Saturday, April 11, 2015

Vermont weekly celebrates its 300th edition with stories about community journalism

The Brattleboro Commons, a weekly newspaper in Vermont, is celebrating its 300th issue by "shining the spotlight on community journalism — and especially its future. Our staff and a number of other media professionals with ties to the Windham County region reflect on these issues and help us celebrate a milestone." Here are some of the stories:
When business principles are turned upside down: Jeff Potter writes, "The small newspapers I worked for were founded not to make money but to fill a need — and the bond they had with their readers was amazing."
• Randolph T. Holhut is a Refugee from a corporate news career: "We would have to do more and more with less and less, with no possibility of improvement," he writes. "No newspaper ever got better by giving its readers less. No newspaper ever cut its way to prosperity."
Writing close to home:  Evan Johnson writes, "I’ve learned the craft of journalism while living in a place I know more intimately than anywhere else."

Friday, April 10, 2015

Poverty and asthma go hand-in-hand for rural African American children, researchers says

Being poor and African American increases children's risk of developing asthma, regardless of whether they live in a rural or urban area, says a study by the Medical College of Georgia, Robert Preidt reports for Health Day. Researchers, who estimated that 60 to 70 percent of asthma risk is environmental, said the study "challenges the common belief that living in a city boosts the chances of developing the respiratory condition" and "asthma is a disease of poverty and poor housing, where children are exposed to high levels of asthma triggers such as mold, fungi, cockroaches, mice, dust mites and tobacco smoke."

Comparing data of 7,300 students at six public high schools in Detroit with data of 2,500 students in rural Georgia, researchers said results were nearly identical, Preidt writes. In Detroit, 15 percent of students had diagnosed asthma, and 8 percent had undiagnosed asthma, while in rural Georgia, 14 percent had diagnosed asthma, and 7.5 percent undiagnosed asthma. Researchers said that more than 90 percent of the children in Detroit and more than 60 percent of the children in rural Georgia are African American.

The poverty rate in Detroit and rural Georgia is 23 percent, and about 74 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches, Preidt writes. Overall, 10 percent of U.S. children have asthma, while 20 percent of African American children suffer from asthma. (Read more)

Lowes joins Home Improvement, other chains, in saying it will phase out pesticides harmful to bees

Eco Watch graphic
Home improvement chain Lowes said it will phase out pesticides blamed for the decline of bee colonies, Nandita Bose reports for Reuters. The corporation said it will eliminate neonicotinoids "by the spring of 2019, as suitable alternatives become available."

A 2014 study by environment groups Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Research Institute "showed that 51 percent of garden plants purchased at Lowe's, Home Depot and Walmart in 18 cities in the United States and Canada contained neonicotinoid pesticides at levels that could harm or even kill bees," Bose writes.

Several major U.S. companies, including Home Depot, said in June 2014 that they would eliminate neonicotinoids and were making a push to get suppliers to label any plants treated with the pesticides. The U.S. loses about one third of its bee population annually, and the number of colonies has dropped from about 4 million in the 1970s to 2.5 million today.

Indiana anti-meth bill shot down in House; law would be too expensive for state police to enforce

An anti-meth bill in Indiana that would have required convicted drug felons to have a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine—an ingredient used to make meth—died in the House this week because the law would have been too expensive to enforce, Zach Evans reports for the Evansville Courier & Press.

"The bill called for state courts to report drug-related felonies to the Indiana State Police, which would then report the offense to the state's pseudoephedrine purchase database," Evans writes. But the bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Tom Washburne (R-Evansville), said the price tag was too high, with a report estimating that it would cost state police $378,500 in 2016 to update the database to old convictions and another $54,200 in 2017.

"A Courier & Press in-depth report in February found that imported crystal meth seized by local law enforcement increased 58,500 percent increase between 2011 and 2014," Evans writes. "More than 60 pounds of imported meth was seized locally last year. That increase correlates with a 50-percent decrease in the number of meth labs seized in the county between 2013 and 2014, showing that local meth habits are changing for now." (Read more) (Indiana Methamphetamine Investigation System graphic)

Emergency whistle in rural West Virginia town goes silent at night after resident threatens legal action

A whistle that warns the 1,800 residents in rural Romney, W.V., of emergencies has gone silent from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. because one citizen threatened to sue the local fire department for creating a noise disturbance, Maria Pisciotta reports for The State Journal. Fire chief G.T. Parsons, who said the Romney Fire Company has more important things to do than spend the public's money on a court battle, did note that last year when a school fire alarm went off in the middle of the night, the only responders were those who heard the whistle. (Best Places map: Romney, W.V.)

Public support of the whistle is split, Pisciotta writes. Locals have complained for years about the loud, annoying noise, but others say they favor safety over comfort and have offered to donate money for legal fees to keep the whistle available at all times.

The main concern for supporters of the whistle is public safety. Delegate Gary Howell (R-Mineral) told Pisciotta, “My primary concern is in the middle of the night when people are asleep, their cell phones are off, TV off, radio off, computer off, they need to be warned if there is a tornado coming or other quick moving threat. The siren is a way to warn that segment of the public.” (Read more)

Cancer-causing radon levels 39% higher in buildings near Pennsylvania shale gas wells, study says

Levels of cancer-causing radon in rural and suburban buildings near Pennsylvania shale gas wells are 39 percent higher than in buildings in urban areas, said a study by Johns Hopkins University published in Environmental Health Perspectives, John Hurdle and Susan Phillips report for State Impact.

Researchers analyzed radon levels from about 860,000 homes from 1989 to 2013, finding that radon levels rose significantly in 2004 when the state's fracking boom began, Hurdle and Phillips write. They "also found that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems." (Johns Hopkins graphic)
"Overall, 42 percent of the buildings analyzed had radon concentrations at over 4 picocuries per liter, the level at which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends remediation, and which is about three times the national average for indoor air," Hurdle and Phillips writes. "According to EPA, there are about 21,000 radon-related lung cancers per year in the U.S."

