Saturday, June 21, 2014

Park service bans drones, at least temporarily

The National Park Service has banned, temporarily, the use of drones in all parks and areas it manages "until we can determine the most appropriate policy that will protect park resources and provide all visitors with a rich experience," NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a news release.

The service had already banned drones in several parks because of visitor complaints, wildlife harassment and safety concerns. It cited examples, such as drones interrupting "a quiet sunset" at the Grand Canyon and the evening presentation at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More states are offering incentives to encourage rural students to attend college

Several states with large rural populations are making the push to encourage more rural students, especially those from low-income families, to attend college by allowing students to earn college credits while still in high school, Mary Beth Marklein reports for USA Today. "The push reflects a broadening effort by state legislatures and governors to boost college completion rates. Studies show that students who take college-level courses while in high school are more likely to complete a college degree."

Gov. Gary Herbert
In Utah, Republican Gov. Gary Herbert "signed into law a $1.3 million program that lets high school students who live in remote areas of the state take college-level courses as part of their high school studies through live videoconferencing," Marklein writes. "Wyoming offers a loan repayment plan for high school teachers in the state who take extra courses that make them eligible to teach college-level courses. Rural Colorado schools can receive $500 for each student who completes an Advanced Placement course and exam under a pilot project that will begin this fall."

Other states, such Texas, Oregon and Kentucky have borrowed "from a New York initiative that boosted high school graduation rates and college-going rates among poor students in Harlem," Marklein writes. "In addition to helping link students with college classes, the programs, some of them federally funded, aim to create a 'college-going culture,' in some cases by introducing college concepts to fifth-graders and their parents."

Jeff Charbonneau, a high school teacher in Zillah, Wash., who teaches college level classes, told Marklein, "Oftentimes, urban students (are) able to see colleges around them, and rural students don't have that opportunity. It's about not only about raising standards in terms of what is being taught, it's also about raising awareness." (Read more)

In a global 'war on coal,' coal is winning; worldwide consumption rose 3 percent in 2013

Despite President Obama's goal to encourage more use of renewable energy, and similar efforts by China and countries in Europe, enough coal was burned worldwide in 2013 "to meet 30.1 percent of the world’s energy demands -- its highest share since 1970," according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, freelance writer Nick Cunningham reports for The Christian Science Monitor. Coal consumption increased by 3 percent, making it the fastest growing fossil fuel, but the growth is lower than the 10-year average of 3.9 percent.

"A large reason for its success is its low cost – coal markets have experienced several years of declines in prices," Cunningham writes. "Also, coal is relatively abundant and found around the world. And despite the inroads made by natural gas and renewables, coal demand continues to climb in China, India and other fast growing developing countries. Coal has also seen a bit of resurgence in the US and Europe, although its duration is likely to be brief."

"But the data shows how tough it will be to replace coal," Cunningham continues. "All the efforts at reducing pollution and finding cleaner alternatives could be overwhelmed by the inexorable growth of the developing world. For now, coal remains behind oil in terms of its share of global energy demand, capturing 30.1 percent compared to oil’s 32.9 percent. But that could change. The International Energy Agency predicted that by 2017, coal would become the world’s top source of energy. Between 2012 and 2017, annual global coal consumption is expected to jump by 1.2 billion tons, which is equivalent of adding the coal consumption of Russia and the US combined." (Read more) (BP graphic: World coal reserves to production ratios in 2013)

Texas city that has cashed in on oil and gas boom considers ordinance to ban fracking

Residents of a Texas town that has reaped millions through hydraulic fracturing, though only 2 percent of them receive royalties, are worried about the environmental impact fracking is having on their future. Some have pushed for a ban on fracking, and town leaders have "temporarily halted all fracking as they consider an ordinance that could make theirs the first city in the state to permanently ban the practice," Emily Schmall reports for The Associated Press. Gas fields in Denton, about 42 miles north of Dallas, "have produced a billion dollars in mineral wealth and pumped more than $30 million into city bank accounts." (Wikipedia map: Denton County)

"The willingness to reject fracking in the heart of oil and gas country reflects a broader shift in thinking," Schmall writes. "In place of gas drills, some of Denton’s 120,000 residents envision a future in which their city is known for environmentally friendly commerce and the nation’s largest community garden. They’ve even embarked on a campaign to persuade the maker of Sriracha hot sauce to expand its massive pepper-grinding business here — a prospect that appeals to the local farm-to-table culture."

When fracking began in Denton in 2000, the city was much smaller, but thanks to a number of graduates from the University of North Texas and Texas Women’s University choosing to stay local and open small businesses, the population grew, Schmall writes. "Then simmering concerns over the proximity of new wells to residential areas came to a head in 2009, when nurse Cathy McMullen organized a 300-person protest against five wells planned in a meadow across from a city park."

"The Denton Drilling Awareness Group proposed tighter fracking rules and even won a series of temporary bans on new drilling permits," Schmall writes. "At the same time, drillers defied city rules that required them to line wastewater pits and prohibited them from burning off, or 'flaring,' waste gas in residential areas." McMullen told Schmall, “All that did was make people so fired up. We had no choice (but to call for an outright ban)."

The ban now goes before the City Council. If they reject it, it goes to voters in November, Schmall writes. But standing in the way are fracking companies like Rayzor Co., which has one of the largest mineral holdings in Denton, and "stands to lose about $1.75 million a year if it’s barred from fracking on its former cattle ranch." (Read more)

More than 80 percent of new hires in North Carolina are for low-wage jobs

The "left-leaning" North Carolina Justice Center released a report Wednesday that found that more than 80 percent of the state's new hires from June 2009 through September 2013 were for low-wage jobs, defined by the center “as a job that pays less than what it takes for a family or an individual to make ends meet,” Richard Craver reports for the Winston-Salem Journal. Last month the center released a report saying that most job-growth incentives in the state go to wealthy urban areas, with little going to rural areas, including the state's most distressed.

