Friday, March 20, 2015

Headline of the day, maybe the week or the month

Jim Romenesko says this is the headline of the day, and we agree. It's from a town in rural Manitoba. The writer was Graeme Bruce, “but I kneaded a little help from the newsroom,” he tweeted.

50 years after War on Poverty was declared, some parts of Central Appalachia are losing ground

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, some of the most impoverished towns and counties in the region have taken a step backward, especially during the last 15 years, University of New Hampshire sociologist Cynthia Mildred "Mil" Duncan told The Economist. Duncan recently returned to the region to update her 1999 book Worlds Apart.

The debate over whether or not the War on Poverty has been a success has been argued in Congress, the British magazine reports. "Republicans claim that the well-meaning programs it spawned have trapped people in poverty rather than liberating them. Democrats, meanwhile, have leapt to the defense of federal transfer payments, and continue to put their hopes for the poorest bits of rural America in government-led economic development. It is possible that both sides are wrong."

While the income gap between Appalachia and the rest of the country has closed, largely due to government funding, many areas still have high poverty rates, and the region's health has also suffered in recent years, especially in Eastern Kentucky, the magazine reports. (Economist graphics; click on image for larger version)

"The combination of diabetes and the outflow of young people has led to a widening of the difference with the rest of the country in mortality rates, which measure the number of deaths as a share of the population. Male life expectancy at birth in Perry County is just 66.5 years, about the same as in Mongolia. Female life expectancy is better, but it has declined by two-and-a-half years since 1985."

Even though federal health reform has been a huge success in Kentucky, with the number of uninsured people dropping from 20.4 percent to 9.8 percent, Obama is highly unpopular in the state. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, is term-limited, meaning the state could soon have a Republican governor, but neither of the likely GOP nominees has joined Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin in calling and an end to the expansion.

West Virginia, long a stronghold of Democrats, has already seen a shift, with Republicans gaining control in the last election. "Central Appalachia has borne painful changes for decades and yet there is still no end to them in sight," the magazine says. "In these circumstances, it is not surprising that a party that is offering to make it all go away seems more appealing than one that can offer only more of the same." (Read more)

McConnell begins national, international effort to derail what he calls Obama's 'war on coal'

It's no secret that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is against the Obama administration's proposed rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005. But now he is going beyond urging states to ignore a central part of the plans and trying to coordinate a state-level campaign of disobedience. (New York Times photo of McConnell by Doug Mills)

Since McConnell is limited in being able to block regulations, and the Republican-controlled Congress lacks enough votes to override a presidential veto, he is taking "the unusual step of reaching out to governors with a legal blueprint for them to follow to stop the rules in their states," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "McConnell’s Senate staff, led by his longtime senior energy adviser, Neil Chatterjee, is coordinating with lawyers and lobbying firms to try to ensure that the state plans are tangled up in legal delays."

McConnell on Thursday "sent a detailed letter to every governor in the United States laying out a carefully researched legal argument as to why states should not comply with Obama’s regulations," Davenport writes. "In the letter, McConnell wrote that the president was 'allowing the EPA to wrest control of a state’s energy policy.'”

McConnell is also taking his campaign outside the U.S. in an attempt "to undercut Obama’s position internationally as he tries to negotiate a global climate change treaty to be signed in Paris in December," Davenport writes. "The idea is to create uncertainty in the minds of other world leaders as to whether the United States can follow through on its pledges to cut emissions."

"McConnell contends that the Obama administration has bypassed Congress and stretched the boundaries of existing law to impose climate change regulations—and that he intends to step outside of Congress and use creative legal methods to push back," Davenport writes. McConnell said, “The EPA is bypassing Congress and the American people by unilaterally proposing these crippling regulations that would wreak havoc on our economy and are clearly unprecedented. I have used and will continue to use all of the tools available to protect families and jobs, whether that be in Congress, or outside of the legislative process.” (Read more)

Pawpaw enthusiast says he's nearing success in his effort to make the fruit more commercial

Nearly 500 years after the pawpaw—the nation’s largest indigenous edible fruit—was discovered by European settlers, it is finally being positioned for international production and distribution, thanks in large part to rural West Virginia breeder Neal Peterson, who has spent his life breeding pawpaws to make them commercially viable, David Bennett reports for Delta Farm Press.

Peterson, who compares the flavor to everything from apricots to apples to peaches, first learned of the fruit in 1975. Since then he's been trying to get pawpaws in stores. Recently, Peterson has been running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for trademarks on his pawpaw varieties.

Peterson says native pawpaws can be found in 26 states. He says interest has grown outside the U.S., especially in Germany and Japan, but customs laws have made it difficult to ship trees to prospective buyers. Still, Peterson remains optimistic. He told Bennett, “Someday, people will know what pawpaws are and they’ll buy them from the grocery store. But we’re still in the early stages." (Read more)

Rural Iowa legislator calls for boycott of Des Moines in response to water-pollution lawsuit

Sen. Randy Feenstra
In response to the decision by Des Moines Water Works to sue some northwestern counties over a dispute over water pollution, a rural lawmaker from northwest Iowa has called on residents to launch an economic boycott against Des Moines, William Petroski reports for The Des Moines Register.