The Johns Hopkins report contradicts a report released in January by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Hurdle and Phillips write. "The DEP spent more than a year studying exposure risks to naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) during oil and gas production and concluded there is 'little potential for harm to workers or the public.'” (Read more)

Fish and Wildlife Service considers granting northern spotted owl 'endangered status'

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering moving the northern spotted owl from the threatened list to endangered status, Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. The owl, found in forests in Washington, Oregon and California, has been declining due to loss of habitat from logging and competition from barred owls, which have been migrating West. (National Wildlife Federation photo: northern spotted owl)

Fish and Wildlife estimates that since the spotted owl was listed as threatened in 1990, the population has declined by about 2.9 percent per year to an estimated population of fewer than 10,000, Courtney Sherwood reports for Reuters. Conservationists say the population is fewer than 4,000.

"The decline comes despite logging restrictions and a plan launched by wildlife officials in 2011 to thin the population of barred owls, a rival from farther east which has encroached on its native cousins' habitat in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest," Sherwood writes.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Young people slowly returning to impoverished Appalachia to open businesses, revitalize economy

After years of losing jobs and population, Appalachian coal country in Eastern Kentucky is beginning to see an influx of young people returning to the area to open businesses in an attempt help revitalize the region, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. (Semuels photo: The Treehouse Cafe, a gathering place started by an entrepreneur in Hazard, Ky.)

It's a far cry from recent years when young people were fleeing from a region hit hard by poverty from the loss of 7,000 coal jobs, Semuels writes. Ada Smith, who grew up in Whitesburg, told Semuels, “For people who grow up here or have roots in this place, parents and grandparents who know there’s not a lot of opportunity here encourage their loved ones to go and find jobs elsewhere. It’s not that anybody hates this place, it’s just that they don’t want to see their family suffer.”

But young entrepreneurs have begun returning to the region in recent years, opening businesses such as a record store, a tattoo parlor, a cupcake store and a vape store, Semuels writes. Plus, when Whitesburg voted in 2007 to begin allowing establishments to serve alcohol, two new bars opened. Three years ago the town voted to let stores sell alcohol, and last fall the city council approved a permit for a moonshine distillery to open in a historical building downtown.

Tattoo parlor owner John Haywood, who left the area for Louisville before recently returning, told Semuels, “I knew I wanted to be in Whitesburg. There was what was to me a real grassroots movement here, still very early in its infancy, of just a lot of individual people trying to make stuff happen.”

The movement has been helped by Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), an initiative started by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers—a Republican from the nation's poorest and most rural county in Eastern Kentucky—to help solve the economic struggles in the region.

"Many of the people returning to the region say that any lasting, successful economic program is going to have to be home grown," Semuels writes. Ethan Hamblin, 23, who has stayed in the area, told Semuels, “How do we move forward as a region? The way that we do that is from within the region. It’s not seeking outside funding; it’s getting the people on the ground working together across county lines, across state lines, and thinking about how we do that work together.” (Read more)

Map highlights most conservative and liberal towns in each state; rural areas lead conservative list

The most conservative towns in each state are almost predominately rural areas with small populations, while about half of the most liberal towns in each state are major urban cities, says a study from political analytics company Clarity Campaign Labs, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. Clarity also created an online tool that lets users find the town or city in each state that most closely matches their politics.

Some of the most conservative towns are in extremely rural areas, such as Yosemite (pronounced YO-see-might) in Kentucky, with a population of 1,850, McBain, Mich., with a population of 669, and Good Hope, Ga., with a population of fewer than 300. While cities like New York, Atlanta and Des Moines are the most liberal in those states, some rural areas lead the state in being the most liberal, such as Chama, Colo., Elbing, Kan. and Pointe à la Hache, La., an unincorporated community in the southeastern part of the state with a population of 187. (Business Insider map)

Rural white women in South more likely than African-American women to suffer from depression

Rural white women in the South are more likely to suffer from depression and mood disorder than urban white women, while rural African American women in the South are less likely than their urban counterparts to suffer from depression, says a study by the University of Michigan published in JAMA Psychiatry, Honor Whiteman reports for Medical News Today. Overall, white women from rural and urban areas had much higher rates of depression than rural and urban African-American women.

The study used data from the U.S. National Survey of American Life that included 1,462 African-American and 341 non-Hispanic white women who live in rural and urban areas in the South. The goal was "to examine the interaction of urbanicity and race/ethnicity on lifetime and 12-month major depressive disorder and mood disorder prevalence for African American women and non-Hispanic white women," the study says.

The study found that 10.3 percent of rural non-Hispanic white women have a prevalence of 12-month major depression, compared to 3.7 percent of urban white women, and 10.3 percent of rural non-Hispanic white women have a prevalence of 12-month mood disorder, compared to 3.8 percent of urban white women, Whiteman writes.

Rural African-American women had a major depression rate of 6.7 percent, compared to 13.9 percent for urban African-American women, and rural African-American women had a mood disorder rate of 3.3 percent, compared to 7.6 percent for urban women, Whiteman writes.

Overall, white women had a major depression rate of 21.3 percent and mood disorder rate of 21.8 percent, compared to a 10.1 percent major depressive rate and a 13.6 percent mood disorder rate for all African-American women, Whiteman writes.

Going green has cost Appalachia, helped Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West, study says

From 2008 to 2012, as the nation began moving away from coal and toward green energy, the coal industry lost 49,000 jobs, "while the natural gas, solar and wind industries together created nearly four times that amount," says a county-level study by Duke University. Appalachia, particularly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, as well as the Uinta Basin of Utah and Colorado and parts of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, experienced the greatest job losses. The Northeast, Southwest, Midwest and West all benefited, gaining jobs.

