Friday, December 05, 2014

Philanthropy lacking in rural America, as more funding goes to metro and suburban areas

Rural philanthropy is severely lagging behind metro and suburban areas, Rick Cohen reports for Nonprofit Quarterly. The publication wrote in July 2013 that philanthropy can bridge economic, social and cultural gaps, bringing people of differing backgrounds together to form a common bond.

But money going to rural areas keep declining, Cohen writes. In 2011, grant money in rural development decreased by 3.45 percent, "despite a huge 43.4 percent increase in overall foundation grants between 2004 and 2008."

In 2013, Nonprofit Quarterly examined "grantmaking to the top 67 rural CDCs as reflected in their prominent as grantees of Rural LISC or identities as Rural NeighborWorks groups and found that when PRIs and other non-grant assistance was removed from the calculations, these top-notch groups had seen sizable decreases in their foundation support in 2010 and 2011," Cohen writes. "For 93 Rural LISC and NeighborWorks groups, their non-governmental support between 2009 and 2011 dropped 12.6 percent."

"Summarizing other reporting we have done on rural philanthropy comes out roughly the same, a picture showing that the philanthropic resources devoted to rural America have not kept up with the moneys flowing to metropolitan and suburban locales," Cohen writes. "No one should think that philanthropy is doing a bang-up job in urban areas either when it comes to issues of community development, poverty and affordable housing, but the data, even if limited, make it clear that, just like in job creation, rural is falling behind in its access to philanthropic grants." (Read more) (U.S. Department of Agriculture map)

Birth rates down in 49 states; many largely rural states have declined 10% or more since 2006

The number of women giving birth in the U.S. dropped last year for the sixth consecutive year, and many states with large rural populations have seen significant declines in birth rates since 2006, says a report by the National Center for Health Statistics released on Thursday.

Last year there were 3.93 million births in the U.S., down from 3.95 million in 2012 and down 9 percent from the high in 2007, Tamar Lewin reports for The New York Times. The number of women 15 to 44 who had babies in 2013 dropped to a record low of 1.86 million babies, "well below the 2.1 needed for a stable population. For every 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, there were 62.5 births in 2013, compared with 63 the previous year."

"The decline is especially notable because the number of women in their prime childbearing years, 20 to 39, has been growing since 2007," Lewin writes. Strangely, there was a 14 percent increase in the number of babies by women 45-49 years old.

Many of the 12 states that had birth declines of 15 percent or more from 2006-2013 are largely rural, says the report. Those 12 states are: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island. Another 23 states had declines 10-14 percent, and overall rates declined in 49 states and Washington, D.C. Hawaii was the only state where the rate didn't change. (Read more) (NCHS map)

Fracking chemicals pose serious health concerns, especially to children and mothers, study finds

"Fracking operations use and create chemicals linked to birth defects, infertility, miscarriage, impaired foetal growth, low birth weight, preterm birth and premature or delayed sexual development, among other health problems," says a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health, Will Nichols reports for Business Green.

Researchers at the Center for Environmental Health, the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York and the University of Missouri conducted the study.

Researchers found "more than 750 chemicals may be used in fracking operations, many of which are 'routinely released' into the environment, posing a potential threat to nearby communities," Nichols writes. Substances used in fracking "include about 130 known or suspected endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which have been linked to a range of health problems including altered reproductive function, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth and developmental delays in children and changes in immune function."

"The report says benzene, toluene and xylene (BTX chemicals), a commonly used fracking cocktail, are associated with impaired sperm quantity and quality in men and could affect menstruation and fecundity in women, while acute exposure to heavy metals released from fracking is associated with increased risk of miscarriage and/or stillbirths," Nichols writes.

With no hope of gaining Senate control, Dems have little interest in Louisiana run-off election

UPDATE: Dec. 8: Sen. Mary Landrieu conceded the election to Rep. Bill Cassidy on Saturday night, The New Orleans Advocate reports. "With 3,897 of the state’s 3,931 precincts reporting, Cassidy, a Republican from Baton Rouge, had 702,087 voters or 56.78 percent of those cast. Three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from New Orleans, had 534,331 votes tallied."

Even though Republicans already gained control of the Senate, one key race still remains. It concerns the last remaining Democratic Senator in the Deep South, who has received little support from her own party and who has continued to fall behind her Republican challenger and the strong backing he has received.

On Saturday, Louisiana residents will go to the polls for a run-off election featuring incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu—who co-sponsored the Keystone XL Pipeline bill—and challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy. Though he has been in office since 1997, Landrieu is expected to lose big, and because of that, Democrats have shown little interest in the race. (Economist graphic)

Groups backing Landrieu have aired only 100 ads for her, while conservative groups have aired about 6,000 commercials attacking her, with conservative group Ending Spending Action spending almost $600,000 on negative Landrieu ads in the past week. Bruce Alpert reports for The Times-Picayune. Landrieu's support of the pipeline has helped her receive donations from energy companies, but other than that, she has mostly been on her own.

As far as her own party is concerned, Landrieu's Senate career is already presumed dead, Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty report for The Washington Post. "The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled its plans to buy ads and is not lifting a finger—or writing a check—to save her. Nor are any of the heavy-hitting Democratic outside groups."

"So with the odds stacked heavily against her, Landrieu soldiers on virtually alone—this year’s political equivalent of those holdout Japanese infantrymen who were discovered waging war on remote Pacific islands decades after World War II had ended," the Post writes.

In fact, Landrieu is trailing Cassidy by double digits in every poll, Timothy Carney reports for the Washington Examiner. Polls have Cassidy leading by anywhere from 11 to 26 points.