Sen. Randy Feenstra (R-Hull) said the counties weren't given a chance to resolve the issues to reduce nitrates in water running off farm fields without litigation, Petroski writes. Feenstra wrote on his blog: "Being a rural Iowa legislator, I see this snob urban-versus-rural mentality on a regular basis. Urban cities no longer have any regard for the state's agricultural community."

Feenstra also wrote: "I firmly believe that the power of our agricultural community needs to stand up against Des Moines. I would advocate that rural Iowa boycotts Des Moines. This could be done by shopping in other communities, vacationing in other areas of the state, and holding our many organizational meetings in Ames or Cedar Rapids. Iowa has plenty of great locations; we don't need Des Moines and this arrogant mentality against rural Iowa." (Read more)

Texas has lost 10 rural hospitals; more in danger

Of the 48 rural hospitals that have closed since 2010, 10 were in Texas, the nation's second largest state by area and population. "And financial data collected by the state and federal government shows revenue is falling for other rural hospitals, suggesting more may be on the brink," Edgar Walters reports for The Texas Tribune.

"Policymakers, operating on tight budgets, must decide whether they are willing to spend more money on small hospitals serving a limited number of patients, hospitals that in most cases could not keep their doors open without government assistance," Walters writes. "But without them, people, inevitably, will die," such as Dannie Tiffin, who had to travel to 60 miles to the closest hospital—the hospital 30 miles away had recently closed—after he suffered a heart attack in 2014. Doctors say Tiffin, who died before arriving to the hospital, would most likely have lived if he had gotten to the hospital in time.
"Texas' rural hospitals have long struggled to stay afloat, but new threats to their survival have mounted in recent years," Walters writes. "Undelivered promises of federal health reform, payment cuts by both government programs and private insurers, falling patient volumes and a declining rural population overall have been tough on business—a phenomenon one health care executive called 'death by a thousand paper cuts.' Add to that Texas’ distinction as the state with the highest percentage of people without health insurance and you get a financially hostile landscape for rural hospital operators."

Texas, which is controlled by Republicans, chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, and rural hospitals say they are paying the price for cost savings they didn't receive, Walters writes. "Federal health reform mandated penalties for hospitals that have too many patients re-admitted for follow-up care. Another program cracks the whip on hospitals where too many patients get sick during their stay. Federal sequestration, meanwhile, has meant a 2 percent across-the-board cut to Medicare payments."

"Rural hospitals took a further hit from the federal health law’s reductions in 'disproportionate share hospital' payments to hospitals with large numbers of indigent and uninsured patients," Walters writes. "And then there was the Texas Legislature’s 10 percent cut for Medicaid outpatient care in 2011." (Read more)

Rules regulate fracking on federal land, site of only 8% of drilling, but could provide a standard

The Obama administration released the first nationwide safety restrictions on horizontal hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas today. "The Interior Department’s rules are the federal government’s most comprehensive foray to date toward regulating the technology at the heart of the U.S. oil and gas boom, addressing worries such as potential dangers to drinking water," Elana Schor reports for Politico. "They will also offer oil and gas supporters new room to accuse President Barack Obama of seeking to throttle fossil-fuel production, despite his repeated boasts about the nation’s booming energy supplies."

While the proposed rules are being applauded by critics of fracking, they "fall short of environmentalists’ biggest demands for oversight of fracking operations—let alone some groups’ calls for an all-out ban. Interior’s proposal would apply only to land owned by the federal government or Indian tribes, so it wouldn’t end the current patchwork of state laws and local ordinances governing the practice in hot spots like Pennsylvania, south Texas and North Dakota," Schor writes. 

The industry and its supporters in Congress call the rules an overreach, "arguing that greens are massively exaggerating the dangers and that states are adequately regulating the industry already," Schor reports. For a story about the rules from ProPublica, which has been following the issue for years, click here.

UPDATE, March 25: Only 8 percent of U.S. drilling occurs on federal , but the rules "signal a continued willingness after President Obama's last election to set aside oil industry lobbying points, even if his administration also ignored some pleas from green groups," Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News. "And by sitting federal land managers in judgment of state rules, it may come close to being a national standard for all drilling rules to be measured against." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

USDA creates Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced at the University of Kentucky Thursday that the Department of Agriculture will give UK $2.5 million to establish the USDA Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center and make grants from it.

"This program will target child hunger and poverty in persistently poor rural communities by partnering with agencies who have the resources and expertise to make a difference," Gov. Steve Beshear said in a UK news release. "This program will do more than offer aid. It will attack the root causes of child hunger and poverty."

UK will partner with the Altarum Institute and the Southern Rural Development Center to develop the center. They hope to administer grants to as many as 30 impoverished rural areas in up to 15 states. The communities would use the funds to better coordinate existing child-nutrition programs as well as find new ways to target child food insecurity, the release says.

Rural children who live in poverty are some of the most vulnerable, and 85 percent of all persistently poor counties in the U.S are rural.

Mobile apps provide valuable resources on state-specific laws journalists need to know

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has released a trio of apps that provide valuable help for covering cops, courts and schools, and information on recording laws for each state. The cops-and-courts app includes laws regarding the release of records such as arrest reports, search warrants and affidavits, and interviewing legal parties and jurors. The schools app includes state-specific laws and other guidelines for interviewing students and accessing school records.

