Friday, March 21, 2014

Divide that began with social issues widens to separate rural and urban U.S. along party lines

The political divide between rural and urban America has grown significantly over the past 50 years, as rural areas have turned Republican and urban areas have trended more Democratic, Laura Meckler and Dante Chinni recount for The Wall Street Journal. Their story is more about culture than politics, perhaps because it tries to explain to a largely urban audience the rural-urban cultural divide that plays such a large role in national politics.

"There have always been differences between rural and urban America, but they have grown vast and deep, and now are an underappreciated factor in dividing the U.S. political system, say politicians and academicians," the reporters write. "These divisions emerged in the 1960s with the civil-rights movement and the rise of such social issues as abortion and school prayer, which distanced culturally conservative rural voters from the Democratic Party."

In 1993, just over half of rural Americans were represented by a House Democrat, but now 77 percent have a Republican U.S. representative, Meckler and Chinni report. "But in urban areas—which by the government's definition includes both cities and suburbs—slightly less than half of residents were represented by congressional Republicans, despite the GOP's 30-seat majority in the House."
In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton beat Republican President George H.W. Bush "in the 50 densest counties—the most urban in the country—by 25 percentage points," Meckler and Chinni write." By 2012, President Barack Obama's advantage in those urban counties had shot up to 38 points. Today, almost all big cities, even those in red states such as Missouri, Indiana and Texas, favor Democrats for president. The shift in rural areas has been even more dramatic." In 1992 Bush "won the 50 least-dense counties—the most rural in the country—by 18 points," but in 2012, Mitt Romney's advantage in those areas tripled to 53 points.

"Religion remains a dividing line," Meckler and Chinni write. "Urban dwellers are more than three times as likely as rural residents to say religion is 'not that important to me,' according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Nearly 60 percent of rural residents say homosexual behavior is a sin compared with 40 percent of city residents, a Pew Research Center poll found last year. Economic forces have advanced the split. Companies carefully choose where to locate new stores and who to target with advertising, assisted by a trove of marketing data. The result is rural Americans have a different set of consumer choices than urban residents."

"Rural economies have faltered as automated farming and corporate ventures subsumed many family farms," Meckler and Chinni write. "Cutbacks in manufacturing have cost jobs, and fewer jobs mean fewer opportunities for young people, driving away those with more skills and education. Without new arrivals, these aging regions have grown more insulated from cultural change—whether the use of smartphones or the acceptance of same-sex marriage." (Read more)

U.S. coal companies, especially in Central Appalachia, are surviving through exports

As environmental restrictions continue to grow in the U.S., and natural gas becomes more abundant, coal companies, especially those in Appalachia, are finding new buyers by exporting coal to Europe and South America, John Miller reports for The Wall Street Journal. "U.S. coal shipments outside the country in 2014 are expected to surpass 100 million tons for the third year, a record string. A high level of exports helps keep the domestic supply in line with demand and helps prevent U.S. prices from tanking."

While exports to Asia fell in 2013, because those countries can get supplies cheaper from countries located closer to them, U.S. exports to the Netherlands increased by 12.8 percent in 2013, and by 8.3 percent to Germany, Miller writes.

Last year Consol Energy "sold off five mines, the source of about half its coal production, but it kept the most profitable mines, including one that just completed an $800 million expansion," Miller writes. The plan is to export much of the extra coal—most of it high-quality metallurgical coal for steelmakers—through its Baltimore-area terminal, the only one wholly owned by a coal company. Other coal companies pay Consol for use of the terminal. Last year, 30 percent of the 10 million tons exported from the terminal belonged to Rosebud Mining Inc., and this year Murray Energy Corp., which bought five mines from Consol, will also start using it. The companies will have to pay between $4 and $8 a ton, according to analysts." (Read more) (WSJ graphic)

Amid talk of broadband, S.D. senator says rural landline calls are still getting dropped

Sen. Tim Johnson
While the Federal Communications Commission held its Rural Broadband Workshop this week to look at ways to improve broadband access in rural America, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said some rural residents across the country are still dealing with a problem that should have been fixed years ago: completing a basic landline call, Peter Harriman reports for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Johnson told reporters, “We should be worrying about narrowing the digital divide, not worrying about rural communities receiving basic telephone service.”

Johnson said "Long distance and wireless carriers trying to cut costs in rural areas by contracting with cut-rate routers have created a pervasive pattern of poor phone service in rural states," Harriman writes. "Calls are not completed, and callers receive incorrect messages that numbers have been disconnected."

The FCC "tried to address the issue with rule changes from 2011 to 2013," Harriman writes. "It remains enough of a problem that Johnson introduced in the Senate this month the Public Safety and Economic Security Communications Act. It would establish basic quality service standards that telecommunications middlemen must adhere to, and it would create within the Federal Communications Commission a registry that those companies must sign onto."

