Friday, May 09, 2014

Most farmers don't make a living by farming; you probably knew that, but here are the latest figures

The recently released Census of Agriculture had plenty of data, such as the fact that the U.S. had 2,109,303 farmers in 2012. "But look a little closer at that number, and you can see that it's not quite what it seems," Dan Charles reports for NPR. "Most of those farmers are not actually making a living by farming," but work small farms because it's what they love to do. (Charles photo: Part-time farmer Bill Miller)

"More than half of all farmers say it's not their primary occupation. Also, two-thirds of all farms sell less than $25,000 worth of crops or livestock each year. That's not profit — that's total sales," Charles reports. "There are just 80,000 farms with sales of over $1 million a year. They represent just 4 percent of the total farm population. But those few big farms account for two-thirds of all agricultural production in the country."

That means that the 96 percent of farmers who account for just one-third of U.S. agricultural production are people like Bill Miller, who works full-time for a chemical plant, but rents land where he grazes cattle. Miller, whose parents sold the cattle ranch where he grew up, told Charles, "It's just something you love to do, you know. Born and raised with cows. Just enjoy being around them, messing with them. Basically, it just gets in your blood. It's what you love doing. There's nothing like seeing a brand new calf, the first time trying to get up and walk, you know?"

Part-time farmers "may be semi-retired, or they inherited farmland and want to keep it in the family, but they don't want to farm full time," Charles writes. "Some are raising vegetables for farmers' markets. Others have orchards. But the biggest single group is made up of people like Miller, who raise cattle. It's often the easiest way to farm part time. Cattle don't take a lot of expensive equipment or a huge amount of labor. As a result, the average cattle herd in the country is just 40 animals." And some of these part-time farmers would love to do it full time, but it doesn't bring in enough income to pay the bills. (Read more)

America's federal transportation money is inside a broken system that badly needs fixing

"America has a transportation funding problem. And if Congress doesn't fix it this summer, it could start doing some real damage," especially in rural areas, Lydia Depillis reports for The Washington Post. "Most big transportation projects -- bridge repairs, new highways, intercity rail -- are paid for with a stack of local, state, and federal funds. The problem for funding is that Americans are actually using less gas than they used to -- both because they aren't driving as much, and cars are getting more efficient. Meanwhile, Congress hasn't raised the gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994, which is now far behind what it was then when you take inflation into account."

Instead of raising the tax, or finding some other funding mechanism, Congress has "simply plugged the hole with multi-billion-dollar transfers from the general fund," financed by other taxes, Depillis writes. "The last authorization, a $19.5 billion chunk granted in 2012, expires at the end of this September -- at which point, unless Congress acts, the federal contribution for hundreds of state projects will drop to zero."

"According to calculations by the advocacy group Transportation for America, it could amount to a loss of $46.8 billion compared to current funding levels," which would lead many states to put the brakes on planned projects, Depillis writes.

The White House recently "sent Congress a $302 billion, four-year plan that shifts more money into transit over highways, and relies on corporate tax reform to create new revenue streams," Depillis writes. "But the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has announced its intention to craft a bill that essentially maintains current funding levels."

States are already experimenting with a few new ideas, including a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, which "would assess fees for the distance you drive rather than the amount of fuel you use (which is a way to make sure electric and hybrid car drivers pay their share for road wear and tear)," Depillis writes. "It's also possible to tweak the gas tax in a way that it responds to increases in transportation costs. Others think it would make more sense to devolve transportation funding to the states entirely, which would free them of the sclerotic congressional process and allow metropolitan areas to be more agile and creative with their transit projects." (Read more)

Small and large Internet companies, rural interests object to FCC plan to erode net neutrality

Several major tech companies, including Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook and Netflix, as well as more than 100 smaller start-ups, have asked the Federal Communications Commission to abandon its plan to let Internet providers charge the companies for faster access to customers, Cecilia Kang  and Brian Fung report for The Washington Post

Last month the FCC "proposed rules that would allow companies to pay providers to deliver their content at faster speeds," the Post writes. "That proposal drew an outcry by high-tech start-ups and consumer groups who fear that only the richest companies will be able to afford tolls extracted by Internet service providers. They say the higher costs would trickle down to customers and that the Web sites of nonprofit groups would be harder to find." Some rural interests also fear that they would be left in the slow lane of the digital highway.

The companies wrote: “The commission intends to propose rules that would enable phone and cable Internet service providers to discriminate both technically and financially against Internet companies and to impose new tolls on them. . . . This represents a grave threat to the Internet."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler "vowed Thursday to forge ahead," the Post writes. Wheeler needs three votes from the five-member panel for the proposal to pass. Wheeler "said he would punish any Internet service provider that unfairly discriminates against traffic in a way that harms consumers. But such guidelines are too broad and hard to enforce, critics say." (Read more)

Wyoming, top coal producer, rejects science standards mainly due to climate-change elements

UPDATE: May 16: An Oklahoma House of Representatives committee voted to reject the new set of state science standards, Katie Valentine reports for Climate Progress. The standards were approved unanimously by the state board of education in March. Tiffany Neill, director of science education at the Oklahoma State Department Of Education, who was testified on behalf of the science standards, said the state's previous set of academic science standards received an “F” in 2012 from the Fordham Institute. (Read more)

"Wyoming, the nation's top coal-producing state, is the first to reject new K-12 science standards proposed by national education groups mainly because of global warming components," Bob Moen reports for The Associated Press. "The Wyoming Board of Education decided recently that the Next Generation Science Standards need more review after questions were raised about the treatment of man-made global warming."