Federal government lacks funds to test all farm runoff pesticides in streams and rivers, study says

Farm runoff pesticides in rivers and streams pose a threat to aquatic life, mostly because the U.S. Interior Department lacks the funds to monitor all the pesticides used in agriculture, says a study by the U.S. Geological Society, which is part of the Interior Department. (U.S. Department of Agriculture photo: Hazardous herbicide being poured to be sprayed on food crops)

The study found that "the agency can afford to monitor 'less than half of the more than 400 pesticides currently used in agriculture, and monitoring focused only on pesticides dissolved in water,'” Eric Freedman reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

"U.S. farms use more than half a billion pounds of pesticides each year to boost crop production and reduce insect-borne disease," Freedman writes. The study says that “Some of these pesticides are occurring at concentrations that pose a concern for aquatic life."

The study is based on findings from 1992 to 2011, Freedman writes. "Testing occurred at 125 streams and rivers in agricultural, urban and mixed-use areas across the United States during 2002-2011 and 182 during 1992-2001. None of the testing took place at drinking-water intakes." (Read more)

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Gap continues to grow between rural and metro residents with four-year degrees

More rural adults are attending college and attaining two or four-year degrees. However, rural residents still significantly lag behind their urban counterparts in higher education, and the gap between the two continues to grow, Alexander Marré reports for the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Comparing data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008-2012 American Community Survey with Census results from 2000 shows that metro residents between 25 to 64 years old are 14 percent more likely than rural ones to earn a four-year degree, Marré writes. American Community Survey results from 2008-2012 reveal that 18.5 percent of rural residents had a four-year degree, up from 16.2 percent in 2000. But 32.2 percent of metro residents had a four-year degree in 2012, up from 28.4 percent in 2000.

Rural residents did surpass metro ones in getting an associate's degree, with 9.2 percent of rural adults ages 25-64 having a two-year degree in 2012, compared to 6.9 percent in 2000, while 8.4 percent of metro residents had a two-year degree in 2012, compared to 7.3 percent in 2000, Marré writes.

"Increasing college completion rates and attracting in-migrants with college degrees may be a challenge for many rural communities," Marré writes. "Household incomes are lower in rural areas, which could be a barrier for rural students wishing to attend and complete college, especially from persistently poor areas. For rural people who do earn 4-year college degrees, urban areas offer higher earnings and a wider range of potential jobs than are typically available in rural areas. The result is that many rural youth who leave their community for college do not return." (Read more) (USDA graphic)

Agriculture Secretary says immigration reform needed to supply farms with enough labor

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said President Obama's executive order on immigration reform will help protect between 250,000 to 400,000 undocumented workers from deportation, but that Congressional action is needed "to make sure U.S. farmers have the legal workforce they need," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Most of the 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally work in agriculture.

Vilsack said on Wednesday, “Congress needs to act. If we're to maximize the ability of the U.S. to produce food, we're going to have to have immigration reform. Comprehensive immigration reform will reduce the budget deficit, will shore up the Social Security system, will provide border security and will meet the needs of many industries. It is unbelievable to me that Congress cannot find the will or the way to get this done. It's an outrage.” (Read more)

Midwestern grain farmers that held onto crops are now seeing an increase in sale prices

Grain farmers who decided to store bumper crops instead of selling them at reduced prices are now reaping the rewards for patience, while foiling investors who predicted a drop in prices, Jacob Bunge and Jesse Newman report for The Wall Street Journal. Midwestern farmers who held onto their crops are now seeing a 15 percent rise in corn futures and a 10 percent rise in soybeans "that is also the result of a slow U.S. harvest and gains in other agricultural markets."

"Corn’s gain over the roughly two-month harvest period of October and November was its largest for that span in eight years and second largest in more than three decades, while soybeans’ climb was the biggest in five years," Bunge and Newman write. "Farmers have also helped create losers out of investors and trading firms that had bet that record harvests of 14.4 billion bushels of corn and nearly 4 billion bushels of soybeans this year, forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would keep pressure on prices." (Journal graphic)
Agricultural-trading firm Global Ag LLC suffered a 19.1 percent decline in its main trading fund in October and 10.9 percent in losses in 2014 through October, Bunge and Newman write. Bharwani Asset Management LLC lost 22.6 percent in its grains-focused strategy in October, and Skyline Management Inc., an investment firm in Mancos, Colo., reported a 7.1 percent decline in October for one of its ag-futures-focused strategies.

Some firms did come out big, with County Cork LLC, based in suburban Chicago, gaining 22.5 percent in October, "thanks to well-timed bets on soybean markets, said Ron Anderson, the fund’s manager," Bunge and Newman write.

"On Tuesday, corn for December delivery, the front-month contract, fell 7.75 cents—or 2.1 percent—to $3.67 ¾ a bushel at the Chicago Board of Trade, pressured by concerns about the strength of demand for U.S. grain," Bunge and Newman write. "The seven-week-long rally for corn—the U.S.’s biggest crop by value—has cut its year-to-date price decline to roughly 13 percent. Last year, corn prices tumbled 40 percent as farmers collected a record crop."

