Friday, August 14, 2015

Eight simple steps for attaining or maintaining a grocery store in rural America

Studies have found that having a local grocery store is vital for the community, especially in providing jobs and healthy foods for residents. "You can’t have a thriving community without healthy, energetic people eating good food," notes the Center for Rural Affairs. "People look for a grocery store when deciding where to live, and residents will be more likely to stay in your town with a grocery store close by."

The Center for Rural Affairs offers some tips on how to survive in a town that lacks a grocery store or is struggling to maintain one. Here are the tips:
  • Get folks together. If you have the best grocery store in the world but no one shops there, it will fail. The first step to turning things around is getting leaders in your community bought in to the idea. Call a community meeting. Talk to the folks in your town who can sway others so they feel included in the idea. Be energetic and excited! (Having delicious food at the meeting doesn’t hurt.) 
  • Listen. What does your community need? Can you motivate them to be excited about a successful grocery store? Be sure to ask people at every turn what they’d like to see. What hours would be convenient? What kinds of products do people want to buy? Where should it be located? If necessary, are people willing to volunteer some time or invest money to make it happen? The more you listen, the more loyalty they will show.
  • Consider all ownership options. Many folks think a grocery store should be an independent retailer, but there are many successful models. Community-owned stores, co-operatives or school-based models are other options to consider. The Center for Rural Affairs has written a report on ownership models for grocery stores, which you can check out at 
  • Stack enterprises. Lots of businesses have similar infrastructure needs. Could your grocery store have a coffee shop, cafe, bank, post office or pharmacy attached? Are there other businesses or schools who could make use of the food distribution? More businesses using the same space and utilities equal lower costs.
  • Control energy costs. Utilities are one of the most costly parts of owning a grocery store. Consider ways to make your store more energy efficient. This can be as simple as putting doors or coverings on your coolers. Or you can get sophisticated with solar panels or a wind turbine for energy generation. I’ve seen systems that allow coolers to draw in frigid winter air from outside!
  • Best customer service. The most successful grocery stores are committed to pleasing customers. Have a prominent suggestion box and a bulletin board where people can see the questions and answers. If a product is requested, see if you can carry it, and make a big deal about the fact that you now have it. Be visible in the store and know people’s names. Smile!
  • Involve everyone! If people have invested time, money and energy into a project, they will want it to succeed. Make the store a source of community pride, and remember that a little positive peer pressure (with a smile!) can go a long way.
  • Share stories. There are many other towns doing exactly what you’re doing. Find their stories (or post your own) to find inspiration and ideas.

Debunking five myths about the coal industry

Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, co-director of the Austin Technology Incubator’s Clean Energy Incubator and an associate professor of mechanical engineering, likens the recent plight of the coal industry to that of the film character Rocky Balboa in an article for The Washington Post. Much like the embattled underdog Rocky—who lost his locker, access to the gym and struggled to make ends meet in a brutal unforgiving part of the city—coal can't catch a break. (Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett: coal mined from a Kentucky strip mine falls from a conveyor belt)

Coal—which still provides 29 percent of the world's energy—has been hit hard by the Obama Administration's Clean Power plan, "the pope’s moral pronouncements on climate change and the abundance of cheap natural gas," Webber writes. While coal advocates cite coal's value and critics the harm it causes, Webber said there are plenty of myths going around about the coal industry. Here, he hopes to debunk five of them.

Coal is dirty
While there's truth to all the images of "blighted landscapes, black lungs and smokestacks belching out toxic clouds that cause acid rain" they don't tell the whole story, Webber writes. "Starting about 150 years ago, coal performed a very important environmental service. Forests in the upper Midwest and the Northeast were being cut down rapidly as demand for firewood to heat homes and fuel factories outstripped the rate at which the trees grew back. Coal mines brought that rampant deforestation to a halt. The black rock was cheaper, hotter and more plentiful. It was also cleaner: Burning coal produces less carbon dioxide than burning wood, per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated."