Board President Ron Micheli told AP "the review will look into whether 'we can't get some standards that are Wyoming standards and standards we all can be proud of.'" Twelve states have already adopted the standards, which consist of information students should be expected to know at the completion of each grade.

"Wyoming produces almost 40 percent of the nation's coal, with much of it used by power plants to provide electricity around the nation," Moen writes. "Minerals taxes on coal provided $1 billion to the state and local governments in 2012 and coal mining supports some 6,900 jobs in the state." Republican Gov. Matt Mead has publicly said he's skeptical about man-made climate change and called federal efforts to curtail greenhouse emissions a "war on coal." (Read more)

22nd annual Letter Carriers' Food Drive is Saturday

The future of Saturday mail remains in limbo. But one staple of six-day mail is the annual Letter Carriers' Food Drive, which will celebrate its 22nd year on Saturday.

"It is the nation's largest single-day food drive, and is held annually on the second Saturday in May in 10,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam," says a press release from the National Association of Letter Carriers. "Using the unparalleled postal networks, letter carriers will collect non-perishable food donations on that day as they deliver mail along their postal routes."

During last year's drive letter carriers collected 74.4 million pounds of food, the second-highest amount since the drive began in 1992, the release says. Participating is easy. "People are encouraged to leave a sturdy bag containing non-perishable foods, such as canned soup, canned vegetables, canned meats and fish, pasta, peanut butter, rice or cereal, next to their mailbox before the regular mail delivery on Saturday." (Read more)

Real Food, Real Local Conference June 11-13 in Ohio

The third Annual Real Food, Real Local Conference is scheduled from June 11-13 at the Eclipse Company Store in The Plains, just outside Athens, Ohio. Hosted by Rural Action, an organization for Appalachian Ohio, the "event brings together a diversity of people from across the country, providing an opportunity for people and organizations re-inventing local food systems in their communities to learn, share and network," according to its news release.

"Whether you are a farmer, processor, involved with farmers or retail markets, a food entrepreneur, advocate or consumer, this three day event will invigorate you with fresh ideas, proven approaches, great connections, and plenty of interaction and fun," the release states. The keynote speaker will be Anthony Flaccavento of southwest Virginia, "an organic farmer who has been working on community, environmental and economic development in central Appalachia for the past 25 years." The conference also includes tours of local businesses.

For more information or to register click here. Users will be required to create a free account to access the site.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Feds tell railways to inform states of big oil trains, urge stronger cars when hauling Bakken crude

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring railroads to inform state emergency-management of large crude-oil trains going through their states "and urged shippers not to use older-model tank cars that are easily ruptured in accidents" when hauling more volatile crude from the Bakken Shale region, Joan Lowy reports for The Associated Press. (AP photo by Steve Helber: Crude oil train crash May 1 in Virginia)

The department's voluntary approach toward the old tank cars is unlike that of "its Canadian counterpart," notes Curtis Tate of McClatchy Newspapers. "Transport Canada two weeks ago required a three-year phase-out of older tank cars." In the U.S., the National Transportation Safety Board has warned for years that the cars punctured easily in derailments, leading to spills and fires with flammable liquids. The cars have performed poorly in the past several years in derailments involving ethanol, and more recently crude oil."

Stronger tank-car rules could be coming. Last week the department "sent a package of proposed regulations to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review," Tate notes. "The process can take at least 90 days, and until it’s complete, the details will not be made public." (Read more)

Read more here:

The order to inform state officials applies to "trains containing more than 1 million gallons of crude oil—the equivalent of about 35 tank cars — from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada," Lowy reports. "The order also requires that railroads disclose the volume of oil being transported and how emergency responders can contact 'at least one responsible party' at the railroad." (Read more)

"Until now, railroads were under no obligation to disclose any of that information and provided it only under strict conditions if it was requested," Jad Mouawad reports for The New York Times. (Read more)

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 and was headed to Maine.

World's largest animal-health firm doesn't seem too worried about FDA's new antibiotic restrictions

Drug companies that agreed to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's plan to phase out antibiotics used to spur growth in livestock don't seem too worried that the new rules will hurt their business, John Tozzi reports for Bloomberg Businessweek. The new rules ask companies to adjust drug label instructions to make sure animals only get antibiotics for medical reasons.

"Zoetis, which bills itself as the world’s largest animal health company," reported Tuesday that its first-quarter earnings included $1.2 billion on sales of antibiotics last year, more than a quarter of "its $4.6 billion in revenue for the year and 41 percent of its livestock business," and mentioned the pressure against antibiotics elsewhere but not in the U.S.

Zoetis Chief Executive Juan Ramón Alaix told analysts, "We think that despite this pressure that definitely will continue in Europe—and we have seen new regulations in countries like Belgium or France—we expect the antibiotic [market to] continue growing at the global basis, although at lower pace than the global growth of animal health." (Read more)

Common Core Standards keep getting criticism from the right and left, now from bipartisan legislation

The Common Core State Standards, a set of educational standards adopted by 45 states to regulate what students learn in school each year, have loyal supporters in both political parties but keep getting criticism from the right and left—and at least implicitly from bipartisan legislation in Congress.

