Friday, October 10, 2014

How should local journalists cover the Ebola virus? Health reporter offers suggestions

Now that the Ebola virus is in the U.S., how should local journalists tackle the issue? In a letter to the Association of Health Care Journalists, Rebecca Catalanello, a health writer for The Times-Picayune, writes: "I'm desperately seeking smart(er) ways to cover Ebola on the local level in a community where the risk so far appears to be so minimal. Other than calling our hospitals, airports, government officials, etc., and getting a litany of 'we're prepared' statements (which I have done), I am trying to figure out what, if anything, I should be doing at this point that can add meaningful coverage without fueling additional fears and just blending into the noise."

"The Dallas experience is informing my questions here—and the local reporters involved in that coverage seem to be doing a great job—but my editors feel it's premature to write about things like how we would handle a dead Ebola-stricken body, etc. ….which, yeah, it probably is?" she writes. "I'm curious, and I guess it's worth asking about now. But maybe not for a story? It just doesn't seem right to be writing nothing… but what should I be doing at this point?"

Kim Krisberg, a public health reporter in Austin, had this suggestion: "Preparedness funding! Overall, public health preparedness funding is down, which significantly impacts training, exercises, partnership-building, lab capacity, etc. Ebola is today's outbreak, but there will most definitely be another... and another and another. This kind of funding tends to ebb and flow with the latest outbreak/disaster, and by any account, that's not a good way to build a responsive, resilient public health system. I know this is 'big picture' stuff, but it may be interesting for readers to learn what they got for all those millions in public preparedness funds, how they've helped the Ebola response and why/or why not those funds should be sustained."

Diminishing panic over Ebola by explaining reproduction number

Several days ago, Thomas Eric Duncan died from Ebola after arriving in Dallas from Liberia. He didn't appear to be ill during his journey or soon after he arrived. "Various news outlets are reporting that travelers arriving in the United States from West Africa would have their temperatures taken and be asked to answer questionnaires ascertaining any possible exposure," Kris Hickman writes for the Association of Health Care Journalists.

This story, among other ideas circling the news, has caused worry, but do people really have a reason to panic? A reproduction number refers to the number of individuals to whom an infected person is likely to pass a disease. Epidemiologists have estimated that Ebola's reproduction number is between 1.5 and 2. Measles, one of the most contagious diseases in the world, has a reproduction number of 18, and HIV has a reproduction number of 4.

The calculations are based on how long infected individuals are contagious and how much of the virus is needed to pass the diseases, among other factors, "but these data indicate that Ebola is, in fact, controllable with appropriate and timely responses from the public health sector," Hickman writes.

Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, but only when the patient is showing symptoms. The fatality rate is approximately 50 percent, particularly without proper treatment. "Reporters tapping into public health experts who can explain the concept of reproduction number should be able to show how containable the disease is and put it into proper perspective," Hickman writes. (Read more)

Methane emissions in Four Corners 80 percent higher than EPA estimates, study says

A study by NASA and the University of Michigan published on Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters says that levels of methane in the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona connect are 80 percent higher than Environmental Protection Agency estimates, Seth Borenstein reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. (NASA photo: Four Corners is a major hot spot for methane emissions)

The high level of methane "is likely leakage from pumping methane out of coal mines," Borenstein writes. Data taken from 2003 to 2009 "found atmospheric methane concentrations equivalent to emissions of about 1.3 million pounds a year."

"The amount of methane in the Four Corners—an area covering about 2,500 square miles—would trap more heat in the atmosphere than all the carbon dioxide produced yearly in Sweden," Borenstein writes. "That's because methane is 86 times more potent for trapping heat in the short-term than carbon dioxide." (Read more)

Experts suggest ways to win public-policy changes to fight obesity

Though the obesity epidemic shows signs of stabilizing, it still carries national security risks—negatively affecting education, agriculture and transportation—and public policy change can incredibly important in reducing obesity, Richard Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America's Health, said at the Southern Obesity Summit in Louisville Oct. 7. According to The States of Obesity, 43 states have adult obesity rates of at least 25 percent.

Leon Andrews presents at the Southern Obesity 
Summit on Oct. 7 in Louisville, Ky. 
(Photo by Melissa Landon)
Leon Andrews, senior fellow of the Institute for Youth, Education and Families discussed work with First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, in which all 50 states and over 450 school districts are participating. The initiative includes new nutrition standards for school meals and ideas for encouraging exercise. Andrews urged attendees to ask their elected officials to participate in the campaign if they aren't already. Share positive feedback and success stories with elected officials as well instead of just making requests, said Whitney Meagher, project director at the National Association of State Boards of Education. "They need to be reassured that they did a good job and that this is actually working."

Jasmine Hall Ratliff, a program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said every community has a slightly different culture of health, but everyone should have the option to make healthy choices no matter where they live. She recognized that fighting obesity is multifaceted, and children need to both eat better and move more. "There are many communities where access to healthy foods is impossible, and there are no playgrounds. We fund advocacy and policy change at various levels to make access to physical activity and good food the default instead of the exception." She recommended checking out, a place to access resources and talk with other advocates.

Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, supports nonprofits working to prevent obesity through public policy, said Kim Milbrath, the initiative's southern regional manager. Its campaign focuses on policy in six areas: improving nutritional quality of snack foods in schools; reducing consumption of sugary beverages; protecting children from unhealthy food marketing; increasing access to affordable healthy foods; increasing access to parks, playgrounds and bike paths; and helping youth-serving programs increase children's physical activities. The initiative is funding projects in nine Southern states.