"The center reported that during the four-year period, the state had a net gain of 75,157 ultra-low wage jobs (paying less than $24,000 annually), a net gain of 34,685 low-wage jobs (paying between $24,000 and $33,709) and a net gain of 21,887 jobs paying more than $33,709," Craver writes. 

The state's fastest growing ultra-low wage jobs are in fast-food, which accounted for 32,309 new hires, earning an average wage of $279 per week. Janitorial work was second, with 9,733 new hires, averaging $443 a week, Craver writes. The fastest growing low-wage jobs were in temporary work, with 44,721 new hires averaging $583 per week. That was followed by auto parts accessories and tire stores, with 2,038 new hires with an average weekly wage of $546. (Read more)

Duke Energy was warned in 1986 to have biennial inspections of pipe that leaked coal ash

Duke Energy was warned 28 years before February's spill that leaked as much as 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River that "a stormwater pipe running under an ash dump was made of corrugated metal and needed to be monitored for leaks," Michael Biesecker reports for The Associated Press.

After the spill "Duke officials said the company didn't know that an underground section of the pipe was made out of metal, believing instead that it had been fully constructed of more-durable reinforced concrete," Biesecker writes. But records subpoenaed by federal prosecutors show that in 1986 Law Engineering Testing Co., which was hired by Duke to perform required inspections at the site, found that "part of this culvert is constructed of corrugated metal pipe which would be expected to have less longevity of satisfactory service than the reinforced concrete pipes."

The engineering company's report recommended that Duke "check on the pipe under the coal ash dump at least every six months," Biesecker writes. "The report said the inside of the pipes should be checked for leaks anytime there was a significant difference between how much was flowing in and how much was flowing out."

"In the days after the Feb. 2 spill, Duke issued public statements expressing surprise that the pipe wasn't made of corrosion-resistant concrete," Biesecker writes. Duke's lead lobbyist, George Everett, told state lawmakers at a Feb. 17 oversight hearing into the spill: "Originally, the media reported and we reported that this was a concrete pipe, the 48-inch one, because what we could see is right here at the river. The rest of this pipe, we discovered, as we worked from the other end, is a metal pipe — asphalt-coated metal corrugated pipe. That's the piece ... that broke." (Read more)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

House delays vote on school lunch bill; Democrats say Republicans realize they're on losing side

House Republicans may have bitten off more than they can chew with the controversial proposal to let schools losing money on their lunch programs have "a year-long reprieve from requirements to serve more fresh produce, more whole grains and less sugar, trans fat and salt," Carolyn Lochhead reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Democrats suspect that the delay indicates Republicans may have unexpectedly concluded they're on the losing side of the school-lunch fight, which has touched off a firestorm in Washington and across the country." (Chronicle photo: Students eating healthy in Novato, Calif.)

The chief opponent of the legislation is First Lady Michelle Obama, who called it unacceptable when it was approved by a subcommittee, then after the House Appropriations Committee passed the bill urged parents to get involved to ensure their children eat healthy. Food suppliers have argued that meeting increasingly lower limits on sodium will be hard to achieve. Wednesday, she hosted a group of health reporters at the White House to press her case.

Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, Calif., the top Democrat on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, told Lochhead, "I think they pulled the bill because they didn't know if they had enough of their own votes. Members go home, they pick up from the newspapers the feedback of what's happening in Washington, and I think the longer this issue is on front pages the more difficulty they have in passing their provision."

Under the current rules, "children are required to take at least one serving of a fruit or vegetable with their lunch," Lochhead writes. "The rules were passed by Congress in 2010 and championed by the first lady as a key part of her campaign to end childhood obesity in a generation." (Read more)

Most people happy with Obamacare plans, but some fear they won't be able to afford costs

The majority of people who bought their own insurance plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act say their coverage is excellent or good, but also say they worry about being able to afford the monthly costs, according to a survey of people with non-group insurance released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"Most feel well-protected by their plans and express confidence in their ability to pay for their usual medical costs, but some evidence of financial strain remains," the survey found. "Nearly half of those in ACA-compliant plans say they’re not confident they would be able to afford to pay for a major illness or injury, over four in ten say it is difficult to afford their monthly premiums and over six in ten say they are worried that their premiums will become unaffordable in the future."

The survey found that for usual medical costs, 34 percent of people with ACA-compliant individual plans and 18 percent with non-compliant individual plans are not confident that they have enough money or health insurance to pay bills. Among those respondents, 44 percent said they are in fair or poor health.

For people having to pay for major illnesses, such as heart attacks, cancer or a serious injury that requires hospitalization, 46 percent of people with ACA-compliant non-group plans and 31 percent with non-compliant non-group plans said they are not confident that they have enough money or health insurance to pay bills. Among those respondents, 46 percent said they are in fair or poor health.  

There is also concern about future costs. Of those surveyed, 36 percent said they are very worried, and 26 percent said they are somewhat worried, that premiums will be raised to a point that they can no longer afford them. Also, 30 percent said they are very worried, and 28 percent said they are somewhat worried that they won't be able to afford the services they need.

