Friday, October 24, 2014

More workers in oil and gas industry die from fires, explosions than in any other private industry

Despite employing fewer than 1 percent of workers in the U.S., the oil and gas industry has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry, accounting for 10 percent of such fatalities, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. The only profession with more deaths is firefighting.

The oil and gas industry apparently fails to see this as an issue, Soraghan writes. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry's biggest lobbying group, wrote earlier this year in a filing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration: "There is little performance data showing there is a safety problem at these facilities. The risk level is not high." (E&E graphic)

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board "found 26 explosions and fires since 1983 at conventional oil and gas sites that killed 44 members of the public and injured 25 others," Soraghan writes. "The board, fashioned after the National Transportation Safety Board, made six recommendations to government agencies and industry groups when it released the study in 2011. None has been implemented." So far this year, at least eight fatal oil and gas explosions have occurred in the U.S.

Fire and explosions pose a threat to more than just workers, with 15.3 million people living within a mile of a well that had been drilled since 2000, The Wall Street Journal reported last year, Soraghan writes. But the oil and gas industry is heavily active in politics, spending $145 million last year lobbying the federal government, more than any other industry except pharmaceuticals and insurance, says the Center for Responsive Politics. ()

Many states with large rural populations are not energy efficient, state-by-state study says

Many states with large rural populations are less energy efficient than states with fewer rural citizens, says an annual ranking released Wednesday by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). North Dakota tops the list as the least energy efficient, followed by Wyoming, South Dakota, Mississippi, Alaska and West Virginia. The most energy efficient states are Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

"The rankings account for each state’s electricity and natural gas efficiency program budgets, annual savings from efficiency programs, greenhouse gas emissions standards, electric vehicle registrations, transit funding and legislation, the strictness and enforcement of state building codes, use of combined heat and power, state financial incentives for energy efficiency and other factors," Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central

"Massachusetts has led the country in energy efficiency for four years in a row, mainly because the state has begun to save energy by setting annual electricity savings targets of up to 2.6 percent through 2015 and natural gas savings targets of up to 1.2 percent per year through 2015," Magill writes. "States at the bottom of the list have not made energy efficiency a priority." (Read more) (ACEEE map: Energy efficient rankings by state. To view an interactive version click here)

Candidates, Appalachian news media shy away from studies on mountaintop-removal health risks

Coal has become a major issue in election campaigns. But despite the mounting scientific evidence of the health dangers of mountaintop removal—a recent study linked its dust to lung cancer—candidates and local media have largely ignored the subject, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo)

"It would be one thing if—as some political leaders continually try to suggest—this was just one isolated study," Ward writes. "But it’s not. It’s a growing body of studies that continues to present a compelling case that something is going on. And, of course, while the human health studies are the most troubling, the evidence of environmental destruction from mountaintop removal also continues to grow."

"Just this week, there was another important paper out of the University of Kentucky, reporting on how mountaintop removal is reducing the salamander population in Kentucky’s coalfields," Ward writes. "This is a follow-up paper to one that produced a similar finding in West Virginia. We wrote about that paper in a Gazette story that summarized the findings of a study many of the overlooked environmental effects of mountaintop removal."

"Another important study published in August reported that the coal industry’s much-touted “mitigation” efforts aren’t really doing much good at restoring streams damaged by mining," Ward writes. The Washington Post wrote an editorial saying that coal advocates claim the studies are nothing but an "anti-coal, anti-business agenda."

But few in coal country are jumping in to defend editorials like the one in the Post, Ward writes. "You don’t see much coverage of these important scientific studies in the West Virginia media, and you don’t see many editorials like the Post’s in our state’s newspapers." (Read more)

USDA awards grants to create jobs and boost economic development in rural areas

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that 43 non-profit organizations and higher learning institutions in 27 states have been awarded between $71,998 to $1 million in grants and loans to help create jobs and boost economic development in rural areas.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "Many rural businesses and organizations are succeeding but with access to additional resources, can create more jobs, promote growth and create an environment where more products can be made in rural America. The awards we are announcing today will not only provide funding, but they also will provide the critical training and technical assistance rural cooperatives and non-profit groups need to enhance the work they are doing to strengthen America's Main Street businesses."

