Friday, May 15, 2015

N.D. senators lead fight against Obama water rule

Two North Dakota senators, Republican John Hoeven and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, are leading the opposition to the Obama administration's "Waters of the United States" rule, which would "increase the number of streams and wetlands that receive automatic protection under the Clean Water Act," Annie Snider writes for Environment & Energy Daily.

Hoeven is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is trying to stop the rule through the appropriations process, while Heitkamp is gathering support from moderates to back legislation that would force the administration to go back to the beginning to redraft the rule.

"There is not one single federal regulation in the entire country that has caused more concern in the state of North Dakota than this Waters of the United States proposed regulation from the Corps of Engineers and EPA," Heitkamp said at a news conference last month.

The concern about the rule has less to do with the specifics of the rule and more to do with the region's farmers feeling as though both nature and shifting federal programs are boxing them in, Snider writes. Because the state has seen excessive precipitation in the past few years, farmers are finding new spots where water collects on their farms. "Now we've got a situation where water that didn't use to drain anywhere is now overland flooding to the point that water is traveling through eight or nine wetlands—from wetland to wetland," said Chad Weckerly, who farms 16,000 acres in Hurdsfield, N.D. (Read more)

'The Thrill is Gone': Blues master B. B. King passes

UPDATE: May 21: On Saturday, a memorial service will be held in Las Vegas. The following Wednesday his remains will be flown to Memphis; from the airport, at around noon, a procession will move to Beale Street’s Handy Park for a tribute. King’s nickname came from his time in this city when he started being called “Blues Boy,” which was later shortened to B.B.
On May 29, a public viewing will be held at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola from 10 5 p.m. The funeral services will be held at the Bell Grove M.B. Church in Indianola on May 30, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. At approximately 4 p.m., a procession will be led from the church to the Museum, and there will be a private graveside service for family and friends at 5 p.m.
B. B. King, a Mississippi-born master of the blues who influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, passed away Thursday at age 89.

B. B. King
"One of the things that enabled B. B. to have such a profound effect on generations of rock-blues guitarists . . . was [his music's] very accessibility—its emotional accessibility in the high-flying, single-string focus of his soloing, and its musical accessibility in the broad range of sources from which he drew," blues historian Peter Guralnick told Terence McArdle of The Washington Post. "He holds the same place in blues as Louis Armstrong did in jazz. He is an ambassador for the music."

King was often introduced as the world's greatest blues singer, and he could "shout and exhort the blues in a harsh, blustery baritone like a backwoods preacher then caress the words with a soft falsetto plea in the same verse," McArdle writes. His style drew from gospel music and big-band jazz, which garnered a wide audience.

Born on Sept. 16, 1925, on a plantation near Itta Bena, Miss., King strove for self-improvement throughout his life. In 1974, he told music journalist Michael Lydon, "My only ambition is to be one of the great blues singers and be recognized. If Frank Sinatra can be tops in his field, Nat Cole in his, Bach and Beethoven and those guys in theirs, why can't I be great and known for it in the blues?" (Read more)

Here's 'most distinctive' death cause in your state

While some causes of death such as cancer are fairly common everywhere, some causes of death are much more common in certain areas. The following map displays the "most distinctive" cause of death for each state, Rachael Rettner writes for Live Science.
Some of the distinctive causes are common, such as the flu, which is listed as most distinctive for Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. For Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, pneumoconiosis—a set of lung diseases contracted through dust inhalation, usually by coal miners who call it "black lung" diesease—was the distinctive cause of death.

In Tennessee and Alabama, the distinctive cause of death is accidental discharge of firearms.

"Although chronic-disease-prevention efforts should continue to emphasize the most common [national] conditions, an outlier map such as this one should also be of interest to public health professionals," the researchers wrote in their report, which is published in the May issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The researchers obtained a list of 113 causes of death from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then they calculated the rate of death for each cause in each state and divided that rate of death from that cause in the entire U.S. (Read more)

Disposal well near Oklahoma's biggest earthquake was drilled too deep, into granite 'basement'

An oil wastewater disposal well near Oklahoma's biggest earthquake ever recorded was drilled too deep, "a mistake some think can lead to earthquakes," Mike Soraghan writes for Energy Wire. New Dominion LLC, which owns the well, has received permission to make it more shallow, but says that doesn't mean the well caused the November 2011 quake.

"New Dominion LLC categorically and expressly denies that its Wilzetta salt water disposal well had anything at all to do with the Prague earthquake in 2011," company attorney Fred Buxton said in an email.

However, state officials and seismologists say that drilling into granite rock makes a path for wastewater that's injected into disposal wells to get to faults, causing earthquakes. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission, "which regulates oil and gas activity including dispoal, has been moving to make sure wells in earthquake-prone areas aren't injecting into basement rock," Soraghan reports.

