Friday, July 25, 2014

Corn prices have fallen nearly 30 percent in the past three months; soybeans and cotton also down

"Corn prices have plunged nearly 30 percent in the past three months to their lowest point since 2010 as near-perfect weather in the Midwest fuels expectations of a second consecutive bumper harvest," Jesse Newman and Tony Dreibus report for The Wall Street Journal. "Prices of other crops have fallen sharply as well, with soybeans trading near 2½-year lows and wheat near four-year lows."

While the drop in corn prices is helping companies that depend on grain for animal feed, it could lead to higher prices in grocery stores, Newman and Dreibus write. It also "is expected to cut sharply into overall incomes in the U.S. Farm Belt because corn is the country's largest crop, grown on 350,000 farms and yielding about $60 billion in farmers' revenue last year. Now 57 percent off its record high in 2012, corn is trading well below the $4-a-bushel threshold generally required for farmers to earn profits. That means many growers this year likely will fail to cover their costs for the first time since 2006, according to agricultural economists."

Analysts say that corn and soybean prices could rebound somewhat if dry weather hits the Midwest late in the growing season, Newman and Dreibus write. "But if favorable weather continues, corn futures could fall to $3.25 a bushel, estimates Mark Schultz, an analyst with brokerage Northstar Commodity in Minneapolis. He told the Journal that if that happens, "This market will be in the doldrums this year and also into next year." (Read more) (WSJ graphic)
Cotton is also at its lowest price in five years, Leslie Josephs and Alexandra Wexler report for the Journal. Prices fell 3 percent to 66.05 cents a pound, "the lowest settlement for the most-actively traded contract since Oct. 13, 2009. It was the largest one-day drop since June 18."

Coal hasn't helped West Virginia, at least in comparison to the rest of the country, lawyer argues

While the negative aspects of coal — such as black lung disease, mountaintop removal and air and water pollution — are well known, they are often tolerated or ignored, because of the economic benefits of coal. But coal has done little to improve West Virignia's economy, Morgantown lawyer John McFerrin argues in a column in The Charleston Gazette.

"Were the Coal Association’s world view true, we would see a long upward trend in prosperity in West Virginia, beginning in the 1870s and 1880s," he writes. "By now, well over a century later, we would have ridden that coal train to prosperity. That’s not what happened."

He makes his case with comparative data: "In 1880, West Virginia was a middle class to lower middle class state. While economic statistics from that long ago are harder to come by, the available data shows that per-capita income in West Virginia was 37th of the 46 states and territories. By 1929 we were 37th of the then 48 states. We topped out at 33rd place in 1933. Since then it has been a long, slow slide to the bottom. We slipped by Arkansas in 1990 for 48th place before settling into 49th place where we have been ever since."

McFerrin writes that "a bazillion other factors could have had an impact on West Virginia’s economy. Yet through it all, there has been one constant. West Virginia has been constant in its fealty to the coal industry. We have spent the last century being solicitous of the needs of the coal industry and it has led us to the bottom." (Read more)

U.S. leads the 20 most developed nations in denying climate change and humans' role in it, polls find

Among residents of the 20 most developed nations, Americans are most likely to deny the existence of climate change. A poll by Ipsos MORI, a market-research firm based in England, also found that Americans are most likely to disagree with the emerging scientific consensus that climate change is largely the result of human activity, Brandon Baker reports for EcoWatch.

U.S. respondents were also tied for first with India in agreeing that the climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time, and were first in disagreeing with the belief that we are headed for an environmental disaster unless we change our habits.

The study polled 16,000 people in the U.S., China, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Turkey, France, India, Brazil, Belgium, South Korea, South Africa, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Japan, Poland, Russia, Australia and Great Britain. (Read more) (Ipsos MORI graphic)

Judge says Colo. town can't ban fracking, but ban stays on appeal; state initiative efforts continue

A judge in Boulder County, Colorado, on Thursday struck down a 2012-voter approved ban on hydraulic fracturing in the town of Longmont, saying state law supersedes the ban, Steve Raabe reports for The Denver Post. The ruling was expected, primarily because "a pair of 22-year-old Colorado Supreme Court decisions upheld the primacy of state regulations on oil and gas activities when they conflict with local laws." The ban will remain in effect while the case is appealed. (Post photo by RJ Sangosti)

Earlier this month, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a strong supporter of fracking, said he did not have enough support to pass a compromise law that would give localities more control over it, likely sending the measures to the November ballot. Hickenlooper has said he will do whatever it takes to beat anti-fracking initiatives.

Advocates are trying to get two anti-fracking measures on the ballot — one that "would increase Colorado's existing 500-foot setback between wells and homes to 2,000 feet" and one that "stipulates that people have a right to "clean air, pure water, and natural and scenic values," Raabe writes. Meanwhile, two measures backed by the oil and gas industry are also circulating, one that "would keep communities that ban oil and gas development from receiving state oil and gas tax revenues" and onw that "would require future ballot measures to have a fiscal-impact statement." Both sides say they have gathered the necessary number of signatures to get their measures on the ballot. (Read more)

Farm Bureau, Georgetown give rural entrepreneurs chance to pitch ideas, win $15,000 or more

Rural farmers and entrepreneurs have a chance to showcase new business ideas and innovations through the Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge, with a chance to win the title of Rural Entrepreneur of the Year Award and up to $30,000 towards implementing their ideas, says the American Farm Bureau Federation, which created the challenge along with Georgetown University. Ideas do not have to be agriculture-based.

Applications are being accepted through Sept. 15. Applicants should send an executive summary of no more than 750 words and five captioned photos about the new business idea, says the Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative. Applications are judged based on innovation, feasibility and rural impact.