Another 28 percent said they are very worried, and 25 percent said they are worried that their income will go down to the point that they won't be able to afford insurance. Affording prescription drugs was another worry, with 19 percent saying they are very worried and 24 percent somewhat worried about paying those costs. Among respondents who receive subsidies, 30 percent said they are very worried, and 24 percent said they are worried that their income will change and they will no longer be eligible for financial help. (Read more)

W.Va. Medicaid deal could lead to closure of rural clinics; fraud issues could cost state funding

A West Virginia lawsuit settlement that "will alter how rural health clinics and larger health centers are reimbursed for treating low-income patients on Medicaid" could lead to big financial windfalls for larger health care centers, while smaller clinics could face back fees in the millions that could lead to the closure of dozens of rural facilities, Eric Eyre reports for The Charleston Gazette.
The settlement will lower Medicaid reimbursements for rural clinics, and "also requires some rural health clinics to reimburse the state and federal government for charges dating back to October 2012," Eyre writes. Dr. Mark Tomsho, who said Summersville Regional Medical Center (right) would lose $750,000 per year because of lower Medicaid reimbursements, estimated that under new rules he owes $1 million. He said the clinic runs on an operating budget of $3 million a year.
State health officials said they wouldn’t know how many of the state's 40 rural clinics "must pay back money and face lower Medicaid reimbursement rates—an estimated 30 percent to 50 percent cut—until after the clinics file cost reports," Eyre writes. "The clinics must submit reports by June 30."

Medicaid reimbursement changes were prompted by a 2011 lawsuit filed in federal court by eight larger health-care facilities that "alleged that the state Bureau of Medical Services miscalculated Medicaid reimbursement rates for years," Eyre writes. "Under the settlement, seven of the eight large health-care centers, as well as some of the other 19 federally qualified facilities, will be reimbursed at higher rates. Some health centers also will get a windfall for being shortchanged in previous years. (Read more)

Meanwhile, "Legislative auditors said West Virginia is at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal Medicaid funding because state hasn't complied with a 2011 directive [that] requires states to suspend Medicaid payments to health care providers if fraud allegations are determined to be credible," WCHS-TV in Charleston reports. "A legislative audit says Medicaid has paid at least $17.9 million to providers whose cases were referred to the state's Medicaid Fraud Unit. The payments could be as a high as $211 million.

Former EPA administrators under Republican presidents say action needed to curb climate change

While Republicans in Congress are objecting to proposed rules to curb climate change, the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency for the last four Republican presidents told Congress on Wednesday that such action is needed, reports The Associated Press.

Christine Todd Whitman, first EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, who resigned her post after disagreeing with the White House's direction on pollution rules, told Congress, "We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus."

Also on hand was William Ruckelshaus, the nation's first EPA administrator under President Richard Nixon and who also served under President Ronald Reagan, William Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H.W. Bush, and Lee Thomas, who also served as administrator under Reagan.

The four former administrators "said the Obama administration had worked hard to make the proposal flexible and workable, using authority provided by Congress," AP reports. They "told lawmakers that global warming was similar to other serious environmental issues they confronted, such as industrial pollution, dangerous pesticides or water contamination. But tackling those issues enjoyed broad public support."

Ruckelshaus said, "Inherent in all of these problems was uncertain science and powerful economic interests resisting controls. The same is true of climate change. In all of the cases cited, the solutions to the problems did not result in the predicted economic and social calamity." (Read more)

Also of interest is a radio interview that Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter, had with Jo Ann Emerson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She "says the NRECA is concerned about the environment and points out that they've voluntarily cut carbon emissions in half over the past decade without additional government regulations." To listen to the interview click here.

Program to expire that allows veterans living in remote areas to receive local medical care

The Veterans Health Administration is ending a pilot program that allows veterans who live at least one hour from a VA health facility to get health care services from a community provider, Bryan Thompson reports for Kansas Public Radio. The program, called Access Received Closer to Home, is used in Northern Maine; Farmville, Va.; Pratt, Kan.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Billings, Mont.

In a letter to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson senators from the states wrote: “For reasons we do not understand, the Veterans Health Administration is choosing—at VHA’s own initiative—to end this successful program despite the more than 90 percent satisfaction rate communicated by veterans. All along, the VHA gave us the impression that they were waiting on analysis about the success of ARCH to inform their decision about extending the program—this is a misleading storyline at best. We are deeply disappointed by this breach of trust because those who suffer from this recklessness are veterans.” (Read more)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Property damage from oil-train derailments through May was nearly triple the total for all of 2013

Oil-train derailments in the U.S. through May caused more than $10 million in property damage, nearly triple the amount during all of last year, Kathryn Wolfe and Bob King report for Politico. The number of accidents is also on a record pace; 70 occurred through May. The total tally for 2013 was 118 incidents, spilling as much as 1.2 million gallons and causing up to $3.5 million in damage.

More oil was spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, and that doesn't count the spillage and 47 deaths from a derailment in Quebec of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. The surge in accidents has led to new safety rules in Canada and a demand for new rules and upgrades in the U.S. as well as more readily available information on what trains are hauling.

This year, "almost every region of the U.S. has been touched by an oil-train incident," Wolfe and King write. "These episodes are spreading as more refineries take crude from production hot spots like North Dakota’s Bakken region and western Canada, while companies from California and Washington state to Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida build or expand terminals for moving oil from trains to barges, trucks or pipelines." (Read more)

Poll: 67% support cutting CO2, 57% even if it means higher electric bills; climate-change belief rises

Two-thirds of Americans support proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The poll, which surveyed 1,000 adults, found "that 67 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat support EPA’s new rule, while only 29 percent oppose it," Amy Harder writes for the Journal.