One of the problems is the use of intermediate routers that handle a phone call between its origination and destination, said Richard Coit, executive director of the South Dakota Telecommunications Association. Coit told Harriman, “It’s incredibly frustrating. People make a call, and the call gets handed off to somebody in the middle, and it never gets to us. The FCC rules currently don’t even reach the intermediate carriers. ... They require carriers that originate and terminate calls to provide data. ... But calls can be handed off to a lot of carriers in the process.” Coit "said the problem is worsened by the fact telecommunications is in the midst of a technology change." (Read more)

Sudden demand from China, drought tolerance make sorghum the old crop that's new and hot

Sorghum is the new booming export business from the U.S. to China. Sales this marketing year through March 6 are more than 2.2 million metric tons (87 million bushels), and Chinese buyers "are expected to purchase over 3.1 MMT for the 2013 marketing year, representing a whopping 40 percent of the U.S. sorghum crop," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Sorghum sales last year to China were zero. (U.S. Grains Council graphic)
Tom Sleight, president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council, told Agri-Pulse, “We’ve always been promoting sorghum as part of our mix in China, but for the longest time most of our sales have been to Mexico. With restrictions on corn imports (as a result on private tariff rate quota allocations) and problems we’ve been having with biotech acceptance of some traits, sorghum has become the new darling in China.”

Sorghum is a grain, forage or sugar crop that is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water, according to the National Sorghum Producers. Part of its allure is its drought tolerance.

In 2013 U.S. growers, mostly in the High Plains, planted 8.1 million acres of sorghum, down from 27 million acres in 1957 and 13 million acres in 1996, Agri-Pulse reports. But Tim Lust, CEO of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, said "seed sales appear to be 'way up' and he expects acreage to expand across central Kansas and northern Oklahoma." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Program sends college students to rural areas to teach rural kids and learn about their culture

University of Washington students will spend their spring break next week teaching rural children about art, literacy and the environment, while learning about life, culture and education in rural Washington, Doree Armstrong reports on the college website. Sponsored by The Pipeline Project at UW, the school has participated in Alternative Spring Break for 14 years, with about 680 undergraduate students having worked with 9,500 K-12 students. (Pipeline Project photo: A student shows off the book he wrote in last year's program)

Christine Stickler, director of The Pipeline Project, told Armstrong, “About 40 percent of UW participants have an interest in education as a career and see this as a great way to experience rural education, but most of them participate because it sounds like a really awesome way to spend spring break." This year, 69 students are participating, but the program is so popular there is a waiting list

"Five-member teams at the nine sites that focus on literacy and art will work with students to 'find their voice' in writing about themselves. At the end of the week, UW students will bring the younger students’ stories back to campus to create a professional-quality magazine. Every student in the program will receive a copy," Armstrong writes. "Teams at three other sites will focus on environmental topics. A special nine-member team has already spent the entire year working with Native American fifth-graders in Neah Bay, using oral histories, digital storytelling and photography to help children explore their culture." (Read more)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Federal judge rules that Arizona and Kansas can require registering voters to prove citizenship

A federal judge has ruled that Arizona and Kansas can "require proof of citizenship of registering voters, a decision that could well set a trend for other Republican-dominated states," Fernanda Santos reports for The New York Times. The decision "could prevent thousands of people from voting just as the governorship and other major offices are on the ballot in both states."

Arizona began requiring proof of citizenship in 2004, and Kansas in 2011. Last June the Supreme Court ruled "that Congress holds full power over federal election rules, but indicated that states could require proof of citizenship in state and local elections," Santos writes. "Federal rules require prospective voters only to sign a form attesting to their citizenship, a procedure favored by Democrats who want to increase participation of minorities and the poor in elections, but Republican officials say that fosters voter fraud."

While there is little evidence of in-person voter fraud by illegal immigrants, "the poor and minorities are likely to be affected," Santos writes, referring to studies that "have shown that the poor and minorities often lack passports and access to birth certificates needed to register under the laws in question." (Read more)

Georgia plan would help struggling rural hospitals

Gov. Nathan Deal
A proposal announced Wednesday by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia could help struggling rural hospitals in the state stay open, Greg Bluestein reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Deal’s plan involves a 'step-down' that clears the way for ailing hospitals, and those that were recently shuttered, to offer only more limited services such as emergency care." Deal told Bluestein, “Communities should not have to go without crucial services – many of them life-saving – simply because they don’t fall within a certain zip code."

That's something for a state where critical-access hospitals have struggled to keep their doors open. When one closed in February it was the fourth rural hospital in the state to shut its doors in the past year. The Republican-controlled state legislature refused to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, despite pleas from hospitals that they needed expansion to remain open, and one Republican senator even said in a radio interview that some rural hospitals need to close, before changing her tune after receiving negative feedback. (Read more)

Illinois county votes against anti-fracking proposal

An advisory measure to ban fracking in Johnson County, Illinois (Wikipedia map) failed on Tuesday, with 1,600 people voting for the prohibition and 2,200 against it, Jim Suhr reports for The Associated Press. "The nonbinding referendum was meant to advise the county’s commission whether it should resist the drilling practice that involves blasting rock formations deep underground with water, sand and chemicals to release trapped oil and gas." About 50 percent of the county's 8,000 registered voters cast ballots, the second-highest voter turnout in 20 years.

Opponents worry about the environmental concerns fracking could bring to the county, and felt the wording in the referendum confused voters, Suhr writes. Annette McMichael of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment "said telephone surveys before the primary showed that some voters who cast ballots during the early voting period said they voted 'no,' believing that was a vote against fracking. But a 'yes' vote actually would have been in favor of restricting the questioned drilling."