Obama’s 'war on coal' is killing the mining industry
"While the Environmental Protection Agency’s smokestack emissions standards certainly aren’t helpful for coal, the rules have been around in some form for decades, and the first federal regulation to permanently cap and reduce coal plants’ mercury emissions was issued in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration," Webber writes. Cheap natural gas has been much more damaging for coal’s market share than environmental rules. . . . Any way you slice it, domestic coal producers have a tough road ahead, whether Obama is president or not."

Appalachia depends on coal, and coal depends on Appalachia
"Coal mining is not particularly lucrative for Appalachia," Webber writes. "While mine owners are often very rich, and the cheap electricity coal produces is a great economic enabler nationwide, Appalachia’s mining towns have been among the poorest in the nation. They have suffered from a lack of economic diversity, making them susceptible to coal’s boom-and-bust cycles. Coal doesn’t have the same economic hold on the Appalachian states that it used to, and Appalachia doesn’t have the same hold on coal."

Coal is unsubsidized 
"While renewable-energy tax credits are direct subsidies and therefore easy targets, the subsidies for coal are less obvious," Webber writes. "They pay to support research and development and to lower tax liabilities for coal companies. Plus, the decade-long prohibition on new natural-gas power plants beginning in 1978 effectively subsidized the construction of coal plants by removing natural gas as a competitor."

China is addicted to coal 
"Beijing is shutting down all of its major coal-fired power plants, and nearly 2,000 small coal mines are slated to be closed nationwide by the end of this year," Webber writes. "In an ironic twist, Chinese coal has even lowered the price of wind turbines and solar panels, which are produced in factories powered by cheap, coal-fired electricity. Crippling air pollution kills at least 1 million people in China prematurely each year, a dire situation that required action from government officials. Consequently, solar and wind farms have been built at a staggering rate to combat pollution, cutting into the market share for coal and leading to declining coal consumption over the past year." (Read more)

If not for Hispanic migration, rural Idaho would have lost population since end of recession

Since the end of the recession, Idaho's rural population has grown less than 1 percent—compared to 6 percent growth in urban areas—and nearly 40 percent of the state's rural residents live in counties that lost population between 2010-2014, according to a report by the McClure Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Idaho. The state's rural population would actually have declined 1 percent from 2010 to 2014 if it weren't for growth in the Hispanic population, which increased by 6 percent in rural areas during that time. By 2013, Hispanics made up 14 percent of the state's rural population.

"Most of the rural counties that are growing are located in south central Idaho where agriculture is strong and has a growing workforce and in selected counties adjacent to growing urban areas," the report states. Since 2010, rural jobs have grown by 2.6 percent, compared to 4.8 percent in urban areas. The wage gap has narrowed, with the average wage in urban areas in 2013 $5,431 more than in rural areas, down from a gap of $6,939 in 2010. Also, the per capita income gap has decreased. In 2007, the per capita income in rural Idaho was $4,329 less than in urban areas. In 2013, the gap was $515.

Major chicken supplier cited by OSHA for 55 health and safety violations

Case Farms—a leading fast-food and supermarket chicken supplier—faces a $816,500 fine for being cited Thursday for 55 health and safety violations by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. Case Farms operates seven facilities in Ohio and North Carolina, including one in Goldsboro, N.C., that was awarded the 2014 Plant of the Year by The National Provisioner in a poll voted on by readers. (National Provisioner photo: Case Farms facility in Goldsboro, N.C.)

"The citations are the result of a February inspection in which the agency found amputation hazards; non-functioning fall-arrest systems, unprotected platforms and wet work surfaces that could result in falls; lack of personal protective equipment and emergency eye wash stations; and improperly stored oxygen cylinders," Wheeler writes. Fueled by worker injuries and complaints OSHA has inspected the facilities 66 times since 1988.

OSHA assistant secretary of labor David Michaels said in a statement: “Case Farms is an outrageously dangerous place to work. In the past 25 years, Case Farms has been cited for more than 350 safety and health violations. Despite committing to OSHA that it would eliminate serious hazards, Case Farms continues to endanger the safety and health of its workers. This simply must stop.”

