Friday, August 29, 2014

Small weekly in rural county where girl was killed after state agencies ignored abuse claims, finds state not following up on abuse reports

The Todd County Standard, a 2,500-circulation weekly newspaper in southwestern Kentucky is tackling a local issue that has statewide implications, indicating that state agencies created to protect children are causing more harm than help. Local officials are worried of another instance like the one that happened in 2011, when 9-year-old Amy Dye (left) was killed by her 17-year-old brother, in a case where repeated claims of suspected abuse to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services fell on deaf ears.

"According to Todd County Assistant [School] Superintendent Ed Oyler there were 33 reports of neglect and abuse made by teachers and administration of the school system during the previous school year — 12 at the elementary schools, 17 at the middle school and four in high school — and 'little to no follow-up' was given on any of the cases," Standard Editor-Publisher Ryan Craig reports. "On the majority of the cases, Oyler points out, there wasn’t any information passed back to the school system and when the school system made inquiries — even so much as scheduling appointments with social workers only to have those meetings canceled and not rescheduled — there was no information shared."

Supt. Wayne Benningfield told the Standard, “We don’t know what the cabinet has done, what they are going to do or if they are going to be there. We never get a call back. We are told they are coming, but we never know if that happens. We just have no idea.”

Making matters even worse, school officials say the cabinet's "Department for Community Based Services has failed on at least three instances recently to protect the identity of Todd County teachers or administrators who reported abuse," Craig writes. Benningfield told him that during the past two years three parents showed up to campus knowing the identities of the people who reported suspected abuse. (Read more)

The Standard has won the general-excellence category for small weeklies in the Kentucky Press Association contest seven years in a row.

Rural doctor shortages can be attributed to not enough rural residents applying to medical school

The main problem with doctor shortages in rural America is that not enough rural Americans are applying to medical school and most medical schools are located in cities far from rural life, Olga Khazan reports for The Atlantic. "There are about 6,000 federally designated areas with a shortage of primary care doctors in the U.S., and 4,000 with a shortage of dentists. Rural areas have about 68 primary care doctors per 100,000 people, compared with 84 in urban centers. Put another way, about a fifth of Americans live in rural areas, but barely a tenth of physicians practice there."

However, "The breakdown starts with medical education: There are too few applicants from rural areas applying to medical school," Howard Rabinowitz, professor of family medicine at Thomas Jefferson University's Medical College, told CNN. "And about half of the ones who do come from the countryside don't wish to return there after they graduate."

"Medical students with country roots are more likely to return . . . but some studies suggest rural students are less likely to go to college in the first place," Khazan writes. "Residents practice near where they train, but many of the nation's most prestigious medical schools are in big cities—and they are less likely to enroll rural students."

"After eight grueling years of school and with hundreds of thousands in student loan debt, many doctors are reluctant to give up a city's creature comforts for a more hardscrabble existence," Khazan writes. "A recent poll by Sermo, a social network for doctors, found that a lack of cultural opportunities topped the list of reasons it was hard to recruit rural physicians." (Read more (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map: Primary care doctors per 100,000 people in 2012)

Pa.'s GOP governor, struggling for re-election, will expand Medicaid through managed-care firms

Pennsylvania "won federal approval to expand its Medicaid program to nearly 500,000 low-income adults on Thursday, becoming the ninth state led by a Republican governor to join the expansion under the president's health-care law," Jason Millman reports for The Washington Post. Republican "Gov. Tom Corbett had sought the Obama administration's permission to use money authorized by the Affordable Care Act to purchase private health insurance for poor adults. With Thursday's announcement, Corbett and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instead agreed to a plan to expand the program through managed-care organizations," most of which are subsidaries of health-insurance companies. (American Prospect map)

Twenty-six states and Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid under the reform law, including nine states with Republican governors. "Corbett, whose re-election campaign is suffering, joins Republican governors like Jan Brewer of Arizona and New Jersey's Chris Christie who oppose the ACA but have taken the law's billions of dollars to expand coverage to its poorest citizens," Millman writes. "The federal government will pay the full costs of the expansion population through 2016, and the federal reimbursement will gradually lower to 90 percent in 2020 — still much better than the average 57 percent federal match rate for the traditional program." The rate is higher in states with greater poverty.

"Before Thursday's announcement, Pennsylvania had one of the largest Medicaid-eligible populations among states that hadn't yet expanded their programs," Millman writes. "A report from the Urban Institute earlier this month estimated states that haven't expanded their programs are missing out on a combined $423 billion in federal funding between 2013 and 2022." (Read more)

Financial pressures make newspapers less likely to fight open-government battles, ex-publisher writes

The financial pressures on the newspaper industry has put a damper on freedom-of-information battles, with newspapers lacking the money and time to fight for open government.

Tim Gallagher
"If truth is the first casualty of war, then the First Amendment is the first casualty when newspapers bleed," Tim Gallagher, former publisher of the Ventura County Star in California, opines for Editor & Publisher. "And because of the electronic collection and categorization of government records, this is the worst time for the Fourth Estate to crumble in its support of the First Amendment. If newspapers won’t fight now, they might never get access to information that is vital to the democracy."

"While there is scant quantifiable evidence to prove it, the threat of a newspaper access suit made government officials operate under the assumption that 'someone will find out',” Gallagher writes. "Many a mayor or city manager told me so during my 25 years as an editor. The former district attorney in Ventura County said he built time and money in his budget to oppose the access suits my paper would bring against his office."

