Friday, October 03, 2014

As families flee Central Appalachian coal country, school districts are struggling to fill classrooms

The continued loss of coal jobs in Central Appalachia has caused families to flee for greener pastures, hurting the economy of towns and counties and leaving once thriving schools struggling to fill classrooms, Adam Beam and John Raby report for The Associated Press. (Raby photo: George F. Johnson Elementary School in Pike County, Kentucky, closed last year)

Over the past decade, Kentucky's public school system had added 30,000 students, a growth rate of 4.8 percent, well above the national average of 2.5 percent, Beam and Raby write. While the rest of the state is growing, Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 12,000 students since the 1999-2000 school year, "a 9 percent drop that state officials attribute directly to the area's economic struggles amid the declining the coal industry."

West Virginia is suffering the same fate, Beam and Raby write. The Mountain State has lost 26 percent of its public school student population since 1979, with 42 of the state's 55 counties having seen declines in population.

"Some districts have combined or closed low-enrollment schools, forcing families that stay put to send their kids on longer bus rides on mountain highways to the next-closest classroom," Beam and Raby write. "Chain-link fences now surround empty schools that had served as gathering places in some small communities, hosting potlucks, pancake breakfasts and even doubling as support centers during mining disasters."

One of the problems in Kentucky is that the state pays for public education in part based on an average of how many students attend district schools each day, Beam and Raby write. "Kentucky lawmakers and two independent groups are reviewing the state's 25-year-old formula for funding education, partly to see how to ease the impact it has on dwindling districts. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he would wait for those studies to finish before he considers any changes to the current funding formula."

Meanwhile, in Pike County, Kentucky enrollment has dropped by more than 1,000 students since 2001, and when the average attendance dropped by 270 students from 2013 to 2014, the school system lost $1.1 million from its base state funding, Beam and Raby write. "Last school year, the district closed three schools—two elementary schools and a middle school—and merged them into a new school that now runs from kindergarten through eighth grade. And the district closed Majestic Elementary School this year after its enrollment dipped below 100 students—a community hub that had been open for 45 years." (Read more)

Nearly half of non-metro residents did not get online in the past year, report says

Rural Americans are far less likely than their urban counterparts to get online, says a report by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. Of the 50 million Americans who did not use the internet in the last year, 48 percent live in non-metro areas, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Those numbers are startling, considering only about 15 percent of Americans reside in non-metro areas.

The report found that 80 percent of people who didn't go online are low-income, and more than half are 55 or older, Marema writes. Overall, 16 percent of the American population remains off-line. (McKinsey & Company graphic)

Other reports have had varied results, Marema writes. "A Pew Research Internet Project survey from September 2013 shows about 70 percent of Americans aged 18 and older had broadband at home, up from 66 percent the year before. The Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map says more than 91 percent of U.S. communities have a broadband-speed connection. But a report from the World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 34th globally in Internet bandwidth. And another report ranked the U.S. 17th in peak connection speeds during the first quarter of 2014, according the McKinsey and Company."

The Pew study says: "about a third of respondents said the Internet lacked 'relevance.' They were not interested, didn’t need it or think it’s a waste of time. Another third said they lacked the skills necessary to get online, found the process too difficult or were physically unable to manage the operation. Nineteen percent said the Internet was too expensive, and 7 percent said they did not have a connection." (Read more)

California governor vetoes bill that addresses antibiotic use in livestock

California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, whose state is the nation's top agriculture producer, this week vetoed legislation that sought to adhere to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's plan to phase out antibiotic use in livestock, Ed Silverman reports for The Wall Street Journal. Brown said the FDA plan, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2016, was unnecessary "since most major animal producers have already pledged to go beyond the FDA standard."

Brown's "decision comes shortly after the Obama administration released a game plan for combating antibiotic resistance, which the CDC has blamed for at least 2 million illnesses and about 23,000 deaths annually in the U.S.," Silverman writes. "Consequently, consumer advocates and some lawmakers have called for tougher measures to restrict usage among food-producing livestock."

"About 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on livestock and poultry, and an FDA report released (Thursday) shows that the total quantity of antimicrobial active ingredients sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals increased by 16% between 2009 and 2012," Silverman writes. "Agency critics say that only an outright ban on promoting antibiotics for preventing disease can mitigate resistance. They argue voluntary agreements can be easily breached. However, they suffered a setback recently when a federal appeals court ruled the FDA does not have to consider implementing a ban." (Read more)

Pulpit Freedom Sunday calls on pastors to fight IRS censorship and preach politics on Oct. 5

Political figures fighting for their First Amendment rights are celebrating Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 5. The event, which was initiated in 2008 by the Alliance Defending Freedom is in response to the Internal Revenue Service code that says: "An organization’s activities in furtherance of a religious belief must serve exclusively exempt purposes . . . Generally, exemption under IRC 501(c)(3) is precluded for those organizations which are substantially engaged in attempting to influence legislation or those which participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

The IRS says that churches “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. The prohibition applies to all campaigns, including campaigns at the federal, state and local level.”