Some conservatives have dubbed the standards "Obamacore," saying they are akin to a federal takeover of schools. However, the movement is state-led. Despite criticism, the Common Core still has some supporters not only from some powerful voices in the business community but also from some Republicans. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, both potential presidential candidates, are among Republicans who firmly supports the standards, but not many other Republicans stand with them, Jonathan Martin writes for The New York Times.

"I'm a big fan of Jeb Bush; I think he's an important leader on many issues," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, another presidential hopeful. "But on the question of the Common Core, I emphatically do not agree with Common Core." Others agree with him. Indiana became the first state to abandon the standards when Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation last month. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a possible GOP presidential candidate, said he wants his state to create its own educational goals.

Many Republicans' rejection of the Common Core stems from President Obama's support of it and the idea of states' receiving federal grants for adopting the standards. Bush doesn't seem swayed. He said, "So the idea that something that I support—because people are opposed to it means that I have to stop supporting it if there's not any reason based on fact to do that? I just don't feel compelled to run for cover when I think this is the right thing to do for our country." (Read more)

Bipartisan legislation that subtly disapproves of the Common Core has passed the House Education Committee and recently also the full House. The bill's primary purpose is to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). The idea is to allow education research to be "timely, relevant and accessible," Alyson Klein writes for Education Week. 

The bill doesn't directly decry the Common Core State Standards, but it does discuss the federal government's role in curriculum. The House GOP summary of the bill says the legislation "dictates that no funds can be used to mandate, direct, control or coerce the curriculum or academic standards or assessments of a state of local educational agency."

A House Democratic aide told Klein, "This language reflects current law and current practice, and it doesn't change anything" because federal law prevents the federal government from controlling curriculum, standards or assessments. Klein notes that this isn't the first bill to say the federal government can't support a particular set of standards, and some of the bills even mentioned the Common Core by name, which this one does not. (Read more)

The bill discusses better collection of data regarding "high school graduation rates, school safety, discipline and teach preparation and evaluation," Klein writes. It promotes not only collecting accurate data but also protecting it and using it to improve student outcomes. (Read more)

Some on the left also oppose the standards, saying they are too difficult and that they impose upon teachers who are not pleased about having to respond to a top-down mandate, Times columnist David Brooks writes. However, he says the Common Core's opponents are part of an "ideological circus" that is "burying the sensible idea in hysterical claims and fevered accusations. . . . States from New York to Oklahoma are thinking of rolling them back. This has less to do with substance and more to do with talk-radio bombast and interest group resistance to change. . . . [The standards] are being attacked on the right because they are common and on the left because they are core."

Brooks writes that just seven years ago, state education standards were very disorganized, and many students who graduated from high school were neither ready for college nor ready for employment. The current standards are not curriculum and do not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, they represent a goal for what students should know at the end of each year. "The new initiative is clearly superior to the old mess," he writes.

Also, he writes that the standards are not as unpopular with teachers as some people may think. In fact, a survey in Kentucky showed that 77 percent of teachers are excited to implement them, and another survey showed that the majority of Tennessee teachers think the standards are working out well so far. (Read more)

Telepsychiatry is working in the Carolinas, where many rural counties lack mental-health providers

Photo: N.C. Center for Public Policy Research
Finding mental health care in rural America is often a struggle for patients, with 25 percent of Idaho's residents lacking access to a psychologist or psychiatrist. The problem is just as bad in North Carolina, where 58 of the state's 100 counties have been "designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas because they do not have enough mental health providers," according to the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.

But in North Carolina rural residents are utilizing telepsychiatry to get the help they need, reports NPR. Psychiatrist Dr. Sy Atezaz Saeed told the radio network, "When you ask patients about this experience, most of them will tell you that after a few minutes of some hesitation, they even forget that they are talking to the doctor via this monitors."

A study by the NCCPPR found that the method works, stating that patients who use telepsychiatry "spend less time waiting in hospital emergency rooms and have a lower likelihood of returning for treatment. The study also found fewer involuntary commitments to state psychiatric hospitals and high satisfaction for telepsychiatry patients."

This is good news for a state where 28 counties don't have a psychiatrist and 18 counties only have one, the report states. It's even worse for children, with 70 counties lacking a child psychiatrist. Only six counties have a geriatric psychiatrist, five have an addiction psychiatrist and only 13 have physicians that specialize in addiction and chemical dependency.

The North Carolina model was based on success in South Carolina, where the average number of patients treated using telepsychiatry grew from 2010 to 2013 from 8.7 to 12.3 per day and "the length of stay in emergency departments while waiting for treatment decreased from 48-72 hours in 2010 to less than six hours in 2013," the report states.

Research in northeastern North Carolina, which has 10 of the 28 counties without a psychiatrist, found that through telepsychiatry "the length of stay in the emergency rooms for patients waiting to be discharged to inpatient treatment declined from 48 hours to 22.5 hours," the report says. The number of patients who had to return for treatment within 30 days decreased from 20 percent to 8 percent. Involuntary commitments to local or state psychiatric hospitals decreased by 33 percent. Re-admissions to psychiatric hospitals declined, and 88 percent of patients said they were satisfied with the telepsychiatry services.

