Friday, September 12, 2014

Contest to award millions to towns and cities to stimulate growth and revitalization

Communities in 27 states have a chance to earn millions of dollars to stimulate growth and revitalization as part of America's Best Communities, an initiative designed by Frontier Communications and DISH Network, says a press release from Frontier. The contest is open to all towns and cities in Frontier's service areas with populations between 9,500 to 80,000. Smaller communities can collaborate on projects.

Entrants are required to submit and implement their best plans for future growth and prosperity. "Judges will then select up to 50 qualified applicants in February 2015, each of which will be awarded $35,000 to develop their plans and proposals," the release said. These communities will then have seven months to refine and submit their final proposals in September 2015."

"Up to 15 semifinalists will be selected in November 2015, and will attend America's Best Communities summit in January 2016 to present their proposals," the release said. "In early 2016, eight finalists will be selected and will be awarded $100,000 each. The prize money awarded to the eight finalists will be used to implement the communities' plans and bring them to life, while sharing their stories—and successes—along the way." The top three proposals will be awarded a total of $6 million in grand prizes in Oct. 2017. The application deadline is Jan. 12, 2015. (Read more) (Frontier map of service areas)

Democrat says rural voters in Ga., Ky. are key to elections that could determine Senate control

Rural voters could be the deciding factor in two key Senate races in Kentucky and Georgia that could allow Democrats to retain control of the Senate or help swing control to Republicans, Democratic activist Matt Barron writes for The Hill. UPDATE, Sept. 14: Barron is involved in a radio campaign in the Kentucky race.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is trying to displace Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who was first elected in 1984. In Georgia, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is vying with Republican David Perdue over a seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

McConnell campaigned against President Obama, especially in rural areas, in a state where the president fared poorly in the 2008 and 2012 elections and even less so in current polls. His ads say a vote for Grimes is a vote for Obama's policies. While Grimes is expected to do well in Louisville and Lexington—cites in which Obama won the popular vote—Barron says the outcome will be decided in the rural areas, which have decidedly supported Republicans in previous elections.

Keith McCants, who runs the Peanut Politics blog, "said Nunn has two tasks in wooing rural voters," Barron writes. "First, she must motivate 'Obamacrats,' the rural black voters in the 1st, 2nd and 8th Congressional Districts who don't come out to midterm elections like they do when Obama's name is on the ballot. Second, McCants says Nunn needs independents and voters 55 and older to break her way. He told Barron, "She needs to talk about issues that resonate with rural areas (such as her religious affiliation) That's something Democrats haven't done a lot." (Read more)

High levels of cancer-causing gas found in oil and gas sites, CDC study says

Oil and gas workers are being exposed to dangerous levels of benzene, a colorless gas that can cause cancer, says a study by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control.

NIOSH—which recommends that workers limit benzene exposure to an average of 0.1 of a part per million during their shift—said that 15 of 17 samples from a 2013 study at six Wyoming and Colorado gas and oil sites were over that limit, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times. "The amounts were still below the far higher limit of 1 part per million set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

Workers are exposed to benzene when they open hatches atop tanks at well sites "to inspect the contents of these tanks, which could include oil, waste water or chemicals used in high-volume hydraulic fracturing," Banerjee writes. "The real-time readings taken by researchers show that benzene levels at the wells 'reached concentrations that, depending on the length of exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers.'”

The study's authors said benzene “is of major concern because it can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver and kidneys at high concentrations," Banerjee writes. The CDC said benzene "can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia. Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.” (Read more)

Opposing lawmakers team up to introduce House legislation that benefits displaced miners

A pair of House lawmakers plan to introduce a bipartisan bill "to create a program that provides paid job training and benefits to coal industry workers to make them marketable in other workforce sectors," Emma Dumain and Lauren Gardner report for Roll Call. Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are modeling their bill after the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, "a successful and relatively noncontroversial federal initiative that re-trains individuals who are unemployed as a result of certain trade agreements."

The key is to get Republicans and Democrats to put away their bitter feud concerning the coal industry, climate change and the perceived "war on coal" by keeping "the bill so narrowly focused that members won’t be tempted to turn it into a dumping ground for politically loaded amendments," Dumain and Gardner write. McKinley told Roll Call, “The debate will continue on over climate change, and I hope we can have an adult conversation about that. At the same time, we want to make sure these people are not the collateral damage.”

Dumain and Gardner write, "For such a contentious issue, it’s significant that McKinley, whose state’s economy has historically been fueled by the coal industry, should partner up with Welch, whose state is so 'green' it’s the only one the Environmental Protection Agency won’t regulate under its proposed carbon pollution limits for power plants—because Vermont doesn’t have any coal-burning facilities."

In fact, the pair are like The Odd Couple, with McKinley frequently blasting the Obama administration for promoting environmental regulations “based on ideology and not science,” while Welch criticizes the Republican-led House for “climate change denial,” Dumain and Gardner write. But they have teamed up before to promote energy efficiency.

Welch told Roll Call, “In order for us to move ahead, there has to be some serious acknowledgement on the part of those of us who think climate change is an issue … that workers in the coal fields have been American heroes for years. You can buy into the importance of helping folks who … suddenly had the rug pulled out from them.” (Read more)

Rural areas to be focus of next ACA enrollment; distance, lack of broadband remain problems

States and non-profit groups will focus on rural areas in the next round of strategies to get more people enrolled in federal health reform, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News. While millions of Americans have signed up for health care under the Affordable Care Act, a large portion of rural residents did not, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid. One problem is distance. Many rural residents lack broadband and live far from enrollment assistance centers.