Alliance Seeking Freedom says the annual event "seeks to restore the right of each pastor to speak scriptural Truth from the pulpit about moral, social and governmental issues—as well as other topics concerning his congregation—without fear of losing his church’s tax-exempt status." (Read more)

In 1954 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Johnson Amendment allowing the IRS "to tell pastors what they can and cannot preach," says the Pulpit Freedom Sunday website. The group says that 2,032 pastors have preached election sermons since 2008. (Read more)

Drone used to film erupting volcano in Iceland

Several negative stories have been flying around about drones, including a drone being shot down, the National Park Service banning drones in all parks and areas it manages, a tourist crashing a drone into Yellowstone National Park, drones being banned over the Appalachian Trail and in parks in Utah and Colorado and a drone reported flying over an NFL game.

But the potential for the greatness of drones was on display this week. DJI, which calls itself the world leader in camera drones/quadcopters, sent a crew to Iceland to use a drone to film an erupting volcano, While crew members had to keep their distance from the volcano—mostly for safety reasons—the drone was able to get close enough to catch some amazing video. (YouTube video)

Drug companies testing vaccine to treat deadly virus; disease has killed eight million pigs

A pair of drug manufacturers are testing a vaccine that could help slow a deadly virus that is ravaging the pork industry. Harrisvaccines Inc. and Zoetis Inc. have received conditional regulatory approval "to market vaccines for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has spread to 31 states and killed millions of young pigs since it was first identified in the U.S. in April 2013," Kelsey Gee reports The Wall Street Journal. "At least two other drug makers—Merck & Co. and Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH—say they are researching potential vaccines for PED."

"The virus is fatal only to young pigs and poses no threat to human health or food safety, according to scientists," Gee writes. "PED has reduced U.S. hog supplies, raising costs for meat processors, retailers and consumers. Average retail pork prices jumped 12 percent in the 12 months through August to a record $4.20 a pound, according to federal data." (Journal graphic)

Major pig producers "are experimenting with the vaccines, though many in the industry say they don't expect them to become panaceas because previous vaccines for similar swine viruses have had limited success," Gee writes. "According to industry estimates, roughly eight million pigs have died from the virus since it was first discovered in the U.S., with some farms experiencing repeat outbreaks."

"U.S. pork production has fallen 1.8 percent this year, according to the USDA, lifting futures prices for slaughter-ready hogs to a record $1.33875 a pound in July," Gee writes. Prices have eased in the past two months, in part because fewer PED outbreaks occurred this summer compared with the start of the year. That is likely because warmer temperatures make it harder for the virus to survive, according to veterinarians." (Read more)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Great Lakes Commission wants to reduce Lake Erie phosphorous by 40 percent

The Great Lakes Commission is seeking a 40 percent reduction of the annual amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie, "the source of toxic algae outbreaks and the reason the city of Toledo lost its drinking water for two days this past summer," Dan Egan reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That is the amount already targeted by the International Joint Commission, which oversees U.S. and Canadian boundary waters issues."

"Phosphorus is flowing into Lake Erie from city sewage plants, industries and suburban lawns and streets, but the largest single source is by far runoff from farm fields," Egan writes. (Journal Sentinel photo by Peter Essick: Boats going through an algae bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio)

Ohio officials responded to the Toledo crisis with a measure that requires farmers to get fertilizer licenses, in an attempt to control farm run-off in water supplies. But some fear the law has a loophole that benefits large manure users. Toxic algae advisories are fairly common in the summer, with many states issuing them.

The Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday that by March 2015 it will issue drinking water health advisories for cyanobacteria, the harmful forms of blue-green algae that contaminated water supplies in Toledo," Amena Saiyid reports for Bloomberg. "The agency is working on health advisories for microcystin L-R and cylindrospermopsin, with plans to have them out before the season of the harmful algal blooms begins next year." (Read more)

Advanced Placement history course stirs debate

The content of the new Advanced Placement U.S. History course that is showing up in classrooms says more about those who put together the curriculum than it does about U.S. history, Jim Waters writes for Kentucky's conservative Bluegrass Institute. Some say the College Board's new framework has "anti-American biases," Rebecca Klein writes for the generally liberal Huffington Post. The College Board says this is not true, but some school districts may choose not to use the course.

Waters says the course has little information about important U.S. forefathers and portrays some great leaders and causes in senselessly negative light, but College Board President David Coleman said the new framework "does not remove individuals or events that have been taught by AP teachers in prior years," Klein writes. Some of the course's authors noted in a recent letter that some historical figures were not explicitly mentioned in the framework because they expect that teachers already know how to educate students about them.  The course is not intended to be students' first exposure to American history, and teachers are free to teach additional information along with the suggested framework, Valerie Strauss writes for The Washington Post. Waters argues that students will not need to know additional information for the test, so instructors might not be motivated to teach the extra material.

After teachers and professors showed concern about the new framework, The College Board decided to reexamine the course. "The new framework was developed by teachers and professors who received feedback from hundreds of other teachers," Klein writes. The organization released the practice exam for scrutiny to help alleviate concerns about course content. See the practice test here.