Corporate commission officials say wells were never allowed in the "basement," or granite rock, but they focused primarily on inspection for groundwater contamination. Now they plan to pay special attention to whether wells are drilled too deep. (Read more)

Rural arts and culture summit in Morris, Minn., June 2-4

From June 2 to 4, a rural arts and culture summit called "From the Group Up: Cultivating Creative People and Places" will be held at at the University of Minnesota campus in Morris, Minn.

The summit will "gather artists, art organizations, rural-centric organizations and community and economic development leaders to learn about creative people and places that have built their stories 'from the ground up,'" according to the event website. "People from across the state and country will gather to celebrate the imaginative and creative thinking that has helped to create vibrant small town cultures." Registration is open until May 28. (Read more)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

More counties use four-day school week to improve learning, retain teachers and cut costs

In Homesdale, Idaho, a small farming community, children no longer attend school on Fridays. Homesdale and counties across the nation—especially in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Oregon—have adopted the four-day school week to improve learning, cut costs and retain teachers, Madeleine Cummings writes for Slate.

Although the new schedule helps save money on transportation and food, the main appeal is that it can help teachers teach and students learn. Although empirical evidence doesn't exist to prove it, Homesdale's experience suggests that the five-day school week might not be right for every community.

Homesdale teachers say the new schedule, which includes longer class periods, allows for more in-depth instruction including more time to read complete stories, include videos and Skype with professionals about the subject matter. Christine Ketterling, a second-grade teacher at Homedale Elementary, said, "I'm not doing anything different, so the only thing I can think of is the four-day week."

The extra day is good for teachers as well. In some areas, teachers have that day to relax and prepare lesson plans. In others, that day is reserved for professional development for the exchange of teaching strategies. The four-day week is also helpful for retaining teachers. "Ketterling says Homedale's four-day week schedule is a 'huge incentive' for her to stay there although she could earn a higher salary elsewhere," Cummings writes.

Some are concerned the new schedule could have negative effects. While teachers may originally work on Fridays, they may eventually stop if districts don't require it, said Paul Hill, who chairs the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho and is drafting a paper about the benefits and risks of the four-day week. Some low-income in Kentucky switched back to the five-day week when test scores dropped, and some students were not receiving the meals they would during the traditional schedule. Concerns also arose about a lack of activities for students on Fridays. (Read more)

Farm Foundation organizing meetings to help farmers, ranchers phase out use of antibotics

Across the nation producers and businesses are voluntarily reducing the use of medically important antibiotics in food animal production, and now Farm Foundation is leading a new initiative to help livestock producers and veterinarians phase out antibiotics. Taking these measures is crucial for public health, the price of food and the future of American agriculture.

Farm Foundation will organize 10 regional meetings with livestock producers and veterinarians during the next six months to help them understand the Guidance For Industry documents from the FDA and the difficulties they may face when implementing them. "The success of achieving this goal—for public health and the economic health of animal agriculture—hinges on producers having access to information they need to adjust production practices and the capacity of veterinarians to provide the additional oversight needed," Farm Foundation President Neil Conklin said.

Feedback gained during the regional meetings will be compiled into a report of both the economic and physical challenges of abiding by the GFIs. Reports will also be made about what information and education farmers and ranchers require. In late fall 2015, Farm Foundation will present the report at a summit, where farmers, ranchers, academics and government agency staff can talk about the issues and ways to solve them.

Lawmakers call attention to USDA and EPA's lack of communication about bee health

Rep. Rodney Davis, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research said lawmakers are uneasy about the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency's lack of communication about bee health, Sarah Gonzalez writes for Agri-Pulse.

Losses of honey bee colonies were 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 winter, and for the first time ever, summer losses were higher than winter losses, according to the USDA's survey conducted along with the Bee Informed Partnership and the Apiary Inspectors of America, Conzalez reports.

"We see a disagreement between agencies that are supposed to be working together," Davis said at a subcommittee hearing about honey bee health to the hearing's two witnesses: Jim Jones, assistant administrator at the EPA's office of Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Robert Johansson, USDA's acting chief economist.

One concern is how long it is taking to produce a federal strategy to protect honey bees. Five months ago, a White House Task Force on Pollinator Health, chaired by EPA and USDA, was scheduled to report its plan to address Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees vanish from the colony during the winter. Jones said the plan will be released in a few weeks, Gonzalez writes.

USDA and EPA disagree about some key issues. In a letter to EPA, Johansson said the USDA does not agree with EPA's evaluation of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides: that they don't have economic benefit in soybean production. "Some scientists have linked neonicotinoids to pollinator deaths," Gonzalez writes. "Environmental groups are hoping the Obama administration adopts stricter regulations on neonicotinoids, while the agricultural community is encouraging regulatory agencies to recognize a range of factors that scientists say are impacting pollinator health."