Milbrath also offered practical advice for winning policy changes to fight obesity: Make sure you're including and informing the right people, including business groups, parents, school administrators, groups with political power and all those who share the goal. Messages should be carefully constructed to clearly express the purpose of the campaign and to personalize it to the audience's concerns. Recognize that contributions will vary, set clear expectations, decide exactly how the money will be used and include the issues important to the audience, like job creation.

Autopsy of miner denied claims shows he suffered from severe case of black lung disease

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Labor told more than 1,100 coal miners that their compensation for black-lung disease may have been wrongly denied, after it was discovered that Dr. Paul S. Wheeler, the head of the unit at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions who interprets X-rays in black-lung claims, failed to find a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion. Chris Hamby, who broke the story in a report for The Center for Public Integrity, won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Steve Day
One miner who was denied claims based on Wheeler's opinion was Steve Day, who worked West Virginia coal mines for nearly 35 years, before dying in July from what more than a dozen other doctors had diagnosed as black lung disease, Hamby writes for BuzzFeed. "Today, however, there is final and overwhelming evidence that Wheeler was wrong: Steve’s autopsy."

"The doctor who performed the autopsy found extensive black lung," Hamby writes. "With the permission of Steve’s family, I shared his autopsy report with three leading doctors who specialize in black lung and related diseases. Each said essentially the same thing: Steve had one of the most severe cases of black lung they had seen."

Dr. Francis Green, a professor of medicine at the University of Calgary and one of the world’s top experts on the pathology of black lung, told Hamby, “A majority of his lungs had been replaced by scar tissue with coal dust." When Hamby contacted Wheeler he referred all questions to his legal team.

"In late September, a Labor Department claims examiner issued an award of benefits," Hamby writes. "But this is only a first step in what is usually a protracted process of appeals. Indeed, Steve also had won at this initial level in 2005. The company that employed Steve, now a subsidiary of Patriot Coal Corp., appealed that decision, leading to the denial of the claim by a judge. Patriot refused to say whether it would continue to fight Steve’s current claim."

Of the 1,500 cases in which Wheeler said there was no black lung disease, often saying he saw other diseases, such as tuberculosis or a fungal infection, "doctors saw the advanced form of the disease in 390 of these cases," Hamby writes. "Overall during that time, which is as far back as digital records go, miners have lost more than 800 cases after other doctors saw black lung on an X-ray but Wheeler graded the film as negative."

"And that’s only counting the cases that made it to the second stage in the claims process—a hearing before an administrative law judge—and not cases that were denied at the initial level," Hamby writes. "Decisions at that early stage are not publicly available." (Read more)

Voters want federal government to regulate flaring, says poll sponsored by watchdog group

The majority of voters in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Utah are in favor of U.S. Bureau of Land Management proposed rules on venting and flaring, says a survey conduced by Benson Strategies Group and sponsored by Western Values Project, a self-described oil-and-gas industry watchdog. (Benson Strategies Group graphic: Percent of respondents that favor proposed rules)

The survey found that 70 percent of the poll's 750 respondents are in favor of "a rule that would require oil companies to significantly cut the amount of natural gas they burn or vent as a byproduct of crude oil production," Laura Barron-Lopez reports for The Hill. "The survey also found that 93 percent of voters think its important for companies to pay taxpayers for the resources they extract from public lands."

Respondents were split by political affiliation, with 80 percent of Democrats in favor of the rules and 57 percent of Republicans, Barron-Lopez writes. (Read more)

West Virginia lab official pleads guilty to faking coal water quality reports

A West Virginia man who worked as a field technician then a field supervisor for Appalachian Laboratories Inc., "pleaded guilty Thursday to repeatedly faking compliant water quality standards for coal companies, in a case that raises questions about the self-reporting system state and federal regulators use as a central tool to judge if the mining industry is following pollution limits," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

John W. Shelton "admitted to a charge of conspiracy to violate the federal Clean Water Act, saying he diluted water samples, substituted water he knew to be clean for actual mining discharges and did not keep water samples refrigerated, as required by state and federal rules, court records show," Ward writes. Appalachian Laboratories "was certified by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to sample and analyze water discharges from mining operations as part of the Clean Water Act program."

"In an agreed-to 'stipulation of facts' filed in court Thursday, prosecutors and Shelton said that, throughout his time with the company, another Appalachian Laboratories official stressed to him the importance of 'pulling good samples,' a term that was understood to mean samples that would comply with permit limits, not necessarily samples that were taken properly," Ward writes. "Shelton and other Appalachian employees “falsified and rendered inaccurate” water samples by diluting them with distilled water or replacing them with water they knew to be in compliance with permit standards, according to the stipulation." (Read more)

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Wall Street is buying up agricultural real estate

Agricultural real estate investment trusts "are the new buyers on the block, unlocking potentially billions of dollars of cash to the rural real estate market," Marcia Zarley Taylor reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Paul Pittman, CEO of Farmland Partners, told Taylor, "We're permanent, we're stable and we want to bring investment capital into U.S. agriculture. Farmers who find themselves in a little financial difficulty the next few years will look at us as their friend."

