters write. "The biggest winners for wage increases are the counties running down the center of the country, many of which have economies based on energy and agriculture." Other patterns are harder to discern; the phenomenon cuts across rural and urban, blue and red. State policies may have made a difference, judging from the clear differences between Illinois and Indiana, and between Alabama and Georgia.

"And even with all that in mind, the numbers on wage stagnation don’t tell the whole story," the reporters note. "Average annual pay still tends to be higher on the coasts and in the big cities than they are in rural Middle America." The data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Do you like The Rural Blog? Now is a good time to support its publisher with a donation

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

As you choose the tax-deductible contributions to make before the year ends, we urge you to consider The Rural Blog and its publisher, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

For more than 10 years, The Rural Blog has been a daily digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, designed for rural journalists but also serving everyone in rural America. This is a unique service, made possible by the endowment of the institute at the University of Kentucky.

At last report our endowment was still under water, meaning that its market value was less than its contributed value. That's because most of the endowment's money was raised at a time the stock market was high. We are trying to get it above water to avoid possible reductions in earnings that support the work of the institute, which you can read about at www.RuralJournalism.org.

We don't expect to get big donations from a blog post, but we are certainly interested in discussing our work with people who might be interested in supporting it. Our offices are closed for the holidays, but you can reach me at 502-682-2848. Our office number is 859-257-3744.

If your gift is small but you want it to make an immediate impact, you can give to our operating fund, from which we pay some current expenses. Donate to that fund or to the endowment by clicking here. Go to the gift-designation box and select "Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Endowed Fund for Excellence" to give to the endowment; for the operating account, choose "Other" and type in "IRJCI operating."

Thanks for your support, and happy new year!

Montana, West Virginia among states considering laws to fight methamphetamine production

State lawmakers in Montana will consider a bill to create a database for purchases of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine—ingredients used to make methamphetamine—while a task force in West Virginia is recommending for the second time that state lawmakers require a doctor's prescription to purchase cold medicines used to make meth.

Montana has already enacted rules limiting purchases of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine to nine grams over a 30-day period, but without a database, officials say it's impossible to stop smurfing—when people frequent multiple pharmacies to purchase large quantities, Scott Zoltan reports for KECI in Missoula. Senate Bill 48, which has the support of the Montana Department of Justice, would connect the state to NPLEx, a system already used in 25 states to track purchases of cold medicine.

Meth has been a rampant problem in West Virginia, with officials seizing 290 labs this year, the third highest total in state history, Eric Eyre reports for The Charleston Gazette. Despite the number of busts being down from a record 531 last year, the Kanawha County Commission Substance Abuse Task Force said meth remains a problem in the state and the agency recommended that lawmakers require a doctor's prescription to purchase cold medicine with meth-making ingredients.

The task force criticized using NPLEx as a solution, saying drug manufacturers can get around the system by hiring large numbers of people to purchase their monthly limits, Eyre writes. Instead, the task force said the only way to rid the problem is by requiring a doctor's prescription. (Read more)

With help from Walmart, new devices and stagnant wages, U.S. sock makers ramp up production

The American sock industry, once all but dead, has been revived by "changes in technology, attitudes and costs," James R. Hagerty reports for The Wall Street Journal from rural Hildebran, N.C., just west of Hickory, where a Canadian designer-marketer who had given up manufacturing has reactivated an old plant to make socks for Walmart.

The new technology is in Italian machines that knit and seam socks in the same process, requiring about half the number of workers. The attitude change is at Walmart, "which is trying to reduce its heavy reliance on imports" and is giving more shelf space to U.S.-made products, Hagerty writes. Costs? American manufacturing has become more competitive with China because "average manufacturing wages in the U.S. have risen less than 2 percent annually over the past five years, while those in China have about doubled since 2008."

"For similar reasons, other sock makers are investing in the U.S.," Hagerty reports, but adds, "Some producers are still heading overseas. . . . Employment in U.S. hosiery and sock mills totals about 8,600, one quarter of the tally for 2001. The U.S. sock-making industry has shrunk so drastically that its trade group, the Hosiery Association, disbanded in 2013." (Read more)

English researcher says putting digital collars on livestock could increase rural broadband access

Sheep could help bring broadband to rural areas. English researchers are studying how digital sheep collars, sensors on riverbanks and rainfall monitors could advance technology in rural areas, while providing high-speed Internet service to residents, Victoria Woolaston reports for the Daily Mail. (Sony photo: Cameras on sheep covering the Tour de France)

Gordon Blair, a computer scientist at Lancaster University, is using a grant to conduct research in Wales on outfitting sheep with digital collars that can be used to allow farmers to better monitor livestock, while also doubling up as wireless Internet hotspots, Woolaston writes. "Earlier this year, sheep in Yorkshire were fitted with cameras to give a unique view of the Tour De France" bicycle race.

Officials at Lancaster University have proposed fitting sensors to riverbanks to monitor river levels and warn of floods, Woolaston writes. "This system uses sensors on the bank, and throughout neighboring towns to track rising water levels and weather conditions. Some sensor locations are designated as ‘government office nodes' and have an office with a laptop computer where data is collected and stored. An algorithm is then used to predict flood risks before alert notifications are displayed." (Read more)

Friday, December 26, 2014

New editor in a shrinking town reports the bad news and challenges it to shape up

A big part of a newspaper's job is to hold up a mirror to its community, to make it confront its problems. Too many newspapers aren't willing to do that often enough, but since Steve Wilson became editor of The Paducah Sun last February, he has been doing it. One of his latest examples was a column in which he followed up on a Sun story reporting that the city of 25,000 (MapQuest image), unlike other major towns in Western Kentucky, is losing population.

"In the weeks since that story was published, I've asked many people in the community how they would account for it and heard a variety of explanations. Most people believe several factors play a role," Wilson wrote. The list included "'a small-town mentality'" that seldom thinks very big and resists looking honestly at the city's weaknesses and addressing them; lack of take-charge civic leadership in both local government and the local business community; [and] inadequate cooperation between city and county government and too few public-private partnerships."

The local chamber of commerce is planning a "visioning program" to guide the community's future, but Wilson said a similar program was "short on follow-through and did not have major impact." He concluded, "The city needs a sharper sense of where it's headed and how to get there. It also needs some smart, savvy people to step up and lead. Otherwise, there's not much reason to think the city's population won't continue to slide along with its economic vitality and quality of life."