Funding is through the USDA's Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program and the Intermediary Relending Program, says USDA. "The funding can be used to conduct feasibility studies, create and implement business plans, offer technical assistance, establish low-interest loans and help rural businesses develop new markets for their products and services." (Read more)

EPA proposes removing 72 chemicals from list of substances that can be used in pesticides

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed removing 72 chemicals from the list of substances that can be used as ingredients in pesticides, Laura Barron-Lopez reports for The Hill. "The move comes in response to calls by the Center for Environmental Health, physicians and others across the U.S. for the EPA to propose rules mandating companies disclose the 371 ingredients found in pesticide products." The public comment period on the proposal is open until Nov. 21.

Most of the 72 chemicals are on the list of 371 ingredients deemed hazardous by environmental groups, Barron-Lopez writes. Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told Barron-Lopez, “We are taking action to ensure that these ingredients are not added to any pesticide products unless they have been fully vetted by EPA.” (Read more)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Coal companies and miners keep leaving Appalachia for energy boom in Wyoming, Montana

Coal companies are heading west where mining is cheaper, and with many Appalachian coal mines cutting jobs or shutting down, some workers in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are packing up and trekking their families thousands of miles to follow the coal boom to Wyoming and Montana, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. (Loh photo: Peabody Energy Corp.'s North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming)

"With the U.S. coal industry in its worst decline in decades, companies including Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody Energy Corp., the biggest producer, are pivoting toward pockets of future profit," Loh writes. "No prospect is bigger than the Powder River Basin, a high, mineral-rich plain of yellow grass and sagebrush stretching from central Wyoming to southern Montana. Coal output in the Powder River Basin increased 2.6 percent in the first half from a year earlier while total U.S. production inched upward a mere 0.75 percent. Mines there are vast open holes that cost less than half to operate than those in West Virginia where workers head underground to extract the fuel."

"Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming is the country’s biggest, with five pits that span 100 square miles," Loh writes. The company sold 123.3 million tons of Western U.S. coal in the first three quarters of the year, an increase of 4.6 percent from 2013, with most of the coal coming from the Powder River Basin.

Jobs are plentiful in areas like Campbell County, Wyoming, even if housing is not, Loh writes. Campbell County has an unemployment rate of 3 percent, well below the national average of 5.9 percent, with the region's mines supplying 41 percent of the country's coal. Gina Michael, visitor services manager with the Campbell County Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Loh, “We have more jobs than people and more people than housing.”
And it doesn't appear that the boom will end any time soon, Loh writes. "In Wyoming, it cost Alpha an average of $11.06 a ton to mine 17.4 million tons of coal in the first half of the year." Meanwhile, "the company spent an average of $63.86 a ton to extract Appalachian coal." (Read more)

Rural Nebraska school to allow guns in senior portraits; other schools have passed similar rules

Seniors at a rural high school in central Nebraska can now pose for yearbook portraits with their firearms. The school board for Broken Bow Public Schools unanimously passed the rule Monday night, allowing senior portraits to contain guns, as long as the photos are done tastefully, Joe Dejka reports for the Omaha World-Herald. One official said posing with guns is nothing new, with about half the state's districts allowing such photos. (Baer Photography: Senior portrait of Jillian Dixon of Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb.)

Hunting, skeet and trap are popular in Broken Bow, and firearms are common, said Superintendent Mark Sievering, Dejka writes. Sievering told him, “The board, I believe, felt they wanted to give students who are involved in those kinds of things the opportunity to take a senior picture with their hobby, with their sport, just like anybody with any other hobby or sport." (Wikipedia map: Custer County, site of Broken Bow)

The new policy says "that students may pose with objects that illustrate their accomplishments or interests, including hunting, shooting and other outdoor sporting activities," Dejka writes. "If posing with an item normally considered a weapon, such as a rifle, shotgun or knife, the student may not be brandishing the weapon or pointing it at the camera. The display must be 'tasteful and appropriate.' For example, the policy says, a student 'should not submit a photograph of game shot by the student if the animal is in obvious distress.'"