"But as the economic wheel, turned so did the access suits," Gallagher writes. "Again, there are no quantifiable studies that I can find but Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition told me that it’s hard to find a newspaper willing to hurt its profit margin by fighting an access suit." Scheer said, “It’s now considered discretionary spending."

"It is a courageous editor or publisher when faced with a declining margin who is willing to spend $25,000 to $50,000 to fight the local city council over payroll records," Gallagher writes. "And Scheer said this is a particularly treacherous time to retrench. The government is collecting ever-more data electronically. Much of it teeters closely to invading the privacy of citizens."

"This is a paradox of our time," Gallagher writes. "Because of easy access to online information, reporters have more information at their fingertips than ever before. But because of the skills of government I.T. people and the hunger for local government to make revenue off the data, much of it is being hidden."

"The squeeze on newspaper companies is not likely to ease anytime soon," he continues. "So owners, publishers and editors need to make a decision and take a stand. If First Amendment and access battles are important, they must become part of the expense budget. At the very least, newspapers need to contribute annually to state organizations (where they exist) that collectively fight the battles." (Read more)

Online list names all oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania that harmed private water wells

A list of oil and gas companies that were found to have contaminated private drinking-water wells in Pennsylvania is now available online, Kevin Begos and Michael Rubinkam report for The Associated Press. The list from the state Department of Environmental Protection includes 243 cases from 2008 to 2014.

"Pennsylvania’s auditor general said in a report last month that DEP’s system for handling complaints 'was woefully inadequate' and that investigators could not even determine whether all complaints were actually entered into a reporting system," AP says. "DEP didn’t immediately issue a statement with the online release, but posted the links on the same day that seven environmental groups sent a letter urging the agency to heed the auditor general’s 29 recommendations for improvement."

The cases "include some where a single drilling operation impacted multiple water wells," AP reports. "The problems listed in the documents include methane gas contamination, spills of wastewater and other pollutants, and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. Some of the problems were temporary, but the names of landowners were redacted, so it wasn’t clear if the problems were resolved to their satisfaction. Other complaints are still being investigated." (Read more)

EPA, Republicans continue to battle over proposed water rules and what they mean

The battle between Republican politicians and the Environmental Protection Agency over the agency's proposed water rules under the Clean Water Act continues to be volleyed back and forth. In response to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) series of maps that he said "prove that the EPA is out to take over massive privately owned areas," EPA spokesman Tom Reynolds responded with a blog post about what he said were “myths and misunderstandings” about the rules, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

Reynolds wrote: “This law has nothing to do with land use or private property rights, and our proposal does not do anything to change that. The idea that EPA can use the Clean Water Act to execute a land grab or intrude on private property rights is simply false." He said of the maps, “These maps show generally the location of many streams, wetlands, rivers, lakes and other water bodies. They serve as a tool for visualizing how water flows across our nation and in regions of the country. EPA has never and is not now relying on maps to determine jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act." (Read more)

Connecticut trying to keep rural roads safe over Labor Day weekend with anti-speeding campaign

The Connecticut Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office launched an anti-speeding program this week—to coincide with Labor Day weekend—in an attempt to reverse that trend on its rural roads, reports The Ridgefield Press. The state is pushing its message on outdoor billboards, television and radio commercials and the internet, using graphic imagery to communicate the consequences of speeding. (WTNH News 8 photo)

The campaign makes 118 qualified towns are eligible for financial aid "for an increase in dedicated patrol costs, overtime for law enforcement officials, special training and radar equipment," the Press reports. "The state received funding for the program from the Federal Highway Administration." (Read more)

Last year over Labor Day weekend, law enforcement in Connecticut—which has a population of 3.6 million—gave out 1,513 tickets for speeding violations, 237 for seat-belt violations, 3,513 for other violations (hazardous moving, cell-phone usage, etc.) and made 50 drunk-driving arrests, Jeff Bailey reports for WTNH News 8 in Providence, R.I. Over the 2013 weekend, Connecticut had 259 motor vehicle accidents, leading to 44 injuries and three fatalities. (Read more)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Farmacy Garden helping needy families in rural Virginia learn to eat healthy

Health professionals in rural Virginia are prescribing produce to patients who can't afford to eat healthy, Tonia Moxley reports for The Roanoke Times. "The garden prescriptions are part of a new community project, led by the Virginia Department of Health and Montgomery County’s Virginia Cooperative Extension office, to provide hands-on health education and fresh food to residents at risk for obesity and chronic health problems." (Times photo by Matt Gentry: Farmacy Garden in Christiansburg, Va.)

Patients at New River Valley Community Health Center in Christiansburg (Wikipedia map) are among the neediest in the area, Moxley writes. "They suffer from poverty, a lack of health insurance and acute and chronic health conditions. Many qualify for food assistance programs, such as the health district’s Women Infants and Children nutrition program. But that help doesn’t fill all the gaps." Nurse practitioner Raschid Ghoorahoo told Moxley, "The clientele we see—they have no money, some of them have nothing and fresh fruits and vegetables are very expensive.”