Case Farms, which processes 2.8 million chickens per week and has more than 3,200 employees, said in a statement: "Case Farms values its employees and is committed to ensuring a safe and healthy work environment for its associates." OSHA has given Case Farms 15 days to respond to the latest citations. (Read more)

Rural electric co-ops fear CO2 plan will force early closure of coal-fired plants, jack up rates

Leaders of rural power cooperatives in Kentucky said they worry that tougher standards for the state in the final version of the Obama administration's Clean Power plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions could lead to electricity rates that might not be affordable, James Bruggers reports for the The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency remained mum on some of its key Kentucky details, more than a week after it rolled out its first carbon dioxide rules on power plants." The new regulations have been received poorly by coal-heavy states, and the co-ops generally depend more on coal than other utilities.

"The co-op leaders said they want the courts to suspend the rules until their legality can be determined, which could take years," Bruggers writes. "One of the biggest concerns of the co-ops, which serve 1.7 million Kentucky residents, is that these member-owned utilities may have to close coal-fired power plants sooner than planned, said Robert Berry, chairman and chief executive officer of Big Rivers Electric Corp., based in Henderson. That could leave the cooperatives burdened with 'stranded assets' costs that their members will have to cover, he said." In other words, the plants would no longer produce electricity but the co-ops would still be paying for their construction.

On the other hand, Bruggers reports, "Some business leaders and environmental advocates have been praising the president for taking a historic step to help slow global warming. Some are embracing the new regulations as a chance for Kentucky to improve public health and the environment by moving away from coal and the pollution it causes during mining and burning."

"EPA is seeking a nationwide 32 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030," Bruggers notes. "Each state has its own goals and can develop its own compliance plan. Kentucky would need to cut its carbon emissions 30 percent to 40 percent from 2012 numbers, according to EPA." The original goal was only 18 percent. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, joined his Republican counterparts in 15 other states Thursday in asking a federal court in Washington to postpone the effect of the plan until its legality can be determined. (Read more) (EnergyWire map)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fear grows about health care benefits, pensions of Appalachian miners from bankrupt coal companies

Labor unions, citizen groups and regulators in financially troubled Appalachian coal regions fear that the downward spiral of the coal industry could lead coal companies "to try to abandon their obligations to fund miners’ pensions and health care benefits and try to escape from their commitments to reclaim mine sites and clean up polluted streams," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

"Last week, the United Mine Workers union warned that that is exactly what Patriot Coal hopes to do with its proposal to sell certain assets—those without large debts to union benefit funds or more significant long-term pollution liabilities—as part of a restructuring plan being considered in U.S. Bankruptcy Court," Ward writes. "UMW lawyers said the move would give the buyer, Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining LLC, Patriot’s 'most valuable assets.' Left behind would be less-valuable properties, perhaps without the ability to fund 'significant and unwanted obligations' to reclaim land, pay injured workers, pay retirement and health care and employ miners working under a union contract, the lawyers said."

UMW lawyers said in a court filing opposing Patriot’s proposal: “The losers in this scheme would be the miners who generated profits over the years and the taxpayers of the state of West Virginia, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the United States, who ultimately pay for the reclamation of the environment and the income replacement for injured and breathless miners."

Alpha Natural Resources, which last week filed for bankruptcy, "provided a long list of the sorts of 'legacy liabilities' that coal producers face: more than $680 million in reclamation obligations; $160 million in water-treatment costs; more than $158 million in black lung benefits; and $600 million of debt to the UMW’s pension plan," Ward writes. "In a vivid illustration of the liabilities that coal companies can leave behind, Alpha said reclamation and worker liabilities for 80 mines it has closed since 2011 already amount to more than $175 million a year."

"While Alpha officials have not yet announced their specific reorganization plans and said in court filings that they are 'not commencing an immediate sale process for their assets,' UMW President Cecil Roberts cautioned in a prepared statement issued the day of the bankruptcy filing that he expects an effort to 'pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities,'" Ward writes.

