Friday, August 01, 2014

California drought hits record levels; more than half of Golden State in 'exceptional' drought for first time

The California drought has hit record levels, with 58 percent of the state experiencing "exceptional" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It marks the first time that more than half the state has been under the warning since the federal government began issuing drought warnings in the 1990s, Joseph Serna reports for the Los Angeles Times. About 22 percent of the state was added to "exceptional" during the past week.

"This is the first year that any part of California has seen that level of drought, let alone more than half of it, said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, which issued the report," Serna wrires. Svoboda told him, “You keep beating the record, which are still all from this year."

The report also found that the state is "more than a year’s worth of water short in its reservoirs and moisture in the state's topsoil and subsoil has nearly been depleted," Serna writes. The drought has gotten so bad that residents have been encouraged to tattle on neighbors that overuse water. (U.S. Drought Monitor graphic; click on image for larger version)

USDA announces new poultry inspection rules to reduce illnesses; critics say lines still too fast

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has been criticized for having a flawed poultry inspection policy, "unveiled on Thursday the first major overhaul of the nation's poultry inspection system in more than 50 years," Kelsey Gee and Jesse Newman report for The Wall Street Journal. USDA "said the new system was part of an effort to better fight pathogens while placing more responsibility and trust on companies to protect the quality of their chicken and turkey." (Chicago Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans)

The new inspection system, which goes into effect immediately, "shifts much of the onus for visually inspecting and sorting carcasses and bird parts from the government to plant employees," the Journal writes. "The rules would reduce the number of USDA employees on evisceration lines — where workers or machines remove the internal organs of chickens and turkeys — to one from what is currently as many as four."

Under the new system, inspectors will have more time to ensure that employees are taking efforts to prevent contamination by pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter, the Journal writes. That move will  prevent nearly 5,000 food-borne illnesses a year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters. He said, "We know a lot more about what makes food unsafe than we did in 1957 and we are confident that this rule, with the additional sampling and testing, will result in safer food." (Read more)

While the new rules cap the speed of processing lines at 140 birds per minute, instead of the 175 the industry wanted, there is still concern that lines will move too fast for proper inspections, Lindsay Wise reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, said the “one USDA inspector left on the slaughter line under this new rule will still have to inspect 2.33 birds every second, an impossible task that leaves consumers at risk." Hauter "added that the new regulations effectively privatize the poultry inspection process by allowing companies to police themselves." (Read more)

Rural Kansas county struggles to keep ambulance services going; volunteers are in short supply

In rural Kansas, where some residents live long distances from hospitals, emergency medical services are staffed by volunteers. But just as rural fire departments are having trouble attracting and keeping volunteers, some EMS units in Sumner County (Wikipedia map), towns are struggling to find volunteers willing and able to take shifts, leaving a gaping hole in an essential service, James Jordan reports for The Wellington Daily News.

One community struggling to staff ambulances is Conway Springs, which has an EMS territory of 247 square miles, Jordan writes. With two full-time paramedics and a handful of volunteers, they have had trouble meeting the state law that requires ambulances to be on the road within five minutes of a call. Parademic Dawn Cornejo told Jordan, “We are in danger of losing our EMS license due to a lack of volunteers and staffing."

Another concern is that younger people have shown little interest in being volunteers, Jordan writes. More than half of the volunteers in Conway Springs are over 50 and one is 68. "Another problem he has is servicing rural areas of the county. The county gives money to each city to pay for these services, but Wellington and Mulvane get 70 percent or more of that amount." Conway Springs, though, will pay for training for someone who signs a contract to work in the city for a specified amount of time. (Read more)

South Dakota trying to recruit doctors to rural areas; med school begins rural residency program

South Dakota is trying to find ways to recruit doctors to rural areas with programs aimed at sparking interest among students in middle school, high school and college into pursuing physician jobs in the state's medically under-served areas.

One problem facing hospital recruiters in states like South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota is the extreme winters, Dr. Tad Jacobs, chief medical officer for Avera Medical Group, told Joise Flatgard of the Capital Journal in Pierre. But those fears can be offset by a high quality of life, said Angie Bollweg, director of a Sanford Health clinic in the state capital of 14,000 people. She told Flatgard, “We do try to emphasize the different opportunities available in Pierre, everything that Pierre/Ft. Pierre has to offer. There are great schools, churches, great healthcare and an array of activities and groups to be involved in. The hunting, fishing, recreational activities and sunsets are a plus. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family and work and grow here, too.”

Sanford Health has been working to attract youth to the medical field through the Program for the Midwest Initiative in Science Exploration, Flatgard writes. Also known as PROMISE, it "was created to inspire middle school, high school and college students, along with anyone else interested to learn about science and research. In a classroom, educators and scientists are able to lay the groundwork for educating South Dakota physicians." (Read more)

While smaller towns are trying to interest local youth in entering the medical field, the University of South Dakota has created the Frontier And Rural Medicine program, which "puts third-year medical students into hospital systems in communities with less than 10,000 residents," Katherine Grandstrand reports for the Aberdeen News. FARM Director Dr. Susan Anderson told Grandstrand, "Hopefully, what's going to happen long-term is that the students are going to consider, when they're done with all their training, coming back to one of those communities or a similar-sized community in rural South Dakota to practice. Students tend to practice in or close to where they trained." The first class to participate in the program consists of six students working at five rural hospitals. (Read more)

Documentary follows 3 poor youth in rural Missouri

"Rich Hill," a new documentary that won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, opens in limited release today and focuses on three boys growing up in the film title's impoverished Missouri town. "But rather than attempt an elegy for the town, a former coal producer, or an essay on poverty, the pair (filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermozero) zero in on three teenagers from struggling homes," Nicolas Rapold writes in a review for The New York Times. "The result, shot over a year and a half, is an intimately observant look at individual children and the details of their daily lives and personalities." (Orchard photo: Still from the movie)

The parents of Andrew, Appachey and Harley "are veterans of a rural war of attrition, from Andrew’s heavily medicated mother to Appachey’s, a mountain of a woman who delivers a heartbreakingly tough soliloquy," Rapold writes. "They are at the cusp of adolescence, starting to push back at low-rent surroundings, but still childlike. Harley trudges around, keeping up a running quirky commentary about his temper or his beloved mom, who’s in prison for tragic reasons that emerge later. Andrew is mysteriously beatific, the son of a free spirit who covers Hank Williams songs and keeps moving the family around. Less clearly drawn, Appachey has an abiding rage but, in sixth grade, none of its dignity."