And patients prescribed fruits and vegetables don't have to travel far to fill their prescriptions. The center has a garden—or Farmacy—on the premises, Moxley writes. "Families who qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance through the Women Infants and Children, or WIC, program administered by the health department can receive a bag of produce in exchange for performing some light chores in the garden. Those with Farmacy Garden prescriptions from health care providers can also qualify."

Christansburg is the second New River Health District, with the other one being in nearby Floyd, Moxley writes. Maintaining the gardens is not costly. "The 2013-14 budget for both gardens, including one-time materials to build the Christiansburg location was $13,883, according to the health district. The monies come from WIC outreach funds and the health department’s co-op funds." (Read more)

Many states allow children at shooting ranges to fire any guns, like the Uzi that killed Arizona man

The accidental shooting death of a gun instructor Monday in Arizona by a nine-year-old girl who lost control of an Uzi may have raised some concerns about why a child was handling such a weapon. But in many states it's legal for people of all ages to fire guns of all types at shooting ranges, and in 30 states—almost all of them mostly rural—there is no minimum age for owning a long gun, Roberto Ferdman and Christopher Ingraham report for The Washington Post.

"The gun used at the shooting range incident, an Uzi, is a submachine gun that could be classified as either a handgun or a long gun depending on the model and any modifications to the gun," the Post writes. "While federal law would prohibit minors from owning the pistol version of the gun, there are no such federal restrictions on the rifle version."

Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told the Post, "The laws aren't designed in essence to protect children from accidental shootings of this nature. There's a mindset that's fairly prevalent in the U.S. that there's nothing wrong with kids firing guns. A very common view of gun-owning parents is that what gun safety is all about is teaching your children rules. What they don't consider are the developmental issues and physical abilities of children to actually follow these instructions. It was obvious to me when I saw this nine-year-old girl holding an incredibly powerful gun like an Uzi. Why anyone was surprised when she couldn't handle the recoil is beyond me." (Read more) (Post graphic)

Despite the loss of coal jobs, many career coal miners in Central Appalachia remain in the area

Typically, when a region's economy relies on one source and that source goes belly up, people flee the area for better opportunities. But in Central Appalachian coal country—where the area is in serious economic downfall and coal mining jobs are scarce—only the most desperate are leaving the area, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. (Post photo by Katherine Frey: The streets of Logan, W.Va. are mostly deserted)

"What’s happening now in America’s coal heartland is not just the typical bust," Paquette writes. "Those in the industry say it’s more dire, potentially permanent, caused at once by declining reserves, a cheaper influx of competing gas and looming environmental regulations. More than 10,000 miners have lost jobs over the past two-and-a-half years in southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and their plight illustrates how, even amid an economic recovery, certain segments of the workforce are being shut out."

"Miners, modestly educated but accustomed to high pay, are among the hardest group of American workers to retrain," Paquette writes. "They also tend to challenge one of the tenets of economics logic—that people will go elsewhere to find jobs. Even though the economy is growing in northern parts of West Virginia, driven by a natural gas boom, those in the geographically isolated southern parts have shown a tendency to stay put, even if it means sliding toward poverty."

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told Paquette, “This is where you grew up; you can fish, you can hunt. Land is cheap. Chances are your grandfather owned that property. So leaving that to go somewhere else where you’ll be stuck in Toledo doesn’t sound very attractive.”

The United Mine Workers Association, which until 2012 used its grants from the U.S. Department of Labor to train new miners is now "providing up to $5,000 for miners to finish degrees or pick up new certifications," Paquette writes. "Some have used the money to become $16-per-hour truck drivers, one of the few licenses they can obtain before unemployment benefits run out."

But for career miners like Michael Estep, a lifelong Logan County, West Virginia, resident and a high-school drop-out, that isn't an option, especially after he struggled through a high school equivalency test administered by the UMWA, Paquette writes. "For Estep, the experience reinforced that he couldn’t leave coal mining." And that means he will finally have to leave home if he wants work in the one field in which he's most qualified. (Read more)

Police chief that attacked Jonesboro Sun reporter on Facebook resigns; reporter to return to paper

Just days after receiving a month-long suspension for attacking a reporter on Facebook—the Jonesboro Sun reporter quit saying she feared for her safety—the police chief of Jonesboro, Ark., (Wikipedia map) resigned, saying "he was stepping down to take responsibility for his mistakes," Steve Barnes reports for Reuters. Former police chief Mike Yates said in his resignation letter, "I let my anger and pride override my wisdom and judgment by saying a number of things that are unacceptable given my position."  The reporter, Sunshine Crump, will rejoin the newspaper, its editor said.

Referring to Crump, Yates wrote on Facebook: “Wonder if ole Sunshine could pass a drug test. Why yes, she has been arrested before,"  "Pro-dope smoking, law license revoked, left wing liberal, smelly, arrested by police, unscrupulous reporter," “Reminds me of a song . . . ‘ain’t no Sunshine when she’s gone’ etc," and “Dealing with ole Sunshine is like trying to pick up a dog turd by the ‘clean end.’” Yates, who also attacked the paper, saying “I intend to help that ship sink . . . torpedoes away!" defended his comments by saying they were protected under the First Amendment. (Read more

Social media has gotten another police chief in hot water. Eddie Adamson, police chief in Chickasha, Okla., (Wikipedia map) resigned last week "following an outcry over a video he shared on Facebook that was captioned with a racial slur," reports The Express-Star in Chickasha. The city had asked the police chief step down after people complained when he shared a clip from the film "Role Models" where actor Paul Rudd was ordering a drink at Starbucks, with an addition from the original poster above the clip that read, "How a real (racial slur) order Starbucks."

