Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekly newspaper catches Sen. McConnell in apparent gaffe; once printed, the story goes viral

Click on image for larger version
It was a short story, only six paragraphs, and it was in a weekly newspaper with a placeholder website and a circulation of fewer than 1,000, but it outdid itself in reach and impact.

When Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell came to Beattyville, Ky., on April 18, Beattyville Enterprise Editor Edmund Shelby asked him what he would do to bring jobs to Lee County, which has an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent and a median household income of $22,789.

McConnell replied, “Economic development is a Frankfort issue. That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet,” the old name of the Cabinet for Economic Development. Asked about public-works projects, McConnell said he was interested in them, but most come from state government. Then he said he is "pushing back" against President Obama's coal policies.

Shelby put the story at the top of his front page, and it took off, becoming the topic of stories on The Associated Press and The Huffington Post. McConnell issued a statement saying, "It seems my message got lost in translation," but Shelby told AP, "He said, that and I swear those were his words. If Grimes would come to town, I would ask the same question."

Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, is McConnell's all-but-certain Democratic foe in the November election. She has been stressing jobs in her campaign, and when she heard of McConnell's remarks, she pounced: "The only job that he has cared about over the past 30 years is his own. . . . It is the job of a U.S. senator to put hardworking Kentucky families back to work and to grow our middle class. He shocked not just myself but all of Kentucky when he declared that economic development is not his job."

Shelby told The Rural Blog that he didn't have a recording of McConnell's comments because he wasn't planning a full-scale interview. "It was one of those quickies. It was a real hectic day for me," he said. "I wanted to get a picture, two questions and go. . . . He just blew it."

Regardless of the politicians' rhetoric, this episode shows why every newspaper needs to be ready with pertinent questions when candidates come to town. Edmund Shelby knows and practices that; he is a veteran editor and former president of the Kentucky Press Association.

UPDATE, April 28: Executive Editor Steve Wilson of The Paducah Sun, a newspaper long friendly to McConnell, defended Shelby in a column headlined, "Mitch ought to own up to slip over jobs quote in newspaper." (Read more; subscription required)

At poverty-war anniversary event, Huckabee says faith is answer; E. Ky. group looks for other ideas

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Faith is the solution to defeating poverty, talk-show host and former minister and Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said Friday at an event in Martin County, Kentucky, commemorating President Lyndon Johnson's visit there 50 years ago Thursday to promote his War on Poverty. (Wikipedia map)

Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008, said the government has spent $27.7 trillion to fight poverty, but the basic poverty rate has remained mostly unchanged in 50 years. "The intentions were quite honorable and appropriate," he said. "While the government has a role to play in all our lives. …the fact is government can’t replace God. The one thing that causes people to come out of not only financial poverty but spiritual poverty is that their soul is quickened from above. Government can't do that. The quickest way to lead people out of poverty is to first lead them to the cross."

One big problem is that many children are raised in one-parent households, which causes them to be neglected, Huckabee said. He said in 1964 only 7 percent of American children lived in households other than with two married parents. In 2012, about 20 percent of white children, and more than 52 percent of Hispanic children and more than 72 percent of African-American kids were not being raised by two married parents. "The stronger our families are, the stronger our communities," he said.

The event was part of "Dream! Martin County," a faith-based organization that has a goal to establish a mission center in the county. The center hopes to create a foster group home to provide a stable environment for children unable to live with their parents and a family reunification program to provide housing and support for parents and children separated "with the hopes of higher success rates and less recidivism post-reunification." The mission will also have a higher education consortium to "create opportunities for college students to come to Appalachia to conduct their student teaching and internships." (Read more)

Thursday and Friday in Somerset, Ky., "several hundred people from the region met to discuss ideas aimed at boosting the region, which has been battered by coal layoffs and still has pockets of poverty far above the national rate," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The occasion was the first meeting of the 10 working groups of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative."

"The groups plan to hold a series of meetings this spring and summer where people can submit ideas for improving the economy and quality of life in the region, then sift the suggestions and recommend strategies to pursue," Estep writes. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, "who started the SOAR initiative last year, and others involved in the effort said they're determined that it will produce results, and not just another report to be filed away."

"The SOAR committees focus on subject areas such as tourism, education, health care, business recruitment and agriculture," Estep writes. Suggestions included "cataloging its assets, promoting visitation regionally, and cleaning up a bit," ways to better utilize the economic impact of  agriculture, and to market the region as a good retirement destination. (Read more)

Some small hospitals face losing independence if they want to keep up with technological advances

Many of the country's 2,000 rural and small-town hospitals say don't have the time or money to transition to electronic medical records. That's creating a dilemma for some rural hospitals, which are faced with a decision whether to continue using inferior paper records but retain their independence, or partner with a bigger company, allowing them access to electronic records, but costing them some or all of their independence, Eric Whitney reports for NPR. (Whitney photo: Dr. Billy Oley and Dr. William George, right, from Beartooth Billings Clinic in Red Lodge, Mont, which became part of the Billings Clinic system in exchange for help with its digital medical records)

"Starting this October, hospitals that don't meet digital records standards will be hit with financial penalties which would make the digital leap even harder to pull off," Whitney writes. "Sharing electronic records sounds simple. But for a lot of little hospitals doing that while meeting new means coming up with $1 million or more up front. That's a tall order, when the average rural hospital runs at a financial loss of 8 percent a year."

