Friday, May 08, 2015

Senate Agriculture chair determined to rewrite school nutrition rules before act expires Sept. 30

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) "said he's intent on enacting a new child nutrition law by Sept. 30, giving schools more flexibility in meeting standards for school meals," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, made clear she will resist lowering the standards, but she said she was working with Roberts on a reauthorization bill." If a bill is not passed, the programs and standards will continue, even if the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act expires as scheduled on Sept. 30.

Roberts told reporters, “I know there are some that may prefer that we not succeed in this endeavor. It is time for folks to come together and be part of crafting legislation, not to stand outside the process hoping it fails.” Stabenow said, “We certainly want to have something that moves us forwards, not backwards. Sen. Roberts and I are having excellent conservations about doing that. I'm hopeful we can do that.”

The School Nutrition Association is "seeking to roll back the whole-grains standard that took effect in 2014 and end a requirement that schools provide at least half a cup of fruits and vegetables a day," Brasher writes. "The group, which argues that the standards have reduced student participation in the school meals program while increasing school costs, also wants to maintain the existing limit on sodium, eliminating a planned reduction in 2017." Some schools have argued that students are not eating the healthier options, leading to more food being thrown away. (Read more)

States with large rural populations are some of the the worst states to be a nurse

States with large rural populations—mostly in the South—are the worst places to pursue a career as a nurse, says a study by WalletHub. Louisiana was ranked last overall, while the top spot went to Washington.

The study looked at 15 factors to access each state a grade. Ten categories consisted of work and environment: starting salary; annual salary; health care facilities per capita; underserved areas; projected percentage of over 65 population by 2030: educational opportunities; wage disparity; job openings; nurses per capita; and projected number of nurses per capita by 2022. The study also looked at work environment: Mandatory overtime restrictions; average hours worked; average commute time; states with the best nursing homes; and WalletHub’s “Best & Worst States for Working Moms."

Louisiana was ranked 51st, followed by Hawaii, Kentucky, West Virginia, New Jersey, Mississippi, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Alabama, Tennessee, South Dakota and Arkansas. The top states were Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Minnesota was first for work environment and New Jersey was last. Oklahoma was first for opportunities and competition, while Georgia was last. (Read more)

Silas House: Families need to pass along family histories, stories from one generation to the next

Americans are in danger of losing touch with their family histories, author, novelist, educator and lifelong Appalachian resident Silas House opines for The New York Times. "This is the main thing we lose when we don’t talk to our elders: the histories. How many teenagers, for example, know the intimate details of the Kardashians’ lives but don’t know the love stories of their own parents? The joys and sorrows of the older generations serve as examples for us to learn from, to emulate or perhaps even more useful, to avoid. As age segregation becomes more ingrained in our culture, what cycles will be repeated, what misconceptions will flourish?"

Silas House
"Many of us move away from our hometowns and extended family," House writes. "As I got older, I moved, too. We also take less part in the activities that once brought different generations together: things like church, community-focused entertainment and communal work. In my hometown, entire families used to attend an annual sorghum cook-off. We pulled foam off the bubbling syrup, sat around an outdoor fire and exchanged stories. First the teenagers stopped coming, then the middle-aged folks. For a while the older generation soldiered on, but that particular tradition stopped a few years ago now."

"The generational divide is nothing new, of course, and it may only continue to grow," House writes. "According to the most recent census, the elderly population will more than double between now and 2050. Before then we’ll have to decide if it’s better to ignore a huge chunk of our population or if we will embrace everything we can give to one another. Members of the older generation can help; they are certainly not innocent in this. They, too, congregate with those their own age. My generation should be bridging the gap between the young and the elderly."

In referring to his Aunt Sis, House writes, "My daughters, both teenagers, spent a lot of time with Sis in her very old age. She may have been on oxygen and in a wheelchair, but the stories she shared taught them how to be as strong, defiant and determined as she had always been. Sis taught them that people of all ages have value and revealed to them that multigenerational mixing can lead to true laughter, knowledge and mutual respect . . . Now she is gone, and a universe of stories has gone with her. Fortunately, I had been taught to listen, to be present, and so those stories go on in me and in my daughters, handed down from one generation to another."

Smithsonian names 20 best small towns to visit

Smithsonian has unveiled its annual list of the top 20 small towns to visit. To be considered, towns had to have a population under 20,000 and were judged based on cultural attractions, historical sites, nature opportunities and food-and-drink destinations, "then researched to find the places commemorating important anniversaries, openings, renovations, recoveries and other milestones in 2015," Bess Lovejoy reports for Smithsonian. "Think of this list not as a ranking but as a menu, with something for every taste—whether it’s country bluegrass, Florida’s white beaches or Alaska’s blue mountains." (Corbis photo by Richard T. Nowitz: Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo.)

The list, in order from No. 1 to No. 20, is: Estes Park, Colo.; Nantucket, Mass; Stuart, Fla.; Traverse City, Mich.; Cooperstown, N.Y.; Port Townsend, Wash.; Calistoga, Calif.; Sevierville, Tenn.; Boonville, Mo.; Saint Simons Island, Ga.; Edenton, N.C.; Bayfield, Wisc.; Nashville, Ind.; Put-in-Bay, Ohio; Whitefish, Mont.; Thibodaux, La.; Custer, S.D.; Stowe, Vt.; Homer, Alaska; and Vernal, Utah.

