Friday, December 26, 2014

New editor in a shrinking town reports the bad news and challenges it to shape up

A big part of a newspaper's job is to hold up a mirror to its community, to make it confront its problems. Too many newspapers aren't willing to do that often enough, but since Steve Wilson became editor of The Paducah Sun last February, he has been doing it. One of his latest examples was a column in which he followed up on a Sun story reporting that the city of 25,000 (MapQuest image), unlike other major towns in Western Kentucky, is losing population.

"In the weeks since that story was published, I've asked many people in the community how they would account for it and heard a variety of explanations. Most people believe several factors play a role," Wilson wrote. The list included "'a small-town mentality'" that seldom thinks very big and resists looking honestly at the city's weaknesses and addressing them; lack of take-charge civic leadership in both local government and the local business community; [and] inadequate cooperation between city and county government and too few public-private partnerships."

The local chamber of commerce is planning a "visioning program" to guide the community's future, but Wilson said a similar program was "short on follow-through and did not have major impact." He concluded, "The city needs a sharper sense of where it's headed and how to get there. It also needs some smart, savvy people to step up and lead. Otherwise, there's not much reason to think the city's population won't continue to slide along with its economic vitality and quality of life."

The Paxton Media Group, the Paducah-based, family owned chain that owns the Sun, is lucky to have Wilson as the paper's executive editor. He was a columnist and deputy managing editor at The Arizona Republic and managing editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he directed a project that won the paper's first Pulitzer Prize. His column is behind the Sun's paywall, but he has allowed us to post it, here.

UPDATE, May 28: Sun Editor Jim Paxton writes in an editorial that when "Wilson first started raising the issue in columns last year, we were surprised by the intensity of the reactions from local officials past and present. Some accused Wilson of being a carpetbagger who was just seeking to accentuate the negative. But it is the role of community newspapers to provoke discussion, sometimes on topics that are not to everyone's liking but important nonetheless." (Read more)

Mild December cuts natural-gas price 29 percent

A mostly mild winter might be good news for many people who hate cold and snow, but so far it has spelled bad news for the natural-gas industry. The benchmark price for gas on Tuesday, Dec. 23, was $3.17 per 1,000 cubic feet, a 29 percent drop from $4.50 in late November, Jonathan Fahey reports for The Associated Press. "Natural gas is used by half of the nation's households for heating and to generate 26 percent of the nation's electricity."

"The lower prices are expected to linger and could reduce electricity prices and heating bills in the coming months," Fahey writes. "Bob Brackett, an analyst at Bernstein Research, wrote in a recent note to investors that he expects natural gas to average 'in the low 3 [dollar]s" per MCF into the spring, and a warm winter could push the price below $3.'" That's a far cry from last year when prices hit as high as $6.15 in February during last year's brutal winter. (Seeking Alpha graphic)
"Conditions look good for low prices throughout the spring. After that, though, prices could head back up," Fahey writes. "One-fifth of the nation's natural-gas production is from gas found when drilling for oil . . . A a drop in the price of oil is forcing drillers to cut back, and that may slow the growth in [gas] production. Also, in April of next year an Environmental Protection Agency rule governing emissions of mercury and other toxic chemicals goes into effect. That will force electric utilities to reduce their use of coal, the chief source of those emissions, and turn instead to natural gas." (Read more) For the coal industry, part of the bad news is already here, because lower gas prices make coal less competitive with gas among utilities that can easily switch fuels.

Study puts least healthy states in a contiguous swath, much of it rural, from Okla. to W.Va.

Hawaii is the nation's healthiest state, while several states with large rural populations—including most of the South—are the country's least healthiest states, according to the annual state health rankings by the United Health Foundation. The rankings are based on data gathered in 2012, 2013 and early 2014.