Advocates say they welcome the much-needed boost fracking could bring to the area's struggling economy, Suhr writes. Farmer Monty Sanders told Suhr, “There isn’t much down here, and something like that could bring in thousands of jobs. It’s a big deal. We need jobs, and we need revenue. I’m a landowner, and if I wanted fracking on my property. it’s my business. By God if I could, I would.” (Read more)

Struggling Chesapeake Energy raised $5 billion through scheme to reduce landowners' royalties

For years energy companies have found creative ways to pay as little as possible in royalties to the owners of the land where they drill. Chesapeake Energy even used this tactic to solve its financial struggles, raising $5 billion by aparently cheating landowners out of their entitled royalties, reports Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica. He examines how this phenomenon happens, and the ongoing lawsuits as landowners try to regain the money they felt they were owed.

"Boiled down to basics, they worked like this: When energy companies lease land above the shale rock that contains natural gas, they typically agree to pay the owner the market price for any gas they find, minus certain expenses," Lustgarten writes. "Federal rules limit the tolls that can be charged on inter-state pipelines to prevent gouging. But drilling companies like Chesapeake can levy any fees they want for moving gas through local pipelines, known in the industry as gathering lines, that link backwoods wells to the nation’s interstate pipelines. Property owners have no alternative but to pay up. There’s no other practical way to transport natural gas to market." (ProPublica graphic)

"Chesapeake took full advantage of this," he writes. "In a series of deals, it sold off the network of local pipelines it had built in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and the Midwest to a newly formed company that had evolved out of Chesapeake itself, raising $4.76 billion in cash. In exchange, Chesapeake promised the new company, Access Midstream, that it would send much of the gas it discovered for at least the next decade through those pipes. Chesapeake pledged to pay Access enough in fees to repay the $5 billion plus a 15 percent return on its pipelines."

"That much profit was possible only if Access charged Chesapeake significantly more for its services," Lustgarten writes. "And that’s exactly what appears to have happened: While the precise details of Access’ pricing remains private, immediately after the transactions Access reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it collected more money to move each unit of gas, while Chesapeake reported that it also paid more to have that gas moved. Access said that gathering fees are its predominant source of income, and that Chesapeake accounts for 84 percent of the company’s business." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Center for Public Integrity, ABC News share Goldsmith Prize for series on black-lung disease

A series on underground coal miners' black-lung disease has earned the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News the annual Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. The award, which includes $25,000, "honors investigative reporting that best promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy, or the practice of politics," reports the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. (Read more)

The series, "Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine," by Chris Hamby, Ronnie Greene, Jim Morris and Chris Zubak-Skees of the Center for Public Integrity, and Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz of ABC, can be viewed by clicking here.

Study finds climate change has lengthened the blooming season of Rocky Mountain wildflowers

Climate change is responsible for extending the Rocky Mountain wildflower blooming season by 35 days, according to researchers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used data from 1974 to 2012, and found that the typical blooming season in the 1970s was from mid-May to September, but in 2012 lasted from April to mid-September, Tony Barboza reports for the Los Angeles Times. (University of Maryland photo by David Inouye: Rocky Mountain wildflowers)

The wildflowers growing around the laboratory, which sits at 9,500 feet above sea level, bloom immediately after the spring snow melts, and remain until the first hard frost in the fall, but climate change has altered temperatures, with snow melting earlier than usual and hard frost occurring later, Barboza writes.

Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory
The study found that "earlier spring snowmelt and other climate shifts have changed the timing of blooms for more than two-thirds of 60 species of native wildflowers in mountain meadows, stands of Aspen trees and conifer forest," Barboza writes. "Researchers analyzed wildflower species throughout the season. They found that half of them flowered earlier, more than a third reached their peak blooms sooner and 30 percent flowered later into the year due to a warming climate."

Amy Iler, postdoctoral biology researcher at the University of Maryland and co-author of the study, told Barboza, “We don’t know if it’s good or bad for these plant species at this point. Climate change is reshuffling flowering plants over a short time period. So it might be changing things that were set in place by natural selection over a long time frame.” (Read more)

Amid drought, farmers and cities fight over water

In the western United States, where drought has depleted some water sources, several legal battles are brewing. Rural residents say agricultural water supplies are being decreased, or even eliminated, so they can be diverted to urban areas, where people argue that drinking water was never intended for irrigation, Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. One of the main problems is water rights, which vary from state to state and are ripe for legal arguments.

Sixteen months ago, in southern Texas, along the Gulf coast southwest of Houston, the state "cut off deliveries of river water to rice farmers for three years to sustain reservoirs that supply booming Austin, about 100 miles upstream," Wines writes. Farmers sold their water rights to the Lower Colorado River Authority years ago, but are continuing their fight in court. What's at stake is not only the present, but the future, with the Texas Water Development Board, the state’s planning agency, saying "Cities’ demand for water will rise nearly 75 percent by 2060, while the use of water for irrigation will decline by 17 percent." (NYT graphic: Farmers were told to stop using water from the Brazos River, but cities and power plants can still use it)

"In Arizona, activists and the federal government are fighting plans to tap groundwater used by a vast housing development — a move that would reduce the water level of a protected river," Wines writes. The battle "hinges on the still-murky question of whether the state can allow the builder to pump groundwater that sustains a river that is under federal control."