As the U.S. grows and diversifies, some rural towns have remained mostly unchanged

While the nation has continued to grow and become more diverse, a few small rural communities have remained mostly unchanged, Dan Barry reports for The New York Times. Since 2000, the U.S. population has grown from 32.7 million to 281 million, with large populations of Hispanics and Asians moving to the U.S. and to rural areas.

But in a town like Selinsgrove, Pa., which calls itself "America's Hometown," the population has barely changed, going from 5,384 in 1990 to 5,382 in 2000 to an estimated 5,675 today, Barry writes. The population is 93 percent white but "soars to nearly 100 percent when one factors out its two minimally diverse pockets, the idyllic campus of small Susquehanna University, and Pine Meadow, a neat subsidized housing complex that some locals refer to as ''Pine Ghetto.'" (Best Places map)

"George Kinney, 61, the curmudgeonly borough manager, is among those who prefer to keep Selinsgrove the way it is, and has been," Barry writes. "He mutters about the ''Ph.D.'s'' on the borough council who are nudging him from his job and wonders aloud why black and Hispanic people would want to move from New York and Philadelphia to his hometown." Kinney told Barry, ''That's the only reason we have those minorities, is Pine Meadow. They're coming in from all over the country. I don't know why they come here."

For decades Snyder County "was the county's marketplace, the place where farmers came to buy and sell," Barry writes. "Most were Lutheran and reformed Protestants with German surnames, although some were Amish and Mennonite; those two groups still occasionally roll into town in their horse-driven buggies. Most of the substantial changes in daily life have resulted from commerce. First there was a canal, then a railroad and, finally, the Susquehanna Mall, just north of the borough. The mall forced Market Street here to redefine itself, with boutiques selling antiques, gifts, rare books and high-end clothing. Throughout, the makeup of the people remained essentially the same: white and Protestant."

The town has seen a slight increase in minorities, having 72 more Hispanic residents, 119 more African American and 24 more Asians now than in 1990, but most of those residents either attend the university or living in Pine Meadow, Barry writes. But many of the minority college students don't stick around long enough to graduate. (Read more)

Food, From Farm to Table to gives journalists an inside glimpse at where meals come from

Food, From Farm to Table, a four-day program for journalists that takes a look behind the scenes at where meals come from, will be held from July 19-22 in St. Louis. During the event, journalists will visit an organic farm and Monsanto’s research labs for a ground view of agriculture. Speakers will also give journalists an in-depth and balanced look at all facets of food and agriculture. 

The program will look at the following questions: How can we grow the food we need on the land we have? What innovations and technology will define the future of food sources? How does food move from field to processor to supermarket to table? How do we keep our food supply safe? And how does a nation of plenty have almost 50 million people struggling with hunger? The application deadline is May 28. For more information or to apply, click here.

Western mountain communities want Big Coal to help pay for effects of climate change

A group of 11 Western communities in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico known as the Mountain Pact "are launching a campaign that targets the coal industry, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars a year from companies to help communities adapt" to the effects of climate change, Bruce Finley reports for The Denver Post. The towns "contend that because coal is a major source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases linked to climate change, the industry should pay more to help deal with the impact." (Post photo: Telluride, Colo.)

The towns, which consist of 250,000 permanent residents and attract 40 million visitors per year, this week sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell that states: "The costs of adapting to a changing climate are rising, but at the same time coal companies are taking advantage of gaping loopholes that allow them to pay less, thus depriving many western states (and taxpayers across the country) their fair share of the revenues from coal leased on federal land.

We support your proposal to close the regulatory loophole, stop the exploitation of taxpayer owned federal lands and eliminate current benchmarks used to value these transactions. Over the past 30 years, the government’s undervaluation of coal may have cost taxpayers upward of $30 billion in lost revenue. Western states need this money for local schools, roads and other priorities. This much-needed reform will generate increased revenue for states in which the coal is mined and help level the playing field in other U.S. coal markets by ensuring that everyone is playing by the rules."

Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson rejected the notion of loopholes, Finley writes. Sanderson told him, "It would be inappropriate to increase royalty rates for an industry already suffering from production losses and lost jobs due to flawed state and federal laws and regulations designed to drive cole out of the energy mix. The best way to increase royalties is to increase sales and production and remove disincentives to coal use engineered by government."

States "receive a 50 percent share of coal royalties, portions of which are distributed to cities and towns," Finley writes. "Federal data show royalties for states in 2014 totaled $36.7 million in Colorado, $555 million in Wyoming, $43.5 million in Utah and $48.9 million in Montana." (Read more)

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Student-led investigation finds colleges charging thousands in hidden fees to support athletics

Many colleges and universities are charging students thousands of dollars in hidden fees that go to support athletic programs, while those same colleges continue to raise tuition and cut jobs, says an investigative report by University of Cincinnati students for CityBeat. Seven of Ohio's eight largest universities in 2013 charged students an athletic subsidy between $724 to $1,226 per student, totaling between $11,149,815 to $21,754,860 for all students.

At the current rate, a student like Kevin Leugers will pay the University of Cincinnati $4,096 in athletic subsidies during his four years of school, more than 20 percent of the $20,000 he plans to borrow in school loans, reports CityBeat. "Thomas Humes, UC’s board chair and a trustee since 2007, says the $127 million sports subsidy is a necessity to keep pace with other programs." He told reporters, "I think it is a requirement. There has been a decision that whatever that investment number is that it is a positive investment for the university. I don’t view it as a concern.”