Farmland Partners "launched its initial public offering in April raising $53 million, seeded with the $100 million of farm real estate Pittman has been accumulating since 1996," Taylor writes. "It was the first REIT to specialize in row-crop real estate. By mid-year, FPI owned 41 farms with 23,630 acres in Illinois, Nebraska and Colorado, along with three grain storage facilities. It had five farms under contract in Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska totaling another 4,075 acres."

But "the farm community has mixed opinions about outsider interest in farm ownership," Taylor writes. "Some states even maintain anti-corporate farm ownership laws on the books although few have enforced those provisions since a Nebraska Supreme Court ruled its version unconstitutional almost a decade ago. On the other hand, fast-growing farmers like to partner with REITs as a way to expand their operations on someone else's dime. They see it as a way to lock in rental land."

"After the run up in commodity prices from 2006-2012, 'there's a whole wave of money from strange places headed to agriculture, including outside investors,' says David Freshwater, a University of Kentucky ag economist," Taylor writes. (Read more)

ATV accidents, casualties remain a concern in rural America; safety precautions being ignored

All-terrain vehicles are a common sight in rural areasoften used for work and recreation—and almost as common are ATV accidents resulting in serious injuries or death. Oftentimes the accidents occur because riders have not received training, don't wear a helmet, have too many people riding the vehicle, are on an ATV that's the wrong size for them or wander out onto paved roads into vehicular traffic, reports KKCO 11 News in Grand Junction, Colo. (WFMJ 21 News photo: A teen was injured on Tuesday in an ATV accident in Shenango Township, Pennsylvania)

A quick Google search results in a number of ATV accidents, including: two people crashing into a pickup truck in Gallitzin, Pa.; a woman and a child injured in New Bloomfield, Pa.; a Huntingburg, Ind. teen dying in a crash; a Shaler, Pa. teen recovering from a broken spine; a Great Falls, Mont. man dying in a rollover; and a 4-year-old dying in Butler County, Pennsylvania.

In 2013, Missouri had 300 injuries involving ATV riders and 30 deaths, Hope Kirwan reports for KBIA 91.3 in Columbia. "According to a 2010 study by researchers at John Hopkins Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research, riders involved in ATV accidents are more likely to die or have more severe injuries than riders involved in motorcycle crashes."

One of the main source of accidents is when ATV riders go onto public roads, which is illegal in Missouri unless it's for agricultural work, Kirwin writes. Capt. Jay Hull of the Missouri State Highway Patrol told Kirwin, “Any time you start mixing off-road vehicles with passenger vehicles or pick-up trucks and things like that on a highway, you're going to see some traffic crashes. They're a little harder to control,  and there's just a lot of traffic out there and they're difficult to see.” (Read more)

In 2011 an estimated 115,000 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for ATV-related injuries, says ATV Safety.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a report in December 2013 that said that from 2007-11, the most recent years data was available, 1,701 ATV riders died in crashes on public roads in the U.S. More than 86 percent of the accidents took place in rural areas or rural states, with about half of the casualties being teenagers. Only 13 percent of drivers and 6 percent of passengers were wearing helmets, 43 percent of drivers killed were legally drunk and speeding was reported as a factor in 42 percent of single-vehicle accidents and 19 percent of multi-vehicle crashes.

Kentucky had the most ATV casualties from 2007-11, with 122, the report says. Pennsylvania had 97, West Virginia 96, Texas 95, California 79 and Florida 74. Of all casualties nationally, 25.9 percent involved people ages 20-29.

USPS plant consolidation will lengthen delivery times, eliminate most overnight First-Class mail

"The U.S. Postal Service should evaluate the impact of slower service to newspaper subscribers before proceeding with 2015 closings of mail processing plants," John Edgecombe Jr., publisher of The Nebraska Signal and newly elected president of the National Newspaper Association said in a news release.

Edgecombe said: “As I look at the list of plants on the closing list and see cities like Salina, Kan.; Grand Island, Neb.; Eureka, Calif., and Elko, Nev., I worry that small-town America is gradually losing reliable mail service. Affordable, dependable service links us to our subscribers. More importantly, it is the bedrock of local small-town economies. It is essential that USPS understand and grapple with these impacts before it makes a decision to close any mail sorting plant.”

USPS "plans to consolidate more than 80 mail-processing centers next year, but communities are almost entirely in the dark about how the changes will impact service in their areas, federal auditors said Wednesday," Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post. The USPS inspector said in a report that "the agency did not complete impact studies for any of the 95 facilities that are scheduled to absorb the operations of other centers starting in January."

"The review also found that the agency has not informed stakeholders about the expected service changes, despite a 2006 law that requires public input before they take effect," Hicks writes. "The changes will increase delivery times and eliminate overnight delivery for 'a large portion of First-Class Mail and periodicals,' the report said."

NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Heath said in the news release: “USPS rests its service studies upon electronic scanning equipment on its automated mail sorters. But many newspapers are not sorted on these machines. So our mail drops out of the visibility measurements that USPS depends upon to report its success in reaching delivery times. Certainly we are concerned whether a plant closing creates a slower standard. We are equally concerned that if newspapers are not delivered on time with today’s delivery standards, USPS has no systematic way of detecting it.”

