Friday, June 12, 2015

Farm Bureau says latest EPA water rule is more expansive than agency's original proposal

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest lobby for farmers and ranchers, said Thursday that the Environmental Protection Agency's latest rule defining "waters of the United States" subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act are even worse than the original proposal, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. The Farm Bureau said "the agency did not properly respond to criticisms from farmers."

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman said in a statement, “Despite months of comments and innumerable complaints, the waters-of-the-U.S. proposal is even worse than before. Our analysis shows yet again how unwise, extreme and unlawful this rule is."

The rule was written, Cama notes, "to ensure that small streams, ponds, wetlands and other important waterways can be regulated under the Clean Water Act, which requires permits for actions the harm or pollute water, the Obama administration said." But critics feared "that farmers would be subject to permitting requirements and restrictions for common agricultural practices on their land like filling ditches and spraying fertilizer."

"The Farm Bureau said the EPA made its rule even more broad than what it put out for public comment in March 2014, echoing a criticism that congressional Republicans have made since the May 27 announcement of the final rule," Cama writes. "Specifically, the Farm Bureau said that the EPA’s definition of a tributary was broadened, and it now requires only 'physical indicators of a bed and banks and ordinary high water mark.' This means that ditches, wet land near streams, isolated water and other areas are subject to the rule, the Farm Bureau argued." (Read more)

Stallman claimed that "EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers can now use remote desktop tools to establish the presence of a tributary, without a human ever setting eyes on the feature," Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse. Farm Bureau's analysis of the rule said, “Thus, land features may be deemed to be tributaries (regulated immediately under the rule), even if they are invisible to the landowner and even if they no longer exist on the landscape. So much for clarity!”

The Farm Bureau, which contested facts it said EPA used to convince opponents of the rule that it won't do them any harm, "disputed EPA claims that a Clean Water Act permit is only needed if a protected water is going to be polluted or destroyed; that the rule does not change exemptions for agriculture or add any permitting requirements for farmers; or that the rule does not regulate most ditches," Enoch writes.

EPA declined to comment but says on its website, "The rule does not protect any new types of waters, regulate most ditches, apply to groundwater, create any new permitting requirements for agriculture, or address land use or private property rights."

Oil bust hits poorly educated workers at a time when pay for high-school grads has been declining

Thousands of job seekers who flocked to rural areas for oil-boom jobs are being hit hard by an industry bust that is forcing them to take jobs with significant pay cuts, Jim Tankersley reports for The Washington Post. The price of West Texas intermediate crude dropped from $110 a barrel to $45 late last year; it has been around $60 for more than a month, but that hasn't been enough to save jobs, with analysis released last week saying the oil industry lost 17,000 jobs in May. (Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount)

ADP Research Institute, which tracks private payrolls nationwide, said oil, gas and supportive industries have lost 44,000 jobs since November 2014, mostly in the West and South. That spells bad news for an industry that once offered high-paying jobs for workers with little education, Tankersely writes. Lynn Gray, director of economic research and analysis for the Oklahoma Economic Security Commission, told him, “They’re going to have to take lower-paying jobs. There’s going to be very few opportunities paying anywhere near what they’re making.”

More than 90 percent of oil and gas workers lack a college education, so the unemployed have little chance of finding jobs that pay comparably to the median salary of $65,000 a year the industry paid in 2013, Tankersely writes. "Between 2008 and 2013, the median income for prime-working-age oil and gas drillers increased by 70 percent, according to an analysis by economist Brad Hershbein, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Over the same period, in the economy at large, the median income for men with no more than a high-school education fell by 6 percent, after adjusting for inflation."

There are only a few other sectors that "pay that well for men with such little education, according to Hershbein, including railroads, power utilities and heavy machinery installation," Tankersely writes. "But none of those sectors have seen the same growth in pay or number of jobs. When the energy sector began pulling back, there was nowhere comparable for those workers to go."

Since 1960, average U.S. man weighs 17.6% more; women up 18.5%, to male average back then

From 1960 to 2000, the average weight of adult men and women in the U.S. rose 17.6 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively, so much that the average woman weighs "almost exactly as much as the average man weighed in the early 1960s," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the average adult woman weighed 166.2 pounds in 2010, up from about 140 pounds in 1960. The average weight for men has increased from 166.3 to 195.5. (Post graphic) 

Obesity has become an epidemic in the U.S., where at least 30 percent of adults in 18 states are obese, mostly in the South. The reasons for the weight gains are that Americans are eating less healthy food, eating more, and not getting enough exercise, Ingraham writes. Obesity is more prevalent in rural areas.

Americans are continually getting heavier than residents in other countries. "The average American is 33 pounds heavier than the average Frenchman, 40 pounds heavier than the average Japanese citizen and a whopping 70 pounds heavier than the average citizen of Bangladesh," Ingraham writes. The study said "tackling population fatness may be critical to world food security and ecological sustainability." (Read more)

Undercover workers record animal cruelty at Colorado farm; employees fired, charges pending

Allegations of animal abuse recorded by undercover workers at a dairy farm near Fort Morgan, Colo., has led to a criminal investigation, Jesse Paul reports for The Denver Post. Members of Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based group, released video on Wednesday that "shows workers apparently stabbing cows with pencils, screwdrivers and dairy equipment. The video also shows cows being kicked and hit and workers failing to care for their injuries." (Mercy for Animals photo)

Farm owners Jim and Marie Goedert, who fired five employees and disciplined seven others, said in a statement: "We are appalled that these incidents took place here and have taken disciplinary action against all of the employees involved, including several prior to our knowledge of the video as part of our normal dairy management. We take great pride in our family farm and in the care we provide to our animals." The Goederts have told local law enforcement that they plan to press charges against employees.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based Dairy Farmers of America cooperative, of which the Fort Morgan farm is a member, criticized the methods of which the images were taken. The organization said in a statement: "It is disheartening that groups like Mercy For Animals, which claim to have animal care and wellness at heart, seek change through deceit and misconception, rather than working with the industry to proactively address their concerns. When animal abuse is witnessed, it should be immediately reported, not recorded."