Ten semi-finalists will make a 5-minute presentation to judges on Oct. 14 at the National Summit on Rural Entrepreneurship at Georgetown. Four finalists will advance to the finals at the Farm Bureau convention Jan. 9-14 in San Diego, where they will pitch their ideas to another set of judges. Finalists will all receive $15,000, with the winner earning another $15,000. For more information or to apply, click here.

Appalachian Institute promoting 'folk systems' as a sustainable form of modern agriculture

The Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies in Western North Carolina is "working to foster food systems that blend Appalachian environmental knowledge with modern technology," Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt reports for Mountain Xpress in Asheville. "They hold classes on traditional agriculture, permaculture, wild food and medicinal herbs, supporting a resurgence of the principles of older 'folk systems' into a modern economy." (Xpress photo by Hayley Benton)

“Traditional agriculture in Appalachia was highly local,” AIMS Executive Director James Veteto told Sezak-Blatt. It was supplemented by hunting, fishing and wildcrafting of a wide variety of locally available, seasonal wild foods and medicines … and there was a fair amount of trade. Folk systems typically rely on and utilize a much broader array of biodiversity than modern agriculture,” which are generally more sustainable than mainstream industrial agriculture.

"Growers seeking to incorporate folk agriculture back into the local economy have been aided by the re-emergence of farmers markets and roadside farm stands," Sezak-Blatt writes. "Ordinances passed by Asheville City Council over the last decade have allowed farmers markets to operate in residential areas and removed the permitting requirements for accessory structures — such as greenhouses and hoop houses — and residential farm stands."

"Veteto says the principles of folk systems can also be used noncommerically when neighbors trade their harvests or share the yield of communal gardens," Sezak-Blatt writes. He told her, “There are lots of stories of people, churches, etc., in historical Appalachian communities that cooked meals for people who were suffering from food insecurity. I think the role of community used to be much more prominent in proving for community food security and health. Producing your own sustenance gives you a sense of self-worth, independence and connection to the natural world. It is a fundamental, elemental type of empowerment." (Read more)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Older rural residents are more likely than younger ones to seek treatment at rural hospitals

Rural hospitals are more likely to serve older patients seeking hospitalization, while younger rural residents seek medical care in urban areas, says a study by the National Center for Health Statistics at the federal Centers for Disease Control.

"Rural hospitals primarily serve an aging, poorer population admitted for low-acuity care of chronic diseases, and so they likely want to remain close to their homes and their personal physicians," John Commins reports for HealthLeaders Media. "The younger rural hospital patients, who are more likely to have greater mobility and access to commercial health insurance, likely seek care in urban settings because rural hospitals often don't have the funding or patient populations to support specialists or a particular area of specialty care, such as cardiac or oncology."

The study found that 60 percent of the 6.1 million rural residents who were hospitalized in 2010 sought care in rural hospitals, while 40 percent went to urban ones. For patients over 65 years old, 51 percent were hospitalized in rural areas, with 53 percent using Medicaid as their principal source of payment, compared to 37 percent of patients over 65 going to urban hospitals, with 44 percent relying on Medicaid. Rural residents ages 45-64 made up 24 percent of those hospitalized in rural areas and 32 percent in urban areas. The study found no significant difference among patients under 45. (The disparity of where difference age groups seek hospitalization)
Rural residents hospitalized in an urban hospital were three times more likely to have three or more procedures than patients in rural hospitals, the study found. Only 38 percent of patients in rural hospitals received a non-surgical procedure, compared to 74 percent of rural patients at urban hospitals.

Rural residents at rural hospitals were less likely to be discharged home, with 63 percent of rural patients sent home from rural hospitals, compared to 81 percent at urban ones, the study found. Rural hospitals were more likely to discharge patients to another facility, with 14 percent of rural residents at rural hospitals discharged to a long-term care institution, compared to 8 percent at urban ones, and 7 percent of rural hospitals discharged patients to a short-stay hospital, compared to 3 percent of urban ones. (Read more)

White House Rural Council to invest $10 billion in rural economic development

The White House Rural Council announced in a press release Thursday a $10 billion dollar investment fund to promote rural economic development. "This fund will continue to grow the rural economy by increasing access to capital for rural infrastructure projects and speeding up the process of rural infrastructure improvements," the release said. The funds, announced during the Rural Opportunity Investment Conference, are created by a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and CoBank.

"The fund will be used to distribute loans to improve infrastructure in rural communities such as wastewater treatment, roads and bridges, rural broadband, and conservation projects," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Loans will be distributed and repaid with the goal of creating an ongoing fund used to improve rural infrastructure."

Funds could be invaluable to rural areas in desperate need of economic development. Jerry Rickett, president of the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., told the Rural Blog, "The increased grant and loan funding priority that is part of the Promise Zone designation should help projects from the Promise Zone compete for some of this funding." He added that the expansion of broadband to rural areas, especially in Easter Kentucky, through the SOAR program is a major priority of Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers, both Democrats.

The White House press release says: "The Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund will allow America's rural economy to continue its forward momentum by enhancing access to capital for rural infrastructure projects and speeding up the process of rural infrastructure improvements. The new fund will allow a wide variety of new participants, including pension funds, endowments, foundations and other institutional investors that have not traditionally had access to these markets to invest in rural development. In some cases, projects may be funded entirely through private sector dollars. In others, private dollars may be leveraged with and extend critical government loan and grant programs."