"Soybeans for January delivery, the front-month contract for that commodity, dropped 21.25 cents—or 2.1 percent—to $9.95¾ a bushel on Tuesday, due in part to favorable weather for crops in Brazil, the U.S.’s main rival in soybean production," Bunge and Newman write. "The recent upswing also stems from wet weather that delayed this fall’s harvest and higher prices for related commodities such as soybean meal." (Read more)

In impoverished rural Alabama, officials hoping to educate teens about HIV through video games

In one of the poorest regions of the country, where African American males have significantly higher rates of contracting HIV and schools do little to nothing to educate about safe sex, one health official is turning to video games in an attempt to teach about the virus, Dan Carsen reports for NPR. The hope is that video games can be used to reach teenage boys who might not be interested in learning through other mediums.

Civil Rights Movement Veterans graphic
The 18-counties of Alabama's "Black Belt" region "is predominantly African American, the poorest part of a poor state and home to underfunded, segregated schools, a weak health care system and an alarming number of new HIV cases," Carsen writes. "Here, young black men are at least 10 times likelier than the state average to contract the virus. But with talk of HIV still largely taboo in rural Alabama, one nursing professor has turned to an unlikely technology in hopes of changing things: video games."

Comfort Enah of the University of Alabama at Birmingham came up with the idea. She told Carsen, "Gaming is particularly appropriate for adolescents because of where their brains are. We have a scenario where we have hormones, but they don't have the brain capacity to anticipate long-term consequences. So gaming can tap into that mismatch and kind of force them to see consequences right now."

As part of the game, "players build avatars, customizing their appearance, hobbies and personality," Carsen writes. "Then they respond to age-tailored but potentially risky situations any way they want. In the do-over world of the game, consequences include points, praise, good health and money . . . or embarrassment, unemployment, HIV and even death."

The game is still in its infancy, and teens have responded that it's boring or has out-dated graphics, but those are the kind of responses officials are looking for in an attempt to continue tweaking the game until it is one that teens can be drawn to, because teens—especially males—tend to identify more with games than with reality, Carsen writes. And in this case, that could be a good thing.

Debra Lieberman, director of the University of California Santa Barbara's Center for Digital Games Research, told Carsen, "Avatars that the player identifies with are especially powerful. You'll hear players saying, 'Oh, I did this' or 'Oh, look what happened to me.' They are just totally transported into the game, and that avatar is them. There have been studies that have found that when your avatar engages in health behaviors, then you are more likely to go out into your daily life and adopt those behaviors." (Read more)

Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge names finalists

The Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge has narrowed its field to four finalists. Created by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Georgetown University, the challenge allows rural farmers and entrepreneurs the chance to showcase new business ideas and innovation. Each finalist receives $15,000. The Rural Entrepreneur of the Year Award gets an additional $15,000 and the Peoples' Choice Award winner another $10,000. Winners will be announced in January at the AFBF 96th Annual Convention in San Diego. (Read more)

  • Pasturebird, LLC (Temecula, Calif.), a cost-effective method of producing pastured poultry on a large scale. Team lead: Paul Greive;
  • Pulaski Grow (Pulaski, Va.), an aquaponics facility to provide local youth with job training. Team lead: Lee Spiegel;
  • ScoutPro (Lone Tree, Iowa), software to assist farmers with crop maintenance. Team lead: Michael Koenig; and
  • Golden Bridges, Senior Move Management (Palmyra, Mo.), customized moving and relocation services for older Americans. Team lead: Suzanne Ellerbrock.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

President Obama battling Congress to save tax credit that benefits rural low-income families

President Barack Obama and Congress are battling over the extension of a tax break. The president is in favor of Earned Income Tax Credit, which will benefit rural and small-town taxpayers more than urban tax payers, says a report from the Center for Rural Affairs.

"President Obama has said he will veto the measures unless they also permanently extend provisions for the Earned Income Tax Credit," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "EITC was created in 1975 and lowers the federal tax burden on low-income families," Marema writes. "In the past it has been touted by both Republicans and Democrats for rewarding work, rather than providing welfare payments. The program was expanded in the administrations of both George Bush (1990) and Bill Clinton (1993)."

The Center for Rural Affairs "found that while only 18.7 percent of filers in metropolitan areas claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit, 21.4 percent of rural filers claimed the credit," Marema writes. In micropolitan areas—counties that have cities with between 10,000 and 50,000 people—the rate is 21.6 percent. (Center for Rural Affairs graphic)
"In 2013, working families that have children and annual incomes below $37,870 to $51,567 (depending on the number of children in the household) qualify for the credit," Marema writes. "Taxpayers without children must earn less than $14,340 ($19,680 for married couples) to qualify, according to the Center for Rural Affairs study."

In rural areas, Mississippi has the highest rates of federal tax returns claiming EITC, at 37.5 percent, followed by Georgia, 32.7 percent; Florida, 29.3 percent; and South Carolina and Louisiana, 28.8 percent, Marema writes. Among filers in micropolitan areas, Mississippi also had the highest rate at 34 percent. That was followed by Arizona, 32.2 percent; Georgia, 32.1 percent; Louisiana, 31 percent; and Alabama, 29.2 percent.

The report said: “This daily life of rural economic conditions results in a large number of working, low-income households—most with children—that rely on an array of income-support programs like the EITC to bolster their well-being. Because of these conditions the EITC has become a ‘rural program,’ or a least a nonurban program. The stereotype of the EITC as an urban, minority program is contrary to recent data. Because of the number of rural workers qualifying for and claiming the EITC, any changes (in the program) are likely to disproportionately affect rural families and rural communities, both positively and negatively.” (Read more)

Rural Up! program teaching computer technology job skills to students in Eastern Kentucky

A program in Eastern Kentucky—which includes some of the nation's poorest counties—is working to help improve educational opportunities and job prospects for local youth by teaching them the skills to get jobs in computer technology.