UHF map; for an interactive version with details, click here.
The analysis is based on behaviors (everyday activities that affect personal health), community and environment (whether or not it was a healthy and safe community, based on clean water and air, affordable and secure housing, sustainable and economically vital neighborhoods and support structures such as violence-free places to be physically active), policy (availability of resources to encourage and maintain health) and clinical care (access, quality, appropriateness, and cost of care we receive at doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals).

Hawaii was named healthiest state for the third straight year. Vermont was ranked second, followed by Massachusetts (3), Connecticut (4), Utah (5), Minnesota (6), New Hampshire (7), Colorado (8), North Dakota (9) and Nebraska (10).

Mississippi was ranked last. Arkansas was 49th, followed by Louisiana (48), Kentucky (47), Oklahoma (46), Tennessee (45), West Virginia (44), Alabama (43), South Carolina (42), Indiana (41) and Ohio (40). (Read more)

U.S. drinks the most alcohol during the winter; Iowa has highest average blood-alcohol content

Americans drink the most alcohol during the winter, says the BACtrack Consumption Report, a report created by a company that manufactures breathalyzers. Of the 15 biggest drinking days of the year, 14 are from Dec. 1 through March 31, when the average blood alcohol content level is 0.06 nearly 75 percent of days, while during the rest of the year it is 0.06 about 50 percent of days. (BACtrack graphic)

The study, which was conducted using 130,000 subjects from 35 countries and all 50 states over a 13-month period, found that the biggest drinking days are New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day weekend, when levels reach 0.094 percent. Other big drinking days are Dec. 6-7, Jan. 18-19, Jan. 25, Feb.1-2, Feb. 15, March 7-8, Super Bowl Sunday. The other big drinking day, and the only one that averages above 0.08 percent, is May 3.

Iowa had the highest average blood alcohol content at 0.122 percent, the study said. That was followed by Arkansas (0.113 percent), Alabama (0.112 percent), Maine (0.107 percent) and Tennessee (0.106 percent). The lowest average blood alcohol content was in New Hampshire, 0.012 percent. That was followed by Delaware (0.026 percent), Utah (0.031 percent), Arkansas (0.037 percent) and Wyoming (0.051 percent).

The cities with the highest average counts are Waltham, Mass. (0.133 percent); Jersey City, N.J. (0.132 percent); Champlin, Minn. (0.124 percent); New Orleans (0.123 percent) and Greenville, S.C. (0.111 percent). Cities with the lowest counts are Brighton, Colo. (0.006 percent); Walnut Creek, Calif. (0.013 percent); Huntington Beach, Calif. (0.013 percent); Columbus, Ohio (0.014 percent) and Redwood City, California (0.015 percent). (BACtrack map: To view an interactive version click here)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Rural areas, women have been under-represented in debates about net neutrality, study finds

Most Americans favor Internet neutrality, and the news media have played the issue as a technical and political story and largely ignored its potential impact on rural communities, says a report by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The report says the debate has over-represented male and urban voices—especially through social media—while telecom and cable companies have put most their money and efforts into lobbying and have strayed away from most social media.

The report was conducted by analyzing more than 35,000 news sources and 300,000 blogs from January to July 2014; Twitter analysis of 120,000 tweets with #NetNeutrality from July to August 2014 and from #InternetSlowdownDay; of about 1 million public comments to the Federal Communications Commission; lobbying analysis of approximately 2,500 filings from 2009 to the second quarter of 2014 from the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database and grant funding analysis of data for media access and telecommunications companies. (Knight Foundation graphic; click it to enlarge)
Researchers found that the majority of commenters to the FCC felt "that there is strong legal ground for reclassification of Internet Service Providers as Title II common carriers, the FCC should reject the proposed fast and slow lanes on the Internet" and "Internet Service Providers already have monopolistic power."

The report echoes a survey released last month by the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication that found that most Americans favor net neutrality, as does President Obama. The FCC is debating what to do.

FAA fears Santa will be delivering drone aircraft to inexperienced and/or irresponsible users

AP photo by John Locher
The Federal Aviation Administration is playing Scrooge this Christmas, as agency officials fear that one of the hot new presents under trees will be drones, aggravating already complicated issue of safety in the skies, Craig Whitlock reports for The Washington Post.