The Paxton Media Group, the Paducah-based, family owned chain that owns the Sun, is lucky to have Wilson as the paper's executive editor. He was a columnist and deputy managing editor at The Arizona Republic and managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he directed a project that won the paper's first Pulitzer Prize. His column is behind the Sun's paywall, but he has allowed us to post it, here.

UPDATE, May 28: Sun Editor Jim Paxton writes in an editorial that when "Wilson first started raising the issue in columns last year, we were surprised by the intensity of the reactions from local officials past and present. Some accused Wilson of being a carpetbagger who was just seeking to accentuate the negative. But it is the role of community newspapers to provoke discussion, sometimes on topics that are not to everyone's liking but important nonetheless." (Read more)

Mild December cuts natural-gas price 29 percent

A mostly mild winter might be good news for many people who hate cold and snow, but so far it has spelled bad news for the natural-gas industry. The benchmark price for gas on Tuesday, Dec. 23, was $3.17 per 1,000 cubic feet, a 29 percent drop from $4.50 in late November, Jonathan Fahey reports for The Associated Press. "Natural gas is used by half of the nation's households for heating and to generate 26 percent of the nation's electricity."

"The lower prices are expected to linger and could reduce electricity prices and heating bills in the coming months," Fahey writes. "Bob Brackett, an analyst at Bernstein Research, wrote in a recent note to investors that he expects natural gas to average 'in the low 3 [dollar]s" per MCF into the spring, and a warm winter could push the price below $3.'" That's a far cry from last year when prices hit as high as $6.15 in February during last year's brutal winter. (Seeking Alpha graphic)
"Conditions look good for low prices throughout the spring. After that, though, prices could head back up," Fahey writes. "One-fifth of the nation's natural-gas production is from gas found when drilling for oil . . . A a drop in the price of oil is forcing drillers to cut back, and that may slow the growth in [gas] production. Also, in April of next year an Environmental Protection Agency rule governing emissions of mercury and other toxic chemicals goes into effect. That will force electric utilities to reduce their use of coal, the chief source of those emissions, and turn instead to natural gas." (Read more) For the coal industry, part of the bad news is already here, because lower gas prices make coal less competitive with gas among utilities that can easily switch fuels.

Study puts least healthy states in a contiguous swath, much of it rural, from Okla. to W.Va.

Hawaii is the nation's healthiest state, while several states with large rural populations—including most of the South—are the country's least healthiest states, according to the annual state health rankings by the United Health Foundation. The rankings are based on data gathered in 2012, 2013 and early 2014.

UHF map; for an interactive version with details, click here.
The analysis is based on behaviors (everyday activities that affect personal health), community and environment (whether or not it was a healthy and safe community, based on clean water and air, affordable and secure housing, sustainable and economically vital neighborhoods and support structures such as violence-free places to be physically active), policy (availability of resources to encourage and maintain health) and clinical care (access, quality, appropriateness, and cost of care we receive at doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals).

Hawaii was named healthiest state for the third straight year. Vermont was ranked second, followed by Massachusetts (3), Connecticut (4), Utah (5), Minnesota (6), New Hampshire (7), Colorado (8), North Dakota (9) and Nebraska (10).

Mississippi was ranked last. Arkansas was 49th, followed by Louisiana (48), Kentucky (47), Oklahoma (46), Tennessee (45), West Virginia (44), Alabama (43), South Carolina (42), Indiana (41) and Ohio (40). (Read more)

U.S. drinks the most alcohol during the winter; Iowa has highest average blood-alcohol content

Americans drink the most alcohol during the winter, says the BACtrack Consumption Report, a report created by a company that manufactures breathalyzers. Of the 15 biggest drinking days of the year, 14 are from Dec. 1 through March 31, when the average blood alcohol content level is 0.06 nearly 75 percent of days, while during the rest of the year it is 0.06 about 50 percent of days. (BACtrack graphic)

The study, which was conducted using 130,000 subjects from 35 countries and all 50 states over a 13-month period, found that the biggest drinking days are New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day weekend, when levels reach 0.094 percent. Other big drinking days are Dec. 6-7, Jan. 18-19, Jan. 25, Feb.1-2, Feb. 15, March 7-8, Super Bowl Sunday. The other big drinking day, and the only one that averages above 0.08 percent, is May 3.

Iowa had the highest average blood alcohol content at 0.122 percent, the study said. That was followed by Arkansas (0.113 percent), Alabama (0.112 percent), Maine (0.107 percent) and Tennessee (0.106 percent). The lowest average blood alcohol content was in New Hampshire, 0.012 percent. That was followed by Delaware (0.026 percent), Utah (0.031 percent), Arkansas (0.037 percent) and Wyoming (0.051 percent).

The cities with the highest average counts are Waltham, Mass. (0.133 percent); Jersey City, N.J. (0.132 percent); Champlin, Minn. (0.124 percent); New Orleans (0.123 percent) and Greenville, S.C. (0.111 percent). Cities with the lowest counts are Brighton, Colo. (0.006 percent); Walnut Creek, Calif. (0.013 percent); Huntington Beach, Calif. (0.013 percent); Columbus, Ohio (0.014 percent) and Redwood City, California (0.015 percent). (BACtrack map: To view an interactive version click here)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rural areas, women have been under-represented in debates about net neutrality, study finds

Most Americans favor Internet neutrality, and the news media have played the issue as a technical and political story and largely ignored its potential impact on rural communities, says a report by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The report says the debate has over-represented male and urban voices—especially through social media—while telecom and cable companies have put most their money and efforts into lobbying and have strayed away from most social media.

The report was conducted by analyzing more than 35,000 news sources and 300,000 blogs from January to July 2014; Twitter analysis of 120,000 tweets with #NetNeutrality from July to August 2014 and from #InternetSlowdownDay; of about 1 million public comments to the Federal Communications Commission; lobbying analysis of approximately 2,500 filings from 2009 to the second quarter of 2014 from the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database and grant funding analysis of data for media access and telecommunications companies. (Knight Foundation graphic; click it to enlarge)
Researchers found that the majority of commenters to the FCC felt "that there is strong legal ground for reclassification of Internet Service Providers as Title II common carriers, the FCC should reject the proposed fast and slow lanes on the Internet" and "Internet Service Providers already have monopolistic power."

The report echoes a survey released last month by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication that found that most Americans favor net neutrality, as does President Obama. The FCC is debating what to do.

FAA fears Santa will be delivering drone aircraft to inexperienced and/or irresponsible users

AP photo by John Locher
The Federal Aviation Administration is playing Scrooge this Christmas, as agency officials fear that one of the hot new presents under trees will be drones, aggravating already complicated issue of safety in the skies, Craig Whitlock reports for The Washington Post.

