Friday, August 07, 2015

Cheaper market for natural gas, not Obama or environmentalists, displacing coal industry

Coal advocates can blame President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency for the downfall of coal, but the real culprit has been the market, where the rise of cheap alternative fuels like natural gas "have accomplished in just a few years what environmentalists and social advocates have struggled for decades to achieve," James B. Stewart reports for The New York Times.

Jorge Beristain, head of Americas metals and mining equity research for Deutsche Bank, told Stewart, “It’s kind of the ultimate irony that market forces, and not the administration or environmentalists, have displaced coal. It’s human ingenuity that found a cheaper, cleaner way to skin the cat, which is by producing natural gas from fracking. They’re both fossil fuels, of course, but burning natural gas puts out a lot less carbon than coal.”

Coal prices "have plunged about 70 percent in the last four years," and the number of underground and surface coal miners in the U.S. "dropped more than 10 percent, to just over 80,000 workers," Stewart writes. "There are now more than twice as many workers in the fast-growing solar power industry than there are coal miners." 

"Mountaintop removal, the poster child for environmental destruction, has all but ground to a halt as coal companies continue to close mines, lay off workers and slash capital spending on expensive new mining operations," Stewart writes. "Meantime, natural gas production has soared, and electric utilities have built up gas-fired generation to replace aging coal-fired power plants."

The coal industry isn't exactly dead, Stewart writes. In 2013, the U.S. "produced 985 million tons of coal, although it was the first time in 20 years that production fell below one billion tons. The U.S. consumed 924 million tons, 93 percent of it accounted for by the electric power industry, according to government statistics. In 2011, the U.S. consumed 1.1 billion tons."

Jeff Goodell, author of the 2006 book “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future," told Stewart, “In the aftermath of the Bush-Cheney administration, there was this resurgence of the idea that coal was the American rock. America’s industrial strength was built on burning coal. No politician wanted to mess with coal.”

But with the shrinking of the industry, coal interests “are losing their clout, and they’re not going to get it back,” Goodell said. He told Stewart, “It’s becoming clear where the future is going. The politically smart thing is to jump on the renewables bandwagon." (Read more)

Phone therapy helps older rural underserved adults suffering from anxiety, study says

Phone therapy benefits older adults in rural areas where access to treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is limited, says a study by Wake Forest University researchers published in Jama Psychiatry. The study, which examined 141 rural North Carolina adults 60 and older with a principal or coprincipal diagnosis of GAD, found that after four months there was a significant decline in GAD symptoms, depressive symptoms and worry severity but no significant difference in general anxiety symptoms.

The phone option is important "because seniors often have increased need for treatment as they cope with the effects of disease and the emotional tolls of aging and loss," Lisa Gillespie reports for Kaiser Health News. Eric Lenze, a psychiatrist and professor at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told her, “Almost all older adults have one chronic medical condition, and most of these have been found to be significantly associated with anxiety disorder."

"Many seniors could face barriers getting that therapy because Medicare has stringent requirements for eligibility for these kinds of phone therapies, according to Lenze," Gillespie writes. In an editorial accompanying the study, "Lenze argued that phone therapy is a good alternative to drugs that are often prescribed for anxiety and depression but can make seniors sleepy and disoriented and lead to injuries."

He told Gillespie, “This demonstrates that [therapy] is just as effective as in-person psychotherapy, and reimbursing for it would be a way to increase the reach of mental health care that in a concrete way would allow someone to get treatment for actual problems, not just medicating and ending up in the emergency room with a hip fracture." (Read more)

State parks trying to get youth to put down their cell phones and explore the outdoors

Concerned that too many young Americans are too connected to technology and too disconnected from nature, state parks have begun initiating programs to attempt to get youth interested in the outdoors, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline. "States such as Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico and North Carolina are sponsoring camping trips, running conservation programs or organizing outdoor classrooms where students can learn about wildlife and ecology." (Bergal photo: teens remove invasive species from trees at Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland)

"Thirteen governors have hosted campouts for youngsters and their families this summer in state or municipal parks or on the grounds of the statehouse or governor’s residence, as part of Capital Campouts, a joint public-private program," Bergal writes. "The goal is twofold: to encourage youth to be more active at a time childhood obesity rates are climbing and to build younger Americans’ appreciation for nature, making it more likely they will support the parks and conservation for decades to come."

Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors, told Bergal, "Young people need to have a healthy lifestyle and truly experience the nature of the world and not some virtual reality through a gaming device. Smelling the fresh air, understanding the stars at night, knowing about the life cycles of ecology—this is important for the stewardship of future generations and is vital in conserving and protecting our natural resources.”

There are more than 5,000 state parks in the U.S., accounting for 221,000 campsites and 8,000 cabins, Bergal writes. More than 700 million people visit state parks each year—two-thirds bring children—but parks officials "say children who grow up in households that don’t visit parks as a family tradition are less likely to visit parks as adults."