An "ag-gag" bill proposed this year in Colorado but later tabled by its sponsor would have required reporting of cruelty within 48 hours, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "This 'quick-reporting'  bill would prevent the collection of adequate evidence to show patterns of abuse, neglect or abandonment, potentially hindering prosecution of abusers," the ASPCA said.

Program to funnel millions to Appalachia for loans to, and investments in, small businesses

Small businesses in Appalachia have a harder time attracting loans and investments, and the Appalachian Regional Commission has been working on the problem in the last few years. On Wednesday, the federal agency announced at the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting that it has secured $15.45 million for the first round of investments to finance 165 small businesses and create 790 jobs in the 13-state Appalachian region. The goal of the program is "to leverage $233 million—$42 million over the next 24 months alone—in private bank capital and help create 2,200 jobs," the commission says.

Economic status of counties in Appalachia
(Click on map for larger version)
Funds will come from Appalachian Community Capital, "a new central bank for development lenders that will increase the availability of capital to small businesses" in the region, the commission says. Its "business model calls for raising grant capital and leveraged debt from funding sources not available to, or underused by, individual funds, such as regional and national banks, utilities, and national foundations." It hopes to attract large investors by pooling the capital needs of its members.

The commission "made a lead investment of $3.45 million in equity and operating support" and regional lending partners raised the additional $12 million, it reports. Of that money, $7 million has already been approved for loans to participating community loan funds. By October "ACC plans to deploy 90 percent of the capital to community lenders for small business loans."

"Appalachian small businesses receive only 82 percent of the loans of their counterparts nationally, while businesses in Appalachia's economically distressed counties receive less than 60 percent of the loans of their national counterparts," the commission reports.

'Astroturf' campaign aimed at newspapers uses same letter to back Obama's move on antibiotics

The same letter, attributed to different local authors, sometimes with slight editing, has been popping up in newspapers across the country in defense of President Obama's plan to phase out antibiotic use in animals, reader Shawn Clubb alerted news-media watcher Jim Romenesko. Clubb, who works at a research and monitoring company, said the letter has appeared in at least 70 papers. It's the latest example of an "astroturf" campaign, which tries to fake grassroots support for a point of view.

The push to eliminate antibiotics has been widespread, with the White House releasing a memorandum earlier this month to phase out antibiotics and more than 150 companies agreeing to phase out use in animals. By the end of the year the Food and Drug Administration is expected to a release a comprehensive set of rules to limit the use of antibiotics in animals.

The letter circulating in papers reads like this, more or less:

"President Obama directed federal agencies to serve antibiotic-free meat and poultry in government cafeterias. The Food and Drug Administration will require animal producers to obtain authorization from a licensed veterinarian to use drugs to treat a specific disease, rather than just to promote rapid growth, as is current practice. As much as 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics are used in animal agriculture.

"The moves come amid growing concern about the link between routine antibiotic use in animal agriculture and human infections by bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics because of their excessive use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic resistance causes 2 million illnesses per year in the U.S. and 23,000 deaths. It also adds $20 billion per year in health care costs and $35 billion in lost productivity.

"And we thought that animal products were just linked to heart disease, cancer and stroke.

"While government agencies reduce antibiotics in animal products, the rest of us can do better with wholesome vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains and a rich variety of plant-based meats, cheeses, milks and ice creams available in every supermarket. These foods contain all the nutrients we require, without the deadly pathogens, antibiotics, carcinogens, cholesterol and saturated fats."

Political money growing; study finds contributors much more likely to get meetings with Congress

A New York Times/CBS News poll published in 2015 showed that 84 percent of respondents think too much money is spent on politics, and 85 percent believe the system of campaign finance needs to be significantly reformed. "Overall, scholars continue to worry that this level of spending by wealthy donors and corporations has the potential to diminish the average citizen's role even further in the democracy," reports Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

Money came from a various of new sources during the 2012 election cycle, and according to the Center for Responsive Politics, $6.3 billion was spent in total—$3.7 billion in congressional races and $2.6 billion on the presidential election. The advent of "dark money," the sources of which are not revealed, makes the effects of these expensive campaigns harder to trace.

For voters, the most obvious evidence of more money in campaigns is more negative advertising, but for scholars, the more worrying issue is the long-term effect on government and public policy. Evidence of a causal link between contributions and policymakers' behavior hasn't been as easy to pin down, but a recent study at the University of California shows that money talks.