EPA's Jones said his agency is "committed to sound science and the rule of law" and that they are working with the USDA. (Read more)

Bird flu wreaks havoc, especially in Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa

Bird flu, an aviary disease that experts say does not pose a significant risk to humans, is presenting a variety of difficulties across the nation. In particular, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa are dealing with outbreaks.

In Iowa, turkey and chicken producers require more assistance from the federal government because facilities are struggling to destroy millions of birds who have avian influenza, industry and congressional leaders said. "The virus has infected nearly 50 facilities in 12 counties," Donnelle Eller reports for The Des Moines Register.

The state is the national's top egg producer and has already lost 25 million hens to the flu. "As this crisis continues to unfold, we urge USDA to consider ways to expedite humane depopulation processes," U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. USDA spokesman Matt Herrick said, "USDA has deployed hundreds of additional staff to manage this response—more than 85 of them are in Iowa today, and more are on the way. We have delivered tens of millions of dollars in indemnification payments to producers and have the authority to spend much more." (Read more)

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricket declared an emergency to ensure that state agencies possess what they need to deal with bird flu, the Associated Press reports. Agricultural officials identified the disease's presence in a flock of 1.7 million chickens in Dixon County, Nebraska, earlier this week. Now state agencies are working on quarantining the farm and destroying the birds that have the disease. Nebraska Agriculture Director Greg Ibach says the declaration of emergency will provide him with extra resources necessary for response to the outbreak. (Read more)

In Minneapolis, Minn., a power plant fueled by turkey litter was already struggling to stay in full operation but is now experiencing more difficulties because of bird flu, Steve Karnowski writes for the Associated Press. Fibrominn LLC was originally intended to be an innovative renewable energy source and to help dispose of turkey litter. However, the plant already did not have enough fuel, and the bird flu crisis has depleted the resources further.

Turkey litter can be droppings, wood ships, seed hulls, feathers and spilled seed and can also be used as fertilizer. "We expect to continue to burn turkey litter at the project," said Donald Atwood, a Competitive Power Ventures Inc. vice president. "We'll adjust our fuel percentages based on market conditions. . . . I'm highly confident that the project will be successful." (Read more)

Iowa county's economic strategy: help local farmers grow different crops and expand sales

Pottawattamie County, Iowa, with just under 100,000 residents and thousands of acres of farmland, may not be a place that comes to mind when one is looking for a hub of innovative regional economic development, but that is what the county has become in the past several years. The county has "collaborated with towns and cities beyond its borders to boost the reach of its local farmers and to foster a different kind of agricultural sector that grows fruits and vegetables for its own residents to buy and eat," Nancy Cook writes for the National Journal. "It has worked to train the next generation of farmers and to help existing farms with small-business coaching.

According to the National Association of Counties, the end goal of the collaboration is for Pottawattamie and its partners to combine economic efforts to create a stronger economic region than they could establish individually. One of their strategies was to change the type of farming from large and industrialized to small operations growing food for local people to keep the money in the state.

 In 2005, a group of longtime farmers gathered to discuss the future of farming. After a series of meetings, the Southwest Iowa Food and Farm Initiative was born. The group now works in education and outreach, helping farmers learn more about business through workshops and coaching and connecting farmers to farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture networks, Cook writes. The group also found and mentored promising young farmers, hoping they would stay in the area.

"If you go to a grocery store, you're buying produce from California and South America," said Lance Brisbios, project coordinator at the Golden Hills Resource Conservation & Development, the nonprofit that runs SWIFFI. SWIFFI is trying to change that by encouraging farmers to sell produce to local restaurants, schools and hospitals.

Denise O'Brien, owner of Rolling Acres Farm, was one of the original farmers who helped establish the group. She said the area is seeing the results of the efforts to influence people to buy and sell locally. "Chefs want to take our food, and we're taking our produce in today for community-supported agriculture."

"The county has created new market for fresh fruits and veggies and new jobs for county residents," Cook writes. "That's a much different economic portrait for a rural county once just rooted in corn and soybeans. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Overworking is bad for health and productivity and leads to missed time with family, studies say

Many American workers put in long hours and plenty of overtime—especially in rural areas where jobs in areas such as factories or health care often require employees to work more than eight hours in one day and more than 40 hours in a week. While the extra hours mean more money, being overworked can lead to health problems, poorer work performance and missing out on family events, according to recent studies, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

A Gallup poll of 1,271 adults 18 and older found that the average employee works 47 hours per week. The poll found that 18 percent of employees said they work 60 or more hours per week, 21 percent work 50-59 hours per week and 11 percent work 41-49 hours per week. (Gallup graphic)
The effects of overworking on health are dramatic, even just 9 hours in one day, with a 2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis saying "overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses or increased mortality," Ingraham writes.