In anticipation of a large number of of drones being given as presents this year, the FAA and the drone industry on Monday "kicked off a public awareness campaign to urge novice drone operators to pay attention to safety and not do dumb things such as flying too close to passenger planes, buzzing crowds of bystanders on the ground or flying that new ­remote-control helicopter while drunk," Whitlock writes.

"The campaign is dubbed 'Know Before You Fly' and includes videos instructing people how to 'stay off the naughty list' when playing with their new gifts," Whitlock writes. "Among the basics: Don’t fly drones above 400 feet, within five miles of an airport or near a stadium." FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters, “This is an issue of growing concern. This newer and more powerful technology is affordable to more people, yet many are not familiar with the rules of flying.”

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled last month that drones are aircraft and are subject to existing aviation laws. Until FAA rules are put in place, most commercial use of drones remains illegal.  Officials fear unregulated drones use could  lead to "a modern version of the Wild West." In June the National Park Service banned drones in all parks and areas it manages. In August a tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone National Park. Also in August drones were banned over the Appalachian Trail and in parks in Utah and Colorado, and a drone was reported flying over an NFL game. The FAA has a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline to set rules for commercial use.

Rural Minnesota school says 4-day week cuts costs; state says it negatively impacts students

Star Tribune photo: Maynard-Clara City schools
A west-central Minnesota school district that joined many others around the country in switching to a four-day week during the Great Recession is fighting the Minnesota Education Department's order to return to a five-day week.

The Maynard-Clara City-Raymond district says the four-day schedule has cut school costs by thousands of dollars and helped area businesses that have been able to employ students on their days off, reports The Associated Press. But "state education officials say there has been a lack of adequate academic progress in the district."

While high school test scores are a little below average, elementary school scores are at or slightly above the statewide average, AP reports. "State officials say they are concerned that the district has not made strong enough gains among low-income students." Education Department spokesman Josh Collins told AP that "it does beg the question, should the financial need continue to outweigh what appears to be a negative impact on student achievement?"

A school board committee "is exploring ways to retain the shorter school week, including drafting a bill to allow for local control on the matter," AP reports. State Sen. Lyle Koenen (DFL-Clara City) and Rep.-elect Tim Miller, a Republican who represents the area, said they plan to support legislation should the district choose that route." (Read more)

States step up incentives to attract young lawyers to rural areas, where they are often scarce

It's hard to find a lawyer when you need one in many rural areas. That lack of rural lawyers is forcing some states to think outside the box to draw young professional to their towns, reports Regina Garcia Cano for The Associated Press.

In South Dakota, four urban areas have 65 percent of the state's lawyers, while in Nebraska, 12 of the state's 93 counties don't have a practicing attorney, Cano writes. "Only about 30 percent of Georgia's attorneys can be found outside the Atlanta area. And even in New York with nearly 170,000 attorneys, more than 60 percent concentrate in New York City." (Rapid City Journal map from 2013)

South Dakota has started a program believed to the first of its kind that compensates lawyers much the way that similar programs do for doctors that relocate to rural areas, Cano writes. The program, funded by the state's judicial system, the South Dakota Bar Association and the counties, "offers an annual subsidy of $12,000 or 90 percent of the cost of a year at the University of South Dakota Law School to live and practice in rural communities."