In the study, members of the group CREDO Action tried to schedule meetings between its members and high-level officials in 191 congressional districts. Sometimes the CREDO members revealed that they were donors when trying to schedule a meeting, and sometimes they didn't. The researchers wrote: "Only 2.4 percent of offices arranged meetings with a member of Congress or chief of staff when they were told the attendees were merely constituents, but 12.5 percent did so when the attendees were revealed to be donors. In addition, 18.8 percent of the groups revealed to be donors met with any senior staffer, whereas only 5.5 percent of the groups described as constituents gained access to a senior staffer." (Read more)

The Washington Post's Bob Woodward observed that the news media should take a greater interest in money in politics. "It is important that the next president be able, unfettered and unbought, to find and move the country to the next stage of good," he writes.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rural community faces worst nightmare, with the escape of two violent inmates from local prison

While rural prisons provide jobs and economic opportunities for communities, residents of Dannemora, N.Y., (City-Data map) are experiencing the nightmare side of hosting such a facility, with unwanted media attention and widespread fear over the escape of two violent prisoners, who have remained on the loose for nearly a week, Katie Reilly reports for Reuters. The facility houses 2,800 inmates, while Dannemora only has 4,898 residents. More than 450 state, federal and local law enforcement officers are involved in the manhunt.

David Benjamin, a Dannemora town councilman who spent 25 years working at Clinton Correctional Facility before retiring in April, told Reilly, "Everybody in town here always had in the back of their mind that an escape could happen, but no one ever thought it would. That place is a fortress."

At the Clinton facility, 91 percent of inmates have been convicted of a violent felony, said a 2014 report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit that inspects prisons and advocates for humane criminal justice, Reilly writes. The report details violence at the prison, by inmates and guards, stating: "Clinton has also had an infamous history of violence, brutality and abuse by correction officers, as well as unrest, violence, organizing and lawsuits by people incarcerated at the facility." 

Inmates "serve a median minimum sentence of 14 years, almost three times as long as the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's system-wide median minimum of five years and two months, according to the report," Reilly writes.

Candidates for Kentucky governor participate in coal-sponsored, closed-door debate in Virginia

Matt Bevin, left, and Jack Conway
The first official gubernatorial debate in Kentucky—where coal is expected to be one of crucial issues in this year's election—is not until June 19, but the two candidates have already participated in a coal-sponsored debate in Bristol, Va., that was not advertised and not open to the news media, Sam Youngman reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told the Herald-Leader that he moderated what he referred to as a discussion, not a debate, between Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Jack Conway in front of 100 to 120 representatives of the coal industry and other energy businesses, Youngman writes. The event featured "speakers such as 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush and political analyst Larry Sabato" of the University of Virginia. Also in attendance was Kentuckian Joe Craft, the head of Alliance Resource Partners.

"Bissett said he posed questions to each candidate, allowing them to rebut each other, and took questions from the audience," Youngman writes. "While the future of the coal industry was the main topic, Bissett said the candidates also discussed Kentucky's pension problems and laws regarding union membership and the prevailing wage."

"Bevin campaign manager Ben Hartman said in an email Wednesday that 'the event was not ours, and controlling the publicity of it was not our decision," Youngman writes. Conway campaign spokesman Daniel Kemp "said in an email Wednesday that 'We received an invitation from the Kentucky Coal Association to attend a meeting and speak about the issues important to Kentucky's coal communities, and we gladly accepted.'" (Read more)

Children in South less likely than their Northern counterparts to be raised in two-parent households

Children in northern states are the most likely to be raised in two-parent households, while children in the South are the least likely, David Leonhardt reports for The New York Times. "These patterns are important because evidence suggests that children usually benefit from growing up with two parents. It’s probably not a coincidence, for instance, that the states with more two-parent families also have higher rates of upward mobility."

Utah has the most children—57 percent—raised by their married, biological parents, Leonhardt writes. Following Utah are: Minnesota, 56 percent; Nebraska, 55 percent; New Jersey, 54 percent; New Hampshire and North Dakota, 53 percent; Massachusetts, 52 percent; and Connecticut, Idaho and Iowa, 51 percent.

The lowest rate is in Mississippi, where only 32 percent of children are being raised by their married, biological parents, Leonhardt writes. Also at the bottom of the list are: Louisiana, 36 percent; Arkansas, 37 percent; Alabama, 38 percent; Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina, 39 percent; and Tennessee, 40 percent. (NYT map: Percent of children in two-parent households. For an interactive version, click here)

Former president, Ag Secretary discuss at Clinton Global Initiative the challenges facing rural America

Rural America needs broadband internet, access to business loans, small-scale manufacturing jobs, small-business capital, young people and a vibrant community spirit, former President Bill Clinton and a panel of experts said Wednesday at the Clinton Global Initiative in Denver, Joey Bunch reports for The Denver Post. (Post photo by Andy Cross: Former President Bill Clinton, left, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday at the Clinton Global Initiative)

Clinton said at the event: "Anywhere you have people who are willing to go to work in the morning and have half good sense, I think you have to assume there are real economic opportunities there. You have to design almost boutique strategies to make them bloom."

Clinton and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack "agreed that private enterprise hasn't invested enough in sparsely populated communities, so government must step in to help spur economic development," Bunch writes. Vilsack said, "Government has been sort of the whipping boy/girl for people who are upset, angry, irritated, not seeing the benefits of government. This is an opportunity to showcase what it can do for people and how it can grow opportunity."

While broadband was the main topic of discussion, the panel "also discussed how tight lending practices spurred by the banking crisis of 2008 [have] made availability of loans especially tough for potential start-up businesses in rural areas, small towns and Indian reservations," Bunch writes.