Senior author Lincoln Pratson said, "Our study shows it has not been a one-for-one replacement. The counties that were very reliant on the coal industry are now in the most difficult position." Analyst Drew Harer said differences in the availability of state incentives for renewable energy have had a major impact on jobs. He said, "States with incentives have more growth. The southeast is incentive-free, and there is almost no development of green energy there compared to other regions." (Read more)

Bee population improving, but pesticides linked to bee deaths damaging ecosystems, studies say

The honeybee population appears to be returning, at least in Indiana. Purdue University honeybee specialist Greg Hunt said Indiana's bee population lost about 29 percent this past winter, compared to 65 percent losses after the winter of 2013-14, Sarah Gonzalez reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the honeybee pollination "is worth about $15 billion a year in crop production," Gonzalez writes. "However, the population has been declining for years, with the U.S. losing about one-third of its hives annually, Hunt said. The number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. dropped from about 4 million in the 1970s to about 2.5 million now, according to some estimates."

The loss of the honeybee population has been partly blamed on pesticides and viruses, leading Minnesota regulators last year to consider banning or regulating neonicotinoids, a pesticide.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council released a report on Wednesday that said that neonicotinoids are "probably more damaging to ecosystems than previously thought and questioned whether the substances had a place in sustainable agriculture," David Jolly reports for The New York Times.

"The authors were critical of studies of neonicotinoids on bee health that tested the insects’ ability to survive a single exposure to a given quantity of pesticide dust; they noted that the effect of the chemicals is cumulative and irreversible, meaning that repeated sublethal doses will eventually be deadly if a certain threshold is passed," Jolly writes.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

More than 500,000 unable to get mental health treatment because states did not expand Medicaid

An estimated 568,886 adults ages 18 to 64 diagnosed with a serious mental illness were unable to receive medical care for their condition in 2014 because they lacked the resources to pay for services and lived in one of the 24 states that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, says a study published by the American Mental Health Counselors Association, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline.

"In contrast, 351,506 adults with those same mental health problems got treatment paid for by Medicaid in the 26 states and the District of Columbia, which did expand coverage of the state-federal health insurance program to eligible adults living on low incomes," Ollove writes.

Indiana and Pennsylvania, which did not have expanded Medicaid eligibility last year, do this year, Ollove writes. "Using the study’s calculations, that gives an estimated 106,000 people who wanted treatment in those states last year an avenue for care."

The majority of people seeking treatment were whites between ages 18 to 34, Ollove writes. "People who don’t get treatment for their serious mental health problems often end up in local jails or on the streets and homeless. And that can cost state and local taxpayers in other ways." (Stateline map: For an interactive version click here)

Rural population down 4th year in row, driven by losses in counties without city of 10K or more

For the fourth year in a row the rural population of the U.S. has declined, while urban areas and non-metropolitan counties with small cities have seen a slight increase, according to census data analyzed by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture.

"The rural population loss is focused in small, noncore counties," which don't have a city of 10,000 or more, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. The population in those counties was 19.03 million in 2014, down from 19.13 million in 2010, Marema writes, adding, "Nonmetropolitan counties with small cities (mircopolitan counties with cities ranging in population from 10,000 to less than 50,000) gained about 1 percent in population from 2010 to 2014."

The research service says, "This marks the first period of population decline for rural (nonmetro) areas as a whole. Population declines stem from a combination of fewer births, more deaths, and changing migration patterns. . . . The contribution of natural change to rural population growth will likely continue its gradual downward trend due to historically low fertility rates and an aging population."

"In other words, not enough babies were born in rural America to make up for the number of people who left or died," Marema writes. "The fourth straight year of loss begins to solidify the argument that we are seeing a long-term population change, not just a temporary blip." (Yonder map; for an interactive version, with county-by-county data, click here.)

Living in a community with high income inequality is bad for your health, study says

UPDATE, May 19: Most people have a terrible sense of what income inequality looks like, The Washington Post reported, then offered a quiz about the subject.

A study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that not only factors such as smoking and crime rate but also income inequality significantly influenced lifespan, Margot Sanger-Katz writes for The New York Times.
NYT graphic shows income inequality across the nation. Lighter areas
have less inequality, and darker areas have more inequality.
"It's not just the level of income in a community that matters—it's also how income is distributed," said Bridget Catlin, the co-director of the County Health Rankings and Roadmap project. "The effect of inequality was statistically significant, equivalent to a difference of about 11 days of life between high- and low-inequality places," Sanger-Katz reports. "The differences were small, but for every increment that a community became more unequal, the proportion of residents dying before the age of 75 went up."

Other research shows that income inequality affects life expectancies of citizens in countries around the world. Why exactly this happens is debatable. One idea is that though money buys better health, "it makes a bigger difference for people low on the income scale than those at the top," Sanger-Katz writes. That means a having very few poor individuals in an area will improve average health more than having very few rich individuals will reduce it.

Another theory is that areas where wealthy individuals can "buy their way out of social services may have less cohesion and investment in things like education and public health that we know affect life span," Sanger-Katz writes. Also, some research indicates that living around richer people is stressful, causing mental health problems or cardiac disease.

To measure inequality, the researchers compared incomes of individuals living in a certain area who earned the 80th percentile with the incomes of those who earned the 20th percentile. They recorded all those who died before age 75 and the age at which they died, calculating "potential life years lost." A person who died at 70 would have lost five years of potential life.

"For every one-point increase in the ratio between high and low earners in a county, there were about five years lost for every 1,000 people," Sanger-Katz writes. "That's about the same difference they observed when a community's smoking rate increased by 4 percent or its obesity rate rose by 3 percent."