"USDA and other agencies will help to identify rural projects in need of financing through the new fund and through other such private sources and public-private partnerships," the release said. "Target investments will include rural community facilities (especially health care and educational facilities), rural water and wastewater systems, rural energy projects, rural broadband expansion efforts, local and regional food systems, and other rural infrastructure." (Read more)

Kentucky representative leads Congressional hearing on dangers of mountaintop removal

Studies have shown that mountaintop removal in Appalachia hurts fish populations, causes damage to streams, has damaged the landscape and has been linked to depression among local residents. The Supreme Court earlier this year even upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's veto of a permit for a huge mountaintop removal project in West Virginia.

While scientists, environmentalists and local residents have criticized the practice and called for an end to mountaintop removal, the government has done little to attempt to fix the problem or to even understand it, said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who participated in a Congressional hearing on Wednesday. "Despite more than 20 peer-reviewed studies showing correlations between increased health risks and mountaintop removal mining, the federal government has yet to conduct a single study on the health consequences of the practice in which coal operators use heavy machinery and explosives to remove upper levels of mountains and access coal seams beneath," Yarmuth said on his website.  "These operations often result in contamination of surrounding land and water supplies."

In January the House included pro-coal measures in its budget and in March moved to block new rules that would protect streams from mountaintop removal mining.

Yarmuth previously introduced H.R. 526, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, "which would halt permits for mountaintop removal mining operations until the federal government can study its health impacts on nearby communities and declare the practice safe," says his website. "According to recent peer-reviewed research, people living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites have increased rates of cancer, birth defects, and mortality. Additionally, an analysis in the journal Science found communities near mountaintop removal coal mining sites experience higher rates of chronic heart, lung and kidney disease, as well as higher levels of adult hospitalizations for chronic pulmonary disorders and hypertension." (Read more) (YouTube video)

Missouri working to increase number of rural doctors; North Carolina gets grant to train rural nurses

Attempting to combat a shortage of health personnel in rural areas, Missouri and North Carolina are trying to fill the void through a program in one state to encourage more young doctors to choose to practice in rural areas and a program in the other state to advance the education of the state's nurses.

In Missouri, 37 percent of the state's residents live in rural areas, but only 18 percent of doctors practice in those areas, Grant Sloan reports for OzarksFirst. The University of Missouri is trying to help solve the problem through its Rural Summer Community Program that places medical students in rural areas. About 300 students have participated, or are currently enrolled, in the program, and about 50 percent of the students who participate in the program end up practicing in rural areas, "nearly 40 percent above the national average." (Read more)

Missouri lawmakers recently passed a bill allowing medical school graduates to bypass their residency to practice as an assistant physician—allowing them to treat patients and prescribe some medications—in underserved rural areas after spending 30 days working under the supervision of a a doctor. Gov. Jay Nixon's signed the bill into law earlier this month.

While Missouri is trying to increase its number of doctors, Western Carolina University received a grant for more than $1 million to train rural nurses to work in Western North Carolina. As part of the program, the state Department of Health and Human Services "will provide $350,000 annually over three years to create a program designed to increase the number of nurses with four-year degrees working in the mountains," Clarke Morrison reports for the Times-Citizen in Asheville.

"The project will support the development of nurses qualified as 'advanced rural generalists,'” Morrison writes. "It will focus on registered nurses with two-year degrees who are ethnic minorities or from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds who work at Mission Hospital or one of the system’s rural affiliate hospitals in the region. The programs provides scholarships, stipends and mentorship opportunities to help students obtain bachelor’s degrees."

Judy Neubrander, director of the WCU School of Nursing, said "research has found that medical services are more successful when providers reflect the communities they serve," Morrison writes. "Although the majority of nurses who work in rural health care facilities grew up in rural communities, many lack the advanced levels of education and training needed today, Neubrander said." (Read more)

Department of Transportation releases railroad tank car proposals; wants to phase out older cars

"The U.S. Department of Transportation proposed on Wednesday a two-year phase-out of older railroad tank cars used to transport crude oil, which have been involved in several serious derailments over the past year," Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "DOT will seek the phase-out or retrofit of older model DOT-111 tank cars from crude oil and ethanol service. They’ve long been known to be vulnerable to failure in derailments." (Tate photo: More than a month after a derailment in Buhl, Ala., tank cars carrying fuel oil remain in the vicinity of residences)

The move comes one year after 47 died people from the derailment in Quebec of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. In the U.S. in 2013 more oil was spilled than in the previous 37 years combined. 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.

The proposal makes several suggestions for upgrading tank cars, including thicker steel shells, electronic braking and rollover protections, Tate writes. "The proposal would require retrofits within five years for newer tank cars built to an industry-adopted higher standard."

The proposal also limits the maximum speed to 40 mph "in all areas for trains that are operating with older tank cars and for urban areas with more than 100,000 residents," Tate writes. "Trains with tank cars that meet the new requirements would be permitted to travel at 50 mph outside urban areas." Railroads would also be required to notify state and local emergency officials about shipments containing 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil.

The public comment period has been limited to 60 days, most likely in an attempt "to set off a flurry of efforts in Washington by oil producers, rail companies, refiners and tank car manufacturers, as well as community and environmental groups," Tate writes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pa. oil and gas operations have damaged water supplies 209 times since 2008, records reveal

An open-records battle between news media and oil-and-gas operators in Pennsylvania has yielded the release of a report by the Department of Environmental Protection saying the operations have damaged water supplies 209 times since 2008, Laura Legere reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The report, which will be released later this month, gives "the date regulators concluded that activities related to oil or gas extraction were to blame for contaminating or diminishing the flow to a water source." (Post-Gazette graphic) 
"After initially fighting news organizations’ requests for the determination letters and arguing it would be too difficult to find all of them in its files, DEP has increasingly provided access to the documents in the last year after courts required their release and as public interest in the information has grown," Legere writes. "When DEP posts the tally of damaged water supplies this month, it will mark the first time the agency has released its official accounting of drilling-related pollution and diminution cases on its website."