Widow sues E. Kentucky disability lawyer, says fraudulent activity led to her husband's suicide

The Eastern Kentucky disability lawyer who was implicated in fraud is being sued by the widow of one of his clients who committed suicide after he was told he could lose his social security disability benefits, reports LEX 18 in Lexington.

Late last month about 900 clients of Floyd County lawyer Eric Conn—who was featured in a "60 Minutes" investigative report and was the subject of a 2013 investigation by a Senate Committee on Government Affairs—were told they could have their disability payments suspended. Earlier this month acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin lifted the supsensions until they get a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The widow of Leroy Burchett filed a lawsuit on behalf of her late husband's estate alleging that fraudulent activity on the part of Conn resulted in his wrongful death, LEX 18 reports. "According to a Facebook post from Burchett's lawyer, Ned Pillersdorf, Burchett fell into a depression after receiving the letter and was unable to afford his medication," which included anti-depressants. (Read more)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Advocates of school nutrition rules use high-school chefs' contest to show the food can still taste good

The higher school-food standards required by the Child Nutrition Act expire this year, and Republicans are continuing their efforts to roll back some of them. Democrats and advocates of the standards used a student cooking event on Capitol Hill to generate support for the standards, apparently to counter arguments of some school nutrition directors that some of the healthier options are more difficult to prepare and serve.

In the final competition, the top nine high-school teams served their winning dishes to lawmakers. The dishes had to follow their cafeterias' budgets and the national standards: To win, students had to include products rich in whole grains, low in sodium and a half-cup of fruits and vegetables, Whitney Forman-Cook reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. She doesn't list any of the dishes, but they're listed with the winners on the "Cooking Up Change" website of the Healthy Schools Campaign.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., hosted the event. She said that she and Senate Agriculture Committee Chariman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who has vowed to roll back some of the standards, have been discussing the issue, and she would like to pass a bipartisan bill by Sept. 30, when the current law's authority ends. One standard Stabenow doesn't want to compromise on is the requirement for a half-cup of fruit and vegetables; Michigan is a big fruit and vegetable state.

Stabenow said the Department of Agriculture "is very willing to work with schools where there are issues" in meeting nutrition requirements. (Read more)

County-level map details nation's high rates of sick seniors; Appalachian counties among worst

County-level maps show that two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries older than 65—especially those in central Appalachia—have multiple chronic conditions, and more than 4 million— about 15 percent—have at least six long-term ailments, according to analysis by USA Today and the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Meghan Hoyer reports for USA Today. "Those sickest seniors account for more than 41 percent of the $324 billion spent on traditional Medicare."

"Yet they also are living longer, leaving them to grapple with diseases such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart failure, depression and even Alzheimer's for years—sometimes decades," Hoyer writes. "The result: neither the medical system nor most seniors are prepared for the financial and emotional crisis ahead."

The number of counties where 75 percent of senior Medicare beneficiaries have multiple chronic conditions has gone up 20 percent since 2008, Hoyer writes. "Diagnoses of kidney disease, depression and high cholesterol have seen double-digit increases in that time. More than half of all Medicare beneficiaries have been diagnosed with high blood pressure; 27 percent have diabetes."

The problem is especially bad in Central Appalachia. Among Kentucky's top 10 counties for sick seniors, nine are located in Appalachia, Laura Ungar reports for the Courier-Journal. Kentucky's top 10 counties all rank in the top 50 nationally. In Clay County, which ranks first in Kentucky and 12th nationally, nearly 38 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, almost double the state average of 19 percent. Two West Virginia counties— Logan and Mingo—rank in the top 50. (For an interactive version, click here)

Many states debating freedom of information involving body cameras used by law enforcement

As a growing number of law enforcement officers are wearing body cameras, debates are brewing about whether or not the recorded images should be made available to journalists and the public through open records requests, Kelly Swanson reports for Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press. (Associated Press photo)

"In many states, citizens have the ability to request copies of footage from police worn body cameras through their state’s public record law," Swanson writes. "However, fear of privacy issues that this new technology may create is causing a rush to propose broad categorical FOIA exemptions of body camera footage, perpetuating the current barrier between many law enforcement officials and the public."

"Of the 26 states that have either introduced or passed a law addressing the question of whether or not the footage should be public record, 21 states have proposed regulations that require additional restrictions, which hamper public access in varying levels of exclusion," Swanson writes. "Restrictions range from 'private place' restrictions, to restrictions on footage taken in health care facilities, to full exemptions unless the individual requesting the recording is the subject of the footage."

Freedom of Information advocates say public access to police footage could strengthen relationships between local police and the community, could reveal whether or not the cameras are being used effectively and could show who is at fault in an incident—something particularly important in light of the recent surge of incidents in which police officers were involved in the shooting deaths of citizens, Swanson writes.

Florida ACLU Vice President Michael Barfield, "who sued the City of Sarasota and Police Chief Bernadette DiPino after police officials charged him $18,000 for his request for the 84 hours recorded for the test program of police body-cameras," told Swanson, “Body cams I think can be a win-win situation for both the officer and the citizen, but it defeats the entire purpose of accountability if we are not going to have transparency in terms of getting access to this footage.” (Read more)

Appeals court rejects lawsuit against emissions rules, says they are unable to rule on a proposal

A federal appeals court on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit by energy companies and states against the Obama administration's proposed rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030, saying the court can't review a regulation that hasn't been finalized, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, wrote: “They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule. But a proposed rule is just a proposal. In justiciable cases, this Court has authority to review the legality of final agency rules. We do not have authority to review proposed agency rules.” Judge Karen Henderson, who agreed with the ruling, disagreed with Kavanaugh's statement, writing in a separate opinion that the court could have ruled on the proposal if it wanted to.