DuPont fined $1.3 million for 2010 West Virginia chemical leaks that killed one employee

"DuPont Co. has agreed to pay nearly $1.3 million in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve violations the EPA cited after a string of 2010 chemical leaks, including one that killed a worker at the company’s plant in Belle (W.Va.)," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. "The proposed deal, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, settles EPA allegations that DuPont violated provisions of federal air pollution, chemical management and public right-to-know laws and requires the Wilmington, Delaware-based chemical giant to implement a variety of environmental and workplace safety reforms."

An investigation was launched in January 2010 at DuPont’s Belle plant in Eastern Kanawha County "after a series of incidents that included a leak of toxic and flammable methyl chloride that went undetected by plant officials for nearly a week," Ward writes. Incidents included a plant employee dying after being sprayed with phosgene, a chemical building block that was used as a poison gas during World War I.

"EPA officials alleged that DuPont officials allowed one leak to go on for five days without taking action, ignored internal safety recommendations that could have prevented a second incident, and did not timely replace a worn-out hose used to transfer toxic phosgene gas in a fatal January 2010 incident," Ward writes. The final report found that the leaks were preventable and "caused by deficiencies in plant safety management systems related to maintenance and inspections, alarm recognition and management, accident investigations, emergency response and communications, and hazard recognition." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Many small-town police stations equipped with military gear, like what Ferguson police are using

For years small-town police stations have been loading up on free military gear through a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows the transfer of military property that is no longer needed, with few restrictions placed on the use of the items. That means rural police stations, often in areas with little crime, are stocked up as if they are prepping for war. And if the events in Ferguson, Mo., are any indication, some local police do have the ability to resemble military operations, with the $360,000 Bearcat armored truck on patrol in Ferguson acquired through the program, Julie Bosman and Matt Apuzzo report for The New York Times. (To view this interactive NYT map of counties that received military property click here)

Ferguson isn't the only area where local law enforcement is capable of resembling an army. Since the mid 1980s La Plata County, Colorado, has averaged about 30 violent crimes per year among its more than 50,000 residents, yet the local police force has on hand a small arsenal, Jonathan Thompson reports for High Country News. Through the program local law enforcement agencies "have received over 5,000 battlefield-tested items, including at least 100 bayonet knives, three ordnance- and explosive-disposal robots, 18 5.56 mm rifles (M16s), five 7.62 mm rifles (M14s), 15 .45 caliber pistols, 30 bipods for machine guns, four night vision sniper scopes, two exercise bikes and a Cat-1 MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP)."

Here is a sample of what some law enforcement agencies have received (For a more complete list, click here):
• Moffat County, Colorado, population 13,000, got 11 assault rifles and two grenade launchers.
• Montrose County, Colorado, got two grenade launchers.
• San Juan County, New Mexico, got three MRAPS, two helicopters, a “combat/assault/tactical wheeled vehicle” and 192 assault packs.
• Union County, New Mexico, with 4,000 residents, received some 2,000 items from the program, including an elliptical trainer, 14 M110 IWS sniper sets, a dishwasher, a milk dispenser, four projection screens, four radars, seven lawn mowers and edgers and six motor scooters.
• Fremont County, Idaho, with less than 13,000 residents, picked up no fewer than 60 assault rifles and pistols.
• Utah counties collectively picked up more than 1,000 assault rifles and pistols
• Coconino County, Arizona, stocked up on more than 90 assault rifles, pistols and riot style shotguns, in addition to night vision goggles, 13 thermal sights and 40 ground troops’ helmets.                                                                
• Big Horn County, Wyoming, population 12,000, got 25 rifles and pistols, a bunch of trucks and an MRAP.
• Goshen County, Wyoming, with 13,000 residents, scored several riot style shotguns and a grenade launcher.
• Laramie County, Wyoming, got 246 assault rifles, nine pistols, an armored truck and a $733,000 mine-resistant vehicle.
• All together, Wyoming law enforcement agencies received 936 assault rifles and 72 automatic pistols. 

Getting a degree not enough; it must be in the right field to avoid feeling underemployed

Fewer rural high school students move on to college than their urban counterparts, and fewer rural residents have college degrees. Only 17 percent of rural adults 25 and older have college degrees, with 31 percent of rural residents ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college in 2009, compared to 46 percent in urban areas and 42 percent in suburban areas, Diette Courrégé Casey reports for Education Week.