Educator says newspapers can be a valuable learning tool for young people

As we head into National Newspaper Week, from Oct. 5-12, now is the perfect time to encourage young people to become interested in reading newspapers as a valuable learning tool, educator Terri Friedlander writes for Florida Today.

"The new Common Core Standards in language arts emphasize non-fiction reading passages," Friedlander writes. "The newspaper in education at every grade level expands children’s vocabulary, community awareness and more. In terms of careers, newspapers offer myriad opportunities beyond typical reporters. Digital designers, sales and marketing, information technology and finance are just a few."

"Two years ago, due to budget cuts and increased production costs, our quarterly student newspaper went by way of the typewriter and is now a distant memory," Friedlander writes. "Other schools also lost this voice for their pupils. In search of a method for the budding journalism students to editorialize and deliver school news, the creative teacher eventually located a sponsor to pay for a domain registration. After much experimentation, an online version began. All articles are written by and for the student body, but readership still remains questionable as the website is not part of their daily radar."

"Perhaps, reading the daily newspaper can be instilled as a worthy ritual for the next generation so the presses can keep on rolling," Friedlander writes. (Read more)

Baker Hughes says it will disclose 100 percent of chemicals it uses in fracking operations

Baker Hughes, one of the world's largest oil companies, said it "plans to disclose '100 percent' of the chemicals contained in the mix it uses in the process of fracturing shale formations and drawing oil and natural gas to the surface," Stephanie Ritenbaugh reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The disclosures, which can be found on FracFocus, "will include a single list of all of the chemical constituents of the company’s products used on that well, along with their maximum concentrations, without using trade secret designations, the Houston-based oilfield services company said."

Products listed on FracFocus include a list of ingredients and trade names, some with their chemical name and chemical abstract service number withheld as trade secret, Ritenbaugh writes. "In the new format that Baker Hughes will use, the company will list the ingredients of its products without linking them to a specific trade name. The disclosure will include a separate list of all of the ingredients—including their chemical names and chemical abstract numbers—along with the maximum concentration of each ingredient in the overall fracking fluid." (Read more)

Oil, rail industry want more time to upgrade tank cars; groups say 2 years not enough time

The oil and rail industry wants more time "to upgrade existing tank cars that transport highly volatile crude oil, a top oil industry official said Tuesday," Joan Lowy reports for The Associated Press. In July the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a two-year phase-out after more oil was spilled in the U.S. in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and 47 people died from the derailment of a train in Quebec running from North Dakota to Maine.

"Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters that his group and the Association of American Railroads are jointly asking the Transportation Department for six months to 12 months for rail tank car manufacturers to gear up to overhaul tens of thousands of cars and another three years to retrofit older cars," Lowy writes. "The two industries, at odds until recently over how best to prevent oil train collisions and fires, also want three years after that to upgrade newer tank cars manufactured since 2011, known as '1232 cars,' he said." (McClatchy Newspapers graphic)

"The longer retrofit timeline reflects the need to allow tank-car makers time to expand their operations while still producing new tank cars, Gerard said," Lowy writes. "The government’s more aggressive timeline could hurt consumers by disrupting the production and transportation of goods including chemicals, gasoline, crude oil and ethanol, he said." (Read more)

Documentary Farmland available for free on Hulu

The documentary "Farmland," which was released in theaters in May, is available for free during the next four weeks on Hulu and Hulu Plus, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The film "takes the viewer inside the world of farming for a first-hand glimpse into the lives of six young farmers and ranchers in their twenties. Through the personal stories of these farmers and ranchers, viewers learn about their high-risk, high-reward jobs and passion for a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation, yet continues to evolve."

Filmmaker James Moll said, "This is a film for anyone who eats. It's not what you'd expect. The world of farming is complex and often controversial, but the farmers themselves are some of the most hard-working and fascinating people I've ever met." (Read more)

Man allegedly shoots down drone; use of aerial crafts continues to spark controversy

The fear that unregulated drones use could  lead to "a modern version of the Wild West" in the skies turned in to a reality last week in New Jersey. A resident in Lower Township was flying a drone over the construction site of a friend's house when it was shot down, Steve Beck reports for CBS Philly. A man was arrested and charged with Possession of a Weapon for an Unlawful Purpose and Criminal Mischief, and his shotgun was confiscated.

This is not the first time drones have stirred up controversy. In June the National Park Service banned drones in all parks and areas it manages. In August a tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone National Park. Also in August drones were banned over the Appalachian Trail and in parks in Utah and Colorado, and a drone was reported flying over an NFL game.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Sun could be world's largest source of electricity by 2050, International Energy Agency says

Solar photovoltaic panels.
"The sun could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050, ahead of fossil fuels, wind, hydro and nuclear," says a report released on Monday by the International Energy Agency. "Solar photovoltaic systems could generate up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal electricity from concentrating solar power plants could provide an additional 11 percent. Combined, these solar technologies could prevent the emission of more than 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050—that is more than all current energy-related CO2 emissions from the United States."