Some smaller rural hospitals are aligning or merging with larger hospitals, but when they do that "they give up some, or maybe all, control of their operations – everything from which records system they'll use to which doctors and services are available where," Whitney writes. "But affiliating with a big network often has benefits and can improve the care available in small towns."

"For many rural hospitals it's a point of pride, and matter of survival, to stay independent, and make their own decisions about the future," Whitney writes. But that pride can cost them. Brock Slabach, a vice president with the National Rural Health Association, told Whitney, "We're very concerned about a digital divide that might be created going forward between the urban haves, if you will, and the rural have-nots." (Read more)

FCC boosts rural Internet subsidy, looks at raising minimum speed for broadband, but raises rate floor

Some rural areas could soon see a boost in Internet speeds, but their residents can also expect to see an increase in their monthly phone bill as a result. The Federal Communications Commission voted Wednesday to implement a plan that increases "federal subsidies for Internet and phone companies in rural areas to $1.8 billion next year" and will "explore how to direct federal subsidies to wireless services and whether it should raise the required Internet speeds from 4 megabits per second (Mbps) to 10 Mbps," Kate Tummarello reports for The Hill.

The commission also voted to "allow carriers to raise the so-called rate floor, the minimum amount they can charge for basic phone service and still get the subsidy, from about $14 to $20.46 a month in some rural areas," writes Grant Gross of IT News. "The rate floor increase would be phased in through 2017." Commissioner Ajit Pai said more than 1 million Americans "can expect their phone bill to increase by as much as 46 percent," Tummarello reports. Pai said the move will "harm access to service for some of the most vulnerable consumers," including the elderly. (Read more)

Major supplier to oil and gas industry to disclose 100 percent of its chemicals used in fracking

Photo by Todd Spoth, Houston Chronicle
Houston-based Baker Hughes, a major supplier to the oil and gas industry, said "it will begin disclosing 100 percent of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid, with no exemptions for trade secrets," Kevin Begos and Matthew Daly report for The Associated Press. The company says it "believes it's possible to disclose 100 percent 'of the chemical ingredients we use in hydraulic fracturing fluids without compromising our formulations,' to increase public trust."

Many companies already voluntarily disclose the contents of their fracking fluids through, "but critics say the website has loose reporting standards and allows companies to avoid disclosure by declaring certain chemicals as trade secrets." In March, a U.S. Department of Energy task force said 84 percent of wells registered on the site invoked a trade secret exemption for at least one chemical.

Melanie Kania, a spokesperson for Baker Hughes, told AP that it will take several months for the new policy to take effect, and the end result will be a single list that "that provides 'all the chemical constituents' for frack fluids, with no trade secrets." (Read more)

How do rural and urban hospital patients differ?

A report released this week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examines the differences between rural and urban hospitals, comparing data from 2010 for in areas such as the number of procedures, types of diagnoses, length of hospital stays, average age of patients and percent of patients covered by the federal-state Medicaid program. (CDC graphic)

"Rural hospitals provided 11 percent of all 168 million hospital days of care and just 6 percent of the 51 million nonsurgical and surgical inpatient procedures performed," Megan Brooks reports for Medscape. Rural hospitals had 51 percent of inpatients, compared to 37 percent of urban ones, and 52 percent of rural patients used Medicaid as their principal source of payment, compared to 42 percent of urban patients.

"For first-listed diagnoses, childbirth, cancer, and poisonings were relatively more common among urban hospital inpatients, whereas dehydration, bronchitis, and pneumonia were frequent among rural hospital inpatients," Brooks writes. Rural and urban hospitals had similar numbers in several factors, including the average number of diagnoses (7.9 to 7.4), average lengths of stay (about 4.5 days and 4.8 days), proportions of inpatients on Medicaid (15 percent and 18 percent), and the percentage who died before discharge, with both reporting 2 percent.

Almost twice as many surgical procedures were performed in urban hospitals for inpatients, with 62 percent of urban patients receiving surgery, compared to 36 percent of rural ones, Brooks writes. Urban inpatients "were more than twice as likely to have 3 or more procedures performed than rural hospital inpatients." After leaving the hospital, 7 percent of rural inpatients were transferred to another facility, compared to 3 percent of urban ones. (Read more)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Canada announces new safety rules for train cars carrying crude oil; still no deadline for rules in U.S.

The U.S. has been slow to update safety measures after several deadly crude-oil train explosions, Canada is moving forward. On Wednesday the Canadian government "ordered the country’s railroads to phase out tens of thousands of older, puncture-prone tank cars from crude oil transportation within three years," Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. In the U.S. the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has refused to set a deadline for new tank-car rules, even though the railroad industry petitioned for new rules three years ago. (McClatchy graphic)

In January the National Transportation Safety Board recommended tougher standards for shipping oil after more oil was spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years. That doesn't include a crude oil derailment in Quebec, 10 miles from Maine, that killed 47 people. The train originated in North Dakota. The Association of American Railroads also urged U.S. regulators in November to require retrofits and upgrades for nearly 100,000 cars.