The movie, set in a town with a population of 1,396, "exists mainly as an act of social advocacy, showing how one portion of the population lives and offering a sobering rebuke to pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric," A.A. Dowd writes in a review for A.V. Club. The movie "also provides the strikingly symbolic image of a ferris wheel in motion. This is a movie, the ride reminds, about constantly moving but never getting anywhere new." (Read more) (Best Places map)

Rural groups say Colorado residents would accept tax increase to fix rural roads

Earlier this month The Road Information Program, funded by lobbies interested in highways and their safety, released a report that said one-third of rural roads in some states are in poor condition. Colorado lobbyists have conducted their own survey on how residents think the state should spend money, and they say the results show "Rural residents would support a tax increase to fund road maintenance and safety measures in rural Colorado," Sara Waite reports for the Sterling Journal-Advocate in Logan County.

Progressive 15, a group that advocates for 15 northeastern counties; Action 22 (22 rural counties in southern Colorado), and Club 20 (20 rural counties on the Western Slope) sent surveys throughout the state asking residents to rank six categories in order of importance, Waite writes. Respondents listed education No. 1, followed by business/jobs, transportation, health care, environment, and corrections/prisons. (Progressive 15 chart)

"In total, nearly 64 percent of survey respondents said they were willing to pay more money for transportation to improve the state system; in the Progressive 15 territory, about 58 percent said yes," Waite writes. "An increase to the gas tax was the most popular mechanism for raising transportation funds, with almost 61 percent from Progressive 15 survey responses willing to consider such an increase." (Read more)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Chemical spill in Kanawha R. tributary is somehow hurting adventure tourism in rivers upstream

A January spill that dumped thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner into the Elk River is having a major impact on the tourism trade in West Virginia, hurting a once booming whitewater rafting business, despite the fact that the spill was well downstream, Todd Frankel reports for The Washington Post. (Post photo by Charlie Archambault: New River rafters)

In this case, any publicity isn't good publicity, because stories about the spill seem to have scared off some tourists, which "illustrates an ongoing battle over economic diversification in West Virginia, where the tourism industry at times collides with a powerful mining industry that for decades has provided the majority of the state’s identity and its good-paying jobs," Frankel writes.

Dave Arnold, who owns a rafting company, told Frankel, “It’s a hair slow. I’m positive some of it is linked to the spill. My whole life has been about selling West Virginia. Never before have we seen an event that caused so many negative reactions." Tourists don't seem to care that the New and Gauley rivers sit well upstream of the spill, Frankel writes. They form the Kanawha, into which the Elk flows at Charleston.

"Water doesn’t flow uphill," Arnold reminded Frankel, who writes, "But tourism is built on perception, and Arnold believes West Virginia’s image as a 'wild, wonderful' destination, a slogan stamped on state license plates, was damaged. . . . In March, the state commissioned a poll of the spill’s effect on leisure travel. The news seemed good. Only 31 percent of people out-of-state recalled the leak when asked about recent news involving the state. . . . But many in the tourism industry zoomed in on a less-discussed finding of the same poll: 7 percent of respondents said the leak had a strong negative impact on their likelihood of a state visit." Seven percent of the state's annual tourism industry is $350 million. Another whitewater rafting contractor, Dave Hartvigsen, told Frankel, “Somewhere in a consumer’s mind it was placed — I don’t want to go to West Virginia.” (Read more)

Editor's note: Frankel knows how water flows; he reported on rural topics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for many years. Congratulations on the new job, Todd.

Lacking a plumber, a Maine town sets up a scholarship to train one of its own to practice locally

Plenty has been written about shortages of doctors and lawyers, but a small Maine town on the Canadian border has a shortage of plumbers. When the only plumber in Jackman retired, the closest was 50 miles away. The solution: "A Jackman family and the local school district are working together to offer a scholarship for a local person interested in becoming a plumber, with the stipulation that they set up shop in the town of about 700 people," Rachel Ohm reports for the Kennebec Journal.

The scholarship will pay up to $2,000 to help a Moose River Valley resident become a licensed plumber, Ohm writes. Sheryl Hughey Harth, whose family is funding the scholarship, told Ohm, “We know it takes several years to become a certified plumber, so we consider this an investment not only in the individual, but in the Jackman region itself. We have an electrician who is very busy, and we believe the community will support a plumber as well.” (Read more)

White House, big corporations partner to make agriculture more resilient to climate change

The White House announced a partnership Tuesday with several major companies "to better use data to make agriculture and the country's food system more resilient in responding to the growing impact of climate change," Christopher Doering reports for The Des Moines Register. "The initiative, part of the Obama administration's push to increase public backing for its climate-change agenda, would connect farmers, food distributors and agricultural businesses with data, tools, and information to understand how climate change is impacting their operations while identifying steps they can take to prepare for it."

The companies involved are Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, PepsiCo, IBM and Amazon. Monsanto says "it will donate a maize breeding trial dataset to help public- and private-sector scientists better understand how climate and water-availability changes will impact crop productivity and food security" and PepsiCo is pledging "to install solar panels at a Gatorade plant in Arizona that would prevent the release of about 50,000 tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases over 25 years," Doering writes. The Obama administration will also host a series of workshops on data, food resilience, climate change and food emergencies.