Solar photovoltaic panels "constitute the fastest growing renewable energy technology in the world since 2000 although solar is still less than 1 percent of energy capacity worldwide," Sarah McFarlane reports for Reuters. Solar photovoltaic panels capture the sun's energy using photovoltaic cells and convert the sunlight into electricity, says Energy Saving Trust. "These cells don't need direct sunlight to work—they can still generate some electricity on a cloudy day."

IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in the report, “The rapid cost decrease of photovoltaic modules and systems in the last few years has opened new perspectives for using solar energy as a major source of electricity in the coming years and decades. However, both technologies are very capital intensive: almost all expenditures are made upfront. Lowering the cost of capital is thus of primary importance for achieving the vision in these roadmaps.” (Read more)

Journalism students tests Google Glass, says it needs work to be an effective journalism tool

Boston University journalism student Kyle Plantz had the opportunity to test Google Glass this past weekend at the Online News Association conference in Chicago. While the device offers some advantages, Plantz said many kinks still need to be worked out before it can become a useful journalism tool. Plantz used Google Glass while conducting an interview for USA Today from Skydeck Chicago, a glass-bottomed ledge 1,353 feet above the ground.

"For my interview with Skydeck General Manager Randy Stancik, we both stood out on the ledge," Plantz writes. "Using Google Glass is a little strange at first. The screen rested just above my right eye. I tried not to look too shifty with my eyes as I glanced up to make sure the video was running properly and looked back at Stancik. I looked up there a lot, which was a little more comfortable than looking down the whole time." (Plantz photo: Google Glass shot from Skydeck Chicago)

While Plantz said the ability to record the view hands-free was impressive, he said one of the problems he encountered was that the Glass overheated several times. "After recording a video or taking a picture, a message popped up telling me that the Glass needed to cool down for better use," he writes. "Perhaps because I was standing in a (excuse my pun) glass encasement with the sun beating down on me, I guess the Glass could overheat a little, but that’s something Google should keep in mind before they release the final product."

"Another problem I had was battery life," he said. Plantz said he could record for an hour straight before the battery would die. "While that was fine for our brief use at the conference, if a journalist is out reporting in the field like in Syria or even at a protest in the United States, Glass should have a longer life span to allow for optimal reporting."

"Hopefully over time, Google can improve upon their Glass beta-testing to make it better for everyday use but also for journalists who want to use it to enhance their reporting," Plantz writes. "For me, it was an once-in-a-lifetime chance to try out a really awesome product. Would I ever use one in my daily life? Probably not. In reporting? Only if the product became cheaper. I do believe journalism is headed in this direction, so I found it a unique opportunity to be one of the testers of the future of journalism." (Read more)

Cash-strapped USPS wants to deliver groceries

In an attempt to combat nearly six years of multibillion-dollar losses, the U.S. Postal Service tried to end most Saturday deliveries, reduced hours at many rural post offices and announced the closing of processing plants. Now, USPS wants to enter the grocery business.

The Postal Service sent its proposal last week to the Postal Regulatory Commission, seeking approval from the panel, Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post. "The agency wants to begin testing on Oct. 24, with the process lasting up to two years although it could choose to make the program permanent at a sooner date."

"Under the plan, USPS would work with retail partners to deliver 'groceries and other prepackaged goods' to homes between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. at locations designated by consumers," Hicks writes. "Participating grocery stores would have to drop off their orders at post offices between 1:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m." The plan has already been tested in San Francisco, where USPS made 160 Amazon grocery deliveries per day to 38 zip codes.

The proposal says: “Ultimately, the Postal Service expects this will generate more package deliveries that do not currently move within the postal system. Grocery deliveries are expanding across the nation, with several different types of companies beginning to offer this service in recent months.” (Read more)

Scientists hired by EPA say proposed water rules under Clean Water Act are scientifically sound

The Environmental Protection Agency's controversial proposed water rules are "based on scientifically sound evidence that pollution in streams and wetlands can have a big impact on larger, downstream bodies of water, according to a draft report released by the EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board," Emily Atkin reports for Climate Progress.

Proposed rules have drawn criticism from farmers, who fear the rules unnecessarily expand EPA's jurisdiction, and from politicians, including many Republicans, with the GOP-led House voting to block the rules. The proposed rules also have become a point of contention among some Republican candidates, who are using the issue to try to gain support in upcoming elections.

The Science Advisory Board’s report, led by University of South Florida civil and environmental engineering professor James Mihelcic, said there is truth to the concern that the EPA needs to regulate pollution to small sources like streams, tributaries and wetlands because that pollution can affect downstream waters that people use for drinking water supply, Atkin writes. The report says, “The available science supports the conclusion that the types of water bodies identified as waters of the United States in the proposed rule exert strong influence on the physical, biological and chemical integrity of downstream waters."

