Friday, March 07, 2014

Rural editor-publisher wonders why so many of his uninsured neighbors haven't signed up for coverage

With open enrollment in the new health-insurance exchanges ending March 31, at least one rural editor wonders why most people in his community who lack coverage haven't take advantage of the historic opportunity. And since he's in Kentucky, he used the state's next-to-last ranking in the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index as the point of departure for an article that took up most of his editorial page.

"Kentucky is its own worst enemy . . . and if you think this is just an Eastern Kentucky problem, you aren't paying attention," Editor-Publisher Ryan Craig, right, wrote in last week's Todd County Standard, in Western Kentucky. "Our numbers suggest we are as miserable as anywhere in the state, i.e., the nation." Craig then listed statistics for poverty, income, education and health insurance and said bluntly, "We are near the bottom in all of these categories, which are the same categories that cause Kentucky to have such a dismal ranking in the Miserable Test year after year."

Craig said Todd County, "it seems, is among the bottom of counties who signed up for the Affordable Care Act," and wondered why only 533 of the estimated 2,455 people in his county without health insurance have signed up for it: "Is it because of fear of the unknown? Politics?" President Obama got only 29.7 percent of the county's vote in the 2012 election.

"The prevailing answer people tell me is that they would rather pay the tax penalty and not have the insurance," Craig reported. "What would happen if that person or someone in their family was in a car wreck? They readily admit that they are taking a big chance, but don't see how they can afford the insurance even when it is cheaper now, especially those who are very sick and couldn't get insurance before." One man told Craig he would have to declare bankruptcy.

"The deadline to apply for health insurance through the exchange is March 31," Craig wrote. "If you don't have insurance, at least consider the process." The Standard has been judged Kentucky's best small weekly newspaper seven years in a row, but doesn't put news or editorials online. For a scan of the editorial as a PDF, click here.

Federal judge dismisses drone fine; decision appears to make use legal below 400 feet

A decision by a federal judge on Thursday could open the door for more commercial enterprises, such as as farming and journalism, to use drones in their daily operations. The judge dismissed a $10,000 fine the Federal Aviation Administration levied on a Swiss drone operator for using one of the aircraft while filming a commercial for the University of Virginia’s medical school, "saying there was no law banning the commercial use of small drones," Kevin Robillard reports for Politico. "The ruling, for now, appears to make it legal for drones to fly at the low altitude (below 400 feet) as part of a business."

The FAA has claimed commercial drone use is illegal, but has said it can't effectively enforce the law. But National Transportation Safety Board Administrative Law Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled "that the policy notices the FAA issued as a basis for the ban weren’t enforceable because they hadn’t been written as part of a formal rulemaking process." (Read more)

Bill Allen, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri journalism school, which offers a drone journalism class, and journalism graduate student Sangeeta Shastry, wrote for the Society of Environmental Journalists about a former student, Brendan Gibbons, who discovered that he could use a drone for environmental journalism by taking aerial photographs of the North Dakota Bakken Shale region. Gibbons said “the drone was never meant to replace a reporter’s most effective tools — interviews and documents,” but his drone images furthered his story in a way that wouldn't have been possible if he had been granted access to walk around the site. (Mizzou photo by Allen: Gibbons downloads a file from a drone)

And that's why drones could be an effective tool for community newspapers, Allen and Shastry wrote in the latest issue of SEJournal: "Because of their multimedia potential and relatively low cost (helicopters generally run $1,000 an hour), drones can even the playing field and lower barriers to entry for smaller news organizations looking to develop new technologies and sustain their competitiveness. Local news coverage in particular could benefit greatly. They’re also easily obtained. You could finish this article, go to and have a fully-equipped, almost-ready-to-fly DJI Phantom quadcopter delivered to your door tomorrow." (Read more) Allen is an academic partner of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Study points to hydraulic fracturing waste injection wells as reason for rise in Oklahoma earthquakes

An increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma has been blamed by some on injection wells used to dispose of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, while others have criticized that theory. Either way, Oklahoma ranked second in earthquakes in 2013 with 99. A paper published this week, by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, Cornell University and Columbia University, points the finger at fracking. On Thursday, USGS "said that the magnitude-5.7 earthquake that rocked Oklahoma in 2011 was the largest ever attributed to the injection of waste from oil and gas drilling," Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire

The USGS release had a qualifier: "If this hypothesis is correct, the M5.7 earthquake would be the largest and most powerful earthquake ever associated with wastewater injection." The agency "had previously noted a 'remarkable' increase in earthquakes in the middle of the United States, most likely linked to disposal of waste fluid from oil and gas production," Soraghan writes. "Central Oklahoma, USGS says, is in the midst of an injection-related earthquake 'swarm.'" (Read more)

Rural residents are less sensitive to allergens than those of metropolitan areas, study finds

Ragweed is a common allergen.
Rural residents are less sensitive to allergens than people in metropolitan areas, according to a study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The study found that in metro areas, "50 percent of the population was sensitized to at least one allergen, but only 40 percent in rural areas," Nicholas Bakalar reports for The New York Times. "Outdoor allergens like grass and ragweed affected 37.8 percent of the urban population, but less than a quarter of people in non-metropolitan areas, possibly because respiratory allergies are associated with air pollution."