"The DEP spreadsheet reveals that oil and gas operations have affected water supplies in nearly every region where drilling occurs, from the shale-gas sweet spots in northeastern Pennsylvania to the traditional oil-and-gas patch in the state’s northwest corner," Legere writes. (Read more)

More than 1,100 miners told their black-lung claims may been wrongly denied; Senate panel has hearing

The U.S. Department of Labor had told more than 1,100 coal miners that their compensation for black-lung disease may have been wrongly denied, Chris Hamby reports for The Center for Public Integrity. Dr. Paul S. Wheeler, the head of the unit at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions who interprets X-rays in black-lung claims, failed to find a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion. In June officials were ordered to stop using Wheeler's opinions.

A Senate subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday in response to an investigative series earlier this year by the center and ABC News on black lung. The series won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. (Associated Press photo: Retired coal miner Robert Bailey, left, speaks with committee chairman Robert Casey, D-Pa.)

During testimony Tuesday "witnesses testified about the difficult process miners encounter when they attempt to file black lung claims," Chris Lawrence reports for MetroNews of Charleston, W.Va. John Cline, an attorney from Piney View, W.Va., "provided committee members with five examples of deceptive practices he had encountered in representing coal miners attempting to qualify for benefits," Lawrence writes.

"He spotlighted the case of Gary Fox, a longtime coal miner from Bluefield who died in 2009," Lawrence writes. Cline said the West Virginia Black Lung Review Board certified he suffered from black lung, but Elk Run Coal Co. appealed the case. Two pathologists hired as expert witnesses by Elk Run concluded Fox had black lung, "but the evidence in their report was suppressed." (Read more)

Robert Bailey of Princeton, W.Va., who worked for more than 36 years in coal mines, told the committee "it took him about four years to win black lung benefits, but that he’s still trying to get insurance to cover the cost of a lung transplant," reports The Associated Press. "There is currently a backlog of roughly 3,000 black lung cases pending before the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, according to the Labor Department." (Read more)

Bailey "asked Congress to help streamline the process of obtaining black lung benefits, and the Obama administration insisted it is taking steps to fix longstanding abuses," Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette. Bailey told the committee, “Living with black lung is thinking about every breath you take. Policies and laws need to be changed to give hope and life to those who don’t have time for stall tactics.” (Read more)

Maine town wants to block export of tar-sands oil via reversal of pipeline now sending crude to Canada

The city council in South Portland, Maine, "gave final approval Monday night to controversial zoning changes that are expected to block the potential export of Canadian tar sands oil from the city’s waterfront," Kelley Bouchard reports for the Portland Press Herald. The zoning proposal prevents the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto marine tank vessels and blocks construction or expansion of terminals and other facilities for that purpose, Bouchard writes. Opponents have 20 days to collect the necessary 950 signatures from registered voters to attempt to overturn the ban. There is no active proposal to export tar-sands oil through Maine, but the Portland Montreal Pipeline Corp. has "expressed interest" in reversing the flow of an oil pipeline between the two cities "to carry Canadian crude, including tar-sands oil, in the opposite direction — from Montreal to Maine — for delivery to the world market," Susan Sharon reports for NPR. (Boston Globe map)

Concern has grown in many rural areas about the transportation of crude oil by railway. A year ago, 47 died from a derailment in Quebec of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. In the U.S. in 2013 more oil was spilled than in the previous 37 years combined. 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.

Shipping tar-sands oil by rail is twice as expensive as using a pipeline, and there is particular concern about the pipeline in Maine, David Abel reports for The Boston Globe. "The pipeline runs through the Sebago Lake watershed, which provides about a quarter of the state’s population with drinking water." Abel notes, "By itself, removing the Portland pipeline from the equation will not make that much of a difference, oil analysts said. Oil would only flow through Maine if it exceeded the capacity of refineries in Montreal and Quebec city, which use roughly about 400,000 barrels a day."

Owner starves, shuts rural groceries in Colorado

Many rural areas are forced to travel long distances to reach a full-service grocery, but some northeastern Colorado residents faced a different problem — their local grocery stores remained open, but the shelves were bare. That was a harbinger; Bella's Markets in Akron and Wiggins closed Tuesday and the one in Walden will close Thursday, Jacyln Allen reports for KMGH-TV in Denver. (KGMH image: Empty shelves in Akron)

Samuel Mancini, who owns eight Bella's Markets in Colorado, "cited legal and financial troubles as reasons for the 'temporary' closures," and told the Wellington store it would remain open, but business is slow considering there's barely any food to purchase, Zahira Torres reports for The Denver Post. Mancini said he would re-stock shelves by Aug. 5. Wellington mayor Jack Brinkhoff told Torres, "It means we have to spend another week and a half with nothing on our shelves."

Mancini, who filed for bankruptcy in 2012, "paid himself $1.4 million between 2010 and June 2013," according to bankruptcy documents, Torres writes. "He used about $700,000 of that to pay off judgments and claims against him, bankruptcy documents said."

Undercover video shot by KGMH "found no fresh meat, no eggs and few staples on the Akron store's shelves," Allen writes. "It was the same case in Wellington during July." After Allen's initial story on Bella's last month, people sent the town food donations. Akron Town Clerk Annette Bowin told Allen, "We got boxes of food, which we donated to a food bank. We don't need handouts. We need a grocery store."