In anticipation of a large number of of drones being given as presents this year, the FAA and the drone industry on Monday "kicked off a public awareness campaign to urge novice drone operators to pay attention to safety and not do dumb things such as flying too close to passenger planes, buzzing crowds of bystanders on the ground or flying that new ­remote-control helicopter while drunk," Whitlock writes.

"The campaign is dubbed 'Know Before You Fly' and includes videos instructing people how to 'stay off the naughty list' when playing with their new gifts," Whitlock writes. "Among the basics: Don’t fly drones above 400 feet, within five miles of an airport or near a stadium." FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters, “This is an issue of growing concern. This newer and more powerful technology is affordable to more people, yet many are not familiar with the rules of flying.”

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last month that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws. Until FAA rules are put in place, most commercial use of drones remains illegal.  Officials fear unregulated drones use could  lead to "a modern version of the Wild West." In June the National Park Service banned drones in all parks and areas it manages. In August a tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone National Park. Also in August drones were banned over the Appalachian Trail and in parks in Utah and Colorado, and a drone was reported flying over an NFL game. The FAA has a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline to set rules for commercial use.

Rural Minnesota school says 4-day week cuts costs; state says it negatively impacts students

Star Tribune photo: Maynard-Clara City schools
A west-central Minnesota school district that joined many others around the country in switching to a four-day week during the Great Recession is fighting the Minnesota Education Department's order to return to a five-day week.

The Maynard-Clara City-Raymond district says the four-day schedule has cut school costs by thousands of dollars and helped area businesses that have been able to employ students on their days off, reports The Associated Press. But "state education officials say there has been a lack of adequate academic progress in the district."

While high school test scores are a little below average, elementary school scores are at or slightly above the statewide average, AP reports. "State officials say they are concerned that the district has not made strong enough gains among low-income students." Education Department spokesman Josh Collins told AP that "it does beg the question, should the financial need continue to outweigh what appears to be a negative impact on student achievement?"

A school board committee "is exploring ways to retain the shorter school week, including drafting a bill to allow for local control on the matter," AP reports. State Sen. Lyle Koenen (DFL-Clara City) and Rep.-elect Tim Miller, a Republican who represents the area, said they plan to support legislation should the district choose that route." (Read more)

States step up incentives to attract young lawyers to rural areas, where they are often scarce

It's hard to find a lawyer when you need one in many rural areas. That lack of rural lawyers is forcing some states to think outside the box to draw young professional to their towns, reports Regina Garcia Cano for The Associated Press.

In South Dakota, four urban areas have 65 percent of the state's lawyers, while in Nebraska, 12 of the state's 93 counties don't have a practicing attorney, Cano writes. "Only about 30 percent of Georgia's attorneys can be found outside the Atlanta area. And even in New York with nearly 170,000 attorneys, more than 60 percent concentrate in New York City." (Rapid City Journal map from 2013)

South Dakota has started a program believed to the first of its kind that compensates lawyers much the way that similar programs do for doctors that relocate to rural areas, Cano writes. The program, funded by the state's judicial system, the South Dakota Bar Association and the counties, "offers an annual subsidy of $12,000 or 90 percent of the cost of a year at the University of South Dakota Law School to live and practice in rural communities."

Other states are following suit with programs to help draw lawyers to rural areas, Cano writes. "Nebraska next year will begin repaying loans for law school graduates who commit to serving at least three years in underserved communities in the state. The state bar also is teaming with two law schools to offer summer clerkships at rural firms. And Legal Aid of Arkansas recently received a $15,000 grant from the American Bar Association to fund fellowships for newly admitted lawyers who serve in rural areas for one year." (Read more)

Former journalist has saved hundreds of horses through retirement facility in Kentucky

Michael Blowen and Sandy Hatfield with new arrival, 1997
Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm (Old Friends photo)
How did a former Boston Globe movie critic end up in Central Kentucky leading the cause to provide a safe comfortable environment for retired racing horses—including some of the biggest names in the industry—while also saving hundreds of at-risk horses from slaughterhouses?
Michael Blowen has played his own version of Old St. Nick, giving the gift of a second chance to hundreds of horses, while boosting local tourism by giving people an opportunity to see race horses—such as Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm—up close and personal at Old Friends equine retirement facility in Georgetown, Ky.

Blowen began his interest in horse racing the way many people do—by betting on the sport, racing writer Jennie Rees reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "While still working for the Globe, he went to work as a groom at Boston's blue-collar Suffolk Downs, saying, "as soon as I fell in love with them, the dye was cast."

He "apprenticed himself out to trainer Carlos Figueroa," where he was educated in horses at what he calls "Figueroa University," Rees writes. But while working for Figueroa "he said he became concerned that a bottom-level claimer could 'meet a dubious end.' He got the horse retired to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and subsequently wrote a story about the foundation's program that teaches inmates to care for horses at Lexington's Blackburn Correctional Complex."

"After he and his wife, columnist Diane White, took buyouts from the Globe in 2001, Blowen wound up as the foundation's operations director in Kentucky," Rees writes. "A year later, he got serious about starting a facility where people could feed carrots to retired thoroughbreds. . . . The sense of urgency to get Old Friends operational escalated when news broke in 2002 that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had perished in a slaughter house after his usefulness as a stallion in Japan ended."

"Blowen said he talked to former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns Airdrie Stud, about his plan," Rees writes. Blowen told her, "He goes, 'Let me get this straight: You're going to get these horses, right?' Yeah. 'You're not going to breed them?' No. 'You're not going to sell them?' No. 'You're not going to race them?' No. He says, 'What are you going to do with them?' I said, 'Put them in my yard and hope people come visit them.' He looked at me like I was from outer space, and now he's one of our biggest supporters."

Jones was skeptical, but he said "their mutual love of horses sparked him to help Blowen, first with his checkbook and then by sending him retired stallions such as Patton, You and I and Afternoon Deelites," Rees writes. Jones told her,  "It's expensive to take care of a horse—even one. Somebody starting a group of horses that will never have the ability to win another race or to put money into the pockets of the people feeding them, it was a different approach. ... But most really important happenings in the world come about because some people are determined to make them come about."