Rural Up! photo
The Rural Up! Code Academy has been traveling across the region to work with middle school and high school students to give "them the information and resources needed for success in computer coding," says the organization's website.

Estimates say that by 2020 there will be 1.4 new computer science jobs, but only 30 percent of those jobs will be filled by U.S. graduates, Rural Up! says. "Right now, according to, nine out 10 high schools in the U.S. do not offer computer science classes." In Kentucky only 19 high schools—out of more than 100—currently offer AP computer science, and only 13 percent of students in those courses are female.

Code Demo Days are scheduled for Saturday at Pulaski County High School, the Roy F. Collier Community Center, Eastern Kentucky University-Manchester and University of Pikeville. Another session will be held on Dec. 13 at Ashland Community and Technical College. (Read more)

China to send entertainment industry to rural areas so they can 'form a correct view on art'

What is it like to live in rural China? Some in the entertainment industry are about to find out. "China’s media regulator has announced a new program to send artists, filmmakers and television company staff to live in rural areas so that they may 'form a correct view on art,'" Sean Silbert reports for The Los Angeles Times.

The move may sound strange, but rural and urban life in China are worlds apart. Large groups are fleeing impoverished rural areas that lack many basic health care needs for the prospect of better lives in the city, Silbert writes. (China Foto Press: More migrant workers are taking their offspring with them to the cities from the countryside or having children there)

In 2013, about 245 million people—or 18 percent of the entire population—left their hometowns, and 80 percent of them moved from rural to urban areas, Zhuang Pinghui reports for the South China Morning Post. Wang Qian, director of the migrant population division of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told Pinghui, "The public services that migrant populations are entitled to are different from those who have urban household registrations."

One problem is that some adults are moving from rural areas to urban ones and leaving their children behind, Pinghui writes. The "Development Report on China's Migrant Population 2014," released in November, "found 62.5 per cent of migrant couples took children aged six to 15 with them to the cities last year, 5.2 percentage points more than in 2011."

"More women of child-bearing age also chose to have babies in cities, the report said," Pinghui writes. "More than 57 percent of women stayed in cities during pregnancy, while nearly 60 per cent gave birth in cities, 5.9 percentage points and 7 percentage points higher respectively than in 2011."

"About 95 percent of pregnant migrant women gave birth in a hospital last year, but 40 per cent of pregnancies did not meet the basic requirement of having five checks before birth, and one fifth of newborns and mothers did not have post-natal checks," Pinghui writes. "About 10 per cent of migrant children received some vaccinations, although some had none."

Rural residents have been flocking to the city for years for better opportunities, Oliver Wainwright reports for The Guardian. "Over the last decade, China’s mass exodus of the working population from the countryside to the cities has seen rural areas drained of their lifeblood, leaving impoverished communities of elderly farmers looking after their grandchildren."

"The rural decline has been exacerbated by the government’s frequent and arbitrary acquisition of farmland for development, an alarming trend that has already made China the world’s largest importer of agricultural produce," Wainwright writes. "Where once there rolled rice fields, now identikit armies of tower blocks and strange suburban new towns march, leaving the villages as ghostly cadavers of their former selves."

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said it would have production staff from 10 designated films and TV shows go to 'grassroots" communities, villages and mining sites to experience local life,'" Silbert writes.

"Another provision stated that every year, 100 scriptwriters, directors, broadcasters and TV presenters would be sent to live for at least 30 days in border and ethnic minority regions, as well as areas 'important in China’s revolutionary background,'" Silbert writes. "With the help of this program, artists 'will be able to unearth new subjects, find their market and push forward their masterpieces,' the regulator said."

Meth lab seizures are down in West Virginia; opinions vary on why police are making fewer busts

Meth lab busts are down in West Virginia—a state that has been ravaged by meth abuse. But there are differing opinions about why busts are down, Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette.

State police busted a record 531 meth labs in 2013, up from 284 in 2012 and 229 in 2011, Eyre writes. As of Nov. 30 of this year, there have been 290 meth labs seizures, and police are on pace to bust 315 meth labs, a decrease of 41 percent from last year. (Gazette graphic)

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin says busts are down because he persuaded CVS, Walgreens and Kmart to join Rite Aid and Fruth Pharmacy to tighten restrictions on sales of pseudoephedrine, Eyre writes. Manchin told him, “Through good corporate citizenship, we’ve had a direct result as far as reducing substantially the number of meth labs in our state. The results have been overwhelming. We’ve got cold, hard facts to support what they did has helped West Virginia.”

Mike Goff, a state Board of Pharmacy administrator, counters by saying that busts are down because officers "are apparently spending less time looking for the clandestine labs, while devoting more time battling the state’s problem with heroin and prescription drugs," with the state's prescription drug problem having been the focus of a pair of documentaries set in impoverished Appalachian areas.

Goff told Eyre, “I don’t know if the labs are actually less, but they’re definitely not finding as many. They’re not looking, from what I understand. There’s not anyone out there looking for meth labs hardly at all.”

Goff may have a case, because fewer officers "are using a computerized system—called NPLEx—that tracks sales of pseudoephedrine across the state," Eyre writes. "NPLEx allows officers to search for potential meth makers. Police officers actively using the electronic system peaked at 104 in April before dropping to 73 in November. Also, the number of times that officers logged into the system dropped to an all-time low last month." (Read more)

Biodiesel industry wants EPA to raise production levels to 1.7 billion gallons per year

While the biodiesel $1-per-gallon tax credit—which has expired three times in the last three years, including on Dec. 31, 2013—will likely be extended through 2014, "a longer-term extension remains in doubt as the lame duck Congress is wrangling with the White House over a package which includes the biodiesel incentive along with dozens of other tax breaks," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The biodiesel tax credit and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) are policies that President George W. Bush promoted and signed into law, and some of the biggest vocal supporters are Republicans, Agri-Pulse writes.