Read more here:

"Transport Canada didn’t just require the retirement or retrofit of older tank cars. It also banned 5,000 DOT-111 rail cars made of inferior steel from carrying crude oil and ethanol within 30 days. Such cars could continue to haul those commodities in the U.S.," Tate writes. "Canada also required railroads to develop emergency response assistance plans for communities through which they ship hazardous goods. Such efforts are generally voluntary in the U.S." (Read more)

Read more here:

Texas jury awards $2.9 million to family that claimed gas-drilling operations made them sick

YouTube image of Bob and Lisa Parr
"who sued Plano-based Aruba Petroleum, claiming that natural gas operations near their 40-acre ranch made them sick, has won a $2.9 million award from a Dallas jury," Jim Fuquay reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "It is believed to be one of the few cases filed by landowners claiming harm from Barnett Shale gas operations to have gone to trial. Most are dismissed or settled, attorneys said."

"Plaintiffs Bob and Lisa Parr had sought more than $9 million in the lawsuit, filed in 2011, alleging that Aruba's drilling operations at one point forced them to move from their Decatur property," Fuquay writes. "In a 5-1 verdict Tuesday, the jury found that the company created a nuisance that substantially interfered with the Parrs' use of their land."

"The jury's award included $275,000 in damages for lost property value; $2.4 million for past mental anguish, pain and suffering by the couple and their daughter; and $250,000 for future pain and suffering," Fuquay writes.. The Parrs presented medical evidence that the family's health issues began about the time Aruba drilled the wells in 2008." (Read more)

FDA wants to regulate e-cigarettes, a rural favorite

The federal government is proposing regulations for e-cigarettes that "would force manufacturers to curb sales to minors, stop handing out free samples, place health warning labels on their products and disclose the ingredients," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. "Makers of e-cigarettes also would be banned from making health-related claims without scientific evidence." (Post graphic)

While smoking rates have declined in some wealthy areas, smoking rates have remained stable or even risen in poor and working class rural counties. Rural teens' e-cigarette use has also risen in recent years.

The proposal by the Food and Drug Administration "stops short of broader restrictions sought by many­ ­tobacco-control advocates," Dennis writes. "Regulators at this point are not seeking to halt online sales of e-cigarettes, curb television advertising, or ban the use of flavorings such as watermelon, grape soda and piña colada — all tactics that critics say are aimed at attracting young smokers and that have been banned for traditional cigarettes. Those restrictions might come eventually, FDA officials said, but not before more rigorous research can establish a scientific basis for tougher rules." (Read more)

Study: Rural hospitals are cheaper, faster than urban ones, and patients are just as satisfied

Patients at rural and urban hospitals are equally satisfied with their care, but rural hospitals charge an average of 63 percent less than urban ones and rural patients spend an average of 56 minutes less in the emergency room, according to the 2014 Rural Relevance Under Healthcare Reform Study by iVantage Health Analytics.

The study found that "quality, patient safety, outcomes and satisfaction are equal, while price and efficiency in the emergency department are better" and "spending per beneficiary for rural hospitals could save $6.8 billion if adopted by all."

John Morrow, executive vice president of iVantage Health Analytics, said in a release: "The study findings challenge the assumption that rural hospitals are more costly, inefficient, and have lower levels of quality and patient satisfaction." (Read more)

The study also includes iVantage's list of the top 100 critical access hospitals. For a complete list click here.

'Constructed documentary' has cast members follow the same path illegal immigrants take to U.S.

While Congress continues to flounder on immigration, and the fate of millions of undocumented workers remain in limbo, a new documentary series tries to take a firsthand look at the plight of immigrants trying to cross the border illegally. The Al Jazeera America series "Borderland" takes six Americans with varying backgrounds and opinions on immigration, and has them follow the same path in which three immigrants -- Omar Lopez, Claudeth Sanchez and Maira Zelayadied -- died while trying to cross the border from Mexico. (AJAM map: path the immigrants and cast members took)

The series, which premiered April 13 and airs on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, "starts out in the Pima County Morgue in Arizona—which handles more migrant remains than anywhere else in the country—then follows the participants as they visit Lopez, Sanchez, and Zelaya’s families, and board La Bestia (The Beast), the train many undocumented immigrants hitch a ride on to the U.S. border," Edirin Oputu reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Halfway through "Washington farmer Gary Larsen becomes increasingly grim. 'Every politician should go on this trip,' he says. 'They need to see what these people go through.'"

Co-executive producer Ivan O’Mahoney calls the series a "constructed documentary," a "hybrid between traditional documentaries and factual entertainment that alternates between people in real, unscripted situations, and contributions from experts and talking heads," Oputu writes. O’Mahoney told Oputu, “A lot of people have very pronounced opinions on a lot of issues, but these opinions are not necessarily based on any experience that people have had themselves, or any real exposure to the issue that they’re commenting on.”