Old Friends earns its money on donations, tours of the farm and money earned at the gift shop, Rees writes. It operates on a $1 million per year budget, "and that's after the many discounted and donated services and products afforded Old Friends, including veterinary work, medication, feed supplements, shoeing and shipping. Supporters sponsoring paddocks, run-in sheds, barns, barn stalls, fencing or horses have their names sprinkled throughout on plaques."

"Last year it was part of the first group of racehorse retirement and retraining programs to be accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an industry collaboration that also raises money to help fund the facilities it certifies." On Friday Old Friends was named recipient of the industry's 2014 Special Eclipse Award for outstanding contributions to racing. (Read more)

Six million self-described whites have African American ancestry; numbers are highest in South

About 6 million Americans who describe themselves as white actually have African American ancestry within the past seven generations, says a study published in Science Direct, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. Overall, 3.5 percent of Americans who describe themselves as white have African ancestry, with the numbers highest in the South, where 12 percent of self-described whites in Louisiana and South Carolina have African ancestry; the number is about 10 percent in some other Southern states.

The study was conducted by using the genetic records of 148,739 European Americans who submitted a cheek swab for testing, says the study. Testing was also done on 5,269 self-described African Americans and 8,663 Latinos.

The study found "that people who were 15 percent African or less generally didn't describe themselves as African American, while those who were 50 percent African or greater almost universally did," Ingraham writes. "But in between there was a considerable amount of variation. Those who were about one quarter African were just as likely as not to call themselves African-American." (Read more) (Post map)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Coal-mine deaths are on pace to set a record-low year, but health issues remain a major concern

While health concerns remain about dust that leads to black-lung disease, U.S. coal mines are on pace to have a record year in terms of fatalities, reports The Associated Press. There have been 15 coal-related deaths in the U.S. this year. The record-low was 19 in 2009, the lowest among records that date back to 1900. The number of deaths in each of the past two years was 20.

Only last week did the No. 3 coal state, Kentucky, have its first underground-mine death of the year. One surface miner has also died. Industry officials say the lower number of deaths are a result of an increased awareness about safety, while others cite closing of mines in Appalachia. Still, of this year's 15 deaths, have been are in Appalachia.  (Centers for Disease Control graphic; click it to enlarge)
"Federal mine safety officials credit changes they’ve made since the Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010," Dylan Lovan writes for AP. "They point to their more aggressive use of team inspections at problem sites and other measures, which they say have fostered more responsible behavior below ground." Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told Lovan, “I do think we’re seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that’s for the better."

There are fewer mines operating in Appalachia, a region that historically has had some of the worst mine violators, Lovan notes: 1,701 last year, down from 1,944 in 2010; underground mines in Eastern Kentucky shrank to 82 from 161 in 2010, and in West Virginia to 107 from 133 in 2010.

Retiring Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a longtime mine-safety advocate on the House Education and Labor Committee, "said MSHA needs even stronger tools to investigate and punish mine operators," Lovan reports. "Miller has sponsored a bill to give the agency subpoena power during an investigation or inspection, increase criminal penalties for safety violations, and punish operators who don’t pay fines. The bill is stuck in a House committee."

While fewer coal workers are suffering fatal accidents, more are reporting health issues. Experts at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that by 2012, the rate of severe coal workers' pneumoconosis (black lung) had reached 3.2 percent of miners in the Central Appalachian coalfield of southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette: "That’s a nearly tenfold increase over the disease prevalence 15 years earlier—a shocking statistic." Another NIOSH study said that the most severe form of black lung disease is on the rise.

More than 1,100 miners were wrongly denied black lung claims after the doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore who interprets X-rays in black-lung claims failed to find a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion.

EPA rules on coal ash don't treat it as a hazardous material, rely on citizens to report violations

The Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited rules on coal-ash disposal, written in response to a huge ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 (photo), fell short of advocate' hopes.

EPA "declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks," Emmarie Huetteman reports for The New York Times. "If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company’s responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust."

"Power plants will also have to report the results of their inspections on a public website," Huetteman writes. "The rule provides little oversight, leaving it to citizens and the states to sue if power plants are suspected of not adhering to the EPA’s guidelines."

James Bruggers, environmental writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, writes that the rules "put a lot of new requirements on utilities to monitor ash ponds and landfills and make sure they are engineered and maintained properly. But there are no requirements that either state or federal regulators actually enforce them. Instead, the only guaranteed enforcement mechanism is through lawsuits filed by citizens, state and EPA officials acknowledged."

Electric-utility companies and the coal industry celebrated the decision. Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, told Huetteman, “This stuff is just as safe as we thought it was before the rule-making started, and it’s time to keep that growth going."

Advocates for stronger rules were disappointed. Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement: “As we’ve seen over the past six years, irresponsible storage of coal ash by big utilities has caused unprecedented disasters and threatened the health and safety of Americans around the country. While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the EPA’s approach.” (Read more)

Federal judge orders gray wolves around Lake Superior be returned to endangered-species list

Photo by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A federal judge has ordered that gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan be returned to the federal endangered-species list.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled Friday that the removal from the list was arbitrary and capricious and thus violated the Endangered Species Act. Howell wrote: "Wolves are the subject of heated disputes, with those on every side of the issue offering heartfelt arguments as to how best to manage this unique species. The last decade of litigation is a testament to those passions."

In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the protected list, giving states control over their populations, Lee Bergquist and Paul A. Smith report for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the Humane Society of the United States sued to get the wolves put back on the endangered list. Jonathan Lovvorn, the group's senior vice president and chief counsel, told the Sentinel, "It's a great victory for wolves and wolf conservation. We felt all along that federal protection should never have been removed." (Read more)

County passes first local right-to-work law, but state attorney general opines against it

Warren County is in red; Simpson is to southwest
A Southern Kentucky county on Friday passed a local "right to work" law, which prohibits union contracts that require workers to join a union or pay it fees. The Warren County Fiscal Court passed the ordinance 6 to 1, making the county the first county in the nation to pass such a law, Katie Brandenburg reports for The Daily News in Bowling Green, the county seat. Simpson County, which separates Warren County from Tennessee along Interstate 65, and Fulton County, the westernmost county in Kentucky, also have also approved initial readings of right-to-work ordinances.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democratic candidate for governor, "issued an opinion Thursday that local governments do not have the authority to enact right-to-work ordinances," Brandenburg writes. The opinion relies heavily on a 1955 ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the state's highest court, that the 1947 federal law allowing states and territories to have right-to-work laws should be interpreted narrowly, "reasoning that Congress did not want variations in right-to-work laws in each local political subdivision."