"Yet the RFS remains a huge question mark," Agri-Pulse writes. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency "worried about ethanol hitting the so-called 'blend wall'—10 percent of U.S. transportation fuel usage. So in November 2013, EPA proposed to reduce the RFS volume requirement well below the level set by law. That way, Big Oil wouldn’t have to surrender any more than 10 percent of its market to ethanol."

"One major problem with EPA’s reasoning was that the blend wall exists because the oil industry resists installing the blender pumps needed to let drivers choose E15 (15 percent ethanol/gasoline blend) rather than the standard E10–or to let flex fuel vehicles fill up with E85," Agri-Pulse writes.

Another problem is "that biodiesel has become collateral damage in the oil industry’s battle to limit competition from ethanol," Agri-Pulse writes. EPA proposed levels of 1.28 billion gallons, well below the 1.7 billion gallons suggested by the National Biodiesel Board. Biodiesel production was 1.8 billion gallons in 2013 and is on pace to produce 1.6 billion gallons in 2014.

With no way to forecast what volume levels the EPA will set or when, National Biodiesel Board CEO Joe Jobe sees more trouble ahead, Agri-Pulse writes. Jobe warns that “If the EPA doesn’t significantly increase the volumes from the proposed rule, as they indicated many times they intended to do, the additional volumes will be carried forward into 2015, effectively creating an even further cut.” Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Increase in speed limit on rural Idaho interstate leads to an increase in speeding tickets

In July, Idaho raised the speed limit to 80 mph through many rural areas along Interstate 84. Since then, drivers are getting to their destinations at a much faster rate, but they are also collecting tickets in far greater numbers than when the speed limit was 75 mph, Nathan Brown reports for the Times-News in Twin Falls. (Times-News photo by Drew Nash)

From July 24 to Nov. 13 state police wrote 2,066 speeding tickets on Interstate 84, well above the 1,731 tickets written during that same time period in 2013, Brown writes. But it's not clear if drivers are abusing the new speed limits at higher rates or if police are being more vigilant about writing tickets.

State police spokeswoman Teresa Baker said "somebody going a couple of miles over 80 is more likely to get a ticket than someone slightly faster than 75 mph might have last year," Brown writes. She told Brown, “We just want to make sure we keep the roads as safe as we can, and 80’s fast enough." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Media outlets challenge federal judge's gag order in coal executive's criminal case

Local and national media outlets Monday "urged a federal judge to withdraw a gag order that has blocked access to court records in a criminal case filed against longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship," Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette, which joined the legal action with The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, NPR and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Don Blankenship
Blankenship was indicted last month on charges that he orchestrated the routine violation of key federal mine safety rules at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia prior to an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 26.

"The media coalition asked U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to reconsider her order, which also prohibits parties in the case, potential trial witnesses and potentially families of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster from talking to the media," Ward writes. Sean McGinley, a Charleston attorney representing the media groups, filed a motion that "argued that federal courts must give the media outlets an opportunity to be heard before they restrict access to court records or prohibit parties from discussing cases with reporters."

The gag order "interferes with the news media’s ability to gather information needed to report on the case, violating the media’s constitutionally protected rights under the First Amendment, McGinley said in the motion," Ward writes.

The motion said: “A reporter’s First Amendment right to publish is meaningless if it is prevented from gathering news in the first instance. In this case, the court’s gag and sealing order prevents the news media intervenors and other members of the press and public from obtaining any meaningful information regarding this newsworthy case from court records and from those most knowledgeable about it, the participants and those affected by the underlying events."

"The public interest in access is especially strong in the case at bar because such access promotes trustworthiness in the judicial process, better understanding of the judicial system and ultimately, fairness," the motion said. (Read more)

Texas towns follow Denton's lead, look to ban fracking in a state where oil and gas reigns

Denton, Texas, became the state's first town to ban fracking when 59 percent of voters showed their support for an anti-fracking measure during the November election. In a state where oil and gas are big business, the decision was immediately hit with a lawsuit, with the case expected to reach the state Supreme Court.

But it turns out Denton is not alone in its fight to keep fracking out of its borders. Other Texas towns have stepped forward and expressed a desire to also ban the practice, Emily Schmall reports for The Associated Press. "The Denton ban has become a 'proxy for this big war between people who want to stop fracking and people who want to see it happen,' said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin."

After Reno—about 50 miles from Dallas—had its first recorded earthquake in November 2013, the town of about 1,200 began taking steps to ban fracking, "passing a law in April limiting disposal well activity to operators who can prove the injections won't cause earthquakes," Schmall writes. (Wikipedia map: Reno)

"Residents of Presidio, a border town southwest of Alpine, want municipal leaders to protect their water source from being tainted by exploratory fracking wells in Mexico, said Pat Simms, who sits on a Presidio County water conservation board," Schmall writes.