Productivity also suffers, with a 2014 Stanford study saying that "after about 55 hours of work in one week, productivity gains halt completely," Ingraham writes. "Any work you could do in 70 hours—or 100—you could also get done in 55."

The 2014 All State/National Poll found that while 76 percent of respondents said family take precedence over work, nearly 50 percent said they have gone into work sick, nearly 40 percent said they have missed personal experiences and more than 25 percent have missed family experiences due to the inability to get off work, Ingraham writes.

About 13 percent said they work different shifts than their spouse because they can't find child care, Ingraham writes. About 12 percent they have been punished for taking time off from work because of illness or to care for a family member, and about 8 percent said they have been fired for the same reason. Another 7 percent said they have left children with inadequate care because they had no other choice. (Read more)

Lack of broadband adoption—not lack of availability—driving digital divide, writer says

The digital divide, the disparity in adoption of broadband between rural and urban households, has increased, especially for the elderly and the poor. High broadband adoption rates bring about economic growth in rural areas, and federal policies to address the problem usually involve funding initiatives to provide more broadband access. "In fact, of the $7.2 billion made available for broadband funding during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, over 90 percent was focused on providing infrastructure," Brian Whitacre reports for The Daily Yonder.

However, according to recent research, the problem needs to be addressed through encouraging broadband adoption, not just increasing availability. A Current Population Survey asked why people don't use broadband. "No need" was the top response for rural households, and "not available" accounted for fewer than 5 percent of the responses in 2011. "The 'no need' response has increased over time while the 'not available' response has decreased," Whitacre writes. Lack of demand—not supply—of broadband is the chief reason behind the gap.
The Daily Yonder chart showing respondents' reasons for not using broadband.
To further examine the divide, "we used a technique that allows us to predict hypothetical broadband adoption rates," Whiteacre writes. "If we gave rural characteristics (such as education, income, age, etc.) to urban households—what would happen to the urban adoption rate? . . . Similarly, if we replaced urban levels of broadband availability (which are typically very good) with those found in rural areas (which are typically not as good), what would happen to the urban adoption rates?"

The results of the study predict that if rural households had socioeconomic characteristics typical of urban ones, 52 percent of the percentage point gap in the digital divide would vanish, and if urban households had broadband infrastructures typical of rural areas, 38 percent of the gap would vanish. (Read more)

Honeybee population lost 42.1% of colonies last year, up from 34.2% the previous year

Thousands of beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies from May 1, 2014 to April 30, 2015, well above the 34.2 percent losses from the previous year, says a survey released today by the Bee Informed Partnership, Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. "The bees are not in danger of extinction, but their health is of major concern to agriculture, where their pollination services are estimated to be worth $10 billion to $15 billion a year."

The survey consisted of 6,128 beekeepers, who represent 14.5 percent of the nation's 2.74 million managed honeybee colonies, says the Bee Informed Partnership. Of those surveyed, 67.2 percent "experienced winter colony loss rates greater than the average self-reported acceptable winter mortality rate of 18.7 percent."

The number of bees lost during the winter of 2014-15 was actually lower than in the winter of 2013-14, but an increase of summer losses led to higher overall losses, the survey said. Beekeepers lost 27.4 percent of colonies in the summer of 2014, compared to 19.8 percent in 2013.

"Nobody knows with certainty why. Beekeepers once expected to lose perhaps 10 percent of their bees in an average year," Wines writes. "But deaths began to spike in the middle of the past decade, when a phenomenon in which bees deserted their hives and died en masse—later named colony collapse disorder—began sweeping hives worldwide." Losses also have been partly blamed on pesticides. (Bee Informed graphic)

Logging industry struggling to provide enough wood for barrels for booming bourbon industry

A boom in the bourbon industry is good news for Kentucky—the state produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon—but has spelled trouble for the struggling wood industry, which has had a difficult time providing enough oak for bourbon barrels, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. (Kentucky Department of Tourism photo)

Bourbon sales increased more than 70 percent from 2009 to 2013, says the Kentucky Distillers' Association, Ferdman writes. "And that's actually a bit of a problem. Bourbon barrel production is a particular process, which requires the use of only higher quality wood. As it happens, that fancier wood isn't as easy to come by."

Jeff Stringer, a professor at the University of Kentucky who studies hardwood silviculture and forestry, told Ferdman, "Very little of the wood out there is fit to be used for bourbon barrels. Only a small fraction of stave logs are high enough quality. That makes it really hard for the wood industry to adjust."

Ferdman writes, "Stave logs are the oak planks that barrel-makers piece together and then hold in place with metal loops to make the bourbon barrels. Part of the reason it will be difficult to continue to supply enough stave logs to meet the demand of the bourbon industry is that chopping down trees is contingent on the ability to use all the wood—not just that which is fancy enough for bourbon barrels."