Colleen Conroy, Jackson County's assistant county administrator, "said it has been two years since Walden has had a fully stocked grocery store, and they have to drive 60 miles one way to go shopping elsewhere," Allen writes. (Read more)

Remote Iowa schools find creative ways to participate in Safe Routes to School program

Safe Routes to School was created "by parents, schools, community leaders and local, state, and federal governments to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school," says the organization.

About 14,000 schools in the U.S. participate in the program, but one rural region in northeastern Iowa realized that the program offered no alternatives for rural students, many of whom live too far from school to walk or bike, or who would need to traverse dangerous ground to complete the journey, Tanya Snyder reports for Streetsblog. So officials in the Upper Explorerland region (right) are re-writing the rules and finding innovative ways to allow their students to participate in the healthy initiatives.

Ashley Christensen of Safe Routes to School for the Upper Explorerland, told Snyder, "We know no other region in Iowa had worked on one when we started and are pretty confident that statement holds true for the rest of the U.S., too."

The solution "was to do similar activities to other Safe Routes locations: walking school buses and bicycle trains chaperoned by parents; bike rodeos to teach bicycle safety and road skills," Allen writes. "But they also use techniques that might not be needed in denser areas, like remote drop-offs. A remote drop-off functions like a park-and-ride, where parents meet in a parking lot and walk their kids the rest of the way to school. All told, the programs reach 10,000 students from 20 school districts and six private schools in a rural area the size of Connecticut." (Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission photo: Students unable to bike to school can use the human-powered bike blender)

Students are also able to join mileage clubs, where they "earn rewards for walking around a track or in the gym," Allen writes. "Some teachers try to fit physical movement into their regular lesson plans, using techniques like 'Story in Motion,' where students act out stories. Some schools take school-wide activity breaks for the Chicken Dance or push-ups." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Southeast Colo. drought makes some farmers think about packing it in, if only they could afford to do so

Drought in southeastern Colorado is causing nightmares for rural residents, pushing some to the brink of packing it in and giving up on farming life, Lydia DePillis reports for The Washington Post. "The lingering dryness combined with the loss of access to the irrigation systems that used to make up for it is one of the biggest forces dragging America’s rural areas further behind its dynamic cities: While the poverty rate stabilized for metropolitan areas in 2012, it kept growing on farms and in tiny towns. With climate change shortening the wet times and prolonging the dry ones on into the future, it’s unclear that they’ll ever truly recover."

"And it’s not just the weather," DePillis writes. "Over the years, the farms have also lost a war with fast-growing urban centers: There’s already much less water than there used to be trickling through the surrounding fields, since investors had bought up their water rights—which are normally attached to the land, entitling the owner to take a certain percentage of the water flowing through a river—and profited by flipping them to thirsty cities." (Post graphic)

Colorado farmer Anita Pointon, along with her husband Chuck, has struggled to keep their 500 acres watered in an areas where "less rain fell in the 42 months before May of last year than in the stretch in the mid-1930s now called the Dust Bowl," DePillis writes. Speaking of urban centers' demand for water, she told DePillis, “It’s a threat to us. It’s one of those things where they get their foot in the door. Just little ways that they’ve come in, and it affects your water.”

"Last year, farms fed by the Fort Lyon Canal in the Arkansas Valley got less than half the volume of water they usually do and almost no rain, leaving the land bone-dry," DePillis writes. "The Pointons sold half the cattle off their land and leaned on the insurance on their failed corn crop for income. If the crops fail again this year, they’ll likely go further into debt. Chuck could go work at the fish hatchery, which he did during a bad spell in 2003, and Anita might focus harder on the joy she feels in watching calves grow up every spring rather than whether she can afford to keep raising them."

Pointon told DePillis, “There’s a lot of things in play. After you start laying it out, it’s like, why are we farming?” Chuck added, “Because we don’t have enough money to move away." Others in the area say they feel the same way as they wait patiently for the drought to end and the rain to begin. (Read more)

EPA's proposed restrictions on emissions from wood-burning stoves draws sharp rural criticism

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed restrictions on emissions from wood-burning stoves are being criticized in rural areas, where residents are more likely to rely on the stoves for heat and water, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Rural areas burn twice as much wood for heat as urban areas, according to a report by George Mason University. (Flickr photo by Ed Suominen)

"The proposed rule will lower the emissions standard for all new woodstoves to 4.5 grams per hour of operations, according to Chimney Sweep News," Marema writes "The standard is currently 7.5 grams per hours for stoves without catalytic converters and 4.1 for catalytic stoves. The new standard will not differentiate between the two types of stoves. Five to eight years after the new rule is implemented, the standard would drop to 1.3 grams per hour."

Stonehill College economics professor Sean Mulholland wrote in an opinion piece in U.S. News and World Report that "the claim that the tighter standards will improve human health doesn’t take into account that most wood for heat gets burned in rural areas. Most of the emissions reductions will take place in rural areas with low population densities. The rule overestimates total health benefits realized by averaging these reductions across all U.S. residents. So a reduction in particulates in the rural community of Forest City, Maine, has the same estimated value as a reduction in the densely-populated urban city of Oakland, Calif.”

Jack Goldman, president and CEO of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, said at an EPA hearing, “This is an industry populated overwhelmingly by small businesses. All but a handful of our manufacturers qualify as a small business. Because our industry’s health is very closely tied to new home building and remodeling, these businesses are just beginning to emerge from a horrendous recession. They are in no position to invest the relatively huge amounts that this proposal will require for research, testing, certification and retooling plants.”

In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota wrote: “The rule would have a disproportionate impact on South Dakota families who rely on wood stoves to heat their homes.  . . . With the recent propane shortage throughout South Dakota and many areas of the country, the last thing the EPA should be doing is making it harder and more expensive for families to heat their homes.”