Maps detail state-by-state shale gas regulations

Resources For the Future's Center for Energy Economics and Politics has released a report titled "The State of State Shale Gas Regulation," which "analyzed 25 regulatory elements related to shale gas development in 31 states that have actual or potential development activity," says the Center for Energy Economics and Politics. The report includes 26 maps that "provide an overview of the states’ regulations, the regulatory tools they use and in some cases the stringency of regulations." In several states, residents will vote in November on fracking referendums. (RFF map)

RFF points out that “Advances in hydraulic fracturing and other technologies are driving a boom in natural gas production in the United States, but developing this resource carries risks," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Historically, states have been the primary regulators of oil and gas development. As the shale gas boom has taken off, states have updated their regulations, each with varying requirements. This dynamic regulatory environment has been challenging for industry, environmental groups, researchers, the federal government and other experts to understand.”
"RFF’s state maps vividly illustrate the patchwork of widely varying state regulation of the oil industry," Agri-Pulse writs. "RFF found 'a lack of transparency in state shale gas regulations' and pointed out that though regulations are publicly available, they are often difficult to find and interpret, even for experts. 'Moreover, states’ use of case-by-case permitting makes it challenging for researchers and the public to determine what is regulated and required.” Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Shale oil boom leading to high supply, lower demand and rapidly decreasing prices

The oil shale boom is so great that it might end up being bad for business. With record amounts of oil being drilled, supply is high, demand is down and prices are falling to a point that threatens to reduce future drilling, Isaac Arnsdorf reports for Bloomberg. (Bloomberg photo by Eddie Seal)

"Domestic fields will add an unprecedented 1.1 million barrels a day of output this year and another 963,000 in 2015, raising production to the most since 1970, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration," Arnsdorf writes. "The Energy Department’s statistical arm forecasts consumption will shrink 0.2 percent to 18.9 million barrels a day this year, the lowest since 2012."

"More supply from hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling—and less demand—are contributing to the tumble in West Texas Intermediate crude," Arnsdorf writes. "The U.S. benchmark is down 18 percent since June 20 and fell below $90 a barrel on Oct. 2 for the first time in 17 months."

Ralph Eads, vice chairman and global head of energy investment banking at Jefferies LLC, which advised 38 percent of U.S. energy mergers and acquisitions this year, said in an interview, “If prices go to $80 or lower, which I think is possible, then we are going to see a reduction in drilling activity. It will be uncharted territory.” Prices today were at $87.39 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange and $87.87 in London. (Read more)

Rural Nevadans having hard time getting medical marijuana; legalized pot on several ballots

Forget about long drives from rural areas to visit an emergency room or to see a physician. Rural Nevadans are having a hard time making the trip to get their medical marijuana. "Eleven of Nevada’s 17 counties, all of them rural, saw no dispensary applications at all," reports James DeHaven for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "No applications for other related businesses, such as grow houses, were submitted either."

Meanwhile, in Oregon, at least 20 cities and counties "are racing to approve local taxes on marijuana in case voters in November decide to legalize recreational pot," despite a measure giving the state sole authority to tax marijuana, reports The Associated Press. "Measure 91 would let the state charge a tax of $35 for an ounce of buds, $10 for an ounce of leaves, and $5 for an immature plant."

"After expenses, the state would give 40 percent of the proceeds to schools; 20 percent to programs involving mental health, alcoholism and drug services; 15 percent to state police; 10 percent each to city and county law enforcement; and 5 percent to the Oregon Health Authority," AP writes. "Various economic studies suggest a state tax could raise from $16 million to $81 million a year. Most local taxes that have already been passed or proposed call for a 10 percent tax and exempt medical marijuana. Some local taxes, however, are as high as 20 percent and cover both types of sales."

Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., will vote Nov. 4 on whether to legalize recreational marijuana, AP writes. "Voters in Colorado and Washington state approved recreational pot in 2012. A total of 16 communities in Colorado have imposed taxes on marijuana on top of a state tax. In Washington state, the law did not grant local governments such authority, though general local sales taxes still apply." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Daily Yonder's founding editors, crusading weekly editor-publisher win rural journalism's top awards

A couple who created a new sense of community in rural America with an online news site and a crusading weekly editor who set an example that drew national attention are the winners of this year’s top awards from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

The awards are the Al Smith Award for public service in community journalism by a Kentuckian, which is co-sponsored by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Tom and Pat Gish Award for the courage, tenacity and integrity that are so often needed to do good rural journalism.

The Smith Award goes to Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, husband and wife of La Grange, Texas, and natives of Louisville. For several years recently they were co-editors of the Daily Yonder, the online news site of the Center for Rural Strategies, which Institute Director Al Cross says has “created a much greater sense of community among rural people in a diverse, changing rural America.”

The Gish Award goes posthumously to Landon Wills, who was publisher of the McLean County News in Calhoun from 1946 to 1972, and editor for almost all that time. He was the subject of a national television documentary in 1963 after advocating for civil rights and community development, and against religious prejudice and political mendacity.

For details on the awards, on Rural Blog page, click here; for a story on the Institute website, go here.

Miners protest EPA; say Obama' s proposed clean air rules are costing Central Appalachia jobs

More than 300 mine workers and their family members rallied outside the Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington on Tuesday "to protest a proposal to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants that they said would kill jobs in Appalachia," Zack Colman reports for Washington Examiner. (Examiner photo by Graeme Jennings: Protestors on Tuesday at EPA headquarters)

The rules, proposed by the EPA and the Obama Administration, seek to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005, a move that protestors said will result in lost jobs in Appalachia, Colman writes. "Many of the protesters were reliable Democratic voters who said they were venting frustration not with their party, but rather with an Obama administration that they say is pummeling their communities with too-stringent regulations."