"Researchers gave blood tests to 8,124 people, 856 of them children under 6, to detect immunoglobulin E antibodies, or IgEs," Bakalar writes. "The presence of an IgE antibody that reacts to a specific substance increases the risk of having an allergy-related illness ike allergic asthma, hay fever or rash." (Read more)

Idaho college students could soon be allowed to carry guns on campus; schools oppose law

Despite overwhelming opposition from all eight public colleges and universities, Idaho lawmakers passed a bill Thursday to allow students to carry guns on campus, Besty Russell reports for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.  Republican Gov. Butch Otter has publicly endorsed the bill. Current law allows public colleges and universities to regulate guns on their own campuses, and most ban them. (NBC News photo: Protestors outside the Idaho Statehouse)

"Frustrated student leaders from the state’s campuses said lawmakers dismissed opposition from all eight public university presidents, the state Board of Education, faculty senates and student associations," Russell writes. "Petitions with more than 3,000 signatures opposing the bill were delivered to the Idaho Legislature on Wednesday." It didn't matter, with the bill easily passing 50-19.

"University officials say complying with the bill will cost them millions of dollars, said Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise)," Russell writes. Rubel told lawmakers “What’s the justification of this financial kneecapping of colleges? Just to make an abstract philosophical statement?” Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa) responded: “What do you think the price of an individual’s freedom and their personal safety is? What kind of price tag would you put on that?” (Read more)

Judge orders Duke Energy to remove sources of contamination from Feb. 2 coal ash spill

A Superior Court judge in North Carolina on Thursday ordered Duke Energy to “'take immediate action to eliminate sources of contamination, such as ash ponds that allow sludge-like coal waste to leach into the ground. The utility company must do so regardless of the continuing negotiations it has pending with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources over past groundwater contamination or future clean-up efforts,'" Bertrand Gutierrez reports for the Winston-Salem Journal

The order is in response to a Feb. 2 spill that sent coal ash into the Dan River, and a subsequent lawsuit "filed by Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and Western North Carolina Alliance seeking clarification on state clean-water laws – after the N.C. Environment Management Commission said that utilities such as Duke Energy did not have to immediately remove sources of contamination," Gutierrez writes. The groups requested that Duke Energy stop contaminating groundwater at its 14 coal-fired power plants statewide. (Read more)

Watchdog Wire asks citizens to audit government sites, report accessibility in Sunshine Week

In honor of Sunshine Week, scheduled March 16-22, Watchdog Wire, part of the conservative Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is encouraging Americans to get involved in open government through a process that can be used by anyone with Internet access. The organization, which has news sites in many states, wants people to audit their city, county or township websites and send a blog post to Watchdog about how user friendly and transparent the sites are to use. Watchdog will post the responses on their site, and send feedback to local government agencies on behalf of respondents.

"Can you access budgets on your county website, or find contact information for all public officials? Are meeting minutes available? Is there a database of all public spending?" Rachel Swaffer writes for Watchdog Wire. "In our opinion, It’s the 21st century – and this stuff should be online!" Swaffer said the audits are surprisingly easy to conduct, and offers step-by-step instructions on how to use the sites, and what to look for. "Let’s make some noise about the state of government websites in America," Swaffer writes. "Tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly – and we will feature your work on Watchdog Wire." (Read more)

National Groundwater Awareness Week, March 9-15, promotes testing of household well water

National Groundwater Awareness Week is scheduled from March 9-15. The National Ground Water Association recommends that owners of household water wells, most of them rural, use this opportunity to test their drinking water. Cliff Treyens, NGWA public awareness director, said in a press release: “We encourage private well owners to check with an appropriate state agency or local health department about any area-specific water testing recommendations.”

The NWGA also said owners should check their water more often if "there is a change in the taste, odor, or appearance of the water, a problem occurs such as a broken well cap or a new contamination source, family members or houseguests have recurrent incidents of gastrointestinal illness, an infant is living in the home, or here is a need to monitor the efficiency and performance of home water treatment equipment." (Read more)

State certification officers for drinking water laboratories can be found by clicking here. Water testing information from WellOwner can be found by clicking here.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Appalachian coal firm to pay $27.5 million for water pollution, largest civil penalty ever levied by EPA

Alpha Natural Resources agreed in federal court at Charleston, W.Va., to pay a record $27.5 million civil penalty for nearly 6,300 cases of pollution at the company's operations across 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants in Appalachia, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will share half the fine; the agreement also applies to locations in Virginia and Tennessee.