Nita Settina, superintendent for the Maryland Park Service, told Bergal, “If our future leaders have no relationship to nature, no understanding of how clean air and clean water are produced and what a healthy environment is, they won’t have the knowledge, nor will they care about, doing anything about the stewardship of the earth. That’s why we need to provide children with adventures and fun—so they become park visitors and will someday expose their children to those places.” (Read more)

Interactive map details state-level data about EPA's Clean Power Plan

Environment & Energy Publishing has created a handy interactive map, the Power Plan Hub, that details the final emission rates for each state under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Clicking on each state reveals information such as that state's plan, fact sheets on legal challenges, grid reliability concerns, responses from state officials and links to relevant stories. For an interactive version, click here.

Sheriff threatens to arrest reporter for trying to attend news conference he claims was for TV only

The sheriff in Benton County, Arkansas, last week threatened to arrest a print journalist for attempting to attend a news conference the sheriff claimed was for television media only, Doug Thompson reports for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Gazette reporter Tracy Neal, who had just finished an interview with Benton County Sheriff Kelley Cradduck, found out that a news conference was scheduled to begin where Cradduck planned to announce he was seeking federal grants to buy body cameras for deputies. (Gazette photo by Jason Ivester: Benton County Sheriff Kelley Cradduck speaking at the news conference Aug. 1)

When Neal said he would stay for the new conference, "Cradduck objected, saying it was just for television stations, according to accounts by both," Thompson writes. Neal told Thompson, "I told the sheriff that he was having a press conference in a public building and I should be allowed to attend." Neal said Cradduck threatened to arrest him, and he was told not to enter the news conference.

Cradduck, who claimed the television stations called the news conference—a fact disputed by representatives from one of the attending stations—said he "didn't threaten to arrest Neal until after he had told Neal numerous times he wasn't allowed to attend," Thompson writes. He told Thompson, "He doesn't have the right to ignore me . . . [Neal] was breaking the rules in a building built on rules. He cannot disobey me in that building." By the end of the exchange, witnesses said Cradduck told Neal, "Tracy, get your ass out of here! Now!"

When Cradduck realized a photographer from the Gazette had already been admitted to the news conference, he relented, letting Neal stay, Thompson writes. Cradduck told Thompson that he thought the journalists were from different papers, and if more than one paper received notice of the news conference, then it must have not been just for television media. (Read more)

The Crooked Road links rural music communities in Virginia, generated $13M in 2008

The Crooked Road, a driving trail that runs 333 miles from the Blue Ridge to the Cumberland Mountains, connects music venues in Southwest Virginia and keeps the music alive, as well as providing a needed ecopnomic boost, Desire Moses reports for NPR. map of The Crooked Road. The orange line represents The Road.
Appalachian Virginia's poverty rate was three percent higher than the national average in 2013. The region relied on lumber and coal, said Stewart Scales, an Appalachian Geography teacher at Virginia Tech. "With the companies leaving the mines, they're also leaving the area in general, so that's leaving people without jobs," Scales said. "The big question is, what happens next?"

Woody Crenshaw, who used to own one of the main stops along The Crooked Road, said, "We really saw that the music was this huge, untapped and unappreciated asset." The music is called "old-time," "early country" or bluegrass.

Musicologist Joe Wilson and Todd Christensen of the Virginia Department of Housing came up with the idea for The Crooked Road in 2003. "There probably not a month that goes by when someone doesn't stop in our office and says, 'We're following The Crooked Road,'" said Leah Ross, executive director of Bristol's Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a stop along the road.

A 2008 study showed that The Crooked Road's economic impact brought in $13 million just that year. Floyd resident Woody Crenshaw said, "A lot of communities which felt like they just didn't have the assets, didn't have the opportunities, didn't have a direction, I think The Crooked Road has offered some hope. I really do." (Read more)

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Windstream gets $175M to bring broadband to more than 800,000 rural customers in 17 states

Windstream "has accepted $174,895,478 in annual, ongoing support from the Connect America Fund to expand and support broadband for over 800,000 of its rural customers in 17 states," the Federal Communications Commission reported on Wednesday.

"The Connect America Fund support will enable Windstream to deliver broadband at speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps uploads to over 404,000 homes and businesses in its rural service areas nationwide where the cost of broadband deployment might otherwise be prohibitive." However, the FCC recently redefined high-speed broadband download as 25 Mbps, something the press release did not note.

States that will benefit are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas. The largest statewide total, $28,867,807, goes to Iowa to support 44,930 homes.

"Under the rules for Connect America Fund Phase II, state-by-state support levels were generated using a new FCC cost model," Andrew Berg reports for Wireless Week. "Companies may accept the funding and related service obligations for its service area in each state. If a company declines an offer for a state, funding will be subject to a competitive process in which any eligible provider can bid to serve all or part of the area. Windstream has declined the statewide offer for New Mexico."