Other states are following suit with programs to help draw lawyers to rural areas, Cano writes. "Nebraska next year will begin repaying loans for law school graduates who commit to serving at least three years in underserved communities in the state. The state bar also is teaming with two law schools to offer summer clerkships at rural firms. And Legal Aid of Arkansas recently received a $15,000 grant from the American Bar Association to fund fellowships for newly admitted lawyers who serve in rural areas for one year." (Read more)

Former journalist has saved hundreds of horses through retirement facility in Kentucky

Michael Blowen and Sandy Hatfield with new arrival, 1997
Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm (Old Friends photo)
How did a former Boston Globe movie critic end up in Central Kentucky leading the cause to provide a safe comfortable environment for retired racing horses—including some of the biggest names in the industry—while also saving hundreds of at-risk horses from slaughterhouses?
Michael Blowen has played his own version of Old St. Nick, giving the gift of a second chance to hundreds of horses, while boosting local tourism by giving people an opportunity to see race horses—such as Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm—up close and personal at Old Friends equine retirement facility in Georgetown, Ky.

Blowen began his interest in horse racing the way many people do—by betting on the sport, racing writer Jennie Rees reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "While still working for the Globe, he went to work as a groom at Boston's blue-collar Suffolk Downs, saying, "as soon as I fell in love with them, the dye was cast."

He "apprenticed himself out to trainer Carlos Figueroa," where he was educated in horses at what he calls "Figueroa University," Rees writes. But while working for Figueroa "he said he became concerned that a bottom-level claimer could 'meet a dubious end.' He got the horse retired to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and subsequently wrote a story about the foundation's program that teaches inmates to care for horses at Lexington's Blackburn Correctional Complex."

"After he and his wife, columnist Diane White, took buyouts from the Globe in 2001, Blowen wound up as the foundation's operations director in Kentucky," Rees writes. "A year later, he got serious about starting a facility where people could feed carrots to retired thoroughbreds. . . . The sense of urgency to get Old Friends operational escalated when news broke in 2002 that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand had perished in a slaughter house after his usefulness as a stallion in Japan ended."

"Blowen said he talked to former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, who owns Airdrie Stud, about his plan," Rees writes. Blowen told her, "He goes, 'Let me get this straight: You're going to get these horses, right?' Yeah. 'You're not going to breed them?' No. 'You're not going to sell them?' No. 'You're not going to race them?' No. He says, 'What are you going to do with them?' I said, 'Put them in my yard and hope people come visit them.' He looked at me like I was from outer space, and now he's one of our biggest supporters."

Jones was skeptical, but he said "their mutual love of horses sparked him to help Blowen, first with his checkbook and then by sending him retired stallions such as Patton, You and I and Afternoon Deelites," Rees writes. Jones told her,  "It's expensive to take care of a horse—even one. Somebody starting a group of horses that will never have the ability to win another race or to put money into the pockets of the people feeding them, it was a different approach. ... But most really important happenings in the world come about because some people are determined to make them come about."

Old Friends earns its money on donations, tours of the farm and money earned at the gift shop, Rees writes. It operates on a $1 million per year budget, "and that's after the many discounted and donated services and products afforded Old Friends, including veterinary work, medication, feed supplements, shoeing and shipping. Supporters sponsoring paddocks, run-in sheds, barns, barn stalls, fencing or horses have their names sprinkled throughout on plaques."

"Last year it was part of the first group of racehorse retirement and retraining programs to be accredited by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an industry collaboration that also raises money to help fund the facilities it certifies." On Friday Old Friends was named recipient of the industry's 2014 Special Eclipse Award for outstanding contributions to racing. (Read more)

Six million self-described whites have African American ancestry; numbers are highest in South

About 6 million Americans who describe themselves as white actually have African American ancestry within the past seven generations, says a study published in Science Direct, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. Overall, 3.5 percent of Americans who describe themselves as white have African ancestry, with the numbers highest in the South, where 12 percent of self-described whites in Louisiana and South Carolina have African ancestry; the number is about 10 percent in some other Southern states.

The study was conducted by using the genetic records of 148,739 European Americans who submitted a cheek swab for testing, says the study. Testing was also done on 5,269 self-described African Americans and 8,663 Latinos.