Jeff Smith, a college sports subsidies expert who teaches management at the University of South Carolina Upstate, told reporters, “It’s Robin Hood in reverse. These schools are imposing a regressive tax on those students least able to afford it. If I were a student, I would be screaming about this.”

While charging students fees for athletics "many of these same schools are cutting faculty jobs and slashing academic spending," reports CityBeat. "Between 2005 and 2013, academic spending per full-time undergraduate student at UC, adjusted for inflation, dropped 24 percent, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national group of current and former college presidents seeking to reform college athletics using research studies and, more recently, online databases."

"In other words, over the past decade, UC leaders have used student fees and tuition to cover a nearly five-fold increase in the athletic department’s annual deficit while cutting academic spending per student by almost 25 percent," CityBeat reports. 

Of the eight largest schools, only Ohio State University does not charge an athletic subsidy, mainly because they don't have to. OSU, whose football team is the defending national champion and whose stadium seats 104,944, has one of the most profitable athletic programs in the nation. (Read more)

Republicans claim estate tax hurts farmers, small businesses, but really it only affects the wealthy

Republican politicians have strongly voiced their support for ending the estate tax, saying it hurts farmers and small business owners, sometimes forcing them to sell the farm or business and denying them the opportunity to hand ownership down to their children, Warren Fisk reports for PolitiFact. But there is little evidence that supports those facts, and few families are wealthy enough to be bothered by the estate tax.

Republicans voted 233-3 to end estate tax; Democrats opposed it 176-7, Fisk writes. "The measure is expected to be filibustered by Senate Democrats, many of whom say the repeal of the tax—which brings in almost $22 billion a year—benefits only the wealthy." Republicans point to studies from 1998, 2006 and 2012 that say the estate tax is a burden for farmers and businesses, but all three reports lack any hard evidence.

"Today, the federal levy affects estates worth $5.43 million or more from individuals and at least $10.86 million from couples," Fisk writes. "The tax rate can be as high as 40 percent, although most estates pay considerably less because of deductions available to heirs. The average tax rate rate in 2013 was 16.6 percent, according to a computations of IRS data by the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center."

"The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated in March that 5,400 people will leave taxable estates this year—about one in every 500 people who dies—or two-tenths of one percent," Fisk writes. "The Tax Policy Center, in its 2013 study, came up with an even smaller number: It estimated 3,780 people would leave taxable estates that year. That was roughly one of every 660 people who died. Of those high-end estates, half had some farm or business assets."

"The researchers drilled down further to separate the estates of wealthy people with diverse portfolios from those whose holdings centered on a farm or business," Fisk writes. "They concluded that there were only 120 taxable estates in the nation where half of the value or more came from a single farm or business operation."

"Next, the researchers honed in on how many of those estates belonged to small family farmers and businessmen," Fisk writes. "So they narrowed their focus to taxable estates worth no more than $10 million with less than half of the assets held in a farm or business. Under that formula, the center concluded that about 20 small farms and businesses across the nation were added to federal estate tax rolls in 2013." (Read more)

Bill introduced in Maine would make possession of meth-making ingredients a felony

Maine Sen. Kimberley Rosen (R-Bucksport) introduced legislation, backed by the attorney general's office, to help curb the state's meth problem by making the operation of a meth lab or possession of meth-making materials, a felony, Christopher Cousins reports for Bangor Daily News.

Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese told Cousins,“There are significant investigative and environmental costs associated with the response to and cleanup of a methamphetamine lab, yet people are operating these labs in cars, hotels, apartment buildings and their own dwellings, often putting their children at risk. This is a growing problem, and the Maine Legislature must act."

Critics say the proposed bill is too stern, Cousins writes. Walter McKee, an Augusta-based criminal defense attorney and member of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers "said the bill would make possession of what is essentially a single dose of fentanyl a felony. He told Cousins, “The simple possession of a drug in and of itself should not be a felony. These people have a bad addiction. They have possession of a dangerous drug, but that should not make them convicted felons.” Critics says the key is prevention and treatment. (Read more)

Bank of America to limit credit to coal companies; bank faced pressure from environmental groups

Citing pressure from universities and environmental groups "Bank of America announced Wednesday it will reduce its financial exposure to coal companies, acknowledging the risk that future regulation and competition from natural gas pose on the industry," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. The bank said "it would cut back its lending to coal extraction companies and coal divisions of broader mining companies."

Andrew Plepler, head of corporate social responsibility at Bank of America, told Volcovici, "Our new policy reflects our decision to continue to reduce our credit exposure over time to the coal mining sector globally."

Bank of America said in a statement: "We have developed a coal policy that will ensure that Bank of America plays a continued role in promoting the responsible use of coal and other energy sources, while balancing the risks and opportunities to our shareholders and the communities we serve." (Read more)

Oregon may end ban of self-serve gas in rural areas

Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states in the U.S. that do not allow self-serve gas stations, but Oregon may begin to allow them—but only in rural areas where only a few stations are open late, Sheila V Kumar writes for the Associate Press.

Travelers can get stranded in areas of the state where few gas stations are open late, and those unfamiliar with the area could also get stuck because in some cases, gas stations are hundreds of miles apart, said Rep. Cliff Bentz, "sponsor of a bill that would let gas stations offer self-service fuel when there isn't an owner, operator or employee around," Kumar reports. These rural business owners can't afford to pay someone to watch the pumps 24 hours per day, Bentz said.