But just getting a degree isn't enough in this day and age. What students major in is key to their success in the job market, says Payscale, an online salary, benefits and compensation information company. The company conducted a survey asking 68,000 workers if they feel underemployed, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. Nearly half of respondents—43 percent—said they are underemployed, including 39 percent of men and 48 percent of women. Of those respondents, most cited pay as the reason they feel underemployed. (Post graphic)

The most underemployed degrees: criminal justice; business management and administration; health care and administration; general studies; sociology; English language and literature; graphic design; liberal arts; education; and psychology. The least undermployed majors: civil and environmental engineering; aerospace engineering; computer engineering; chemical engineering; law; physics; mechanical engineering; electrical engineering; geology; and mathematics. (Read more)

MIT researchers create program to let drones monitor own health; drone flies over NFL game

Some businesses envision a future where drones are used to deliver packages to consumers. In anticipation of that day, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology "have created a program that lets robotic flyers monitor their own 'health' midflight," Tanya Lewis reports for Live Science. (MIT illustration)

The program allows drones "to be able to handle conditions such as high winds, fuel shortages and potential sensor errors," Lewis writes. "The team also figured out an efficient way for the drone to calculate all possible routes to its destination before takeoff, so it can avoid potential collisions." To do this, they used a decision tree method in which each branching point includes the probability of an outcome occurring. Drones can then make decisions such as finding the nearest charging station if they are running low on fuel. (Read more)

Some are concerned about irresponsible drone operators flying with no regard to safety. Earlier this month a tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone National Park. Safety was also a concern Tuesday night during an NFL preseason game in Charlotte when a drone flew over the stadium during the fourth quarter, Mark Washburn reports for the Charlotte Observer. No one was injured, and the operator was detained—but released—with all information forwarded to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Researchers say babies born near fracking wells at risk for health issues; more research needed

Babies born near wells used for hydraulic fracturing are more at risk to have health issues, according to a series of studies conducted in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Utah and New York, Isaac Arnsdorf reports for Bloomberg News. Researchers, though, cautioned that the studies are preliminary and more research needs to be conducted.

One study by the Colorado School of Public Health found "more congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers living near gas wells in Colorado," Arnsdorf writes. The study, which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said wasn't conclusive because it didn’t account for different types of wells, water quality, mothers’ behavior or genetics, "found that babies born to mothers living with more than 125 wells within a mile of their homes showed a 30 percent increase in congenital heart defects, compared with those with no wells within 10 miles. The abnormalities, based on 59 available cases in Colorado, ranged in severity and could have resulted from genes or environmental causes other than fossil-fuel extraction."

"A separate investigation in 2013 into 22 anomalies in unborn children in Garfield County, Colo., found no underlying cause after examining factors including proximity to active oil and gas wells, the state’s public health department said in May," Arnsdorf writes. "The county has more than 2,000 oil and gas wells, according to, an industry-sponsored website."

Two Pennsylvania studies, which haven't been published in peer-review journals, "found increases in low birth weight near gas drilling," Arnsdorf writes. "Infants born within 1.6 miles of fracking sites were about 60 percent more likely to have low birth weight, according to a review of Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in January."
"That research echoed a December working paper by Elaine Hill, then a Cornell University economics graduate student in Ithaca, N.Y., which found that babies born to mothers living within 1.5 miles of a gas well during pregnancy had lower average birth weights after drilling than before,"  Arnsdorf writes. "The results were consistent between piped public water and well water, suggesting that the exposure came from air pollution or stress, Hill said in the paper."

"In Utah’s Uintah Basin, where at least 17 drillers operate, the air has dangerously high levels of ozone and other toxins from oil and gas emissions, according to measurements in the first two months of 2012 and 2013 by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder," Arnsdorf writes. (Read more)

Wellness and Water conference scheduled for Oct. 3-4 in Charleston, near site of chemical spill

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is hosting its third Annual Wellness and Water conference from Oct. 3-4 in Charleston, W.Va., in the area where a January chemical spill dumped thousands of gallons of a coal cleaner into a major regional water.

It has since been revealed that West Virginia American Water Co. delayed for eight years plans to review the Elk River watershed for potential contamination sources upstream from their Kanawha Valley water treatment plant. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also said the state Department of Health and Human Resources lacks a program and properly trained staff to assess such community-wide chemical exposures.

The conference's featured speakers will be Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, who criticized the slow progress of collecting new scientific data after the spill, and 2014 North American Goldman Prize Winner Helen Slotjee.

The conference will examine in-depth the water and health effects of fossil fuel extraction and processing and waste disposal and will include panels and roundtable discussions. It will also allow participants to learn from residents impacted by water issues. For more information click here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

U.S. getting older, especially in Plains, Rust Belt

The United States is getting older, especially in the Great Plains and parts of the Rust Belt, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. "Between 1970 and 2010, the U.S. added 100 million more people—but not in these areas of the country, which have seen sluggish population growth, and in some areas, population loss."

In 1950 U.S. residents under 20 made up 33.9 percent of the population, while those 65 and older consisted of 8.1 percent of the population, says a report by the Congressional Research Service. But those numbers have changed over the years and are projected to keep changing. The share of people under 20 increased to 35 percent of the population in 1975, but dropped to 28.6 percent in 2000 and is expected to drop to 26.4 percent in 2025 and 25.7 percent in 2050. Meanwhile, the share of people 65 and older rose to 12.4 percent in 2000 and is expected to increase to 17.9 percent in 2025 and 20.2 percent in 2050.
While the report says the share of people 20 to 64 held almost steady over the years, the percentage of young workers—ages 25 to 34—saw a significant drop from 1970 to 2010 in states such as Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, Paquette reports(Post map)

Oil and gas pipelines running near rural homes pose a safety threat, often lack regulation

Pipelines carrying explosive oil and natural gas from drilling operations pose "a safety threat in rural areas, where they sometimes run within feet or yards of homes with little or no safety oversight," Lisa Riordan Seville reports for NBC News. (Railroad Commission of Texas photo: A fireball burns after a gathering pipeline ruptured near Alice, Tex., in 2012)

"The rapidly expanding network of pipes, known as gathering lines, carry oil and gas from fracking fields in many parts of the country to storage facilities and major transmission lines," Seville writes. "They are subject to the same risks––corrosion, earthquakes, sabotage and construction accidents––as transmission lines. But unlike those pipelines, about 90 percent of gathering lines do not fall under federal safety or construction regulations because they run through rural areas, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2012."