"Murray Energy Corp. led a coalition of energy companies in challenging the rule, arguing that the Clean Air Act does not allow the regulation of carbon dioxide from power plants since other emissions from those plants are already regulated," Cama writes. "West Virginia led 15 states that also challenged the rule, and the cases were combined."

While advocates for the proposed rules chalked the decision up as an early victory, opponents of the rules said they expected the decision, Cama writes. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey told Cama, "When we filed this case last summer, we knew there would be procedural challenges, but given the clearly illegal nature of the rule and the real harm occurring in West Virginia and throughout the country, we believed it was necessary to take all available action to stop this rule as soon as possible. We believe that the litigation has further revealed the weakness of EPA’s arguments on the merits.” (Read more)

Journalist dedicated to environmental reporting in Great Lakes region receives career award

David Poulson
David Poulson, the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, has been recognized by the International Association for Great Lakes Research "for a career-long dedication to inform and educate the public and policymakers on Great Lakes issues," reports Michigan State University.

Poulson received the John R. (Jack) Vallentyne award, "for contributing substantially to education and outreach in the Great Lakes community for at least 20 years and with an impact beyond the awardee’s local community," reports Michigan State. "The award recognizes people who bridge the gap between the science community and the public. Recipients can be engaged with any great lake in the world, including the North American Great Lakes and the African Great Lakes."

"Poulson, a 1982 graduate of MSU’s School of Journalism, is also editor of Great Lakes Echo, the Knight Center’s award-winning regional online environmental news service," reports Michigan State. "At MSU, Poulson teaches environmental journalism, using tools as diverse as drones, satellite imagery, geographic information systems, experiential learning and nontraditional reporting techniques. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Society of Environmental Journalists."

Poulson has created three online Great Lakes environmental news services, the Great Lakes Environmental Wire, Great Lakes Wiki—winner of the 2007 Knight-Batten Journalism Award for innovations in journalism—and the Great Lakes Echo.

Mothers who live near fracking sites are more likely to have smaller babies, study says

Babies born to mothers who live close to gas wells used in hydraulic fracturing are 34 percent more likely to be born smaller than babies born in areas where mothers have less exposure to fracking, says a study published in PLOS One, Nicholas Bakalar reports for The New York Times. Researchers used data from 15,451 births in the southwest Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale region from 2007 to 2010.

Co-author Bruce R. Pitt, the chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, wrote: “This isn’t enough to cause changes in policy. It requires more intensive research, better measurements of exposure and medical outcomes. But it is enough to prompt further research so that we know how to go forward in a way compatible with public and environmental health.”

A Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman told Bakalar, “The researchers by their own admission rely heavily on two anti-oil and natural gas studies that have been thoroughly debunked. They admit that ‘a number of unknown factors limit the research.’” (Read more)

Office of Surface Mining wants National Academy of Sciences to review mountaintop removal studies

Office of Surface Mining director Joseph Pizarchik said Friday that his agency will "recommend that the National Academy of Sciences review a series of studies that have found that residents living near mountaintop removal mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette

"Former West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and other scientists have, over the past few years, published more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles that examined the relationship between large-scale strip-mining operations in West Virginia and the health of residents who live near these mines," Ward writes. "The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects and premature death." (Read more)

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Dead zones in rural areas putting accident victims and those lost or injured while outdoors at risk

An estimated 10,000 dead zones exist in Southern California, many of them located in rural and remote areas where having cell phone reception could be the difference between life and death for victims of a vehicle accident or for those who run into trouble while experiencing the outdoors, Janet Zimmerman reports for The Orange County Register. (Federal Communications Commission graphic: Dead zones in Southern California)

Jeff Cohn, founder of, which has a consumer-generated map of reception problem areas across the country, told Zimmerman, “There are millions of these locations where . . . people get into trouble because they’ve relied on their phone or didn’t have reception. It’s a big problem.”

Vincent Cox, who owns a telecommunications business in the Los Angeles area, "said any given city has about 85 percent coverage," but when people travel in outlying areas, they should assume they will not have service, Zimmerman writes.

That has led to a common theme in wilderness areas, with people reported missing, and later found—sometimes dead—in areas where there was no cell phone reception, Zimmerman writes. For instance, last month, a couple involved in a accident were missing for two weeks because there was no cell phone reception, and their vehicle was hidden from view in a remote, forested area. When they were finally found, one was dead and the other severely dehydrated, although expected to survive.

One-parent households in 29 states need to earn more than $15/hour to afford a decent apartment

One-parent households in the U.S. earning less than $13 per hour on a 40-hour work week could only comfortably afford a decent two-bedroom apartment in one state—Arkansas, and that would require earning $12.95 per hour, says a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. If a one-parent household worker in Arkansas earned minimum wage, he or she would need to work 54 hours per week to afford that same apartment.