But advocates say new rules will be good for consumers. John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat, wrote on the group’s Facebook page: “Few people argue that the 1988 regulations were bad for consumers, and in five years, few will argue that these were. Cleaner, higher efficiency appliances will end up selling much better, even if they are a little more expensive, because fuel savings in any appliance always outweigh a bump in purchase price.” (Read more)

Last month was the world's hottest June on record

The earth continues to experience record-breaking temperatures. Last month was the hottest June on record, following a trend in which the previous month was the hottest May on record, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Primarily, it was the oceans of the world that pushed the mercury into the red zone," Angela Fritz reports for The Washington Post. "According to the report, June was the first time that the monthly global ocean temperature difference from average was higher than 1.08 degrees. In other words, in no month on record have ocean temperatures deviated more from normal than June." (NOAA graphic)

"The oceans achieved this record warmth prior to the declaration of El Nino, which would signal substantial warming of the tropical Pacific," Fritz writes. "Should the Pacific achieve El Nino conditions, it would push ocean temperatures even higher."

The past five Junes have ranked among the top 10 warmest on record, and June 2014 was the 38th consecutive June and 352nd straight month to have above average temperatures, Fritz writes. "The June heat was felt across the globe, with record warmth being felt in Greenland, northern South America, eastern and central Africa, and southeast Asia. New Zealand also recorded its warmest June since records began in 1909." (Read more)

Rural Iowa hospital pitches to Des Moines residents

In an attempt to reverse the trend of rural residents traveling long distances to seek medical care in cities, a critical-access hospital in northern Iowa is trying to draw patients 90 miles from Des Moines to use its new operating rooms for weight-loss surgery, Tony Leys reports for The Des Moines Register. "The Iowa Specialty Hospital in Belmond (Wikipedia map) is partnering with a Des Moines surgeon to provide the operations, which reduce the size of patients’ stomachs so they can’t eat as much."

"The new arrangement represents a rare effort by a rural hospital to compete directly for business with big-city counterparts," Leys writes. "Most Des Moines-area residents wanting bariatric surgery go to Iowa Methodist Medical Center or to Mercy Medical Center." Dr. Todd Eibes, a former employee of Iowa Methodist, now runs a clinic in West Des Moines, Leys writes. While he and his staff see patients at that facility, surgeries will be performed in Belmond, where patients will on average spend two days in the hospital. Eibes said he was impressed with the hospital's high patient satisfaction surveys and its inviting and modern setting. He told Leys, “That’s the kind of thing our patients are looking for. They don’t want to get lost in a huge system.” (Read more)

Western wildlife refuges will phase out neonicotinoid pesticides harmful to birds and pollinators

Federal wildlife refuges in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Hawaii "will phase out a class of pesticides that are chemically similar to nicotine because they pose a threat to bees and other pollinators key to crop growth," Jeff Barnard reports for The Associated Press. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Mike Corbett told Barnard the goal is to phase out pesticides by January 2016. (Statesman Journal photo by Danielle Peterson: A blue heron at Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge) 

"The agency's pest management policy calls for pest-killing methods that pose the least risk to wildlife, and there is scientific evidence that neonicotinoids kill bees and other pollinators, said Kim Trust, the agency's deputy regional director of refuges," Barnard writes.

Pesticides known as neonicotinoids have been blamed for wiping out 40 to 50 percent of honeybee hives, while the tobacco ringspot virus has been blamed for the deaths of honeybees, which pollinate about 90 crops worldwide, generating $14 billion a year. 

Some refuges aren't waiting until 2016 to phase out pesticides, Tracy Loew for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. Three Oregon refuges created to protect Dusky Canada Geese—Baskett Slough, west of Salem; Ankeny, south of Salem; and William L. Finley near Corvallis—"already prohibit application of neonicotinoid pesticides and don't allow genetically modified crops . . . but neonicotinoid-coated seeds for sorghum and possibly corn are used in the complex." Farmers in the refuges have been given until the end of the year to stop using the seeds out of concern that birds and small mammals will eat them. (Read more)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rural town opens city-run gas station, selling cheaper gas from local refinery to lower prices

A rural Southern Kentucky town has found a way to beat high gas prices. The city of Somerset ventured into the retail gas business, "opening a municipal-run filling station that supporters call a benefit for motorists and critics denounce as a taxpayer-supported swipe at the free market," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. The station opened Saturday with prices set at $3.36 a gallon, three cents lower than competing stations. (Schreiner photo: Filling up at the city-run station)

Somerset is able to supply residents with the gasoline because the city purchases gas from a hometown supplier, Continental Refining Co., Schreiner writes. "The city purchased a fuel storage facility for $200,000 a few years ago. Now, up to 60,000 gallons of regular unleaded gas can be stored there for the retail business."

The local refinery has struggled to stay open because of competition with Marathon Oil Corp., which makes most of the gas consumed in Kentucky. Marathon has paid haulers of Southern Kentucky oil extra incentives to take oil 172 miles away to a Marathon refinery near the West Virginia border, instead of to the shorter distance to Somerset. 

While townspeople have responded positively to the station, there are plenty of critics, Schreiner writes. Convenience store owner Duane Adams called the move a slap in the face that could hurt his business. He told Schreiner, "They've used the taxpayer money that I have paid them over these years to do this, to be against us. I do not see how they can't see that as socialism."

But Girdler, a Republican in his second term, "said the city isn't looking to put anyone out of business," Schreiner writes. He told Schreiner, "We don't care if we don't sell a drop of gasoline. Our objective is to lower the price." A local economic-development coordinator told Schreiner that Somerset gas prices are often 20 to 30 cents a gallon higher than in nearby towns, and Girdler said many visitors to nearby Lake Cumberland "fuel up elsewhere, costing Somerset millions of dollars in retail sales," Schreiner reports.