"In Colorado, officials in the largely rural west slope of the Rocky Mountains are imposing stiff restrictions on requests to ship water across the mountains to Denver and the rest of the state’s populous eastern half," Wines writes. "Fearing for their existence, Colorado farm towns on the Arkansas River have mobilized to block sales of local water rights to Denver’s fast-growing suburbs."

"In Nevada, a coalition ranging from environmentalists to the Utah League of Women Voters filed federal lawsuits last month seeking to block a pipeline that would supply Las Vegas with groundwater from an aquifer straddling the Nevada-Utah border," Wines writes. "Kansas accuses Colorado and Nebraska of allowing their farmers to divert Kansas’ share of the Republican River, which flows through all three states. A similar dispute between New Mexico and Texas is before the United States Supreme Court." And in California, which has suffered through severe drought, especially in rural areas, some fear that a battle is brewing. (Read more)

Farmers worry about EPA's new water rules; advocates say regulation will expand only slightly

Proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could expand its jurisdiction over streams could prove costly for farmers, forcing them to obtain permits in instances where they have previously been exempt, Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times. "EPA says the new rules are needed to clarify which bodies of water it must oversee under the federal Clean Water Act, an issue of jurisdiction that the agency says has been muddled by recent court rulings. Opponents say the rules are a power grab that could stifle economic growth and intrude on property owners’ rights." (NYT photo by Jenn Ackerman: Farmers like Dean Lemke of Dows, Iowa are worried about the regulations)

Under the proposed rules, farmers would have to pay fees for environmental assessments "just to till the soil near gullies, ditches or dry streambeds where water only flows when it rains," Nixon writes. "A permit is required for any activity, like farming or construction, that creates a discharge into a body of water covered under the Clean Water Act or affects the health of it, like filling in a wetland or blocking a stream." EPA has not said when the rules will be announced. 

Advocates of the regulations argue that people are overreacting, and that the EPA's jurisdiction over streams will only increase by 3 percent, Nixon writes. Jan Goldman-Carter, a lawyer with the National Wildlife Federation, told Nixon, “The draft guidance is clear that irrigation ditches, drainage ponds and even groundwater are not considered waters of the U.S. Nor are gullies, rills, swales and other erosional features. This has been explained over and over again.” She said "Industry claims that ditches or groundwater might be covered under the new regulations are 'just wrong.'” 

Critics say "the new rules failed to comply with regulatory requirements and relied on a flawed economic analysis concerning its effect on industry," Nixon writes. They also "said the scientific report the agency and the Army Corps of Engineers relied on to justify the new rules had not been reviewed by other scientists." (Read more)

Oregon budget cuts depleting rural police forces, leaving some counties without 24-hour services

A drop in timber sales in Oregon has resulted in federal and state budget cuts and left some rural towns without enough police officers to provide 24-hour services. As a result, 911 calls are going unanswered, and some residents are turning to the local fire department when an emergency arises.

"Many of Oregon’s rural counties have long depended on timber sales to support funding for public safety services," with 33 of 36 counties receiving timber payments, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. With timber sales down, some police units have been depleted, and residents are left helpless in an emergency. Michael McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, told OPB, "If you call 911 in rural Oregon it may be quite a while before someone comes, if they come at all. We have inadequate public safety in a number of regions of the state.” (Read more)

Southern Oregon has been hit especially hard. Josephine County (Wikipedia map) last year voted against raising taxes to pay for sheriff's patrols, leaving most of the calls to be answered by state troopers, reports The Associated Press. "The sheriff's office has slashed its staff as the federal government cut timber subsidies and voters rejected higher taxes. After the cuts, investigations handled by troopers went from 5 to 10 cases a month to 50 to 85 cases," with state police investigating nearly 800 cases in the county, with 86 percent of them referred by the sheriff's office. (Read more)

When they don't get a response from police, callers are turning to the fire department. In Cave Junction, also in Josephine County, Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke responded to a call last week for medical aid. "What he and his medics found when they arrived at the house was a man who'd been attacking a caregiver," AP writes. "The man was wearing pajama bottoms and throwing rocks through windows. The female caregiver was barricaded in the house."  Hoke said, "I had to get my concealed weapon out and contemplate, `What am I going to do?' We should never be put in that position. I didn't know if he had a gun. If we had known an assault was in progress, we never would have responded without backup." (Read more)

Les Zaitz, senior investigative reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, wonders how the safe the state's rural residents feel. "In rural parts of Oregon's Willamette Valley, one county sheriff had to drop around-the-clock coverage. In the rural south, another sheriff sends his patrol deputy home at 4 p.m., hoping other agencies handle any emergencies. And in the rural east, a sheriff laments the long time it takes for police to get to an emergency."