"More than half of poll respondents—57 percent—said they would support a proposal requiring companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming even if it means higher utility bills," Harder writes. That number is up 9 percent from an October 2009 poll. More Americans also believe that climate change is occurring and that some action needs to take place, up from 54 percent to 61 percent. (Read more)

Recycling remains rural problem; W.Va. chemical spill sent millions of plastic bottles to landfills

Recycling bottles during West Virginia spill.
Photo: Chip Ellis, The Charleston Gazette
The January chemical spill that tainted drinking water in much of West Virginia, forcing residents to rely on bottled water, illustrated the lack of recycling in much of rural America. The vast majority of the millions of plastic bottles used after the spill ended up in landfills, Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Only 36 percent of West Virginia residents have curbside recycling, and in 2011 the Charleston area recycled less than 1 percent of its eligible plastic, compared to 30 percent nationally. "Many small towns and rural counties struggle to offer recycling services, especially with tight government budgets, limited access to recycling processors and wide fluctuation in the market for recyclable materials," Bauerlein writes. "Only half the population of Mississippi has access to drop-off or curbside programs. Some small cities, such as Lynn Haven, Fla., eliminated recycling programs because there were no nearby processing centers." (WSJ graphic)

The main reason rural areas lack access to recycling is that dumping trash is quicker and easier than recycling. "Shawn Lindsey, a recycling expert who advises the not-for-profit Center for Rural Strategies, said some towns cannot get vendors to bring in recycling containers because it takes weeks to fill a bin, tying up a company asset and providing an insufficient return," Bauerlein writes. Meanwhile, Lindsey said dumping trash in a place like Athens, Tenn., where he works, costs about $20 a ton, while it can cost more than $100 a ton in some urban areas.

Some people are optimistic that rural recycling has a bright future, with technological advances like automated bin-lifting trucks and optical sorters that will make it cheaper, Bauerlein writes. Mississippi was recently "awarded $1 million in grants to four communities seeking to build 'hub-and-spoke' networks, which could pool their collection to make recycling financially viable, according to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality." But the best solution, advocates say, is to make recycling free and easy for everyone. (Read more)

Report says states, not federal government, should crack down on abuses by for-profit colleges

The nonprofit National Consumer Law Center says states, not the federal government, should crack down on alleged abuses by for-profit colleges, which are prevalent in some rural areas, but many states are doing little to prevent the abuses in the first place. "Attorneys general in at least 32 states are investigating complaints that for-profit colleges and universities use misleading marketing and leave their students with high debt. Fourteen states have reached the stage of issuing subpoenas," Jon Marcus reports for The Hechinger Report(National Consumer Law Center graphic)
The focus should be on shutting down the programs that don't meet minimum standards, Jonnelle Marte reports for The Washington Post. "The group argues that states' oversight should extend equally to accredited and unaccredited schools to ensure that they aren't using 'deceptive practices' to encourage students to enroll. Some states have been lenient with accredited programs, but they should also be scrutinized since they qualify for financial aid and have the potential to cause greater financial harm, the group says."

"The proposal also suggests that states set strict standards for schools by requiring them to meet minimum graduation rates and place a set number of students in jobs," Marte writes. Attorney and report author Robyn Smith, who works with the National Consumer Law Center, wrote: "Looking at job placement rates is the most direct measure you can have in terms of are schools doing what they promised they will do." The group argues that meeting those minimums should be a condition for state approval to operate.

The report also recommends that "states can ensure that complaints filed against schools are thoroughly investigated and that students are offered some form of relief, the report notes," Marte writes. "They can also make sure that any boards set up to oversee schools are not run by a majority of representatives from the schools themselves." (Read more)

Mayor of largely Hispanic rural town in Idaho campaigns in D.C. for immigration reform

John Bechtel, mayor of Wilder, Idaho, a rural town with 1,553 residents, many of them Hispanic, was in Washington Tuesday as part of a group urging the House to take action on passing immigration reform. In an editorial in The Hill, Bechtel relays his experience as a longtime resident and mayor of Wilder and his personal experiences in dealing with an immigration system that refuses to allow his Filipino-born daughter-in-law into the U.S.

John Bechtel
"Our little city is more than 70 percent Latino; our schools are 80 percent. Over the past 10 years we’ve had nine Gates Millennium Scholarship winners in our high school graduating class—all Latino. Any city would be proud of that," Bechtel writes. "Our city’s slogan is 'Welcome to Wilder, Come Grow with Us.' When I signed a resolution declaring Wilder a welcoming city a few years ago, I got quite a bit of flack. People thought I was supporting undocumented immigration. I simply believe all people should be treated with respect."

Describing his son's troubles, Bechtel writes, "Seeing this in my own family has given me a new perspective on the challenges immigrants face in coming here and the importance of reuniting families. There is no reason in the world that it should be this difficult to get to the United States, stay here and make a living. The bureaucracy around immigration has exploded, and nothing has been done about the broken laws that are hurting people’s lives."

"If you live in the United States legally, and you want to bring your mother from Mexico to live with you, the average wait is 12 years," he writes. "If you want to come here from the Philippines, the time on the waiting list is closer to 20 years. Immigration reform is personal to me: a white guy, the mayor of a small rural town in the heart of red-state Idaho. I’m probably the last guy you’d expect to see pushing for immigration reform. But the fact is, rural towns across America need immigration reform the most. Past generations of immigrants built rural America; new generations are revitalizing it." (Read more)

Missouri Farmers Union chief says proposed amendment would give more power to corporations

A proposed amendment to the Missouri constitution is being promoted as protecting the rights of farmers, but is likely to give corporations more power of voters approve it in August, Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation Missouri farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, writes for the Daily Yonder.