“When you meet people one on one (you discover) that often, the situation is more complicated than you thought it was, and all the cast members will tell you that they’ve learned things that they never knew existed,” O’Mahoney told Oputu. “My hope is that the series leaves no one unaffected. I don’t want any viewer to walk away feeling the same way about the issue as they did when they started watching.” (Read more)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The most rural counties ranked at or near the bottom in almost all of the County Health Rankings

The annual County Health Rankings released last month by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute show that the "nation’s most rural areas rank dead last in a majority of the measurements used to evaluate the health status of U.S. counties," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder.

"Noncore" counties, which are "located outside metro areas and have no towns of 10,000 residents or more, were last in 18 of 34 measurements used in the study," Marema writes. "That’s the worst record of any group of counties when they are sorted by urban-rural status." Noncore counties only ranked first in two categories, having less violent crime and fewer housing problems. (Yonder map of healthiest and least healthy counties)
The map above shows health outcomes. There is a separate rank, within each state, for the factors that contribute to outcomes. Those rankings are based 30 percent on health behaviors (tobacco and alcohol use, diet and exercise, sexual activity), 20 percent on clinical care (access to care and quality of care), 40 percent on social and economic factors (education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety) and 10 percent on physical environment (air and water quality and housing and transit).

"At the request of the Daily Yonder, Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute ran an analysis of how rural counties stack up across the country," Marema writes. "Noncore counties ranked last in all seven of the clinical measurements, such as percentage of population without health insurance and the number of physicians, dentists and mental health professionals available to the county’s population on a per capita basis."

Noncore counties were last in several other categories, including the number of adults reporting fair or poor health (18.3 percent), the number of physically unhealthy days (an average of 4 in the last 30-day period) and premature death, Marema writes. Noncore counties were next to last in the number of mentally unhealthy days, averaging 3.6 in the last 30-day period.

Noncore counties also had the largest percentage of residents under 65 who lacked health insurance, at 19.1 percent, Marema writes. "Only 44 percent of noncore residents had access to exercise facilities, while 92.8 percent of the residents of large suburban counties did." (Read more)

Feds split difference on coal dust limit, but new rule will increase sampling and real-time data

Photo by S. Wilkes, Gallery Stock
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Wednesday "announced the final version of a long-delayed rule to reduce coal miners’ exposure to the dust that causes deadly black lung disease," Ken Ward Jr. reports for The Charleston Gazette. The new rule, which will be phased in over two years to give the industry time to adjust, "will increase sampling in mines and make use of new technology to provide real-time information about dust levels, allowing miners and coal operators to make adjustments, instead of letting overexposures continue."

"The changes are part of the agency’s broad effort to end a disease that continues to kill miners, more than four decades after a federal law made eliminating such deaths a national priority," Ward writes. "The final rule steps back from an October 2010 proposal that would have slashed the legal dust limit in half, from 2 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1 milligram per cubic meter. After intense opposition from industry and congressional Republicans, the final rule sets the dust limit at 1.5."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United Mine Workers, other miners’ health advocates and public-health experts all backed a 1-milligram standard, Ward notes, adding: "Since 1968, 76,000 coal miners nationwide have died from black lung. And researchers have warned of a resurgence of the disease, especially in pockets of the Appalachian coalfields, affecting younger miners whose entire careers took place after the 1969 law’s dust limits went into effect." (Read more)

Minimum wage is not enough to rent a decent one-bedroom residence anywhere in U.S.

Nowhere in the U.S. can a single-income household afford a decent one-bedroom residence by working a 40-hour week at minimum wage, Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham report for The Washington Post. The cheapest-housing counties, all in rural Arkansas, would require a salary of at least $7.98 an hour to cover fair-market rent, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as being "rent plus utilities, based on the local market for decent-quality apartments of different sizes—neither dumps nor luxury flats."

"They call this rate a 'housing wage,' and it is, unsurprisingly, much higher than the minimum wage in much of the country," Badger and Ingraham write. The National Low Income Housing Coalition examined how much someone in each U.S. county would need to make to afford a one-bedroom residence. (Read more) The Post details the findings through a county-level map, which shows higher wages are needed for decent housing in many metropolitan areas, but also in rural boom regions like North Dakota's oil-producing Williston Basin and areas where urbanites have many rural retreats, such as New England and eastern New York. has an interactive version.  

Columbia, Mo., paper uses OpenBlock program to connect readers to community happenings

OpenBlock, created in 2009, is a web application that allows users to browse and search their local areas for maps and up-to-the-minute news, including 911 calls, crime reports, restaurant inspections, police and fire department activities, coupons, business and restaurant reviews, local news, sports and photos, open houses, and notifications of new business licenses and local events.

In the digital age the tool is a handy one for media outlets, especially newspapers, allowing them to constantly update the site, while letting users post their own information and photos. And for readers always looking for the latest information, the sites are a perfect place to find out what's happening in your neighborhood.