Coal production in Central Appalachia "peaked in 1997 at 290 million short tons," Colman writes. "It hit 133 million short tons last year, according to data from the federal U.S. Energy Information Administration. EIA says production will fall below 100 million short tons for good in 2023, dropping to 80.5 million short tons in 2040." (Read more)

Wal-Mart to eliminate health insurance benefits for 30,000 part-time employees

Wal-Mart, a staple of many rural areas, announced on Tuesday that it is eliminating health insurance benefits for about 30,000 part-time workers, "a move that the nation’s largest retailer says is aimed at slashing its rising health-care costs," Sarah Halzack reports for The Washington Post. "All Wal-Mart employees who work less than 30 hours a week will no longer be eligible for coverage, a policy change that will affect 2 percent of the company’s 1.3 million U.S. workers and about 5 percent of its part-time workforce."

In addition to cutting benefits for part-time workers, "the company also said it will raise health-insurance premiums for its entire workforce in 2015," Halzack writes. "Wal-Mart’s Senior Vice President of Global Benefits, Sally Welborn, said in a blog post that these were 'tough decisions' made amid a climate in which businesses of all kinds are struggling to deal with their employees’ rising health-care costs." (Read more)

Medicare patients at critical access hospitals paying much higher rates than at other hospitals

Medicare beneficiaries treated at critical access hospitals "end up paying between two and six times more for outpatient services than do patients at other hospitals," says a report released Wednesday by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Jordan Rau reports for Kaiser Health News.

"Medicare requires patients to pay 20 percent of the amount a critical access hospital charges," Rau writes. "At other hospitals, patients also pay 20 percent coinsurance, but it is based on the amount Medicare decides to reimburse the hospital, which is almost always significantly below what the hospital charges." For example, in 2012 a Medicare patient receiving an electrocardiogram at a critical access hospital owed an average of $33, while patients at other hospitals paid $5, and critical access hospital patients getting an initial infusion into a vein had to pay $56, compared to $25 at other hospitals.

"The inspector general’s office recommended Congress change the law so that a Medicare beneficiary’s financial responsibility better reflects the cost of the service," Rau writes. (Read more)

Comment period on EPA proposed water rules extended; Farm Bureau wants rules withdrawn

The Environmental Protection Agency has once again extended the comment period on its controversial proposed water rules, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The comment period was originally scheduled to end on July 21 but was moved to Oct. 20 and is now set for Nov. 14. Comments can be made by clicking here.

An EPA spokesperson said in an email to Agri-Pulse: “EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have always maintained that having the latest peer-reviewed science is an essential part of determining jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. The Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) will soon complete its peer review of the report on the connectivity of streams and wetlands. To provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the SAB review and in response to requests for additional time to comment on the proposed Waters of the U.S. rule, the agencies are extending the public comment period to Friday, November 14, 2014.” Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

One group that has been outspoken critics of the proposed rules is the American Farm Bureau Federation. The agency sent a letter to the Senate urging members to tell EPA to withdraw its proposal, reports Agri-Pulse. The Farm Bureau, citing a letter by the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy, which asked EPA and the Army Corps to withdraw the rules, wrote: “The SBA Office of Advocacy has now validated our concerns. Now is the time for all senators to join the bipartisan effort to have this rule withdrawn.” (Read more)

Online tool provides information on chemicals regulated by EPA

Data on regulated chemicals is now easier for journalists and the public to view through an Environmental Protection Agency online tool called ChemView, "which provides information on chemicals regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act," Laura Barron-Lopez reports for The Hill.

"The new functions include improving the display and content for the reporting tool and new links to pollution prevention information," Barron-Lopez writes. "The database will also include information on consent order and new use rules for new and existing chemicals."

James Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told Barron-Lopez, "In the absence of Treform, EPA is moving ahead to improve access to chemical health and safety information and increase the dialogue to help the public choose safer ingredients used in everyday products. The additional data along with a customer satisfaction survey will make chemical information more readily available for decision-makers and consumers." (Read more)

15th Annual Healthy Foods, Local Farms Conference is Friday and Saturday in Louisville

The 15th Annual Healthy Foods, Local Farms Conference is scheduled to take place on Friday and Saturday in Louisville. This year's theme is "Real Homeland Security: Food, Health and Community." Guest speakers are; Kentucky novelist and farming advocate Wendell Berry; Georgia cattle rancher Will Harris; Dr. Daphne Miller, a family physician, writer and associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of California San Francisco; Montana rancher Darby Minow Smith; and Daniel Tucker, assistant professor at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Cost is $35 for the conference and $35 for the Harvest Dinner and Celebration. (Read more)

Who covers the health care tab for prisoners? Series in Washington paper examines the issue

What kind of health care do prisoners in your state receive? Laws vary by state, and states that expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cover more health costs for inmates, John Daniel Davidson reports for The Federalist.

However, the decision on funding remains in the hands of each individual state. Sheila Hagar of the Union-Bulletin in Walla Walla, Wash., recently ran a four-part series that examines health care for prisoners in her coverage area and touches on some problems that are common in most of the nation.