The measure would only apply in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents, but that includes half of Oregon's counties. Oregonians have opposed previous attempts to remove the self-serve gas ban so strongly that legislators haven't attempted to overturn it since 2003. Oregon's current law banning self-serve cites 17 reasons for its existence. Among them are concerns about elderly people and those with disabilities being unable to pump gas and potential dangers of unattended children.

"In Oregon, the first reason the law gives to ban self-service gas in effect is, 'You will set yourself on fire,'" said Steve Buckstein, co-founder of the Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank. Today, the reasons for banning self-service usually relate to job creation and convenience for drivers.

"Numerous times, I've been woken in the middle of the night by the sheriff's dispatch because we have folks who follow their phones and aren't very smart and don't fill up till their gas lights are on," said Tom Downs, who owns a gas station in southeastern Oregon. "Out of the goodness of our hearts we get up in the middle of the night and fuel them so they can get on their way." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Drought, unusually high temperatures could lead to above normal fire season in West and North

Drought and above average temperatures could lead to an above normal fire season in the West and North, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told a U.S. Senate panel Tuesday, Laura Zuckerman reports for Reuters. Tidwell said "he expects his agency this year to spend between $794 million and $1.6 billion to fight fires on federal lands, most of which span Western states."

"The Forest Service, which has averaged about $1.13 billion annually for fire suppression operations over the past 10 years, expects to mobilize 10,000 firefighters for the season and has reserved 21 air tankers to drop water and fire retardant, he said," Zuckerman writes. "The National Interagency Fire Center has predicted above normal fire threats in May for portions of California and said June is expected to have above average wildland fire potential in California, southwestern Arizona and the Pacific Northwest."

Last year in California 5,600 wildfires scorched more than 600,000 acres, Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central. "Drought, likely influenced by climate change, is one of the biggest factors affecting the spread of wildfires in the West. Climate change has helped spike the cost of fire suppression in the West as fire seasons have grown longer, forests have become wracked by drought and wildfires have become larger, more frequent and more severe."

"On average, wildfires burn six times the acreage they did 40 years ago, while the annual number of wildfires over 1,000 acres has doubled from 50 during an average year in the 1970s to more than 100 each year since 2002," Magill writes. (Climate Central graphic)

Safety campaign aims to keep kids away from tractors; 7-year-old killed Sunday in accident

On Sunday a 7-year-old boy and his 56-year-old grandfather were killed in a tractor accident in Western New York when they were trying to pull a tree from the ground on the family farm and the chain tightened, causing the tractor to flip over and pin them to the ground, Marissa Perlman reports for WIVB 4 in Buffalo.

This is the type of incident that led the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network to begin a national campaign called “Keep Kids Away from Tractors" that asks people to keep children under 12 from being on or near tractors.

Every day 3.5 children are killed in the U.S. in an agriculture-related accident, with the leading cause of death being machinery and motor vehicles, which includes tractors and ATVs, says the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network. Another 38 children are injured every day from falls, animals, vehicles and machinery.

The number of incidents increase during planting and harvesting, says the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network. Cabs do not provide safety for children, and children also are a distraction to adults working a tractor. The North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks—guidelines designed to assist parents and others in assigning age-appropriate tasks for children ages 7 to 16 who live or work on farms and ranches—have increased the minimum age of tractor operator to 14 years. (Childhood Agricultural Safety Network graphic)

Tourism is a major economic boost in rural areas in states like Utah

Tourism—big business in most states—is vital in rural areas in some states, especially in the West. In Utah, where 91 percent of the population lives in U.S. Census Bureau defined urban areas, rural areas in 2013 received an estimated 46 percent of total county sales tax revenue from tourism, says a study by the University of Utah. In comparison, the urban Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City, Provo), which consists of 75.6 percent of the state's population, got 20 percent of total county sales tax revenue from tourism.

"The top 10 counties impacted by tourism-related sales tax revenues were all rural counties," reports the University of Utah. Overall, one in 10 jobs in the state is in tourism. In rural areas, "an estimated 13 percent of private jobs are directly tourism-supported, compared to just 5 percent in the more urban parts of the state." (University of Utah graphic)

The report states: "Utah’s five national parks and eight of its ten national places spent upwards of $611 million in 2013, which supported close to 8,000 jobs in surrounding gateway communities." Overall estimates say that tourism and travel supported 132,681 direct, indirect and induced state jobs in 2013, said travel research firm TNS Global.

White House concerned that Montana's Medicaid expansion could hurt very low-income residents

The Obama administration said it has concerns about Montana's plan to expand Medicaid, such as charging premiums to very low-income residents, Mike Dennison reports for the Billings Gazette. Ben Wakana, spokesman for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, said, “Our priority will be to make sure any . . . approval provides for coverage that is affordable and accessible for Montanans and does not impose significant cost-sharing or premiums on individuals with very low incomes."

Medicaid expansion in Montana was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock last week, Dennison writes. "Once the plan is up and running, it’s estimated Montana could receive at least $400 million in federal funds to finance the expanded coverage the next two years. However, because Montana’s plan has some unique requirements not seen in other states, it must get a 'waiver' from the federal government, which is funding 100 percent of the expansion through 2016. The feds’ share then gradually ramps down to 90 percent by 2020, with Montana picking up the cost burden for the remainder of the expansion."