Sixteen states ask for Clean Power Plan rules to be suspended while they pursue legal options

Sixteen states have sent a letter to Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy requesting that the agency temporarily suspend Clean Power Plan rules while the states challenge their legality in court, Josh Lederman reports for The Associated Press. The 16 states are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The campaign is being led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Carrie Hodousek reports for MetroNews in Charleston, W.Va. Morrisey wrote in a statement: “This request is a necessary first step and prerequisite to confronting this illegal power grab. These regulations, if allowed to proceed, will do serious harm to West Virginia and the U.S. economy, and that is why we are taking quick action to bring this process to a halt.”

The stay request states: “Absent an immediate stay, the Section 111(d) Rule will coerce the States to expend enormous public resources and to put aside sovereign priorities to prepare State Plans of unprecedented scope and complexity. In addition, the States’ citizens will be forced to pay higher energy bills as power plants shut down. In the end, the courts are likely to conclude that the Section 111(d) Rule is unlawful. At the very minimum, the States and their citizens should not be forced to suffer these serious harms until the courts have had an opportunity to review the Rule’s legality.”

Idaho ends controversial wolf kill program

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced on Wednesday that it will not reinstate a controversial kill program from 2013 that involved the state's hiring a hunter to trap and kill wolves in a national wilderness area, Laura Zuckerman reports for Reuters. The hunter was hired after sportsmen complained that wolves were killing prized elk herds in the federally protected Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. (Idaho Public Television map)

"The state agency last year suspended the program after the hired hunter trapped and killed nine wolves and as conservation groups, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, filed suit in federal court alleging the wolf roundup violated principles of limiting human intervention in national wilderness areas," Zuckerman writes. "The state had wanted to cut by 60 percent the number of wolves in a protected river corridor in the 2.4 million-acre wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service." (Read more)

Researchers using genetic modification to try to revive American chestnut trees

Researchers in the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project at State University of New York-Syracuse who have created genetically modified chestnut trees are hoping to help revive the tree that has been mostly wiped out by a fungus, Jill Neimark reports for NPR. "Researchers have bequeathed the chestnut a highly protective gene that bananas, cocoa, wheat and barley have already evolved on their own. So far the transgenic seedlings are proving to be at least as resistant to blight as the hybrid or Chinese chestnuts currently under cultivation in the U.S." (SUNY photo: Linda McGuigan examines a batch of transgenic American chestnut plantlets in a high-light chamber)

Other groups who have worked to revive the tree have been slowed "by the fact that a panoply of seven genes protects the Asian tree, and all must transfer," Neimark writes. "Some chestnuts also only tend to succumb to blight after five or ten years, so the foundation must grow the latest generation of trees—which are only 1/16th Chinese—for at least a decade before they can feel confident enough to release seeds to the public."

At SUNY, "scientists transplanted a gene that wheat, barley, cocoa and some fruits already use to protect themselves against fungus," Neimark writes. "The gene makes an enzyme to degrade an acid produced by the fungus, rendering the fungus harmless. Using special laboratory techniques, the scientists transplanted this gene into chestnut embryos, harvested the few cells that took up the gene and used those cells to grow a new embryo, nourishing it with all the nutrients it needs to become a 'plantlet' or seedling."

"The first generations of plantlets proved hardy but not fully immune, so the scientists replaced a genetic 'dimmer' switch inside the gene to turn it up so it would produce more enzyme," Neimark writes. "The latest generation of plantlets have proved more resistant than American chestnut seedlings and hybrid seedlings, according to SUNY forest biotechnologist Andy Newhouse. And, he says, the newer transgenic trees have a similar level of blight resistance as Chinese chestnuts."

Newhouse said they have about 1,000 plants, some two to three years old and as tall as six feet, Neimark writes. "The ultimate plan is to plant about 10,000 transgenic seedlings and grow them big enough to produce enough pollen to pollinate other 'wild' and vulnerable American chestnuts." (Read more)

Project captures history and culture of African Americans in Appalachia in early 20th century

A Brown University student working on her sociology dissertation drew from her family history to create a project that examines the culture and history of the little known story of the tens of thousands of African Americans who lived in thriving coal country in Appalachia in the early 20th century. The Eastern Kentucky African American Migration Project, created by Karida Brown, captures the stories of more than 200 African Americans who still call the region home.

Brown, who grew up in New York but whose parents were from Lynch, Ky., was interviewed this week about the project by Frank Stasio of North Carolina Public Radio. Brown, who hadn't been to Lynch in more than 10 years, told Stasio, "I went home, and I sat on my grandmother's porch, and I looked around, and all my childhood memories of this small community that meant so much to me as a child just starting flooding back, and I realized that that the town was the third the size of I remember it being when I was a child. And I said, 'This might not be here for the next generation,' and what can I do to reconstruct the history of not only this place but the people that once made it so beautiful."