As part of the agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bristol, Va., company will also be required to improve its water treatment practices, Ward writes. It will spend $200 million "to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and to implement comprehensive, system-wide upgrades to reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines."

Other plans "include building new treatment facilities, but others would piggyback on treatment operations already underway as a result of previous court settlements with citizen groups," Ward writes. "The deal also involves some locations where Alpha will deal with selenium by pumping contaminated water into old underground mines."

"Monitoring records attached to the complaint show that in some cases, the releases exceeded permit limits by as much as 35 times," Allie Robinson Gibson writes for the Bristol Herald Courier.

Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said "The unprecedented size of the civil penalty in this settlement sends a strong message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation's Clean Water Act will not be tolerated." (Read more)

Vermont town votes to leave zoning changes up to the old-fashioned town meeting

Residents in a small town in Vermont have spoken loud and clear that they want to be classified as rural so they can retain direct control over land-use planning. The state allows towns with populations between 2,500 to 5,000 to choose whether they want to be designated as urban or rural, and residents in Shaftsbury (right) voted down an amendment from "the planning commission and select board that the town switch to an urban designation," which would leave zoning decisions up to the Board of Selectmen rather than meetings open to all town residents, in the New England tradition. Derek Carson reports for the Bennington Banner. The amendment failed 493-242.

"The issue of rural versus urban designation came up when Town Administrator Margy Becker discovered that the town had been adopting zoning bylaws incorrectly," Carson writes. "In 1987, Shaftsbury voted to switch from an urban to a rural town. At some point in the late 2000s, Shaftsbury had begun adopted bylaws by select board vote rather than by town vote." Board members argued that leaving the town's designation as rural would mean residents could be voting on issues they don't understand, but residents argued that remaining rural means the townspeople have the final say on issues concerning Shaftsbury. (Read more)

College Board to drop SAT essay, offer free study material, pay some college application fees

Students stressed about taking the SAT can relax a little. Beginning in 2016, the test, which added a timed essay in 2006, will drop that requirement, making the essay optional, and will switch up vocabulary, replacing more complicated words with ones more commonly used in college and the workplace, Nick Anderson reports for The Washington Post. The test will also return to a 1600-point format instead of the 2400-point format used since 2006.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing said scores have dropped by an average score of 20 points since the essay was added, and the College Board said only 43 percent of students who took the test in 2013 received a high enough grade to likely earn A's and B's in college, Adrienne Lu reports for Stateline.

Critics say the changes won't make much difference "in part because the test’s scores historically have correlated with family income," Anderson writes. But the College Board said it has plans to alleviate that problem, saying it will offer new test-preparation tutorials for free online, as an alternative to the pricey ones students purchase from private companies. They also said they "will deliver four college application fee waivers to each test-taker meeting income eligibility requirements, allowing them to apply to schools for free." Those steps could especially help rural students. (Read more)

Writer: 'Hollywood Hillbillies' resembles 'Real Beverly Hillbillies' but won't cause much fuss

Ten years ago, the Center for Rural Strategies led the charge to keep CBS from airing "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," a proposed show that many feared would ridicule rural families. While reality-show producers have made a fortune on rural-based shows, no one has tried to replicate the idea of the old show starring the Clampetts—until now, with the introduction of the "Hollywood Hillbillies" on Reelz, Janney Lockman writes for the Daily Yonder. (Reelz photo)

But this time, the show—and any campaign to get it off the air—probably won't make the news, Lockman opines. "The closest we’ll be able to get to 'The Real Beverly Hillbillies' is here, and I’m not worried. You shouldn’t be either. Because I can’t imagine that the show will last longer than a season. Sure, someone turns his truck bed into a Jacuzzi, and there are some references to urinating outside. But aside from their accents, the family in 'Hollywood Hillbillies' could have come from almost any town in the United States."  

"Networks want a fish-out-of-water story, but the truth is, the pond’s gone dry," Lockman writes. "Rural America doesn’t exist in a vacuum from the rest of the world. It isn’t a land frozen in time, an innocent paradise depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. We’ve had electricity and television for a long time now and Internet access at increasing rates." And since the family on the show gained limited success through Youtube, "It’s no surprise that moving them to Hollywood makes for unremarkable reality television. Hollywood Hillbillies may shock and offend, but who’s watching?" (Read more)

Environmental, health groups sue EPA for rules to disclose pesticide ingredients

"Three environmental and public health groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, seeking to press it to move forward with rules that would require public disclosure of certain pesticide ingredients," Carey Gilliam reports for Reuters. The groups, the Center for Environmental Health, Beyond Pesticides and Physicians for Social Responsibility, "claimed there has been an 'unreasonable delay' on the EPA's part in finalizing rules to require chemical manufacturers to disclose hazardous inert ingredients in their pesticide products."