Hagar, citing the National Alliance on Mental Illness training manual, told the Rural Blog that NAMI says: "Medicaid is a joint federal and state program. However, federal Medicaid funds cannot be used to pay for services to people incarcerated in jails or prisons. Individual states, however, are not required to terminate Medicaid while residents are incarcerated. Instead states have the option of keeping individuals on the Medicaid rolls while jailed, even though federal Medicaid funds cannot be used. The advantage of keeping individuals on the Medicaid rolls is eligibility for services can be restored immediately upon release." 

Washington, for example, "terminates Medicaid eligibility immediately upon incarceration in jail or prison," Hagar said. “'This forces individuals to reapply for these benefits when they are released from jail or prison, often resulting in long delays in obtaining vital treatment and services,' NAMI said, significantly increasing the risk of recidivism and re-incarceration. When Medicaid coverage is linked to Social Security benefits, that forces people to reapply for coverage, even when incarceration is for a brief period." 

In Kentucky, "the state picks up on federal Medicaid funding for inmates, which will expand when health reform takes full effect," reports Molly Burchett for Kentucky Health News, which is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which also publishes the Rural Blog. Earlier this year Louisville jails signed inmates up for health coverage to save the state money, reports Kentucky Health News.

Davidson sites a report from the Government Accountability Office that says “The combination of expanded Medicaid eligibility and enhanced funding for those newly eligible as allowed under PPACA gives states additional incentives to enroll inmates in Medicaid and obtain federal matching funds and increases the federal responsibility for financing allowable services for inmates.”

"By expanding Medicaid to everyone who earns less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $15,000 a year for an individual, almost every state prison inmate in the country—about 1.5 million people—would qualify for Medicaid if they needed treatment outside prison," Davidson writes. "If every state expanded Medicaid, millions of inmates, probationers and parolees nationwide could be placed on the Medicaid rolls as a result of Obamacare."

Hagar touches on these issues in her series. "When people are processed into the Walla Walla County Jail, many arrive with mental health problems on top of their legal ones," Hagar writes. "Most lose their Medicaid benefits, meaning their health care must be covered with local taxpayer dollars when inmates’ families cannot pick up what can be a hefty tab." The jail spent $102,310 on medical costs in 2013, down from $203,682 in 2011, and one main reason is poor funding.

Another problem Hagar uncovered is that prisoners are not receiving necessary care. "Corrections facilities across the country are tasked by law to provide inmates minimal civil rights," Hagar writes. "But that mandate is muddied by a lack of guidance, no state statues and no definition of minimum requirements in setting such a standard, said Jim Bloss, who serves on the policy board of the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Washington state." In another story Hagar examines the plight of a woman to receive mental health care for her son.

MSNBC explores the politics of coal, five times

On his nightly "All In" show on MSNBC, Chris Hayes is doing a five-part series on the politics of coal. The first one took a close look at the decline of the industry in one of its iconic places, Harlan County, Kentucky, and featured a long and lively interview with Cecil Roberts, newly re-elected president of the United Mine Workers of America.

The second segment looked at coal's environmental and human impact, from mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia to the recent coal-ash spill in North Carolina, and featured an interview with one of the most controversial coal operators, Don Blankenship.

Hayes said the threatened coal industry is "using a few pages out of Big Tobacco's playbook. . . . It took almost 40 years" for scientific research on smoking to have an impact. John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader told him that the industry's influence lasted 12 to 15 more years more because of its contributions to political campaigns.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

South has the lowest quality of life, study says

The South is the worst place in the U.S. to live, says a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that ranked states in nine categories: income, jobs, housing, health, education, environment, safety, civic engagement and accessibility of services. Every area in the world can be examined through an interactive map by clicking here.

"The study assigned a value from zero to ten (ten being a perfect score, zero being an embarrassment) for each of the nine measures," Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. "While no state was perfect, New Hampshire, which scored 77.6, is easily the best anyone can do in the United States, followed by Minnesota (76.2), Vermont (74.8), Iowa (72.9); and North Dakota (72.4)." (Post graphic)

"Meanwhile, there are a number of states—all of them in the South—you might want to avoid," Ferdman writes. "Mississippi, which scored lower than any other state, barely broke 50. Arkansas and Alabama, which tied for second to last, each scored 51.3. West Virginia, which was fourth to last, scored 52.2. And Tennessee, which was fifth to last, scored 52.9." Overall, eight of the bottom 10 states are in the South, while only one southern state, Virginia, ranked in the top 25, placing 22nd. (Read more)

African American writer examines the 'invisibility of white poverty' in Eastern Kentucky

Lenoard Pitts, Jr., an African American reporter for the Miami Herald, recently traveled to Eastern Kentucky—an area that was called the Big White Ghetto by one reporter and that was the focus of a story with the headline “What’s The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?” by another reporter—to examine white poverty in one of the nation's poorest regions. (Herald photo by David Stephenson: Samuel Riley buying cigarettes in Booneville, Ky., located in Owsley County, one of the nation's poorest counties)

"Granted, America seldom discusses poverty of any hue, except insofar as conservative pundits and politicians use it as a not-subtle proxy for racial resentments among white voters," Pitts writes. "But white poverty is the great white whale of American social discourse—believed to exist but seldom seen."

"As it turns out, our deeply racialized view of poverty bears no resemblance to reality," Pitts writes. "Though it’s true that African Americans are disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line, it is also true that the vast majority of those in poverty are white: 29.8 million people. In fact, there are more white poor than all other poor combined."