"About $2.5 million from the Department of Health and Human Services was specifically directed to rural outreach for the initial open enrollment period," Luthra writes. "For 2015, a total of $60 million will be available to bolster navigators’ work in states that are using the federal marketplace, but it’s not clear what portion of this amount will be directed to rural enrollment."

In Virginia 13 percent of the population is rural, and 13 percent of state residents are uninsured, Luthra writes. Jill Hanken, health attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, the state's principal navigator agency, told Luthra, "We're spread thin throughout the state, but that means in rural areas there are additional challenges in terms of finding the people and getting out to groups." Virginia did not expand Medicaid.

In Minnesota, where some people have had to travel more than 50 miles to get assistance, 23 percent of the state is rural, and 9 percent of residents lack insurance, Luthra writes. Ralonda Mason, a supervising attorney at St. Cloud’s branch of Mid-MN Legal Aid, said MNsure, the state's online enrollment plan, "doesn’t let navigators and consumers use computers in different places to simultaneously log into the application and fill it out over the phone. They must review it in person. Site crashes or application failures, which navigators said they hope to see fewer of this year, add burdens for consumers or navigators already traveling far." (Read more) (Advisory Board Company map)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Rural residents less likely than urban ones to live alone; map has county-level data

Rural Americans are less likely to live alone. The number of Americans living in one-person households has risen from 5 percent in the 1920s to 27 percent in 2013, but the highest concentrations of single-person households are in cities such as Manhattan and Washington, D.C., Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. To see an interactive map of county-level changes from 2000 to 2010, click here.

The lowest percentage of single-households is in Madison County, Idaho, an area settled by Mormons, where only 10 percent of people live alone, Henderson writes. Utah has the lowest number of single-person households at 19 percent. Experts say overall single-person numbers are higher because people are living longer and getting married later in life.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg told Henderson, “Most of the people I talk to, when I ask why they live alone, they say, ‘Because I can.' Living alone is a luxury. You’re better off doing it in a densely populated urban area that’s high in amenities. It’s more difficult if you live in a rural area or a suburban area designed for families." (Read more) (Stateline map: In Wayne County, Tennessee, with a population of about 17,000, 27 percent of people live alone)

Yale, Penn State studies offer different takes on health issues related to Pennsylvania fracking

A pair of recently released studies in Pennsylvania—one supported by environmental groups, the other backed by the oil and gas industry—found vastly different results of how wells affect health and water supplies, David Conti reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

A Yale University study published in Environmental Health Perspectives "found increased reporting of certain health issues by people who live within a kilometer of working wells in Washington County," Conti writes. A Penn State University study funded by the industry and published in the peer-reviewed journal Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources "found that fracking water that remains deep underground after a well is finished will stay trapped in shale, far away from groundwater supplies."

The Yale study, which surveyed 180 households in 2012, "found 39 percent of those living within a kilometer of a working well reported upper respiratory or skin problems, compared with 31 percent of those living between 1 and 2 kilometers, and 18 percent of those living farther away." The study was supported by the Heinz Endowments, which has taken a strict anti-drilling stance in the past year, Conti writes. Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition told Conti that the Yale survey was “done in partnership with a local activist group and was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative.”

Penn State's geosciences professor Terry Engelder "said his research shows injecting frack water into deep shale is safe," Conti writes. Engelder said, “The practical implication is that hydro fracture fluids will be locked into the same ‘permeability jail' that sequestered over-pressured gas for over 200 million years." Environmentalists said the Penn State study, funded by the drilling industry and including a researcher from Royal Dutch Shell, could not be trusted. (Read more)

Senators grill railroad operators about shipping delays for crops

Senators at a congressional hearing on Wednesday accused the railway industry of purposely delaying shipments of agricultural products—leading farmers to store large amounts of crops, sell at lower costs or lose crops altogether—in favor of shipping more profitable crude oil, Patrick Rucker reports for Reuters.

"Delays have been blamed on increased competition from oil and coal shipments, a bumper grain crop, an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods and a bad winter. As a result, prices have significantly decreased, and many farmers have put crops in storage rather than sell at reduced prices. With record wheat and soybeans crops expected this year, farmers fear the situation will only get worse.

To remedy the problem "the rail sector has promised to spend $26 billion this year to improve service, but Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was not placated," Rucker writes. In addressing BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway Rockefeller said, "You pretty much get what you want and stop what you want around here. You are doing a great job for your shareholders. What about these folks?" Rockefeller said, referring to officials from the farm, auto and chemical industries who also testified at the hearing.

Arthur Neal, who analyzes market and transportation issues for the U.S. Department of Agriculture "said the massive grain harvest could exceed permanent storage bins by about 694 million bushels this harvest season or about 3.5 percent of expected totals," Rucker writes. "That glut could fill roughly 174,000 jumbo hopper rail cars with South Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois, among the states most impacted, he said, adding that much of last year's crop is still lying around." (Read more)

Rural minority is the majority when it comes to keeping Republicans in control of the House

Securing the urban vote has helped Democrats take control of the Senate and win the popular vote in most of the recent presidential elections, but that doesn't work in the House, where rural voters, who tend to be more conservative, have a larger say in the outcome of elections, Nate Cohn reports for The New York Times. Rural voters have helped give Republicans control of the House, which doesn't appear to be ending any time soon.