One paper that has added OpenBlock to their resume is the Columbia Daily Tribune. The newspaper in the town that is home to the University of Missouri recently began an online section called Neighborhoods, which features a wide variety of information that "offers a street-level view of things going on around you," the paper tells its readers.

The site, which has both simple and detailed navigation instructions, allows users to "browse all types of information across the whole city or filter down to just the neighborhood and type of report that interests you the most," the paper says. "Best of all, you can zero in on the area you care most about—whether that's the block where you live, the area around your kids' school or just the place you happen to be using your mobile phone." To visit the site, click here.

Energy industry using drones as monitoring devices

Skycatch photo
Journalists and law enforcement in rural areas are already using drones to obtain hard to reach information. Now the energy industry is following suit.

Skycatch, a year-old start-up based in San Francisco, has raised $3.2 million from Google and other investors and "already signed deals to test its technology with the construction giants Bechtel and DPR; First Solar, a developer of photovoltaic power plants; and SolarCity, a solar panel installer," Todd Woody reports for The New York Times. "Drones from Skycatch and more established companies are monitoring power lines, inspecting oil and gas pipelines, checking wind turbines for defects and pinpointing malfunctioning solar panels."

"Executives at Aeryon Labs, a Canadian company that made headlines for supplying drones to rebels in Libya, say energy is a growth area, as sensor-equipped drones offer a safe, low-cost way to inspect smokestacks, power lines and wind turbines without having to send workers to scale towers or hiring helicopters, which can cost thousands of dollars an hour to operate," Woody writes. "Aeryon has dispatched its drones to look for cracks in wind turbine blades, which can hang hundreds of feet above the ground. BP has deployed Aeryon drones and thermal cameras in Alaska to scan oil pipelines for hot spots that may indicate structural weaknesses."

At remote photovoltaic plants in the desert Southwest, where solar panels can number in the hundreds of thousands, drones can prove more effective in searching for malfunctions than people because the panels "generate a distinctive heat signature as they fail," Woody writes. Some companies have expressed interest in using drones to detect protected wildlife that may wander onto a wind farm or solar power installation, using drones to get the animals safely out or scaring away birds before they get killed by a wind turbine. (Read more)

Study says biofuel from corn stover would boost greenhouse gas; industry, EPA dismiss methodology

Assistant Professor Adam Liska led a University of Nebraska research team that conducted a study with a supercomputer model that predicted the effect of removing stover on 128 million acres across 12 Corn Belt states for biofuel production. "The team said it found that removing crop residue from cornfields can result in up to 7 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) than gasoline," reports Agri-Pulse.

The Renewable Fuels Association says the study is both contradictory to current science and "shows a complete lack of understanding of current farming practices." The association's CEO and president, Bob Dineen, called the methodology "fundamentally flawed" and said the results are based on "sweeping generalizations, questionable assumptions and an opaque methodology."

Industry leaders point to other research by the University of Illinois and the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory that "showed removing 30 percent of the reside results in no additional carbon emissions," Agri-Pulse reports. Also, the research revealed that removing corn stalks and leaves will help soil organic carbon stay at more reasonable levels.

The disparity in results could be a result of the Nebraska study assuming a 75-percent stover removal rate post-harvest, which biofuel advocates assert is significantly higher than that is "recognized through current farming and land management practices as needed to maintain the soil's ability to retain carbon and produce a feedstock that can significantly reduce emissions, when compared to is gasoline equivalent," Agri-Pulse reports.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying the study "is based on a hypothetical assumption that 100 percent of corn stover in a field is harvested; an extremely unlikely scenario that is inconsistent with recommended agricultural practices." Agri-Pulse is subscrption-only, but offers a free trial.

Cuts in cops, rise in crime lead communities in rural southern Oregon to form citizen patrols

Budget cuts and the end of a federal timber-payments program have depleted law enforcement in some rural southern Oregon towns. In response, citizens in towns in Josephine County are taking matters into their own hands, using citizen patrols to keep their towns safe, Liam Moriarty reports for NPR. "In rural southern Oregon, high unemployment, the growing use of meth and other drugs and the sudden lack of law enforcement has fueled an explosion of burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes."

Josephine County (Wikipedia map), population 82,000, had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in August 2013, Moriarty notes. "For decades, revenue from timber sales on the federal land that makes up 70 percent of Josephine County kept property taxes low and county government functioning. As logging dramatically declined, those payments dried up. After two failed property tax levies, the sheriff's department's budget was cut by more than half. Two-thirds of the staff was laid off. A single deputy was left to patrol the entire county."

That led to the formation of at least four citizen-based safety groups in the county, including Citizens Against Crime in O'Brien, pop. 546, and the North Valley Community Watch Responder Team in Merlin, pop. 2,100, Moriarty writes. The groups do anything from patrolling the area looking for suspicious activity to training exercises, such as one to teach how to search a building where an intruder could be hiding.