"While many real, live people in the U.S. are beginning to see downsides to 14th Amendment protection for cold-blooded corporations, the U.S. Constitution says states still have the right to breathe life into them through their own constitutions," Oswald writes. "That’s why Missouri’s question on the August ballot is so important to big companies here. Approval of the amendment would help cement corporations into citizen-farmer roles before corporate powers can be revoked and voters in Missouri wake up to the real implications." (Yonder graphic: Ad supporting the amendment during the legislative session)

"In recent sessions the Missouri General Assembly has increased the amount of land foreign corporations can own," Oswald writes. "They have made it harder for people to protect themselves from corporate pollution and infringement on personal rights, like access to clean water and air.  Now most large producer groups and Missouri Farm Bureau have endorsed Amendment One because it protects the rights of farmers and ranchers." Oswald says the measure would do "nothing but guarantee that a few large companies will continue to dominate ever more of Missouri’s most productive rural landscape and exercise more control in the way we grow our food." (Read more)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Michelle Obama raises the stakes on school lunch: now it's about parenting; military supports standards

The House is expected vote this week on a Republican bill "that would waive tougher nutritional standards on school lunches if the school shows it has operated at a net loss over six months," Sink notes. Some school districts say they are losing money on meal programs because the standards, which limit sodium and require whole grains, fruits and vegetables, have made meals unpalatable to some students.

"The White House has backed a compromise agreement adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee," Sink notes. "Under that deal, tougher requirements on sodium levels would not be implemented, although requirements for schools to offer fruits and vegetables would be kept." Obama said, “What we need to do is lend a hand to the schools that are struggling, not roll back the standards and say, ‘Oh, well. The kids don’t like it so let them eat cake.’ We can’t afford to do that.” (Read more)

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last week, military leaders supported the standards as a way to strengthen military preparedness, Sarah Gonzalez reports for AgriPulse, a Washington newsletter. Retired Air Force General Richard E. Hawley said the military had to turn down 62,000 potential enlistees because of weight between 2006 and 2011, is discharging 1,200 troops per year because of weight issues, and spends $90 million a year finding and training replacements. (Read more)

Physicians at national meeting discuss future of rural primary care, how to solve doctor shortages

The shortage of primary-care physicians is a big problem in rural areas, and people need to do more to meet the need, according to a panel of physicians at "Rural Health Journalism 2014," Kris Hickman writes for the Association of Health Care Journalists, sponsor of the conference last weekend in Portland, Ore.

Almost half of rural counties, 44 percent, struggle with primary-care physician shortages, said Andrew Bazemore, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He said the U.S. ranks lowest in primary care and health outcomes among 10 other highly developed nations.
Primary care docs per 100,000 in 2012 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
The number of primary-care doctors is expected to drop soon because almost 27 percent of those providers are older than 60, said Mark A. Richardson, M.D., dean of Oregon Health and Science's School of Medicine.

Bazemore said the medical community needs to draw more attention to the need for more primary care physicians in rural areas. He also said that for every dollar spent on health care, only six or seven cents are spent on primary care. "States facing a shortage should remember that primary care is the logical basis of any health care system," Bazemore said.

Richardson recommended that medical schools try to recruit students who have rural backgrounds because they're more likely to return to practice in rural areas. He and Bazemore agree that students who practice in rural areas should be given loan forgiveness or scholarships. "Debt prevents many people from choosing primary care," Bazemore said.

Richardson said the most important factor for where medical students end up practicing is where they completed their training. "Rural training is one of the highest predictors of a rural practice and should be required," he said. To do this, the government-imposed cap on graduate medical education (GME) spending would have to be abolished.

Bazemore said primary care in rural America "should be affordable and accessible to all. It should be more patient-centered and community-oriented . . . rather than the current fee-for-service dynamic that is 'provider and hospital centric,'" Hickman writes.

"Medical care is not a free market dynamic," Richardson said. "We pay for health care transactions, rather than health." (Read more)

Juneau paper to use drone; publisher says it will respect privacy when taking photos, videos

The daily newspaper in Alaska's capital last week introduced the newest member of its staff—an unmanned aerial vehicle, more commonly known as a drone. The Juneau Empire plans to use it for gathering news and for visual storytelling, Melissa Griffiths reports for the paper. Publisher Rustan Burton told her, “It gives us the power to look at things from different angles we’ve never seen before . . . It’s a completely new perspective on things they’ve seen before, seen on a regular basis." (Empire photo by Michael Penn)

Local residents won't have to fear about invasion of privacy, Burton said. He told Griffiths, “We won’t be floating through people’s backyards. We’ll use discretion and be very sensitive about the privacy of individuals. We’ll follow every law there is. And we’re just going to be ethical with it.” The Empire has already used the drone to make a series of short videos, which are available on the newspaper's website. (Read more)

The story didn't include the legal details involved in using a commercial drone. The Federal Aviation Administration has said drone use is illegal but appears to lack the ability to stop it because a federal judge dismissed an FAA fine, making it legal to fly a commercial drone at altitudes below 400 feet. But debate continues after a plane pilot said in March that he nearly collided with a drone flying well above 400 feet, showing that some drone users don't follow the rule.

'Walk on Washington' planned Wednesday to help put an end to soring of walking horses

Advocates leading the fight to end the walking-horse abuse known as soring are staging a "Walk On Washington" Wednesday in front of the U.S. Capitol "to support a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) that would ban the use of pads and chains for achieving the exaggerated show gait known as the 'Big Lick,'" Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Whitfield says his bill would crack down on all "illegal and abusive training methods—including painting chemicals on horses' front legs to make them sensitive and putting objects under the horse's front shoes to cause pain—all to encourage the horse to lift its feet higher," Patton writes. He said his bill would strengthen the federal Horse Protection Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Whitfield said in a statement: "This will be a good opportunity for Congress to see the amount of support this bill has from within the Tennessee walking horse industry and from those who present sound horses without stacks and chains. We are exploring all options to move this legislation forward in the House of Representatives." The bill has extraordinary bipartisan support in Congress, said Clant Seay, a Tennessee attorney working with the All American Walking Horse Alliance and other organizers of the rally.