But the fight is an uphill one. Many residents say the Texas Railroad Commission, the governing body of the oil and gas industry, favors the industry over public safety, Schmall writes. Meanwhile, the General Land Office, which uses revenue from mineral rights to fund public education, is a powerful and wealthy organization headed by George P. Bush, a grandson and nephew of two former presidents, who owns 13 million acres of land and mineral rights throughout Texas, including in Denton. (Read more)

Two different worlds: a farmer's thoughts on Ferguson

Anthony Flaccavento, an organic farmer in Southwest Virginia, still sells most of what he grows directly to consumers, but that is not the case for many farmers, and life in general has "become dramatically de-localized over the past two generations, not only in our food system but in almost every aspect of how we live," Flaccavento writes for the Huffington Post. "Our homes are heated and cooled not by the materials we collect or even see, but by some inscrutable mix of coal miners, oil and gas workers, pipelines and utility companies, all of which are entirely out of sight for most Americans," he writes. The criminal justice system is a similar situation.

Many Americans are aware that people of color are in prison in large numbers, but it's often assumed that it must be because they all committed far more crimes and more violent crimes. However, studies have shown that "Black youth and men are more than twice as likely to go to jail than their white counterparts for the same crime; or be arrested and charged before that; or to be stopped by police in the first place," Flaccavento writes. Some people automatically assume that black men, for the most part, are dangerous.

"If that's your starting point, the national epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men, while certainly unfortunate, seems understandable at some level," Flaccavento writes. On a case by case basis, we often assume the police are treating people fairly and without prejudice because, of course, they're interacting with some dangerous people. In the past decade police have killed more than one person per day, according to the FBI. A ProPublica investigation from 2010-2012 showed that police shot black teenagers ages 15 to 19 at more than 20 times the rate of white teenagers.

The ignorance or acceptance of those ideas are a result of the "disconnections that now characterize almost every part of our lives," Flaccavento writes. People are isolated from others who are different from themselves. We've mostly abandoned overt racism and "substituted indifference towards extreme unfairness and violent injustice, an indifference borne out of a near total disconnect from people different from ourselves," he writes. "Another farmer loses his land. Another black kid shot dead on a city street. Two different worlds. Maybe that's the problem." (Read more)

Southwestern Indiana residents deal with overabundance of dust from surface coal mine

Since 2012, state environmental regulators have received many complaints from those who live in Southwest Indiana near the Bear Run Mine, the largest surface coal mine east of the Mississippi. The rules state that mines have to contain dust in their property boundaries. However, the rules also say state officials have to personally observe the dust to do something about it. In four inspections, officials said they couldn't see the dust. "State regulators tell residents that if inspectors don't see the dust clouds, they didn't happen," Ryan Sabalow writes for the IndyStar.

A university public health scientist found high levels of dust in the air and inflammation in residents' blood, "a possible indicator of health problems caused by breathing fire particulate matter," Sabalow writes. Peabody officials claim the mine is safe. "Bear Run Mine operates in a safe, environmentally sound manner and complies with all state and federal air, land and water quality permits," Peabody said in a prepared statement.

In 2011, federal officials asked the mine to put three dust sensors around the property, and they detected unsafe levels of dust more than 150 times in four months. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave Peabody a violation notice in 2013, but the enforcement action is still pending.

Indiana University professor Michael Hendryx of the School of Public Health said people who live near surface mines are at risk for very small particles of dust called "ultra fines," which "potentially have a bigger impact on health because they are so small they can penetrate deeply into the lungs and into the bloodstream." Hendryx said he saw what the conditions were like in the area and could smell the dust in the air. He and a research team found that people who live close to the mining operation "had average indoor air-pollution readings nearly three times as high as those living farther away," Sabalow reports. (Read more)

Kentucky's solution to snow days is home schooling; lack of Internet access a concern

Last year's brutal winter caused a high number of school snow days in many areas. This forced many districts to scramble to make up days and led some schools to cancel spring break or to have students remain in school several days—or even weeks—into scheduled summer vacation, moves that resulted in low attendance rates and hurt state funding, Adam Beam reports for The Associated Press.

Fearing another snowy winter, Kentucky has come up with a plan to combat lost school days, Beam writes. The state's solution to wintry weather is to have students in 13 districts be home-schooled mainly via the Internet. That seems like a sound idea, until one takes into consideration that some students—especially those in impoverished areas—don't have computers or access to the Internet. Kentucky ranks 46th in availability of high speed Internet. (Lexington Herald-Leader graphic)

Still, the state needed an answer to the possibility of another bad winter, like the one last year that caused four times as many snow days as the year before, with some schools canceling more than a month a school, Beam writes.

Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said Kentucky is the first state to tackle the issue, Beam writes. Amundson told Beam, "Everybody in the world is struggling with the same issue . . . and the early cold weather here now is, I think, making people feel even more of a sense of urgency about it. I think people will be really happy to let Kentucky go first and see how it works."

As part of Kentucky's plan, students can "complete assignments from home either by downloading them or working from packets prepared and sent home ahead of time," Beam writes. "In exchange, the state will forgive up to 10 makeup days." But the downside is that "districts that opt to use the home school option would lose state transportation dollars and federal money for free and reduced lunches. Losing those dollars would hurt in a state that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says has cut K-12 education funding by 11.4 percent since 2008, among the deepest cuts in the nation."

Tim Bobrowski, Owsley County superintendent, said he hopes to be able keep some of that aid, Beam writes. "Though school buses might not be able to ply all the county's side roads to bring kids to school on snow days, education officials might still be able to deliver meals to the students at some central locations, such as community centers, he said. He has asked the federal government for permission to be a bit flexible with the meals." (Read more)

Iron Range miners have higher rate of cancer, cardiovascular disease, study finds

Miners in the Iron Range have higher than expected rates of cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and a rare cancer known as mesothelioma, says a six-year study by the University of Minnesota released on Monday, Dan Kraker reports for Minnesota Public Radio. "University researchers, however, said they were unable to pinpoint an exact cause of the diseases."