The apps also provide tools "to collect audio, still and video images, and text for stories," said the release. Another feature is a legal guide, which covers issues such as access, records and other relevant laws. There is also a storybase, which can be used to take notes or compose a story, link or download records, record and store video and audio clips and photographs, keep track of locations and store information on a database. Another feature allows users to post stories to Twitter and Facebook directly from storybase.

States ranked on their spending transparency: Ohio leads list, California at bottom

Ohio leads all states in doing the best job providing online access to government spending data, while Idaho, Alaska and California are the worst culprits, says a report by the United States Public Interest Research Group. States were graded based on efficiency of websites that allow users to view government payments, details about the goods or services purchased and other public benefits obtained.
Ohio, which received a D-minus in 2014, led all states this year with an A-plus. Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida all got an A and Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas and South Dakota A-minus. Idaho, Alaska and California all received an F, with California at the bottom with a 34. Alabama received a D and North Dakota a D-plus. (Read more)

House passes bill aimed at EPA's 'secret science;' Democrats say study subjects' privacy threatened

Despite threats of a presidential veto, the Republican-led House on Wednesday passed a bill "that aims to increase public scrutiny of the scientific research behind Environmental Protection Agency regulations," Timothy Cama and Cristina Marcos report for The Hill. The bill, which passed by a 241-175 vote, "would prohibit the EPA from using so-called 'secret science' to justify its rules."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, would require EPA "to make public the details of all the research upon which its rules rely," Cama and Marcos write. "If a rule’s science isn’t made public, the EPA would not be allowed to write the rule."

Smith told reporters that EPA has “relied on studies with data that was not publicly available. This raises a lot of suspicions.” Democrats "argue that the bill would force the EPA to release confidential personal information about the participants in scientific research," Cama and Marcos report. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters, "What my Republican colleagues are calling secrets [is] actually confidential, personal health information from research study participants. Disclosure of this kind of information would be a major breach of faith with hundreds of thousands of research participants who volunteered to enter these types of public health studies." (Read more)

Wendell Berry welcomes Prince Charles' visit to Ky. in support of sustainability and local food

UPDATE: For coverage of the event, see Kentucky Health News.

In honor of a royal visit on Friday to Louisville by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who will be highlighting issues of sustainability and local food, renowned Kentucky farmer-author-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry and his daughter Mary Berry, executive director of The Berry Center in New Castle, Ky., have written a welcome letter, published in the Courier-Journal. It begins:


Your presence among us honors us. We have taken courage from your courage in opposing those who destroy for short-term profit the substance, health, and beauty of this world, which we did not make and cannot conserve except in obedience to its natural laws and to the divine imperative of human stewardship.

You will not be surprised to learn that in Kentucky, as in much of the world, the ways of conserving the land, the water, and the air are repeatedly blocked by the combination of corporate wealth, political connivance, academic complacency, and a deficit of hope where hope is most needed.

Here as elsewhere, the damages done by surface mining are severe, permanent, and largely unrestrained; the loss of land to "development" is, arithmetically, unsustainable; our use of our forests is for the most part ecologically unsound; our farmlands are eroding under an increasing burden of annual grain crops; those lands are priced beyond the reach of aspiring small farmers; and our streams are everywhere degraded by chemical and other pollutants.

But I believe you will be unsurprised also to learn that in Kentucky, as in places similarly exploited and threatened all over the world, there is a growing number of people and groups of people competently aware of, and determinedly opposed to, the diminishment of the natural health and beauty of our state and our world. We are proud to welcome you into the company of friends and allies who, like you, are unrestingly committed to the work of ecological sense and sanity. (Read more)

Residents of county in rural Alabama upset about poor Internet service from Windstream

Nearly 500 Alabama customers of rural telecommunications giant Windstream have added their names to a petition complaining about its Internet service in their area, reports WBRC-TV in Birmingham.

Windstream confirmed to the Fox affiliate that there was a known problem for about 700 customers in St. Clair County (Encyclopedia of Alabama map), between Birmingham and Anniston. The largest city in the county is Pell City, population about 12,700.

“I’m told customers are tired of paying for service they’re just not getting,” WBRC “On Your Side” reporter Ronda Robinson reported. Her report includes excerpts from the petition, including comments such as “Slowest Internet ever,” “We currently have no Internet,” and “My Internet service is not high speed at all.” Signatories to the petition also claim that the service has been problematic for “several years” but Windstream has not addressed the problems.

A company spokesman told WBRC that Windstream is aware of the connectivity issues and encouraged customers to report problems to its customer service department. But residents told Robinson they have tried dealing with that department for years, to no avail. And Robinson reported on the alleged problems about six months earlier.

Argo City Council Member Betty Bradley said on camera that the problem is long standing. “After 3 in the afternoon, it’s almost nonexistent,” she said. “It knocks you off. You can’t download anything. It’s just impossible to get on.” Another local resident, Billy Reynolds, claimed he has had problems with Windstream’s Internet service for several years.

This comes about a year after the Georgia Office of Consumer Protection reached a $600,000 settlement with Windstream for alleged false advertising. The office had argued that Windstream advertised Internet speeds that it could not provide or guarantee and that Windstream customer service “misrepresented the time frame within which the customers’ Internet speed issues would be resolved.” The settlement included $250,000 in restitution to the state, which redirected the funds to purchase computers for the Technical College System of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the former CEO of Arkansas-based Windstream, Jeff Gardner, was allegedly ousted in December due to problems of “financial performance and operational performance,” according to a March 17 report in Arkansas Business. In late February, Windstream’s chief financial officer, Bob Gunderman, announced plans to improve broadband speeds in rural areas as part of the “Connect America Fund” program of the Federal Communication Commission, according to a report in Fierce Telecom dated Feb. 24. Gardner’s compensation in 2014 was reportedly $7.4 million, up almost a half a million dollars from the previous year, Arkansas Business reports.