The U.S. has more than 240,000 miles of gathering lines, and about 414,000 additional miles could be built by 2035, according a report by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, Seville writes. "Pipelines are widely seen the safest way to transport natural gas. But accidents, including a 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and destroyed nearly 40 homes, have exposed ongoing issues even with regulated transmission lines, which typically connect storage facilities to large consumers like factories or to distribution centers."

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration "indicated in 2011 it might write new regulations on gathering lines and proposed gathering risk data as a first step. But the proposal quickly ran into resistance from the industry," Seville writes. "PHMSA closed comments on its proposal to collect such data in 2012. There has been no action on the plan since."

States have been encouraged to write their own rules, with Ohio last year passing a bill that extends to rural areas the federal regulations on gathering lines in populated areas, Seville reports. Texas passed regulations last year opening the door for federal oversight of rural lines, but that won't take effect until September 2015 at the earliest. And despite new pipeline rules passed in Pennsylvania in 2012, some lines remain unregulated. (Read more)

Record crops in Dakotas and Minnesota pile up as trains carry crude oil, not agricultural products

As farmers prepare for expected record crops of wheat and soybeans, they fear that the backlog of railroad delays will only get worse and could lead to millions of dollars in losses and slower production for cereal giants like General Mills, Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Dan Koeck: Rail cars being loaded with corn near Hillsboro, N.D.)

Rail delays—blamed on a bad winter, a bumper grain crop, increased competition from oil and coal shipments, and an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods—have led many grain farmers to store crops, or risk selling them at lower costs.

Railroads say they aren't favoring oil over crops, but as millions of barrels of oil are being transported from North Dakota by rail, farmers continue to wait for their product to be moved, Nixon writes. Bill Hejl, who grows soybeans, wheat and sugar beets near Casselton, N.D., told Nixon, “If we can’t get this stuff out soon, a lot of it is simply going to go on the ground and rot."   

Delays have been especially harsh in North Dakota, where energy has replaced agriculture as the state's top industry, Nixon writes. "Railroads have long been the backbone of North Dakota’s transportation system and the most dependable way for farmers to move crops — to ports in Portland, Ore., Seattle and Vancouver, from which the bulk of the grain is shipped across the Pacific to Asia; and to East Coast ports like Albany, [N.Y.,] from which it is shipped to Europe."

"But reports the railroads filed with the federal government show that for the week that ended Aug. 22, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway — North Dakota’s largest railroad, mainly owned by billionaire Warren E. Buffett — had a backlog of 1,336 rail cars waiting to ship grain and other products. Another railroad, Canadian Pacific, had a backlog of nearly 1,000 cars," Nixon writes.

Delays mean canceled orders from food giants, who are unable to wait for shipments that are slow coming, Nixon writes. A North Dakota State University study "found that rail congestion could cost farmers in the state more than $160 million because a local oversupply of grain has lowered prices. The study also found that farmers would lose $67 million in revenue from wheat, corn and soybeans from January to mid-April. Around $95 million more in losses are expected if farmers are unable to move their remaining inventory of crops."

And that study was done "before the current harvest, which is forecast at a record 273 million bushels of wheat, up from 235 million bushels in 2013," Nixon writes. "This year’s soybean harvest is also expected to be a record, and corn will be a near-record." And those delays have cost General Mills, the Minnesota-based maker of Cheerios, 62 days of production — as much as 4 percent of its output. "Cargill, another Minnesota-based food giant, reported a drop in net earnings that it attributed in part to 'higher costs related to rail-car shortages.'" (Read more)

Blasting weeds to smithereens: Agronomist develops chemical-free way to kill intruders

A U.S. Department of Agriculture research agronomist in Minnesota is experimenting with a pesticide-free way to kill weeds that could eliminate or greatly reduce the need to use chemicals to kill the intruders, Tom Meersman reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Farmer Frank Forcella "uses an air compressor to spray gritty material on both sides of a crop that kills young weeds without harming corn or soybeans." While Forcella mainly uses dried corncob bits, he said he has also has success with ground walnut shells, corn gluten meal and soybean meal. (USDA photo by Dean Peterson: Frank Forcella)

"The tactic is gaining attention from organic farmers who don’t use chemicals and from food companies seeking to market pesticide-free snacks and other products," Meersman writes. Forcella told Meersman, “It obliterates the weed, especially if it’s a small broad-leaved weed like Lamb’s quarters or pigweed that’s one to three inches high. The corn plants growing next to them are taller and thicker and can withstand the grit blast, but the weeds just disappear.” (Read more)

Weekly editors' group and its newsletter have much to offer rural journalists

The latest members-only newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, a whopping 28 pages, has loads of copy of interest to rural journalists. Several pages are consumed by Dee Camp's account of how her Omak-Okanigan County Chronicle covered the largest wildfire in the history of Washington state.