Workers in Hawaii would need to earn $31.61, in California $26.65, in New York $25.67 and in Alaska $22.55 to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment, while those earning minimum wage in Hawaii would need to work 125 hours per week, Maryland 101 hours and New Jersey and Washington, D.C., 100 hours. (National Low Income Housing Coalition map: Wages needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment)
Employees in 29 states and Washington, D.C., would need to earn at least $15.16 an hour to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment. In 10 states employees would need to earn at least $14.13, and in another 10 they would need to earn at least $13.14. The least amount of hours a minimum wage worker would need to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment would be in South Dakota, where they would need to work 49 hours per week.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition "defines housing affordability as paying less than 30 percent of your income to housing, a common standard for the industry, and it assumes a 'fair market rent' as defined by Department of Housing and Urban Development," Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post.

"Workers making the minimum wage and working a 40-hour week would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in any state without paying more than 30 percent of their income," Swanson writes. (Hours a minimum wage worker would need to afford a two-bedroom apartment)

Hepatitis C cases among young people in Central Appalachia up 364% from 2006 to 2012

Hepatitis C cases among people under 30 in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia increased by 364 percent from 2006 to 2012, says a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the time period, 1,377 cases of hepatitis C were reported in the four states, and the median age of infection is 25.

Of those cases, 616 involved people under 30, and 315 were from rural areas, with 95 of those people saying they used intravenous drugs. The number of rural cases was evenly split between men and women—157 men and 156 women—but the majority of cases involved whites, with 247—or 78.4 percent—of cases being white, and the ethnicity of 60 cases being unknown.

During the same time period, the four states saw an increase in the number of people under 30 admitted to substance abuse centers for opioid dependency, with the number of heroin admissions increasing from 8.6 percent in 2011 to 12 percent in 2012. The region saw the number of first-time heroin users increase from 90,000 in 2006 to 156,000 in 2012, while the number of people who reported heroin dependency increased from 214,000 in 2002 to 467,000 in 2012. (CDC graphic: Hepatitis C cases among people under 30 in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia)

Rural Healthy People 2020 examines top health priorities; access to health care No. 1 concern

A lack of local emergency services in rural areas is costing lives, says a study by Texas A&M University researchers, who found that during an emergency people who live more than 30 minutes from a hospital have a mortality rate of 46 percent, compared to a 21 percent mortality rate for people living within 30 minutes of a facility, Rae Lynn Mitchell reports for the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

The study is part of Rural Healthy People 2020 by the Southwest Rural Health Research Center at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Researchers surveyed more than 1,200 rural stakeholders nationwide to determine rural priorities, finding that the closing of rural clinics and hospitals, an increasingly older population, higher poverty levels and less infrastructure support are some of the main challenges facing rural areas. Fifty rural hospitals have closed this decade, and 283 more are at risk of closure.

Researchers found that access to health care was the most frequently identified rural health priority, with emergency services, primary care and insurance generated the most concern, Mitchell writes. Nutrition and weight status was the second highest priority, followed by the challenges rural populations face in preventing and managing diabetes and mental health, mental disorders and substance abuse.

"Also presented in Volume 1 and rounding out the top 10 rural health priorities were heart disease and stroke, physical activity and health, older adults, maternal infant and child health and tobacco use," Mitchell writes. "Volume 2 takes a look at rural health priorities number 11 through 20, which include topics like cancer, oral health, immunizations, public health infrastructure, family planning and injury and violence prevention." (Read more)

Nearly 60% of Kentucky's coal-fired plants will be gone by 2040; one-third will reach end of lifespan

"More than 58 percent of Kentucky’s coal fired power plants have already made plans to close by 2020 or will likely retire by 2030 or 2040 due to their ages," Erica Peterson reports for WFPL 89.3 in Louisville. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030 will force about 25 percent of Kentucky's plants "to shut shut down or convert to natural gas, rather than install pollution controls to comply with the regulation." (WFPL graphic: The future of Kentucky's coal-fired plants)

"In addition to those closures, the state is predicting about 33 percent of Kentucky’s coal capacity won’t be around by 2040," Peterson writes. "And that’s not because of regulations—it’s because of age. Coal-fired power plants have an average lifespan of 65 years, and Kentucky’s coal fleet is aging. The state estimates that 5,830 coal-fired megawatts will be taken offline by 2040 simply because the plants will be old and inefficient by then." (Read more)

Native writers Berry and Johnson present awards for Central Kentucky sustainability group

Mary, Wendell and Tanya Berry
Two nationally renowned writers from Central Kentucky presented the awards as a regional sustainability organization, New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, celebrated its 10th anniversary last month.

Wendell Berry and his wife Tanya gave the New Pioneers Trailblazer Award to their daughter, Mary Berry, of New Castle, Ky. Mary Berry directs The Berry Center, which was created to continue the Berry family's work in culture and agriculture, which goes back nearly a century. The center's Berry Farm Program is based at St. Catharine College, near Springfield, where the awards ceremony was held.

Fenton Johnson, a native of southern Nelson County, presented the New Pioneers Green Living Award to his sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Arthur Young, grass-feed cattle farmers in adjoining Washington County, of which Springfield is the county seat. Johnson said the Youngs evolved from conventional to sustainable agriculture through “self-education, conversion and humility.”

Martha and Arthur Young (B. Mattingly photo)
Arthur Young told the crowd of 150, “There are a lot of things—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides—that I do not need on my farm. When I see my farm get better every year without the use of those, why do I need them? I can see the results. Nature will take care of a lot of things if we’ll let it.” For more details on the event, from Brandon Mattingly of The Springfield Sun, click here.