School board member Matthew Haumont told Dejka, “So we’re going to have to take these as a case-by-case basis. But I think that goes with any photo, whether it’s a scantily clad girl or something like that.” (Read more)

Webinar for journalists on Oct. 28 to focus on covering Medicare Advantage and Part D issues

Because Medicare's open enrollment began last week and will run through Dec. 7, Kaiser Health News is holding a webinar for journalists at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on Oct. 28 on covering Medicare Advantage and Part D issues, says Kaiser Health News. "During Medicare's open enrollment period, beneficiaries can change their prescription drug coverage or change or enroll in private health plans called Medicare Advantage, which replace standard Medicare."

The webinar will feature a brief introduction by Kaiser Family Foundation’s Senior Vice President Tricia Neuman, who directs the KFF Program on Medicare Policy, and Kimberly Lankford, Contributing Editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, followed by a question and answer period. For more information or to register click here.

USDA releases state-by-state reports on impact of Made in Rural America

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released state-by-state Made in Rural America reports that "highlights specific USDA investments in rural businesses, manufacturing, energy, water and other infrastructure development," says USDA. "They also outline how USDA is helping rural communities attract businesses and families by investing in housing and broadband."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "This report shows what investment in rural America means in real terms for families and businesses across the country. Throughout the Obama Administration, USDA has created employment opportunities in rural America through investments in manufacturing, energy and small businesses. At the same time, we are bringing reliable services like water, housing and broadband to make these same communities attract and retain a talented workforce. This report proves that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in rural America." To read the reports, click here.

Certification revoked from West Virginia lab that falsified coal water quality reports

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has revoked the state certification of Appalachian Laboratories after an official plead guilty to falsifying water quality samples for coal companies, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. The official testified before a federal judge that he was pressured by coal companies to alter results.

DEP released an order saying that Appalachian Laboratories “submitted false, inaccurate data to its clients” and to the agency and ordered Appalachian to notify its clients that its certification had been revoked, Ward writes. In West Virginia, companies are required to be certified to perform water quality analysis. DEP rules allow the agency to revoke a lab certification if the lab "commits any falsification relating to certification, testing or reporting of analytical results." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fear of high winter heating costs raises demand for firewood in rural Minnesota; supplies are low

Rural residents in the Midwestern U.S. who rely on propane spent about 54 percent more last winter than in 2012-13. Because of anticipation of another brutal winter, the fear of propane shortages and the high costs of keeping warm, firewood is in high demand in rural Minnesota, and supplies are running low, John Enger reports for Minnesota Public Radio.

Minnesota officials say propane shortage won't be a problem this year, with residents having already stocked up on 1.35 million gallons of propane, a 30 percent increase in pre-season sales, said Roger Leider, Minnesota Propane Association executive director, Enger writes. "Firewood, on the other hand, is in critically high demand. Reserves were bled dry last year, and spring logging was stalled by muddy ground. Last month Twin Cities-area firewood suppliers made news when they were unable to keep up with orders." (Enger photo: Chris White cuts wood to sell to lumber mills)

Loggers Tim, Dean and Duane White typically cut 500 cords for area lumber mills in the northern part of the state but have already met that demand this year with another 500 on order that have already been sold, Enger writes. Because of the high demand and the difficulty of getting to greater supplies, the Whites have had to raise prices from $75 to $80 per cord for green, lower-grade firewood and bump up the cost for oak from $80 to $85.

It's estimated that in northern Minnesota heating a typical home with wood costs about $640, Enger writes. "Beltrami Electric Cooperative estimates it costs about $2,100 to heat with standard electricity, though that cost can drop to $1,340 if there is a secondary source of heat, like a wood stove, and off-peak pricing kicks in." (Read more)

USA Today index shows how U.S. counties have become more racially and ethnically diverse

The U.S. is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. And not just in cities. Rural America is seeing an influx of immigrants as the country experiences a second wave of immigration, Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg report for USA Today. "The first, which stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s, coincided with the opening of Ellis Island and the social and political transformation of the nation. The people in this second wave, arriving roughly since 1970, are more likely to be middle-class and, because of improved transportation and technology, can assimilate more quickly."