Overpumping of wells in San Joaquin Valley depletes water supplies, collapses land surface

Overpumping of water wells in drought-plagued California is making the earth in the San Joaquin Valley fall a half-inch each month as groundwater supplies are depleted, Bettina Boxall reports for the Los Angeles Times. "The land subsidence is cracking irrigation canals, buckling roads and permanently depleting storage space in the vast aquifer that underlies California's heartland."

While overuse has escalated during the drought, "growers have been sucking more water from its sands and clays than nature or man puts back for going on a century," Boxall writes. "They are eroding their buffer against future droughts and hastening the day, experts warn, when they will be forced to let more than a million acres of cropland turn to dust because they have exhausted their supplies of readily available groundwater." (Times graphic)
The main problem is that the Central Valley aquifer, which extends for about 400 miles under the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, has for years been largely unregulated and unmonitored, allowing landowners of the more than 100,000 wells to take as much water as they want, Boxall writes. "Scientists estimate that since the first wells were drilled by settlers more than a century ago, pumping has depleted Central Valley groundwater reserves by 125 million acre-feet. That is about four and a half times the capacity of Lake Mead, the biggest surface reservoir in the country. About 20 million acre-feet of that loss occurred in the last decade."

Legislation, which is strongly opposed by agricultural groups, calls "for the creation of local groundwater agencies that have more than two decades to fully comply," Boxall reports.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rural hospitals face losing federal reimbursements for having high patient-readmission rates

The biggest reason rural areas are facing doctor shortages could be a lack of social services in rural areas, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, Mark Guydish reports for The Times-Leader in northeastern Pennsylvania. (T-L photo by Fred Adams: Patients wait for medical care at a free clinic at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Mountain Top, Pa.)

"The lack of social services bodes ill for rural hospitals as the 'Hospital Re-admissions Reduction Rate' program created by the Affordable Care Act kicks in," Guydish writes. "The program punishes hospitals that have high readmission rates by reducing Medicare reimbursement."

Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, said more than 2,000 hospitals are expected to be hurt by the re-admissions program in 2015, Guydish writes. Slabach told him, “When a patient is discharged in a rural setting there is not a network of services for post-acute care and often patients will come back to hospitals because there were no other services to go to.” Possible solutions include an increase of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. (Read more)

W.Va. to review data linking mountaintop-removal mining to health problems, involve other states

The administration of West Virginia Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin "said Tuesday that it would initiate an evaluation of the growing body of studies that have found residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increases risks of serious illnesses and premature death," Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette. Studies have linked mountaintop removal to cancer and birth defects and the endangerment of freshwater species.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health, "said that his agency would work with the state Department of Environmental Protection to examine the issue and to seek help from various federal scientific and regulatory agencies to review existing research on the subject," Ward writes. “The analysis is something that is needed going forward,” Gupta said. “The bottom line here is to let science speak for itself. It’s time that we attempt to do that.”

"Gupta said that his plan would 'engage surrounding states' such as Kentucky and Virginia to 'evaluate the scientific research being conducted by academia, non-profit groups, and others with an emphasis on peer-reviewed research to better understand the issues,'" Ward writes. "Also, Gupta said, his agency would work with the DEP to ask 'federal partners'—such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and National Institutes of Health, and the federal Office of Surface Mining—to 'seek relevant subject matter expertise allowing for the exploration of a federal-state, multi-agency partnership to conduct analysis of the existing research in the field.'" (Read more)

Central Appalachian economic woes are a warning to energy-boom regions, rural expert says

There is no quick fix to reviving a rural economy hit hard by the loss of its primary source of income, such as the Central Appalachian coalfield, Chuck Fluharty, founder, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, told Manuel Quiñones of EnergyWire.

Beshear, Fluharty, Rogers

Fluharty, who specializes in revitalizing busted rural economies, is working with Shaping our Appalachian Region—created by Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers—to help find solve the economic struggles in Eastern Kentucky.

Fluharty's "hope is that SOAR will score a win or two and spread to other Appalachian areas afflicted by coal's downturn," Quiñones writes. "It might, he added, even serve as a cautionary tale to rural areas that are now feasting on the hydraulic fracturing boom."

Fluharty rold Quiñones that the success of a business such as coal mining, or oil and gas development from horizontal hydraulic fracturing, leads to high-paying jobs, sometimes for several generations, but crowds out other sectors, leaving the area depleted when resources dry up: "No community that depends on resource extraction . . . can escape its curse. It builds a culture of stability and entitlement because of that extraction industry, which always fails because the resource goes away."

In Central Appalachia the problem is exacerbated by the region's "lack of population centers and a Scots-Irish heritage that tends to make people resistant to change," Quiñones writes. "He knows it from experience, having been raised in the Appalachian foothills on a fifth-generation family farm in southeastern Ohio."