The report actually favors "adding more bodies of water to the EPA’s jurisdiction," Atkin writes. "For example, the report said the EPA’s decision to exclude groundwater from Clean Water Act protection does 'not have strong scientific justification.'” (Read more)

District judge sides with EPA veto in West Virginia mountaintop-removal coal mine

Score another victory for the Environmental Protection Agency in the battle over Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia that could be the largest mountaintop-removal coal mine to date. (Rainforest Action Network map: Spruce No. 1 Mine is in red)

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded on Tuesday that the agency’s veto of a Clean Water Act permit "was 'reasonable, supported by the record and based on considerations within EPA’s purview,'" Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. "In a 50-page opinion, the judge ruled with EPA on the merits of the agency’s January 2011 decision to use its water pollution oversight authority to rescind a permit that had been previously issued to Arch Coal by the federal Army Corps of Engineers."

In 2007 Arch Coal received a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge material at nearby streams and tributaries," Brent Kendall reports for The Wall Street Journal. In 2009, after the Obama administration began, newly appointed EPA officials began efforts to modify or suspend the permit, "saying new information showed that dumping mining waste would impose unacceptable harms on water quality and wildlife." EPA's efforts prohibited Arch Coal's Mingo Logan subsidiary in 2011 "from discharging material into two of the streams that had previously been approved as disposal areas." In April an appeals court reversed a federal judge's decision, ruling that EPA legally rejected the permit. The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Arch Coal.

"The judge wrote in Tuesday’s ruling, 'that battle has already been fought and lost, and this court is not free to take up the issue again,'" Ward writes. (Read more)

Quebec-to-Queens power line will provide electricity to densely populated region

The U.S. Department of Energy "has approved construction of a $2.2 billion, 1,000-megawatt power cable that will stretch from Quebec to New York City and bring badly needed electricity to the densely populated region," Colin Sullivan reports for Environment & Energy Publishing. The project was expected to be granted a presidential permit today. (Getty Images by David McNew)

The project "would connect to Quebec at Champlain, N.Y., and run under Lake Champlain and the Hudson to link up with a new converter station 336 miles to the south in Astoria, Queens," Sullivan writes. "The project would fill a crucial need in a region long hampered by transmission bottlenecks that could also face the loss of more than 2,000 MW from the Hudson Valley's Indian Point nuclear power station."

"In its own approval of the project, the New York Public Service Commission argued the much-needed power would address long-term demand and help to lower regional greenhouse gas emissions in the same breath," Sullivan writes. "The hydropower would also help the state avoid overreliance on natural gas, the PSC said." (Read more)

Some upstate New York legislators have opposed the power line, "saying it would compete with New York power producers," reports The Associated Press. "Supporters say it would make the state less dependent on the 2,000-megawatt Indian Point nuclear power plant, which provides about one-fourth of the power used in New York City and Westchester County. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to close the aging nuclear plant but needs an alternate source for the energy it produces." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Newspapers are still the main source of information for rural Americans, survey says

Newspapers are still kings of the news in rural America, says a survey by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the Oklahoma Office of Rural Health. The study, which surveyed 1,863 people in 12 rural Oklahoma communities between March 2013 and June 2014, found that 42.2 percent of people get their information from newspapers, reports the Daily Yonder. The survey found that 19.8 percent of people get their information from social media, 14.7 percent from email and radio and 8.6 percent from websites.

When asked how they prefer to be informed of community events, 47.7 percent of people who responded through paper survey said newspapers, while 40.9 percent who responded electronically said newspapers, the Yonder writes. Social media was the second most popular answer, followed by email. Of the 12 communities surveyed, eight offer the local paper online. (Yonder graphic: Where respondents said they get information)

"Another study completed by the University of Missouri noted that in areas where the circulation size of the local newspaper was 15,000 or less that over two-thirds of residents read their local newspaper," writes the Yonder. "Forty-two percent of respondents from these small communities said their primary source of information was the 'newspaper' and 'newspaper’s website.'" (Read more)

Critical access hospitals continue to be left out of Medicaid pay-for-performance programs

Critical access hospitals are being left out of federal health reform shifts "aimed at bringing accountability to hospitals by linking Medicare payments to the quality of their care," Jordan Rau reports for Kaiser Health News. "The Department of Health and Human Services has not yet incorporated the 1,256 primarily rural, 'critical access' hospitals into Medicare’s pay-for-performance programs."

"Fewer than 1 in 20 critical access hospitals are participating in accountable care organizations, or ACOs, in which hospitals and doctors coordinate services with the promise of bonuses from Medicare if they deliver care more efficiently," Rau writes. "Another project, to test new ways to deliver rural health care, is limited to five states, and the selection of participants has not been announced even though the deadline for applications was in May." (Kaiser Health News map)

The Affordable Care Act "excused critical access hospitals from inclusion in the early years of Medicare’s pay-for-performance incentives," Rau writs. "They are exempt from fines levied against hospitals with a large number of patients who return within 30 days, as well as penalties or bonuses based on patient satisfaction reviews and hospital death rates."