"The expansion extends Medicaid health coverage to all able-bodied adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, about $16,200 for a single person," Dennison writes. "Under Montana’s program, those eligible for the plan must pay a premium equal to 2 percent of their income. They also must pay higher fees if their financial resources exceed certain amounts." Obama administration officials said they "are concerned that the state plans to charge premiums even to people earning below 50 percent of the federal poverty line (about $5,900 a year for a single person) and that the plan has other 'cost-sharing' requirements for those covered." (Read more)

93% of groundwater tested near Duke Energy coal ash pits not suitable for drinking or cooking

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources said on Tuesday that 152 out of 163 wells tested near Duke Energy coal ash pits failed to meet groundwater standards, and the agency has warned residents in the area not to drink or cook with well water, Michael Biesecker reports for The Associated Press.

"Many of the tests results show high levels of toxic heavy metals such as lead, vanadium and hexavalent chromium," Biesecker  writes. "Last month, the state said tests of 87 private wells near eight Duke plants showed results that failed to meet state groundwater standards." A state law passed after last year's spill dumped 82,000 tons of coal ash in the Dan River "required testing of all drinking wells within 1,000 feet of Duke's 32 coal ash dumps. A separate state law passed in the wake of the Dan River spill requires the company to move or cap all of its dumps by 2029."

"Duke stores more than 150 million tons of coal ash in 32 dumps at 14 power plants in North Carolina," Biesecker  writes. "In February, federal prosecutors charged Duke with nine criminal counts over years of illegal pollution leaking from ash dumps at five of the plants. The company has said it intends to plead guilty to the charges next week as part of an agreement requiring it to pay $102 million in fines and restitution." (Read more)

Marcellus Shale operations more likely to be in poor areas of Pennsylvania, but not Ohio, W.Va.

A study by researchers at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., that examined whether or not Marcellus Shale fracking operations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio are more likely to be located in poor, rural areas, found that to be the case only in Pennsylvania. “Our analysis shows that environmental injustice was observed only in Pennsylvania, particularly with respect to poverty: in seven out of nine analyses, potentially exposed [census] tracts had significantly higher percent of people below poverty level than non-exposed tracts,” researchers wrote.

Researchers "mapped areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to identify areas with a lot of Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wells and then examined some local demographics: age, poverty and education levels and race," Brian Bienkowski reports for Environmental Health News. Lead author Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger said that in poor Pennsylvania communities, "no matter how you estimate proximity, it always came up as exposure was significantly, much higher.” (Clark University graphics)

Ogneva-Himmelberger "said the study raises environmental justice concerns as people under the poverty line often 'have less mobility and access to information' about the potential ills of fracking, especially since the communities she looked at were rural areas without the amenities of larger cities and towns," Bienkowski writes. "She also found local clusters of gas wells disproportionately impacting the poor, elderly and those with lower education in West Virginia, and children in Ohio."

Montana Interstate highway speed limit increasing from 75 to 80 mph

Beginning on Oct. 1, Montana drivers will be permitted to drive 80 miles per hour on Interstate highways in the state because Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill increasing the limit from 75 mph, Mike Dennison reports for The Billions Gazette. Most of its adjoining states, including Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota have increased their Interstate highway limits to 80 mph as well.

Although Dennison writes that drivers will have to pay higher fines for exceeding the speed limit, the head of the Montana Highway Patrol, Col. Tom Butler, said he doesn't think the higher speed limit will change how the patrol enforces it. "[Traffic stops] all have their own unique set of circumstances," he said. When asked whether the new speed limit will allow a person to get away with driving 85 mph without being pulled over, Butler said, "The sign says 80 miles per hour."

The speed limit will still be 65 mph in urban areas with more than 50,000 citizens and 70 mph on two-lane highways. Some stretches of interstate highway that go through mountain passes or narrow canyons will still have a 75 mph speed limit. Fines will increase from $20 to $40 for driving 10 mph over the speed limit on the interstate, from $40 to $70 for driving 11-20 mph over the limit, from $70 to $120 for driving 21-30 mph over the limit, and from $100 to $200 for driving more than 31 mph over the limit. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Deep South is the hardest U.S. region to get a loan

Residents in the Deep South, especially along the Gulf Coast, "have seen their access to credit drop off significantly, even though it was already weak to begin with," says a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Chico Harlan reports for The Washington Post.

"The region is already economically distressed, with disproportionately high poverty levels, and restrictions on credit access limit the ability of those living there to start businesses, make investments or manage unforeseen expenses," Harlan writes. "If enough people in an area cannot borrow, the community itself becomes less resilient, said Kausar Hamdani, a senior vice president at the New York Fed."

In 2007, right before the recession hit, "74 percent of Americans with a credit file borrowed on standard, revolving terms, using either a credit card or (for more significant needs) home equity line of credit," Harlan writes. "By 2014, 67.9 percent of Americans were borrowing in that manner." But the main differences were at the state level. For instance, in Utah, 75.2 percent currently use revolving credit, compared with 77.1 percent in 2007. In New York, the number is 74.9, compared with 78.7 in 2007, but in Mississippi only 49.3 percent use revolving credit, compared with 62.5 percent in 2007, the sharpest decline of any state.