The state legislature appropriated $2 million for fiscal 2013-14 and $2 million for 2014-15 to implement a new statewide telepsychiatry system; 49 of the state's 108 hospitals are participating, and the remaining hospitals are expected to join by July 2015. Gov. Pat McCrory said, "No matter where you live in North Carolina, you will soon have better access to mental health providers with the expansion of telepsychiatry across our state. Technology will help us connect people with appropriate treatment programs so patients can avoid long waits in the emergency room. North Carolina can be a national leader with this program." (Read more)

Oklahoma surpasses California in earthquakes; scientists point to injection wells as likely cause

Oklahoma has far surpassed California in number of earthquakes, and state and federal scientists say "deep injection of wastewater from oil and gas production is a 'likely contributing factor'," Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. Since October, Oklahoma has had 189 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher, compared to 139 in California; in 2014 the Sooner State has had 147 such quakes, compared to 70 in the Golden State. From 1978 to 2008, before the recent oil and gas boom hit Oklahoma, the state only averaged two earthquakes per year. (EnergyWire graphic) 
The U.S. Geological Survey and the Oklahoma Geological Survey "have linked much of the increase in Oklahoma to deep injection of waste fluid from oil and gas production in the drilling-heavy state," Soraghan writes. The agencies issued a warning Monday "that the risk of a damaging magnitude-5.5 or larger quake has gone up 'significantly'."

A study by the USGS, Cornell University and Columbia University blames injection wells for the increase in quakes. Last week Cornell geophysicist Katie Keranen said at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America that a cluster of four high-volume wastewater injection wells in Oklahoma City "triggered quakes up to 30 miles" away and have since "spread farther outward, as fluids migrate farther from the massive injection wells."

"Seismologists have also linked earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio and Texas to injection of wastewater from oil and gas production," Soraghan writes. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Climate scientist says models predicted recent radical changes in weather

Iowa State University climate scientist Gene Takle, the lead author of the National Climate Assessment, said "it takes about 40 years of data to establish a climate change trend. But he also said the floods of 2008, 2010 and 2011, the droughts of the past two years, abnormally high tornado outbreaks and delayed planting seasons the past two years are likely the result of climate change," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Takle told reporters, “I say that largely because climate models have predicted all this would happen."

The assessment was first published in 2000, then again in 2009 and 2014. "Federal officials say the latest assessment 'confirms that climate change is affecting every region of the country and key sectors of the U.S. economy and society,' including agriculture, 'underscoring the need to combat the threats climate change presents and increase the preparedness and resilience of American communities,'" writes Agri-Pulse.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, urged Congress to act on climate change and the White House to reverse course on the Renewable Fuel Standard, Agri-Pulse writes. Johnson said, “The National Climate Assessment only confirms what family farmers and ranchers have been experiencing: global climate change is increasing the occurrence and severity of volatile weather events, which then directly impact agricultural risk, farmers' bottom lines and the entire rural economy."

John Holdren, director of the White House Office on Science and Technology, "told reporters the assessment is the 'loudest and clearest alarm bell to date calling on us to take immediate action,'" Agri-Pulse writes. "He said the document offers definitive steps that help the administration pursue climate change solutions, including improving vehicle and appliance energy efficiency, siting more renewable energy facilities on federal lands and reducing emissions from power plants and other sources." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Rural Idahoans lack access to mental health care; expanding Medicaid would have helped

Like many mostly rural states, Idaho suffers from a shortage of doctors. But Idaho's rural residents have limited, or in many cases, no access to mental health professionals, Daniel Walters reports for Boise Weekly. About 33 percent of Idaho residents live in the country, and 25 percent of the state's residents lack access to a psychologist or psychiatrist, meaning residents are forced to hit the road, sometimes driving five hours from home, to get treatment. Others receive treatment from doctors in Boise through telepsychiatry services. (Weekly photo: Dr. William Terry, left, and Dr. William Hazle meet with rural patients via a computer)

Idaho ranks last in the number of psychiatrists per person, according to 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation data, and is also last in mental health funding, Walters writes. "The state is rural and underfunded with a high incidence of mental illness. Despite its sky-high suicide rates, it was the last state in the nation to get a suicide hot line."

Of the 1.5 million Idaho residents, 72,000 suffer from mental illness, including 18,000 children, according to a 2010 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In 2006 the state spent just $46 per capita on mental health agency services, which amounted to only 1.3 percent of state spending that year.

In 2006 the state allotted 59 percent of state mental health spending to community mental health services, well below the national average of 70 percent. The state also spent 33 percent on state hospital care, higher than the national average of 28 percent. The state's public mental health system only provided care to 16 percent of adults who suffer from serious mental illness. (Read more)

Financial problems stem from the recession and from the Republican-led state's decision not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, Walters writes. From 2008 to 2012 the impact of the recession led state mental health care funding to decrease by more than 28 percent, while federal funding dropped by nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, if Idaho has expanded Medicaid, the state would have saved more than $400 million across 10 years, according to a report from the Idaho Workgroup.