"There is a remarkable consistency to the way citizens of the poor, white mountain South have been portrayed in popular culture and scholarship. In entertainment, they are narrowly defined as naifs whose very innocence and trusting nature insulates them from the conniving machinations of city folk (think Jed Clampett), as lazy sluggards (think Snuffy Smith), as big, dumb rubes (think Jethro Bodine) or as the personification of perverse evil (think Deliverance). Women’s roles are even more constrained: they tend to be either ancient, sexless crones (think Mammy Yokum) or hyper-sexualized young women (think Daisy Duke)."

"Get past John-Boy and the rest of 'The Waltons,' and it is difficult to recall a sympathetic portrait of white Southern poverty in mass media," Pitts writes. "To the contrary, America has always bred a special contempt for the white poor. As far back as 1866, a Boston Daily Advertiser writer opined that 'time and effort will lead the negro up to intelligent manhood, but I almost doubt if it will be possible to ever lift this ‘white trash’ into respectability.'” As recently as 2010, the Hillbilly to English Translation Dictionary was published with a cover depicting "a woman with pigtails and a missing front tooth, clutching a scraggly bouquet. She is wearing a dingy white wedding dress. She is barefoot and pregnant."

"There is no national advocacy group to defend the white poor against such libels as this, no analogue of the NAACP or the National Organization for Women to assert their dignity," Pitts writes. "You may malign them without a whisper of complaint."

"The invisibility of white poverty, says Edmund Shelby, editor of the Beattyville Enterprise, is part of the problem," Pitts writes. Shelby told him, “Those of us who are aware of the issues facing Appalachians and those of us who speak out about those issues see that as one [thing] that has kept us in the position that we are in for so long. I think that can be said for a lot of poor populations because if you can say things about people that dehumanize them, then there’s no need to help them raise themselves up in any way because, after all, using that stereotype, they are incapable.” (Read more)

Most foods labeled 'natural' contain GMOs, Consumer Reports study finds

Most food products labeled "natural" actually contain genetically modified ingredients, says a report by Consumer Reports. The group surveyed "more than 80 different processed foods containing corn or soy, the two most widely grown genetically engineered crops in the United States," and found GMOs present in breakfast cereals, chips and infant formula, Carey Gillam reports for Reuters.

"While foods labeled as 'non-GMO' or 'organic' were found to be free of genetically modified corn and soy, virtually all of the foods labeled as 'natural' or not labeled with any claim related to GMO content contained substantial amounts of GMO ingredients, Consumer Reports said," Gillam writes. "Products considered to be free of GMOs contained no more than 0.9 percent genetically modified corn or soy." (Read more) (Consumer Reports video)

Methane emissions from venting and flaring up 135 percent from 2008 to 2013, study finds

Methane emissions on federal land from venting and flaring increased 135 percent between 2008 and 2013, says a report by the Center for American Progress. Emissions increased each year from 2008 to 2013, which is "a contrast to Environmental Protection Agency data that show methane emissions from natural gas production in all areas declining in recent years," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

"CAP found that venting and flaring are responsible for about 40 percent of total methane emissions throughout the natural gas production and refining process," Cama writes.

Matt Lee-Ashley, director of CAP’s public lands project, said in a statement: “The rising volume of taxpayer-owned gas that is being wasted is not only costing tens of millions of dollars in lost royalty payments but it’s putting dangerous amounts of methane pollution into our air. Industry should be required to use readily available technology to reduce methane pollution and to pay royalties on any taxpayer-owned gas that is wasted." (Read more) (CAP graphic)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Community journalists assert the importance of investigative reporting at small newspapers

Despite the challenges facing small newspapers—lack of time, staff, resources, techniques, training and outside pressures—investigative reporting is still an important and valuable service to provide readers, said Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University and a panel he assembled at the National Newspaper Association's convention last weekend.

Panelist Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said that since large news outlets have largely pulled out of rural America, "If you don't do it, nobody's going to." Thomason called Horvit's statement "maybe the most important thing I've heard this morning," reports Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes the Rural Blog.

Marshall Helmberger, left, publisher of the Timberjay in northern Minnesota, "said his paper also has the largest circulation of any weekly in its region, partly because of its investigative work," Cross writes. Helmberger said, "People in our region have learned that having a newspaper that takes its watchdog role seriously, though it can be an irritant at times, is a community asset. . . . You've got problems that could use some attention from your paper. . . . All it takes is one enterprising person to ask the right questions."

Samantha Swindler, "whose investigation of a Kentucky sheriff when she was editor of The Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., led to a 15-year prison term for the Whitley County sheriff," said, "You should never print something that you wouldn't say to somebody's face." Cross writes, "She offered another principle to follow: Don't be so focused on turning over rocks that you forget the more traditional civic functions of a community newspaper: 'When you print the good stuff, people will listen to you when you say something is wrong.'"

Jonathan Austin and Samantha Swindler (Al Cross photo)
Swindler, now editor of the Forest Grove Leader in Oregon, was the 2010 winner of the Institute's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. One of the 2012 winners, Jonathan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in North Carolina, was also on the panel, as was Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Texas, co-author with Thomason of the new book on small-town investigative journalism. You Might Want to Carry A Gun. For a full report on the panel discussion, click here.