The EPA was petitioned in 2006 by more than 20 health groups and state attorneys to take action, but it wasn't until 2009 that the agency said "it was starting the rule-making process regarding disclosures of such ingredients," Gilliam writes. Five years later the EPA still hasn't adopted any new rules. The suit claims "There are more than 350 inert pesticide ingredients that can be just as hazardous as active ingredients that are labeled and can comprise up to 99 percent of a pesticide's formulation. Of the common inert ingredients, many are classified as carcinogenic, possibly carcinogenic or potentially toxic." (Read more)

Nearly 2 million long-term jobless lack benefits

Almost two million Americans who have been unemployed for at least six months are missing out on benefits since Congress let the program expire, and it's likely that some of them live in your coverage area. In seven states—California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania—more than 100,000 people are going without benefits, Jake Grovum reports for Stateline. In most other states, the numbers are in the thousands.

"From 2008 through the first half of 2013, Washington spent $252 billion on extended benefits for least 24 million unemployed Americans," Grovum writes. The National Employment Law Project said "If the program is not reinstated before April, states and their unemployed workers will have missed out on more than $5 billion in federal money." (For a state-by-state interactive map of benefit cuts click here; example below)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Rural South Dakota paper honored for open-records fight that began with a reader seeing a legal ad

For the past four years The Daily Republic has been named the best small daily newspaper in South Dakota. The 11,000-circulation paper in Mitchell recently received another honor: the inaugural Public Notice Journalism Award. The Public Notice Resource Center awarded it to the Republic for using public notice to champion open records and freedom of the press. The paper will receive the award March 13 at the National Press Club.

"The newspaper is recognized for a series inaugurated by an alert reader who spotted a payment by a local school board in a public notice," the PNRC says on its website. "The reader’s tip to the newspaper led to a protracted open-records lawsuit by the newspaper against the school district. The conclusion: the revelation of a $175,000 severance agreement with a former school superintendent that otherwise would not have reached the readers’ attention."

Republic Editor Seth Tupper told PNRC that the series "all started with the reader who saw the payment in the legals and called us with the tip. Without those legals, I don’t believe anyone outside of the school district board and administration would ever have known about the amount or nature of the $175,000 agreement between the school district and the ex-superintendent."

PNRC President Bradley L. Thompson II, chairman and CEO of the Detroit Legal News, said, “This series is a terrific illustration of why it is important for governments to keep these notices where the public is likely to find them. The reader in this case helped to point to the story.  The reporting staff and their freedom-of-information lawsuit did the rest." (Read more)  To view the Daily Republic click here.

In many states, local governments are asking legislatures to reduce legal-notice requirements to reduce costs. "We think that cost is a small and worthy investment in keeping the public informed about the workings of government," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, and a former president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Public-notice laws are the often-overlooked third leg of the three-legged stool that supports freedom of information, the others being laws for open records and open meetings, including open courts."

Here are links to the Republic series, all in 2013: Secretive contract ordered publicSecret agreement goes to courtPaper wins lawsuit against schoolSecret agreement still secretHuron secret agreement unsealed, read aloudAmount of secret agreement confirmed, and the column above: We raise hell – because it’s our duty.

Primary care, a big focus of health reform, faces challenges as doctors deal with change

Primary-care doctors are key to the nation's health by providing preventive care to people who haven't been getting it but are now under federal health reform. However, some independent physicians are struggling to run their businesses due to "flat or dropping reimbursement rates and new federal rules," many related to reform, Abby Goodnough writes for The New York Times.

Primary care is more in demand because many states used it to expand Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty line.

Dr. Sven Jonsson joined Kentucky's Baptist Health System two years ago after leaving private practice in Louisville, fearing the law's often-expensive requirements. Now he is treating more patients, in the rural exurb of Taylorsville, and Baptist is handling all the details of the transition into the new health-care system.  "This is just a much saner place for me right now," he said.

Conversely, Dr. Tracy Ragland owns a small private practice in the wealthy suburb of Crestwood, and is concerned about the rules and payments associated with the new system. "The possibility of not being able to survive in a private practice, especially primary care, is very real," she said.