"Opponents of Whitfield's bill, including U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, both Republicans from Tennessee, say banning pads and chains will cause economic damage by killing off the walking horse industry's flashy performance show classes, which Alexander called 'one of Tennessee's most treasured traditions'," Patton writes.

Study finds supposedly plugged oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania are leaking a lot of methane

Abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania are creating significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to a study by Princeton University. The study found that between 200,000 and 970,000 abandoned wells in the northern part of the state likely accounted "for 4 to 7 percent of estimated man-made methane emissions in that jurisdiction, a source previously not accounted for," Andrew Nikiforuk reports for The Tyee, a British Columbia publication. The study found "that leaks from abandoned oil and gas wellbores pose not only a risk to groundwater but represent a growing threat to the climate."

An Associated Press investigation published in January found that Pennsylvania is one of four states where it was confirmed that oil and gas drilling has led to water pollution. Since 2005, the state has had 106 water-well contamination cases and in 2013 received 398 complaints that drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells.

And it seems that complianants have few friendly ears to bend. A report released in early 2013 by the Public Accountability Initiative found that many of Pennsylvania's policymakers, regulators and enforcement workers came from the oil and gas industry they oversee, or left state jobs for industry jobs. The report also found that Pennsylvania's last four governors and 45 current or state officials had ties to the gas industry. There is no direct federal regulation of oil and gas production except on federal land. (Read more)

For the Princeton study, researchers measured methane emissions from 19 abandoned wells, finding that "the highest-polluting well seeped 3.2 cubic metres of gas a day, or 1,168 cubic metres of gas a year. That's nearly $300 worth of natural gas annually," Nikiforuk writes.

The study also found that "methane leaks from plugged wells, which were properly sealed with cement at the time of their abandonment, were just as high as rates from unplugged wells," Nikiforuk writes. "Wells connected to sandstone formations leaked more often than wells constructed in other formations." Researchers also "found ethane, propane and n-butane mixed with the methane—all indicators that the gas came from zones targeted by industry as opposed to swamps or natural sources," and methane leaks were more prevalent during the summer. (Read more)

Alaska gets a law school, sort of; Ky. law school starts program to place graduates in rural areas

Many states with large rural populations are short of lawyers in their small towns. Alaska is a special case,as the only state without a law school. The Seattle University School of Law has announced the creation of a satellite campus in Anchorage that will let students finish their degree in Alaska, Michelle Theriault Boots reports for the Anchorage Daily News.

"The idea is to shrink the time necessary to relocate out-of-state for law school to two school years instead of three," Boots writes. "Students will be able to spend summers and their entire third year attending Seattle University law classes on the campus of Alaska Pacific University starting in 2015. There's no cap on the number of students who could participate, but organizers say anticipate starting with 10-15 per year."

For the past 12 years, Seattle University "has operated a summer program that brings law students from across the country to Anchorage for Alaska-specific law courses and internships," Boots writes. About 60 percent of the 170 students who have completed the program return to Alaska to work. (Read more)

One of Kentucky's three law schools, Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law, has begun a regional placement program that "will try to connect law-school graduates with opportunities in small towns and rural areas around Kentucky," Cliff Peale reports for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Advocates say a lack of lawyers in smaller communities "restricts companies trying to expand or merge, denies civil rights to residents and keeps children from access to basic services," Peale writes. Many lawyer job openings in rural Kentucky often don't get any job applicants, Chase Dean Jeffrey Standen said. He told Peale, "Students today see the bright lights of the big city and think that's where lawyering has to happen." (Read more)

Pollinator Week runs through Sunday; good time to teach about birds, bees, bats, butterflies, beetles

Pollinators such as bees, birds, bats, butterflies and beetles help produce nearly $20 billion worth of products every year in the U.S. while providing up to 30 percent of pollination. But "farm and ranch lands that support pollinators are disappearing at the alarming rate of 3,000 acres a day," the non-profit Pollinator Partnership. says in promotion of Natinal Pollinator Week, which runs through Sunday.

Bee populations have been declining for several years, with 23.5 percent of honeybees dying this past winter, mostly due to pesticides and disease, and the species averaged a 30 percent loss of population during the past eight winters.

One way to help is through awareness. That's why Pollinator Week was started seven years ago. "Pollinating animals, including bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and others, are vital to our delicate ecosystem, supporting terrestrial wildlife, providing healthy watershed and more," Pollinator Partnership says.

Pollinators impact 35 percent of the world's agriculture, says Crop Life America: "Bees are responsible for more than just honey; they pollinate grapes, strawberries, avocados and cucumbers, among many other food crops." In addition to pesticides and disease, other factors that negatively affect pollinators are availability of forage; beekeeping management practices; weather patterns and changing climate; lack of genetic diversity; and poor health or death of queen bees. (Read more)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Migrants to rural areas and exurbs, without local roots, are making federal races more national

While political analysts scramble to understand how a little-known, more conservative challenger could defeat influential and long-serving candidate Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, in a primary last week, and why Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) is in a runoff tomorrow and trailing a similar challenger in polls, the explanation might be migration. Conservative newcomers to Mississippi and Virginia's 7th District care little about the history of a politician and instead are "bringing nationalized politics to races further down the ballot," Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin report for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Brandon Dill: A growing subdivision in Southaven, Miss.)

"For all the talk about how partisan polarization is overwhelming Washington, there is another powerful, overlapping force at play: Voters who are not deeply rooted increasingly view politics through a generic national lens," Parker and Martin write.