From small-group discussions at the recent ISWNE convention, the newsletter "30 tips to improve editorial pages," including "Distinguish editorials from columns graphically," with such devices as ragged-right text; "If a column deals with multiple topics, make it clear right at the start that this is what the reader can expect and distinguish between topics" with graphic elements; "the editorial page should have a distinctive sense of place, reflecting the newspaper's community;" and "Don't make the editorial an afterthought."

Also on the graphics front, there's a story about how The Jackson Herald of Jefferson, Ga., redesigned its front page in July to look like its website. Co-publisher and Editor Mike Buffington said, "Many readers clearly like the online interface with shorter stories and more of a headline focus for casual readers. So we thought we’d take some of those concepts and apply to the front page for a month and ask readers what they think." He reports the reaction has been positive.

As it usually does, the newsletter has exemplary columns and editorials by members, some of which are about rural journalism, like the one this month by Cyndy Slovak-Barton of the Hays Free Press in Buda, Tex., about how one of her editor friends handled a local tragedy. The newsletter is available only to members, but membership is only $60 a year, and we think that's a bargain. It includes membership in a "hotline" list-serve where members ask and answer questions about journalism and the newspaper business.

Rural Minnesota is short of child-care facilities

In Minnesota, 74 percent of children younger than 6 come from households where both parents work, higher than the national average of 65 percent. But the state is severely lacking in child care facilities, especially in rural areas, where more than 10 percent of parents statewide, and more than 20 percent of poor parents report that lack of child-care options has prevented them from getting a job in a given year, Adam Belz reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. (Star Tribune photo by Glen Stubbe: This early childhood center in Montevideo will be able to serve 12 children when it opens in September)

"As a result, demand for day care across the state is deep, but somehow, there’s not enough supply," Belz writes. "The market for child care in rural parts of the state, especially infant care — isn’t working. Profit margins in child care can be as low as 10 cents per child per hour in the Twin Cities, and rural child-care businesses often operate at a loss."

"In Minnesota, about 186,000 children under 6 live outside the Twin Cities, where families pay about 75 percent of the going rate in the metropolitan area — $132 weekly for in-home infant care, compared to $175 per week in the metro area, according to Child Care Aware Minnesota," Belz writes. "Workers in southwest Minnesota, however, earn only 61 percent of what the average worker in the Twin Cities earns — $661 weekly compared to $1,087 per week in the Cities."

"Of the roughly 74,000 Minnesota children under 6 who live in poverty, only about 31,000 children received state child-care assistance in 2013, but public money is helping in other ways," Belz writes. "The Legislature allocated $46 million for scholarships in 2013, which will help pay for some 10,000 kids to get child care. A federal Race to the Top grant for another $45 million will pay to improve early learning opportunities statewide." (Read more)

Monday, August 25, 2014

1 in 5 long-distance calls to rural areas aren't connected; cheap third-party services to blame

Long-distance and wireless carriers forced to pay higher-than-average fees to local phone companies to complete calls to rural areas are making up for costs by contracting cheap third-party services to connect calls at the lowest price possible, Ricky Barrett reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As a result "as many as one in five long-distance calls to rural communities either aren't connected to the intended number or are corrupted by issues such as static or garbled sound, according to Communications Data Group, a telephone billing company based in Champaign, Ill."

Phone calls were once carried over copper wires which formed a single circuit from end to end," the state Public Service Commission says on its website, Barrett writes. "Those days are gone. Today, the network is almost completely digital, with calls reduced to bits and sent over a massive web of links provided by telephone, cable, cellular and fixed wireless providers. Now, a caller to a rural number often may get a busy signal or a recorded message inaccurately saying the number is no longer in service. Other times, it sounds to the caller as if the number is ringing, but the rural customer's phone never rings or the call is dropped after a couple of rings."

The Federal Communications Commission has taken action, Barrett notes. In June, Matrix Telecom Inc. of Irving, Tex., agreed to pay $875,000 to resolve a call-completion investigation while Level 3 Communications LLC paid $975,000 in March and Windstream Corp. $2.5 million in February in similar instances. Some critics argue that those fines aren't big enough to make the carriers pay more for better services.

"One solution could come from legislation, introduced by U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), that would create an FCC registry for the companies responsible for routing long-distance calls," Barrett writes. "It also would set service quality standards for the carriers." (Read more)

Oil and gas booms lead to over-reliance on industry, depleted economies when it's all over

Areas experiencing oil booms and gas booms often end up worse off economically when the boom ends than they would have if there had never been a boom, says a study that will appear in an upcoming issue of The Economic Journal, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. The study, which looked at 391 rural counties in nine states that experienced booms from 1975 to 1985, says, “The boom created substantial short-term economic benefits, but also longer-term hardships that persisted in the form of joblessness and depressed local incomes.”

"The study found that after the boom came a period of decline that resulted in those counties faring worse than economists would have predicted," Marema writes. Researchers said, "In the longer run, relative per capita incomes in boom counties became depressed after the bust and showed no clear signs of recovery at the end of our sample period.”