"Prompted by headlines about budget cuts, The Oregonian is taking an in-depth look at this issue," Zaitz writes. "I'm traveling the state to find out what is truly at stake on the coast, in the mountains and out on the desert. I'm pouring over statistics and budgets. I'm asking experts how to best evaluate a police agency, whether it's a city police department or a sheriff's office. I'd like to hear from you on this issue." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Maine papers win Community Journalism Award for series on aging in the state with the oldest folks

The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram won the Community Journalism Award in the Scripps Howard Awards, announced Monday in a Scripps Howard Foundation webcast.

The newspapers won the award and $10,000 for “The Challenge of Our Age,” a series that examined governments' and businesses' inability to meet the needs of the aging in Maine, which has the oldest median age of any state and also has the highest percentage of rural population. In addition to its news coverage, the papers "rallied public support for reform," the foundation said in its release.

Other finalists for the award were Rhiannon Meyers of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times for “Cost of Diabetes,” an in-depth look at the city’s alarming rates for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and a call to address the epidemic; and the Virgin Islands Daily News for “EMS in Chaos” by Stephen Cheslik, J. Lowe Davis, Lou Mattei and Gerry Yandel, which resulted in disciplinary actions for emergency medical services supervisors and repairs and updates for the U.S. territory’s fleet of ambulances.

The awards have 17 categories. Judy Clabes, publisher of KyForward and former president of the foundation, wrote that judging the Community Journalism award showed her that "both the watchdog function of the free press and the solutions-oriented journalism of deeply community-connected local media are alive and well." For the full list of awards, click here.

The Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service Reporting and $10,000 went to The Guardian US for “The NSA Files,” the first report of the National Security Agency collecting millions of U.S. citizens’ phone records, and follow-ups.

The Arizona Republic in Phoenix received $10,000 and the Breaking News Award for “Yarnell Hill Fire,” simultaneous coverage of three breaking news stories about a fire that killed 19 firefighters, the destruction of 127 homes and a forced mass evacuation.

The Ursula and Gilbert Farfel Prize for Investigative Reporting and $20,000 went to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for “Deadly Delays,” a series that uncovered mismanagement of infant blood tests at hospitals nationwide. The entry was co-winner of the American Society of News Editors award for non-deadline reporting, along with Eli Salow's coverage for The Washington Post of "the human toll of poverty and hunger, a family's loneliness in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting and how learning to use guns is just a matter of growing up in some parts of America," ASNE says.

Jim Gehrz of the Minneapolis Star Tribune won ASNE's Community Service Photojournalism Award, which rewards photography that captures the sense of a community with powerful and meaningful images and provides an understanding of the community. His entry was "Life in the Boom: Trading Tradition for Oil," about the historic oil boom of North Dakota. "His entry provided an outstanding sense of place and captured the lives of people: home and work in the evolving fabric of America," the judges said.

Neighborhood watch groups spring up in rural communities as thefts increase

Thieves stealing from farms better beware—they're being watched. Across the country a new wave of neighborhood watch groups are popping up in farming communities, led by groups that mostly rely on technology to recover stolen equipment and report crimes, Jim Carlton and Tony Dreibus report for The Wall Street Journal. Watch groups "have sprouted as agriculture-related crime, primarily theft, has soared in some rural areas over the past few years due in part to the fragile economy and high jobless rates, putting a further economic squeeze on farmers and ranchers. (WSJ photo by Matt Whittaker: Posting a farm watch sign in Hilmar, Calif.)

In "California's Fresno County—the U.S.'s biggest farm county by revenue—thieves took $1.1 million worth of metal from agricultural lands in 2013, nearly four times the total stolen in 2009, according to estimates by the Fresno County Sheriff's Office," Carlton and Dreibus write. Nearby Hilmar, with a population less than 5,000, began a neighborhood watch group in 2011 after a rash of thefts. Today, the group has more than 3,000 members connected through Facebook and email."

Colorado has a group called Ranch Watch, which "assigns an identification number that is posted at the entrance to a ranch or farm," Carlton and Dreibus write. "The number is linked to the property owner's name, address and phone number, making it easier for law enforcement and others to contact the owner if they see anything suspicious."

Greene County, Missouri, has a program called Citizens On Patrol, where volunteers "receive 40 hours of training before they patrol in pairs in marked cars," reporting suspicious activity to law-enforcement dispatchers, Carlton and Dreibus write. The group has about two dozen volunteers, but is expected to double in size. (Read more)

Sheriff Jeff Box of Dyer County, Tennessee (Wikipedia map), announced last week the formation of a farm watch program "pairing his deputies with farmers to create the farm watch. The program will use the watchful eye of fellow farmers, surveillance cameras, and other technology to stop agriculture crimes," Justin Hanson reports for WMC-TV in Memphis. "The sheriff says the cost of crime in rural and agricultural communities, like Dyersburg, is estimated to be around $5 billion each year." (Read more)

Duke coal-ash spill could spur tougher regulations

The mess in North Carolina involving the Duke Energy spill that leaked as much as 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River could have one positive outcome. It could finally be the necessary evil to spur the Environmental Protection Agency into creating stronger new rules regulating the industry. EPA, which has repeatedly delayed finalizing coal-ash disposal rules before setting a Dec. 19 deadline, "reviewed more than 450,000 public comments on its proposed overall regulation and a spokeswoman said the eventual new rule will 'ensure stronger oversight of the structural integrity of impoundments in order to prevent future accidents,'" Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal. (Associated Press photo: Coal ash removed from the Dan River after the Feb. 2 spill) 

Duke, which was ordered by a judge to remove sources of contamination from the river, has said it will do so, but expects customers to pay to move the ash ponds away from water supplies. A federal grand jury on Tuesday was scheduled "to question Duke and state regulators about oversight of the pond as part of a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of North Carolina," Bauerlein writes. "Prosecutors are reviewing records, photos and emails exchanged between Duke and state regulators about the spill. Duke said it is cooperating in the investigation."