"The climate change announcement comes the same day as the Obama administration warned that failing to fully reduce the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change could cost the U.S. economy $150 billion a year through lost agricultural production, flooding and other disasters like hurricanes," Doering writes. (Read more)

South growing; by 2060 a 'connected megalopolis would stretch from Raleigh all the way to Atlanta'

The South is rising — in population. What that means is that much of the Southeast, which has the nation's highest percentage of rural population, is slowly being urbanized, according to a study published in PLOS One. About 77 million people live in the South and "the region's rate of population growth over the last six decades has been about 40 percent greater than the rest of the country," Emily Badger reports for The Washington Post. (PLOS One map: Urban land cover in 2009)

"Development there looks notably different from urbanized parts of the Northeast," Badger writes. "Southern cities and their suburbs tend to be lower-density and car-dependent, with more large-lot, single-family homes. Communities often leap-frog across the countryside, creating a kind of patchwork development that consumes a lot of land."

"This recent history raises some unsettling questions for conservationists and urban planners about the future: If some of the fastest-growing parts of the country are also among the most sprawling, what will the Southeast look like a few decades from now? And what will that future mean for natural habitats, climate change and the people who live there?" Badger writes. The result, by 2060 "a completely connected megalopolis would stretch from Raleigh all the way to Atlanta." (Read more) (PLOS One map: Projected urban land cover in 2060; researchers include in South areas south of Interstate 64 and west of Interstate 77 in West Virginia, which is sometimes classified as a Southern state but most often not)

Rising temperatures caused by climate change would slow corn and wheat yields, study finds

Climate change could have a significant impact on corn and wheat yields, Brian Sullivan reports for Bloomberg News: "Rising temperatures caused by climate change increase the odds that corn and wheat yields will slow even as global demand for the crops for food and fuel increases in the next 10 to 20 years, according to a study published in Environmental Research Letters."

"There is as much as a 10 percent chance the rate of corn yields will slow and a 5 percent probability for wheat because of human-caused climate change, said David Lobell, the associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, and Claudia Tebaldi, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado," Sullivan writes.

Researchers found that "a rise in global temperatures of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) would slow the rate of growth for corn by 7 percent and wheat by about 6 percent," Sullivan reports. "Corn is most vulnerable because the areas in which it is grown tend to be concentrated and therefore more susceptible to change." 

Tebaldi said, "When anthropogenic climate change is removed from the equation, the chance crop yield growth will slow falls to about one in 200. Climate change has substantially increased the prospect that crop production will fail to keep up with rising demand in the next 20 years.” (Read more)

Coal company facing 266 violations; billionaire owner tight with governor of Ky., site of 129

The billionaire owner of coal mines in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama is facing at least 266 pending coal mining violations, including 129 in Kentucky, a state where he has contributed $400,000 to Gov. Steve Beshear's political causes since early 2011, Tom Loftus and Jim Bruggers report for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. (Forbes photo: Jim Justice)

Alleged violations in Kentucky against Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, "include failing to submit water monitoring reports, failing to live up to promises after previous enforcement actions, failing to pay fines and failing to meet requirements for reclaiming mined land, including eliminating highwalls," Loftus and Bruggers write. "Civil penalties owed by Justice companies in Kentucky increased to $2 million from $1.6 million between April and June."

Natural Resources Commissioner Steve Hohmann informed Justice that five of his companies in Eastern Kentucky would be stopped form mining, effective June 30, but the suspensions were suspended until Aug. 11, with no reason given publicly for the decision, Loftus and Bruggers write.

Justice and his family gave $50,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party in April 2011, then $121,600 to the Democratic National Committee later that year "at a time when the DNC was transferring large amounts to the Kentucky Democratic Party during Beshear's 2011 re-election campaign," Loftus and Bruggers write. They also "gave $100,000 to the committee that paid for Beshear's 2011 inauguration festivities. And since then, the Justices have given at least $140,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party — the most recent $40,000 contributed on June 27 — the day after Hohmann's letter suspending Justice mining permits, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission."

"Besides the contributions, Beshear was among the dignitaries Justice invited to help cut the ribbon at the 2010 opening of the casino at The Greenbrier," Loftus and Bruggers write. "And, at Justice's invitation, Beshear played in the pro-am golf event at The Greenbrier Classic in 2012 and 2013." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Closure of rural schools leads to long bus rides and causes some nostalgia for 'the way it used to be'

"In the past few decades, rural school districts, especially those in the Midwest, Southwest and Deep South, have been folding their smaller schools into bigger ones, which are often many miles away," . "These schools close because of shrinking state funding, low enrollment or simply a desire for efficiency—even as studies show small schools often have higher test scores, higher graduation rates and better student participation in extracurriculars." (NBC photo by Ackerman Gruber: Students celebrate graduating from elementary school in Cyprus, Minn. in 2013. The school closed that year because of low enrollment.)

"Experts say that closing these schools can be counter-productive not just for the students but for the entire population," . "Not only does the town fail to attract young families, who would rather live near a school, it often loses one of its main hubs of activity and community interaction."  Brian Depew, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs told Aronowitz, “You’re yanking a key community structure out of these towns. They’re places of education, but they also serve this larger civic function."

Some parents worry about travel, . "In consolidated rural districts, children often endure excruciatingly long rides to school. In places like the Dakotas and Nebraska, the routes may take hours. The bus rides in Monticello, Maine, can already stretch the length of a class period, and parents are worried it’ll take even longer." Sarah Quirk, parent of a child in Wellington, Maine, told Aronowitz, “That’s too much time for a young kid. If it’s longer than 45 minutes, I’ll have to drive [my children] in, but I know not every parent can do that. That’s a lot of gas money.”