That was true in Cochran and Cantor's primary losses. In DeSoto County, the third largest county in Mississippi, state Sen. Chris McDaniel beat Cochran by 36 percentage points, Parker and Martin write. Census figures show that 72 percent of the county's residents were born outside Mississippi and more than 88 percent moved into their current home since 1990. Cantor suffered a similar fate, losing in his district's two largest counties, Henrico and Chesterfield, where more than 40 percent of residents were born out of state.

"Friends-and-neighbors elections were already a thing of the past in congressional campaigns," Parker and Martin write. "But the axiom that 'all politics is local' is increasingly anachronistic when ever-larger numbers of voters have little awareness of what incumbents did for their community in years past and are becoming as informed by cable television, talk radio and the Internet as by local sources of news. In this year’s primaries, the trend is lifting hard-liners, but it has benefited more moderate candidates in general elections."

Speaking of voters new to the states, Republican strategist Karl Rove told the Times, “They don’t know who the heck Thad is. There is no 40-year history with him, knowing that this is the guy who built up the state’s modern Republican Party. The same with Eric, people who have just gotten to Richmond don’t even know what the House of Delegates is, let alone that he served there.” (Read more)

Weekly in Cantor's district didn't miss threat to him

National news media missed the impending, historic defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary last week, but Jim McConnell didn't. A reporter for the weekly Chesterfield Observer in Midlothian, Va., McConnell "wrote several articles in the spring suggesting Mr. Cantor was in for a fight," reports New York Times media writer David Carr. The first story ran April 23; the last one, on June 4, said challenger David Brat was "gathering steam" and quoted an establishment GOP state senator as acknowledging that Brat could win. (Click image for larger version)

“You could tell wherever you went that Cantor was incredibly unpopular, that people saw him as arrogant,” McConnell told Carr. “Dave Brat gave me his cell-phone number when I first met with him, and I pretty much had him to myself. . . . The fact that no one saw this coming is a reflection of the fact that there aren’t that many boots on the ground. Newspapers have been gutted and the people that are left are great, but stretched incredibly thin.”

McConnell, who was laid off from a sports-writing job at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg in 2009 and was out of work for a year and a half, took the national attention humbly. “I am not Nostradamus — I didn’t see him winning, but I knew it would be closer than anybody thought,” he told Carr. “Any credible journalist would have seen it — all I did was talk to the challenger, listen to what people were saying and get a sense of what was happening on the ground in this campaign.”

Carr also links to a May 24 story by Richmond Times-Dispatch political writer Jeff Schapiro, which reported that "the Republican revolt against Cantor" was most visible in "a vast swath of rural central Virginia" and that Cantor's ads attacking Brat might be backfiring. (Read more)

Writer sees growing populism, often rural, ousting politicians who have lost touch with common people

One of the definitions of populism, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people." For several years, some voters and politicians have said that U.S. politicians have lost touch with common people. Enter the populist movement, which has been around for more than a century but has varied from person to person and place to place, and has often seemed to be mostly rural, often in poorer areas.

Salena Zito
Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review writes for Real Clear Politics that the populist movement cost House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) his primary election last week and could cost Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) a runoff election next week. "It is a cautionary thread—yet most people in Washington do not understand this moderate-in-tone populist wave. First, the wave is not going to take out every incumbent, so no 'secret sauce' can 'fix' it; second, it will have broad impact on both parties; third, it is relatively invisible because it has no name, no brand or party allegiance," Zito writes. Populism is much more complicated than most people realize; it cannot be manufactured, cannot be forced, and no one person or handful of people can claim to inspire it. Populism, at its core, is driven by personal economics, disconnection from representative government and frustration with the lack of power to change either."

Republican strategist Bruce Haynes told Zito that Cantor "lost touch with his constituency; he became too Washington, too associated with the D.C.-bubble brand; he forgot how to relate and to be that guy from his district. Cochran is a creature of Washington, too, and is poised to lose to a mild-mannered state senator in his runoff.”

Zito writes, "What Cantor's loss should tell Washington is that local politics matter—but Washington tends to listen only to what the pundits, strategists, reporters and experts in Washington say. Many of those Washingtonians have never stepped into 'flyover country' unless they are in a bubble-wrapped press bus that feeds them their talking points and keeps them from listening to the locals in a meaningful way. A judgment call is being made across the country, and it is this: 'Are you one of us, or have you left us for Washington?' The elected incumbents who get caught on the wrong side of that question will be upended in this year's elections. They should serve as a warning to those running for office in 2016, to shed the Washington bubble." (Read more)

Thursday webinar to reveal survey results of people who bought their own health insurance under reform

The Kaiser Family Foundation is holding a reporters-only webinar at 11 a.m. ET Thursday to release results from a survey on people who bought their own health insurance under federal health reform. The webinar will feature the foundation's president and CEO, Drew Altman; its director of survey research Liz Hamel; and Senior Vice President Larry Levitt. "After a brief presentation providing an overview of the survey, the foundation's experts will take participants' questions online and over the telephone," says a news release. For more information, contact To register click here.

Obama ridicules climate-change deniers

During his commencement speech Saturday before 8,000 graduates and 30,000 in attendance at the University of California-Irvine, President Barack Obama used the opportunity to raise awareness about a need to curb climate change, while he railed against detractors in Congress who refuse to believe that climate change exists or that it's an issue that relates to politics. (L.A. Times photo by Genaro Molina)

"When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, there were a number of people who made a serious case that it would be too expensive, that it would take too long," Obama said. "But nobody ignored the science. I don't remember anyone saying the moon wasn't there or that it was made of cheese. . . . There are some who duck the question by saying, 'Hey, I'm not a scientist.' Let me translate that for you: What that means is, 'I accept that man-made climate change is real, but if I admit it, I'll be run out of town by a radical fringe that thinks climate science is a liberal plot."