New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future was founded by Claire McGowan, a Dominican nun at the St. Catharine Motherhouse, to promote sustainable thinking and sustainable development in rural Central Kentucky. It has spearheaded establishment of a curbside recycling program, helped organize a farmers' market and holds regular forums on health, environmental and sustainability issues. It was very active in fighting the now-suspended Bluegrass Pipeline project, which would have carried natural-gas liquids through Kentucky and Ohio.

Department of Transportation still requires oil train disclosures, but requirements vary by state

The Department of Transportation said May 1 it would phase out the temporary rules requiring public disclosure of information about trains transporting crude oil, but now the rules will remain in effect, Jacob Donnelly reports for Reporters Committee.

Media outlets have been reporting about how often trains carrying large volumes of crude oil travel through particular areas and have been questioning states' rail safety. The number of oil train spills has increased from an average of 25 each year from 1975 to 2012 to 141 in 2014. Railroads had been trying to convince the Department of Transportation to get rid of the rules, but it reinstated the rules after eight senators sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

"That was largely in response to emergency responders and their concerns about not having information," said Mollio Matteson, a senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity. Although the Federal Railroad Administration wrote that it "finds no basis to conclude that the public discloser of the information is detrimental to transportation safety," national security rhetoric has been used to prevent the public from accessing all the information, Donnelly reports.

Once the temporary rules were issues on May 7, 2014, the Department of Transportation requested that states sign confidentiality agreements "not to disclose the information its state emergency response commissions obtain from the railroads," Donnelly writes. "This data is intended for persons with need-to-know," the department wrote. "DOT expects the SERCs to treat this data as confidential. . . . Accordingly, railroads may require confidentiality agreements prior to providing this information."

Not all of the states were in agreement. Oklahoma, Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey and California agreed to sign, but Wisconsin, Montana, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington have refused to sign, some citing freedom of information laws as the reason.

The National Transportation Safety Board highlighted benefits of informing the public. "Having an informed public along rail routes could supplement a carrier's safety measures and help reduce the consequences of emergencies involving hazardous materials," the NTSB wrote in September. "Classifying routing information about hazardous materials as 'security sensitive' would unreasonably restrict the public's access to information that is important to its safety." (Read more)

Monday, June 08, 2015

Schools, local police using cameras to crack down on motorists illegally passing school buses

School districts and local law enforcement across the country are teaming up to use technology to catch motorists illegally passing school buses, an issue that is particularly bad in rural areas where roads are more dangerous and pedestrians are more exposed to be struck by a vehicle. (National Coalition for Safer Roads photo: A camera equipped to a school bus)

The Bartow County School System in northwestern Georgia, which has mounted a driver's side camera on 17 school buses, issued 853 tickets for illegally passing a school bus during the 2014-15 school year, up from 574 tickets in 2013-14, Donna Harris reports for The Daily Tribune News in Cartersville. Drivers face a $300 fine for the first offense, $750 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third offense within five years.

Transportation Director Jody Elrod said the tickets are sending a message to drivers to obey the laws around school buses, Harris writes. Elrod told her, “I believe [the program is] making a difference. I have spoken with several folks that have received tickets, and they all say it won’t happen again, and they certainly will use more caution when approaching a school bus that is loading/unloading students. Stopping the violations and, therefore, making the bus stops safe is the goal we are looking to achieve.”

A similar program has been launched in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Keith Vititoe, director of security at Kanawha County Schools, said a survey in April showed that 90 motorists passed a school bus in one day in Kanawha County, Wade Livingston reports for the Charleston Gazette. Vititoe told him, "That’s just one county. You consider that with every district in the state; it’s a pretty pervasive problem.”

The district is hoping to team up with local law enforcement to cut down on violations, Livingston writes. Vititoe told him, "I understand that law enforcement doesn’t have the time to run around and do a full investigation of every traffic violation. It’s just not possible. But if we are in a position to provide basically everything to them on a silver platter, then that would decrease the investigation time. And, hopefully, we’ll have more charges filed—and more convictions.”

Studies estimate that 50,000 drivers in New York illegally pass school buses ever day, reports WNYT in Albany. On April 16 the state had an initiative to ticket motorists illegally passing school buses and gave out 1,186 citations. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, which includes rural and urban centers, 12,000 citations were written this year through May, Aungelique Proctor reports for Fox 5 in Atlanta.

Coalition trying to keep mentally ill out of jails; health reform could be the key

Between 20 to 80 percent of inmates in U.S. jails are mentally ill, and about two million adults with mental illness are jailed each year, mostly because there is nowhere else to put the patients. The nation's number of psychiatric beds has decreased from 550,000 in 1960 to 40,000 today, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "In many places, police, judges and elected officials increasingly are pointing out that a high proportion of people in jail are mentally ill and that in many cases, they shouldn’t be there."

Studies say mentally ill "tend to stay in jail longer than those without mental illnesses, return to jail more often and cost local jurisdictions more money while incarcerated," Ollove writes. "More frequently than not, they are jailed for minor offenses, such as trespassing, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace or illicit drug use."

A coalition of groups is trying to keep the mentally ill from being incarcerated and get them the help they need, Ollove writes. Earlier this month, "the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the American Psychiatric Foundation and the National Association of Counties kicked off a national campaign to encourage local jurisdictions to collect data on the jailed mentally ill and adopt strategies to avoid incarceration. In February, the MacArthur Foundation announced it would send a total of $75 million to jurisdictions interested in reducing unnecessary incarceration of people, including the mentally ill."