While budget concerns are one reason leading to closures and consolidation, another is the idea that bigger is better, . Depew told her, “Our go-to answer as a society is consolidation. Because it’s happened so many times, leaders just think, ‘That’s just what we have to do’ . . . it’s a capitalist drive for efficiency.” He said eventually "a string of consolidations lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: a school closes, a town’s population declines and the cycle starts all over again." 

Barb Hesse, a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Morris’s Center for Small Towns, is a lifelong resident of Cyrus, Minn., where there were 25 people in her graduating class, . The high school has since closed, and the elementary school recently followed suit because of low enrollment. "Hesse said that although the town is still 'alive and kicking,' it does feel like it’s been dealt another blow, leaving its residents nostalgic for 'the way it used to be.'" (Read more)

Mostly suburban Dollar Tree buys Family Dollar, a staple of poor rural and urban areas

"The battle for America's poorest consumers intensified Monday with Dollar Tree's agreement to buy rival Family Dollar Stores for about $8.5 billion," Paul Ziobro and Shelly Banjo report for The Wall Street Journal. "The chains thrived during the recession as the number of working Americans living in poverty increased by nearly 40 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics." The two chains operate more than 13,000 stores nationwide.

Dollar stores are staples in many rural areas, but while they all might appear to sell similar items, Dollar Tree and Family Dollars are vastly different franchises, the Journal writes. "Dollar Tree sells goods like picture frames and school supplies for a dollar or less and focuses on suburban markets. Family Dollar sells more branded consumer products like Tide detergent and Coca-Cola at a range of discounted prices and targets the urban and rural poor." (Journal graphic)

"Executives said they don't plan to close stores but may turn some Family Dollar stores into Dollar Trees, or vice versa, where the existing stores are underperforming," The Journal writes. "Dollar stores have been expanding rapidly even as other segments of the industry scale back. The three top dollar-store chains (Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General) have together added nearly 10,000 stores over the past decade. They now operate a combined 24,000 locations and have projected adding at least another 1,000 stores this year." (Read more)

The more EPA head pushes proposed water rules, the more she ends up offending rural folks

Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy is on quest to promote, clarify and answer questions about proposed water rules to simplify federal water laws, a move that has not gone over well with many farmers, who believe the rules will expand EPA's jurisdiction. McCarthy was in Missouri earlier this month to explain and defend the rules, but she continues to meet resistance. The EPA chief has had a habit of rubbing rural folks the wrong way and didn't help her cause by inadvertently offending people with recent comments. (Getty Images by Mark Wilson)

The trip to Missouri didn't go as planned, with the farm federation responding "by sending Congress a document 'decoding' point-by-point an EPA blog post that attempted to explain the rule," Jerry Hagstrom reports for National Journal. "The Republican senators she met with issued a series of news releases saying they appreciated her visit but EPA should still withdraw the rule."

"In the meantime, McCarthy could work a bit on her own communication skills in rural America," Hagstrom writes. "EPA administrators tend not to come from the heartland, and McCarthy is no exception. A Boston native, McCarthy speaks with a strong New England accent, and she seems not to suffer fools gladly." And she isn't winning over any rural farmers by calling their concerns about the rules "silly" and "ludicrous," words she said were taken out of context.

"McCarthy does have her rural defenders," Hagstrom writes. "The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which includes a wide range of hunting and fishing groups, has said Congress should not interfere with the comment process and that fish, wildlife and people all need clean water. The rule can be written so that 'farmers and ranchers can farm the way they have and we can protect the waters,' McCarthy said."

"The battle can be summed up in one word: ditches. Farmers and ranchers say EPA wants to regulate all their ditches that may fill up with water at some point during the year," Hagstrom writes. "But rural America will have to accept the fact that some ditches will be regulated." McCarthy told Hagstrom, "We are talking about ditches that used to be streams and still act like streams. They may not have water running but still act as a stream. I never expected to say the word 'ditch' this many times in my entire life, and I hope to get away from that as soon as possible." (Read more)

Expanding broadband to rural America will take a 'sustained focus' from Congress, Obama

Although the effort to connect rural America to broadband is progressing, “it will take a sustained focus from Congress and the executive branch to ensure that rural residents have the same access to broadband as their urban and suburban counterparts," the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service told a House Agriculture subcommittee Tuesday, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

"John Padalino pointed to significant progress toward providing rural America with high-speed Internet access," Agri-Pulse writes. "He noted that under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, taxpayers have paid out $3.4 billion to pay for installing about 60,000 miles of fiber and 1,281 wireless access points which now provide Internet service to 'over 168,703 households, 12,539 businesses and 1,786 critical community facilities across rural America.'”

Padalino said 14. 5 million people in 6.5 million rural households lacked access to broadband in 2012, reports Farm Futures. Padalino, who pointed to a study that linked increased broadband access to higher median household income, said it would cost an estimated $13.4 billion to complete access projects.

He said a major obstacle is that 'private broadband entities, citing lack of end-users and profitability, have not fully-expanded broadband infrastructure into rural areas,'" Agri-Pulse writes. "He said USDA provides a generous mix of grants and loans to improve rural broadband because 'aside from enabling existing businesses to remain in their rural locations, broadband access could attract new business enterprises drawn by lower costs and a more desirable lifestyle. Essentially, broadband potentially allows businesses and individuals in rural America to live locally while competing globally in an online environment.'”

One problem is that too many networks are geographically isolated, limiting local providers' ability to serve rural areas, said Lang Zimmerman, who was representing the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, Agri-Pulse writes. Another problem is that federal regulations haven't kept pace with the rapid acceleration of new technology, said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, executive vice president at CTIA - the Wireless Association. (Read more)

Government Accountability Office report criticizes EPA's oversight of injection wells

The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to adequately oversee hundreds of thousands of injection wells used in oil and gas drilling, says a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The report criticizes EPA's "inconsistent handling of safety inspections, poor record keeping and failure to adjust its guidelines to adapt to new risks brought by the recent boom in domestic drilling, including the understanding that injection wells are causing earthquakes," Naveena Sadasivam reports for Pro Publica.