Through the Affordable Care Act, Americans at the lower end of the income spectrum are receiving health insurance, and researchers will track whether those provisions will reduce the effects of inequality in the coming years. (Read more)

Rural Pennsylvania county starts task force to provide domestic violence resources and education

Officials in a rural Northwestern Pennsylvania county have begun a task force to address the challenges local residents face in accessing services for victims of domestic violence, Tim Hahn reports for the Erie Times-News. The Rural Erie County Domestic Violence Task Force was formed in Erie County in February to tackle issues such as transportation options—especially for victims in one-care households—from rural counties to services in Erie.

About 75 percent of abused women stay with their abuser for economic reasons, especially in rural areas, where intimate-partner violence often goes unreported. A study by researchers in Central Pennsylvania found that most primary-care physicians rarely screen women for intimate-partner violence.

Corry Police Chief Rich Shopene, who helped develop the task force, told Hahn, "We're looking to hit the areas that are basically underserved for domestic violence and for victims of domestic violence, to reach out and provide services. We see [domestic violence] too much, unfortunately, especially with the long winter and everyone cooped up. We need to get the message out that demeaning your partner, the mental abuse and not just the physical abuse . . . that's not acceptable behavior, and there is help for people."

Goals of the task force are to let victims know there are services available, to bring more services to rural areas and to launch an education campaign to teach children, even as young as elementary school, that hitting is wrong, Hahn writes.

Report offers tools for journalists to easily track and understand how each state legislature works

CQ Roll Call has created a free downloadable report that explains how state legislatures work, how bills are considered and how anyone can begin tracking legislation. It's a handy tool, especially for journalists new to covering politics.

The report includes State Track, which tracks legislation in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. State Track uses a search tool where users specify issues they want to follow; a personalized dashboard continually updating the latest legislation and regulation; committee hearings with a calendar tool; web publishing; state-by-state news coverage; customizable alerts and reports; full text of every bill; and a note-taking tool.

The report also includes information on understanding how the system works, how states differ, how bills move, how committees work, how to track a piece of legislation, what happens after final passage of a bill and dates of when each state legislature convenes and adjourns. (CQ Roll Call map)

Washington lawmakers amend state law, allow second medical school to be opened

Washington took a giant step toward expanding access to doctors for people in rural areas. State lawmakers amended a 100-year-old law that allowed only the University of Washington to operate a medical school, Katherine Long reports for The Seattle Times. The amendment, which easily passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, will allow Washington State University to create a medical school.

"There are still many hurdles ahead. Although both the House and Senate have budgeted money to get the accreditation process started, it will take millions more to create the school," Long writes.
Even if everything goes smoothly, WSU won't begin teaching its first class of 40 students until the fall of 2017, with those students graduating in 2021 and beginning to practice medicine in 2024.

UW officials argued that the state doesn't have the capacity for two medical schools; Washington has a population of about 7 million, with WSU located near the Idaho border, Long writes. But Lisa Brown, chancellor of the WSU Spokane campus, told The Associated Press in April 2014 that only 100 of UW's 1,600 residency slots in the state are located in Eastern Washington.

Washington has 147 primary care health professional shortage areas (HPSA), meeting only 46.71 percent of the state's needs, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in April 2014. Kaiser said the state needed to add 228 practitioners to remove HPSA status.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says surface mining endangering crayfish population in Appalachia

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed added protections to crayfish, citing surface mining in Appalachia as one of the reasons for a decline in the species, James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. Mining, logging and population growth are being blamed for putting the Big Sandy crayfish and the Guyandotte River crayfish in danger of extinction. (West Liberty University photo by Zachary Loughman: Big Sandy crayfish)

Fish and Wildlife specifically mentioned mountaintop removal as being one of the threats to the species, Bruggers writes. "The Big Sandy crayfish is found in four isolated populations across the upper Big Sandy River watershed in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. The Guyandotte River crayfish survives at a single site in Wyoming County, West Virginia."

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the listing, told Bruggers, "For decades coal companies have gotten away with polluting Appalachia's water and killing its species, but it is time for the Endangered Species Act to start being enforced in Appalachia." (Read more)

USDA report says pesticides have contributed to decline of monarch butterflies

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report published on Friday in Science and Nature says "the neonicotinoid insecticide clothianidin is a likely contributor to monarch butterfly declines in North America," Jim Crabtree reports for Environmental News Service. While some people have pointed the finger at pesticides for the decrease in the Monarch butterfly population, this is the "first report of neonicotinoids affecting monarchs or any other butterflies." (Photo by Pablo Leautaud)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February started a conservation fund for the butterfly, whose numbers are estimated to have fallen by 90 percent in recent years after reaching 1 billion in 1996.

Researchers identified "concentrations of clothianidin as low as one part per billion as harmful to monarch butterfly caterpillars," Crabtree writes. These concentrations were found in the populations of milkweeds, which are the main source of food for the butterflies.

Researchers said that in 2000 "less than five percent of soybean acres and less than 30 percent of corn acres were treated with an insecticide, but by 2011, at least a third of all soybean acres and at least 79 percent of all corn acres were planted with neonicotinoid-coated seed, constituting a significant expansion in insecticide use," Crabtree writes "Researchers also found that the vast majority of neonicotinoids are used on crops, rather than in people’s homes or gardens or in turfgrass and ornamental settings." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Food safety law severely underfunded; FDA not conducting required number of inspections

The 2010 food safety law, passed to combat food-borne illness outbreaks, is grossly underfunded and is putting millions of Americans at risk of contracting potentially deadly diseases, Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times. The law gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration new powers to prevent additional outbreaks. But the agency has only received about half of the $580 million it said it needed from 2011-2015 to make changes required by the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who also represents the poorest and most rural district in the nation, said at a hearing last month on the FDA budget "that he was concerned about the size of the agency’s overall budget request and that the request for more than $100 million for the food safety law 'will be tough to swallow,'" Nixon writes.