SOAR is already having an impact on other areas, Quiñones writes. West Virginia Sen. Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) formed a similar group called called Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE), and officials in Minnesota who attended SOAR's first summit in 2013, said they see similarities between struggles in Central Appalachia and the Iron Range. A SOAR "strategy summit" is scheduled for May 11 in Pikeville, Ky. (Read more)

Virginia conservationist becomes unpaid consultant to help scofflaw coal company right its wrongs

Conservationist and health-care executive Tom Clarke, who has been critical of Southern Coal and owner Jim Justice, even going so far as to buy a billboard to condemn the company for its repeated violations and unpaid fines, is now working as an unpaid consultant to help Southern solve its problems, Jeff Sturgeon reports for The Roanoke Times. (Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis: Justice and Clarke; Justice owns The Greenbrier resort)

In early 2014 Justice's son Jay, who runs Southern Coal, agreed to meet with Clarke, who said he wanted to help instead of just being a critic, Sturgeon writes. "Jay Justice, though skeptical at first, said he connected with Clarke’s sincerity and valued his expertise, and the two bonded around a common interest in land conservation." Since joining Southern Coal in November 2014, Clarke has "helped orchestrate a coherent response to problems that the Justices alone had been unable to sort out in a timely fashion." Jay told Sturgeon, “What we needed was a path to be able to genuinely fulfill the obligations, and that’s what Tom’s really providing us or assisting us with."

It hasn't been an easy job. Southern Coal, which employs 1,000 people in Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Tennessee, owed $7 million in fines, had $6 million in reclamation work to perform and at one time faced more than 300 violations, Sturgeon writes.

"The Justices, who had one of the worst compliance records in coal mining, now say they intend to address all deficiencies with the help of the sharp-tongued environmentalist who disparaged them, time and again last year, in editorials and letters and calls to government officials," Sturgeon writes. "In addition to partnering with Clarke, the Justices appointed a veteran coal executive as their new chief operating officer, and he’s been tasked with executing the turnaround." Critics of Southern Coal have applauded the partnership, but remain optimistically skeptical as they wait to see how it plays out. (Read more)

Poor, remote E.Ky. school penalized for recruiting; coach says he's giving opportunity to at-risk kids

As the Kentucky boys state high school basketball tournament begins today, a battle is brewing in a small Eastern Kentucky town over its school's basketball program coached by a former University of Kentucky player, Willie Davis reports for the Daily Yonder. Cordia School in Knott County is in a fight with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, which claims coach Rodrick Rhodes, who became the boys basketball coach three years ago, is illegally recruiting players from out of state, or even outside the U.S. Rhodes says Cordia is not a basketball factory and he is giving at-risk students a chance to succeed. (Photo by John Flavell: Rhodes huddles with players before a game)

KHSAA disagrees. It has banned players, and initially banned the school from boys' basketball games this season and the 2015-16 postseason and fined the school $26,000. Rhodes and most of the imported players are black, with most players coming from violent homes in places such as New York, Canada and Mali, Davis writes. Cordia is largely white.

Rhodes told Davis, "Kids are wanting to go to Cordia. Their families want them to go. … Big schools have transfer students. I don’t even know who won [the] state this year, but I guarantee there were transfer students. The team they beat in the championship had transfer students. The teams those teams beat in the final four had transfer students. Every team those teams played in the sweet sixteen had transfer students. Why are we being picked on?"

Rhodes said, “We’re saving these kids’ lives. Two of the kids have been shot where they were from. …You can’t walk to school without being recruited to a gang. Who wants that? It’s not about basketball. Our players aren’t great players. They’re fragile, fractured kids. If they’re so great, these teams wouldn’t let them go. I’m not getting McDonald's All Americans. If I was, my records would be a lot better. We’re not getting great basketball players. We’re getting black kids, so people assume they’re phenomenal. But this isn’t about basketball. I promise you, it’s so much bigger than that.”

KHSAA has since reversed many of the sanctions against the school, Davis writes. "Although the board upheld 17 out of 27 of the convictions and maintained both the $26,000 fine and the two-year post-season ban, they modified the biggest ban. Cordia was allowed to play 12 games this season, going 8-4. Davis did not quote anyone from KHSAA in his story.

During Sunshine Week, White House confirms exemption of one of its offices from records law

While journalists across the country are celebrating Sunshine Week and promoting open government and freedom of information, the White House on Tuesday "removed a longstanding government-transparency rule that the George W. Bush administration first opposed, exempting President Obama’s Office of Administration from records requests," Josh Hicks reports for The Washington Post.

"White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday characterized the rule change as a matter of cleaning up outdated regulations, noting that a federal court decided nearly six years ago that the Office of Administration is not subject to FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)," Hicks writes. Earnest said the move " has no impact at all on the policy that we have maintained from the beginning to comply with the Freedom of Information Act when it’s appropriate.”

Advocates of open government are critical of the move, especially since Obama promised to run the most transparent fedreal government in history, Hicks writes. Anne Weismann, executive director of
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement: “This step makes mockery of the administration’s commitment to transparency, especially given that it’s Sunshine Week. Apparently they have abandoned even the appearance of transparency.”

For years the Office of Administration complied with FOIA requests before the Bush administration stopped the practice, prompting a lawsuit by CREW, Hicks writes. "The Obama White House has not released any records from the office under FOIA, using the court decision to justify its policy." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

48 rural hospitals shut since 2010, and 283 are in trouble, says National Rural Health Association

The National Rural Health Association, which represents 2,000 small hospitals and other health-care providers, says 48 rural hospitals have closed since 2010—10 in Texas and mostly in the South—and 283 more are in trouble.