Without federal rules, states are "administering a mishmash of regulations that have been little updated since coal-ash ponds proliferated in the 1950s," Bauerlein writes. "EPA estimates there were about 600 ponds and 300 landfills at 495 coal-fired power plants nationwide as of 2010. The Utility Solid Waste Activities Group says that the EPA counts some secondary basins used for cleaning and storing water as coal-ash ponds, though, and that the number of actual ponds used for wet coal ash is much smaller. The EPA has deemed 45 coal-ash ponds nationwide as 'high hazard potential' because of structural problems. A dozen of the hazard sites belong to Duke Energy in North Carolina." (Read more)

ExxonMobil to test new type of fracking on Colo. oil shale; soda firm plans to try another method

A cousin of the rock-fracturing technology that has created an energy boom from deep, dense beds of shale may be used to extract oil and gas from shallower beds that have offered promise for decades but have defined commercialization.

"Exxon Mobil Corp. is continuing with a project to extract crude from oil shale in western Colorado, an area that other major oil companies have given up on," Mike Lee reports for EnergyWire. "The supermajor is one of a handful of companies moving forward with research on (160-acre) leases obtained from the Bureau of Land Management in Rio Blanco County. The BLM gave Exxon and another company, Natural Soda Holdings Inc., permission to proceed with testing at the end of February." A state permit is still needed, reports Dennis Webb of the Grand Junction Sentinel. (Sentinel map)

"Exxon plans to use a technique called electrofracking, in which the rock is split and filled with a mixture of cement and calcinated coke," which conducts electricity, Lee writes. "An electric current is passed through the mixture, heating the surrounding shale and converting it to oil and gas, according to a Department of Energy report."

Natural Soda, which produces sodium bicarbonate in the area by injecting hot water underground, plans to use a variant of that method to extract oil and gas from kerogen, a solid hydrocarbon that must be heated to be released from the shale. It plans on "producing oil from underground by heating it using either a downhole burner or a closed-loop steam system," Webb writes. He notes that environmentalists are skeptical that the new techniques will lead to commercial development of the vast oil-shale resource, but are glad to see that the projects will get closer environmental monitoring than previous ones in the area, which date to the late 1960s.

The latest developments offer an opportunity for journalists and readers to distinguish between oil shale, generally known as a surface or near-surface rock that contains kerogen, and shale oil, which is the liquid petroleum produced from deep, dense shales that could not be tapped commercially until the development of horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

National Ag Day is March 25; website offers tools and resources for marking the observance

Mark your calendars for March 25. That's National Ag Day, held to recognize and celebrate agriculture and educate Americans on the importance of the industry. The program was designed to ensure that every American understands "how food, fiber and renewable resource products are produced., value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy, appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products, and acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food, fiber and renewable resource industries," according to the Agriculture Council of America.

To help local officials and journalists, National Ag Day offers suggestions and tools on how to get started on creating an event, planning and hosting an event, media tips, sample letters to the editor, interactive tools and resources, and media contacts. This year's theme for National Ag Day is "Agriculture: 365 Sunrises and 7 Billion Mouths to Feed." (Read more)

Virtual discussion on importance of rural arts scheduled for 4 p.m. on Wednesday

Advocates of rural art are invited to attend the first in a series of virtual conversations to discuss the importance of art in rural areas. The Rural Arts Happy Hour, presented by the Rural Arts and Culture Working Group of the National Rural Assembly, has scheduled its first discussion for 4 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

Organizers hope the series "will bring together rural artists, leaders, practitioners, funders, and other rural advocates, to talk about what’s happening in the rural arts, sample some models, and encourage more camaraderie among practitioners," according to the National Rural Assembly. "In rural places and small towns there is growing understanding that the role of the arts cannot be undervalued or underutilized as we make plans for the future.  Our economies depend upon creative thinkers and solutions. Our quality of life hinges upon our ability to be inclusive, to adapt, and to draw upon all of our assets."

Participants will need  a Gmail or Google+ account. For more information or to register for the discussion click here.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sunshine Week special: AP says administration is more secretive than ever about public records

It's becoming harder to get government files from the Obama administration, which increasingly cites national security as the reason to withhold or censor information, report Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum of The Associated Press.

In a story timed for the annual observance of Sunshine Week, which promotes the value of open government, AP reports that the administration denied or censored more often than ever records requested under the Freedom of Information Act, and did that more often than it granted records without redacting, or removing information, from documents.

"The administration cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy," AP reports. "Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests. . . . The administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records despite its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history."