To complicate matters, barrels used to make bourbon are only used once, Ferdman writes. "But this problem could also, eventually, prove to be a blessing for the industry down the road. Growing demand from a skyrocketing bourbon boom . . . means there will be an opportunity for loggers so long as they can supply the demand. White oak staves, in response to the rush to supply bourbon barrels, are selling for more than 20 percent above what they were at the start of the year." (Read more)

House passes bill to block EPA's 'Waters of the U.S.' rules, but short of veto-override number

The Republican-controlled House passed legislation Tuesday to overturn the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed water rules that are "aimed at redefining which streams, ponds, wetlands and other waterways are under its jurisdiction," Timothy Cama and Cristina Marcos report for The Hill. Legislation passed by a 261-155 vote. The Obama administration has threatened to veto any bill to kill water regulations, and the vote fell short of the two-thirds that would be needed to override a veto.

"The 'waters of the United States' rule, which the EPA plans to make final this spring, has led to charges the administration is dramatically expanding its powers over water and would regulate puddles, decorative ponds, ditches and dry creekbeds," Cama and Marcos writes. "The fiercest opposition to the EPA’s water rule has come from agriculture, ranchers, developers and other industries that use large swaths of land."

"They say the rule would put significant parts of their land under federal jurisdiction and make it subject to the Clean Water Act, potentially requiring permits for routine activities like filling in ditches or spraying fertilizer, and exposing them to litigation," Cama and Marcos write. EPA officials have said "the new rule is necessary to clear up confusion and to definitively say which minor waterways, like wetlands and tributaries, can be regulated. Democrats maintained the proposed rule would simply provide clarification for the federal government and localities." (Read more)

Northern Michigan University camp introduces rural high school students to health careers

Northern Michigan University today is concluding its first ever Rural Health Careers Camp, designed to "provide rural high school students with a hands-on learning experience about different health careers and to show them the opportunities available in the health professions," says NMU.

"Students will experience health care simulations, receive CPR training, a tour of a local medical facility where they will learn how the various health professions work together to provide quality health care for individuals," reports NMU. "Also, students will receive information about education and training, academic requirements, financial aid and campus life. The staff the camp is comprised of health professions faculty, health professionals currently in practice and college students studying towards a profession."

Thirteen students participated in the camp, Rache Droze reports for Upper Michigan Source. Cindy Noble, executive director of the UP Area Health Education Center, told Droze, "We try to provide programs for disadvantaged or minority students or rural students throughout the UP to get more interest in the health professions due to some of the shortages that are predicted out there." Noble said they hope the program draws enough interest to become a yearly event. (Read more)

Similar programs are offered throughout the nation at many other schools, such as Northern Illinois University, University of Kentucky, Rockford University, University of Colorado, Montana State University and Southern Utah University.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Emergency responders hit tank-car rules, say employees lack training for oil-train accidents

Emergency responders have expressed opposition to new rules for crude-oil trains, criticizing the information-sharing requirements, while saying many employees lack the training opportunities to respond to accidents involving hazardous materials, Curtis Tate reports for McClathchy Newspapers. A 2010 survey by the National Fire Protection Association said that "65 percent of fire departments involved in responding to hazardous materials incidents still have no formal training in that area."

Elizabeth Harman, an assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told Tate, “The training that’s needed has been developed. This is the first step that needs to be funded and expanded for all first responders . . . We need to be prepared for it, and we’re willing to be prepared for it."

Harman said the new regulations "didn’t go far enough with respect to information that railroads provided to communities," Tate writes. "Under an emergency order the department issued last May, railroads were required to report large shipments of Bakken crude oil to state emergency-response commissions, which then disseminated that information to local fire departments."

"But under the department’s new rules, starting next year, railroads will no longer report the information to the states, and fire departments that want the information will have to go directly to the railroads," Tate writes. "It also will be shielded from public disclosure." Harman told Tate, “These new rules fall short of requiring rail operators to provide the information fire departments need to respond effectively when the call arrives." A Department of Transportation spokesperson said the agency was reviewing feedback from emergency responders. (Read more)

Five injection wells shut down after 4.0 magnitude earthquake last week near Dallas

After a 4.0-magnitude earthquake in North Texas (right) last week, "four area drilling waste disposal well operators have shut down operations at five wells while data on seismicity in the area is collected," Joe Fisher reports for Natural Gas Intelligence. "The Railroad Commission of Texas told the companies that they would be required to conduct well and reservoir testing. Five wells are within 100 square miles of the quake's estimated epicenter."

Railroad Commission seismologist Craig Pearson told Fisher, "We take the issue of seismicity very seriously and want to move quickly to better understand if there are actions the commission should require of operators to protect the public, up to and including shutting down well operations. More data is always useful in making these kinds of critical decisions that impact the public and the industry."