Many of the struggling hospitals are in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, Guy Gugliotta reports for The Washington Post. "Besides cutting back on Medicare, the law reduced payments to hospitals for the uninsured, a decision based on the assumption that states would expand their Medicaid programs. However, almost two dozen states have refused to do so. In addition, additional Medicare cuts caused by a budget disagreement in Congress have hurt hospitals’ bottom lines."

But Medicaid is just one issue. "Rural hospitals also suffer from multiple endemic disadvantages that drive down profit margins and make it virtually impossible to achieve economies of scale," Gugliotta writes. "These include declining populations; disproportionate numbers of elderly and uninsured patients; the frequent need to pay doctors better than top dollar to get them to work in the hinterlands; the cost of expensive equipment that is necessary but frequently underused; the inability to provide lucrative specialty services and treatments; and an emphasis on emergency and urgent care, chronic money-losers."

Expert says if something isn't done to turn things around, then there could be a repeat of events 30 years ago, when an overhaul of the Medicaid system rewarded larger hospitals and hurt smaller ones, leading to 440 small hospitals closing, Gugliotta writes. (North Carolina Rural Health Research Program map: Rural hospital closures from January 2010 through Jan. 23, 2015)

About 17 percent of coal mines, and 72 percent in Central Appalachia, will not be profitable this year

A significant portion of U.S. coal production forecast for this year—most of it in Central Appalachia—is not profitable, analysts at Wood Mackenzie said on Monday, Jim Levesque reports for Platts. Close to 17 percent of U.S. coal production forecast for 2015—about 162 million short tons—is unprofitable, and the figure is 72 percent in Central Appalachia.

"Years of declining productivity, thinning seams, increasing strip ratios, more stringent government regulations and a high-paid workforce have made Central Appalachia the highest-cost region in the U.S," Levesque writes.

"Altogether, about 14 percent of U.S. thermal coal production and 58 percent of metallurgical coal production is at risk because of pricing in today's market," Levesque writes. Wood Mackenzie said the cost produce Central Appalachian coal is about $65 per short ton, compared with $47.50 in Northern Appalachia and $34 in the Illinois Basin. At today's prices, 13 percent of Northern Appalachian coal is unprofitable."

Despite losing money, many mines will remain in operation because an operating mine is more attractive to prospective buyers, some are supplying long-term contracts, and "if a producer is able to beat market prices with a niche-quality coal, or the location of the mine is near an end-user, providing a transportation advantage over competitors." (Read more)

EPA chief promises that proposed water rules will be rewritten to be more clear about its jurisdiction

The Obama administration's proposed rules to define "waters of the United States" under the Clean Water Act have caused confusion, leading to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy repeatedly trying, and mostly failing, to explain the regulations to those who might be affected by them. That has left many farmers and ranchers fearing the rules will expand EPA's jurisdiction, a claim McCarthy denies.

McCarthy said this week that the final rules, which are expected this spring, will be rewritten to be more clear and "to tighten the definitions of ditches, tributaries and farm-field erosional features to narrow what areas fall under the law's jurisdiction," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "The final rule will be accompanied by extensive guidance in a question-and-answer format that will include photographs to make it easier for farmers to understand what areas of their land might be regulated, she said."

McCarthy said "the administration had bungled the rollout of the rule and should have called it the 'Clean Water rule' rather than WOTUS," Brasher writes. "She said the definition of tributary would be made clear that the rule would only cover 'natural or constructed streams, the ones that could carry pollution downstream-which have to have the amount, duration and frequency of flow to look, act, and function like a tributary. They are the ones that we don't want to pollute or destroy without thinking about how to mitigate impacts downstream.'” (Read more)

High-school graduation rates for minority and poor students reach record highs

High school graduation rates for disadvantaged students have reached record highs. The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that 2012-13 rate for students with minority backgrounds or poor families was 81.4 percent, up from 80 percent in 2011-12. Asian students had the highest rate, at 88.7 percent, followed by whites, 86.6 percent; Hispanics, 75.2 percent; low-income students, 73.3 percent; and African American, 70.7.

"The largest black-white gaps were in the Midwest," Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. Department of Education data includes the graduation rate for every state in 2012-13, compared to the previous two years, led by Iowa with a 90 percent graduation rate. (Read more) (Post map)

California farmers and other landowners are obstacles for bullet train from L.A. to San Francisco

California's bullet train is having a hard time getting on track. The state's $68 billion high-speed rail system, which is already two years behind schedule, has run into problems over property rights with Central Valley farmers and land investors who are not willing to sell, Ralph Vartabedian reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"When the state chose to start construction of the high-speed rail in the Central Valley, it was based partly on the theory that assembling needed land would be easiest in the state's rural backbone," Vartabedian writes. "As it turns out, some of the farmers most resistant to accepting state offers are proving to be wealthy, highly educated professionals and investors—and formidable opponents in negotiations."
The project, scheduled to be completed in 2029, would have trains traveling upwards of 200 mph from Los Angeles to San Francisco. But officials are having a hard time completing the first 29-mile section. "In all, the state's High Speed Rail Authority needs 525 parcels for the first phase of construction. It has completed deals with owners of 123 properties," Vartabedian writes. "Several other disputes have been resolved in recent weeks. But an additional 154 owners rejected initial offers, and the state began the eminent-domain process to force owners to sell."