Brown's goal was "to create a community archive, from the ground up, through the personal donations of African Americans who share a social heritage with the Appalachian region; to contribute to the proliferation of public knowledge by providing access to the materials donated to the archive; and to create an opportunity for interdisciplinary research collaborations amongst graduate students and faculty in the social sciences and humanities." An exhibit, "Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia," is currently on display at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. To listen to the radio interview, click here.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Rural does not always equal Republican; recreation areas more likely to favor Dems than farming areas

Rural America leans more to the left than previously thought, says a study by researchers in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire published in ScienceDirect. Researchers found that "Republican presidential candidates do best in rural counties dominated by farming while Democratic presidential candidates do well in rural counties dominated by recreation," says a press release from the UNH. (UNH map: percent of rural recreation votes for President Obama in 2012)
The study found that President Obama received 31 and 26 percent of the vote in rural farming areas, but in rural recreational areas, Obama received 46 and 42 percent of the vote. Those numbers are significant because rural recreation areas are more heavily populated and are growing faster in population than farming areas. Overall, the 403 rural farming counties consist of 3 million residents, while the 289 rural recreational counties consist of 8.2 million residents, with recreation areas "among the fastest growing parts of rural America with a population gain of 34 percent in the last two decades." (UNH map: Percent of rural farm votes for President Obama in 2012)
Recreational areas are expected to keep growing in population, "as the Baby Boom retires over the next two decades," says the press release. "Not all of rural America is dominated by farming and recreation, nor is all farming and recreational activity limited to these county types; both exist to a greater or lesser extent in many of the other 1,361 rural counties that contain 39.7 million residents. Here support for Republicans is greater than in recreation counties but less than in farm counties."

Chinese manufacturing companies flocking to the U.S. South, where it's cheaper to produce goods

Southern states that lost manufacturing jobs to China are now seeing an influx of Asian manufacturing companies moving to the South, where it has become more cost effective to produce goods, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. "Keer Group, a Chinese yarn-maker, is investing $218 million in a factory in South Carolina. Another Chinese manufacturer, JN Fibers, is investing $45 million in the state. And Indian company called ShriVallabh Pittie is investing $70 million in a yarn-spinning plant in nearby Sylvania, Ga."

An index created by Boston Consulting found that "in 2004, a good that could be made for a dollar in the U.S. could be manufactured in China for 86.5 cents. One decade later, that $1 product in the U.S. would cost 95.6 cents to make in China," Swanson writes.

"The narrowing of the gap has a little to do with what's happening in America and more to do with what's happening in China," Swanson writes. U.S. workers in 2014 made an average of $22.32 an hour, compared to $12.47 in China. "But other attributes of doing business in America make up the difference in cost. For example, state and local governments offer ample tax breaks and subsidies to companies that set up shop in their jurisdictions. America’s natural gas boom has also lowered the cost of electricity, attracting energy-intensive manufacturing industries." (Post graphic: U.S. jobs from majority-owned Chinese companies)
"Overcoming trade barriers and taking advantage of free trade agreements can also make a big difference: for example, yarn manufacturers might set up shop in the U.S. to take advantage of agreements with Mexico and Central America, whose factories transform the yarn into fabric and clothes that are shipped back to American consumers," Swanson writes. "And U.S. workers are relatively educated and productive, making them especially suited to advanced manufacturing, like auto parts and consumer electronics. All in all, the U.S. is now one of the lowest-cost locations for manufacturing in the developed world."

Another factor is that "as China's economy has developed, wages have risen, and so have the costs of land, energy and other raw materials," Swanson writes. From 2004 to 2014, Chinese manufacturing wages rose 187 percent, industrial electricity costs grew 66 percent and natural gas increased by 138 percent. During that same time period in the U.S., wages rose 27 percent, while natural gas costs fell by 25 percent.

"And because the industries that are returning to the U.S. are heavily automated, they won't provide anywhere near the number of jobs that manufacturing facilities did in past decades," Swanson writes. "The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that the U.S. trade deficit in goods with China eliminated or displaced 3.2 million American jobs between 2001 and 2013, three-fourths of which were in manufacturing. And that's not to mention the millions of manufacturing jobs that were lost to automation and offshoring in the decades before that." (Read more)

Federal agencies, farmers focused on preventing harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie

Federal agencies and farmers are working hard to prevent an algae growth disaster like the one that occurred at this time last year in Lake Erie that caused the city of Toledo to lose its drinking water for two days, reports Agri-Pulse. The Environmental Protection Agency "has teamed up with three federal agencies to improve monitoring of algal bloom growth," and the U.S. Department of Agriculture "has granted hundreds of millions of dollars to conservation initiatives across Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Additionally, farm organizations within the Western Lake Erie Basin have worked tirelessly to prevent nutrients from leaving farms and feeding blooms." (NOAA photo: Algae coats the surface and gathers along the coastline of western Lake Erie each summer)

"City of Toledo officials confirmed last week that microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria present in some algal blooms, was detected in a Lake Erie intake crib three miles away from the city," reports Agri-Pulse. "This year’s bloom is shaping up to be similar in size to last year’s—National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration expects it to peak in September and measure an '8.7' on its severity scale, a number notably higher than 2014’s 6.5 rating and unnervingly close to 2011’s index high of 10. Fortunately, most stakeholders say that the city is better positioned to manage the bloom this year."