Many rural post office owners live out of state and are not aware of daily operations, upkeep

Most post offices are not owned by the U.S. Postal Service, "and relatively few of them are owned by entities with the same ZIP code as the one on the outside of the building," Wendy Royston reports for Dakotafire Media in Frederick, S.D. Of the 32,232 buildings currently in use, USPS owns 8,583 "and leases 23,649—or 73 percent—of them from private entities." A spokesman said the Postal Service doesn't have the money to purchase all the buildings. (The owner of the Kulm, S.D., post office lives in Seattle)

A sample of 288 post offices in eastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota shows that only 37 percent in South Dakota and 33 percent in North Dakota "were owned by a person or a business with an address 10 miles or less from the post office community," Royston writes. That means that post offices, especially in rural areas, are being maintained by someone would could live hundreds of miles away, sometimes even out of state.

For example, in Kulm, S.D., the post office building had fallen into disrepair, with problems such as broken light fixtures, poor sink drainage in the bathroom and a drafty front door, Royston writes. Once the landlord found out about the building's condition, he immediately had the problems fixed. But since he lived in Seattle—1,429 miles away—he was unaware of any problems.

In another example, the Mellette, S.D., post office—whose owners live in Washington—was contracted to "have mold remediated, windows and air conditioner replaced and the lobby renovated to accommodate 24-hour box access just before she inquired with a local contractor about stabilizing the sagging structure," Royster writes. The contractor told co-owner Darlene Visser "the building was beyond repair, so she asked the USPS their take. She said she didn’t get a response until someone from Mellette contacted her, telling her trucks had arrived to remove postal fixtures. Shortly thereafter, she received a bill for three days’ worth of labor for the move."

"The situation was frustrating for local customers, too, who were given 24 hours’ notice of the closure," Royster writes. "They now collect their mail at a 'cluster box' in front of the old building and drive four miles to Northville, S.D., to conduct all other postal business. Because the [owners] couldn’t be contacted directly, local postal patrons’ hands were tied." (Read more)

Inmates learn job skills, earn wages restoring classic fire engine for rural fire department

A program in rural Montana is helping to restore pride in the community while providing job skills and life lessons for prison inmates. As part of the Montana State Prison’s Motor Vehicle Maintenance program, the Missoula Rural Fire District was able to restore a classic fire engine it lacked the means and funds to fix, while inmates picked up trade skills, wages and a sense of accomplishment, Kathryn Haake reports for the Missoulian. (Missoulian photo by Kurt Wilson: Missoula Rural Fire District firefighter Ben Crocker polishes the siren on the 1961 Harvester International fire engine)

The fire truck, a 1961 Harvester International, had been sitting around for years "hidden under layers of rust, pine needles and red paint faded to an obscure pink hue," Haake writes. The cost for repairs was not in the department's budget. So, officials turned to the prison program, where inmates "spent 280 hours painting, fixing and installing $14,500 worth of parts and generally restoring the engine to its former glory." Inmates earned about 85 cents an hour to work on the truck. That's not a lot of money but enough to purchase goods or save for when they are released.

"The inmates cut glass to match the traditional window size, created metal labels that identified the engine's original brand and fashioned metal knobs in their shop to replace those that had fallen apart due to use," Haake writes. "Altogether, Missoula Rural Fire paid $22,500 for the restoration project, using funds donated by the families of deceased rural firefighters Richard Bertlin and John Jirsa." (Read more)

Weekly papers increase in Kansas; Virginia weekly to expand to 3 editions per week, expand online

In Kansas, once-daily community newspapers' survival strategy is to go weekly, while a former fsily that went twice-weekly in Virginia is expanding to three days per week to meet the needs of advertisers and subscribers. (Wichita Public Radio photo by Sean Sandefur: The Newton Now plans to publish weekly in Newton, Kan.)

"A decline in revenue, ushered in by easy access to free, online news has forced many local publications to scale down production. And in Kansas, that means weekly newspapers are the new normal," Sean Sandefur reports for Wichita Public Radio. Some of them are new; two examples are the newly formed McPherson News and Information and the in-progress Newton Now (they capitalize the last word but we ban typographic tyranny here).

Anne Hassler-Heidel, publisher and only full-time employee of McPherson, distributes copies via mail, free to the 15,000 residents in her circulation area. She hopes the total market coverage will attract advertisers. She told Sandefur, “If I can get 35 percent ads, we won't lose any money, and then we'll look after that to maybe get myself a paycheck. But that's not the reason why I'm here. Of course I need to cover my expenses, but you get so much out of a community newspaper other than the pay.”