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Lambert and County Attorney Amy Milliken said the county does have the power to pass a right-to-work ordinance under "home rule" laws passed since 1955. "Milliken wrote that Home Rule statutes enable counties to enact right-to-work ordinances, delegating authority to 'regulate and control the fiscal affairs of the county,' regulate 'commerce for the protection and convenience of the public" and promote "economic development of the county,' to county governments," Brandenburg reports. When the ordinance passed, Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, shouted to the officials, "See you in court."

Career academies teach students in rural Northern California community life and job skills

In a small Northern California community that relies heavily on agriculture, high-school students are learning job skills to prepare them for a future beyond graduation. Winters High School's 500 students—about two-thirds are Hispanic—take part in career academies that include agriculture, engineering and culinary science, Deborah Fallows reports for The Atlantic. About half of the students are enrolled in agriculture. (Best Places map)

Agriculture classes "include a vast array of options, from an intro course in the history, economics, and production of California agriculture, to courses on ag business and management, farm practices and operations, including machinery operations and management, animal and plant science, all kinds of shop offerings, FFA participation, which includes public speaking, report writing, and parliamentary procedure, and agriculture leadership training," Fallows writes. "And floriculture, in which students are already doing arrangements for a local business Christmas party."

At the off-campus ag site students "grow tomatoes, pumpkins, and ryegrass, grapes, almonds, peaches, and plums," Fallows writes. "Next year, with the help and guidance of local farmers, they are planning to start an almond orchard." Students also learn to weld and use computer aided design systems to make metal items, such as industrial-size barbeque smokers, fire pits, outdoor metal house decorations, coolers made from wine barrels and lighting for the school football field. (Atlantic photo: Principal Paul Fawcett with a student-made barbecue)

"Compared with those at nearly every other school I have visited, Winters students showed a distinct absence of college-admission mania and stress," Fallows writes. "Principal Paul Fawcett told me they reached their 100 percent goal last year for every senior to make plans for post-graduation. Many go to some of the many campuses in California's three-tiered system: the University of California campuses, the Cal State system, or the state community colleges. Some go into the military, and a few go out of state, including to Ivy League schools." (Read more)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Many Americans have trust issues when it comes to neighbors, media, government, public schools

A series of interactive maps show that many Americans—especially those in largely rural states—have little trust or confidence in their neighbors, elected officials, media outlets and schools, Emily Badger reports for The Washington Post. (The darker the color the higher the percentage)

That's according to recent results from the Current Population Survey, which asked people "all kinds of quirky questions about how we relate to each other and the institutions in our lives—our neighbors, our elected officials, our media outlets, schools and even the products we buy," Badger writes.

More than 150,000 surveys were recorded in 217 counties and 76 cities using data from November 2011. Among the questions asked were: How often do you discuss politics with your friends?; Do you trust people in your neighborhood?; Have you ever bought or boycotted a product or service because of the social or political values of the company that provides it?; Have you participated in a church, mosque, synagogue or other religious institution in the last year?; How much confidence do you have in the media?; How much confidence do you have in corporations?; How much confidence do you have in public schools?

In Minnesota, Nebraska, Vermont and Kansas, only 38 percent of people said they trust the media. Nevada (59 percent) and Montana (58 percent) had the highest percentages. No state had more than 50 percent of people say they are confident in public schools, with Nebraska leading the way at 46.91 percent. Confidence levels in schools are below 22 percent in Nevada, New Mexico, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina.

It also turns out that many people don't trust their neighbors, with only 32.13 percent of Arkansas respondents saying they trust their neighbors, 33.73 percent in Texas, 34.76 in Louisiana and 35.34 percent in Tennessee. In Utah 60.34 percent of people said they trust their neighbors, but the next highest number was in North Dakota, where 50.86 percent of people said they trust their neighbors.

AP creates team of statehouse government specialists to provide 'extra reporting firepower'

The Associated Press announced on Thursday that it is creating a team of statehouse government specialists to enhance the work of AP reporters already working in all 50 statehouses, Erin Madigan White reports for AP. "The specialists will collaborate with statehouse reporters, as well as on their own projects and stories focused on government accountability and strong explanatory reporting. Their over-arching goal will be 'to show how state government is impacting the lives of people across the country,' said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news."

The team, which consists of team leader Tom Verdin, David Crary, David Lieb, Ryan Foley, Christina Almeida Cassidy and Tom McCarth, will complement the current state government correspondents by providing "extra reporting firepower in on the most important stories," White writes. They will also partner with other reporters "to pursue bigger and more ambitious enterprise on the business of state government."

AP did not give a date for when the team will begin covering stories, but as an example of what some of the reporters are currently writing, Tom Verdin, who covers Sacramento, wrote this week on the state retiree health gap reaching $72 billion, while David Lieb wrote a story this week on officials in Jefferson City, Mo., withdrawing plans for online college scholarships.

The decline in oil prices could be a major concern for some energy-dependent states

While many people are probably happy to see a steep drop in prices at the local gas station—the price of crude oil is just above $55 per barrel, down from $105 on July 1—falling oil prices are a concern for some energy-dependent states, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. A decline in prices "has already forced officials to revise revenue predictions and, if the price remains low for long, could force lawmakers to make substantial budget changes as legislatures reconvene next year."

Alaska, more than any other state, stands to lose as a result of the falling prices, Chokshi writes. Moody’s Investors Services, the credit rating agency, said in a statement: “Alaska is far more vulnerable than any other U.S. state to the global,  political, economic and other factors affecting oil supply and demand, as well as to local conditions influencing production.” (Fitch graphic)

Moody’s analyst Emily Raimes told Chokshi, “This is sort of a big enough bump, we believe, that it could potentially bring Alaska’s rating down if the oil prices continue at this low level and if the state is not able to respond to it in a way that does something other than draw down their reserve."

In addition to Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico and North Dakota also could feel the impact of lower prices, warns Fitch, another credit ratings agency, Chokshi writes. "In Alaska, energy-related tax revenue accounted for about 92 percent of unrestricted general fund revenue in the 2013 fiscal year. In New Mexico, they accounted for about 17 percent. In Louisiana, 13.5 percent. Despite producing the largest share of crude oil in 2013, oil tax revenue in Texas accounted for well below 10 percent of overall general fund." (Read more)

Free seminar for journalists to explore local and national efforts to respond to climate change

The Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting is hosting a free seminar from May 12-14, 2015 in St. Louis for journalists to explore local and national efforts to respond to and plan for climate change. The deadline to apply is Feb. 9, 2015. Space is limited. To register click here.