"The gap between staggering Democratic margins in cities and the somewhat smaller Republican margins in the rest of the country allows Democrats to win key states in presidential and Senate elections, like Florida and Michigan," Cohn writes. "But the expanded Democratic margins in metropolitan areas are all but wasted in the House, since most of these urban districts already voted for Democrats. The result is that Democrats have built national and statewide majorities by making Democratic-leaning congressional districts even more Democratic, not by winning new areas that might turn congressional districts from red to blue."

President Obama focused most of his campaign on metropolitan areas, winning the 2008 and 2012 elections by large margins in cities, Cohn writes. His opponents won the rural areas, but Obama's margin in urban areas was too great to overcome. Obama's strategy was to largely ignore rural ideals and "unabashedly campaigned on social issues, like gay rights and funding for contraception, that past Democratic candidates would have tiptoed around for fear of alienating more conservative, rural voters."

"More than ever, the kind of place where Americans live—metropolitan or rural—dictates their political views," Cohn writes. "The country is increasingly divided between liberal cities and close-in suburbs, on one hand, and conservative exurbs and rural areas, on the other. Even in red states, the counties containing the large cities—like Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis and Birmingham—lean Democratic." (Read more)

Most cities lean toward Democrats, but "the majority of Americans who live in cities and close-in suburbs are stuck with having their government tilted in favor of the rural minority," David Horsey reports for the Los Angeles Times. This means "that a Democratic presidential candidate can roll up big numbers in the cities where the young, liberal and nonwhite voters tend to live and win the electoral votes of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. But in the non-urban areas of those states, Democrats are in shorter supply and have a tougher time winning congressional seats."

"Imagine a state with three congressional districts and assume that two-thirds of the state’s voters are Democrats," Horsey writes. "You’d guess that two of the three members of Congress would be Democrats. But you just might be wrong. If most of those Democrats live in a large city located in one of those districts, that means the rest of the Democrats are divided up in the other two districts where Republicans will probably outnumber them. The result is two GOP congressmen and one Democratic representative, even though Democrats are the big majority in our hypothetical state."

"A real-life example of this phenomenon is Pennsylvania, where President Obama carried the state in 2012 by running up huge vote totals in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," Horsey writes. "Obama beat Mitt Romney by 5 percentage points in the state, which would indicate that a majority of Pennsylvania voters favor the Democratic Party. And yet, of the state’s 18 House members, 13 are Republicans."

"This phenomenon is repeated through much of the country," Horsey writes. Add to that a slight bias toward giving small states more representation than their populations merit, plus Republican success at drawing district lines that favor the GOP, and the Democratic Party is left with a daunting problem. If they cannot recapture the kind of support they once had in farm communities and small, working-class towns, Democrats will find it nearly impossible to win back a majority in the House for years to come." (Read more)

College named after Robert E. Lee removes Confederate flags after students complain

A college named after Robert E. Lee has removed Confederate flags from its campus after law students "complained because they had to pledge an honor code in the presence of the flags, something they said glorified Lee’s actions," Carmen Forman reports for The Roanoke Times. Kenneth Ruscio, president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., said Wednesday in his convocation speech that all flags had been removed as "a way of building a community of diverse views and respect on campus." Lee was president of the school when it was named Washington College. The school was renamed after Lee's death. (Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis: Confederate flags on campus)

Ruscio said he had support from the Lee family, citing a letter he received from Lee's great grandson Robert E. Lee IV, which said: “It is clear to me that president Lee would wholeheartedly support your goals of making Washington and Lee a welcoming environment for all students who choose to come there today. As a proud alumnus, I, too, support those goals. In my view, removing the flags from the statuary chamber is overdue. I am proud of my alma mater. I am certain that my great-grandfather would be proud of the institution he once led.”

While retaining the flags had received little support on campus, the same can't be said of residents of the town of 7,000, Forman writes. Brandon Dorsey, commander of Camp 1296 of the Lexington-based Stonewall Brigade of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "said it doesn’t matter that a distant relative of Robert E. Lee supported taking down the flags because it wasn’t right in the first place. To him, Lee deserves to have flags of the nation he fought for hang in a building memorializing him."

Dorsey told Forman, “It’s disrespectful. There wouldn’t be a Washington and Lee University if there hadn’t been a Robert E. Lee. He deserves to have that recognition remain there. Just because you have a family member that takes a position doesn’t mean that has any reflection on the father or grandfather’s views. It’s neat that he’s a descendant, but he didn’t know Robert E. Lee.” (Read more)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Employee-sponsored family health care premiums are up 3 percent in 2014, employer survey says

Employer-sponsored family health care premiums have increased 3 percent this year over last year, with workers paying an average of $4,823 annually, says the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health Research & Educational Trust 2014 Employer Health Benefits Survey released on Wednesday. More than 2,000 small and large employers participated in the survey, which found that annual premiums for worker-only coverage are $6,025 this year, and workers on average contribute $1,081 toward worker-only coverage.