The study found "that people who were 15 percent African or less generally didn't describe themselves as African American, while those who were 50 percent African or greater almost universally did," Ingraham writes. "But in between there was a considerable amount of variation. Those who were about one quarter African were just as likely as not to call themselves African-American." (Read more) (Post map)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Coal-mine deaths are on pace to set a record-low year, but health issues remain a major concern

While health concerns remain about dust that leads to black-lung disease, U.S. coal mines are on pace to have a record year in terms of fatalities, reports The Associated Press. There have been 15 coal-related deaths in the U.S. this year. The record-low was 19 in 2009, the lowest among records that date back to 1900. The number of deaths in each of the past two years was 20.

Only last week did the No. 3 coal state, Kentucky, have its first underground-mine death of the year. One surface miner has also died. Industry officials say the lower number of deaths are a result of an increased awareness about safety, while others cite closing of mines in Appalachia. Still, of this year's 15 deaths, have been are in Appalachia.  (Centers for Disease Control graphic; click it to enlarge)
"Federal mine safety officials credit changes they’ve made since the Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010," Dylan Lovan writes for AP. "They point to their more aggressive use of team inspections at problem sites and other measures, which they say have fostered more responsible behavior below ground." Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told Lovan, “I do think we’re seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that’s for the better."

There are fewer mines operating in Appalachia, a region that historically has had some of the worst mine violators, Lovan notes: 1,701 last year, down from 1,944 in 2010; underground mines in Eastern Kentucky shrank to 82 from 161 in 2010, and in West Virginia to 107 from 133 in 2010.

Retiring Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a longtime mine-safety advocate on the House Education and Labor Committee, "said MSHA needs even stronger tools to investigate and punish mine operators," Lovan reports. "Miller has sponsored a bill to give the agency subpoena power during an investigation or inspection, increase criminal penalties for safety violations, and punish operators who don’t pay fines. The bill is stuck in a House committee."

While fewer coal workers are suffering fatal accidents, more are reporting health issues. Experts at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that by 2012, the rate of severe coal workers' pneumoconosis (black lung) had reached 3.2 percent of miners in the Central Appalachian coalfield of southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette: "That’s a nearly tenfold increase over the disease prevalence 15 years earlier—a shocking statistic." Another NIOSH study said that the most severe form of black lung disease is on the rise.

More than 1,100 miners were wrongly denied black lung claims after the doctor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore who interprets X-rays in black-lung claims failed to find a single case of severe black lung in more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion.

EPA rules on coal ash don't treat it as a hazardous material, rely on citizens to report violations

The Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited rules on coal-ash disposal, written in response to a huge ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 (photo), fell short of advocate' hopes.

EPA "declined to designate coal ash a hazardous material, but said power plants would have to meet certain minimum structural standards for landfills and disposal ponds, and monitor them for leaks," Emmarie Huetteman reports for The New York Times. "If a breach is discovered, it will be the utility company’s responsibility to reinforce or close the pond. New ponds and landfills will have to be lined to provide a barrier against leaks. Controls must be used to prevent people from breathing in coal ash dust."

"Power plants will also have to report the results of their inspections on a public website," Huetteman writes. "The rule provides little oversight, leaving it to citizens and the states to sue if power plants are suspected of not adhering to the EPA’s guidelines."

James Bruggers, environmental writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, writes that the rules "put a lot of new requirements on utilities to monitor ash ponds and landfills and make sure they are engineered and maintained properly. But there are no requirements that either state or federal regulators actually enforce them. Instead, the only guaranteed enforcement mechanism is through lawsuits filed by citizens, state and EPA officials acknowledged."

Electric-utility companies and the coal industry celebrated the decision. Thomas H. Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, told Huetteman, “This stuff is just as safe as we thought it was before the rule-making started, and it’s time to keep that growth going."