According to the American Medical Association, 40 percent of family doctors and pediatricians are independent. Though Ragland supports the idea of providing health coverage to more Americans, but says Medicaid and some private plans offered through Kentucky's health-insurance exchange don't pay enough, so she does not treat those patients. She says she values the flexibility of her private practice and the ability to spend as much time with patients as they need.

However, Ragland did join an "accountable care organization," a group of independent physicians who arrange care for a number of patients. "These networks, encouraged by the new law, reap financial rewards if they improve patients' health and spend less doing it," Goodnough notes. Ragland and her associates know that primary-care doctors can receive higher, Medicare-level reimbursements for seeing Medicaid patients, but this only lasts through 2014 and they didn't take the bait.

Doctors who have joined hospitals, like Jonsson, receive a baseline salary with bonuses for extra productivity, but that will probably change because the reform law will base payments on results. When Jonsson owned his own practice, he didn't accept Medicaid. At his new workplace at Baptist Medical Associates, he can treat Medicaid patients because the practice has space to grow, said Donna Ghobadi, an assistant vice president at the hospital.

Recently Kentucky passed a bill that will "give experienced nurse practitioners more leeway to practice independently," Goodnough reports. Ragland went to the state Capitol to ask legislators to give scholarships to medical and nursing students who will practice in under-served areas. "I don't get the emphasis on primary care is so important, but primary care physicians aren't," she said. Lawmakers said they will consider her ideas next year. (Read more)

International Energy Agency chief says U.S. shale-oil and -gas boom will last only until 2025

Maria van der Hoeven
The oil-and-gas boom from deep, dense shales in the U.S. will only last until 2025, when it will flatten out and go down, and most drilling will shift to Asia, International Energy Agency chief executive Maria van der Hoeven told David Unger of The Christian Science Monitor. Her prediction for the end of the U.S. boom comes sooner than most other organizations have estimated.

"There’s a lot of shale gas in the world, but it’s not as easily accessible as it was in the United States," van der Hoeven told Unger. "The land ownership and the resource ownership go together here in the United States—the only country where that is the case. It’s also about having the right gas industry, the right knowledge, the right infrastructure, the water, the human skills, the geological information, etc. And geology in this part of the world—especially where the shale gas boom is—is quite different from Ukraine or Poland. You can learn from it, but it’s not a copy-and-paste." (Read more)

IEA had previously said the U.S. would lead the world in oil production for another 20 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that production at the Eagle Ford shale in Texas and the Bakken shale in North Dakota, two of the biggest producers in the U.S., could peak by 2021, before beginning a long, slow decline through 2040, Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central. (Read more)

Obama's budget would cut crop insurance, boost research and rural broadband, help bees

UPDATE, March 6: The budget proposal also includes cuts in development and housing programs, "including nearly $160 million in cuts to Water/Wastewater grants, $66 million less for Rural Business programs, and $38 million in cuts to Rural Housing programs," and $93. million in cuts to the the U.S. Department of Agriculture's poultry inspection program, reports the Daily Yonder. (Read more)

The recently passed Farm Bill increased investments in crop insurance by $5.7 billion, but President Obama's $3.9 trillion fiscal 2015 budget proposal released Tuesday calls for the program to be cut by about $14 billion over 10 years. "The bill also contains language restricting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ability to make future budget cuts in crop insurance," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.  The government pays $3 billion per year "for the private insurance companies to administer and underwrite the program and $6 billion per year in premium subsidies to the farmers."

USDA's proposed budget of $23.7 billion in discretionary spending would be $938 million less than its current funding, but it includes more money fro rural broadband and "the creation of three agricultural research institutes dedicated to crop science, advanced bio-based manufacturing and anti-microbial resistance research," costing $75 million, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post.

Agri-Pulse reports the proposal also:
• Has $50 million "to enhance research through public-private grants, strengthen pollinator habitat in core areas, double the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program that are dedicated to pollinator health and increase funding for surveys to determine the impacts on pollinator losses."
• Has "$58 million for a new economic-development grant program designed to target small and emerging private businesses and cooperatives in rural areas."
• "Supports direct and guaranteed loans to assist 40,000 producers, 85 percent of which will be beginning farmers and ranchers and socially disadvantaged producers."
• "Provides an increase of $12 million to reduce waste, fraud and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," better known as food stamps, the big-ticket item in any Farm Bill.

Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here. To read a statement by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the budget proposal, click here.

South has more than half of hate groups, center says

Groups that promote hate speech are alive and well in the U.S., especially in the South, with more than half of the 939 known active hate groups located in 11 Southern states, says the Southern Poverty Law Center. The total number of active groups is currently down from an all-time high of 1,018 in 2011 but is still double the 457 groups in 1999, Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post.