Deductibles are on the rise. The average deductible has increased 47 percent since 2009, from $826 to $1,217. "This year, 41 percent of all covered workers face an annual deductible of at least $1,000, including 18 percent who face a deductible of at least $2,000," says Kaiser. "Covered workers at small firms (three to 199 employees) are even more likely to face large deductibles, with 61 percent facing at least $1,000 deductibles and a third (34 percent) facing at least $2,000 deductibles." (Kaiser graphic)

Co-payments have remained stable, averaging $24 for primary care, $36 for specialists, $11 for generic prescriptions, $31 for preferred brands, $53 for non-preferred brands and $83 for specialty drugs.

Most employers offer wellness programs—98 percent of large employers and 73 percent of smaller ones—with 36 percent of those large employers and 18 percent of those smaller employers providing employees who participate financial incentives, such as a lower premium or deductible, a larger contribution to a tax-preferred savings account, or a gift card, cash or merchandise.

"Starting next year, employers with at least 100 full-time equivalent workers could face penalties if they do not offer health benefits and their workers obtain subsidized coverage through the new health insurance exchanges," says Kaiser. "The survey finds the vast majority (94 percent) of employers with at least 100 workers already offer health benefits to at least some of their workers. In 2016, employers with at least 50 workers will be subject to these penalties."

"Among employers with fewer than 50 workers, 52 percent offer health benefits," says Kaiser. "Since most employers nationally are small, this group drives the overall offer rate for employers, which stands at 55 percent this year, similar to the 57 percent recorded last year. Firms that do not offer health benefits to their workers most often cite cost-related reasons, though one in 10 cite the coverage available to workers through the ACA insurance exchanges as a factor." (Read more)

Brutal video exposes partner abuse concerns; October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Domestic Violence Awareness Month doesn't begin for another three weeks, but now might be a good time to begin writing stories, especially in light of recent brutal video of professional football player Ray Rice knocking his then fiance, now wife, unconscious, then attempting to drag her limp body from an elevator, while showing no concern about her well-being.

While domestic violence gets national headlines when it concerns celebrities and professional athletes, it's an issue that is far worse in rural areas, where the number of victims is higher and victims are more reluctant to report the abuse or leave the abuser, often because of financial concerns and the stigma of being "outed" as a victim in a small town, according to information from the Rural Assistance Center. (Charity Sub graphic)

A 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control says that domestic violence is also linked to long-term diseases, traumas and illnesses, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. The report says, "Women who have fallen victim to domestic violence are 80 percent more likely to suffer a stroke, 70 percent more likely to have heart disease, 70 percent more likely to become heavy drinkers and 60 percent more likely to become asthmatic than women who have not."

The 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which included interviews with more than 16,000 adults, says that 35.6 percent of women and 28.5 percent of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Overall, 18.3 percent of women have reported being raped, with 51.1 percent saying the crime was committed by an intimate partner and 40.8 percent by an acquaintance. Of the 1.4 percent of men who reported being raped, 52.4 percent said it was by an acquaintance. Also, 16.2 percent of women and 5.2 percent of men said they have been stalked.

Anglers unknowingly hurting Great Lakes by dumping unused bait with invasive species DNA

Invasive species, such as Asian carp, have been threatening Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, creating fear that the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry could be at risk. Adding to the problem is that anglers are unknowingly aiding the growth of invasive species by dumping unused bait with invasive species DNA into the waters, says a report by researchers at Central Michigan University and the University of Notre Dame published in Conservation Genetics Resources. (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant graphic)

Researchers "tested water samples from tanks containing small fish for sale as bait at more than 500 shops around the eight-state region," reports the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Results found that 27 of the samples tested positive for DNA of invasive fish, such as Asian carp. The reports "says more consistent bait fish regulation among Michigan and other Great Lakes states is needed." (Read more)

Sept. 17 forum in D.C. on EPA's proposed water rules will be audiocast

The next Farm Foundation forum is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. (ET) on Sept. 17 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The free event will also be audiocast and will include a PowerPoint presentation. The forum will focus on agriculture, water quality and Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS). The Republican-led House on Tuesday passed a bill to block proposed water rules by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill is not expected to advance in the Democratic-led Senate, but if it does, the Obama Administration is recommending that the president veto it.

Tracy Mehan, national source water protection coordinator for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and former assistant administrator for water at the EPA, will present from a regulatory perspective. Gene Schmidt, an Indiana grain farmer and past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, will present from a farmer perspective. Farm Foundation trustee J.B. Penn of Deere and Company will moderate the event. To register for the forum or the audiocast click here.

GOP-led House blocks EPA proposed water rules: Obama expected to veto bill if it passes Senate

The Republican-led House on Tuesday "approved a bill to block the Obama administration from implementing a rule that asserts regulatory authority over many of the nation's streams and wetlands—an action that critics call a classic Washington overreach," Matthew Daly reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The bill passed the House 262-152.

The proposed rules by the Environmental Protection Agency have drawn criticism from agriculture groups, who fear the rules would extend EPA's jurisdiction, Daly writes. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that is not the case, but critics have been slow to believe her. The proposed rule has sparked confusion, and McCarthy has upset many rural residents, who say she is out of touch with rural life. Supporters of the proposed rules say it will lead to cleaner water, and opponents say it will hurt smaller businesses, farmers and jobs in coal-producing states.