Texas has had three earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 or higher in the past week, seven in the past month and 98 in the past year, says Earthquake Track.

Last week's earthquake in Venus, about 30 miles outside Dallas, "was the largest one in recent memory and one of about two-dozen to hit the area since 2009," Fisher writes. Testing will help determine the effect of injection operations on pressures within subsurface rock formations, the Railroad Commission said. Last month the Railroad Commission initiated proceedings that could lead to the permanent shutdown of two waste disposal wells near Azle that are thought to be linked with a swarm of earthquakes in the area." (Read more)

Rural areas ill prepared to provide care for babies of non-English speaking, undocumented women

A rising number of children born to Hispanics who emigrated to the U.S. to rural areas are born disadvantaged because those areas are not equipped to provide services for non-English speaking—often undocumented—residents, says a study by Cornell University, Brigham Young University and the University of New Hampshire published in the journal Social Forces.

The study found that 40 percent of Hispanic babies are born into poverty, with the prospect of poverty especially high in rural areas. Researchers wrote, "Hispanics in new destinations often start well behind the starting line—in poverty and with limited opportunities for upward mobility and an inadequate welfare safety net."

Researchers say "population growth in the 2000s is occurring 'in many parts of rural America from Alabama to Nebraska [where] growing numbers of Hispanics provide a demographic lifeline to dying small towns,'" H. Roger Segelken reports for But the authors said those areas lack the resources—or inclination—to offer critical support services to those residents.

Texas House passes more legislation to prevent cities and towns from banning fracking

House lawmakers in Texas "took another swipe at the Denton fracking ban Monday by approving legislation to bar cities from holding an election on citizen petitions that would restrict a person’s use of their mineral or other private property rights for economic gain," Marissa Barnett reports for The Dallas Morning News.

Denton residents voted to ban fracking during the November 2014 election, becoming the first town in the state to do so. Last month the House passed a bill by a 122-18 vote to ban any ordinance that prohibits an oil and gas operation.

Monday's legislation, which passed by a 105-29 vote, "would likely prohibit cities from taking up referendum like the one in Denton because such petitions would restrict the use of mineral rights," Barnett writes. The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, has been criticized by environmentalists, "who argue it could also bar cities from taking a vote on the placement of a landfill or reservoir."

Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), the bill’s sponsor, "said the legislation would not restrict voters’ rights to ban things such as plastic bags or smoking in particular areas," Barnett writes. "The measure would also not prevent a city from enacting any ordinance." Keffer told Barnett, “It’s just a protection of someone’s property . . . It does not affect the ordinance power of any city. It’s just that the city does it [regulates] through ordinance power, not through referendum.” (Read more)

Billionaire coal owner, who has faced numerous fines for violations, to run for W.Va. governor

Jim Justice, billionaire owner of Southern Coal, which in 2014 faced 266 violations at coal mines in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama, announced on Monday he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat, Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette. Justice, who has donated large sums to candidates in coal-producing states and has a net worth of $1.6 billion, has never held a political office. Justice has previously been a registered Republican. (Associated Press photo: Justice announcing his candidacy for governor)

During his gubernatorial announcement, Justice said:  “It’s time for somebody to serve with no hidden agendas. It’s time for somebody to serve who doesn’t care about preserving themselves in that job. Things really have to change, and for crying out loud they need to change now. You need somebody who loves our state and somebody who doesn’t want a nickel for doing it.”

Only one other Democratic candidate has announced attentions to run in next year's election—West Virginia Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall), Eyre writes. Current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has reached his term limit and is ineligible to run in 2016.

Numerous fines and violations have dogged Justice's companies, Eyre writes. "At least nine contractors have sued Justice’s mines for not paying bills over the past three years, according to The Associated Press. Four of those nine legal claims, which in total exceed $1 million in alleged debts, have been settled for undisclosed amounts."

Justice has since hired conservationist and health-care executive Tom Clarke as an unpaid consultant to help his companies solve its problems. Justice also gained many fans when in 2009 he purchased The Greenbrier, resurrecting the struggling hotel, which employs about 1,600, hosts a PGA tournament and has a practice field for the New Orleans Saints, Eyre writes.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rural liberal arts colleges struggling to remain open

Rural liberal arts colleges are struggling financially, leading many to merge with other schools or close altogether, reports Steven R. Strahler for Crain's Chicago Business. "Moody's Investors Service, which rates 80-some private colleges and universities with less than $100 million in annual operating revenue, says the pace of mergers and closings will accelerate." The March report said: “Few rural colleges will find viable merger partners, and sales of remaining assets could take years given the specialized nature of the facilities."