"Idaho's Health and Welfare department is intended to fill a gap, providing mental health care for those without access to insurance or Medicaid," Walters writes. "To balance the budget, Idaho eliminated redundancy. In the summer of 2010, 451 mentally ill Idahoans were kicked off state coverage and onto Medicaid or private insurance." (Read more)

Environmental group says Indiana's coal ash ponds are a danger to drinking water

While North Carolina officials continue to debate about who will foot the bill to move North Carolina coal ash ponds after a recent spill into the Dan River, a report from Indiana says the state has more coal ash ponds than any other state, and despite a troubling number of spills, "State environmental regulators have done little to address the ongoing problems of how to dispose of coal waste," Ryan Sabalow reports for The Indianapolis Star.

The report by the Hoosier Environmental Council states that some coal-fired plants have ash ponds that are located near drinking water but aren't lined to prevent groundwater contamination, Sabalow writes. The report "says Indiana electric utilities generated 6.6 million tons of coal ash in 2012. Much of that ash—which is known to contain toxins such as arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury and chromium—ends up a [sic] Indiana's 84 coal ash ponds, the most of any state in the nation."

Tim Maloney, the group's senior policy director and lead author of the report, told Sabalow, "It's a huge, unregulated source of surface-water pollution, as well as the ash in the ponds percolating down through the unlined ground beneath them and contaminating groundwater." He said the state is one of the nation's worst "with 13 documented cases of ash spills and other documented cases of groundwater contamination." (Read more)

Advocates say charter schools can rebuild rural communities; critics question source of funding

Charter schools are few and far between in rural America, accounting for only 16 percent of all charter schools, with only 111 of the 785 rural charter schools located in remote areas, Katie Ash reports for Education Week. "But proponents of charters say those independent public schools can breathe new economic life into rural communities with dwindling populations by adding jobs and attracting families to a town, even as they provide an alternative to local schools that, like big-city schools, may be struggling."

Some rural charters have even been found "to stave off consolidation and keep schools open in small communities, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based nonprofit consulting firm that works with schools to improve achievement," Ash writes.

"Rural charters face a host of challenges that set them apart from their urban counterparts, charter experts say," Ash writes. "Besides a lack of suitable facilities, they have smaller budgets and fewer support services than urban charters; a smaller pool of students, teachers and administrators to draw from; and, often, particularly tense relationships with their local school districts as they compete for limited resources and relatively few students."

Proponents say charter schools offer families more choices, but critics refute that idea, Ash writes. Kai A. Schafft, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, told Ash, "The charter school advocates present [rural charters] mostly in terms of 'this is a good thing because it results in more choice,' but the problem with that argument is that the choice comes at a potentially significant cost, and that is the institutional undermining of the option that already exists."

In fact, the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, rarely supports charter schools in rural areas, Ash writes. Spokesman Robert Mahaffey told her, "From a resource standpoint, where we come down when it comes to charters is, first and foremost, how are they being funded? Are you in essence draining essential resources from the traditional public school?'"

Currently, eight mostly rural states—Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia—don't allow charters schools, Smarick told Ash. (Read more)

Oil from Colorado drilling sites contaminating soil

"Colorado's intensifying oil and gas boom is taking a toll on soil—200 gallons spilled per day seeping into once-fertile ground—that experts say could be ruinous," Bruce Finley reports for The Denver Post. "But with support from state regulators, oil companies increasingly are proposing to clean contaminated soil on site using mixing machinery and microbes. This may be cheaper for the industry—and could save and restore soil. But it is not proven."

"At least 716,982 gallons (45 percent) of the petroleum chemicals spilled during the past decade have stayed in the ground after initial cleanup—contaminating soil, sometimes spreading into groundwater, a Denver Post analysis found," Finley writes. "That's about one gallon of toxic liquid every eight minutes penetrating soil. In addition, drillers churn up 135 to 500 tons of dirt with every new well, some of it soaked with hydrocarbons and laced with potentially toxic minerals and salts. And heavy trucks crush soil, suffocating the delicate subsurface ecosystems that traditionally made Colorado's Front Range suitable for farming." (Post graphic)

Eugene Kelly, chief of soil and crop science at Colorado State University, said, "The overall impact of the oil and gas boom 'is like a death sentence for soil.'" Kelly told Finley, "We need to be very mindful of the way we're using soil. It could be the next limiting component when we talk about feeding the planet and having a sustainable lifestyle—because all the good stuff is gone and soil is being degraded. Some day the fossil fuels will be gone. Is our soil going to be healthy?"

The 578 reported spills in 2013 was the highest in 10 years and contaminated an estimated 173,400 tons of topsoil, Finley writes. Analysis shows that 45 percent of the spills stay in the soil, and 12.3 percent of the last 1,000 spills "already had contaminated groundwater before companies began cleanup." (Read more)

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Climate report says change already affecting cultures and economies of rural areas; warns of more floods, lower corn and soybean yields

Climate change is already happening throughout the entire U.S., according to the National Climate Assessment released Tuesday by a scientific panel overseen by the government. Justin Gillis reports for The New York Times that the panel found "water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects."