During the seminar, journalists will have the "opportunity to explore new approaches to adaptation and discover fresh story ideas about climate change response and preparedness," says the Metcalf Institute. This will allow journalists "to meet adaptation experts from across the nation representing local, state, regional, tribal and federal interests and will focus on climate change impacts and adaptation efforts ranging from the transportation, agriculture and insurance sectors to architecture, environmental justice and disaster risk management."

Metcalf Institute’s Climate Change Seminar will include:
  • Tour showcasing local efforts to protect critical municipal infrastructure from projected extremes in Midwestern precipitation as a result of climate change
  • Highlights from successful and upcoming projects designed to help communities plan for and respond to the wide-ranging impacts of climate change
  • Talks by scientists, local officials, NGO and business representatives summarizing climate change science and the broad range of approaches being used to help communities weather projected impacts;
  • Kick-off reception hosted by the National Adaptation Forum
  • Opportunities to cover all aspects of the National Adaptation Forum and access to adaptation professionals throughout the conference

Residents in rural town amass $3,315 in late payments when USPS fails to deliver bills

It's not unusual for rural mail to be shipped to processing centers in metro areas—often in the opposite direction of the mail's final destination. But the U.S. Postal Service's closing offices—or reduce hours at many rural offices—has put a heavier burden on the remaining sorting centers and opened the door for errors. For example, people are blaming the Postal Service's error for about 400 residents in the Western Kentucky town of Providence (Best Places map) receiving $3,315 in late water bills, Matt Hughes reports for The Journal-Enterprise, the local weekly newspaper.

Paul Lashbrook, water district superintendent for the Webster County Water District, told Hughes, “We send out over 2,000 water bills per month. Because of changes to the postal system, everything goes from the local post office to Evansville, Ind., and then comes back to the local post office." Evansville is about 50 miles north of Providence. 

"When the bills went out in early November, something went wrong," Hughes writes. "Hundreds of customers who had always paid on time were suddenly late making their payments. Even as the district sent out late/shutoff notices to customers, they began getting bills back in the mail. Many of them were crumpled, dirty and damaged. Others that were supposed to be delivered to customers here in the county had been postmarked in places as far away as Texas." Lashbrook said all late fees were waived.

USPS spokesman David Walton in Louisville blamed the mistake on a paper jam. He told Hughes, “Those water bills got jammed up in a machine. It does happen. It could have happened for various reasons.” To view The Journal-Enterprise, click here.

Electric utilities anxiously awaiting EPA coal ash disposal regulations; rules are due today

With Environmental Protection Agency coal ash disposal rules expected to be released today, "electric utilities are bracing on how they handle the millions of tons of waste ash produced by coal- fired power plants," Cassandra Sweet reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The regulations are aimed at coal ash stored as a slurry in about 700 earthen pits around the country" and could cost the power industry $587 million a year.

EPA "said it wants to ensure that toxic chemicals contained in the ash, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic, won’t leak and contaminate underground drinking water," Sweet writes. "It has identified 50 ponds where it says dam failures or other accidents could cause death as well as damage to property and the environment."

An EPA spokesperson said on Thursday that the rules aim to “protect communities from impoundment failures that pose costly risks to our health and our economy and to prevent groundwater contamination and harmful air emissions,” Sweet writes.

The rules "would replace or complement the current patchwork of state regulations," Sweet writes. "The agency may require companies to shut some or all of their coal-ash ponds and switch to storing ash in dry landfills, industry experts say. The rules are likely to require utilities to use the most up-to-date technology available in their ash ponds and landfills and to test the soil for leaking chemicals, said Christi Tezak, an analyst with Clearview Energy Partners LLC in Washington." (Read more)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Federal spending bill includes $255 million to boost rural air service

The $1.1 trillion spending bill includes $255 million for a program that boosts rural air service, Collin Deppen reports for The Bradford Era in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Funds will be allocated to the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program, a network of federal airport subsidies designed to offset the effects of airline deregulation. (Era photo)

"The bill includes $155 million—or a $6 million increase—in payments to participating air carriers, as well as an added $100 million in over-flight fees—or amounts assessed on tickets of foreign originating flights that use U.S. airspace but do not touch down here," Deppen writes.

EAS "was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service," says the U.S. Department of Transportation website. "The Department’s mandate is to provide the EAS communities with access to the national air transportation system. As a general matter, this is accomplished by subsidizing two to four round trips a day—with three being the norm—with 19-seat aircraft to a major hub airport. The Department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service."

Cuba deal could open the door for Southeastern states to cash in on agricultural exports

President Obama's decision on Wednesday to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba could be huge for U.S. agriculture, especially in Southeastern states, as long as the Republican Congress doesn't block funding for an embassy and ambassadors.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded the decision, saying in a statement that it "expands opportunity for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba. It removes technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and creates a more efficient, less burdensome opportunity for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products. It also makes those products far more price competitive, which will expand choices for Cuban shoppers at the grocery store and create a new customer base for America's farmers and ranchers."

The U.S. has allowed agricultural exports to Cuba since 2001, but exports have drastically fluctuated on a yearly basis, from a low of $4.1 million in 2001 to a high of $710 million in 2008, Doug Palmer, Helena Bottemiller Evich and Jenny Hopkinson report for Politico. Trade has been largely limited by financial and regulatory hurdles that the Obama Administration is working to eliminate. (University of Florida graphic)

"In 2013, the U.S. exported just shy of $350 million of agricultural goods to Cuba, with frozen chicken, corn, soybeans and soybean meal, as the top products, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Chicken represented nearly half the value, with $144 million in sales," Politco reports. "Canned foods, frozen sausages and frozen pork were also among the top 10 products."

Southeastern states are in position to reap the rewards of the reforms because they are able to "easily ship products like poultry, rice and corn to Cuba, which is just a few hundred miles away," Politico reports. "As of 2006, a full quarter of Alabama’s agricultural revenue came from exports to Cuba, including sales of catfish, soybeans and poultry. Other leading states exporting to Cuba include Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi, with most products funneling through Louisiana, Florida or Virginia ports." (Read more)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo bans fracking in New York, cites health concerns

NYT  photo by Chang W. Lee
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday banned fracking throughout the state of New York, citing concerns over health risks, Thomas Kaplan reports for The New York Times. While some economically depressed towns along the Pennsylvania border rely on fracking, Cuomo said, “I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘I believe fracking is great.' Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, ‘I have no alternative but fracking.’”