"Congress gave these hospitals a reprieve because of the difficulty in bringing them into the pay-for-performance programs," Rau writes. "Many of the ways Medicare is measuring hospital quality require enough cases to be reliably analyzed, but these tiny hospitals often don’t have enough heart attack patients, for instance, to estimate death rates. Other measures look at surgical practices, but critical access hospitals often ship those patients to bigger institutions. Experts have come up with customized measures that could be used to judge rural hospital quality, such as the time it takes to evaluate a patient in the emergency room."

A total of 59 critical access hospitals are participating 18 of 338 ACOs, Rau writes. Lynn Barr, who runs the National Rural ACO consortium in Nevada City, Calif., told Rau, “The whole world is moving on, and rural is really being left behind.” (Read more)

FBI classifies animal cruelty as a 'crime against society' under rules that take effect in 2015

Beginning in 2015 the FBI "will start reporting crimes of animal cruelty as a separate offense under its uniform reporting system, leading the way for more comprehensive statistics on animal abuse," S.P. Sullivan reports for NJ Advance Media. "Previously, crimes against animals were recorded under a generic 'all other offense' category in the Uniform Crime Report, widely considered the most comprehensive source of crime statistics in the United States."

Animal cruelty will be considered a crime against society and a "Type A" offense, Sullivan writes. It will be tracked in four categories: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (such as dog and cock fighting) and animal sexual abuse.

The FBI defines animal cruelty as: Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilating, maiming, poisoning or abandoning. Included are instances of duty to provide care, e.g., shelter, food, water, care if sick or injured; transporting or confining an animal in a manner likely to cause injury or death; causing an animal to fight with another; inflicting excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering, e.g., uses objects to beat or injure an animal. This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing or trapping. (Read more)

While national statistics are not known, The Humane Society of the United States says that the media reported 1,880 cases in 2007, with 64.5 percent involving dogs and 18 percent cats. In 2013 in Louisiana's East Baton Rouge Parish, which has a population of about 440,000, there were 211 cases of neglect, 141 of abuse and torture and 29 dog fighting cases reported, Kiran Chawla reports for WAFB 9 in Baton Rouge.

EPA audit says agency not taking enough action to protect water sources from hazardous materials

A watchdog report by the Environmental Protection Agency says the agency needs to take more action to protect water sources from unmonitored hazardous chemicals. The report, released on Monday by EPA’s Office of Inspector General, said "management controls put in place by the EPA to regulate and control hazardous chemical discharges from sewage treatment plants to water resources have limited effectiveness."

"The EPA regulates hazardous chemical discharges to and from sewage treatment plants, but these regulations are not effective in controlling the discharge of hundreds of hazardous chemicals to surface waters such as lakes and streams," the report said. The report also said sewage plant staff do not monitor for hazardous chemicals discharged by industrial users, mostly because the Clean Water Act hasn't been updated since 1981. (EPA graphic: Whole effluent toxicity tests)

The outdated Clean Water Act fails to regulate all chemicals, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. The report "said the agency uses the Clean Water Act to regulate only 126 toxic chemicals that could flow to sewage plants, leaving about 300 chemicals that are considered hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

"Auditors also found that the EPA may not be consistently enforcing the requirement that industrial polluters file reports on the chemicals they discharge to sewage plants," Cama writes. "The OIG found regional variations in the chemicals that industries had to report to the EPA or states and that programs to monitor chemical treatments and permitting sometimes do not coordinate."

"Auditors suggested that the EPA reevaluate which chemicals it regulates in sewage systems," Cama writes. "They also recommended that the agency improve communications internally and externally and boost its compliance monitoring, among other changes." (Read more)

World Wildlife Fund says humans responsible for 52 percent decline in wildlife populations

Humans are responsible for a 52 percent decline in wildlife populations from 1970 to 2010, says a report by the World Wildlife Fund. "The conservation group's Living Planet Report, published every two years, said humankind's demands were now 50 percent more than nature can bear, with trees being felled, groundwater pumped and carbon dioxide emitted faster than Earth can recover," John Heilprin reports for The Associated Press. Hunting, fishing "and continued losses and deterioration of natural habitats are identified as the chief threats to wildlife populations around the world."

The report from two years ago said the decline was 28 percent from 1970 to 2008, Heilprin writes. The drastic difference in the current report is because previous reports relied more heavily on information from North America and Europe, while the current report includes Latin America, where many of the new losses were found to have occurred.

The current study "analyzed data from about 10,000 populations of 3,038 vertebrate species from a database maintained by the Zoological Society of London," Hielprin writes. "The worst decline was among populations of freshwater species, which fell by 76 percent over the four decades to 2010, while marine and terrestrial numbers both fell by 39 percent." (Read more)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rent is rising faster than income, leaving many struggling to afford housing

The cost of rent is climbing faster than income, leaving many renters, especially those in mostly rural states, struggling to make ends meet, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. The average U.S. household spent 30.8 percent of income on rent in 2013, up from 25.5 percent in 2000. In 27 states, households spent more than 30 percent of income on rent in 2013, while in 2000 no state was above 30 percent.