EPA, which oversees more than 700,000 injection wells in the U.S., delegates oversight of the wells to state agencies, Sadasivam writes. The problem with that, the report found, "is that the EPA has not consistently inspected those state programs to ensure that state regulators comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act and EPA guidelines. The EPA also has failed to incorporate requirements it has placed on some of its state programs into federal regulations, making it difficult for the agency to take legal action against violators."

Another problem is budget constraints, Sadasivam writes. "Between 2003 and 2012, funding for state injection well programs stagnated at about $10 million a year, which—factoring in inflation—effectively meant resources had declined, the GAO concluded. The report also blamed the EPA for not taking steps to collect complete, consistent and reliable data on injection wells to use for reporting at a national level, mirroring some of ProPublica's key findings." (Read more)

Expressway to get environmental review; critics say re-routing benefits coal companies

The 116-mile Coalfields Expressway, also known as U.S. Route 121, is being built in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia as a way to help bring economic development to distressed coal country in the Appalachian region. But construction has ground to a halt, amid a call by the Federal Highway Administration for an environmental review on a 26-mile section that was re-routed—some say—to benefit coal companies instead of the local communities the road was intended to serve, Steve Szkotak reports for The Associated Press. The review could take up to 18 months. (Virginia Department of Transportation map)

State officials in Virginia maintain "that the shift reflects a public-private partnership that trims billions from the cost of the highway," Szkotak writes. But critics say the new route takes the road to untapped coal reserves. Deborah Murray of the Southern Environmental Law Center said of the rerouted section, "We hope that once the alternatives are fully considered, as well as the original purpose of the road project itself, a different choice will be made."

Jane Branham of Southern Appalachia Stewards "said economically depressed coal communities 'desperately need' a link to new economic opportunities," Szkotak writes. "The region suffers, she said, from a lack of public transportation." Branham told Szkotak, "We're not against a road. But I think it's designed to benefit coal and not the communities. We have nothing compared to Richmond and other places. We want that money to come here." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Texas getting better at turning wind into energy; could help meet new carbon-emissions rules

Scientists in Texas have developed a better way to turn strong panhandle winds into energy, a move that could help states meet federally mandated rules to reduce carbon emissions, Matthew Wald reports for The New York Times. The result is wind farms that use 30-ton blades atop 260-foot towers that produce 40 percent more energy than the average turbine. (Times photo by David Bowser: Wind farm in Texas)

"This year, a sprawling network of new high-voltage power lines was completed, tying the panhandle area and West Texas to the millions of customers around Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston," Wald writes. "By any standard, the scale is enormous. Anywhere else, a big transmission project is a few hundred miles long and costs a few hundred million dollars; this is a network of 3,600 miles built at a cost of $7 billion, which is more money than the whole country has spent on transmission in some recent years. It comes to about $300 per person served by the Texas grid."

"Nationally, transmission infrastructure is built only when circumstances demand it; in Texas, however, lawmakers have ordered an 'if-you-build-it, they-will-come' approach," Wald writes. "And it is working."

"The new lines are meant to handle up to 18,000 megawatts — millions of households," Wald writes. "While there are still problems — the wind generally does not blow strongly on the hottest days, when its power generation is needed most, for example — scientists say that the supply will become somewhat more stable as more transmission lines, and more wind farms, are built in diverse locations."

But the project has its share of critics, especially since the $7 billion is being charged to taxpayers, Wald writes. But that only amounts to an extra $6 per month in utilities, and supporters say the move has cut monthly costs by more than that much.

While the project is considered a success, some people wonder if it can be duplicated in other states, Wald writes. "Texas is one of only three states (along with California and New York) with borders roughly contiguous with a grid operator, putting its electric system under the control of a single legislature and a single public utilities commission, and it is by far the largest in that category. Anywhere else, every state on the route must agree on how the transmission costs will be shared, and a consensus established among the generators and the utilities." (Read more)

Appeals court says FDA can ignore antibiotics issue; CDC gives fresh warning about over-use

The Food and Drug Administration has been asking companies to phase out antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals. But the agency doesn't have to do that, according to a federal appeals court, which determined by a 2 to 1 vote last week that the FDA is not required to ban antibiotics in healthy animals, Lindsay Abrams reports for Salon.

"In 2012, two district courts decided that the agency could — and must — do more, ruling that the FDA was required to hold a hearing if it determined that the non-medical use of a certain drug was unsafe," Abrams writes. "At the hearing, drug manufacturers would then be required to prove otherwise. In Thursday’s 2-1 decision, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, placing the power to decide whether to hold hearings back in the hands of the FDA."

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control has issued a warning "that the government needs to take immediate action before we live in a world where life-saving antibiotics are no longer effective," Ferdous Al-Faruque reports for The Hill. CDC Director Thomas Frieden said last week, "The health-care system needs to improve how it detects patients with drug-resistant infections, controls the spread of such infections, prevents them from happening in the first place and incentivizes drugmakers to develop new antibiotics."

Frieden said 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections, and "hundreds of thousands of cancer patients rely on antibiotics after chemotherapy because their immune systems become compromised," Al-Faruque writes. Frieden told him, “From a strictly business standpoint, the terrible thing about antibiotics is they cure people. That’s not a model for a highly lucrative pharmaceutical product — you want a product that has to be taken for a long, long time.”