USA Today has created a county-level Diversity Index to calculate the chance that two random people are different by race or ethnicity, Toppo and Overberg write. The index went from 20 in 1960 to 40 in 1990 to 55 in 2010 and is projected to rise to 70 by 2060, meaning there will only be a 30 percent chance that two random people next to each other will be the same race or ethnicity.

The index has risen dramatically in many rural areas, Toppo and Overberg write. In Finney County, Kansas, where the population is 47 percent Hispanic and two meatpacking plants employ more than 2,500 immigrants, the index rose from 46 in 1990 to 60 in 2010. Buena Vista County, Iowa, increased from 6 in 1990 to 49 in 2010, and Monroe County, Pennsylvania rose from 9 in 1990 to 48 in 2010. Overall, 14 percent of counties had an index above 50 in 2010, compared to only 3 percent in 1990. (Read more) (USA Today map)

Documentary examines effects of proposed uranium mill in rural impoverished Colorado

"Uranium Drive-In," a documentary film now available on DVD, follows the plight of a proposed uranium mill in rural Montrose County, Colo., offering "an honest look at people facing matters of rural poverty, sustainable development and the long reach of environmental advocacy," Natalie Axton reports for the Daily Yonder. The mill would provide jobs to residents in Nucla, where 17 percent of people live below the poverty line, and Naturita, where 10 percent of people live below the poverty line.

Filmmaker Suzan Beraza told Axton that the residents "are between a rock and a hard place, and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to survive. They don't see the uranium industry as being that dangerous. It's something they are very used to; their families have been doing it for generations. It's not that the people there necessarily want the uranium industry. They just want something. And that's when it became more clear that it was a rural issue. That thousands of small towns across the United States are in a similar situation, whether it’s a resource extraction town or a town where the major industry has left." (Read more)

Urban areas are increasingly voting Democratic as rural areas are trending Republican

Urban areas are more likely to vote Democrat, while rural areas are more apt to support Republican candidates, reports Philip Bump for The Washington Post, which has created county-level maps and graphics detailing rural vs. urban populations and how they voted in the 1988-2012 presidential elections. Counties where the population is at least 90 percent urban "were 32 percentage points more Democratic in their voting than the average," while counties that are 90 percent rural "were about 11 percentage points more Republican—shifting right an average of two percentage points each election." (Post graphic)

"If you plot every county's urban-versus-rural divide by the per-election average change in the vote, the pattern is clear," Bump writes. More urban areas have been voting more Democratic. "The national average of all counties in presidential elections has become more Republican than the overall vote because there are more rural counties—but fewer rural voters." (Read more)

NTCA-Rural Broadband Association recognizes Smart Rural Community Showcase Award winners

NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association recognized 13 rural communities in the U.S. and Canada as Smart Rural Community Showcase Award winners, "as part of the association's initiative to highlight efforts that make rural hometowns vibrant places in which to live and do business," says the organization.

The organization says its goal "is to foster the development of smart communities throughout rural America and Canada by recognizing innovators, highlighting innovative implementation of broadband solutions and identifying resources to assist other broadband providers and connected industries." Winners were selected for "promoting access to next-generation applications and platforms such as distance learning, telehealth services, public safety and security."

The winning broadband providers were: Copper Valley Telecom, Valdez, Alaska; Consolidated Telecommunications, Brainerd, Minn.; FTC, Kingstree, S.C.; HuronTel, Ripley, Ont.; North Central Telephone Cooperative, Lafayette, Tenn.; Premier Communications, Sioux Center, Iowa; Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, McKee, Ky.; Solarus, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.; Triangle Communications, Havre, Mont.; Tri-County Communications Cooperative, Strum, Wis.; Twin Valley Telephone Co., Miltonvale, Kan.;Vernon Telephone Cooperative, Westby, Wis.; Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom, Waitsfield, Vt. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

USDA needs to decrease high poultry pathogen rates, Government Accountability Office says

The U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to strengthen the way it approaches protecting humans from pathogens in poultry products, says a report by the Government Accountability Office. To do so, USDA "must set strict pathogen limits for poultry products with the highest contamination rates and find ways to measure a poultry plant’s success with these new standards," Kimberly Kindy reports for The Washington Post.