The biggest change was in Rockland County, New York, in the suburbs of New York City, where the average amount of income spent on rent has increased from 28.3 percent to 40.5 percent, Henderson writes. Passaic County, New Jersey, increased from 26.8 percent to 37.6 percent; Wayne County, Michigan, from 25 to 35.7 percent; and Hinds County, Mississippi, from 26.6. to 36.4 percent.

"Mississippi had one of the most jarring drops in rental affordability statewide since 2000, as median rents rose 61 percent from $439 to $708 a month, while renters’ income increased by only about 19 percent," Henderson writes.

Florida residents pay the most, spending 34.1 percent of their income on rent, Henderson writes. Florida is followed by California, 33.8 percent; Hawaii, 32.9 percent; New Jersey, 32.2 percent; New York, 32.1 percent; Oregon and Vermont, 31.9 percent; Connecticut, 31.6 percent; Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan, 31.4 percent; Maine and Rhode Island, 31.2 percent; South Carolina, 31 percent; Colorado, 30.9 percent; Maryland and New Mexico, 30.8 percent; Mississippi, 30.7 percent; Delaware, 30.6 percent; Washington, 30.5 percent; Pennsylvania, 30.2 percent; Massachusetts and Tennessee, 30.1 percent; and Alabama and North Carolina, 30 percent. (Read more)

Free-standing emergency departments could be the solution to shuttered rural hospitals

Four rural hospitals in Georgia "have closed in the past two years, and several more either have closed or significantly reduced services since 2001," Bob Herman reports for Modern Healthcare. "Nationwide, more than two dozen rural hospitals have shut down since 2013. For people in rural areas, a closed hospital means they have to travel farther, sometimes hours, for care. And that could mean life or death in situations such as cardiac arrest, car accidents, workplace injuries and other emergencies."

But Republican-led Georgia, where officials have refused to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, "has proposed a regulatory change that some observers think could help rural hospitals across the country," Herman writes. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal said in March that "financially struggling rural hospitals can offer fewer inpatient services and still keep their hospital licenses. In essence, they can convert into free-standing emergency departments that stabilize and transfer patients to bigger hospitals. Under Deal's proposal, these rural facilities also could offer other basic services such as labor and delivery."

Some people are critical of the idea. Brock Slabach, a senior vice president at the National Rural Health Association, "said the financial sustainability of free-standing rural EDs in Georgia as outlined by Deal would be low," Herman writes. Salbach told him, “Emergency departments would be nice for access, but that doesn't provide (insurance) coverage. These rural communities are still going to be having problems of paying for these services. We need to try to find a way to expand coverage to these poor populations in a way that's not going to be called Obamacare.”

There are somewhere between 400 to 500 EDs in the U.S., Herman writes. Most "are affiliated with a hospital or health system, serving as a feeder for patients needing inpatient care. The EDs usually are within 20 miles of a full-service hospital. More recently, for-profit ED companies have been building in affluent suburbs, targeting privately insured patients who see the EDs as more convenient than making an appointment with a primary-care physician."

The problem is that few are located in rural areas, Herman writes. For urgent-care centers and free-standing EDs to survive in underserved rural areas, the “operating model will need to adapt,” said Alan Ayers, a vice president for Concentra, Humana's urgent-care subsidiary. "They will have to use midlevel clinicians including physician assistants and nurse practitioners, reduce operating hours and offer other high-volume services such as primary care and occupational medicine. That could help rural facilities offset the typically high fixed costs, Ayers said."

"Perhaps the most feasible solution for rural areas is a hybrid model, mixing lower-level emergency care with primary-care services," Herman writes. "An example is Carolinas HealthCare System Anson in Wadesboro, N.C., a town of 5,800. In 2012, Carolinas HealthCare System—a large system based in Charlotte, N.C., with $4.7 billion in annual revenue—decided to overhaul Anson Community Hospital, a Hill-Burton facility with 125 staffed acute-care and nursing beds."

"The system spent $20 million and downsized the hospital's inpatient capacity from 30 beds to 15," he writes. "The new facility, which opened in July, offers 24/7 emergency care in addition to the limited number of acute beds. Carolinas officials said Anson's major innovation and attraction is that it uses a patient-centered medical home model, offering residents access to primary-care providers with the help of a patient navigator." (Read more)

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 5-11; now is a good time for stories about importance of papers

A Gallup poll released in June said that Americans' confidence in news media is at or tied with record lows, while a poll released this month by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center said that more than one-third of Americans are opposed to freedom of the press when it comes to stories concerning national security. Those are startling numbers. But with National Newspaper Week scheduled from Oct. 5-11, now is a good time to try to restore Americans' confidence in the power of the press.

This year's theme is “Newspapers: The Foundation of Vibrant Communities.” The National Newspaper Week website says it offers several resources for local newspapers and encourages newspaper to "editorialize locally about how your newspaper is important and relevant to your community."

A good example of a National Newspaper Week story is one written by David F. Sherman, managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of western New York state.