Many colleges are seeing a decline in enrollment and are being forced to drop majors, Strahler writes. Of schools rated by Moody's, 57 percent offered tuition discounts last year of at least 40 percent, compared to 31 percent in 2009. Also, one-third of schools had operating deficits. (Crain's graphic)

"During the mid-19th century, Midwestern colleges were deliberately stuck in the middle of nowhere, often by religious denominations, as a catalyst for growth," Strahler writes. But fewer students want to attend small schools in rural areas.

William Carroll, president of  Benedictine University, which is phasing out undergraduate programs and contemplating sale of its 17-acre campus in Illinois, told Strahler, “The higher education network in this state is a wonderful fabric, but it's getting frayed. Technology is finally kicking in big time. We have to adapt or die.”

In Illinois, "private schools received $30 million in the 2009 capital bill, an earmark unlikely to resurface soon," Strahler writes. "A $373 million state scholarship program called MAP suffered from $8.4 billion in recent across-the-board cuts. Compared with 2001, when every eligible applicant who attended college got a Monetary Award Program grant, in fiscal 2014, more requests were denied (165,000) than granted (136,000), according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission."

"While Carroll, like other educators, sees schools becoming more like physicians' offices, diagnosing arriving students according to intelligence types and prescribing customized curricula, his technology concerns extend beyond the classroom," Strahler writes. Carroll told Strahler, “You need a campus that basically looks like home. We were losing (students) because we didn't have the facilities other campuses had. The Wi-Fi—even if it's there—it's not fast enough.” (Read more)

Hepatitis C cases have risen 364% in Appalachia; injection of drugs spreading disease at rapid rate

Hepatitis C cases rose 364 percent in  Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia from 2006 to 2012, says a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brian Wu reports for The Science Times. "Of the cases that have been reported . . . 73.1 percent reported injecting drugs." Among new cases, 44.8 percent involved people under 30.

"The rate of new hepatitis C infections has also risen nationwide, more than doubling from 0.3 cases per 100,000 people in 2010 to 0.7 cases in 2013," Wu writes. Kentucky had the highest rate at 5.1 cases per 100,000 people. Delaware and South Carolina did not report any new cases.

While officials said HIV rates are low in all four states, they said they fear that the increase in hepatitis C cases could lead to a rise in HIV cases, Wu writes. Officials said needle exchange programs are key in the four states to reduce the number of potential HIV cases. John Ward, director of viral hepatitis prevention at the CDC, said many people with hepatitis are unaware that they have it, Liz Szabo reports for USA Today.

"About 4.5 million Americans older than 12 abused prescription painkillers in 2013, and 289,000 used heroin, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration," Szabo writes. "About 75 percent of new heroin users previously abused opioid painkillers. The number of first-time heroin users grew from 90,000 people in 2006 to 156,000 in 2012, according to the CDC."

Some school food workers oppose nutrition rules, say whole-wheat foods are harder to prepare

Republican opponents of school nutrition rules have found an unlikely ally in food service directors, who say some of the healthier options for proposed school lunch rules are more difficult to prepare and serve, Evan Halper reports for the Los Angeles Times. Gitta Grether-Sweeney, the Portland nutritional director, said whole-wheat noodles don't work in lasagna, whole-grain macaroni turns to mush in macaroni and cheese and wraps made with whole-wheat tortillas fall apart. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration graphic)

"In response, the Obama administration has put together its own coalition of celebrity chefs, health organizations and military leaders to mitigate the damage caused by its falling-out with the 'lunch lady' lobby—55,000 school cafeteria workers who were once a major ally," Halper writes. "Now, as the Republican-dominated Congress decides whether to renew the law, school lunch trays have become a partisan battle zone. The law expires on Sept. 30, although the status quo will remain in place if Congress deadlocks."

"The law and the regulations it spawned require school lunches to include significantly more fruits and vegetables and an infusion of whole grains; they also mandate a big drop in calories," Halper writes. "Schools were told to cut the salt and sugar in foods they sell, even in campus vending machines. Supporters of the law say that unwholesome frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets and other junk food that once were lunchtime staples helped drive the nation's epidemics of childhood obesity and diabetes."

Opponents say popular foods are being taken off menus and some children refuse to eat the healthier options, Halper writes. "The new lunch rules are strict. Schools are being told to restock pantries with ingredients alien to many students' palates. If children pass up the fruit, cafeteria workers in many cases can't sell them a meal until they take some, leading schools to complain they are paying for produce that ends up in the garbage," which is costing schools money. (Read more)

Feds offer up to $35.5 million in grants to help coalfield communities hit by industry's swoon

"Several federal government agencies are teaming up to send $35.5 million to help communities and workers adapt to the decline in coal jobs," Jessica Lilly reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization  initiative is led by the Economic Development Admimistration, part of the Commerce Department. Other participants include the Labor Department, which has $20 million available; the Small Business Administration, up to $2.5 million; and the Appalachian Regional Commission, up to $500,000. The competitive grants will go to partnerships of regionally driven economic-development and workforce-development organizations in coalfields.