Coal goes bust in E. Ky. and booms in Wyo., but even there some wonder for how long

The U.S. coal industry is under perhaps its greatest stress ever, from natural gas and environmental regulations, but some areas still boom while others bust. Eastern Kentucky miner Henry Gibson told Bloomberg writer Mark Drajem, "We've gotten so dependent on coal, it's like we're on drugs." But while Central Appalachia is going through withdrawals, Wyoming is living the high life. "The reason: Kentucky’s coal costs three times as much to mine as Wyoming’s," Drajem writes in a detailed examination of the factors in both places.

"In the wide, vast plains of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where coal can be scooped out and piled high onto railcars headed for Texas and Midwest power plants, production is on a modest upswing," Drajem reports. "That’s sparked a boom in the town of Gillette, where the local unemployment rate is 2.9 percent, less than half the nation’s 6.1 percent, and the median family income is $77,000, more than 40 percent higher than then national average. Within the past year four new frozen yogurt shops opened, along with the $5.5 million Jordan’s Western Dining steakhouse."

"The scene is very different along Kentucky’s jagged eastern edge," Drajem writes. "The cheapest, easiest coal to mine was carved out decades ago, and now mining companies are shedding workers and seeking bankruptcy protection. The unemployment rate is 14.8 percent, and doctors are drug-testing their own patients to make sure they are taking—rather than hawking—pain medication."

Wyoming coal production doubled from 1990 to 2008, and nine of the nation's 10 largest mines are in the state, with the other one in neighboring Montana, Drajem writes. In southeastern Kentucky's Harlan County, only 27 of the 87 licensed mines are active, and "Harlan produced 4.6 million tons of coal last year, the lowest total since 1920. The county shed more than half its population in the past six decades, and locals say one of the only booming local businesses is renting U-Haul trucks for those fleeing."

"The coal industry sees the Appalachian travails as a warning signal," Drajem writes, quoting Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett: "Eastern Kentucky is ground zero for what the coal industry is going through in this country." Clean Energy Action of Boulder, Colo., says U.S. mining will become increasingly expemnsive. “As they extract more and more of the coal, the cost of producing it rises,” Zane Selvans, author of a report for the group, told Dragem, who writes, "What Kentucky is experiencing today, many mines in Wyoming may face in the next seven to 20 years, he predicts." (Read more)

EPA moves to block Alaska's planned Pebble Mine; House moves to stop EPA from blocking project

The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to block the controversial Pebble Beach mine project in Alaska, while the House is trying to block the EPA from doing so. (MCT photo by Luis Sinco: To transport ore and equipment, the gold and copper Pebble Mine would require a 104-mile road along Alaska’s Pedro Bay, above, and Lake Iliamna, the state's largest body of fresh water, cutting through undeveloped forest and wetlands.)

Read more here:

On Friday EPA announced "it’s proposing tough new limits for gold and copper mining in the Bristol Bay watershed—a move that would greatly diminish the scale of the controversial Pebble Mine project," Linsdsay Abrams reports for Salon. "The proposal, issued under the Clean Water Act, is necessary 'to protect the world’s greatest salmon fishery from what would most certainly be one of the largest open pit mine developments ever conceived of,' EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran told reporters."

While the move "won’t block the mine outright, it will effectively rob it of that largest-ever status, protecting Alaska’s important sockeye salmon fishery in the process," Abrams writes. In January EPA said building the mine would destroy between 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes. In March the agency began taking steps to block the mine.

Lawmakers have already responded to the EPA, with House members "pushing a bill to keep the EPA from blocking the mine, despite opposition from Washington state lawmakers who say the project could be devastating to the fishing industry in their state," Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. The mine developer, Northern Dynasty Minerals, which lost most of its financial support when backers pulled out of the project, "is suing the EPA, seeking an injunction to prevent the agency from moving to stop the project."

"After a long series of setbacks, the mine won a small victory Wednesday when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill for a vote in the full House," Cockerham writes. "The measure would have scant chance of making it through the Democratic-controlled Senate and surviving a likely presidential veto. But mine opponents fear it might become a platform to revive the project’s fortunes, particularly if Republicans take control of the Senate after the November midterm elections." (Read more)

Independent journalist says drones can be used to skirt 'ag-gag' laws and obtain aerial footage

An independent journalist says he has found a way to get around ag-gag laws by using drones to fly "over large livestock operations to document animal welfare problems and pollution," Peggy Lowe reports for NPR. Based in Washington, D.C., Will Potter has raised $75,000 to buy drones and other equipment. He told Lowe, "I was primarily motivated by what's happening outside of those closed doors, but is still invisible and hidden from the public spotlight. In particular, I was motivated by seeing these of farm pollution, of waste lagoons, of sprawling industrial operations."

Agricultural groups are not happy with Potter's plans, Lowe writes. Emily Meredith, a spokeswoman for Animal Agriculture Alliance, a livestock industry group, told Lowe, "It's unfortunate that the media and others see Mr. Potter and other detractors and activists as having more expertise than the folks with their boots on the ground every day, growing and raising our food. It's even more unfortunate that people contribute to campaigns like this on Kickstarter instead of investing in any of the other myriad of worthy causes—including working to end hunger."