"The Deep South has a fewer percentage of prime borrowers and on-time bill payers than the rest of America," Harlan writes. "Mississippi ranks last in both categories." (Post graphic)

Cutting CO2 emissions 30% by 2030 could prevent thousands of premature deaths, study says

The Obama administration's proposed rules to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005 "would result in substantial and rapid improvements in air quality, along with a sharp drop in deaths from heart attacks and respiratory ailments," says a study by researchers at Harvard University and Syracuse University published in Nature Climate Change, Joby Warrick reports for The Washington Post. (Nature graphic: Change in premature deaths avoided for states from the 2020 reference case)

"Depending on implementation, the proposals could prevent about 3,500 premature deaths a year, mostly from respiratory disease," Warrick writes. The study said the most significant gains of the Environmental Protection Agency rules "would occur in states such as Texas and Ohio, home to some of the most vociferous opponents of the proposed regulations."

"Pro-coal organizations criticized the study for failing to examine a wider range of impacts, including local economic costs," Warrick writes. "Laura Sheehan, senior vice president for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said shuttering some of the nation’s coal-fired power plants could increase utility bills for poorer consumers. She also suggested that the EPA’s plan could lead to temporary shortages of electricity, an assertion made by industry-backed studies but disputed by several independent analyses." (Read more)

Rural areas trail urban in health, education and living standards, says Measure of America study

A study by Measure of America called Geographies of Opportunity ranks how residents of the nation's 436 congressional districts fare in health, access to knowledge and living standards.

An affluent area "just south of San Francisco that includes high-end cities like Palo Alto and Los Gatos, along with the southern fringe of San Jose" was ranked as having the highest well being, while neighboring agricultural community San Joaquin Valley ranked last, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Author Sarah Burd-Sharps said that "while rurality is one of the conditions that affects well being, it’s not an especially strong factor. Other factors like education levels explain more of the variance in the well-being report." (Measure of America map: Education index)
The report found that the bottom 10 congressional districts in terms of human development are all rural and urban centers in the South, while the top 10 are all major metropolitan areas. Burd-Sharps said this is primarily because large cities “benefit from public and private investment in things like good K-12 schools, research universities, parks and walkable streets,” while rural areas are less likely to receive the same investments, Marema writes.

Life expectancy ranges from a low of 73 in rural Southeastern Kentucky to a high of 84 in San Jose and part of Santa Clara County in California. Whites outlive African Americans by 3.6 years, and "the higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer the district’s life expectancy," the report says.

"There are over 5.5 million disconnected youth in the United States—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of work and out of school," largely concentrated in the South and Southwest, says the report. (Measure of America map: Life expectancy)

High school journalists use power of the press to educate classmates about town's HIV epidemic

While a southeastern Indiana town continues to struggle with an HIV epidemic that has now reached 140 cases—there are only 4,300 residents in Austin—students at Austin High School realized that that HIV knowledge among their peers was almost non-existent. So they decided to do something about it through the power of the press.

Students "rushed to release a special edition of the student newspaper, The Eagle, that focused on the outbreak," Jason Kane reports for PBS Newshour. "Articles profiled at-risk residents, dispelled rumors and discussed the impact of the outbreak on the town. Students also started a group called 'Stand Up' to educate younger kids about the HIV virus and staying healthy."

Kami Owens, 16, wrote an editorial about the power of community and the media's false perceptions of Austin: “The media has done an astonishing job of showing the world the negatives of little Austin, Ind. But along with every negative, there is a positive. Austin may be a small town, but when tragedy hits, it affects all, and our close-knit town and community become family. . . . Appearance is not everything, folks. Austin is an older community that was established as a city only seven years ago. Austin has kept its small-town appearance that the residents seem to love. It emanates a homey feeling where everyone knows each other."

White foam in Pennsylvania drinking water linked to Marcellus Shale gas well sites

White foam found in drinking water in three homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, (Family Search map) was likely caused by Marcellus Shale gas well sites, said a study by researchers at Penn State University and Appalachia Hydrogeologic and Environmental Consulting published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Laura Legere reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Test results from commercial laboratories during investigations at the sites had not picked up on what was causing the foaming—they reported no unsafe levels of compounds other than natural gas in the water, while other compounds, like glycols and surfactants, had appeared inconsistently or at barely detectable levels," Legere writes. "The same or similar organic compounds that the researchers traced in the water, including 2-n-Butoxyethanol, or 2-BE, are known to be used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing additives or to appear in waste fluids from oil and gas operations."

"Researchers said it is impossible to 'prove unambiguously' that the contaminants in the water came from shale gas-related activities because they were unable to secure samples of fluids that were used at or near the well site," Legere writes. "But they said that multiple strands of evidence, including timing, well construction problems and the presence of matching compounds in both shale fluids and the water wells, make shale activity 'the most probable source.'”

A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition "said that significant technological advancements and stronger regulations have been developed in recent years to protect groundwater, 'which is a top industry priority,'” Legere writes.

Wyoming African American population has more than doubled during oil boom

The oil boom in Wyoming is changing the cultural landscape, with the African American population in some areas increasing by as much as 800 percent, Leigh Patterson reports for Inside Energy. The state's African American population has grown faster than in any other state, more than doubling from 4,389 in 2010 to 9,182 in 2013, while the African American population under 10 grew by 40 percent. African Americans are still a small percentage of the state's overall population of 584,153. (Patterson photo: Ivan Pettigrew, left, and his stepson Ray Stewart moved to Wyoming to find jobs in the oil industry)

African American Steve Marsh, who moved from Chicago to Gillette to work in the oil industry, told Patterson, "When I first got here, if every time you stepped into a restaurant, you feel five, six, seven, eight eyes on you and then you look back and they look away and then other people from the table are still looking. It's uncomfortable, to say the least."