Advocates for stronger rules were disappointed. Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement: “As we’ve seen over the past six years, irresponsible storage of coal ash by big utilities has caused unprecedented disasters and threatened the health and safety of Americans around the country. While there are some new tools for addressing our nation’s coal ash problem in these new federal protections, there are glaring flaws in the EPA’s approach.” (Read more)

Federal judge orders gray wolves around Lake Superior be returned to endangered-species list

Photo by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A federal judge has ordered that gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan be returned to the federal endangered-species list.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled Friday that the removal from the list was arbitrary and capricious and thus violated the Endangered Species Act. Howell wrote: "Wolves are the subject of heated disputes, with those on every side of the issue offering heartfelt arguments as to how best to manage this unique species. The last decade of litigation is a testament to those passions."

In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the protected list, giving states control over their populations, Lee Bergquist and Paul A. Smith report for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But the Humane Society of the United States sued to get the wolves put back on the endangered list. Jonathan Lovvorn, the group's senior vice president and chief counsel, told the Sentinel, "It's a great victory for wolves and wolf conservation. We felt all along that federal protection should never have been removed." (Read more)

County passes first local right-to-work law, but state attorney general opines against it

Warren County is in red; Simpson is to southwest
A Southern Kentucky county on Friday passed a local "right to work" law, which prohibits union contracts that require workers to join a union or pay it fees. The Warren County Fiscal Court passed the ordinance 6 to 1, making the county the first county in the nation to pass such a law, Katie Brandenburg reports for The Daily News in Bowling Green, the county seat. Simpson County, which separates Warren County from Tennessee along Interstate 65, and Fulton County, the westernmost county in Kentucky, also have also approved initial readings of right-to-work ordinances.

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democratic candidate for governor, "issued an opinion Thursday that local governments do not have the authority to enact right-to-work ordinances," Brandenburg writes. The opinion relies heavily on a 1955 ruling by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the state's highest court, that the 1947 federal law allowing states and territories to have right-to-work laws should be interpreted narrowly, "reasoning that Congress did not want variations in right-to-work laws in each local political subdivision."

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Lambert and County Attorney Amy Milliken said the county does have the power to pass a right-to-work ordinance under "home rule" laws passed since 1955. "Milliken wrote that Home Rule statutes enable counties to enact right-to-work ordinances, delegating authority to 'regulate and control the fiscal affairs of the county,' regulate 'commerce for the protection and convenience of the public" and promote "economic development of the county,' to county governments," Brandenburg reports. When the ordinance passed, Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, shouted to the officials, "See you in court."

Career academies teach students in rural Northern California community life and job skills

In a small Northern California community that relies heavily on agriculture, high-school students are learning job skills to prepare them for a future beyond graduation. Winters High School's 500 students—about two-thirds are Hispanic—take part in career academies that include agriculture, engineering and culinary science, Deborah Fallows reports for The Atlantic. About half of the students are enrolled in agriculture. (Best Places map)

Agriculture classes "include a vast array of options, from an intro course in the history, economics, and production of California agriculture, to courses on ag business and management, farm practices and operations, including machinery operations and management, animal and plant science, all kinds of shop offerings, FFA participation, which includes public speaking, report writing, and parliamentary procedure, and agriculture leadership training," Fallows writes. "And floriculture, in which students are already doing arrangements for a local business Christmas party."

At the off-campus ag site students "grow tomatoes, pumpkins, and ryegrass, grapes, almonds, peaches, and plums," Fallows writes. "Next year, with the help and guidance of local farmers, they are planning to start an almond orchard." Students also learn to weld and use computer aided design systems to make metal items, such as industrial-size barbeque smokers, fire pits, outdoor metal house decorations, coolers made from wine barrels and lighting for the school football field. (Atlantic photo: Principal Paul Fawcett with a student-made barbecue)

"Compared with those at nearly every other school I have visited, Winters students showed a distinct absence of college-admission mania and stress," Fallows writes. "Principal Paul Fawcett told me they reached their 100 percent goal last year for every senior to make plans for post-graduation. Many go to some of the many campuses in California's three-tiered system: the University of California campuses, the Cal State system, or the state community colleges. Some go into the military, and a few go out of state, including to Ivy League schools." (Read more)