"One of the report’s most dramatic findings concerned the rising frequency of torrential rains," Gillis writes. "The proportion of precipitation that is falling in very heavy rain events has jumped by 71 percent in the Northeast, by 37 percent in the Midwest and by 27 percent in the South, the report found." The report also found that "severe, long-lasting heat waves were likely to become much more common," and "bitterly cold winters will continue to occur, even as they become somewhat less likely." (Read more)

Climate change can help and harm agriculture, the report says. The length of growing seasons could increase, allowing more diverse crops, but an increase in the number of dry days, especially in the West and South, could negatively affect both crops and livestock. "The trend toward more consecutive dry days and higher temperatures will increase evaporation and add stress to limited water resources, affecting irrigation and other water uses." (National Climate Assessment graphic: Crop yields decline under hotter temperatures)
"Warming, climate volatility, extreme weather events and environmental change are already affecting the economies and cultures of rural areas," the report says. "These changes will progressively increase volatility in food commodity markets, shift locations where particular economic activities can thrive, alter the ranges of plant and animal species and—depending on the region—increase water scarcity, exacerbate flooding and coastal erosion and increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires across the rural landscape."

"Rural America has already experienced impacts of climate change related weather effects, including crop and livestock loss from severe drought and flooding, damage to levees and roads from extreme storms, shifts in planting and harvesting times and large-scale losses from fires and other weather-related disasters," the report says. "These impacts have profound effects, often significantly affecting the health and well-being of rural residents and communities, and are amplified by the essential economic link between these communities and their natural resource base."

The report also found that "hunting, fishing, bird watching and other wildlife-related activities will be affected as wildlife habitats shift and relationships among species change" and that areas that rely on winter tourism, especially in the West, Northeast and Southwest, could be hurt by warming temperatures. To read the full report click here.

Rural and urban voters split on Obama, health law, but share bleak outlook of U.S. economic future

Polls show that rural and urban residents have vastly different opinions about federal health reform and President Obama, but the two geographies share similar opinions about economic issues and free trade, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

The poll found that 54 percent of urban residents approve of the job Obama is doing, and 43 percent believe Obamacare is a good idea, while only 33 percent of rural residents approve of Obama's work, and 26 percent support health reform, Dante Chinni, director of the American Communities Project at American University, writes for The Wall Street Journal.

When asked if they believe that "Because of the widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else, America is no longer a country where everyone has an opportunity to get ahead," 61 percent of rural respondents and 59 percent of urban respondents agreed with the statement, but a minority of suburbanites did.

In response to the statement, "In the next congressional election, I would likely support a candidate who says that free trade with other countries will cause the loss of U.S. jobs and will hurt wages and jobs here," 59 percent of rural respondents agreed, and 51 percent of urban ones did. Only 41 percent of suburbanites did.

Income, or the lack of it, is the main reason rural and urban respondents agree on the two issues, Chinni writes. Only 15.6 percent of rural households make more than $100,000 a year, while 27.2 percent earn less than $25,000. In big cities, 24.5 percent of residents earn more than $100,000, but 24.3 percent earn less than $25,000. Overall in the U.S., 22.2 percent of households earn more than $100,000, and 23.3 percent earn less than $25,000.

"The larger point in all these numbers is that populism, or economic unhappiness, has grown some roots in both Democratic and Republican base areas—overriding even the usual breakdown we usually see along urban/rural lines," Chinni writes. "There are still deep differences in urban and rural America, but these numbers suggest that a populist tide is growing in both places, and Democrats and Republicans ignore it at their own peril." (Read more)

Feds measure potential hydroelectric power sources

Generating untapped hydropower in the Grand Canyon and other major gorges and rivers for renewable energy could help offset climate change, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy.

American rivers and streams "have 84.7 GW (gigawatts) hydropower capacity, enough to generate 460 terawatt hours of electricity annually" that is not being used, Bobbg Magill reports for Climate Central. "Subtracting protected areas such as the Grand Canyon, the U.S. has 65 GW of untapped hydropower capacity, if all the streams with hydropower potential were eventually developed, according to the DOE study." (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington have the greatest hydropower potential, while Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island have the least; click on image for larger version)
"One gigawatt of hydropower can provide electricity for more than 700,000 homes," Magill writes. "Currently, hydropower totals 7 percent of total U.S. electric power production, and full build-out of all the sites that would total 65 GW of capacity would nearly double total U.S. hydropower generation, according to the DOE."

"While it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would ever fully build out its hydropower potential because of high regulatory hurdles and the environmental consequences of damming or diverting water from rivers or expanding existing hydropower facilities, the DOE is suggesting that at least some development will help reduce reliance on fossil fuels for electric power generation," Magill writes. (Read more)

Appalachian study finds stream restoration programs can inspire community action

A Stanford University research study focusing on citizen volunteers in Appalachia found that people share a common motivation to improve highly polluted places and are "further motivated to participate in cleanup projects if they saw how other volunteers' efforts had restored previously polluted areas," Rob Jordan reports for Stanford News. (Stanford photo by Heather Lukacs: Volunteers prepare for a a rafting trip down the New River in West Virginia)

The study, published in the journal Society and Natural Resources, surveyed more than 200 volunteers, finding that 66 percent "reported attending events such as stream cleanups, tree plantings or group meetings that provided social interaction," Jordan writes. "These social spaces provide an opportunity to be around people with shared values, to feel appreciated and to encourage community engagement among the young."