Several towns have already banned fracking after the state’s highest court ruled that towns could use zoning ordinances to ban the practice, Kaplan writes. But Cuomo had avoided making a decision while waiting for a study by state health officials. The study, released Wednesday, found “significant public health risks” associated with fracking.

The oil and gas industry criticized the decision. Karen Moreau, the executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, said Cuomo made the decision because “he wants to align himself with the left,” Kaplan writes. Moreau told him, “Our citizens in the Southern Tier have had to watch their neighbors and friends across the border in Pennsylvania thriving economically. It’s like they were a kid in a candy store window, looking through the window, and not able to touch that opportunity.”

The Center for Environmental Health applauded the decision. Ansje Miller, CEH’s Eastern States Director, said in a statement: “New Yorkers can rest easier now that the governor has taken this brave, bold step to protect our children and families from the toxic effects of fracking. Today is a major victory in the movement for safer energy. Other states should follow New York’s example and join the movement for a clean energy future.”

Environmentalists prepared to be disappointed with EPA proposed coal ash disposal rules

The Environmental Protection Agency faces a Friday deadline to announce proposed coal ash disposal rules, and environmentalists are prepared to be disappointed with the decision, Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "The Obama administration appears likely to refuse to designate the material as hazardous and could let states decide whether to enforce the rules."

"The federal government always has left it up to the individual states to manage coal ash storage and disposal, and the result is an inconsistent patchwork of regulations," Cockerham writes. "Federal disclosures show that more than two dozen utilities and other energy interests have had their lobbyists working in Washington to influence coal ash decisions this year, including Duke Energy of Charlotte, N.C, which in February spilled up to 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in North Carolina and has ongoing problems disposing of more than 100 million tons of the ash elsewhere in the state."

"If the EPA declares coal ash a hazardous waste, it will mean strict and costly new rules for the material, backed up with federal enforcement," Cockerham writes. "But if the agency decides it’s non-hazardous, the new requirements will be more modest, and citizens might have to sue to get them enforced. Most analysts expect the EPA to declare the coal waste non-hazardous, based on signals from the agency." (Read more)

Freedom Industries owners, managers, employees charged in January chemical spill in West Virginia

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday "charged Freedom Industries and six of its owners, managers and employees with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

"Dennis P. Farrell, William E. Tis, Charles E. Herzing and Gary L. Southern were each charged with three counts of violating federal environmental laws," Ward writes. "Each man is charged with failing to meet a 'reasonable standard of care' in running the company." Former plant manager Michael E. Burdette and Robert J. Reynolds, an environmental compliance officer, were charged via information with one-count of violating the Clean Water Act. (Gazette photo by Chris Dorst: Gary Southern the day after the January spill. Southern faces 13 charges and a maximum of 68 years in prison)

Southern, who founded Freedom Industries in 1992, was charged with 10 other crimes and faces a maximum sentence of 68 years in prison, while Farrell, Tis and Herzing face a maximum of three years in prison, Ward writes.

The indictment said: “Their negligence resulted in and caused the discharge of a pollutant, that is, MCHM, from point sources into the Elk River. Farrell, Tis, Herzing and Southern approved funding only for those projects that would result in increased business revenue for Freedom or that were necessary to make immediate repairs to equipment that was broken or about to break." The indictment says "they failed to take any action to fund other repairs necessary for upkeep or improvements."

Mark Welch, Freedom’s chief restructuring officer, confirmed with the Gazette "that the company had entered into a plea agreement with federal authorities and said the move was aimed partly at limiting the possible fines and criminal defense costs if the company were to be indicted," Ward writes. "Welch, in a prepared statement, said the plea agreement also stipulates that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will not seek restitution from Freedom for victims of the company’s crimes because of the company’s ongoing bankruptcy proceeding." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Census maps show county-level poverty rates for school-age children

From 2007 to 2013, the poverty rate of school-age children rose in 928 counties, fell in 15 counties and "remains above pre-recession levels in nearly 30 percent of the nation’s 3,140 counties," according to recently released Census Bureau data, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post.

Rates are highest in the South and West, with 972 counties above the national average, Choksi writes. More than 80 percent of counties in New Mexico and Mississippi "had rates statistically above the national average, and in 15 percent of school districts nationally, the poverty rate for school-age children is above 30 percent."

"Nearly the same number of counties—902—had school-age child poverty rates statistically below the national average, according to the Census," Choksi writes. "In Connecticut, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming, more than 4 in 5 counties had rates statistically lower than the nation as a whole."

EPA to finalize Clean Water Act rules by spring; agency has not considered spending bill rule

Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said on Tuesday that the agency plans to finalize Clean Water Act rules by the spring, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Congressional Republicans and farmers and ranchers have protested the rules, fearing rules will expand EPA jurisdiction.

"McCarthy said the agency hasn't decided whether to replace a separate measure, an interpretive rule that provides standards for farming practices that are exempt from the pollution law's Section 404 permitting requirements," Brasher writes. "The fiscal 2015 omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress last weekend will strike down the interpretive rule, which was opposed both by farm groups and environmentalists."

McCarthy told reporters, “I want to make sure that we listen to the agriculture community about how we provide advice in a way that it's understood and it adds value. The interpretive rule clearly didn't make that mark even though it was well intended by USDA and EPA. Congress heard that, and I heard that as well." (Read more)

Northern Michigan logging and wood products industry in dire need of workers

Large numbers of loggers and foresters in Northern Michigan are hitting retirement age, creating a high demand in a profession that is losing workers to more lucrative careers in construction and paper mills, Eric Freedman reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (Michigan Farm Bureau photo)

"More than 27,000 jobs are directly in the state’s forest products industry, and more than 146,000 are supported by Michigan forests, according to Michigan State University Extension," Freedman writes. "The demand is expected to continue as the state looks for new uses for forest resources, including products and energy, according to the Michigan Biomaterials Initiative."

The main reasons for the shortages are a lack of training and a lack of knowledge about job opportunities, Brenda Owen, executive director of the Michigan Association of Timbermen, told Freedman. She said, "Everybody thinks they’re going to carry chainsaws, but we have some pretty high-tech jobs available.”

Positions needed to be filled include: lumber graders at sawmills, equipment operators, forklift operators, employees to run state-of-the-art computerized and mechanized equipment that’s operated with a joystick—like a video game—welders able to go into the woods to fix heavy equipment and drivers for logging trucks, Freedman writes.