Joey Young, who owns two weekly newspapers, a monthly magazine and a quarterly magazine, says he is starting Newton Now with business partner Bruce Beyhmer to offer an alternative to corporate-owned papers that concentrate more on national and world news and ignore local news. He told Sandefur, "I think there's still a very good market for what we do. While the national focus is on metro dailies that are struggling to adapt, community journalism and products like ours are doing very well.”

As long as advertisers are willing to buy space, these weeklies can survive, Sandefur writes. "According to a survey conducted by the University of Missouri in 2013, 67 percent of residents living in small towns across the country read a physical copy of their hometown newspaper at least once a week. That’s what local businesses want to hear when looking for places to advertise, according to Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. He says community newspapers have a corner on the local news and advertising market."

While those two Kansas papers are thinking small, The Virginia Review in Covington, Va., is thinking bigger. Publisher Mary Ann Beirne announced that the twice-weekly paper will publich three days a week starting at the end of September, David Crosier writes for the Review. Beirne told him, “I have been listening intently to our advertisers and our subscribers since we went to two-days-a-week in September 2013, and, in response to overwhelming sentiment, we will be moving to Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays beginning Sept. 29.” Prior to the move to two days a week, the paper published six days a week.

Beirne said the newspaper will have a stronger online presence, Crosier writes. With a subscription, readers will be able to get coverage seven days a week, she said. That way readers can get late-breaking news and greater access to updated obituaries, an area Beirne said was something in which readers expressed concern. (Read more)

Free boat wash aims to educate boaters about dangers of invasive species

Perhaps the best way to prevent an increase in invasive species is by thoroughly washing boats after they have been in the water. To help boaters rid their rides of aquatic invaders, Michigan State University is using a federal grant for its “Clean, Drain, Dry” initiative that is providing free lakeside education and boat washes, Kevin Duffy reports for Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at MSU. The grant is through the Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Forest Service. (MSU photo: Mobile Boat Wash unit sprays off hidden invaders)

Sarah Plantrich, a project outreach volunteer, told Duffy, “Boats and boat trailers are the number one means of lake-to-lake transport for invasive species . . . We explain the techniques for effective boat washing, while providing boaters with an education and a clean and invasive-free boat.”

Plantrich said the best ways to wash a boat are to: use a spray bottle to apply a 10 percent bleach solution to boat and trailer; find a local, 25-cent manually operated car wash to spray down the boat and trailer; and leave the boat and trailer in sun between weekends of use to dry out potential invaders, Duffy writes.

Midwest shipping more crude oil than it receives

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that "due to increased rail shipments and pipeline reversals, the Midwest region now ships out more crude oil than it receives," Zach Koppang reports for Shale Plays Media. "Without these rail movements, according to the EIA, the Midwest would still be a net recipient. Beginning in the first few months of 2013, the Midwest began shipping more oil than it was receiving, which was occurring on an annual basis during 2014."

The most recent Petroleum Supply Monthly report said the Midwest shipped out an average of 1.7 million barrels per day through May of this year, Koppang writes. Of that total, 638,000 barrels per day were hauled by rail. Rail shipments "from the Midwest to the East Coast began to increase in 2012 as production in the Bakken ramped up . . . By May 2015, pipeline shipments reached 1.3 million barrels per day, the highest level since the EIA began recording pipeline shipment data in 1986." (EIA graphic)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ky. clerk ordered to issue marriage licenses turned away a same-sex couple on Thursday morning

UPDATE, Aug. 26: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the clerk's request for a stay of the injunction while she appeals it. A three-judge panel of the court found "little or no likelihood that the clerk in her official capacity will prevail on appeal," because "It cannot be defensibly argued that the holder of the Rowan County clerk's office, apart from who personally occupies that office, may decline to act in conformity with the United States Constitution as interpreted by a dispositive holding of the United States Supreme Court." For a Lexington Herald-Leader story, click here.