"For decades, some miners have wondered if microscopic needle-like fibers found in the dust of crushed taconite iron ore can lodge into workers' lungs and cause respiratory diseases including mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lining of the lungs that's killed 80 former mine workers on the Iron Range," Kraker writes. (Wikipedia photo: Iron Range)

"The $4.9 million study, which began in 2008, linked time spent working in the taconite industry to a higher risk of mesothelioma," Kraker writes. "It found every year spent working in the industry increased the risk of contracting mesothelioma by 3 percent and that Iron Range mine workers suffered the disease at three times the rate of Minnesota's general population. It also linked exposure to the tiny fiber-like particles to mesothelioma." (Read more)

California drought threatening to wipe out Muir Woods coho salmon population

The California drought is threatening to wipe out the region's coho salmon population, Michael Fleeman reports for Reuters. Muir Woods coho salmon "make their way each year from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in a freshwater creek running through the redwoods near San Francisco." (Davis Enterprise photo by Ken Davis: Coho salmon)

State officials said that last winter no coho salmon eggs were found in areas where the fish typically mate, and during the summer no baby salmon were found, Fleeman writes. About 100 juvenile coho salmon are being raised in a local hatchery, where they will remain for 15 months.

"The coho, also called silver salmon, once thrived in Redwood Creek in Marin County and provided sustenance for both the Miwok Indians and grizzly bears," Fleeman writes. "Each winter, 3-year-old fish swim from the ocean to their birthplace in Muir Woods, a protected area that includes many redwoods, along with other stream systems in the state, to lay their eggs. Last month, the state said salmon migration in the American River watershed near Sacramento was slower than usual amid dry weather and warmer temperatures." (Read more)

Monday, December 01, 2014

FAA drone rules will hamper rural operators; reports of unsafe drone use on the rise

When the Federal Aviation Administration releases its proposed rules for drone use, rural pilots will be facing a long, arduous road to be able to fly legally fly, Jordan Golson reports for Wired. The rules, expected by the end of the year, "will apply to drones under 55 pounds, limit flights to daytime hours, under 400 feet, and within the pilot’s line of sight. They would also require all drone operators to acquire a pilot’s license from the FAA. Not a special, drone-focused license, but the kind you need to actually get in a plane and fly it."

"In more rural areas, however, there simply aren’t that many things to fly into," Golson writes. "Apart from town centers and highways, most of the middle of the country is filled up with wide open spaces. That makes the onerous process of getting a license—including dozens of hours of work with an expensive flight instructor, a medical examination and lots of classroom time—seem less necessary when the only things you might hit are cows and stalks of corn."

"The 400-foot ceiling and line of sight requirements are also impractical for many possible drone uses in rural areas," Golson writes. "For example, electric utilities routinely use helicopters to inspect their long-haul high-voltage power lines, to check they’re in working order and make sure trees haven’t grown too close to them. Farmers could use the unmanned aircraft to inspect crops, and ranchers could keep an eye on their herds—over thousands of acres. This is the kind of work drones are perfect for, but only if they can fly over long distances and far above the 200-foot towers."  

With no rules currently in place and drones readily for sale, the friendly skies are turning chaotic, as more and more reports of unsafe flying keep coming in, Nick Wingfield reports for The New York Times. "In recent months, drone pilots have tried to smuggle contraband into prisons and disrupt sporting events at stadiums. Animal rights groups have turned to drones to stalk hunters as the hunters stalk wildlife. And in France, more than a dozen illegal flights over nuclear power plants have unnerved the authorities."

"The antics are forcing public safety officials to look at the air above them, generally thought safe and secure, as a place for potential trouble," Wingfield writes. "And for groups pushing drones as legitimate business tools, the high jinks are an unexpected and unwelcome headache—one, they fear, that will bolster a push by regulators to keep a tight leash on the machines."

Patrick Egan, a consultant on commercial drone projects and editor at sUAS News, a drone news site, told Wingfield, “It’s now in the hands of all types of people—good people, bad people, tricksters, pranksters, kids. All hell is going to break loose as far as the shenanigans that are perpetrated with drones.” (Read more)

Alcohol sales are booming, leading to more jobs and tax revenue for many rural areas

Some rural areas have solved economic woes by turning to alcohol. Business is booming for many distilleries, leading to huge tax revenues for local and state governments, Jennifer Steinhauer reports for The New York Times. Garrett C. Peck, a historian who has written several books on alcohol and Prohibition, told her, “In human history there has never been a better time to be a drinker.” (NYT photo by William DeShazer: Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Ky.)

In Central Kentucky, Wild Turkey "paid over $778,000 in real estate and property taxes to Anderson County this year, twice what it paid in 2010, making it the biggest taxpayer by far," Steinhauer writes. Brian Stivers, the property valuation administrator for the county, told Steinhauer, “We’re lucky to have them. Without their expansions we would have probably had to raise the tax rate.” The same impact is felt throughout the state; the bourbon industry has increased its payrolls over the past two years by 77 percent to about 15,400 jobs.

"Spirits revenue nationwide—from all alcohol except beer and wine—increased to over $60 billion last year from roughly half that in 2000, according to the Distilled Spirits Council," Steinhauer writes. "Exports of spirits, much of it whiskey, have increased to nearly $1.5 billion from $531 million over that same time."