"To start, new sensors at an intake crib are operating 24 hours a day and taking measurements every 10 minutes," Agiri-Pulse reports. "Water samples will be taken at the treatment plant, and up to four times the amount of chemicals used last year will be ready for deployment when needed. The city will also have access to an early warning detection system developed by EPA, NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey that will help water quality managers spot cyanobacteria algal blooms with satellite imagery. The partner agencies intend to develop a mobile app that can be utilized by water quality managers on the ground, allowing for more frequent observations over more areas than in the past."

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, director of the Western Lake Erie Basin Project at The Nature Conservancy, said, “'In the next three years, I want to see us reversing the trend' in algal bloom size," Agri-Pulse reports. She said "if ag conservation initiatives like Lake Erie’s continue to grow in strength and breadth, 'I think we’ve won, we’ve been able to turn the tides, and we’ll be able to—whatever weather patterns we have—we’ll be able to attack any natural resources issue.'” Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Federal judge rules that 2014 Idaho ag-gag law is unconstitutional

A federal judge on Monday ruled that Idaho’s ag-gag law violates the First Amendment, Kimberlee Krueski reports for The Associated Press. U.S. Judge Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill said "banning secret filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional, giving animal rights activists across the country hope that the decision will pave the way to overturn similar laws in other states. The ruling is the first in the country to deem an anti-dairy spying law unconstitutional, said Mathew Liebman of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, one of the lead attorneys on the Idaho case."

Winmill wrote: “Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message, and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistleblower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored. Prohibiting undercover investigators or whistleblowers from recording an agricultural facility’s operations inevitably suppresses a key type of speech because it limits the information that might later be published or broadcast.”

Idaho's ag-gag law, passed in April 2014 "after the state’s $2.5 billion dairy industry complained that videos of cows being abused at a southern Idaho dairy filmed in 2012 unfairly hurt their business," states that a first offense of undercover filming of agricultural operations could result in six months in jail and a $5,000 fine, Krueski writes. A second conviction within 10 years of the first one could result in up to nine months in jail and a $7,000 fine. (Read more)

Oregon weekly could be yours for a fully restored old pickup and access to a good oral surgeon

If you have a fully restored old pickup, a mid-’70s Volkswagen or an ’80s Toyota you want to get off your hands, and access to a good oral surgeon, The Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, Ore., could be yours. According to an ad placed placed on Aug. 2 on, the owner of the paper, Rick Nelson, is asking for $26,000 or a vehicle/dental implant trade for the 105-year-old newspaper with a circulation of 1,300.

Nelson says on the newspaper website—where the asking price is listed at $90,000—that he's retired and living in Tacoma, Wash., where he puts out the newspaper along with freelancers and part-time workers. Now that his wife is retiring, he said he wants to travel. Nelson writes, "So I want the paper to go to a hands-on mom and/or pop. They won’t get rich off The Enterprise, but they could make a good living. I’ve profited every year from owning the paper, even though I’ve been paying many thousands of dollars for part-timers and free-lancers—money I wouldn’t have spent if I lived there and did more of the work." (Read more)

Free webinars to offer safety guidelines for young agricultural employees working with grain

AgriSafe Network on Aug. 11 will host the first of two free webinars designed to introduce safety measures for young agricultural workers in the grain industry and educate workers, parents and employers about job safety and hazards. "Stand T.A.L.L." will include instructional materials to help young workers understand what they will need to know about the job, while encouraging them to ask questions if they don’t understand a job task or are uncomfortable performing it.

The Aug. 11 webinar will take place from 10 to 11 a.m. (EDT), with a second webinar scheduled from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 14. The Aug. 11 webinar will "describe hazards commonly seen in the agricultural worksite, introduce the 'Stand T.A.L.L.' materials and explain how and when they may be used to educate young workers, parents and employers." The Sept. 14 webinar will "explore the various components of the curriculum, including PowerPoint presentations, activities, lesson plans, student note pages, handouts, quizzes and more." For more information or to register, click here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Young weekly editor bullish on rural journalism

Whitehouse attended the annual
conference of the International
Society of Weekly Newspaper
 this summer.
A 25-year-old journalist in Central Kentucky is preaching the power of the local press to anyone who will listen. Abigail Whitehouse, "a young editor and a purist, understands the blurred lines between professional journalism and the news one finds on the Internet and on social media sites, especially on Facebook," reports Teri Saylor for Publisher's Auxiliary, the monthly publication of the National Newspaper Association website. "She’s trying to set her peers straight, even if she has to do it one at a time."

Whitehouse recently became editor of The Interior Journal, a 3,416-circulation weekly newspaper in Stanford, Ky., owned by Schurz Communications. She told Saylor, "I’ve already trained all my friends. I have told them if they talk to me about an article they have read on Buzzfeed, they are going to get smacked. ... I use Facebook as much as possible. I use it to post traffic alerts and breaking news to keep readers informed. It can direct people to our website and to our print edition."