Sherman said the Gallup poll is "a sad reality for an industry struggling to adapt to changes taking place at a rapid pace. Perhaps beauty, like fairness, is in the eye of the beholder. As someone who has been a professional journalist for 37 years, I can attest to the greater attention being paid now in the newsroom to double-check the most basic facts and the thirst to present both sides of the story. These frameworks of fairness are more prominent now than ever."

Sherman quotes Robert Williams, president of the National Newspaper Association: “It’s been reassuring to see so many dedicated men and women who see newspapering as so much more than a ‘job.’ Newspapering is a job in the same sense that being a father or mother is a ‘job.’ Parents are responsible for the well-being of their family. Good newspapers take on that role with the communities we serve.”

Williams added, "Newspapers sound the alarm with swift, accurate and thorough coverage when sensitive issues arise. We provide not just facts but clearly labeled editorials to help everyone weigh matters with sufficient information. We pay attention. We laugh. We cry. We hurt. We rejoice. We care. We share the pain and shed tears along with our readers. That is what well-run newspapers do." (Read more)

More start-ups, especially in flyover country, can improve U.S. economy, entrepreneur says

Flyover Country—considered to be areas, mostly in the Midwest, that are flown over by airlines between hubs—could be the future of rising entrepreneurs in the U.S., writes Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution and co-founder of AOL, for The Washington Post.

Case writes that over the next decade, innovation and investment will accelerate in flyover country for five reasons: advancements in technology, increased mobility, lower cost of living, local support and greater access to capital. He writes, "In this next wave we will see revolutions in health, education, energy and food—but they’ll likely happen in evolutionary ways."

But the U.S. needs the entire country to continue to excel, Case writes. "In order for America to remain the leader of the free world, it must have the largest and most robust economy—and that requires that it continue to be the most innovative and entrepreneurial nation. That will enable us to maintain our global lead—but also enable us to grow our economy faster and create more jobs—particularly good middle class jobs."

"To achieve this, we can’t rely on just a few regions—we need all 50 states to support start-ups, so we will have a broadly dispersed innovation economy," Case writes. "That means civic leaders and business leaders (even in major companies) and citizens in cities and towns across the country need to get involved. They need to support the agenda of connecting colleges to communities; of building great STEM programs in our schools; of passing comprehensive immigration reform." (Read more)

Documentary examines bee population losses

The honeybee population has decreased about 30 percent during each of the last eight winters. The decline has been blamed on anything from pesticides to viruses, but the truth is that many scientists do not know why many bees keep dying and what can be done about it. The Retro Report, an offshoot of the The New York Times that produces video documentaries examining major news stories from the past and analyzing what has happened since, has decided to focus on the plight of bees.

"The centrality of bees to our collective well-being is hard to overstate," writes Clyde Haberman for the Retro Report. "They pollinate dozens of crops: apples, blueberries, avocados, soybeans, strawberries, you name it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly one-third of everything that Americans eat depends on bee pollination. Billions of dollars are at stake each year for farmers, ranchers and, of course, beekeepers."

"But in the fall and winter of 2006-07, something strange happened," Haberman writes. "As Dave Hackenberg, a beekeeper in central Pennsylvania and in Florida, recalled for Retro Report, he went to his 400 hives one morning and found most of them empty. Queen bees remained, but worker bees had vanished."

Overall, the U.S. has seen honeybee colonies go from three million two decades ago to 2.4 million today, Haberman writes. "The fear is that this dying-off is too great for the country’s ever-expanding agricultural needs." (Read more)

Treated wastewater from oil and gas operations can still produce dangerous toxins, study finds

A study by researchers at Stanford University and Duke University published in Environmental Science and Technology found that "treated wastewater from oil and gas operations, when discharged into rivers and streams that travel toward drinking water intakes, can produce dangerous toxins," Susan Phillips reports for StateImpact.

"The research confirms what scientists have been warning about for some time," Phillips writes. "The high concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines." (Stanford and Duke graphic)

The study, which used samples from sites in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, found "just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes," Phillips writes. "The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer." (Read more)

Webinar on Oct. 3 to focus on proposed changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act

The Regional Offices of the Council of State Governments and the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders are hosting a free webinar at 3 p.m. (ET) on Oct. 3 to examine recently proposed changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act. The webinar will examine the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "most recent actions implementing the law, focusing on the supplemental rule proposals and their implications for those in the food and feed supply chain," says a news release.

Guest speakers are: Roland McReynolds, Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association; Robert Guenther, Senior Vice President of Public Policy of United Fresh; Leah Wilkinson, Director of State Affairs of the American Feed Industry Association; and Joe Reardon, Asstistant Commissioner of North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Questions can be sent in advance to For more information or to register click here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Missouri newspaper contest winners announced

The rural newspapers that won gold medals in the latest Missouri Press Association contest were The Clinton County Leader (weeklies up to 3,000 circulation), The Houston Herald (weeklies 3,001-7,000), the Daily Star-Journal of Warrensburg (dailies up to 5,000) and The Columbia Missourian (dailies 5,001 to 15,000). Urban winners were the Kansas City Star and the weekly St. Louis American. For a complete list of the winners, click here.