Heather Lukacs, a graduate student and the study's lead author, told Jordan, "Our research highlights the positive feedback loop between watershed group restoration efforts and volunteer participation. When restoration projects and their results are visible, people are motivated to become involved in community action. Seeing others working to clean up their stream and community motivates volunteers to improve their place." (Read more)

Bill in Vermont would slash number of school districts to 1/5 or 1/6 of current number, 273

To save money, the Vermont House last week passed a bill that over six years would consolidate the state's 273 school districts into 45 to 55 districts, eliminating several supervisory positions in the process, Josh O'Gorman reports for the Vermont Press Bureau. The bill is now in the Senate, which is considering a voluntary approach.

Vermont, a very rural state, has more school districts than towns or cities, Jess Bidgood reports for The New York Times. Since the mid-1990s the state's public schools have lost more than 20,000 students, "making these districts even smaller, while education costs—and taxes to pay for them—have risen."

Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin told Bidgood, "If you designed a system from scratch, you would not design what Vermont has right now. We currently have more superintendents and administration than any state of our size. We need to think of a better way.”

Many parents, teachers and local administrators oppose consolidation, saying they are "concerned it will erode that tradition of local control," Bidgood writes. Proponents say "it would create efficiencies and increase student opportunities by sharing resources and collaborating on programming, as well as reduce administrative costs." (Read more)

Under the House bill, schools that voluntarily merge in the first four year "will be offered new financial incentives," Bob Kinzel reports for Vermont Public Radio. "But if some districts haven’t voluntarily merged by 2018, a special committee will step in and create new larger districts over a two-year period. In contrast, the Senate Education Committee has approved a bill that offers larger financial incentives and keeps the process entirely voluntary." (Read more)

Monday, May 05, 2014

Cooperative Extension Service turns 100 this week

Thursday is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service. This week is a great time to highlight the accomplishments of local extension offices. The national organization has already created a series of sites on social media to help get people involved, including on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube. Other resources are available on the agency's website

Here are some examples of what is being written about local agencies and the land-grant universities that oversee them:

Over the years, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agents and specialists "have implemented countless meaningful, educational programs and grassroots efforts," Katie Pratt reports for UK Ag News. "Such programs and efforts have given young people the self-confidence to speak in front of their peers, provided nutrition advice to young mothers, supplied information to help Kentucky farmers become better stewards of the land and helped in numerous other ways. Each year, extension personnel make over 7 million contacts across the state through their programs, events, initiatives and efforts." (Read more)

The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension is having an exhibit called "Bringing the University to You: A Century of Service to the Granite State." The exhibit, which will run from May 7 through June 30, "will feature tools and equipment from the extension's early years, projects engineered by 4-H students and photographs of M. Gale Eastman—the extension's first agriculture agent—and astronaut Alan Shepard, a former 4-H member," reports Seacoast Online. "The display will include a pictorial journey through the extension's work." (Read more)

Penn State is sponsoring a film festival. "Silent and black-and-white films and film clips will display early cinematic techniques and demonstrate how humor was incorporated with the content to note the 'new' technology on the farm and in the home," reports the Penn State News. "The films were shown to rural families in the early part of the 20th century and today give a glimpse of life in the early 20th century. (Read more)

Supreme Court rules respectful Christian prayer before public meetings doesn't violate Constitution

Christian prayers to begin meetings held by a public agency are constitutional "as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or proselytize," the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today, Mark Sherman reports for The Associated Press.

The case stemmed from a case out of Greece, N.Y. (Wikipedia map), a city of 96,000 on Lake Ontario just east of Rochester. A federal appeals court ruled that the town council "violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity," Sherman writes.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers." All five justices who voted in favor of prayer are Roman Catholic.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of three Jewish justices, wrote, "I respectfully dissent from the Court's opinion because I think the Town of Greece's prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality—the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian." (Read more)

Rural hospitals join with larger ones to stay afloat

Small, rural hospitals are struggling to stay open because of rising costs and fewer patients, and many are partnering with larger health systems for project funding or financial support. At Brooks Memorial Hospital, in Dunkirk, N.Y., about two-thirds of the 65 beds are empty because doctors can perform some procedures elsewhere, and many complicated procedures are referred to an urban facility that has access to expensive technology. As a result, "Brooks has reached out to UPMC Hamot, 50 miles away in Erid, Pa., an affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center," Henry Davis writes for The Buffalo News.

"Every one of the small, rural hospitals is talking to somebody because they have to," said Kenneth L. Oakley, chief executive officer of the Western New York Rural Area Health Education Center. For example, Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston will unite with Catholic Health so it can gain the use of administrative and corporate services as well as speciality medical services. United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia is merging with Rochester General Health System, to not only ensure the hospital's financial stability but also to provide all the necessary medical services in Genesee County. Here's a Feb. 27 report from The Batavian.

"The increasing cost and complexity of speciality care, as well as rapid changes in medicine, accelerate the trend," Davis writes. "Hospitals face more pressure from the government and insurers to coordinate care, adopt electronic medical records an accept payment based on quality and cost-control measures." Moves toward consolidation of the hospital industry began soon after Congress passed the health-reform law in 2010.

While keeping rural hospitals open is important for providing service to the community and preserving a large source of jobs in rural areas, partnering with big institutions does present some risks. In some cases, the small hospital may have to give up independence or stop being full-service. In many cases, though, the arrangement is very beneficial. For example, United Memorial Medical Center's affiliation with Rochester General—which began with a collaboration in cardiology, pathology and urology—resulted in the establishment of a cancer and infusion center in Batavia. Now citizens of Batavia have somewhere close by to go for treatment.