About 48 million Americans get food-borne illnesses each year, Nixon writes. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 128,000 people are hospitalized each year with food-related illnesses, and 3,000 die. The cost of treatment and lost income total $15 billion a year or more, according to data from the Agriculture Department." (CDC graphic)
Another problem is that FDA is not conducting the required number of inspections of foreign food facilities that export to the U.S., said the Government Accountability Office, Nixon writes. The agency was supposed to inspect at least 4,800 facilities in 2014 but only inspected 1,323.

"The food safety law puts the burden on food companies to make sure that their products are safe, instead of relying largely on inspectors from the understaffed FDA," Nixon writes. "It requires better record-keeping, contingency plans for handling outbreaks and measures to prevent the spread of contaminants. It also gives the agency the power to issue recalls, something it could not do previously." (Read more)

Republicans warming up to idea of climate change but not to the idea that humans cause it

The Obama administration this week announced a series of climate change actions that include: identifying solutions; expanding access to data; preparing the next generation of medical and health professionals; releasing a draft climate and health assessment report; and bringing together medical and health professionals, academics and others for discussions and information sharing.

While Republicans have in the past refused to acknowledge climate change, especially effects humans have on it, many party members are beginning to warm up to the idea of climate change, Jake Whitney reports for The Daily Beast.

Every Republican presidential candidate in 2012 questioned or denied human-caused climate change, and last year several Republicans in Congress continued to hold firm to that claim, Whitney writes. But in January of this year every Republican senator except one voted for a resolution that stated global warming was real, and 15 Republicans, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who today announced his candidacy for president, voted for a separate resolution—which didn't pass—that said humans contributed to it. (Daily Mail graphic)
No longer are Republicans using the phrase, "I'm not a scientist" when asked about climate change, Whitney writes. "Of course, with the 2016 Republican primaries on the horizon—and the pandering to the hard right that goes with them—any progress is precarious. Indeed, to some conservative politicians the mere existence of a cold winter still apparently trumps warming trends that can be observed over 250 years."

But not everyone is ready to jump on the bandwagon. "In February, Sen. James Inhofe, the new head of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, stood on the Senate floor and tossed a snowball to the presiding officer," Whitney writes. “'You know what that is?'” he asked, in an attempt to mock the reality of global warming. 'It’s a snowball. . . . It’s very, very cold outside.'” (Read more)

West Virginia pharmacists taking on state's pill problem by refusing to fill suspect prescriptions

In an attempt to combat West Virginia's painkiller epidemic—a major problem in the state's impoverished rural counties—a growing number of the state's pharmacists are turning away customers with suspect prescriptions for pain medications, Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette. (Gazette photo by Chris Dorst: Pharmacy technician Pam Manis and pharmacist Daniel Hemmings check a prescription order)

Pharmacist Daniel Hemmings said he sees 19-year-olds trying to purchase oxycodone for a migraine, patients being written 30-day prescriptions every 27 days—leading to an extra month's supply each year—and calls from out of state asking if they can fill or refill or prescription, Eyre writes. Since pain clinics have a high turnaround rate, opening and closing at rapid rates, there isn't much the state could do. So pharmacists like Hemmings decided to take their own action and begin refusing to fill some prescriptions.

The increased scrutiny "has led to a handful of complaints filed by doctors and patients against pharmacists for not filling prescriptions," Eyre writes. "The West Virginia Board of Pharmacy, which licenses pharmacists, has investigated the complaints and found that the pharmacists were just doing their job."

Hemmings told Eyre, “People don’t like being told they can’t get a medication filled, but I’m not asking anybody to go without medication. I’m asking that it be taken responsibly, prescribed responsibly and dispensed responsibly. That’s the only way we’re going to get a grip on this problem.” (Read more)

Transportation Safety Board says oil tanks should be able to withstand high heat from a crash or blast

"The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that new oil tank train cars should come with much stronger ability to withstand high heat and pressure from a crash or a blast," Jad Mouawad reports for The New York Times. New federal safety rules still being debated are not expected to take effect until 2017.

"But the safety board said the new measures needed to be significantly strengthened and to include more robust thermal protections, like a ceramic thermal blanket on the cars," Mouawad writes. "The board also called for increased capacity of pressure relief valves. The safety board said that in the four oil train derailments this year, a total of 28 CPC-1232 tank cars failed, either because the train derailed or because a fire or excessive pressurization caused by high heat made the cars rupture."

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. BNSF Railway announced last month that it will reduce all oil train speeds to 35 mph through municipalities with 100,000 or more more residents until its customers phase out old, single-hulled DOT-111 tank cars, which is expected to start in May.

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. A recent rash of derailments has led Canada to propose rules to toughen tank-car standards.

Republican-led North Carolina legislature trying to change local governments, even in rural areas

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have introduced bills that "would reconfigure a number of local government bodies around the state, prompting allegations that Republicans are gerrymandering and changing election rules at the city council and county commission levels," Richard Fausset reports for The New York Times. Republicans say the bills would improve government and increase representation in some areas. Democrats claim the Republicans-led House and Senate are trying to change the rules to dictate future elections.

"Some of the bills under consideration would redraw districts and change the number of board members, while others would convert all of the state’s nonpartisan school board races to partisan ones," Fausset writes.

Bills even affect small rural areas such as Trinity, a nonpartisan town with a population around 6,600, where lawmakers want to shrink the City Council from nine members to six, Fausset writes. While Republicans say the current board is too large and results in too much in-fighting, critics say the move is an attempt to make the board Republican-controlled by getting rid of Democratics.

Even Republican Gov. Pat McCrory has spoken out against the Republican push, Fausset writes. He told reporters last month, “If someone wants to change the form of government in one of your cities, then go run for city council, for mayor.” (Read more)

Agri-Pulse founder and president named one of Folio's Top Women in Media for entrepreneurs

Sara Wyant
Sara Wyant, founder and president of Agri-Pulse, was named to the annual Folio: "Top Women in Media" recognition in the Entrepreneurs category. Wyant was the only agricultural media professional included in this year's awards. Winners will be honored at a ceremony on June 8 in New York City.