USDA set a standard of 7.5 percent for salmonella on whole chicken carcasses, but "ground poultry products and chicken parts—breasts, wings and drumsticks—have pathogen rates in the double digits, partly because of the cutting and grinding processes that expose the meat to more bacteria," Kindy writes. "A pathogen standard establishes the level of a bacteria that can be found on a poultry product before it is declared unfit for commerce."

"Federal law does not prohibit the sale of poultry products that are contaminated with pathogens, so the department has pledged repeatedly to set limits for the most dangerous pathogens—salmonella and campylobacter," Kindy writes. But the report noted that USDA "missed a Sept. 30 deadline for setting salmonella and campylobacter limits for chicken and turkey parts as well as campylobacter in ground turkey. It also missed a deadline for updating the rate of salmonella allowed in ground poultry, which is currently more than 44 percent for both chicken and turkey."

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said that by the end of 2014 it will issue new pathogen standards and create a way to measure how well poultry plants are meeting the standards, Kindy writes. (Read more)

2014 shaping up to be warmest year on record; next year could be even warmer

The past 12 months have been the hottest year-long time period on record, and 2014 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press. If 2014 is the hottest year on record—records have been kept since 1880—it would mark the sixth time since 1995 that the yearly record has been broken.

Through September the average temperature has been 58.72 degrees, tying 1998 for the hottest first nine months of the year, Borenstein writes. The past five months—May, June, July, August and September—were the hottest months on record for those respective months.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Jessica Blunden said an impending El Nino is the reason this year could be the hottest on record, Borenstein writes. "In 1998, the year started off super-hot because of an El Nino. But then that El Nino disappeared, and temperatures moderated slightly toward the end of the year. This year has no El Nino yet, but forecasts for the rest of the year show a strong chance that one will show up and that weather will be warmer than normal, Blunden said."

"If Earth sets a record for heat in 2014, it probably won't last, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director for the private firm Weather Underground," Borenstein writes. "If there is an El Nino, Masters said, 'next year could well bring Earth's hottest year on record, accompanied by unprecedented regional heat waves and droughts.'" (Read more) (NOAA map)

Districts lag in applying Common Core, teachers say implementation is challenging, long testing times cause logistical problems

The Common Core State Standards, a set of guidelines designed to regulate what students learn each year in school, have helped some and frustrated others. Some districts are lagging in implementing the standards, some teachers say applying the standards is challenging and others are concerned about the length of time students will take to complete the required tests.

The Center on Education Policy tracks the progress of the Common Core and recently reported that "the future of the Common Core remains uncertain at this important juncture" because many districts aren't yet ready to fully implement the standards, Catherine Gewertz writes for Education Week. Diane Stark Rentner, the CEP's deputy director, said more time is required for everyone involved to feel prepared to move forward.

According to a Center on Education Policy survey, of the superintendents surveyed, about one-third said the math and English/language arts standards would be applied this year, and 30 percent said that they would fully implement those standards in the 2015-2016 school year or later or that they weren't certain when they'd implement the standards.

Daniel D. Curry, the superintendent of the 16,000-student Calvert County schools in Maryland said: "The heavy lift has been developing our own units of study, involving teachers in the summer, after school and on weekends, keeping some core parts that have been there, but restructuring them, because there is no commercial product that really gets this done. Our teachers are worn out." (Read more)

"In a survey unwritten by the children's publisher Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both Common Core supporters," 79 percent of teachers report feeling "very" or "somewhat" prepared to teach according to the standards—up from 71 percent last year, Greg Toppo writes for USA Today. However, 81 percent say the standards are "challenging" to apply, up from 73 percent last year. "It's a big shift in the way that kids learn and the way that teachers teach, so it's going ot take time for kids to kind of shift away from sitting in a row of desks and listening to a teacher lecture and taking notes and doing fill-in-the-blank," said Kathryn Casteel, a math and science teacher at W.W. Stanford Middle School in Hillsborough, N.C. "It's much more inquiry-based, and that's very new to the kids."