Column about students being 'dumb' about civics generates ire, teachable moments in Scott County, Iowa

The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, produced some teachable moments for Scott County (county seat, Davenport) after writer Sarah Hayden, who grew up in Germany, said North Scott High School students earned the label "Dumb American" when a handful of students failed to properly answer basic government questions from a mayor at a city council meeting.

The uproar from angry students and other readers flooded the paper with letters in defense of students. One letter said: "Yes, we agree that we should know the name of our governor, but to be called dumb and embarrassing in front of the entire community was rather upsetting. Mrs. Hayden took the knowledge of five students and formed a rash opinion about the youth of America but even worse the youth of North Scott."

A letter from two government teachers said that in class discussions, "The vast majority of students were furious, indignant and felt badly for the students mentioned in the column. This, in turn, led to a discussion on freedom of the press versus humiliation of 16- and 17-year-old students." (Actually, they felt bad, not badly. Or so we hope.) The teachers also said "Other students who attended the same meeting easily answered the mayor's questions." But the teachers began the letter, "We would like to thank Ms. Hayden for the teachable moments arising" from her column.

In an online poll asking, "Should high school students be expected to be able to answer basic questions about their government, such as naming the governor of their state?" the vote is running overwhelmingly "yes." The North Scott Press is subscription only, but has given us PDFs of its pertinent pages; Hayden's column is here; the initial letter of protest is here; letters from students are here; a jump, one more student letter and the teachers' letter are here

National News Engagement Day is Tuesday; good time to promote importance of being informed

Tuesday is National News Engagement Day. It's a day to encourage people to read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to or comment on news, says the National News Engagement Day website, which offers resources for participation in the day.

"National News Engagement Day will not only contribute to an informed society, it will encourage people of all ages to explore news and raise awareness about the importance of being informed," says the website. "National News Engagement Day will also help people discover the benefits of news, whether giving them something new to talk and tweet about or making them feel empowered as they learn news can be helpful in their daily lives. And in an era when public regard for the press is at its lowest level, National News Engagement Day provides an opportunity to better educate the public about the press’ principles, process, watchdog role and First Amendment rights." (Read more)

Rural job rate has increased, but at a much slower pace than in metro areas

Metro jobs are growing at a much faster rate than non-metro ones, says a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bill Bishop writes for the Daily Yonder. From August 2013 to August 2014, metro areas added 1.97 million jobs, an increase of 1.6 percent. During that same span non-metro areas added 67,800 jobs, an increase of 0.8 percent.

"Some of the fastest job growth could be found along the Kansas/Colorado border," Bishop writes. "The BLS survey in August found only 23 people looking for jobs in Wallace County, Kansas, which had a 40 percent increase in jobs in the last year. Eight of the 10 counties with the fastest job growth were in Colorado—Baca, Philips, Jackson, Kit Carson, Bent, Washington, Mineral and Kiowa." Jobs decreased by more than 10 percent in six counties: Treasure County, Montana; Dewey County, Oklahoma; Meagher County, Montana; Taylor County, Georgia; Weakley County, Tennessee; and Coal County, Oklahoma.

The unemployment rate in rural areas decreased from August 2013 to August 2014, from 7.3 percent to 6.3 percent, Bishop writes. In micropolitan areas, the rate decreased from 7.2 percent to 6.1 percent and in metro areas from 7.4 percent to 6.3 percent. (Read more) (Yonder map: To view an interactive version click here)

'War on coal' line obscures other reasons industry suffers; expert estimates half regulation, half gas

Coal industry advocates have pointed the finger at the Obama administration rules and environmentalists for the troubles, "but the truth lies somewhere in between, relying on a complex set of factors that are largely absent from the current debate over whether there is a 'war on coal'," Manuel Quiñones reports for Environment & Energy News.

While coal advocates call the rules an attack on the industry, that doesn't tell the whole story "because of American's newfound natural gas wealth," Quiñones writes. "Hydraulic fracturing technology has made it easier for energy companies to reach tough deposits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere."

James Stevenson, director of North American coal for the research organization IHS Energy, told Quiñones, "It is, I would say, probably a 50-50 split. The tipping point has really been caused by cheap gas." Quiñones writes, "In other words, Stevenson said in an interview, new regulations and market forces would probably not be having such an impact on coal if it weren't for the natural gas alternative."

"Coal used to account for more than half of U.S. power production," Quiñones writes. "But in 2012, low natural gas prices pulled that number down to roughly 32 percent. For the first time in recorded history, natural gas and coal were tied in fueling the country's power plants. Higher natural gas prices recently have driven a partial recovery in coal generation. The fuel accounted for roughly 40 percent of power production for 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration." (Read more)

MSNBC to spend this week examining coal and its effect on politics, jobs and America's future

MSNBC will be in coal country this week exploring coal's effect on politics, its workforce and its future in America. All In: Coal Country with Chris Hayes airs each night at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. (ET). "From Kentucky to Mississippi to North Dakota to West Virginia to North Carolina, Chris Hayes and his team talk to everyone from miners to politicians to the biggest energy company in the country," writes MSNBC.

Monday's show, "Politics of Coal," will focus on coal's impact on the Kentucky Senate election between Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. On Tuesday, the show will explore the link between coal and tobacco. Wednesday's show will travel to Kentucky and Mississippi to examine clean coal. On Thursday the focus will be on alternative energy.