"As a veteran farm policy editor, Wyant founded Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc. in 2004, based on her instincts that agriculture and rural leaders were not getting consistent, high-quality reporting out of Washington, D.C.," reports Agri-Pulse. "She launched a weekly paid circulation e-newsletter the following year, covering a wide range of farm, food and rural legislative and regulatory issues."

Agri-Pulse has continued to expand and "now reaches over 5,000 of the industry's most influential 'movers and shakers,' including Congressman and Senators and their staffs, top government officials, C-suite agribusiness executives and most of the key farm and commodity leaders across the country. Wyant is one of the most sought after speakers on Ag and rural policy in the country," Agri-Pulse writes.

Fracking study on water wells contested because researchers were paid by Chesapeake Energy

A study that said that drinking-water wells in Pennsylvania close to natural gas sites do not face a greater risk of methane contamination than those farther away is under scrutiny because of the study's methodology and because some of the research was funded by Chesapeake Energy, Neela Banerjee reports for InsideClimate News.

The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, contradicts "recent studies that identified a correlation between proximity to natural gas wells and higher methane levels in well water," Banerjee writes. "The new study analyzed more than 11,000 water samples collected by Chesapeake and provided to researchers."

Researchers also failed to divulge the scope of their ties to Chesapeake, including fees the company paid to study author Donald Siegel, chairman of earth sciences at Syracuse University, to carry out his research, Banerjee writes. "One of the paper's four co-authors, Bert Smith, worked for Chesapeake during some of the period when the study took place, which also wasn't disclosed. Smith works for the company today. The paper only acknowledges that Chesapeake provided the dataset."

While the industry welcomed the study and Siegel says his research was not influenced by Cheaspeake, "scientists not involved in the study reacted cautiously because of its methodology, in which Chesapeake sampled treated water and used a methane sampling method that major water labs don't use," Banerjee writes.

Revised Clean Water Act rules sent to Office of Management and Budget for review

The Obama administration on Friday sent revised Clean Water Act rules for review to the Office of Management and Budget, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. Proposed changes to current Waters of the U.S. rules had caused confusion and received criticism from farmers, ranchers and some Republicans in Congress who feared the rules would expand Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction. EPA chief Gina McCarthy said the revised rules would clear up confusion.

McCarthy, who did not publicly release any changes made to the rules, wrote on her blog: “We've worked hard to reach a final version that works for everyone—while protecting clean water,” Brasher writes. McCarthy did say in testimony to Congress and in a speech last month to the National Farmers Union "that the changes will provide tighter definitions of what streams, ditches and other features constitute 'waters of the United States' that the law is supposed to regulate."

McCarthy said in her post "that the final rule would provide a 'better description of what connections are important' for a stream, ditch or pond to have a 'significant nexus' with a navigable body of water," Brasher writes. "The final rule would 'refine the definition' of tributaries to ensure that erosion in a farmer's field wouldn't qualify, she said. The final rule will ensure there are 'bright lines around exactly what we mean' by a tributary."

"McCarthy also promised more specificity in the definition of the term 'other waters' and for ditches," Brasher writes. "The final rule will only regulate ditches that 'function like tributaries and can carry pollution downstream—like those constructed out of streams. Our proposal talked about upland ditches, and we got feedback that the word ‘upland' was confusing, so we'll approach ditches from another angle,' she said." (Read more)

Rural Tennessee churches challenge locals to eat and think healthier

Sulphur Wells Church of Christ in Henry County, Tennessee, a few miles away from Paris, Ky., is challenging people to eat and think healthier, Amber Hall writes for Public Radio International.

Bob Palmer, lead pastor at the church, said, "We do draw some hard lines on alcohol and tobacco use and tattoos—we think, 'Oh, you're not taking care of the our temple that God has given you.'" He said the church hasn't looked at the issue holistically. "We've just kind of picked out the things we weren't going to do anyway, and we feel self-righteous about that—that we don't do them."

Then Palmer saw the County Health Rankings Report, a project by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that measures health risks, Hall writes. He said that "when we confirm someone's spiritual health and give them a thumbs up and an A-OK, that's often the end of the rehabilitation process." However, he said if he were outside the church and had only the health indicator numbers to look at, "it might make me run in the opposite direction."

In Tennessee, the Governor's Foundation for Health and Wellness is helping groups such as churches improve health in Evangelical hubs through the Healthier Tennessee initiative, which is a "wellness program and an online wellness tool that provides faith leaders with tips, ideas and actions to get their members healthier," Molly Sudderth, the director of communications at the foundation, said.

One of the suggestions is called Walk and Worship. "You can walk and pray for those you feel need extra prayers or are going through difficulties . . ." said Barabara Kelly, a public health educator.

About 150 churches statewide are participating in Healthier Tennessee's "Small Starts" program, but none of the churches in Henry County have joined yet. Palmer said "there could be some stigma tied to healthy living in this largely conservative area," Hall writes.

"Right-wing religious folk have kinda viewed that as 'liberal' thinking," Palmer said. "But that hasn't been correct, I don't think. At all. Just read through early Genesis, and the very first commission that God gives anyone is to essentially take care of this created world. We don't talk about that very often for some reason—to our detriment, and these numbers reflect that." (Read more)

Monday, April 06, 2015

Five years after big coal-mine disaster, safety hasn't improved, former mine-safety chief writes

Davitt McAteer
Five years after the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia killed 29 coal miners, the federal government has made no progress toward improving safety in mines, writes Davitt McAteer, who headed the governor’s independent investigation into the disaster and ran the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. Here are some excerpts from his piece in the Charleston Gazette:

"The explosion was no accident, but the result of a disregard of basic safety principles as well as federal and state regulations. But the regulators of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training abdicated their responsibility of making sure the operators complied with minimum fundamental safety requirement. In profile, this disaster harkens back to the 1907 Monongah mine disaster which killed over 500 miners. Both resulted from excessive accumulation of coal dust and a failure to control ignition sources. The 103 years separating these disasters does not obscure the fact that when mine operators neglect basic safety principles, miners perish.