In advance of the House vote, the Obama administration threatened on Monday to veto the bill, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. "Citing the need to protect waterways from pollution and the rule’s scientific grounding, the White House said it 'strongly opposes' the bill, and advisers would recommend that President Obama veto it if it reaches his desk." The bill is not expected to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. (Read more)

Republican legislators offer differing views on splitting farm bill; nutrition is the hot topic

While speaking on Tuesday in Washington to the produce organization United Fresh, two Republican legislators expressed very different opinions about whether or not the nutrition program should be included in the Farm Bill or in separate legislation, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), who is retiring at the end this term, "said the current ratio of nutrition to agricultural programs—nutrition funding accounts for 83 percent of farm bill spending—is 'unsustainble,' and that a stand-alone farm bill wouldn't be all that bad," Agri-Pulse writes.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) had a different opinion. Roberts, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, "told the same group he thought the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program 'begged for reform,'" Agri-Pulse writes. "Roberts pointed to the successful coalition farm and nutrition groups enjoyed in the past and said splitting the bill could force the legislation to get 'wrapped up in something else that wouldn't be called a farm bill.'" Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Depression talk should not be taboo; rural weekly's news editor details her struggles with it

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Depression is a subject people often shy away from discussing, but a large percentage of Americans suffer from, or have suffered from, serious depression. Around 50 million have become seriously depressed at some point during their lives, according to a report by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. ­

The suicide last month of actor Robin Williams brought depression to the forefront of the national news for a few weeks, but as the national focus shifted to other stories, community journalists should continue to talk about depression, especially in rural areas where people might feel they will be ostracized if they express how they feel.

That’s why it’s important when journalists like Shelley Spillman, news editor of The Anderson News in Lawrenceburg, Ky., step forward and write columns detailing their own battles with depression. Spillman, who was inspired to write a column after Williams’ death and the suicide of a local man who suffered from depression, said in an interview, “This is not something we normally talk about and maybe we should. Maybe these people wouldn’t feel so alone."

"As journalists we’re part of the community too," she said. "I really enjoy people getting to know me, my real struggles in life and the things I’ve been through. It’s amazing how relating to people on a human to human level is one of the most difficult things to do. But it’s so important.”

In her column, Spillman wrote: “I, too, have suffered from the cold, metallic grip of depression. I know what it’s like to be in a room full of people and still feel alone. You’d give anything to feel the warmth of company without having to go through the mental gymnastics of plastering on a fake smile just so you don’t have to be berated with ‘are you OK?’ or ‘what’s wrong?’ It’s not their fault. Most people don’t know how to deal with people who suffer from depression. Even in our daily interactions people stop and ask ‘How are you doing?’ without sticking around long enough to hear anything other than a one-word utterance of ‘Fine.’”

“It does get better; give it time. I understand, though, that giving depression time, when a day with it can feel like carrying around the weight of a giant boulder, seems impossible, but you can. Sometimes when I think about my time with depression it seems so far away, like I’m at the fair soaring on one of those giant swings, examining bad memories of someone else’s life. I can feel black fog of depression permeating in my brain, trying to find a way back in, but I immediately recognize the intruder and sent it packing. Like I said, it’s a parasite, it’s always looking for a host to attach to.”

Spillman added, “You’ll find that you are a lot stronger than you may even realize now. You can make it out of this, and one day the clouds will part and you’ll be able to see the sun again. Let me tell you the sun feels glorious on your skin after a longtime in the dark.”

Spillman told The Rural Blog: “Readers who have called appreciate my honesty in my columns. It’s hard to put yourself out there and be that vulnerable, but I like for my columns to be honest and real. It’s a way for people to know who I am.” She said that writing a column like this is “a good way to get the ball rolling to get people talking about (depression).” She said she hopes columns like this can lead to there being more resources for people with depression, especially in small communities, and lead to depression being a subject that’s less taboo to discuss. (The Anderson News is behind a paywall but can be reached by clicking here.)

The Extension Service report details signs and types of depression, suggestions for those suffering from depression and suggestions for friends and family members of people who are depressed. Other valuable sources are available here, here, here, here and here.

Cooperative Extension services are becoming more diverse, nimble and technological

With smaller budgets, fewer farmers, a more diverse population and modern technology, the extension agents across the country are remaining relevant by using such tools as Google Chat, Skype, online tutorials and webinars, Marsha Mercer reports for Stateline.

"President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914. The goal of the unusual county-state-federal partnership was to share land-grant university research on agriculture, home economics and rural energy, Mercer notes. "Back then, more than half the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce farmed. Today, however, less than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living, and only 17 percent live in rural areas. The extension service remains active in nearly all of the nation’s 3,000 counties, but the shift has prompted major changes in how it does business."

Full-time employees decreased from 17,009 in 1980 to 13,294 in 2010, a drop of 22 percent, Mercer writes. To make up for the losses, "The extension service now relies heavily on nearly 3 million trained volunteers and its website to disseminate information."

In addition to helping farmers and rural families, extension "also works to protect the environment, ensure a safe food supply, respond to natural disasters, foster greater energy independence, help youth and adults be healthier and enhance workforce skill," Mercer writes.

For example, Oregon's service brings together vineyard managers, winemakers and students for classes in person and online, Mercer writes. Virginia's "has helped train more than 300 farmers in Virginia, the Carolinas and Kentucky get a head start on expected federal food-safety regulations – and, in the meantime, expand their markets."