YouGov conducted the survey in July, polling 1,676 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public school teachers in 43 states and the District of Columbia, and all of the participants had answered questions for a similar survey last year, Toppo writes. Fewer than half the teachers reported that the standards will be "positive" for most students. However, of the small group of teachers who have been teaching with the standards for over a year, most are supportive. "The more teachers get into the Common Core, the more they believe in it," said Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education. "But the more they understand it, the more they concede there are challenges." (Read more)

One of the main concerns with the new standards is the length of time students will take to finish the required tests. According to the guidelines released by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), third graders will need 9 3/4 hours for testing; fourth and fifth graders, 10 hours; sixth through eighth graders, 10 3/4 hours; and ninth through twelfth graders, 11 1/4 hours. As a result of the pushback from some states, "the analysis now shows that 42 percent of K-12 students are expected to take either PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests," Valerie Strauss writes for The Washington Post.

Andrew Milton, an eighth-grade English teacher at Pioneer Middle School in DuPont, Wash., wrote about the issue on his Speaking of Education blog in a post called "Logistical Train Wreck," Strauss writes. Milton writes that the standards would require 8,000 hours collectively for the 750 students at his middle school. He explains that trying to schedule all of the testing using their 125 computers would be very difficult and time-consuming.

"This will be a logistical nightmare—figuring out which 125 students are going on which days, disrupting teachers who testing students are out of class, finding space for kids who take longer than expected, finding places for the students displaced from their computer lab classes and more that I'm sure I haven't thought of," Milton writes. (Read more)

In Illinois and Missouri, rural residents less likely than urban ones to enroll in ACA; mistrust an issue

Misunderstanding and mistrust of federal health reform has caused rural residents in Missouri and Illinois to be less likely than their urban counterparts to enroll in coverage, Jordan Shapiro and Walter Moskop report for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before Obamacare, 773,000 Missourians and about 1.6 million Illinoisans did not have health insurance at some point during 2013, says U.S. Census Bureau estimates. During the first enrollment period, 152,000 people in Missouri and 217,000 in Illinois signed up. Illinois expanded Medicaid coverage, while Missouri did not.

The Post-Dispatch, which did a study by zip code of private plan enrollments, found that in "Illinois, the lowest-income areas had the lowest rates of sign-ups for private insurance, although many residents likely qualified for Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program expanded under the health law," Shapiro and Moskop write." In Missouri, areas with higher uninsured rates saw a larger number of enrollments in private insurance since that was the only option available to them."

Ryan Barker, vice president of health policy at the Missouri Foundation for Health, told the Post-Dispatch, "There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the rural areas about what this is. There’s just a lot of mistrust and hatred of Obamacare.” (Read more)

Lab official who faked coal water quality reports said he was pressured by coal companies

The West Virginia lab technician who admitted to faking coal water quality reports told a federal judge that he and other employees at Appalachian Laboratories Inc. "falsified water quality samples under pressure from their coal company clients," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette. John W. Shelton testified under oath that "the coal companies put a lot of pressure on the [laboratory] companies, smaller companies, to get good water data, and that was it."

Shelton "admitted that 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," Ward writes. He also said "that he 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. Appalachian officials used the term 'honeyhole' to refer to water from certain sites that would always test within permit limits and could be used in place of or to dilute 'bad water,' according to a 'stipulation of facts' agreed to by Shelton and federal prosecutors."

"Prosecutors allege Appalachian faked the sampling results to keep and increase its coal industry business by helping mine operators avoid fines and other costs associated with bringing mine pollution into compliance with permit limits," Ward writes. "So far, court records have not named specific mining operations where Appalachian falsified water samples, but prosecutors say that the company performed work for more than 100 mine sites." (Read more)

As urban sprawl invades rural Iowa, the political climate in the state faces potential changes

While some rural Iowa school districts are facing population losses, struggling to remain open and being forced to cut costs and programs, the state's urban districts are flourishing and expanding, and their biggest problem is having too many students and needing more and bigger schools, Michael Barbaro reports for The New York Times. The effects are also changing the political climate in the state.