UPDATE, Aug. 17: The judge refused to grant the stay the clerk requested, but issued a temporary stay until she can appeal his refusal. UPDATE, Aug. 13: Despite a federal injunction, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has already turned away at least one same-sex couple trying to obtain a marriage license, Mike Wynn reports for The Courier-Journal. "David Moore, who is trying to marry his partner of 17 years, David Ermold, visited the clerk's office early Thursday, but a deputy clerk told him that the office is still not issuing the forms."

A federal judge in Kentucky has ordered marriage licenses to be issued by a county clerk who stopped issuing them because of her religious objections to the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all states.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, left, appealed, and her lawyer said he would ask U.S. District Judge David Bunning to stay his order until the appeal could be heard. Davis had already filed suit against Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who said after the ruling that clerks were duty-bound to issue marriage licenses despite their religious beliefs. At least three other clerks, in Casey, Clinton and Whitley counties, all in Appalachia, have said they won't issue marriage licenses, but haven't been sued.

Bunning, a son of former Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said in granting a preliminary injunction against Davis that the state "is not asking her to condone same-sex unions on moral or religious grounds," or restraining her religious activities. "She is even free to believe that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, as many Americans do," Bunning wrote in his 28-page order. He said her objections are sincere, but "Her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County clerk."

Bunning ruled in a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union for two same-sex couples and two opposite-sex couples, alleging Davis violated their constitutional rights. "The couples argue that they live, work and pay taxes in Rowan County and shouldn’t have to drive elsewhere to obtain the paperwork," Mike Wynn reportsfor The Courier-Journal. Bunning noted that seven county seats are less than an hour's drive from Morehead, the seat of Rowan, "but there are individuals in this rural region of the state who simply do not have the physical, financial or practical means to travel." (C-J photo by Wynn)

Noting that "57 of the state’s 120 elected county clerks have asked Governor Beshear to call a special session of the state legislature to address religious concerns related to same-sex marriage licenses," Bunning asked, "What would stop the other 56 clerks from following Davis’ approach?" if he ruled in her favor. "What might be viewed as an inconvenience for residents of one or two counties quickly becomes a substantial interference when applicable to approximately half of the state."

Largely rural states continue to see decline in uninsured; Wyoming only U.S. state to see increase

Arkansas and Kentucky—two largely rural states that expanded Medicaid under federal health reform—continue to have the largest drops in the number of uninsured residents since the Affordable Care Act, according to a Gallup poll released this week. Rhode Island surpassed Massachusetts in having the lowest overall rate of uninsured residents. Wyoming was the only state to see an increase in the number of uninsured from the beginning of 2013 through the first six months of 2015, from 16.6 percent to 18.2 percent.

Arkansas, which expanded Medicaid under a Democratic governor—current Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to end it—ranked 49th in 2013 with 22.5 percent of residents uninsured but is now 21st with only 9.1 percent of residents uninsured, a drop of 13.4 percent. Kentucky, which has a Democratic governor but typically votes Republican in presidential elections, was ranked 40th in 2013 with 20.4 percent uninsured. Through the first half of 2015, Kentucky's uninsured rate is now 9 percent, 20th best. The overall drop of 11.4 percent is second only to Arkansas.

Oregon had the third biggest drop from the beginning of  2013 through the first half of 2015, from 19.4 percent to 8.8 percent. Rhode Island dropped from 13.3 percent to 2.7 percent, Washington from 16.8 percent to 6.4 percent, California from 21.6 percent to 11.8 percent and West Virginia from 17.6 percent to 8.8 percent. All those states expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

Rhode Island's big drop gave it the nation's lowest rate of uninsured. Massachusetts is second at 3 percent, followed by Minnesota and Vermont, 4.6 percent; Iowa and Connecticut, 5 percent; Hawaii, 5.2 percent; Wisconsin, 5.6 percent; Ohio, 6.1 percent; Washington, 6.4 percent and North Dakota, 6.9 percent.