Alan Cress, who volunteers in Citizens Against Crime, told Moriarty, "We're not trying to take the place of law enforcement. In fact, we have a great deal of respect for what law enforcement does. We recognize the limited resources they have, and we're just trying to keep a presence out there." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Republican leading push for end to Saturday mail snuggles up to like-minded in White House

Rep. Darrell Issa
The push to eliminate mail delivery on Saturdays, except packages, may get a boost from a possible alliance between Republicans and the Obama administration. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, invited the White House Office of Management and Budget to testify before his committee on the postal plan in President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget, finding that they agree on eliminating "Saturday letter delivery, removing legal restrictions on its expansion into new products and services and reducing the workforce through attrition rather than layoffs," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post.

Issa's "tactic appears to be to drive a wedge between House Democrats and the administration," Rein writes. "Many Democratic lawmakers are staunch union supporters who fear that ending Saturday delivery and phasing out curbside delivery — another point of agreement between the White House and many Republicans — would threaten postal jobs." Issa appears eager to pass a bill after several years of roadblocks because he must give up the chair at year's end.

"Even if a White House-friendly bill were to pass the committee, any postal legislation face hurdles in both chambers. For example, some rank-and-file Republicans, particularly those representing rural districts, are leery of service cuts and job losses in an election year," Rein writes. Art Sackler of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, which represents large mailers, told Rein, “Prospects are not encouraging at the moment.”

Issa introduced a bill in January to end Saturday mail and restore benefit cuts for young military retirees, with the change projected to help the cash-strapped Postal Service save an estimated $6 billion over 10 years. He also introduced a bill in July 2013 to save $2 billion by limiting Saturday mail to packages, having newspapers use mailboxes for Saturday delivery, and limit closures of rural post offices to 5 percent of annual total closures. (Read more)

Republicans keep talking about immigration reform

Talk of immigration reform is increasing, but it remains to be seen whether Republicans are giving lips service to donors who favor it or are willing to take on a strong cadre of GOP House members who oppose it. Speaker John Boehner and other senior House Republicans are informing industry groups that they plan to pass immigration bills this year, though many GOP lawmakers are hesitant to deal with this difficult issue before elections, Laura Meckler writes for The Wall Street Journal. (Read more)  Former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and some other Illinois Republicans and CEOs, organized as the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, are asking GOP leaders to pass immigration reform, Matt Fuller of Roll Call reports.

Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida argues that it's better to act this year than next, when GOP presidential primary politics will intervene, Greg Sargent writes for The Washington Post. Diaz-Balart said if Republicans do not act on the issue now, they could not only lose their chance to influence the reform and make any further reform impossible until 2017, but also risk influencing President Barack Obama to take actions on his own. "I'm convinced that if we don't get it done by the August break, the president, who is feeling a lot of pressure from having not done anything on immigration reform, will feel that he has to act through executive actions," Diaz-Balart said. He even noted that the president could blame the Republicans for Congress' lack of action. (Read more)

"Obama administration officials are considering allowing bond hearings for immigrants in prolonged detention, officials, said, a shift that could low the pace of deportations because immigration courts expedite cases of incarcerated immigrants," Brian Bennett and Christi Parsons write for the Los Angeles Times. This is one of multiple ideas being discussed in an effort to address concerns from Latino groups and other allies. Some Republicans favor passing reform in pieces, starting with bills for agricultural workers.

The left has become frustrated with Obama, saying he is the "deporter-in-chief" because 2 million immigrants have been deported during his tenure, which puts him on track to "have deported more people by the end of 2014 than George W. Bush did in his entire eight years," Dara Lind writes on Vox. On the other hand, the right is angry with the president, too, saying he is not properly enforcing immigration laws. The difference in perspective depends on the number of people who have been sent home without marks on their records and the number who have been formally removed. (Read more)

Despite huge increases in oil trains and spills, crude continues to rides the rails largely in secret

Crude oil deliveries via U.S. railways increased 74 percent in 2013, and more oil was spilled in railway accidents last year than in the previous 37 years combined. With forecasts calling for crude shipments to keep rising this year, there are growing safety concerns in many small towns about crude-oil trains passing through. But there is little they can do about it, because "Federal interstate-commerce rules give them little say in the matter and railroads are exempted from federal 'right to know' regulations on hazardous material sites," notes Jad Mouawad of The New York Times.

"Under pressure to act, the Transportation Department said in February that railroads had agreed to apply the same routing rules to oil trains that they already apply to other hazardous materials, such as explosives, radioactive materials and poisonous substances like chlorine," Mouawad writes. "This voluntary agreement, which takes effect in July, was among commitments that also included lowering speed limits to 40 miles per hour when traveling in large metropolitan areas, and providing $5 million to develop training programs for emergency responders."

"Still, the railroads remain particularly secretive about how they determine the precise routing of their hazardous cargo. The rules that apply to that cargo, which came into effect in 2008 during the Bush administration, give railroads a lot of leeway," Mouawad writes. "Railroads are required to look at 27 factors before they determine the “safest and most secure” route for hazardous shipments. But the system provides little transparency, and outsiders cannot find out why a particular route is favored, for instance. Railroads do not provide any information on their route selection, citing safety concerns."