A 2012 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, Whitehouse worked on the school paper, The Eastern Progress, Saylor writes. After graduating with a degree in English, she took a job at the Franklin Favorite, located near the Kentucky/Tennessee state line. She also worked at the Casey County News, before taking the job in April at The Interior Journal in her home county.

"Whitehouse, who recently received the prestigious Hazel Brannon Smith scholarship from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors Foundation, knows her natural career progression might include larger daily newspapers, but so far, she’s not looking in that direction," Saylor writes. Whitehouse told Saylor, “I love the pace of the weekly newspaper. You get to expand stories further than you would at a daily where it is go, go, go. ... Weeklies are crucial to their communities. People always want local elements in the news.”

Whitehouse "sees herself staying in community journalism for the long haul," Saylor writes. Whitehouse told her, “I love what I am doing, and I love that I am here." (Read more)

Rural hospitals in Ala., Okla. struggle to remain open; Neb. also feels lack of expanded Medicaid

Rural hospitals in Alabama and Oklahoma are in critical condition. In Alabama eight rural hospitals have closed "over the last 15 years and more closures are possible as rural hospitals struggle to stay open," reports Mackenzie Bates for Alabama Public Radio. In Oklahoma about 56 percent "of rural hospitals operated at a financial loss between 2009 and 2013," Randy Ellis reports for The Oklahoman.

Voters in Randolph County, Alabama, will go to the polls today "on a proposed one-cent sales tax" to try to keep open Wedowee Hospital, which has 34 beds and a 24-hour emergency room, Bates writes. "The money will be used to support a bond issue to build a new facility that administrators hope will attract more patients." (Best Places map: Wedowee, Ala.)

Seven rural Oklahoma hospitals have been involved in bankruptcy since 2011, Ellis writes. Hospital consultant Val Schott told Ellis, "I would say probably 70 [percent to] 75 percent of the hospitals in rural Oklahoma are having some kind of financial struggle."

"Schott estimated a dozen or so are in serious trouble, with less than 10 days cash on hand to pay operational expenses," Ellis writes. Nationwide, more than 50 hospitals have closed since 2010 and "another 250 or so are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy or failure," Schott said. (Read more)

In Nebraska, rural hospitals "are seeing the effects of the state opting not to take the Medicaid expansion" offered under federal health reform, Irene North reports for the Scottsbluff Star Herald. "Without expansion, rural hospitals have reduced their charitable care and increased their bad debt from patients who have been unable to pay their bills.

“The unfortunate thing is when they put that whole thing together, they anticipated expansion would be taken by everyone,” Dan Griess, CEO of Box Butte General Hospital, told North, whose story is a comprehensive explainer.

Alpha Natural Resources, second largest U.S. coal company, files for bankruptcy

On the same day that the Environmental Protection Agency issued a new version of its Clean Power Plan, the second largest U.S. coal company filed for bankruptcy. Alpha Natural Resources, which "has lost almost all its market value since 2011, when it bought Massey Energy Co. for about $7 billion" on Monday filed for bankruptcy in Virginia, Linda Sandler, Tim Loh, Jodi Xu Klein and Laura Keller report for Bloomberg.

Kevin Critchfield, chairman and chief executive officer of Alpha, said in a court filing, “The fall has been precipitous and the effect on the debtors has been extreme,” Bloomberg reports. “The CEO predicted continuing failures of major companies in the industry as a result of collapsing demand and pricing, plus a 'burdensome regulatory environment.'”

"Alpha didn’t give data on future closings, saying only that it wouldn’t immediately sell any mines," reports Bloomberg. "The company has about 8,000 employees, down 45 percent from a spike after the Massey purchase. It listed assets of $9.97 billion and total liabilities of $7.3 billion as of June 30." (Click on image for larger version)
"Research firm SNL Energy says more than three dozen coal operations have been forced into bankruptcy in just over three years," Bloomberg reports. "Most have been small, but some of the biggest firms have also succumbed, including Walter Energy Inc., Patriot Coal Corp. and James River Coal Co.—Patriot and James River for the second time. The combined market value of U.S. coal company shares shrank to about $12 billion in late July from $78 billion in 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg." (Read more)

Coal back at No. 1 for electric generation in May

It didn't take long for coal to get back on top as the nation's top source of electricity. In April, natural gas surpassed coal for the first time—powering 31 percent of electricity, compared to 30 percent for coal—but as predicted, coal reclaimed the top spot in May, powering 33 percent, compared to 31 percent from natural gas, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg.

"Still, coal-fired power generation was down 12 percent from a year ago, while gas was up 14 percent," Loh writes. "Net generation from all energy sources was down 0.7 percent from the prior year. Also in May, renewable sources excluding hydroelectric power surged 9.4 percent from year earlier. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources accounted for 8.2 percent of net generation. Wind gained 9.9 percent to account for 5.3 percent of all electricity, the Energy Information Administration said." (Read more) (Bloomberg graphic: Coal and natural gas rates)

Brothers turn parody videos into pitch for farming

A series of agricultural-themed song parody videos that three Kansas brothers put online became a sensation and are enabling the brothers to use their celebrity status to promote positive stereotypes about farming, especially through social media, Caitlin Ellingson reports for Iowa Farmer Today. Greg, Nathan and Kendal Peterson of Saline County, Kansas, first uploaded the videos in 2012. Three years later they have become spokesmen for an industry that sometimes is not seen in a positive light outside rural areas.