The CDC has launched a new system that lets hospitals track all antibiotics dispensed "and look at real-time patterns of antibiotic resistance, so doctors can narrow down which antibiotics are most likely to work," Al-Faruque writes. "The CDC says every hospital should have an 'antibiotic stewardship program' that tracks how antibiotics are used to try minimize overuse of the drugs, which can lead to drug resistance." (Read more)

Grain farmers using huge polyethylene bags to store crops, delay sales until markets improve

Giant, sausage-shaped white bags are turning up on grain farms across the Midwest. With rail delays causing farmers to store crops longer, and prices declining, the football field-sized polyethylene containers "allow farmers to store millions of bushels of corn and soybeans at a fraction the cost of conventional silos and far more efficiently than leaving grain in the open air," Karl Plume reports for Reuters. They could also help them delay sales until prices improve.

"With many bins still overflowing with last year's crop in the world's top grain grower, farmers are snapping up these systems as a practical necessity ahead of bumper harvests, and as a safeguard against another winter of railroad delays," Plume writes. "They may also be a sign that farmers will not be rushed into dumping their harvests quickly. Prices for corn to be harvested in autumn have tumbled as much as 18 percent so far this year, leaving growers hoping for a rebound."

"The systems also represent the latest front in an ongoing power struggle in the rural heartland between farmers, who want more say in how and when their crops are sold, and merchants such as Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge Ltd., who control the main arteries of trade," Plume writes. 

The bags are cheaper and keep crops in better condition than tarpaulins, Plume writes. "The white outside reflects the sun's heat while the inner layer is black, acting as a barrier to sunlight and helping maintain a lower-than-ambient temperature inside. The cost of storage in a single-use bag is around 5 to 7 cents per bushel, plus charges for loading and unloading equipment, which together can come to anywhere between $60,000 and $160,000." (Read more)

Colorado River Basin groundwater, which takes a long time to recharge, is drying up at a rapid rate

The Colorado River Basin — which feeds water to 40 million people in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California — is drying up faster than previously thought, according to a study by researchers at the University of California Irvine.
Bureau of Reclamation map: Colorado Basin and the areas it supplies

"In the past nine years, the basin has lost about 65 cubic kilometers of fresh water, nearly double the volume of the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead," Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post. "About two-thirds of the water lost over the past nine years came from underground water supplies, rather than surface water." States are responsible for regulating groundwater, but some states like California have no groundwater management rules.

The main problem is drought, which has dropped Lake Mead to its lowest level since it was created in the 1930s, Wilson writes. "More than three quarters of the water lost over the past decade came from underground," which has researchers concerned. Stephanie Castle, lead author of the study, told Wilson, “You get a wet year, you get some precipitation, and those reservoirs can fill right back up. It can take years, or hundreds of years, to refill groundwater basins.” Researchers say climate change and stress brought on by growing populations in cities will only make the situation worse in coming decades. (Read more)

Project lets students in Virginia coal country teach others about protecting the environment

The Wetlands Estonoa Outdoor Learning Center, formed in 1999, is owned by the town of St. Paul, Va., but is run by students at Castlewood High School. The environmental education site consists of outdoor and indoor classrooms, and includes a vegetative green roof, rain garden, a native Appalachian flora arboretum and a walking trail. Students have been responsible for turning "an old lake full of trash into a pristine and functioning wetland that filters runoff before it reaches the river," reports Making Connections, which has an interesting 10-minute radio interview on the project and instructor Terry Vencil. To listen to the interview click here. (Making Connections photo: Terry Vencil at the Clinch River)

Appalachian candidates run 'War on Coal' ads, ignore mountaintop-removal studies

Candidates for federal office in Appalachian states such as Kentucky and West Virginia are pushing the fight against President Obama's "War on Coal" while promising to defend the industry. But no one is touching climate change and recent studies that prove the negative health effects of mountaintop removal, Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette. He cites West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the Democrat running to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Tennant has bought about $120,000 of television time for an ad in which she turns the lights off on the White House after asking, "Where do they think their electricity comes from? You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America. I’ve fought to protect our coal jobs right alongside [Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin, and I’ll stand up to leaders of both parties who threaten our way of life. I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message."

Ward writes, "She doesn’t seem to want to talk about whether that “way of life” needs to include birth defects, heart disease, cancer and premature deaths. . . . This kind of complete nonsense is exactly why West Virginians are so very far from being able to discuss coal and climate change issues with even the smallest bit of intelligence, reason, and forward thinking. It’s a shame that Natalie Tennant won’t show more leadership than this. She’s got a great opportunity to really move the conversation forward about the future of our coalfield communities, the urgency to act on climate change, and the desperate need to diversify our economy. Instead, we get an ad that comes straight out of the 'Friends of Coal' playbook."

"We all know that coal’s share of the nation’s electricity generation has dropped significantly, from more than half just a few years ago to 39 percent last year," Ward writes. "Projections show continued coal production declines — even without the EPA carbon dioxide rules — here in West Virginia and the rest of Central Appalachia." (U.S. Energy Information Administration graphic)

"But rather than focus her campaign on this painful fact, and on whatever ideas she has for dealing with the ongoing bottoming-out of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry and diversifying the economy, Natalie Tennant is perpetuating the myth that if only West Virginia leaders could undo the Obama administration’s somewhat mild approach to dealing with climate change, things in places like McDowell County will be booming again," Ward writes. "It’s a shame that the West Virginia Democrats haven’t come up with a better campaign message than this in their effort to keep the Senate seat that Sen. Jay Rockefeller has held for so long."