AP said its request "for contracts with public-relations companies to promote Obama's health-care law has been pending for more than one year. Requests for files about the Affordable Care Act and the IRS's treatment of tax-exempt political groups have languished in government offices for months. Similarly, the AP has waited for more than 10 months for emails between the IRS and outside Democratic super PACs about tea party groups."

Requests for information rose 8 percent last year, but the government's response to requests rose only 2 percent, AP reports. The National Security Agency, which has come under scrutiny because of its electronic surveillance programs, reported a 138 percent increase. AP's 1,600-word story is at

St. Paddy's Day question: How Irish is your county?

Even those who claim no Irish ancestry wear green on March 17, and join in the day's celebrations, promoting the saying, "Everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day." But just how Irish is your county? Here's a map from Jed Kolko, chief economist for Trulia Trends, a real-estate data site. (Click on map for larger version; click here for interactive version that can show specific percentages for each county.)
The data come from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, its year-round poll of Americans, which asks them their "primary ancestry." That is claimed by 22 million Americans, or 7.2 percent of the population. "Another 13.5 million Americans claim at least some Irish ancestry, bringing the total to 35.5 million Americans — 11.6 percent of the population — with at least partial Irish ancestry," Kolko writes.

Firms that got tax money to extend rural broadband ask states to let them drop land lines

After spending 10 years collecting hundreds of billions of dollars through rate increases and surcharges in order to finance the National Broadband Plan to provide 100 million American households with high-speed cable by 2020, companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are lobbying against having to add broadband connection to rural America, David Johnston reports for Newsweek

"They are persuading state legislatures and regulatory boards to quietly adopt new rules—rules written by the telecoms—to eliminate their legal obligations to provide broadband service nationwide and replace landlines with wireless," Johnston writes. "This abrupt change in plans will leave vast areas of the country with poor service, slow telecommunications and higher bills." The hottest battle right now may be in Kentucky.

The telecoms "have submitted proposed legislation and regulations that would end the requirements to serve all customers, to resolve customer complaints fairly, to make repairs promptly and to install service soon after it is ordered," Johnston reports. "While the bills and regulatory rules proposed differ in each state, all have common themes: less or no competition, no more investment in fiber-optic networks, no authority for regulators to help distressed small businesses and consumers."

The bills, if passed, "include shutting down the copper-wire telephone system, a system so reliable that wires installed in the late 19th century still work, and calls can be made during floods and other natural disasters," Johnston writes. "The newer technologies rely on the electric grid, and when it goes out they fail, though cell systems may work for a few hours because cell towers have backup batteries. Once the universal copper-wire system is gone—which may begin as early as 2017 under pending legislation in Michigan—customers would have to pay much more for wireless service or, where it is available, make calls over the Internet. In either case, the switch would mean much higher prices for consumers." (Read more)

Wal-Mart to require suppliers of crops to reduce fertilizer use, which could reduce water pollution

Wal-Mart says that beginning in the fall it will "require suppliers of crops, including corn, wheat and soy, to begin developing fertilizer-optimization plans," Jonathan Ellis reports for USA Today. "Wal-Mart said it hopes to reduce fertilizer — one of the biggest sources of pollution in lakes and rivers — on 14 million acres of farmland by 2020." (Sioux Falls Argus Leader photo by Elisha Page: Larry Dietrich rinses a fertilizer line filter while planting corn on his farm near Elkton, S.D.)

The move, which would include food supplier Cargill and producer Kellogg's, could help reduce water pollution while making agriculture production more efficient, Ellis writes. Lisa Richardson, the executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, told Ellis, "This is significant, there's no question, because Wal-Mart is a player throughout the world." It is also a major employer in rural areas.

"Over-fertilization is blamed for water-quality problems across the country," Ellis writes. Most of the attention has been focused on the Mississippi River and the annual "dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but Ellis notes that "Last month, the International Joint Commission — a U.S. and Canadian group that oversees shared water bodies — issued a report calling for reductions in phosphorous used in fertilizers in states around Lake Erie. The report noted that phosphorous was contributing to massive algae blooms and dead zones in Lake Erie, threatening fisheries, drinking water and recreation." (Read more)

Earthquakes continue to increase in areas with fracking; state officials refuse to make connection

Last week a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Youngstown, Ohio, was shut down on the same day a series of earthquakes were reported in an area with no history of seismic activity. Officials said the closure had nothing to do with fracking, but that flew in the face of the facts: An area with no recorded earthquakes prior to 2011 had more than 100 from January 2011 to February 2012, when fracking came to the area.