Greg told Ellingson, "Our message is to help correct the stereotypes about farmers. We believe that farmers use the best technology available, do the most they can with the resources they have. They’re trying to make the best decisions to use their land and take care of their livestock. ... Some people don’t seem to understand that. So I think our most important message is to thank farmers for what they do and just try to understand them a little bit better instead of making snap judgments.”

The Peterson brothers host tours at their farm near Assaria, Kan., to teach people "about agriculture and see the work that goes into running a farm," Ellingson writes. Greg spoke at 100 events last year and is expected to do the same this year. He told Ellingson, "We give a presentation where we just kind of tell our story—how it all went down and what we learned from that experience. When we’re talking to younger kids, it’s more of an inspirational presentation, and for older farmers it’s more informational.”

The Petersons are not alone in using social media to promote agriculture. Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, "says many farmers have jumped at the chance to speak for the industry on social media," Ellingson writes. Burns-Thompson told her, “Farmers today, even the more senior ones, are becoming incredibly tech savvy, and they are surprisingly some of our most active social media users." (YouTube video)

Greater sage grouse sightings up in 2014 and 2015; bird being considered for 'endangered' status

The population of the greater sage grouse, a threatened species, appears to be on the rebound. Yet-to-be-published research compiled by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies says that western state biologists "spotted 80,284 male sage grouse across the West in 2015, a 40 percent jump over the 57,399 that were spotted in 2014 and 63 percent over the 49,397 that were spotted in 2013," Phil Taylor reports for Greenwire.

A study published in March by the University of Idaho, commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts, found the "number of breeding male grouse fell by more than half Westwide between 2007 and 2013," Taylor writes. Those kinds of numbers led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in November 2014 to list the grouse as threatened, and the agency has until September to determine if any additional protections, such as being listed as endangered, should be added. In May, the Obama administration moved to limit petroleum drilling and other activities on some of the sage grouse's wide-ranging habitat in the American West to keep the species off the endangered list.

Despite the positive numbers in the new study, "sage grouse experts caution against drawing conclusions from the two-year spike, noting that sage grouse populations appear to fluctuate on roughly decade-long cycles and are influenced in the short term by precipitation," Taylor writes.

"Much of the recent surge was driven by Wyoming, which is home to roughly 40 percent of the grouse's rangewide population," Taylor writes. "The number of male birds counted in the Cowboy State was 18,238 in 2013, 20,050 in 2014 and 35,860 in 2015, according to state officials. Scientists checked about 1,600 leks, about 88 percent of the known occupied leks, in each of those years." Officials, who cited improved weather conditions for the increase in population, said Montana and Colorado also had significant increases in sage grouse sightings. (Read more)

Voting open in Farmers Market Celebration to promote local markets, reward top vote-getters

American Farmland Trust is holding a Farmers Market Celebration to "raise national awareness about the importance of farmers markets to family farmers and communities," says the organization. Through Sept. 23, residents are being asked to endorse their local farmers market in five best in class categories: People's Choice; Focus on Farmers; Healthy Food For All; Pillar of the Community; and Champion for the Environment. Currently, the Floyd County Farmers Market in Prestonsburg, Ky., leads in all five categories.

American Farmland Trust says on its website: "We’re looking for the cream of the crop, the best of America’s farmers markets. Your recommendation can earn national awards and recognition for your farmers market. Put your hometown on the map." To endorse a local farmers market or see the current standings click here.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Organic farmers struggle to meet demand; food makers and retailers buy land to grow their own

Organic farmer Andrew Dunham looks for ripe
eggplant on one of the biggest multi-vegetable
farms in Iowa. 
 (DMR photo by Brian Powers)
Organic produce still has less than 6 percent of the national market, but is growing so rapidly that farmers are having trouble meeting increased demand, Christoper Doering reports for The Des Moines Register.

"Shortages have led to sky-high prices for some organic products. And more livestock producers, hungry for organic feeds, are importing them from overseas because they can't find enough in the United States, Doering writes, quoting Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association: "There is not a major retailer in the country that doesn't have appealing to the organic shopper in their strategy right now. But what happens if the industry can't fulfill that opportunity, and people walk away?"

Doering reports, "Batcha said some private-sector food makers and retailers are buying land to produce their own organic produce, or are enticing producers with long-term contracts that offer to pay them extra while they transition to organic — a period that can be costly for the producer who is dealing with lower yields and higher input costs but is not yet able to attract premium prices."

The OTA predicts sales will increase 12 to 15 percent a year for the next three years, Doering writes: "Organic food sales have risen by double digits annually as the public consumes more fruits, vegetables, pastas, dairy and meats raised and grown without pesticides, genetic modification or antibiotics, among other stringent requirements. Over the past decade, organic food revenue has tripled, reaching a record $36 billion last year."