"Over the last few years, though, it’s been pretty tough to get Natalie Tennant to talk at all about mountaintop removal," Ward writes. "When she was running for governor three years ago, she wouldn’t even respond to a question from the Gazette about the issue. This time around, her Senate campaign’s 'Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda,' doesn’t mention mountaintop removal. The campaign website doesn’t list an issue section focused on public health and the environment." (Read more)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Annual Kids Count report offers a wide range of information on child well-being in your community

The annual Kids Count report, with loads of county-level information on child well-being, was released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report focuses on four main areas: economic well-being, education, health, and family, and also looks at national trends, comparing current data with trends since the first report was released in 1990. This year's report ranks Massachusetts, Iowa and Vermont as the top states for child well-being, with Nevada, New Mexico and Mississippi the three lowest ranked states. (Annie E. Casey Foundation map)

The report has a wealth of information about child well-being, with the four main areas broken up into four sub-sets, which look at the rate of children in poverty; children whose parents lack secure employment; children living in households with a high housing cost burden; teens not in school and not working; children not attending pre-school; fourth-graders not proficient in reading; eighth-graders not proficient in math; high school students not graduating on time; low-birthweight babies, children without health insurance; children and teen deaths per 100,000; teens who abuse alcohol or drugs; children in single-parent families; children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma; children living in high-poverty areas; and teen births per 1,000.

The report has excellent information for local stories and we recommend checking it out. To read the report click here.

Deal reached on VA bill; includes relief for rural veterans who are far from a facility

House and Senate negotiators have reached a tentative agreement to deal with the long-term needs of the struggling Department of Veterans Affairs and are expected to unveil their proposal this afternoon, Ed O'Keefe reports for The Washington Post. Aides said negotiators "have 'made significant progress' on legislation to overhaul the VA and provide funding to hire more doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals."

There has been concern among veterans, especially those in rural areas, that they have had to travel long distances to receive care, or often wait months for an appointment, if they get one at all.

"According to a draft summary of the measure provided by House aides, Congress would give eligible military veterans a 'Veterans Choice Card' and allow them to seek health care outside the VA medical system from Medicare-eligible providers, other federally qualified health centers or facilities operated by the Defense Department or federal Indian Health Service centers," O'Keefe writes. "Veterans eligible to seek care outside the system would need to be enrolled by Aug. 1, or enroll for VA care within five years of ending their military service in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the draft agreement. A veteran could leave the VA system if they’re unable to receive an appointment within 14 days — the current VA wait-time goal, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility."

In response to complaints of long wait times to get an appointment, "new legislation would not allow scheduling and wait-time metrics to be used as factors in determining a worker’s performance," O'Keefe writes. "Instead, most performance reviews would focus on the quality of care received by veterans, according to the draft summary."

The compromise would authorize $5 billion for more employees, "require VA to enter into 27 leases for new major medical facilities; expand a scholarship program for the surviving spouses of service members who died during conflicts since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; and allow VA to provide counseling care and other services to veterans who suffered sexual trauma while in the ranks. Additionally, VA would be required to conduct regular audits on the accuracy of care and staffing levels at each major medical facility," O'Keefe writes.

Pesticides blamed for deaths of key pollinators are found in Midwest rivers; impact unclear

A pesticide linked to honeybee deaths has been found in nine Midwestern rivers, Josephine Marcotty reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Neonicotinoids, blamed for wiping out 40 to 50 percent of honeybees, were found to be universally present during the growing season in every state and watershed that scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey studied. Honeybees pollinate about 90 crops worldwide.

The results of the study, published in Environmental Pollution, "found levels of neonicotinoid insecticides at up to 20 times the concentrations deemed toxic to aquatic organisms," reports the Summit County Citizens Voice in Frisco, Calif. Traces of the chemicals were found in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. "The rivers studied drain most of Iowa, and parts of Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. These states have the highest use of neonicotinoid insecticides in the nation, and the chemicals were found in all nine rivers and streams." (USGC map: where studies were conducted)
The USGS study "is the first to measure how widely the toxins have spread through surface waters," Marcotty writes. "The researchers took monthly measurements at eight sites from spring through fall in 2013. They looked at small watersheds such as the Little Sioux . . . and the huge watersheds of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. At a ninth site, a tiny watershed in Iowa surrounded by agricultural fields, they took more frequent measurements to track how the pollutant levels changed during the season and with rain."

"They found one or more of three different kinds of neonicotinoids in each of the 79 samples," Marcotty writes. "The highest concentrations were found in smaller watersheds where farming was the dominant use of the landscape; lower concentrations were found in the big rivers that drained areas with more diverse uses."

Kathryn Kuivila, a scientist at the USGS Oregon Water Science Center in Portland, Ore., and the study's lead author, said it was not clear what impact the pesticides have in aquatic ecosystems, Marcotty writes. "Levels considered toxic by the EPA are many times higher than those found in the USGS samples. But Kuivila said that other studies have found that toxicity can be much lower for some species, and others have found that the number of tiny worms and other soil insects drops precipitously at very low concentrations." (Read more)

Portland Press Herald uses 29-part series to examine rule-of-law problems on Indian reservation

At a time when some fear newspapers prefer quick-hit stories to drive Internet traffic, the Portland Press Herald took on an amazing project that turned into a 29-story report. Colin Woodard, a state and national affairs reporter with the Maine paper, wrote the series about rule of law problems on the Passamaquoddy Indian reservation, discovering that there was no constitution and no way to hold elected officials accountable, which led to rampant corruption, Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute. (Press Herald photo by Gabe Souza: A Passamaquoddy Indian pauses in contemplation at the edge of Long Lake in Indian Township)

Woodard told Hare, "I eventually found myself in the early 1960s in a Maine that I did not recognize and one that was shocking and frankly horrifying.” Hare writes that Woodard "discovered the brutal murder of an Indian man; a young, progressive attorney from out of town; a tribal chief who wanted justice. The dominos started falling. They led back to the present. The story was an amazing one, Woodard said, 'and one that said so much about how we are.'"

To help capture the essence of time, photographer Gabe Souza told Hare he "created a pinhole camera, the original form of camera obscura, using a drilled hole in a lens cap, covering it with a thin piece of aluminum, and then piercing the aluminum with the tip of a pin. The result are the soft focus, long exposure images you see. In some ways, it allowed me to photograph a feeling, rather than a scene.” To see the photos and read the series, click here.