"A surge of lawsuits over land acquisition could entangle the rail agency in a bottleneck outside its control: local court systems where attorneys say just getting a pretrial hearing can take months," Vartabedian writes. One problem, rural landowners say, is that "No farmers serve on the high-speed-rail board, and critics contend the state hasn't sought to engage growers in the planning process." (Read more)

Two officials of chemical company plead guilty in spill that fouled drinking water in W.Va.

A pair of Freedom Industries officials pleaded guilty Monday to criminal water-pollution charges in relation to the January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 residents in West Virginia, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette: "William E. Tis and Charles E. Herzing each entered a plea of guilty to a misdemeanor charge of illegally discharging the chemical Crude MCHM into the Elk River. Each faces a statutory minimum of 30 days and a maximum of one year in prison, along with fines of up to $25,000 per day of violation."

In December 2014 Freedom and six of its owners, managers and employees were charged with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to the spill. A report ordered by West Virginia Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that the Mountain State has inadequate environmental regulations to prevent incidents such as the Freedom Industries spill.

"In separate deals with federal prosecutors, Tis, 60, and Herzing, 64, each pleaded guilty to one count of a three-count indictment that originally charged them with violations of the Clean Water Act and the Refuse Act," Ward writes. They had both entered not-guilty pleas in January.

"Freedom Industries and two other former Freedom officials, Michael Burdette and Robert Reynolds, have also agreed to plead guilty to charges related to the chemical leak, Ward writes. "Former Freedom officials Dennis Farrell and Gary Southern both also face three water pollution charges, and Southern faces separate bankruptcy fraud charges for allegedly trying to hide his personal wealth from Freedom’s bankruptcy proceeding and from civil lawsuits filed against the company over the leak. Farrell and Southern have both pleaded not guilty." (Read more)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Best way to attract teachers to poor, rural schools may be to stress opportunity to make a difference

The best way to recruit teachers to poor, rural remote areas is not through incentives, but to emulate the military and promote the benefits of being able to make an impact on people's lives, said Robert Maranto, the 21st century chairman in leadership at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, Madeleine Cummings reports for Slate. (Cummings photo: Math teacher Ed Wiest works with a student in Pryor, Mont., on an Indian reservation)

University researchers analyzed 50 rural school district websites, finding that only one of them "advertised non-materialistic incentives, such as freedom in the classroom or the opportunity to forge close relationships with students," Cummings writes. That school, KIPP Delta, a charter school network in rural Arkansas with close ties to Teach for America, "included a long paragraph on its careers page about the benefits of teaching in their schools, which serve primarily students from low-income families, saying teachers would 'directly impact the lives of hundreds of children' and "if you are looking for a place where you can grow as a professional and truly make a difference, KIPP Delta may be a perfect fit!'”

"This one paragraph, the Arkansas researchers noted, included more promotional language than the other 53 school district websites combined," Cummings writes.

The challenge "is how to find a way to sell the benefits without sugarcoating the enormous challenges of the job or neglecting to build a sustainable teaching corps committed to staying in one place for the long haul," Cummings writes. "These are oversights sometimes cited by skeptics of the recruiting-savvy Teach for America, which focuses on bringing top college graduates to struggling communities for at least two years. After those two years, slightly over half leave their initial placements, according to one study (although a majority stay in teaching for longer than two years)."

Wary that Teach for America teachers with no ties to the community won't stay long, other districts are trying to attract locals to teach, Cummings writes. "Teachers from the same background and place usually have stronger ties to the community and children, and are often less likely to pack their bags when the job proves challenging. But even with local candidates, messaging can go a long way. Invariably, teachers say a financial incentive, like subsidized tuition or loan forgiveness, might pique their interest. But they ultimately came to teaching—and stayed—for the kids." (Read more)

Des Moines to sue rural counties over water pollution; case could affect farmers nationwide

The urban vs. rural battle in Iowa over who is to blame for water pollution has led the Des Moines Water Works board to unanimously vote to file a federal suit against the northwestern counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista, Timothy Meinch reports for The Des Moines Register. The move "could have far-reaching effects on how states approach water quality regulation." (Mother Jones graphic)

"Water Works officials and a crowd of supportive residents criticized the state's voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy for farmers," saying it is insufficient for protecting Iowa waterways, Meinch writes. The lawsuit "claims drainage districts act as a conduit, channeling fertilizer and manure between farm fields and waterways. Water Works officials said these districts should be regulated with special permits under the Clean Water Act."

"The Iowa Farm Bureau and 11 farm groups released a joint statement Tuesday calling Water Works' decision a 'startling disconnect from the scope and complexity of non-point water issues,'" Meinch writes. They wrote: "Merely enacting regulations will do nothing to improve water quality." (Read more)

Railroads ask White House to not require advanced braking system on oil trains

"The U.S. rail industry is pushing the White House to drop a requirement that oil trains adopt an advanced braking system, a cornerstone of a national safety plan that will soon govern shipments of crude across the country," Valerie Volcovici and Patrick Rucker report for Reuters. (McClatchy graphic)

More oil was spilled from trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and 47 people in Quebec died from the derailment of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. There has also been a recent rash of derailments, which led Canada to propose rules to toughen tank-car standards. The U.S. Department of Transportation in October 2014 proposed a two-year phase-out of older tank cars, but the oil and rail industries said that wasn't enough time. 