EPA issues new version of Clean Power Plan; rural electric cooperatives say it puts them in a bind

East Kentucky Power's Spurlock Station
Rural electric cooperatives, which are more dependent on coal than other types of utilities, are raising fresh concerns as the Obama administration issues its revised, final regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We’re telling our story to everybody, everyplace, everywhere in hope that someone listens so we’ve done everything we can to protect our members,” said Jim Compton, CEO and general manager of South Mississippi Electric Power, told Cathy Cash, a writer for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric generators say the regulations would force them to close plants for which they have received billions in federal loans for upgrades to meet previous environmental regulations. “We need to find solutions to help the government and electric cooperatives traverse these regulations so we can get to the financial end of these plants,” said Tony Campbell, president and CEO of East Kentucky Power Cooperative. “If we don’t, it’s going to cost the federal government money and the consumer-members money.”

But one of those consumer-members, Tona Barkley of Owenton, said through Kentuckians for the Commonwealth: “I volunteered and worked hard on an initiative with Owen Electric and other rural electric cooperative utilities to increase clean renewable energy and energy savings. That experience gave me hope that we can all work together to bring about a bright future in Kentucky. I believe the Clean Power Plan rule gives us another great opportunity to move forward quickly.”

The revised rules call for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, instead of the original 30 percent, but give states "more time and broader options to comply" with state-by-state limits still to be set by the Environmental Protection Agency, notes Josh Lederman of The Associated Press. The plan relies more on renewable energy sources, calling for them to provide 28 percent of U.S. power by 2030, up from 22 percent in the first plan, and keeps natural gas's share of electricity generation at current levels rather than increasing it.

What are the sources of our electric power? The Washington Post has a map showing the nation's electric generating stations, by size range and power source (coal is gray, gas is orange, hydroelectric is blue, wind is green, solar is gold, oil is red and nuclear is purple). Click on the image or here for a larger version.

Rural hospital in southwest Va., closed by chain, set to reopen after remarkable, multi-level effort

Sperling's Best Places map
Almost two years ago, the Wellmont chain closed the Lee County Hospital in Pennington Gap, Va., near the southwest tip of the state, "for all the wrong reasons," as local officials put it to Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times. This fall or winter, the hospital is to reopen after a remarkable effort by local, state and federal officials to make a way for it. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner told Rife, "Communities moan and give up. The folks in Lee County stood up and said, ‘We’ll fix this.’"

The story is a complicated one, well told by Rife. But the human dimension is simple. “There is no doubt that people have passed away because there was no hospital here,” Sheriff Gary Parsons told her. “We lose the golden hour in the amount of time that it takes to get them to another hospital in Big Stone or Kingsport.” And the county's economic-development efforts have suffered due to the loss of the hospital, which employed 140 peopele.

Parsons, echoing others, accused Wellmont of "double talk" in explaining why it closed the hospital. It cited reimbursement cuts associated with Obamacare, extremely low community use of the hospital and a lack of consistent physician coverage. Locals "claim the first two reasons resulted from a crisis manufactured by Wellmont managers to shift doctors and patients to other hospitals in their network," Rife reports. "Many in Lee County believe their hospital and their health were sacrificed to improve the nonprofit’s bottom line because Wellmont was searching for a merger partner."

Rife explains that when Wellmont bought the hospital in 2007, it didn't really want it, but took it in a package deal with Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Norton, where it "could go head-to-head against its regional rival, Mountain State Health Alliance and its Norton Community Hospital." Wellmont wouldn't talk about its reasons.

As it turns out, the new Lee County Hospital Authority plans to hire Mountain State to provide services. And Mountain State and Wellmont "are in negotiations to merge," Rife reports.

Streams lowered by California drought become renewed sites for gold prospecting and mining

Miners collect dirt from a mud pit next to the Bear River.
(Photo by Randy Pentch, The Sacramento Bee)
"As California’s prolonged drought dries up irrigation supplies for agriculture and forces cutbacks in urban water deliveries, it also creates opportunities for prospectors and miners panning, sluicing, chiseling and diving for gold," reports Peter Hecht of The Sacramento Bee. "Gold seekers are wading into formerly deep waterways to harvest flecks from the pea gravel and sediment in long inaccessible crevices. Diminishing flows also have been leaving gold residues, like gilded bathtub rings, amid the cobbled banks of many rivers and streams."

The increased prospecting has driven up sales of supplies and equipment. Heather Willis, manager of Pioneer Mining Supplies in Auburn, turned miner, too, at "an untapped spot on the upper Bear River. . . . In a few hours of digging and panning, she got nine grams of gold, worth about $340."

Hecht writes, "As the drought continues, some miners say diminished waterways are getting picked clean of gold. They count on another extreme weather event – namely, reports of a coming El NiƱo storm system – to provide help for the hunt. The system would replenish gold supplies by washing down mountainsides, dumping new glistening deposits into creeks and streams and invigorating the search for gold anew."