"Tackling global warming will spur innovation and economic opportunities, much as the space race launched in the Kennedy era did, the president said," writes Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times. Obama said: "We need scientists to design new fuels. We need farmers to help grow them. We need engineers to invent new technologies. We need entrepreneurs to sell those technologies. We need workers to operate assembly lines that hum with high-tech, zero-carbon components. We need builders to hammer into place the clean energy age. We can do this." (Read more)

Appalachian Ky. listening sessions allow citizens to list region's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities

Shaping our Appalachian Region, a bipartisan initative to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, has scheduled summer listening sessions throughout the region to seek input for community members. One such forum, held Thursday in Prestonsburg in Eastern Kentucky, was a chance "for the local community to have their voices heard and their ideas recorded, with the hope that plans for economic recovery will bubble up from the grassroots instead of trickling down from Frankfort" and Washington, Aaron Nelson reports for the Floyd County Times.

"The evening’s discussion revolved around Eastern Kentucky’s unique cultural identity, our underutilized assets and the roadblocks to getting the region as a whole to collaborate for a common goal," Nelson writes. "Participants commonly cited the seemingly arbitrary county lines as a hurdle for a regional effort, but our reclaimed mine lands as a resource ready to be exploited. Our remote location was seen as a hindrance to attracting new industries like manufacturing, while our subpar broadband infrastructure is restricting our ability to draw high-tech jobs. At the same time, we have a region with indisputable natural beauty and a workforce brimming with tenacity and ingenuity." (Read more)

Also on Thursday, a similar listening session was held in Morehead, where taking the cattle industry to a new level was the most discussed topic, followed by raising sheep and goats, promoting agri-tourism, and expanding oak and sorghum harvesting to take advantage of the growing whiskey industry, Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issuesreports on the Appalachian Kentucky page of The Rural Blog. Weaknesses cited include the lack of communication, coordination and cooperation among the region’s counties and lack of access to land because of absentee ownership and other reasons. 

Agriculture could be key to improving Appalachian economies hurt by the loss of coal jobs

Communities in Appalachia that have suffered economically with the loss of coal jobs have been searching for other ways to improve their economies.

One solution could be agriculture, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Farm advocates and researchers say there is real potential for increased agricultural production in Eastern Kentucky to help diversify the economy—an issue that has gained increased urgency with a sharp drop in coal jobs since 2012. But realizing that potential would come with a lot of needs, including training, affordable financing for farmers and businesses, marketing assistance, and infrastructure such as processing facilities."

"Small-scale agriculture was once commonplace in Eastern Kentucky, with families raising the crops and livestock that provided most of their food, but that lifestyle withered away generations ago," Estep writes. But during and after World War II, the area suffered mass out-migration, as people went to war or to work for defense plants.

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"That legacy is apparent even today. Several Eastern Kentucky counties recorded less than $100,000 in the market value of agricultural products sold in 2012, compared with $100 million or more in several counties in Central and Western Kentucky," Estep writes. "But interest in locally produced, healthy food creates room for agriculture to grow in Eastern Kentucky these days, advocates say." Daniel Wilson, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture in Wolfe County, told Estep, "I just think that there's a huge market for that."

Farmers' markets are one way to help the local economy, Estep writes. Martin Richards of the Community Farm Alliance told him that sales at eight markets in the region work with the alliance totaled $186,800 in 2013. "Studies have shown that money from farmers' markets stays in the community and helps create jobs, Richards said." (Read more)

Shaping Our Appalachian Region is an initiative aimed at diversifying and improving the economy in Appalachian Kentucky. The effort is hosting listening sessions this summer to get input from local communities on ways to improve the economy. Last week at a session in Morehead, taking the cattle industry to a new level was the most discussed topic.

"Most Kentucky cattle are raised on pasture then sold and shipped to large feedlots in the Midwest. Several people at the meeting endorsed the idea of a covered feedlot where cattle could be fed grain to fatten them for slaughter," writes Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Working-group member Charles Miller said, “I believe there’s a tremendous opportunity here for a finished beef product." (Read more)

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Federal judge in Ky. rules that land can't be strip mined for coal unless all owners agree to it

A federal judge has ruled that the state of Kentucky "improperly issued a surface-mining permit to a coal company that did not get permission to mine from some owners," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The decision could impact the future of coal mining, especially in Central Appalachia where out-migration has created a lot of absentee partial landowners.

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Since the 1980s, state and federal regulators have operated under the opinion that any surface owner—regardless of the size of the share of land they own—can grant permission for coal companies to operate on the land, Estep writes. But District Judge Amul R. Thapar ruled Friday that "The federal surface mining law says a coal company has to get consent to mine from all surface owners."

The case stems from an incident in which five Kentucky landowners, who own 62.5 percent of a property, sued after Pike-Letcher Land Co., which owns 25 percent of that land, agreed to let Premier Elkhorn Coal Co. mine the surface without gaining permission from the other owners, Estep writes. When Premier Elkhorn applied for its permit, it didn't list any joint owners for the 180 acres of land.

"Attorneys for the federal agency and coal company had argued in court documents that the state properly issued the permit," Estep writes. But Lexington attorney Joe F. Childers, who represented the five landowners, "said coal companies had used the state's position on issuing permits without the consent of all surface owners as a way to get around the broad-form deed amendment." He told Estep, "This is an order that upsets 32 years of erroneous interpretation of the federal surface mining act. It's a very significant opinion." (Read more)

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