"The eight types of hate groups the center has identified include white nationalists, black separatists, neo-confederates, Christian identity, skinheads, Ku Klux Klans and neo-Nazis, along with a handful of miscellaneous groups," Wilson writes. The Southern Poverty Law Center says hate group activity includes "criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing."

While the South has the biggest clusters of groups, the megastate of California leads all states with 77, followed by Florida with 58 and Texas with 57. Georgia has 50, followed by New Jersey, 44; New York, 42; Pennsylvania, 41; Tennessee, 37; North Carolina, 33; Indiana and Virginia, 26; Arkansas, 24; Missouri and Illinois, 23; Mississippi and Alabama, 22; and South Carolina, Arizona and Louisiana, 20. Lightly populated rural states also have the fewest known groups, led by Hawaii with none, Alaska and North Dakota, 1; Maine, Wyoming and South Dakota, 2; Rhode Island, 3; Vermont and Delaware, 4; Kansas, Iowa and Connecticut, 5; and Utah and New Mexico, 6. (Southern Law Poverty Center Map: Hate groups in the U.S. For a interactive map of state-by-state statistics click here)

Nebraska gets $5.3 million to update rural ambulances to better serve heart-attack victims

Nebraska is investing in saving the lives of rural heart-attack victims. The Midwest Affiliate of the American Heart Association announced Tuesday a $5.3 million initiative called Mission: Lifeline that "will update the equipment in rural ambulances to help emergency responders better identify and triage a severe type of heart attack known as ST-elevated myocardial infarction," Shelby Fleig reports for the Omaha World-Herald. "The hope is that by identifying this type of heart attack more quickly, patients can be taken to the nearest medical facility ready to perform a coronary angioplasty, the ideal treatment for this kind of attack, the association said."

Tom Appleget, director of invasive cardiology at Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, told Fleig, “Some of these volunteer squads can’t afford some of the systems. This allows them to own the equipment and transmit the EKG to a physician from the field and bypass a hospital that doesn’t have a (catheterization) lab.” (Read more)

Every year 5,000 Nebraskans die of heart failure, reports KETV in Omaha. The new equipment is available in most urban areas and some rural ones, such as Beatrice, a town of 12,000 located in the southeastern corner. Already in Beatrice, the equipment has helped save three lives, said Fire Chief Brian Daake. Michael Schnieders, CEO of Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney, told KETV, “This is a great for rural health care in Nebraska, especially for heart patients, their love ones and their family members." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Some rural recycling centers struggle to stay open

Recycling can be problematic in rural America because it lacks the population density to make pickup practical, and in many areas there is a tradition of disposing of trash on your own land. Some rural recycling centers in states like Indiana are losing money and struggling to remain open, Laura Lane reports for the Bloomington Herald Times: "Despite hard work, years of promotion and increased citizen participation, money continues to leach from many small-town recycling ventures."

In Owen County (orange on map), where the center has been losing money for four years, the 2013 budget was $100,000, but income was onlky $40,000, Lane reports. In Brown County, budget cutbacks have forced solid-waste facilities to close on Mondays. A recycling center in Greene County has lost money five straight years, and could run out of money before the end of the year. Employee Tony Thomas told Lane, "We used to, years ago, be able to break even, but not anymore." (Greene County is directly below Owen County. Brown County is two counties west of Owen.)

The problem is that recycling just doesn't bring in much money, with newspapers going for a penny a pound, and businesses that collect trash charging $1 or $2 per bag, Lane writes. The solution, some say, is to stop the service. That's not good news for people like Owen County Interim director John Reeves, who lives in a remote rural area, who has no trash service at his home, and takes his trash to recycling centers. He told Lane, "I don't know what will happen. We are taking it a week and a month at a time. Nobody wants to close the recycling center, but it doesn't look like there is anything we can do to keep it open. But we keep trying." (Read more) The Herald Times is subscription only, but some stories can be accessed by clicking here.

Idaho gets ag-gag law; Ind. trespass bill passes

It is now illegal to secretly film animal cruelty at Idaho agricultural businesses. On Friday Republican  Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (left) signed a bill that imposes up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine for "people caught surreptitiously filming agricultural operation," John Miller reports for The Associated Press. The bill "prohibits making audio or video recordings of such operations without first getting permission, and criminalizes obtaining records from agricultural operations by force or misrepresentation. Lying on an employment application for such a farm is also outlawed."

The bill was a response to undercover videos by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals that showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy, which has more than 60,000 cows in various locations, "beating, stomping, dragging and sexually abusing cows in 2012," Miller writes. "Idaho's $2.5 billion dairy industry complained the group used its videos not to curb abuse, but to unfairly hurt Bettencourt's business. Bettencourt operates dairies at numerous locations that include more than 60,000 cows and is one of the largest dairy companies in the U.S."