Southwest Kansas, which has a large immigrant population, "has started bilingual 4-H clubs for immigrant children and their parents," Mercer writes. And "last year, after the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges went live, the Delaware and Maryland extensions developed the Smart Choice training program to help consumers choose the right health insurance plan. The program has spread to 30 states, said Michelle Rodgers, director of University of Delaware Extension."

"Extension services have worked for years on helping individuals fight obesity and improve health, but future efforts will engage the community on improving the environment for health, such as school lunch and restaurant menus, said Rodgers, who chairs extension’s task force on health," Mercer writes. "The 4-H Food Smart Families program is helping 2,500 children and their families make good food choices in pilot projects in Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska and Washington, thanks to a $2 million grant from ConAgra Foods Foundation." (Read more)

Most wind-power capacity is in GOP districts, but many Republicans oppose extending its tax credit

In many states, heated battles are brewing over wind turbines, which have been welcomed by some "as an economic boon to landowners who receive lucrative payments for leasing acreage" but are opposed by others who say they are noisy, detrimental to the health of residents living in the vicinity and dangerous to birds and bats, Hal Bernton and Erin Heffernan report for The Seattle Times. (Times photo by Steve Ringman: Wind farm in Wallula, Wash.)

A tax credit for wind power "was first passed by Congress in 1992 and has been periodically extended. It is currently set at 2.4 cents per kilowatt hour, and, during times of glutted electricity markets, can actually be worth more than the wholesale price of power," the Times reports. "This tax credit has helped catapult wind power to the front of the U.S. efforts to launch a renewable-energy industry. By the end of 2012, wind power represented 43 percent of all new U.S. electric generation installed that year and was hailed by the Obama administration as a key in the global effort to combat climate change."

But "critics have attacked wind power as a fickle source of electricity that ebbs whenever the wind dies down," the Times notes. "They fault the tax credit for encouraging new projects to come on line at a time when many utilities have plenty of power."

"Most of the wind-power capacity is within Republican congressional districts, but many politicians in the party have made ending the tax credit part of their agenda," the Times reports. "This year, efforts to extend the tax credit have made little headway in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The fight against the tax credit also has been championed by Americans For Prosperity. One of the nation’s most prominent conservative advocacy groups, it was co-founded by billionaire David Koch, who has extensive interests in the fossil-fuels industry." (Read more)

Climate change will disrupt habitats of over half of North American birds, Audubon Society says

A National Audubon Society report says that climate change will force more than half of the approximately 650 species of birds in North America to find new places to live, feed and breed over the next 65 years, Felicity Barringer reports for The New York Times. Researchers said that 21.4 percent of existing bird species will lose “more than half of the current climactic range by 2050 without the potential to make up losses by moving to other areas.” Another 32 percent of birds will suffer the same fate by 2080.

Researchers say the oriole will no longer
be able to live in Maryland. (Getty Images)
"Among the most threatened species are the three-toed woodpecker, the northern hawk owl, the northern gannet, Baird’s sparrow, the rufous hummingbird and the trumpeter swan, the report said," Barringer writes. "They are among the 30 species that, by 2050, will no longer be able to live and breed in more than 90 percent of their current territory." Researchers say some species can successfully relocate to other areas, but the ones that depend on certain habitats for survival will run out of the necessary resources to survive.

"The report’s predictions are based on both United Nations estimates of the effects of climate change in 2050 and 2080, and on two voluminous surveys of birds: the Audubon Society’s own Christmas bird count, which thousands of volunteers have worked on for decades, and a more general annual survey of breeding birds," Barringer writes. "The latter was started by the federal government in 1914; amateur birders began the Christmas bird count a few years earlier." (Read more)

Environmentalists say out-of-state manure is leaving a foul stench in Indiana

Indiana is trying to avoid a stinky situation. State environmental officials and farm lobbyists say they are preparing to adopt new rules to govern satellite manure-storage structures—which are facilities that accept livestock waste from off-site farms until it can be used as local crop fertilizer, Ryan Sabalow reports for The Indianapolis Star. The problem with the facilities is that millions of gallons of livestock manure in the state's three storage operations are stored in vast lagoons, where they foul waterways and produce an unbearable stench. There are currently no regulations for storage. (Star photo: Out-of-state manure held in a storage pond)

"The goal, state officials say, is to apply the same rules to the satellite facilities as to large confined livestock farms that handle their own waste," Sabalow writes. "Next week, the Indiana Environmental Rules Board will hold a public hearing on a proposed rule, which regulates 'a building, lagoon, pad, pit, pond or tank,' storing at least 1 million gallons or 5,000 cubic yards of manure."

But some say the proposed rules don't go far enough, Sabalow writes. "The Hoosier Environmental Council warns that the regulations under consideration are so lax that rural areas across Indiana might become dumping grounds for out-of-state manure 'without much notice or consent from the community.' The environmental group says the proposed rule only regulates the largest facilities, and doesn't adequately address concerns about seepage or spills into drinking water."

"Environmentalists say they're particularly troubled that the proposed rules would allow in-ground lagoons larger than a football field," Sabalow writes. "Aside from manure, environmentalists say the stored waste also could include dairy parlor 'wash,"' blood and cow afterbirth."