It's not clear whether or not using the drones would be against the law, since commercial drone operations remain a contentious subject, Lowe writes. Potter said "he will focus on the states where anti-whistleblower laws are being debated. He pledges to share his findings in an e-book and a short documentary. But Potter admits the drones he plans to deploy won't be able to get the same, close-up footage of livestock operations that groups like Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society obtained through undercover investigations. Instead, he says, he'll focus on showing the magnitude of the operations and the pollution they generate." (Read more)

Some trustees quit college named for fundamentalist crusader after it makes Adam and Eve article of faith

Four of the 12 trustees of Bryan College, a small, Christian, liberal-arts college in Dayton, Tenn., have resigned, saying they are unhappy with recent developments at the college, which include President Stephen Livesay's decision to amend the school's statement of faith "to say that humanity descended only from Adam and Eve," Tim Omarzu reports for the Times Free Press in Chattanooga. (Press photo by Dan Henry) 

While board members said they resigned because of poor leadership by Livesay, not the amendment, which they helped write, one wrote in his resignation letter, "The ongoing narrative from the president's office presents interpretations of facts that differ significantly and regularly from what I believe to be true. Second, I do not believe I could contribute anything substantive to the board that would be heard. . . . Third, the president indicated that those on the board who do not support his presidency should resign."

Another said he "didn't have a problem with the doctrine supporting creationism, but he didn't like the manner in which the clarification was made," Omarzu writes. The trustee told Omarzu, "In my opinion, it was pushed through at a time when it didn't need to be pushed through."

Bryan College was named for William Jennings Bryan, a presidential candidate who in the 1920s "led a fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin's theory of evolution from American classrooms," getting the practice banned in 15 states, says the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Bryan was part of the prosecution in "the monkey trial" of 1925 in Dayton, in which John Scopes was found guilty of illegally teaching evolution. The verdict was overturned on a technicality, and Bryan died six days after the trial ended. (Read more)

Woman at free medical clinic calls Medicaid expansion in Virginia a handout she doesn't want

Federal health reform is a complex topic that was made more complex by the Supreme Court ruling that made it easy for states to reject the law's main device for helping the poor, expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program. That added political complexity to a subject that has philosophical complexity, which showed up at the end of an recent article in The Washington Post about Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's campaign to expand Medicaid against the wishes of the Republican-led legislature.

To illustrate the need, McAuliffe attended a free medical and dental clinic in Wise, in Virginia's southwestern coalfield. The Post's Laura Vozzella ended the story with her interview of Gilda Mountcastle, who had been waiting in line since 5:30 a.m. Mountcastle said she would not have access to a dentist or eye doctor without the free clinic, but said "she did not support Medicaid expansion, which she saw as a government handout." She told told reporters, “We’re hardworking, hillbilly mountain people. We’re too proud to beg and bum.” From the government, at least. (Read more)

Writer challenges data-based approach of article naming her county America's hardest place to live

Anne Shelby
Writer Anne Shelby, a longtime resident of Clay County, Kentucky, has responded to Annie Lowery's New York Times article “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?” in which six Eastern Kentucky counties were among the 10 judged hardest in America to live, with Clay at the top. In an article that was rejected by the Times but appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Shelby challenges the story's reliance on data.

"Lowery reports on a study that compiled data by county in six categories: education, median income, life expectancy, unemployment, disability and obesity," and the hard facts they illustrate are not to be ignored, Shelby writes. "But does the average of these six data points really mean these are, 'the hardest places to live in the United States?' The Times piece uses statistics both to define the problem and to solve it."

Shelby notes the story suggests that "The thing for us to do—and the government should help us do this . . . is to relocate to places with better numbers. We could, for example, head out to Los Alamos County, N.M., and get jobs in the nuclear-weapons industry. Since Los Alamos County boasts the best statistics, it should, by the article's logic, be the easiest place in the country to live. Moving into a suburb of the nation's capital might be nice. Six of those counties made it into the top 10."

Shelby suggests people might want to take a cue from a play she co-wrote, in which one character says: "Maybe we need to come up with a different quality-of-life index for little country places. How many points could we get for each hill? How much is a river worth? Can we add a category for walking on ground your ancestors walked? Or for the percentage of neighbors who'd show up in five minutes if you needed them? How can you measure that? And how can you measure how much you'd miss a place if you had to leave?" (Read more)

Eastern Kentucky author Silas House previously responded to the Times article.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Distillery planned in Eastern Kentucky to capitalize on history of moonshining and Hatfield-McCoy feud

Kentucky is known for bourbon whiskey, and its Appalachian region was once known for illegal whiskey. Now a legal distillery will be built in a major coalfield town, in an apparent attempt to capitalize on the burgeoning interest in bourbon and the ways of making it, and on the history of the area, which includes the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Google map locates Pikeville and Pike County, Kentucky
Alltech Inc., a Kentucky-based manufacturer of animal feed and additives that has expanded into brewing and distilling, will "turn a large section of buildings on Second Street in Pikeville into a brewery and distillery business," with new product lines, Russ Cassady reports for the Appalachian News-Express.

“We’re going to develop more products that we see as suitable for this area, something that’s unique to this area, something that ties in a lot of history to the area,” Alltech Master Distiller Mark Coffman told a local gathering. “We’re now trying to focus a little bit more on trying to bring visitors into this area. There’s a lot to see with this area, there’s a lot of history with this area.”

On a hill above Pikeville is the grave of Randolph McCoy, leader of the Kentucky family in the late-1800s feud with the Hatfields of West Virginia. Counties in both states have tried to cash in on the history, with such devices as a Hatfield-McCoy Trail for all-terrain vehicles, much of it through reclaimed surface coal mines. The area's coal industry has sharply declined, generating more interest in tourism jobs.

UPDATE, July 21: Gov. Steve Beshear told the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's Business Summit and Annual Meeting that the distillery would have a name playing off the feud. He also announced that Alltech will locate an aquaculture facility and an egg laying and processing plant near Pikeville.