Otter said in a statement: "My signature today reflects my confidence in their desire to responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends. No animals-rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well-treated and productive." (Read more)

The bill was the latest in a series of what critics call "ag-gag bills," aimed at quashing investigation of animal agriculture. The Indiana House and Senate have sent Republican Gov. Mike Pence a trespassing bill that "does not ban taking pictures or making videos, does not change existing law on reporting animal abuse, and contains no penalties for getting creative on a job application," Dan Flynn reports for Food Safety News. The bill gives "agricultural property the same protection against trespass that’s now afforded to schools, churches and private homes. Trespass and do damages of more than $750 to agricultural property, and the offender will be charged with a felony carrying jail time of up to three years." (Read more)

Baptist churches in Ky. giving away guns as an 'outreach to rednecks' to fill seats, win souls

What better way to get people to go to church than with the promise of free steaks and the chance to walk out with a brand new gun? The Kentucky Baptist Convention has created what its spokesman has called an "outreach to rednecks" in celebration of the Second Amendment, in which "churches around the state give away guns as door prizes to lure in nonbelievers in hopes of converting them to Christ," Andrew Wolfson reports for The Courier-Journal. (Photo by Stephen Lance Dennee: Danny Phillips examines the gun he won in February)

Guns "are donated by local businesses and presented briefly to the winners in church, so they can be photographed with their prize," Wolfson writes for the Louisville newspaper. "For legal and liability reasons, the firearms are taken back and must be reclaimed at a local gun shop, where the winner must pass a federal background check."
The program is spearheaded by ex-pastor and former Outdoor Channel hunting-show host Chuck McAlister, who "said 1,678 men made 'professions of faith' at about 50 such events last year, most of them in Kentucky," Wolfson reports. McAlister "said he can understand that some people have a problem with giving away guns at churches, but he told Wolfson, “We certainly don’t advocate violence. We are advocating guns for hunting and protection only.”

"It's a tested evangelism strategy: To find new members, get out of the church and go to where they live, work and play," writes Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader, in a story that is more a profile of McAlister.

But the gun giveaway isn't going over well with some religious leaders. Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Louisville’s independent and liberal Highland Baptist Church, told Wolfson, “Can you picture Jesus giving away guns, or toasters or raffle tickets? . . . He gave away bread once, but that was as a sign, not a sales pitch." Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Church in Versailles and the former director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, told Wolfson: “Churches should not be encouraging people in their communities to arm themselves against their neighbors, but to love their neighbors, as instructed by Jesus. How terrible it would be if one of those guns given away at a church were to cause the death of an innocent victim.” Notably, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Rifle Association declined Wolfson's requests for comment.

The next event, Thursday in Western Kentucky, is expected to draw as many as 1,000. Based on those numbers, and similar ones at previous events, McAlister said the program is a success. He told Wolfson, “The day of hanging a banner in front of your church and saying you’re having a revival and expecting the community to show up is over. You have to know the hook that will attract people, and hunting is huge in Kentucky. So we get in there and burp and scratch and talk about the right to bear arms and that stuff.” (Read more)

Federal study says Yellowstone-area bison can be restored without disease risk to other livestock

The wild bison population in the area around Yellowstone National Park could be restored by using bison free of cattle disease to establish new herds without posing a risk to livestock, according to a Department of Agriculture study to be published in the next edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Laura Zuckerman reports for Reuters. 

Hunting reduced the bison population in the early 20th century to "fewer than 50 that found refuge" in Yellowstone, Zuckerman writes. "Today, the more than 4,000 buffalo that roam Yellowstone are a top tourist attraction in the park, which occupies the northwestern corner of Wyoming and spills over into Idaho and Montana. But the iconic animals face capture and death when they wander beyond the park in Montana during winter in search of food."

But the Yellowstone bison face a new threat in the form of brucellosis, "an infection that can cause stillbirths in cows and was introduced to the park by domestic livestock," Zuckerman writes. "Montana's cattle industry, an influential political constituency in the state, fears that straying buffalo will transmit the illness to cows that graze near Yellowstone. That could cause Montana to lose its brucellosis-free status, which allows cattle to be shipped out of state without testing and preserves their market value." That led to a controversial federal-state management plan "that has allowed thousands to be shipped to slaughter when harsh winters lead them from the snow-covered high country to winter range in lower elevations outside the park in Montana."