From 2003 to 2013 the state's metro areas grew by 13.3 percent, while population in all other areas fell by 3.6 percent, said a study by Iowa State University, Barbaro writes. "Iowa, the quintessence of heartland America, is undergoing an economic transformation that is challenging its rural character—and, inevitably, its political order."

"As Iowans prepare to elect a new United States senator for the first time in three decades (Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring after being in office since 1985), the scale at which people and power have shifted from its rural towns to its urban areas is emerging as a potent but unpredictable undercurrent in the excruciatingly close race, offering opportunity and risk for both sides," Barbaro writes. (Republican Joni Ernst (Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker) is concentrating more on rural voters, while Democrat Bruce Braley (NYT photo by Luke Sharrett) is going after the urban vote in the Iowa Senate race)

In Pocahontas County, in corn country in the northern part of the state, school enrollment has dropped by 32 percent over the past decade, forcing schools to consolidate and slash sports programs, ending years of tradition and rivalries, Barbaro writes. "Two hours south, Dallas County faces a very different problem: It is running out of schools. With the population swelling, in what used to be farmland ringing Des Moines, enrollment in its largest district has doubled over the same 10 years. As soon as a gleaming new high school is completed, construction on another begins."

"The state’s once ubiquitous farms are supporting fewer workers, the towns built around them are hemorrhaging younger residents and a way of life eroding for decades is approaching a denouement," Barbaro writes. "Farm fields are yielding to the new headquarters of banks, insurance companies and health care providers, whose rapid expansion is luring waves of Iowans to cities and suburbs and contributing to the state’s enviable 4.5 percent unemployment rate."

"Those changes have turned Iowa’s older, Republican precincts even redder and its younger, Democratic districts even bluer, while giving rise to suburbs whose politics can be harder to categorize—a mixture of millennial generation religious conservatives, baby boomer libertarians and Generation X liberals," Barbaro writes. And the candidates for Harkin's seat have chosen different paths in enlisting votes, with Republican Joni Ernst appealing to conservative rural voters and Democrat Bruce Braley embracing a more urban-friendly agenda. 

Harkin "said the election would turn on which candidate acknowledged the new landscape," Barbaro writes. Harkin told him “There is this ideal of Iowa." Those who have left its farmlands “aren’t too far removed from those small towns.” (Read more)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Plains States have lower unemployment rates than rest of rural U.S.; population loss a factor

Rural counties in the Plains States have fared better than the rest of rural America in recovering jobs since the recession, says a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder.

The report said one of the main reasons Plains States have recovered so well is that they rely more on agriculture—which continued to do well during the recession—and rely less on manufacturing—which struggled during the recession, Marema writes. Another reason is that Plains States have more college graduates, with 52 percent of Plains States residents having a degree, compared to 46 percent in other states. The report said, “During the recession, their higher levels of education served to limit the increase in unemployment in Plains counties.”

A less positive reason for the success in Plains States is that those states lost population at greater rates than other states, Marema writes. "That means fewer people looking for work and, in turn, fewer people who are unemployed." (Read more) (USDA map)

FCC approves order that opens door for better cell phone service in rural America

A ruling on Friday by the Federal Communications Commission could lead to better cell service in rural America, Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. The agency said in a release that it unanimously voted "to adopt a report and order that it says will 'promote deployment of the wireless infrastructure necessary to provide the public with ubiquitous, advanced wireless broadband services.'”

"The order clarifies several statutory limitations on state and local government authority to review wireless infrastructure siting applications," Chase writes. "Simply speaking, this means local entities will have to be more compliant with efforts from wireless companies seeking to add or improve wireless coverage."

Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of PCIA - the Wireless Infrastructure Association, told Agri-Pulse, “Local communities that want broadband need to cooperate with companies that are willing to invest in those communities. There really is a need to encourage that investment and not discourage it, so those rural communities that open their arms and go out of their way to court that investment are finding that they're much more successful in getting broadband to their citizens.” (Read more)

West Virginia follows Kentucky's lead, forms group to reshape Appalachian economy

West Virginia Sen. Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) announced last week that he has formed a group called called Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) to look into ways to diversify and revitalize the struggling economy in Southern West Virginia, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

Last year Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, a Republican from Eastern Kentucky, joined forces to launch Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), an effort to stimulate the economy of Eastern Kentucky, which includes some of the nation's poorest counties. The group has since held meetings in search of ways to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky.

The West Virginia effort will be similar to the one in Kentucky, Ward writes. SCORE will focus on looking into ways to "increase funding for tourism advertising and development; education and workforce development and retraining initiatives; dedicating monies for viable redevelopment projects; agribusiness and rural development opportunities; increase Broadband access; expanding and supporting intermodal transportation; explore development of coalbed methane reserves; and support clean coal research and development."

Kessler told Ward, “Southern West Virginia has become a region stricken with a lack of opportunity and hope. It’s time to change our way of thinking so that it can once again become a region that offers our children and grandchildren opportunities for a better future. It is not impossible to envision a renewed Southern West Virginia.” (Read more)

Rural road signs near school bus stop in New York say: 'Hey, Stupid, Slow Down'

Officials in Davenport, N.Y., have found a unique way to warn drivers about speeding on a winding rural road near a school bus stop. A pair of signs—warning drivers traveling eastbound and westbound—read "Hey Stupid, Slow Down." The signs are in response to a recent incident where a speeding driver had to slam on his or her brakes to avoid a collision with the bus and pedestrians, Mark Boshknack reports for The Daily Star in Oneonta.

Fred Utter, a bus driver and the fire chief for the town of 3,000, paid for the signs, Boshknack writes. Utter told him, “If it saves somebody’s life, it’s worth it. I’m just trying to get a point across. Sometimes you need to be blunt. It’s meant for people who don’t obey signs." (Read more) (Wikipedia map: Davenport is located in Delaware County)

Washington, D.C., writer travels Appalachia, following the Bon Appétit! Bon Appalachia! map

Washington, D.C., freelance writer Melanie Kaplan recently traveled through Appalachia, spending a few days following the Appalachian Regional Commission's Bon Appétit! Bon Appalachia! interactive map that highlights about 650 distinct eateries in Appalachia in an attempt to bolster the region's economic development. 

"I had many of the same preconceptions a lot of people do about Appalachian fare (lots of fried food, the occasional squirrel) and had never considered visiting this part of the country to eat," Kaplan writes for The Wall Street Journal. "But the more I studied the map, the more intrigued I was by all of the farm-to-table restaurants in off-the-tourist-track places."

Kaplan, who traveled with Hazard, Ky., native Travis Fugate, visited about a dozen spots in Lewisburg, W.Va., Charleston, W.Va., Pikeville, Ky., Abingdon, Va., Meadowview, Va. and Boone, N.C.

"Over the course of the trip, we’d seen coal towns struggling to reinvent themselves and restaurants straining to be sustainable and profitable," Kaplan writes. "We’d talked about the challenge of providing healthy, tasty food to less-than-affluent locals. It seemed fitting that our last stop was Boone’s F.A.R.M. (Feed All Regardless of Means) Café, a pay-what-you-can kitchen where you can buy a meal, trade volunteer hours for food or pay extra so someone else can eat later." (Read more)

Mini-grants up to $20,000 available to study childhood agricultural disease and injuries

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety is accepting proposals for mini-grants up to $20,000 "to support small-scale projects and pilot studies that address prevention of childhood agricultural disease and injury," says the organization's website. Funds will be given to test innovative strategies, develop new partnerships beyond safety professionals and translate research findings into practical applications. 

Grants are available to "individuals affiliated with community-based organizations, public or private institutions, units of local or state government, or tribal government," says the website. "Priority will be given to organizations and junior faculty who are building their capacity in childhood agricultural health and safety and those that generate new partnerships" with highest priority given to proposals that address barriers to keeping young children out of the farm worksite, address vulnerable populations or test safety strategies with new partners.

The application deadline is Nov. 7. For more information or to submit a proposal, click here.