Railroad officials say they provide local emergency responders with a list of the 25 most hazardous commodities transported through their communities, Mouawad writes. "But the recipients must sign an agreement to restrict the information to 'bona fide emergency planning and response organizations for the expressed purpose of emergency and contingency planning,' a constraint that precludes them from making the information public." (Read more)

Report concludes that more than 100,000 in West Virginia were sickened by January chemical spill

Health officials in West Virginia said Tuesday that more than 100,000 people may have been made sick by chemical exposure following the January spill of the coal-washing chemical 4-methylcyclohexylmethanol into its water supply, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo by Chris Dorst: Bill Lepp carries a jug of water on the day after the spill)

The number is significantly higher than previous estimates, Ward notes. The state Department of Health and Human Resources had "said that 26 people were admitted to area hospitals and 533 treated at released at those facilities for symptoms that could have been related to the spill. Those figures did not include any data for the day of the Jan. 9 spill or the day after. Also, DHHR tracked only hospital treatments, and agency officials stopped counting after Jan. 23, records show."

The new data, from Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the local health department, and University of South Alabama environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, who was hired by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, "is based on local physicians who reported patient information to the health department," Ward writes. After the spill Gupta had called for more testing, fearing the long-term health effects of the spill.

To obtain the new data "Gupta’s agency received ongoing reports from 10 physicians, and extrapolated that sampling to account for all 1,600 medical providers in Kanawha and Putnam counties," Ward writes. "Also, Whelton had surveyed 16 households in early January. Those surveys provided useful data on how many residents had experienced common spill symptoms -- skin reactions, eye irritation, nausea, and headaches -- but never sought medical treatment. That data was also used to extrapolate further from the physician reports collected by the health department. (Read more)

This way to rural attractions; South Carolina installing highway signs to drive up tourism

In an attempt to draw more tourists to South Carolina's rural attractions and working farms, the state will install highway signs directing travelers to four of the state's local treasures, reports the Orangeburg Times and Democrat: "The program was developed by the Legislature in 2012 to help South Carolinians and tourists find authentic experiences off the beaten path and to drive traffic and business to rural destinations." (Bee City Zoo photo from the blog My Lens Is Ruby Red)

Signs in the Tourism Oriented Directional Signage program will alert travelers to Cottle Farm Strawberries in Columbia, Fire Fly Distillery and Irvin House Vineyards in Charleston County and Bee City Zoo in Colleton County. Requests have been approved for signs for 18 other sites, with the remaining signs expected to be installed by the end of 2014. Business have until April 30 to apply for the program. (Read more)

Monday, April 21, 2014

When writing up this year's graduates, think about noting how many or how few stay in school

The high-school graduation season is about to begin, so local newspapers are full of graduates' pictures and stories about valedictorians and salutatorians. The Hickman County Times of Centerville, Tenn., is taking that a few steps farther, with profiles of students with the five best grade-point averages in each of the county's two high schools, usually headlined with their ambitions—but this year it also did the sort of story that every newspaper could do but is rarely seen: a front-page piece reminding readers in the county 50 miles west of Nashville that most graduates don't continue their education in the year after they get their diplomas. (Click on chart for larger version)

About 55 percent of high-school graduates across Tennessee continue education in the next year, but only 40 percent of Hickman County graduates do. "That's slightly lower than what I would have expected," County School Supt. Jerry Nash told Times Editor Brad Martin.

Some return to school later. Rob Mitchell, a specialist at the Tennessee Career Center, told Martin, "A lot of these students go out of high school and don't do anything for three or four years before they realize, 'I've got to do something.'" Gary Fouts, student services coordinator at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Dickson, said people usually enroll there between the ages of 25 and 35.

The data show that 43.1 percent of the county's 274 high school graduates enrolled in an educational institution in the 16 months after graduation. Only 13.1 percent of those attended a four-year institution, while 51 percent attended a two-year institution. "I think we have the student capacity to go to college and be successful," Nash said. "I'm not sure the culture values it enough."

The workforce seems to require higher skills to earn good wages, but more than half of graduates are not attending higher education institutions, Martin writes. What can be done about it? Martin asked the school board last Monday to think about providing funding for four more guidance counselors pat the high schools. "Each entering class of freshmen would see one guidance counselor for all four years," Martin writes. Nash said the new guidance counselors would be beneficial, though he also said that he "could make good arguments for several other areas that need help."

A factor that often keeps people from continuing their education is the cost. Martin notes, "Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed the Tennessee Promise: that tuition be eliminated from all College of Applied Technology schools, as well as community colleges."

Rob Mitchell, specialist at the Tennesse Career Center, told Martin that when he speaks to senior classes, he asks them, "What is a high school diploma?" Inevitably, they don't know. He then explains that it is a document that means they have the ability to learn. "And when you leave here, that's when you go learn. When they walk across that stage, it's not the end; it's the beginning," he said. (Read more)

Debates surrounding War on Poverty's anniversary can obscure a big fact: poverty is mainly rural

Welch, seat of McDowell County (NYT photo by Travis Dove)
The War on Poverty was started 50 years ago to help all poor Americans, but the anniversary "is being observed with academic conferences and ideological sparring — often focused, explicitly or implicitly, on the 'culture' of poor urban residents," Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times. "Almost forgotten is how many ways poverty plays out in America, and how much long-term poverty is a rural problem."