Ivan Pettigrew, who moved from Atlanta to Wyoming, said most people have been friendly, Patterson writes. But the oil business has struggled recently, and jobs are not as easy to find. Pettigrew told Patterson, “In 2009 and 2010, you could basically lose your job one day and start working again the same day or the next day. Now it's not that easy."

Marsh said if jobs dry up he would like to return to the city, but Ray Stewart, Pettigrew's stepson and a native of Shreveport, La., said he has no plans to leave, Patterson writes. Stewart told Patterson, “I would definitely stay. I like the community. Within the five years I've been here I met my wife. I like it here." (Read more)

Monday, May 04, 2015

More than 30% of non-metro children under 6 living in poverty, USDA study finds

More than 30 percent of children under 6 in non-metro areas were living in poverty in 2013, compared to 23.9 percent in metro areas, says a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Overall, 26.2 percent of non-metro children were poor in 2013, compared to 21.3 percent of metro children. (For a Daily Yonder interactive county-level map of poverty rates click here)

"The deep poverty rate (when a child’s family has income less than half of their poverty income threshold) for non-metro children under 6 was 14.2 percent in 2013, compared to 11.0 percent for metro young children," says ERS. "Another 16.1 percent of non-metro young children were moderately poor (from one-half up to equal to a child’s family poverty income threshold) in 2013 and 27.6 percent were low-income/nonpoor (from equal to up to twice a child’s family poverty income threshold)."

ERS found that 48 counties had child poverty rates 50 percent or higher, with 41 of those counties in non-metro areas, 33 in the South and 10 in Mississippi, mostly in the Delta region. East Carroll County, Louisiana, had the highest rate, at 67.1 percent, followed by Clay County Georgia (65.2 percent), and Holmes County, Mississippi (62.1 percent).

"Child poverty is more sensitive to labor market conditions than overall poverty," the report said. "Scarcity of jobs, physical isolation and lack of employment and transportation services often pose greater earnings challenges for non-metro parents than for metro parents. Further, non-metro parents tend to have less education and a higher incidence of underemployment than do metro parents, putting their children at higher risk of being poor." (USDA map)

Tyson Foods says it will phase out using antibiotics

Arkansas-based Tyson Foods announced last week that "it is striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017," the company said in a statement. "Tyson Foods has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries, requires a veterinary prescription for antibiotics used on broiler farms and has reduced human antibiotics used to treat broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011."

Perdue, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Pilgrim’s have all announced steps to scale back their use of antibiotics and companies like Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods and Applegate have also sworn off antibiotics, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. "But Tyson processes more chicken than any of these companies, pumping out more than 38 million broiler chickens (chickens raised for meat) per week."

Tyson's announcement means that "more than one-third of the U.S. chicken industry has pledged to eliminate routine use of 'medically important antibiotics,'" Swanson writes. (Pew Charitable Trusts graphic)

Critics say the move might be too little too late, Swanson writes. "The trouble is that for years, the meat industry hasn't used antibiotics to just treat sick animals. The antibiotics are also used to make animals bigger so they produce more meat and raise profits. And because of the heavy use of antibiotics, these animals can develop resistant bacteria in their guts, which can then be spread to humans."

Antibiotic-resistant infections cause at least 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, Swanson writes. "A report commissioned by the UK government estimates that, by 2050, antimicrobial-resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year across the world—more than currently die each year due to cancer." (Read more)

Maine Track Program aims to increase number of physicians in rural areas in Maine and other states

A medical program in Maine emphasizes rural and small-town medicine in an attempt to interest students in remaining in state or in practicing in rural areas in other states, Nick McCrea reports for the Bangor Daily News. The Maine Track Program, a partnership between Tufts University School of Medicine and Maine Medical Center, has had 95 students complete the program in three years, with 24 practicing in state, while others are practicing in rural areas in other states.

"About 30-40 percent of Maine Medical Center residents decide to stay in Maine when they graduate, and officials hope that retention rate will increase to as much as 75 percent as the program continues," McCrea writes. "Maine has struggled to attract physicians. The state ranks next-to-last in the country in terms of students entering medical school programs, putting Maine hospitals and rural medical practices at a disadvantage when trying to attract doctors." Maine, which has the largest percent of rural population, is also the oldest state.

"The program also provides an up to $25,000 annual scholarship for up to 20 students, helping to offset some of the high costs of attaining a medical degree," McCrea writes. On Saturday 34 medical students, who will graduate in a few weeks from Tufts, were recognized for completing the program. (Read more)

USPS workers in N.D. leaving for higher paying oil and gas industry jobs; mail service has suffered

While the U.S. Postal Service continues to close plants and reduce hours, leading to slower mail in some rural areas, the federal agency has faced a different problem in the booming oil field communities of western North Dakota, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. USPS has struggled to fill low-paying positions in an area with a high cost of living, leading to understaffed branches that have been unable to keep up with a rising demand for service.

"With more letters and packages to deliver and long lines at local post offices that are inadequate to meet a population that has grown 7.6 percent in five years, the Postal Service has rarely met national standards for mail delivery, according to a report by Inspector General David Williams," Rein writes. "The operational challenges—including a jump in package deliveries of 165 percent over the past four years—also have resulted in massive overtime for mail carriers and poorly equipped, space-short mail processing plants, investigators found." (Phillips Energy graphic)

The report found that the cost of living has risen so high in North Dakota that many postal workers are finding higher paying jobs in the oil and gas industry, Rein writes. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) told Rein, “We have a unique situation in North Dakota. We don’t pay federal employees enough to work in an area where rents are so high."