To spark interest, local institutions have set up academic programs, Freedman writes. Last year seven students enrolled in the new associate degree program in forest technology at Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, and seven more enrolled this year. And all 16 students who graduated from the newly-formed 15-week training program in welding at the Industrial Arts Institute in the Northern Lower Peninsula were offered jobs. (Read more)

Republican senator blocks veterans' suicide prevention bill; every day 22 vets commit suicide

A veterans suicide prevention bill that needed unanimous consent to pass the Senate on Tuesday was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said the bill amounted to essentially throwing away money because the goals of the bill are already funded through programs within the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ramsey Cox reports for The Hill. (Associated Press graphic)

The bipartisan bill, which passed the House last week, "would have required the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Defense to annually arrange for an independent evaluation of the VA and DOD mental health care and suicide prevention programs," Cox writes. "It would also increase the number of psychiatrists at VA facilities." 

Coburn said of the bill, “I don’t think this bill is going to do one thing to change what is happening," Cox writes. Because Coburn is retiring, the bill could be brought up again in 2015. Around 4 million veterans are from rural areas, and half of those veterans are 65 or older. It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. (Read more)

President Obama declares Bristol Bay area in Alaska off limits for oil and gas drilling

President Obama announced on Tuesday that oil and gas drilling is off limits across a stretch of 52,000 square miles along Alaska's coast in the Bristol Bay area, Dan Joling reports for The Associated Press. "The president said in a video announcement that Bristol Bay and nearby waters, covering an area roughly the size of Florida, would be withdrawn from consideration for petroleum leases. He called Bristol Bay one of the country’s great natural resources and a massive economic engine." Advocates of the oil and gas industry have not publicly criticized the move.

Obama said the area is responsible for about $2 billion in the fishing industry and supplies the U.S. with about 40 percent of wild-caught salmon, Joling writes. Obama said, “It’s something that’s too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder." (Seattle Times map)

The president and then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "announced in March 2010 that a planned 2011 lease sale in what the Interior Department refers to as the North Aleutian Basin would be canceled," Joling writes. "Salazar cited a lack of infrastructure and the bay’s valuable natural resources. The temporary withdrawal was set to expire in 2017. Obama’s decision Tuesday under authority of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 withdraws the area permanently."

Environmentalists say the move will also protect crab, herring, halibut and groundfish—including the lucrative pollock fishery—and salmon that are returning to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers through waters that had been considered for drilling, Lisa Demer reports for Alaska Dispatch News.

Environmentalist say the decision "effectively provides permanent protection to Bristol Bay and the waters north of the Aleutian Islands, though they acknowledge another president could reverse course," Demer writes. "The waters at issue stretch over approximately 32.5 million acres in what’s called the North Aleutian Basin Planning Area, which includes Bristol Bay." (Read more)

Ohio weekly wins lawsuit by coal mogul Robert E. Murray; court cites First Amendment rights

Controversial coal mogul Robert E. Murray knows how to make headlines, often traveling coal regions to give speeches criticizing President Obama and his "War on Coal." Murray also has a reputation for suing any news organization that publishes anything unflattering about him. This time Murray, who this year expects to mine 64 million tons of coal, worth about $3.6 billion, took on a small weekly newspaper and lost.

Robert Murray
Murray last week lost his two-year battle against the Chagrin Valley Times when an Ohio court ruled in favor of the newspaper, Jonathan Peters reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Murray sued the Review for false light and defamation after the paper published a column criticizing Murray and a cartoon ridiculing him, in response to the December 2012 protest by Patriots for Change over Robert Murray’s decision to fire 156 employees after the presidential election.

"A trial court in Cuyahoga County granted summary judgment for the paper and the Patriots organization in May 2014," Peters writes. Murray appealed, and last week the Ohio Court of Appeals "affirmed the lower court based on First Amendment principles. Finding that Robert and his companies 'are public figures subject to comment and discussion,' the court held that the Dec. 20 article 'did not recklessly or knowingly publish a false statement of fact,' the editor’s column was not published with 'actual malice,' and the cartoon did not contain 'an injuriously false factual assertion made with actual malice.' Thus, each was a protected form of speech."

The court's decision said: "This case illustrates the need for Ohio to join the majority of states in this country that have enacted statutes that provide for quick relief from suits aimed at chilling protected speech. . . . The fact that the Chagrin Valley Times website has been scrubbed of all mention of Murray or this protest is an example of the chilling effects this has. . . . Given Ohio’s particularly strong desire to protect individual speech, as embodied in its Constitution, Ohio should adopt an anti-SLAPP statute to discourage punitive litigation designed to chill constitutionally protected speech."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Safety concerns keeping commercial drone operators from going about their business

The future has arrived in a stirring debate of controversy. Drones offer a cheaper, easier and more productive way to conduct many businesses—from agriculture to journalism to the film industry to fighting fires to dozens of other areas. (Air Dog photo)

But safety concerns have put the future of commercial drone use in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline to set rules for commercial use. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last month that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws. Until FAA rules are put in place, most commercial use of drones remains illegal.

"If the rules are reasonable, more than 70,000 jobs could be created within three years, says Mario Mairena, head of government relations for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, reports The Economist. The organization believes that "commercial benefits from drones for the American economy are worth more than $10 billion a year."

The problem is that many commercial operators have grown impatient waiting for official rules and have flown drones whenever and wherever they liked, which has led to crashes and several near misses, Gregory A. Hall reports for The Courier Journal in Louisville. 

FAA "released statistics to several media outlets in recent weeks in response to public records requests that showed a report of pilots seeing drones roughly daily during an almost-six-month period beginning June 1," Hall writes. "Using that data, The Washington Post calculated 25 near misses."

University of Louisville assistant professor Adrian Lauf told Hall that near-collisions are "definitely on the increase and there are a lot of people that now have access to these aircraft. Not as many of them are smart about it, and they don't realize the consequences. And that's perhaps one of the reasons why the FAA's probably going to require a pilot's license. . . . they have no other way of verifying that a UAV pilot has the knowledge of how airspace has to be handled."

One solution is to create more collision-avoidance technology, reports The Economist. "Passenger aircraft carry transponders that relay their position to ground radar. But an aircraft-type transponder would be too heavy for many small drones to carry, and with plastic or styrofoam airframes, they might not be detected with radar."

GPS-based devices that are part of a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast could be the answer, reports The Economist. "These devices repeatedly broadcast not just the aircraft’s position but other data, including its flight path. They also receive similar co-ordinates from any nearby aircraft. ADS-B is part of a new generation of air-traffic management being installed in America, Europe and elsewhere."