Gabriel notes, "Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America’s iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans."

The imagery remains stark in McDowell County, West Virginia, where not much has changed because the coal industry that once provided good jobs for some households has shriveled. Gabriel uses it as his object example, noting that McDowell leads the nation in lowest life expectancy for men, at 63.9 years of age, and is second worst in women, at 72.5. In 2012 the county was chosen as the the site of an experimental five-year project called Reconnecting McDowell to address issues like poverty, technology and transportation that limit educational opportunities in the county. The county was also the site of an award-winning, interactive documentary called  "Hollow".

"McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity," Gabriel writes. "But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on." (Read more)

Feds' decision on Keystone XL Pipeline delayed; could help Democrats on both sides of the issue

The State Department announced Friday that it is delaying its final decision on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline "until it has a clearer idea of how legal challenges to the pipeline’s route through Nebraska will be settled," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times.

Last year Republican Gov. Dave Heineman endorsed the pipeline, but in February a state court invalidated the decision. The 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the Alberta oil sands in Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, would join an existing pipeline junction at Steele City, Neb. Critics and advocates of the pipeline say the latest move is politically motivated, accusing Democrats of purposefully postponing the decision until after elections. (The proposed pipeline)

"Approving the pipeline before the election could staunch the flow of money from liberal donors and fund-raisers who oppose the project, like Tom Steyer, a California billionaire, who has personally asked Obama to reject the pipeline," Davenport writes. Steyer "has pledged to spend $100 million to support candidates who back strong policies to fight climate change."

Conversely, "Delaying the pipeline decision until after the election could help Democrats on both sides of the issue," Davenport notes. "Supporters could court voters by calling for its approval, while liberals who oppose the pipeline could still enjoy financial support from donors like Steyer."

Conservative Republicans and environmental groups are criticizing the decision to delay. Republicans say approving construction would create thousands of jobs, but delaying it is keeping those people from working, while environmentalists say the Obama administration needs to work faster to make decisions to prevent climate change. (Read more)

Small biomass power plants on farms are feasible, could help rural economies, study finds

Researchers at the University of Missouri say they have discovered a cost-effective way for farmers to harness bioenergy, a move that could greatly benefit rural economies, Claire Boston reports for Columbia (Mo.) Business. The study, published in the April edition of Biomass and Bioenergy, found that "creating a power grid from a group of small biomass power plants in rural areas could decrease farmers’ electric bills and relieve the national power grid."

The study's author Tom Johnson, an agricultural economics professor at Missouri, told Boston, "Transporting power through power lines to remote, rural areas is very inefficient and can be expensive for farmers and other rural citizens. If (farmers) had access to small biomass power plants, they could become close to self-sustaining in terms of power.”

Biomass power plants would be a cost-effective way of producing power because farmers have plenty of biomass left over after each harvest season, Boston writes. "With an improved grid, the small power plants could even provide power to people outside each farm, which could stimulate rural economies." (Read more) The study is behind a pay wall, but can be found by clicking here.

USDA starts $150 million capital investment fund to help small, rural, farm-related businesses expand

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday the formation of a $150 million Rural Business Investment program designed "to provide investment capital to help small agriculture-related business in rural areas with cash needed to expand," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press. As part of the program the USDA has created the Rural Business Investment Co., "a for-profit firm licensed by the USDA to invest in businesses that otherwise might not have the capital to increase business opportunities."

The Rural Business Investment Co. receives money from Farm Credit Banks and sets up an investment capital fund "that will be managed by Advantage Capital Partners, a New-Orleans-based firm with experience in investing in small rural businesses," Pitt writes. Money comes from eight Farm Credit banks headquartered in Minnesota, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and Kentucky. The USDA is seeking applications from more companies, which "must be newly formed for-profit venture capital companies seeking to be licensed as an RBIC and intending to raise a minimum of $10 million in private equity capital." (Read more)

Extension Service holding forums to show telecoms that Mississippi, lowest in Internet use, wants access

Experts say Mississippi ranks dead last in the U.S. in Internet use, but it's not due to lack of interest. Many of the 22 percent who don't use the Internet live in rural areas where they lack access to it, Danielle Thomas reports for WLOX-TV 13 in Biloxi. And in some rural areas where service is available, the cost is steep, sometimes running $70 or $80 per month.

"Most Mississippians live outside the city limits. Because of that, experts say going online can be a challenge. They say in rural areas, Internet access is usually either poor or non existent," Thomas writes. "Experts said until there is better Internet access, Mississippians will continue to be on the wrong side of the digital divide."

That's why the Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension Service "is hosting community forums hoping to gain public support to convince Internet service providers there is enough demand to warrant expanding their coverage areas," Thomas writes. Regional Broadband Coordinator Andy Collins told Thomas, "We're trying to bring them together, and we want to show the providers there are enough people here that are interested that want Internet. If you bring Internet here, there are a lot of people here who are willing to subscribe to it." (Read more) (2011 Census Bureau map)