"Since the Upper Big Branch disaster, the United States Congress has failed to take any action. The West Virginia Legislature has, in fact, moved in the opposite direction, recently weakening existing mine-safety laws. The enforcement agencies have tinkered with their regulation efforts but not addressed major concerns, such as the increase in black lung: in the autopsies of the Upper Big Branch miners, 71 percent of the victims showed Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP) compared to the national prevalence rate for active underground miners of 3.2 percent, and several of these victims had less than 10 years’ mining experience.

"Still, MSHA, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and West Virginia have failed to take adequate preventive action. Five teams investigated the disaster, and four of the five concluded that the company’s neglect and disregard of basic safety practice directly lead to the deaths. . . .

"Since 2010, the coal industry has blocked regulatory reform both nationally and within West Virginia. Any criticism or call for reform is viewed as an attack on the very existence of the industry. It refuses to negotiate reforms in health and safety and refuses to negotiate reforms in environmental matters. This approach only increases the risk to miners. As coal companies feel the economic pinch from declining demand and increased competition, the inclination will be to cut costs largely in safety and health protections. Protections which have for decades borne the brunt of cost-cutting measures. Miners, who themselves worry about employment and their families, are pressured not to push safety and health issues. 

"Federal and state agencies—both regulatory and research—whose existence depends upon a viable industry, will be inclined to adopt lenient or a non-confrontational approach to enforcement. The result is greater risks to miners. The coal industry is at yet another crossroads. It can either continue to adopt the last-man-standing approach or look to create solutions, first by addressing health and safety risks such as black lung and secondly focusing on the realities of a new energy world in which coal can play an important but no longer dominant role." (Read more)

Stories on coal safety violations, immigration, fugitives, Medicare, VA, landslide win IRE awards

Investigative Reporters and Editors announced the winners of its IRE Awards, given to the best investigative reporting in print, broadcast and online media. We've highlighted some of the winners that might be of interest to rural journalists.

The radio/audio award went to a joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News that found that 2,700 American coal- and mineral-mining companies had for years failed to pay nearly $70 million in delinquent mine safety penalties. (Department of Labor photo: A personnel carrier at the Kentucky Darby mine was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion that left five workers dead)

Howard Berkes, Anna Boiko-Wyrauch and Robert Benincasa reported for NPR that the top nine delinquents each owed more than $1 million; mines that don't pay penalties have injury rates 50 percent higher than other mines; and delinquent mines are more likely to continue receiving more violations. The stories "led the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to cite a major delinquent mining company for failure to pay its fines and then shut down the mine when the operator failed to meet a deadline for payment," IRE said.

The IRE Medal, the top award, was given to The Weather Channel, The Investigative Fund and Telemundo for an immigration report called "The Real Death Valley." The documentary, about the plight of illegal immigrants making the dangerous trek across the Mexican border into the U.S., also won the broadcast video category for large outlets.

A special medal was given to the Gannett Co. newspapers, mostly community papers, for stories on fugitives from justice. Stories examined how more than 180,000 fugitives easily escaped the law by simply crossing state lines. A USA Today story by Brad Heath included a search tool showing where state and local agencies stood on the issue, and on non-extradition warrants.

The FOI Award went to the Wall Street Journal for “Medicare Unmasked” that included a database of "Medicare’s payments to more than 880,000 medical providers in 2012" and discussed "how doctors and other providers compare with their peers in their region, state or nationwide," the Journal reports. The story was a finalist in the large-print/online category. The finalists in this category included several Gannett TV stations for stories about the safety of school football helmets.

The Arizona Republic, a Gannett paper, won the medium-size print/online category for stories on delays at Phoenix facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs, “which propelled this story into a national scandal,” IRE said. The story opened up information that any news outlet can use to report on this issue, which is one of rural interest because 40 percent of the nation's military comes from rural areas. Here is a timeline of the scandal.

The Seattle Times won the investigation triggered by breaking news category for uncovering “state negligence and cover-ups in the wake of the deadly landslide that killed 43 people” in Oso, Wash., IRE said. “Reporting that would have taken others months produced five deep stories in just days. The state has adopted new rules for timber companies and procedures for evaluating unstable slopes.”

The winner of the small-print/online category was Willamette Week for a story on Oregon’s first lady that led to the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber. The Charleston Gazette was a finalist in the category for its coverage of the Freedom Industries chemical spill that tainted water for 300,000 residents in West Virginia.

Duke Energy agrees to $2.5 million environmental settlement for Dan River coal ash spill

Duke Energy on Friday agreed to a $2.5 million settlement proposed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality for the February 2014 coal ash spill that dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River in North Carolina, Bruce Henderson reports for The Charlotte Observer. "Ash flowed 80 miles downstream to Virginia’s Kerr Reservoir."

Duke will spend $2.25 million for environmental projects in the area, and $250,000 will be placed in a DEQ fund to respond to environmental emergencies, Henderson writes. "Department director David Paylor said in a statement that the settlement 'ensures that Duke is held fully accountable for the impact of this incident.'"

In March North Carolina fined Duke $25.1 million—the largest environmental fine in state history—for contamination of groundwater by coal ash from the company’s Sutton Plant near Wilmington, N.C. Federal prosecutors are pursuing a separate larger fine for the Dan River spill.