"Representatives of large rail operators met with White House officials last week to argue against the need for electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, or ECP brakes, saying they "would not have significant safety benefits" and 'would be extremely costly,' according to a handout from the meeting," Volcovici and Rucker write. "ECP brakes trigger all axles simultaneously rather than one at a time in current design."

"The industry claims fitting rail stock with ECP brakes would not prevent accidents, but merely limit the number of cars that derail in an accident," Volcovici and Rucker write. "Adopting the new technology would lead to more frequent service problems and mechanical delays, industry officials said." (Read more)

Business is booming for Western Kentucky fisheries that process Asian carp and sell it to China, Korea

While Great Lakes states are contending with an influx of invasive Asian carp that are threatening the fishing industry, business is booming for fisheries in Kentucky that process the species to be shipped to Asian countries such as China and Korea, Jere Downs reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. Carp, a favorite for fish balls and dumpling filling, is the second most eaten fish in the world. (C-J photo: Fisher-processor John Crilly hefts a 25-pound Asian silver carp into the hold of a fishing boat on Kentucky Lake)

Two Rivers Fisheries, located in Wickliffe, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, "shipped 264,000 tons of Asian carp—beheaded, dressed and frozen—overseas last year, said operations manager Jeff Smith. Two Rivers buys between 6,000 and 8,000 tons of Asian carp daily from fishermen in Kentucky and Missouri and expects to ship 440,000 tons this year overseas, he added."
RCB Fish Co., which has only been in business since February, is already taking big orders, with a bulletin board displaying current orders that include "12 tons of fish heads, six tons of silver carp meat, one ton of grass carp, and nearly seven tons of surimi, a paste of fish and natural ingredients like egg white that is most often processed to become imitation crab meat overseas," Downs writes.

"A third new Asian carp processing plant, Riverine Fisheries, aims to moor a fish factory barge on the Mississippi River in Hickman, Kentucky, to create 110 new jobs by year's end," Downs reports. The three companies "have received preliminary approval to receive state tax incentives worth a combined $5 million to process and market the carp to consumers worldwide," she writes in another story.

Falling oil prices raise safety issues in industry

Falling prices have sent the oil industry into a downturn, with companies announcing more than $40 billion in spending cuts and eliminating 100,000 jobs, reports Fuel Fix. But that doesn't mean safety is no longer a concern, as evidenced by a deadly explosion last week in Texas that killed three workers. In 2013 the oil and gas industry had 112 fatalities, a 31 percent increase over 2003, said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that same time period the industry doubled its payroll to 507,000 workers. (EnergyWire graphic)

Some industry experts say a downturn could lead to safer conditions, with younger, less experienced workers leaving for other jobs, Fuel Fix reports. "Oilfield deaths fell by 43 percent in 2009 to 68, the lowest amount in a decade, as a collapse in natural gas prices led to drilling cutbacks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of active drilling rigs, a measure of workload, fell 57 percent from August 2008 to June 2009, according to Baker Hughes data compiled by Bloomberg." (Read more)

Missouri celebrating importance of community journalism, free speech in Sunshine Week

Highlighting the importance of Sunshine Week, the annual salute to open government, Missouri is celebrating local and community journalism, with a series of talks that focus on free speech and the continuing coverage of events in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

"Community journalism, which usually means weekly newspapers, is a lone, bright star in the media world today," writes Don Corrigan for the Webster-Kirkwood Times in western Missouri. "A tough economy and the new digital media have hurt TV news and daily papers. They've lost advertising, staffers and audience. Community journalism has held its own through all this – and is now on the rebound."

Events this week include: The St. Louis Media Hall of Fame induction scheduled for tonight; a talk about free speech on Wednesday at Webster University; and a discussion on media coverage of events at Ferguson on Thursday at Edward Jones & Co. headquarters in Des Peres. (Read more)

GOP-led W.Va. House passes bill to scale back chemical storage-tank law passed after 2014 spill

The West Virginia House, taken over by Republicans in the fall election, easily passed a bill Friday "to scale back West Virginia’s year-old law regulating above ground chemical storage tanks" like the one that in January 2014 that caused water for 300,000 residents to be contaminated, Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette. The bill passed 78-21. (Wikipedia map: Counties affected by 2014 chemical spill in Elk River)

"The bill exempts from new safety and inspection requirements more than 36,000 chemical tanks that would have been covered by the law unanimously approved last year to try to avoid a repeat of the Freedom Industries chemical leak," Ward writes. "An opt-out provision allowing tank owners to comply with existing state permits instead of the new tank standards is expected to drop that number to perhaps as few as 90 tanks covered by the safety law."

"House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, defended the bill as a reasonable response to what industry lobbyists and their supporters have insisted were 'unintended consequences' of last year’s law," Ward writes. "The bill has the support of the state Department of Environmental Protection and, because of expanded secrecy provisions for data about chemical tank contents and locations, the Division of Homeland Security."

The bill also "eases oversight of chemical storage tanks by cutting back on mandated state inspections, allowing lesser safety standards for some tanks, and blocking public access to some information about hazardous materials stored near drinking-water intakes," Ward writes.