The larger hospitals also benefit from the partnerships, receiving patient referrals and expanding their brand names. "The path forward in health care requires collaboration," said Roger Duryea, vice president of planning and business development at Catholic Health. (Read more)

Coal industry asks a federal appeals court with a coal-friendly record to review new coal-dust rules

In response to the Obama administration's final version of rules for coal dust regulations, the National Mining Association and several member coal companies have asked a federal appeals court with a coal-friendly history to review the need for the regulations, Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal. The groups "want to delay implementation of the rules and potentially rewrite key provisions intended to enhance monitoring of dust levels in mines. The move could initiate months of legal wrangling."

The new rules are designed to help reduce exposure to dust that causes black lung disease through sampling and technology that provides real-time dust levels. The mining industry has said the new rules are flawed and costly and has expressed displeasure that their suggestions were not considered, Maher writes. The industry association filed its petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, the same court where it fought off an attempt to change dust monitoring protocols in 1998. (Read more)

Geologists say injection wells can cause earthquakes 30 miles away; USGS to estimate national risk

Injection wells to dispose of hydraulic fracturing fluids can trigger earthquakes as far as 30 miles away, researchers said Friday at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America in Anchorage, Alaska, Becky Oskin report for LiveScience. Lead author Katie Keranen, a geophysicist at Cornell University, said that in the Oklahoma City area "a cluster of four high-volume wastewater injection wells triggered quakes up to 30 miles" away and have since "spread farther outward, as fluids migrate farther from the massive injection wells."

Since 2009, when the fracking boom came to Oklahoma, the state has been second in earthquakes, trailing only California. Keranen said, "These are some of the biggest wells in the state. The pressure is high enough from the injected fluids to trigger earthquakes."

Keranen's study was one of several presented that linked fracking to earthquake. Justin Rubinstein, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the agency, for the first time, "plans to estimate the national shaking risk from 'induced seismicity'," Oskin writes. He told  her, "We've never done this before. These earthquakes of larger magnitude really demonstrate that [induced earthquakes] are a significant hazard." (Read more)

Small airports have fewer flights; pilots' group blames low pilot salaries, but there are other causes

Rural residents who want to travel by air now have to drive longer distances to catch a flight. Rising fuel costs, declining rural populations and the allure of larger airports in bigger cities have caused the number of flights to small communities to rapidly decline since 2007, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (News-Journal photo by Michael Cavazos: An airplane at East Texas Regional Airport in Longview, Texas)

From 2007 to 2013, the number of flights to medium-sized hubs dropped by 23.9 percent and the number of seats fell 18.5 percent. Small airports with scheduled service saw the number of flights decreased 20.1 percent—and the number of seats shrink by 15.3 percent. In comparison, larger airports had 9.1 percent fewer flights and 7 percent fewer seats.

"Major air carriers have also steered away from using the types of planes that serve smaller communities, regional airliners that seat from 19 to 100 passengers," reports the News-Journal in Longview, Tex. Instead of using those planes, which are "40 to 60 percent less fuel-efficient on a per-passenger basis than larger planes used to service big airports, major carriers are packing medium-size airliners with as many passengers as possible, operating planes that are on average 88 percent full."

"Regional airlines, which typically feed passengers from smaller airports to major carriers at larger airports, have proven less adaptable," the Journal reports. "Bryan Bedford, president and CEO of Republic Airways Holdings, a regional carrier that flew 21.5 million passengers last year, said economic pressures on regional airlines have been exacerbated by a shortage of entry-level airline pilots."

Republic said it couldn't fill 500 pilot openings, forcing the grounding of 27 regional airliners, but Air Line Pilots Association President Lee Moak told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee "there’s no shortage of qualified airline pilots, only a shortage of pilots willing to work for the 'near poverty' wages that regional airlines offer entry-level first officers." (Read more)

Rural physicians make more than their urban counterparts, and have a lower cost of living

A lack of physicians in rural areas means those doctors often take on more patients, but they also earn more than their urban counterparts, according to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report. "Less competition among physicians in smaller communities and rural areas is a factor in boosting that region's income," Mark Crane writes for Medscape. "Smaller communities have to pay more to attract physicians. Also, with fewer specialists in rural areas, primary care physicians often perform more services than in the rest of the country." (Medscape map)
The report was created from a February 2012 survey of 24,216 physicians in 25 specialty areas. The highest salaries are in the North Central region ( Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota) where physicians average $234,000 a year. The lowest average earners are in the Northeast, where doctors in New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island average $204,000. Despite the high salaries, only 54 percent of doctors say they would chose medicine again as a career, down from 69 percent the previous report, Crane writes. (Read more)

In the Southeast—Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky—the average salary is $226,000. Baptist Health Vice President Julia Henig, who helps recruit physicians to Montgomery, Ala., said rural and smaller town in-demand specialists make more because they have crowded schedules and are required to work long hours, Brad Harper reports for the Montgomery Advertiser. Henig told him, "Our physicians work harder. If you were to look at a per-patient basis, the compensation is actually not as high."

But cost of living, something not accounted for in comparing salaries, is a major draw in many rural areas, Harper writes. Henig told Harper, "When you drive physicians around the community and show them nice neighborhoods, they're shocked by the (low) price of homes. We have a lot of amenities." (Read more)