"The scholars say the best explanation for the economic decline in the resource-dependent counties was that local workers and businesses became over-reliant on the energy industry," Marema writes. "When the oil and gas boom ended, businesses that had catered to the industry and its workers had difficulty adjusting. And workers who had jobs in the energy industry had a hard time using their skills in other kinds of work." (Read more)

Native American casino wars heating up in a new 'mini-Las Vegas' in Western North Carolina

Native American land in Western North Carolina has turned into a mini-Las Vegas, drawing 3 million visitors in 2013 to Harrah's Cherokee Casino, which raked in $513 million, reports John Frank of the Raleigh News & Observer and Rock Rothacker of the Charlotte Observer. And while the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is expanding the operation, with plans for a second casino in 2015 that is expected to bring a net revenue increase of $50 million, they are facing possible competition from another tribe, the Catawba Indian Nation, which has plans to open a $339 million casino two and a half hours away, near Charlotte and Interstate 85. (News & Observer photo by Chuck Liddy: Cherokee Casino)

At stake are yearly profits that have helped improve the quality of life for the 15,000 Cherokee, 8,000 of whom live on the reservation, Frank and Rothacker write. About 3,000 employees work at Harrah's Cherokee and half of all casino profits go to tribal members. In 2012 that amounted to $7,700 per person. "For tribal members younger than age 18, the money is collected and held in trust until they earn a high school diploma or receive an equivalency degree and take a financial management course. Otherwise, the money is not distributed until age 21."

The other half of profits goes to fund "local government operations and services to address persistent problems on the reservation, such as financial illiteracy and diabetes," Frank and Rothacker write. It also includes the new $75 million hospital; a $5 million downtown revitalization initiative, a $13 million affordable housing project and a $20 million justice center. Three years ago, the tribe added a $130 million school for grades kindergarten through 12th grade, with a 3,000-seat arena and a football stadium. In July, the tribe opened a $4.1 million youth center.

That's big business, considering that nationwide revenues for tribal casinos went up just $100 million in 2013, or less than 0.5 percent, to $28 billion Frank and Rothacker write. The difference in North Carolina is location; ambling is illegal in adjoining Tennessee and Georgia, and the casinos are an easy drive from cities like Atlanta, home to many of the big-dollar players.

In response to the Catawbas’ application, the Eastern Band—which has donated more than $1.3 million to candidates, and hosted the state Republican Party convention this year—"filed a formal letter in March to protest the Catawbas’ application, or the first time detailing its opposition to the project on legal grounds and suggesting the proposal is not allowed under state and federal law," Frank and Rothacker write. "In Cherokee, the expansion was made possible by state lawmakers, who allowed the games as part of a new 30-year compact with the tribe."

That has helped stall the Catawbas’ proposed Kings Mountain casino, Frank and Rothacker write. The casino "has drawn strong support from local officials in Cleveland County, who see it as a source of potential jobs in an economically depressed area. But the project has faced a backlash from a bipartisan group of elected officials in the legislature. (Republican Gov. Pat) McCrory’s office said in September that the governor 'remains unconvinced that any new casino proposal is in the best interest of North Carolina'.” (Read more)

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Washington Post uses Nebraska county as example of rural lawyer shortage

In another example of rural lawyer shortages, Knox County, Nebraska—where the population has dropped from 19,100 in 1930 to 8,560 today—has only 12 lawyers, and eight of are older than 60 and looking to retire, if only they could find a replacement, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. (Wikipedia photo: Knox County)

"Rural Nebraska needs lawyers, Paquette writes. "Young, single, college-educated people keep leaving the Heartland, enticed elsewhere by more money or exposed brick lofts or mimosa-drenched brunches. The young have long fled small towns for big-city lights, but the trend has been worse in recent years, aggravated by recession and a historic concentration of resources in urban areas. Nearly 60 percent of America’s rural counties lost residents last year. That’s up from 50 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in the late ’90s, according to Census data."

In an attempt to draw more young lawyers to rural Nebraska, the state has upped incentives through the Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance Program, Paquette writes. "Effective next year, law graduates who work in counties with populations of less than 15,000 can start receiving up to $42,000 in student debt relief. Recipients must stay 10 years to earn the full amount, forsaking city life, higher salaries — and, potentially, the professional network to move on and up."

But incentives aren't always enough to lure prospective lawyers from bigger cities like Omaha, which offers much more options for arts, entertainment and meeting people, Paquette writes. One way the Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln is trying to promote rural practice is through a bus tour that allows soon-to-be-graduates to visit different counties on spring break, meet local attorneys and shake hands with business leaders. (Read more)

Rural primary-care physicians rarely screen women for intimate partner violence, Pa. study says

Rural primary-care physicians in central Pennsylvania rarely screen women for intimate-partner violence, and those who do have no standardized intervening period of time between the abuse and screening, said researchers at Penn State, Victoria Indivero reports for the university.

"In rural settings, it might be even more important for physicians to step in, because there are few places for women experiencing IPV to turn," researcher Jennifer S. McCall-Hosenfeld told Indivero, "The physicians are in a good position to help, and may be the only option for rural women."

About 75 percent of abused women stay with their abuser for economic reasons, especially in rural areas, where intimate-partner violence often goes unreported.

The study of 19 physicians in central Pennsylvania found that only six of them screen women for IPV and seven said routine screening was unnecessary, Indivero writes. One physician said, "I don't think it's appropriate unless there's something to suggest it might be happening. ... We have a lot of patients who come in and are happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and I'm not going to ask those if they're getting beaten on." (Read more)