States cut back mental health spending by a total of $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012, "according to an often-cited study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors," Ollove writes. "Many are hopeful that the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which extends health benefits to poor, single adults, will enable many to get mental health treatment and avoid the crises that previously landed them in jails. But 21 states have so far resisted expansion."

"For now, many jails across the country hold more mentally ill people than hospitals do," Ollove writes. That has led jail administration to be one of the highest costs for local governments because "the mentally ill often require more medical services and surveillance than other inmates." (Read more)

Lobbyists turning attention to state legislators, especially ones representing smaller districts

Lobbyists have been increasingly focusing on local politicians, especially those from smaller districts, Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post. "A Washington Post review of lobbying spending in states shows professional advocates reported spending at least $2.2 billion on activity aimed at influencing state legislators in 28 states where data was available during the 2013-2014 biennium—with virtually every state seeing dramatic growth over the last decade."

Total spending on federal lobbying activities has fallen from $3.52 billion in 2010 to $3.24 billion in 2014, says the Center for Responsive Politics, Wilson writes. Frank McNulty, a former Republican speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who retired from office earlier this year, told Wilson, “When nothing’s happening in Washington, D.C., it’s happening in the states. You tend to see all these public policy issues work their way down to the state level because, whether it’s an environmental organization or a Fortune 500 company, they’re still going to try to move their agenda.”

While numbers are not available in every state, "lobbying spending has more than doubled over the last ten years in North Carolina, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Ohio," Wilson writes. "Spending in at least six states—Florida, Minnesota and Washington, New Jersey, New York and California—topped $100 million between 2013 and 2014. Lobbying spending topped $50 million in Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and Maryland over the same period." (Post graphic)
"The spending totals also don’t include an explosion in spending by outside groups on legislative elections," Wilson writes. "Lobbyists and watchdogs say a confluence of events are to blame—or credit—with the industry’s growth: the recent gridlock in Washington comes at the same time states are deciding on a host of contentious issues, from energy regulation to health care and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Decisions on those issues, which are in the hands of state lawmakers, stand to make one industry a lot of money, at the expense of others."

"At the same time, term limit laws in a number of states have forced an unprecedented amount of turnover in recent years, spreading legislative power and forcing lobbyists to get to know, and influence, new faces," Wilson writes. "Big Republican gains in the 2010 and 2014 elections contributed to the turnover."

All the spending is not sitting well with watchdog groups, who "say state ethics laws have not kept up to date with the explosion in new spending," Wilson writes. "While most states make lobbying activity reports available online, some do not, and even some that do are not listed by subject area or sponsor. For practical purposes, that means citizens in many states would not be able to find just who is lobbying in support of or opposition to any given measure without combing through thousands of records. And even the agencies themselves are often reluctant, unwilling or not empowered to take action against lobbyists who run afoul of state rules." (Read more)

Exposure to low levels of air pollution can increase mortality rates, study says

Exposure to low levels of air pollution can increase mortality rates, says a study by researchers published in Environmental Health Perspectives. "The Environmental Protection Agency rates air pollution based on concentrations of particles smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5," Nicholas Bakalar reports for The New York Times. "It generally regards as safe an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air or 35 micrograms per cubic meter over a one-day period."

The study, which tracked short-term and long-term air pollution exposure of 550,000 Medicare recipients 65 and older in New England from 2003 to 2008, found that "each 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in PM2.5 was associated with a 2.14 percent increase in death rate over a two-day period and a 7.52 percent increase over a year," Bakalar writes. "Even in rural areas like northern Maine where the EPA standard was consistently met, the results were similar. For each 10 microgram increase, there was a 2.14 percent higher death rate short-term and 9.28 percent higher over a full year."

Rural West Virginia grocery stores struggling to remain open; Walmart to blame for closures

Rural Appalachian grocery stores are struggling to remain open, especially in areas where Walmart has expanded, Jake Jarvis reports for the Charleston Gazette. Researchers from Iowa State University say that 10 years ago it took a customer base of 3,252 to keep a local grocery store open, compared to 15 years ago when the number was 2,843. One reason is that in rural areas where Walmart has opened, growth of local grocery stores has decreased by 17 percent.

That is leading to food deserts in towns like Richwood, W.Va., where 19.2 percent of the population lives in poverty, and residents either have to travel out of town to buy groceries or shop at dollar stores or convenience stores, Jarvis writes.

Grocery store owner and state senator Doug Facemire said he closed Richwood Foodland because the store didn't have enough customers to justify remaining open, Jarvis writes. Facemire said "one of the biggest problems he sees facing the Mountain State’s grocery industry is a lack of wholesale grocers. A wholesaler in Milton used to supply the products for all of Facemire’s stores," but he now gets everything shipped from Pennsylvania. Facemire, who claims Richwood residents are more interested in shopping at Walmart than locally, told Jarvis, “I understand that they’re upset, but these people in small towns just want a local store when it’s handy.”

But many Richwood residents lack the transportation to drive out of town to buy groceries, which forces people to only shop within walking distance, Jarvis writes. But if people can get to Walmart, they do, as evidenced by the fact that there are 39 Walmart Supercenters in West Virginia, making it the largest private employer in the state. (Read more)