Panel probing charges Ky. congressman used post to help his wife's animal-rights lobbying

On Friday the House Ethics Committee announced it has opened a formal investigation about Kentucky Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield's potential violations of lobbying rules and other laws, James R. Carroll writes for The Courier-Journal. The Ethics Committee established a four-member subcommittee, which will look into "allegations that (Whitfield) failed to prohibit lobbying contacts between his staff and his wife (Connie Harriman-Whitfiled), improperly used his official position for the beneficial interest of himself or his wife and dispensed special favors or privileges to either his wife, the Human Society Legislative Fund or the Humane Society of the United States," the panel's announcement said.

In a statement Whitfield said, "The allegation that my wife lobbied my office or my staff to convince me to introduce and pass the legislation is absurd. This is an issue I have followed for many years."

Since 2011, Whitfield's wife has been a registered lobbyist with the Humane Society Legislative Fund, a unite of the Humane Society of the U.S., Carroll writes. The report stated that there is substantial reason to believe that Whitfield not only allowed his wife to use his congressional office to assist her lobbing activities but also that he met with her and other lawmakers to talk about legislation she was working on. "In all, a dozen bills were involved, dealing with issues including the abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses, shutting down puppy mills and protecting the great apes," Carroll reports.

"Despite being on notice of the potential ethics issues, Representative Whitfield's staff continued to have contacts with Representative Whitfield's wife related to her lobbying," the board report said. However, Human Society President Wayne Pacelle said that more than 10 years before Whitfield's wife  became professionally involved with the Human Society, Congressman Whitfield was already a leader in animal welfare legislation, especially horse protection."

The investigative subcommittee will be chaired by Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, and also include Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., and John Carney, D-Del. (Read more)

Rural Virginia doctor expands practice by opening office at a truck stop in high-traffic area

While many physicians are staying away from rural areas in favor of more prosperous practices in urban areas, a rural physician in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley has found a unique way to remain in the rural home he loves, despite living in a high-poverty area where many patients lack health insurance, Sandy Hausman reports for NPR. Dr. Rob Marsh's rural practice has succeeded by opening an office at a truck stop in area that sees 20,000 truckers pass through every day. (Hausman photo: Dr. Rob Marsh)

"Marsh accepts walk-ins who complain of backaches from sitting long hours behind the wheel, injuries suffered while hooking trucks to cabs and headaches caused by endless traffic jams," Hausman writes. That's good news for truckers like Christopher Sims of Blountsville, Ala., who was fighting a virus for several days but was on deadline and couldn't fit his truck into the parking lot of an urgent care facility.

Marsh told Hausman, "There is a significant percentage of truck drivers—I've heard anywhere from 15, 20 percent—that their truck is their home. So they don't have a home doctor, and we're becoming that. They know that they come through this truck stop once a week or twice a month or whatever and that we'll be here for them." (Read more)

Fargo paper runs on A1 photos of legislators who voted against ban on anti-gay discrimination

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which serves a large rural audience, garnered national attention over the weekend for its Friday front page, which featured photographs of the 94 North Dakota House members who voted Thursday against bills that, if passed, would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The paper also featured members of the North Dakota Senate and how they voted on a similar bill that passed.

Some have accused The Forum of trying to shame politicians, but editor Matt Von Pinnion said that's not what he was trying to do. He said state legislation is big news in North Dakota and that this issue is a hot topic on the national level. Here's part of Friday's front page:
"Indiana and Arkansas are embroiled in similar debates, with constituents and large corporations such as Walmart loudly weighing in on the division, perhaps simplistically framed as a fight for gay rights versus a fight for religious freedom," Von Pinnion writes. "Closer to home, several business leaders have said approving equal protection for gays is important from an employee retention and attraction standpoint while acknowledging that younger workers tend to hold this value in higher regard than their older counterparts."

"Everyone seems to have an opinion on this ongoing social issue, whether they openly share it or not," Von Pinnion writes. "For all these reasons, we thought this roll call vote was appropriate for Page One. There was not one subjective piece of information on that front page. But as with any divisive social matter, people see this objective information through their own lens. Some people accused us of or congratulated us for 'shaming' lawmakers who voted against the bills. That was not our intent. In fact, a good chunk of Friday’s front page also features the faces, names, cities and political parties of lawmakers who voted in favor of the bills."

Von Pinnion said many readers—on both sides of the issue—contacted the paper to offers thanks for running the story because it gave them an idea of where politicians stand on issues. He also said many readers complained that it is difficult to find state voting records and they would like to be more informed on how state politicians vote. (Read more)

73% of rural Illinois residents say state's economic prospects for families are only getting worse

Rural residents in Illinois consider the state to be a poor place to live and think the economy will only get worse in the next five years, says a study by researchers at Western Illinois University, writes former state legislator and state agency director Jim Nowlan for The Dispatch/The Rock Island Argus. The poll of 1,450 found that 49 percent think Illinois is a poor place to live and only 26 percent feel the state is a good place to live. Of those same respondents, 73 percent said overall economic prospects for families will be worse in five years.

Migration and a lack of jobs are the main problems, Nowlan writes. "Rural Illinois lost 12 percent of its population between ages zero to 44 just between 2000 and 2010, according to data provided by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at WIU." Sociologist Cythnia Struthers, who conducted the poll, told Nowlan, “Many people (in rural Illinois) are tired. They often don’t see a way the tide is going to turn back, and once into a spiral of decline it is difficult to come back.”

Richard Longworth, author of "Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism," is not optimistic about the future of rural America, Rowlan writes. "The forces, Longworth says, that tend to push people out of rural Illinois are unrelenting: jobs are in the city; farms continue consolidating; the jobs in small scale assembly industries that rural towns recruited to their industrial parks easily are outsourced overseas."

Longworth "says that 'This country is just waking up to the pathology of its new white underclass (much of it in rural America)—the same unemployment, the same bad schools and drug use, the same familial breakdown, the same hopelessness' as in the urban black underclass," Rowlan writes.