The Youngstown area isn't alone in Ohio. According to data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, from 1950 to 2009 the state averaged two 2.0 magnitude or greater earthquakes per year, but since then has averaged nine per year, Will Drabold reports for the Columbus Dispatch. Nationwide, the number of earthquakes 3.0 or higher increased from 21 from 1967 to 2000 to 100 from 2010 to 2012. (Dispatch graphic; click on it for a larger version)

Scientists continue to point the finger at fracking, but state officials refuse to concede any connection. "Following the 2011 earthquakes near Youngstown, researchers found that a fracking-waste injection well linked to them had been drilled on an ancient fault line," Drabold writes. "The fracking waste that was pumped more than 9,000 feet below the surface triggered the earthquakes, said Won Young-Kim, a senior scientist who runs a regional earthquake-monitoring network at Columbia University in New York." But Tom Stewart, with the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said it's too early to make that link. He told Drabold, “At this stage, good scientific analysis is crucial to the process." (Read more)

As W.Va. shuts down injection well, researcher compares regulation in Pa., Colo. and Texas

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered a permit for an underground injection well in the southern part of the state to be revoked, because the pit above ground does not meet the minimum pit and impoundment standards, and the well owners had operated for more than a year without a permit, Jessica Lilly reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

"The Natural Resources Defense Council says the problem with this site in Fayette County is the same for fracking disposal systems across the country," Lilly writes. "Federal law that governs hazardous materials has a loophole for oil and gas waste, exempting it from regulation as hazardous waste. That exemption was created in 1980’s with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

Since horizontal fracking was perfected, causing the current oil and gas boom, states "have faced an upsurge in local political opposition to fracking," writes Charles Davis of the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University. "This, in turn, has led to the enactment of ordinances or regulations by local officials to protect their constituents from the impacts of drilling activities."

In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Davis examines how public officials in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas "address the question of state control versus local autonomy through their efforts to shape fracking policy decisions."

"While local officials within Texas have succeeded in developing fracking ordinances with relatively little interference from state regulators, Colorado and Pennsylvania have adopted a tougher policy stance favoring the retention of preemptive oil and gas statutes," Davis writes. "Key factors that account for between state differences in fracking policy decisions include the strength of home rule provisions, gubernatorial involvement, and the degree of local experience with industrial economic activities." To read the report click here.

States use loophole to keep using heating-aid program to qualify people for food stamps

One of the major points that delayed the Farm Bill was reduction of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which increased by 2.2 percent in 2013. In the end, the bill cut the program by $8.6 billion over the next 10 years, but states are finding a way around the cuts through a loophole that allows them to raise state utility assistance to low-income families, making them eligible for SNAP, Pam Fessler reports for NPR.

SNAP cuts in the Farm Bill had to do "heat and eat," the nickname for a program that allowed 16 "participating states to give low-income households as little as $1 a year in home heating aid so they'd qualify for more food stamps," Fessler writes. Last month Congress raised the amount of utility assistance required to qualify for food stamps to $20, thinking that many states would stop using the program, cutting off food stamp benefits of an average of $90 per month to 850,000 people, which would lead to the expected $8.6 billion in cuts.

"Six states — Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Oregon and Montana — have already declared that they will boost home energy benefits to avoid the food stamp cuts. Two other participants — Vermont and Washington, D.C. — are actively working to do the same thing," Fessler writes. Other states using "heat and eat" are California, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Delaware, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

That's not sitting well with some members of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters, "Since the passage of the Farm Bill, states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps. And so I would hope that the House would act to try to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing." (Read more)

Local health dept. director in W.Va. fears long-term effects of chemical spill, wants testing

Dr. Rahul Gupta
The January chemical spill in West Virginia that dumped thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner into a major regional water supply, and a subsequent state investigation that found more than 1,600 chemical storage tanks in critical areas near water supplies, has raised concern in many states about the location of dangerous chemicals near drinking water. One person making his voice heard is Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, who "criticized the lack of new scientific data produced in the nine weeks since the chemical spill," Marcus Constantino reports for the Charleston Daily Mail.

"The Freedom Industries chemical leak presents a unique challenge; more than 300,000 people may be affected by a chemical with little scientific data known about it, and a guaranteed funding source for long-term medical monitoring from the state or federal level is nowhere in sight," Constantino writes.

"To me, it is a moral imperative that we do conduct long-term monitoring in our population. There is no excuse for not doing it," Gupta told Constantino. "If there is even a small, remote chance that people could get sick in the future, that could be a much more expensive proposition because we could have prevented that from happening."

Gupta added, "This is so historic and unprecedented in the history of this nation, you have to wonder if there isn't a better way to do this type of work. . . . A lot of times I think if this happened in any other country, and it was a chemical exposure of some kind, wouldn't we be calling them and saying 'Hey, you need to do something to protect your people.' I think we would be the first ones to do that as a nation, to call on the other country to fix their issues." (Read more)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rural newspapers seek help from Congress on postal, ad issues; get some, but threats remain

Leaders of the weekly newspaper business reported some success as they lobbied Congress on postal and advertising issues on March 13, but they also heard warnings to be vigilant because things could change after this fall's elections.

The big issues are a bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service and a proposed restriction of the deductibility of advertising as an ordinary business expense. The first issue has been bouncing around Congress for years and seems stuck between versions that have passed House and Senate committees but not the floor; the second has arisen as part of a bipartisan tax-reform plan that is going nowhere this year but might next year.

The advocates for rural newspapers were officers, directors and members of the National Newspaper Association, the lobby for about 2,500 community newspapers, including some small dailies but mostly rural weeklies that depend on the Postal Service to deliver their product. "This is a core chore of what NNA does," said Robert Williams of Blackshear, Ga., president of the group.

NNA has been sponsoring lobbying trips to Washington since 1971, but the effort "has never been more critical," Williams told the publishers as they gathered for briefings before heading to Capitol Hill. (Read more)