“Recent changes in the energy economy have had a profound impact on Appalachian families and communities that have been sustained by the coal industry for generations,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said as he announced the grant at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region Strategy Summit in Pikeville, Ky. “We have a moral imperative to work together to ensure we all succeed. That’s what the POWER initiative is all about – developing truly cohesive relationships at the federal, state and local level to create real economic opportunities for families throughout the region.”

LSU students create app to make photos, videos of police action directly available to media

A journalism student and a software engineer student at Louisiana State University have created an app that allows anyone who records or photographs police behavior to immediately upload the videos or photos to be available for media use, Steve Hardy reports for The Advocate in Baton Rouge.

African American student Wilborn Nobles, a senior journalism major, developed the idea after watching the riots in Ferguson, Mo., Hardy writes. Nobles teamed up with senior software engineering student Elbis Bolton to create an app known as the Police Officer Watchdog Event Reporter (POWER), currently available on phones with Android operating systems. Nobles and Bolton plan to introduce a version compatible with iPhones.

"The POWER app allows users to submit their photos and videos with a summary of what happened, where and when the incident occurred and which law enforcement agency was involved," Hardy writes. Nobles and Bolton noted that not only could the app catch police in the act of suspect activity but also it could also be used to clear an officer wrongly accused of wrongdoing or highlight acts of bravery.

"Nobles and Bolton presented their work last month to judges at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and took home prizes for most successful project and riskiest project at the Social Media News Challenge," Hardy writes.

Rural senators voice complaints to postmaster general about delayed rural mail delivery

A group of bipartisan senators from rural states told Postmaster General Megan Brennan during a meeting last week that since the U.S. Postal Service in January eliminated overnight delivery for local first-class letters that used to arrive the next day, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of mail takes an extra day to be delivered, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. Senators from Montana, North Dakota, Michigan, Kansas, Vermont, Wisconsin and Maine told Brennan that because of the extra day mail is being delivered late.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Rein, “You mail a letter in Helena, and it really has to go 90 miles out of the way to get to a destination a few blocks away. It gets to be a death spiral. One of the things the postmaster general needs to understand is that when we go home and people are complaining about the Postal Service, it indicates there is dysfunction there.”

USPS "has cut service to save money, reducing hours at local post offices and closing mail processing plants," Rein writes. "That’s where delivery times have suffered, lawmakers and postal unions agree, because the mail, especially in rural areas, has to travel extra miles to get to a plant as consolidations have moved forward."

Senators said closing of plants and elimination of overnight delivery has hurt rural residents who rely on mail service for check deposits, lease agreements, bills and prescription drugs, Rein writes. "The senators pressed Brennan to better document the money the agency says it is saving by closing processing plants, claiming that the savings have so far come in less than postal officials estimated. They also reiterated their request to Brennan to slow the closure of 82 plants scheduled to shut their doors this year." (Read more)

In Kentucky, which adopted the Common Core first, the initiative receives little opposition

Although the Common Core State Standards have faced opposition in many states, they haven't faced much dissension in the first state to adopt them: Kentucky, which has been implementing testing related to the standards for four years, Carolina Porter reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Teachers unions haven't disputed the standards much in the state. "At the end of the day, we put pour political hatreds aside," said Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who supported the tougher standards. "It's going to be good for our kids and make us more competitive."

Before Kentucky adopted the standards, the state had a 75 percent high-school graduation rate; now the state has an 87 percent graduation rate, which exceeds the national average. "Today, teachers share Common Core aligned lesson plans, students say they notice more project-based work and administrators say the standards have become the status quo," Porter writes.

However, not everyone is in agreement. Rep. Thomas Kerr, a Republican state legislator, has on two occasions attempted to repeal the Common Core. "I hear from parents who say, 'I cannot help with my kids' homework,' Kerr said. "We're not teaching students the things they should know or need to know."

The Kentucky Education Association does not have a formal position on the Common Core, but union leaders have diligently provided teachers with the help they need to implement the standards. "Overall, it's been very positive," said Mary Ann Blankenship, executive director of the group.

The first year students were required to take the new, more difficult tests, their proficiency ratings dropped approximately 30 percent from the previous year. Now, proficiency levels are going up. In the third year of the new tests, the the percentage of students proficient in reading and math increased in all categories except high-school reading. "The college and career readiness rate increased to 63 percent from 54 percent in 2013," Porter writes. Terry Holliday, Kentucky's education commissioner, said it takes about five years for teachers and students to get used to the standards. "We're starting to see the gains from higher standards," he said. (Read more)