Champions of Change in agriculture to be honored by USDA Tuesday morning

The White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will honor 15 Champions of Change in agriculture for their extraordinary work in bringing about change at the local level. The event will be broadcast live at 10 a.m. ET Tuesday. To view it click here. Some of this year's winners include:

Quint Pottinger, New Haven, Ky.: Pottinger owns a mixed row-crop and herb farm called Affinity Farms. The University of Kentucky graduate serves on the Kentucky Soybean Association board, serving in a leadership education capacity and has just started a year of service with the Corn Farmers Coalition.

Jake Carter, McDonough, Ga.: Carter operates Southern Belle Farm, 30 miles outside of Atlanta. This farm has you-pick strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and peaches, as well as a fall corn maze and educational school tours. Jake was recently elected as chair of the American Farm Bureau's Young Farmer and Rancher Committee. (Southern Belle photo: picking berries)

Pierre Sleiman, Encinitas, Calif.; Sleiman is the founder and CEO of Go Green Agriculture, which grows produce inside climate-controlled greenhouses using hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. He is a director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and will graduate this year from the California Farm Bureau leadership program. 

Vena A-dae Romero, Pueblo, N.M.: Romero, who is Cochiti Puebloan and Kiowa Indian, consults for First Nations Development Institute, a leading Native American nonprofit whose mission is to strengthen American Indian economies. (Read more)

FCC approves sale of Allbritton stations, giving Sinclair an even larger chunk of rural television

The Federal Communications Commission last week "approved the $985 million deal between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Allbritton Communications with divestitures and other conditions," Alina Selyukh reports for Reuters. "The FCC's Media Bureau said Sinclair will divest the TV station in Harrisburg, Pa., and give up the licenses of Allbritton stations in Birmingham, Ala., and Charleston, S.C., delivering programming there through so-called multi-casting on the signal of stations Sinclair already owns." 

Sinclair owns or manages 162 television stations in 78 markets, is affiliated with a wide range of networks, and reaches 38.9 percent of U.S. television households. Most of the markets are small or medium-sized. Sinclair has been buying up stations in recent years, having owned only 58 a little more than three years ago.

Republican commissioner Ajit Pai said "that the three stations in Birmingham and Charleston that will have to go dark were 'victims' of the FCC's crackdown. He added that the move might hurt, not promote diversity as the FCC hopes," Selyukh writes. Pai, pointing to Charleston station WCIV owned by African-American Howard Stirk, said, "Apparently the Commission believes that it is better for that station to go out of business than for Howard Stirk Holdings to own the station and participate in a joint sales agreement with Sinclair." (Read more)

Iowa editor, fired in May for anti-gay post on his personal blog, is suing for religious discrimination

UPDATE: Feb. 2, 2015: Bob Eschliman has started a new publication called The Iowa Statesman, which plans "to cover all levels of government and politics through a combination of on-staff mobile journalists and strategically placed writers who will provide crowdsourcing coverage," says the outlet's website. "We will make strategic partnerships along the way with other national media outlets that will expand our reach, and provide the rest of the nation with a better look at the first-in-the-nation caucus state." The outlet, which was seeking donations for funding, only received $4,656 of its $100,000 goal.

The editor of a community newspaper in Iowa who was fired in May for making disparaging remarks on his personal blog about religion, homosexuality and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is suing his former employer for religious discrimination, Daniel Finney and William Petroski report for The Des Moines Register. (Petroski photo: Fired editor Bob Eschliman, right, with attorney Matt Whittaker)

Bob Eschliman was fired from the Newton Daily News after writing on his blog: "I’d like to talk a little bit about deceivers among us, most notably the LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo effort to reword the Bible to make their sinful nature 'right with God'." Eschliman was referring to a book called the Queen James Bible, which "seeks to resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality" by editing eight verses in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible, according to the site.

Eschliman filed a complaint last week with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Milwaukee arguing that he was terminated because of his religious beliefs, Finney and Petroski write. "If the dispute isn't resolved to Eschliman's satisfaction, he could sue in federal court to seek financial damages."

Eschliman said he "has had difficulty finding employment since his dismissal, 'particularly here in Iowa'," the Register reports. "He said his writing, which some considered objectionable, was posted on a personal blog that was read mainly by family members and friends." John Rung, president of Shaw Media, which owns the Daily News, disagreed, writing in May: "While he is entitled to his opinion, his public airing of it compromised the reputation of this newspaper and his ability to lead it."

But Mark Kende, a constitutional law professor at Drake University, said Eschliman has a potential case, Finney and Petroski write. Kende told the Register, "I am not saying the newspaper does not have an attempted defense, but federal laws generally prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. (Eschliman) is arguing that they are firing him for his religious beliefs, and to the extent that the comments he made are based on his religion, that doesn't seem frivolous. But having said that, if I were the company, I would say that we are not firing him for his religious beliefs. We are firing him because his job is to be an impartial reporter, and as an impartial reporter he has lost his credibility, so it has nothing to do with his religion." (Read more)

Coal-county farmers' market at last finds success

After being ranked as one of the least healthy counties in one of the least healthy states, and after five failed attempts at a farmers' market, Letcher County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map) has found success. Started last summer, the market has completed its pilot project and "is the first farmers market in Kentucky to be a USDA Summer Feeding Program site – simultaneously feeding Kentucky children, improving community health and providing new economic opportunities through Kentucky Agriculture," says a press release from Kentucky's Community Farm Alliance.

The farmers' market was created as part of Shaping our Appalachian Region, which searches for ways to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky. Kentucky "currently ranks 45th for Summer Feeding Program participation – meaning that many Kentucky children are going hungry in the summer, at the height of Kentucky’s growing season," says the press release. (Read more)