The rising interest in craft beer—a staple in many rural areas—also has increased revenue in many towns, counties and states, Steinhauer writes. "Some 10.6 million barrels of it were produced in the first six months of 2014, up from about 4.9 million for the same period in 2010, according to Bart Watson, the chief economist at the Brewers Association, which represents small and independent brewers."

"Even hops farmers are benefiting, largely because craft beers use more and different varieties of hops in production," Steinhauer writes. "Over 72 million pounds of hops have been produced this year, a 26 percent increase in just under the last decade, according to the Department of Agriculture."

Watson told Steinhauer, “In 2012, craft brewing contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy and more than 360,000 jobs total. This in an industry that didn’t exist 40 years ago.” And the craft beer business has benefited from many changes in state laws that now allow tasting and sales on the premises. (Read more)

Rural Idaho's young adults fleeing for jobs in other states; small businesses are suffering

Rural Idaho is losing its young adult population, and small businesses are suffering because of it, Aubrey Wieber reports for the Post Register in Idaho Falls. From 2009 to 2013, Idaho had 74,643 more people move into the state than leave, and 42 percent of those people were 51 or older. During that same time period, the state lost 1,817 people 20 and under and lost 55,655 people 30 and under.

Chris Tucker, vice principal of South Fremont High School in St. Anthony, Idaho, "said recent graduates generally leave for three reasons: a religious mission, college or better employment opportunities," Wieber writes. "Most students want to stay in town, he said, but end up seeking more lucrative job opportunities elsewhere." (Post Register photo by Monte LaOrange: Harry Halkar's printing business has survived in St. Anthony while many others have closed shop)

Many of Idaho's rural towns offer few job opportunities for recent high school or college graduates, Wieber writes. That means many young people are heading out of state to find better job opportunities, and towns like St. Anthony, with a population of 3,500, are suffering, as more and more local businesses are forced to shut down.

Harry Halkar, whose printing business has survived in St. Anthony for 30 years, told Wieber, "I've seen so many businesses come and go. I don't know what it's going to take to see things change for the better." (Read more)

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Republicans flourish in once-Democratic southwestern Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region

Republican success at the polls last month gave the GOP control of the U.S. Senate in addition to the stronghold the party already has in the House. One area where tides are turning is southwest Pennsylvania, a region that has over the years switched its alliance from Democratic to Republican, as more Marcellus Shale oil and gas drilling sites pop up, and the business continues to boom, Lou Jacobson reports for PoliticsPA.

The area is considered the northern end of the "McCain Belt," the swath of counties running west and south to Oklahoma and Louisiana where John McCain did better in the 2008 presidential election against Barack Obama than George W. Bush did against John Kerry in 2004.

"The trend manifested itself first at the top of the ticket but has now moved down to statewide and state legislative races," David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, told Jacobson. He said southwestern Pennsylvania “may be registered Democratic, but that means little. They are pro-God, pro-life, pro-gun, moderate on the environment, moderate on tort reform and are not anti-business. They are pro-labor and don’t see that as incompatible with these other considerations. Like Ronald Reagan, they believe they aren’t leaving the Democratic Party–they believe the Democratic Party at the top of the ticket has left them.”

Observers say "the rapidly advancing energy boom has sped up the process of realignment," Jacobson writes. "In this once-sleepy corner of the state, landowners have signed mineral leases, and out-of-state energy companies have flooded the region with business and jobs. To the extent that there’s an environmental downside to the drilling, it hasn’t yet taken precedence in local public opinion, observers say."

Larry Maggi, a Democratic commissioner in Washington County for more than a dozen years, told Jacobson, "The Marcellus Shale is a game-changer, just like the heavy industry that came before it. It has literally changed Washington County’s economics. It has opened up opportunities that have never existed before. Instead of exporting of our kids, our youth are staying here.”

Southwest Pennsylvania was once densely populated, and Democrats still outnumber Republicans 3-to-2 in registration, but Republicans were out in full force during this year's election and outnumbered Democratic voters, Jacobson reports.  "Signs of this realignment—specifically, a shift from the region’s Democratic roots to a Republican ascendancy—have been under way for several years. Bolstered by voters’ disaffection with the national Democratic Party’s stances on social issues, guns and the environment and aided by a pro-Republican redistricting map in the state, the GOP has managed to win all but one of the region’s congressional seats and has gained ground in lower offices." (Read more)

Rural Ohio students have fewer opportunities to take AP classes than their suburban counterparts

Rural students have fewer opportunities than their urban counterparts to take Advanced Placement classes, Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel report for The Columbus Dispatch. Students across Ohio are supposed to have the same access to AP classes, but the Dispatch found that metro Dublin offers 92 AP classes—including studio art, computer science, calculus, engineering design, statistics, theater, Japanese, German, Latin and Chinese—while rural Hamilton Local, located in the same county as Dublin, only offers nine AP classes.

Susan Witten, Hamilton’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, told the Dispatch, “We can’t afford to have a class with five students in it. If we have a student interested in Advanced Placement French, for instance, we can arrange for independent study.”

Analysis of state schools found that "students living in poorer, more rural areas of the state have access to fewer overall classes and far fewer high-level courses, than do students living in suburban and urban districts," the Dispatch writes. Analysis found that rural districts average "fewer than 6.5 high-level courses: upper-level math, Advanced Placement, general advanced courses and nontraditional foreign languages such as German and Chinese," while suburban districts average 26 high-level courses.

Overall, the analysis found that "the average rural district has 146 high-school courses, compared with 241 at suburban schools," the Dispatch writes. "However, the actual number of courses offered by all districts is smaller because the data list some courses multiple times if they are offered in more than one grade." (Read more)