"Environmental groups have been critical of state efforts to encourage large-scale confined livestock operations in Indiana by taking it more difficult for local governments to use ordinances to prohibit new operations due to smells and other concerns," Sabalow writes. "State lawmakers also have passed laws that make it difficult for a neighbor to win a nuisance lawsuit against a large confined operation, some of which have so many thousands of confined animals they produce more sewage than the closest town." (Read more)

Most of Colorado grocery stores being starved by owner sold, re-opening

Several Northeastern Colorado rural communities are getting their grocery stores back. Sam Mancini, the owner of eight Bella's Markets, was starving the stores, leaving many of them open, but with little to no items on the shelves. But most of the stores have now been sold, and ones in Akron, Haxtun, Wiggins and Walden are all open or close to opening, Jacyln Allen reports for KMGH-TV in Denver. (KMGH-TV photo: Volunteers stock the shelves in Akron)

Mancini also sold markets in Limon and Stratton, but as of Aug. 21 still owned Bella's in Gypsum and Wellington, Tom McGhee reports for The Denver Post. The Post reported in July that Mancini, who filed for bankruptcy in 2012, "paid himself $1.4 million between 2010 and June 2013," according to bankruptcy documents. He used about $700,000 of that to pay off judgments and claims against him, bankruptcy documents said."

Monday, September 08, 2014

Rural southern minorities new face of HIV/AIDS; states that failed to expand Medicaid hit hardest

AIDS was once thought to mainly affect middle-class, often white gay men living in urban areas. However, because states like New York offer free health care to uninsured or underinsured residents who are HIV positive, as opposed to limited and expensive care in the South, "today, the face of AIDS is black or Latino, poor, often rural—and Southern," Teresa Wiltz reports for Stateline. (Associated Press photo: Sterling Williams hammers in markers representing the 3,423 people in Shelby County, Tennessee, who have died from AIDS.)

"Southern states now have the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses, the largest percentage of people living with the disease, and the most people dying from it, according to Rainey Campbell, executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, a non-profit group serving the 16 Southern states and Washington, D.C.," Wiltz writes. "Fifty percent of all new HIV cases are in the South. The HIV infection rate among African-American and Latina women in the South now rivals that of sub-Saharan Africa. In some Southern states, black women account for more than 80 percent of new HIV diagnoses among women."

"States in the South have the least expansive Medicaid programs and the strictest eligibility requirements to qualify for assistance, which prevents people living with HIV/AIDS from getting care, according to a Southern AIDS Coalition report," Wiltz writes. "In the South, Campbell said, people living with HIV have to reach disability status before they qualify for aid. This is significant, because nationally the vast majority of HIV/AIDS patients rely on Medicaid for their health insurance, according to research conducted by the Morehouse College of Medicine." 

The nine deep South States with the highest rates of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses—Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas—have all refused to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, Wiltz writes. "Those states also have the highest fatality rates from HIV in the country, according to the Southern AIDS Coalition."

A White House Council of Economic Advisers study found "that if the nine deep South States expanded Medicaid coverage, more than $65 billion in federal funding would flood those states, and an additional four million people would have insurance coverage," Wiltz writes. Campbell told Wiltz, “Jurisdictions throughout the South fail at nearly every level of HIV prevention and care, ignoring proven strategies that could help to address the uncontrolled epidemic and alarming death rate."

Part of the problem is the Southern attitude towards AIDS, Wiltz writes. "The escalating HIV rates are the result of a perfect storm of social factors including poverty, racism, persistent anti-gay attitudes, increasing homelessness and a lack of transportation in rural areas. In the South, AIDS still has the taint of the plague. Fear of being judged and ostracized keeps some people away from clinics and the care they need. Those who don’t know they’re infected will infect others, creating what the University of Alabama’s (Dr. Michael) Saag calls a 'silent epidemic.'” (Read more)

Teenagers, mostly immigrants, working 12-hour shifts in hazardous conditions in tobacco fields

"For years, public-health experts and federal labor officials have sought to bar teenagers under 16 from the tobacco fields, citing the grueling hours and the harmful exposure to nicotine and other chemicals, but their efforts have been blocked," Steven Greenhouse reports for The New York Times. Many of the young workers are immigrants or children of migrant workers. (NYT photo by Travis Dove: Saray Cambray Alvarez, 13, works near Pink Hill, N.C.)

There is no federal law barring children 12 and older from working any length of time in a tobacco field, as long as it doesn't interfere with school, Greenhouse writes. That means it's not uncommon to see 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds pulling 12-hour shifts during the hot, humid summer. In contrast, federal law sets a minimum working age at 14 for non-farm work, and children under 16 are limited to working eight hours a day.

"Three years ago, Hilda Solis, then the labor secretary, proposed declaring work in tobacco fields and with tractors hazardous — making that type of work illegal for those under 16," Greenhouse writes. The Obama administration, during the middle of a election year, "withdrew Ms. Solis’s proposed rule after encountering intense opposition from farm groups and Republican lawmakers. Agricultural organizations said the move would hurt family farms and make it harder for young people to learn farming skills."

Meanwhile, public-health experts say hundreds of children under 16 continue to work in America’s tobacco fields, Greenhouse writes. "Dr. Thomas A. Arcury, an expert on tobacco and migrant workers and a professor at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said tobacco work was particularly harmful to children, pointing to nicotine poisoning, pesticides and dehydration." Arcury told Greenhouse, “They’re not small adults; they’re children. They have more surface area to body mass. They’re still developing neurologically. Their reproductive systems are developing.”

"Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed 141 tobacco workers, ages 7 to 17, for a lengthy study, finding that three-quarters had suffered nausea, dizziness and rashes," Greenhouse writes. Edinson Bueso Ramirez, 15, whose family fled Honduras because of gang violence, told Greenhouse, “They take advantage of the younger workers. They rip you off on pay. My mom, she worries I might get hurt at work. I tell her, ‘We need it to pay the bills.’”

In addition to sickness, teenage workers also complain about lack of access to water and bathrooms, sexual harassment and having to wrap their bodies in garbage bags to avoid being exposed to harmful chemicals, Greenhouse writes.

Not all tobacco interests want young workers, Greenhouse writes. "Philip Morris International bans its growers from using workers under 18, a measure that goes well beyond American law. Some labor contractors, however, evidently flout this requirement without the growers’ knowledge." (Read more) Also, the Council for Burley Tobacco has said no workers under 16 should work in tobacco.

Washington Post chart examines each state's Senate history; trends could be reversed this year

Control of the Senate is often a focal point of elections. Each party tries to gain the upper hand by reversing trends in states that have typically swung in another party's direction. How deep does political control go, and how long can that control last? With November Senate elections on the horizon, Phillip Bump of The Washington Post takes a closer look at how in many states Senate representation has been guided for years by one political party but how that trend could come to an end in the coming months.

Louisiana Democrats have held the seat currently held by Sen. Mary Landrieu for 132 years, the second longest streak in the history of the Senate, Bump writes. Democrats have controlled Sen. John Walsh's Montana seat for 102 years and Republicans Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts' seat for 96 years. All three of those Senators are in for tough fights this year and could lose those seats to the opposing parties. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's seat has been held by Democrats for 56 years, but the Republicans may take over it this year.

How has your state historically voted in Senate elections? This Post graphic looks at the history of Senate voting in the U.S. "For any year in which a senator was in place for more than half of the year we assigned a Democratic, Republican, or other value to seat, based on the party that controlled the seat for the majority of that time," Bump writes. (Read more)

Pesticide drift costing specialty crops their organic certification; leading to big financial losses

Pesticide drift is costing organic farmers thousands of dollars in lost product, Steve Karnowski reports for The Associated Press. The problem occurs when herbicides, insecticides and fungicides sprayed on crops from neighboring farms drift over to organic farms. Once organic crops are tainted with pesticides, they lose their organic certification. (AP photo by Charlie Neibergall: Iowa farmer Andrew Dunham checks out his asparagus crop, which lost its organic certification because of pesticide drift) 

Central Iowa organic farmers Andrew and Melissa Dunham say pesticide drift cost organic certification for their asparagus patch, resulting in losses of $74,000 over three years, Karnowski writes. Melissa told him, "We're a certified organic farm—except for our asparagus."

Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association,  said "better pilot training and sprayer technology have led to significant reductions in pesticide drift," Karnowski writes. "The association offers a program across the country on safety and drift issues. (Moore) said it contributed to a 26 percent drop in confirmed drift instances between when it debuted in 1999 and 2003 alone."

"But it's hard for crop dusters to avoid vulnerable farms if they don't know where they are," Karnowski writes. "Enter Driftwatch, which Purdue University launched in 2008. Producers can register their farms, while applicators can check the website's interactive map and sign up for email notifications. Twelve states and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan are part of DriftWatch, while Iowa and some other states maintain their own registries." (Read more)

Proposed pipeline carrying North Dakota crude oil causing concern in Iowa; state has history of spills

A proposed 1,100-mile pipeline by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to carry about 320,000 barrels of North Dakota crude oil daily to Illinois is raising red flags in Iowa, where the pipeline would pass through 17 counties in a state whose pipeline safety record is spotty, William Petroski reports for The Des Moines Register. Iowa has had 100 pipeline spills since 2004.

"Environmental groups cite potential spills as a major reason to oppose the crude oil pipeline," Petroski writes. "Proponents, in turn, contend pipelines are the safest way to transport fuel. In Iowa in the past decade, pipeline accidents have resulted in nearly $20 million in property damage, spilling a total of 10,712 gross barrels of hazardous liquids onto Iowa property, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration."

The project, which would employ 8,000 temporary workers, is scheduled to be operational by 2016, Petroski writes. It still needs to be approved by the Iowa Utilities Board. (Read more)

RFD-TV, AT&T U-Verse reach agreement to keep Rural TV alive and kicking in 46 million homes

It looks like Rural TV will survive one of the mergers that Rural Media Group founder and owner Patrick Gottsch feared would lead to the station's cancellation in many markets. Gottsch has expressed concern that proposed mergers between Comcast Cable and Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-Verse with DirecTV would hurt RFD-TV, which Comcast has already canceled in New Mexico and Colorado.

But RFD-TV and AT&T U-Verse have reached an agreement which "launched today on Channel 568 in the U200 package in Standard Definition," MarketWatch reports. "FamilyNet, a sister station to RFD-TV, is already available on Channel 566 on AT&T U-verse. And RFD-TV in HD will launch later this year. Gottsch said, "With this announcement, AT&T will be carrying all of our channels, RFD-TV, RFD HD, and FamilyNet. That's a real tribute to their support for carrying independent networks that address large, underserved audiences. With AT&T's carriage, RFD-TV is now available to more than 46 million homes." (Read more)