Heitkamp last year started a campaign called “Fix My Mail," Rein writes. "Hundreds of residents wrote to her complaining of late deliveries, nonexistent deliveries, mistakes with mail forwarding and short hours at post offices. Some people said their bills and prescription medications were arriving late. The Postal Service responded, adding self-service kiosks in three communities to decrease wait times, buying scanning devices for postal workers to assist people with relatively simple transactions and adding hours of operation at 32 post offices across North Dakota. A new post office opened in Williston, N.D."

But the Inspector General said the problem has still not been resolved, mainly because the agency has failed to attract more workers, Rein writes. The Inspector General wrote, “Limited benefits, challenging working conditions (such as volatile weather, physical labor and strenuous work hours) and higher competing wages resulted in low retention rates for carriers." (Read more)

Guy Carawan, folk singer and civil rights pioneer, died on Saturday at 87 in Tennessee

Guy Carawan, a folk singer and activist who fight for civil writes and worker's rights in Appalachia and the South, died on Saturday at 87 in New Market, Tenn., Lance Coleman reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Carawan and his wife Candie "marched with Martin Luther King through the streets of Selma, Ala.," and "introduced the song 'We Shall Overcome' to the movement." (News-Sentinel photos: Guy and Candie Carawan)

"The couple and their children lived with and documented the people and stories of Johns Island, S.C., and preserved those stories in books and recordings," Coleman writes. "They also worked with coal miners and others in union battles while recording their own albums of songs."

The News-Sentinel wrote a feature story about the Carawans in 2009. To read that story, click here.

Writer says Ky. governor candidates spreading misconceptions about Common Core

In Kentucky, the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards, Republican candidates for governor are spreading misconceptions about the initiative, saying they will repeal it if elected, Joseph Gerth writes for The Courier-Journal.

Louisville businessman Matt Bevin said the standards don't require students to learn the multiplication tables, and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said that according to the standards, "two plus two doesn't equal four anymore." Former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott said he felt fortunate to have finished high school "before the federal government came in and said we're here to help you." Former Louisville Metro Council member Hal Heiner agreed the standards should be repealed but "couldn't name one problem with the standards other than the fact that the federal government has endorsed it," Gerth writes.

The aim of the Common Core is to establish standards for what students should learn in school each year. Schools in some states were not providing students with the education they needed to prepare them for college and the working world, Gerth writes. When President Barack Obama's education department endorsed the program and provided monetary incentives for the curriculum's adoption, people became concerned about government overreach.

The Common Core allows schools some flexibility in teaching methods but encourages them to look beyond age-old methods such as rote memorization. However, Gerth writes that his daughter attends a Common Core school and has to learn the multiplication tables. Decisions schools are making about the multiplication tables and other concepts are made locally, which the Common Core initiative allows.

Comer's assertion that under the Common Core, "two plus two doesn't equal four anymore," he is probably referring to the fact that "students can get credit for employing the right techniques to get an answer, even if they ultimately get the wrong answer," Gerth writes. "We used to call it partial credit when I was a kid."

Some say the Common Core's standards need to be improved and made more difficult, and that's a worthwhile discussion. "Candidates have a responsibility to keep the discussion smart," Gerth writes. "They aren't doing that now." (Read more)

Study says good food costs more in poor, rural areas, suggests changes in food-stamp program

A study has found that nutritious foods are more expensive in impoverished rural counties than in urban counties, a phenomenon that doesn't help public health officials who teach healthy eating as a proven, effective strategy to prevent chronic diseases to poor people in rural America.

"The results of this study find that individuals living in rural areas, particularly food desserts, may be at increased risk of negative health effects as a result of more limited access to higher quality foods compared to those living in urban areas," says the report of the University of Kentucky study, "Food Cost Disparities in Rural Communities," published in Health Promotion Practice.

Researchers analyzed the per-serving cost of 92 foods four times over a 10-month period in the primary grocery stores in four Kentucky counties, two rural and two urban. One rural county was considered a food desert, meaning that fresh produce isn't relatively available. The commonly purchased foods in the study were assigned to one of four categories based on their nutritional value.

Not surprisingly, the cheapest foods were those with the least nutritional value, such as canned fruit in heavy syrup, cereals with high-fructose corn syrup, and processed meats. Foods that are a bit more nutritional, but mainly processed convenience foods, were more expensive in rural counties than urban counties. Foods that were considered nutritious, but not the most nutritious, such as white rice, oats, whole-grain bran cereals and frozen fish, cost the most in the rural county with the highest poverty rate.

The cost of the most nutritional items varied by county, with the "most striking finding" being that "the rural food desert had significantly higher per-serving costs among the most nutritious food items, compared to the other three counties," 6 to 8 cents higher per item, the report said.

The study draws attention to the SNAP or food-stamp program, which makes no allowances for food cost differences between regions or counties, and suggests that its model be changed to be more like the Women, Infants and Children program, which uses a portion-based system: Participants buy a set number of ounces or servings of dairy products, whole grains, and fresh produce each month, irrespective of price. This approach "has the potential to adequately meet all participants' nutritional needs, irrespective of differences in food prices," wrote the researchers, Frances Hardin-Fanning and Mary Kay Rayens of the UK College of Nursing.