For the past three years some bison have been quarantined on Native American lands in Montana and regularly tested for signs of brucellosis, Zuckerman writes. "Animal disease specialists with the USDA and a scientist from the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society show that culling out bison calves exposed to brucellosis can make for a disease-free herd." Keith Aune, co-author of the study, wrote, "The key conclusion is that it's feasible for us to take bison from Yellowstone and make them eligible to be used for restoration. They are a very important source of genes that harken back to the ancient DNA of North American bison." (Read more)

Monday, March 03, 2014

EPA moves to block proposed Alaskan metal mine

The Environmental Protection Agency "announced Friday it was moving to protect the Bristol Bay watershed, home to the world's largest sockeye salmon runs, under an obscure element of the Clean Water Act," Lisa Demer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. "Its actions could lead to a virtually unprecedented administrative veto of the proposed Pebble Mine even before developers formally submit plans." The proposed mine has been a subject of controversy since it was introduced, with the EPA last month saying the mine would destroy between 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands. (Pebble Science map)

EPA said a number of steps must happen before it decides whether to block the mine, but officials also stressed that the fishery is an 'extraordinary resource' that needs special protection," Demer writes.  "Half of the world's sockeye salmon are produced in the Bristol Bay watershed in runs that average 37.5 million fish a year."

Alaska Republicans, led by Gov. Sean Parnell, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, said they plan to fight the decision. Young said, "This expansive, jurisdictional power grab proposed by the EPA severely jeopardizes not only Alaska's sovereignty but the rights of states and all private property owners nationwide." (Read more)

Read more here:

March 24 is deadline to apply for fellowships to do health-reporting projects in rural communities

The International Center for Journalists is offering 10 Community Health Reporting Fellowships for journalists who cover rural, low-income and minority communities. March 24 is the deadline for proposing a project to be published or broadcast by Oct. 1.

The center says it "will select 10 journalists to spend a week in Washington, D.C., in June 2014. The fellows will hone their skills and learn about new tools that will help them improve their coverage of health issues and engagement with their audiences. While in Washington, they will also meet with top leaders on Capitol Hill and other major players in the health industry, giving them face-to-face contact and access to sources. They will go on reporting field trips to local, underserved communities. And they will meet with experts at health-care associations and major health-research institutes and agencies."

An applicant's proposed project must meet the mission of the program. The center expects the fellows to use their new tools and resources on the in-depth projects, and will award small grants to help cover the projects' costs. For more information, click here.

Long, hard winter protects some endangered animals

The rough winter isn't all bad for some animals, including some endangered species that use snow and ice to protect themselves and their eggs.

Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources photo
Karner blue butterflies, found in the Great Lakes states, “do best when there’s continual deep snow through the whole winter,” state adaptation specialist Chris Hoving told Lacee Shepard of Michigan's Capital News Service. “That’s what we’ve had this winter for the first time in decades. It’s excellent weather for blue butterflies.”

The butterflies like to lay eggs in late summer that overwinter and hatch in spring, Barbara Hosler, an endangered-species coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “They lay eggs in leaf litter close to the ground for more protection from the elements. That snow cover will provide insulation, protect eggs from actual air temperatures which can be quite a bit colder than ground level underneath a nice blanket of snow. It also keeps the eggs from drying out, which can get them through the winter.”

Populations of the butterfly fell last year, "but there is hope that this severe winter will allow for a rise in population," Shepard reports, noting that it is among more than 100 endangered species in Michigan that are "threatened to some degree by a warming climate."

One such species is the cisco, a fish that lays eggs under ice and needs lack of wave action for them to survive, Shepard reports. "Other endangered species that are doing well in the heavy snowfall include snowshoe hare (Wikipedia photo), a mammal that turns white in winter months, said Hoving. This year’s heavy snow allows for the hare to blend in with its seasonal white coat. The ruffed grouse is taking advantage of the snow, said Hoving. The grouse will burrow under deep snow to hide from predators. Last year’s lack of snow left the grouse exposed." (Read more via Great Lakes Echo)

California clunkers, many of them rural, are blamed for half the state's air pollution

California's plan to shift to electric and other less-polluting forms of transportation is leaving out rural residents who "drive older, high-polluting cars and can't afford electric vehicles" and have little or no public transportation, reports Sarah Rohrs for Media News Group.

"This large fleet of polluting vehicles form a big barrier in the state's effort to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions as required by law," Rohrs writes, citing a report by the Next Generation think tank, based in San Francisco. It estimates that 15 percent of California's cars produce half the state's air pollution.

Many of those cars are in the rural, agricultural Central Valley and San Joaquin Valley, "where a large percentage of the low-income residents can't afford electric vehicles or have no public transportation systems," Rohrs writes.

"We are huge supporters of the electric vehicle program and public transportation programs and all the efforts on high speed rail," said Kate Gordon, Next Generation's vice president of climate and energy. "But the state has missed a huge portion of the population -- those who are car-dependent and non-urban. They should also get access to safe, clean and efficient cars." She said the state should help such households buy cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles. (Read more)