States with large rural populations that chose not to expand Medicaid had the highest number of uninsured in 2014. Texas led the way with 20.8 percent of residents uninsured. Wyoming was second at 18.2 percent, following by Oklahoma, 17.7 percent; Louisiana, 16.3 percent, Iowa, 16.2 percent; Georgia, 15.3 percent; Florida and Nevada, 15.2 percent; North Carolina, 14.7 percent; Arizona, 14.5 percent; Montana, 14.4 percent; and Mississippi, 14.2 percent. (Read more)

Police, sheriff's departments requesting heavy military artillery, mostly to fight local drug use

It's not uncommon for small town police department to stock up on seemingly unnecessary military gear through a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows the transfer of military property that is no longer needed, with few restrictions placed on the use of the items. That has raised concern in some areas, especially after last year's riots in Ferguson were met with military-style resistance from local police. (Department of Defense photo: Police departments and sheriff's offices are requesting vehicles like this to combat local crime)

Advocates justify the heavy artillery as providing safety to the community during potential threats such as hostage situations, rescue missions and heavy-duty shootouts, Molly Redden reports for Mother Jones. To see if this is true, "Mother Jones obtained more than 450 local requests, filed over two years, for what may be the most iconic piece of equipment in the debate over militarizing local police: the mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, or MRAP. And an analysis of these documents reveals that in justifying their requests, very few sheriffs and police chiefs cite active shooters, hostage situations or terrorism, as police advocates do in public."

"Instead, the single most common reason agencies requested a mine-resistant vehicle was to combat drugs," Redden writes. "Fully a quarter of the 465 requests projected using the vehicles for drug enforcement. Almost half of all departments indicated that they sit within a region designated by the federal government as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (Nationwide, only 17 percent of counties are HIDTAs.) One out of six departments were prepared to use the vehicles to serve search or arrest warrants on individuals who had yet to be convicted of a crime. And more than half of the departments indicated they were willing to deploy armored vehicles in a broad range of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) raids."

"By contrast, out of the total 465 requests, only 8 percent mention the possibility of a barricaded gunman," Redden writes. "For hostage situations, the number is 7 percent, for active shooters, 6 percent. Only a handful mentioned downed officers or the possibility of terrorism."

"The requests flowed to a massive Pentagon program—known as the 1033 program—that has given communities across the country a total of $5.6 billion in combat equipment left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon said, 625 MRAPs. A 2014 NPR analysis found that the Pentagon has also doled out 80,000 assault rifles, 200 grenade launchers and 12,000 bayonets. In 2012, the program began making MRAPs available," Redden writes. "The vehicles weigh around 14 tons and feature armored hulls and tiny, blast-proof windows." (Read more)

Journalists, open government groups pen another letter to Obama asking for more transparency

More than 50 journalism and open government groups sent a letter this week to President Obama urging him "to stop practices in federal agencies that prevent important information from getting to the public," reports the Society of Professional Journalists, which was one of 53 groups to sign the letter. The Obama administration has been accused of repeatedly dodging information requests from reporters and government agencies.

Groups twice last year sent similar letters to Obama but received non-response responses that failed to address key concerns and claimed the Obama Administration is transparent, reports SPJ. The most recent letter urges "changes to policies that constrict information flow to the public, including prohibiting journalists from communicating with staff without going through public information offices, requiring government PIOs to vet interview questions and monitoring interviews between journalists and sources."

David Cuillier, chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee, said, “President Obama pledged to lead the most transparent administration in history, but we have yet to see this promise fulfilled. His term may be coming to a close, but it’s not too late to make some real changes in the way officials work with journalists to improve the accuracy and speed in which important information is relayed to the public." (Read more)

SPJ conducted a study in 2012 of 146 reporters who covered government, finding that 76 percent "said they had to get approval from a public information officer before speaking to an agency employee; two-thirds said they were prohibited by the agency from interviewing an employee at least some of the time," Paul Farhi reported earlier this year for The Washington Post. The vast majority—85 percent—agreed with this statement: 'The public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers agencies are imposing on journalists’ reporting practices.'" (Read more)

Major corporations leading the charge to produce a new bird free of human antibiotics

Several major corporations are leading the charge to change the way chicken is produced in the U.S., producing a new bird that is raised free of human antibiotics, Amanda Mascarelli reports for The Pew Charitable Trusts. Fast food giant McDonald's, which serves 27 million customers daily, has joined the cause, and the nation's largest chicken producer, Tyson Foods, which raises about two billion birds annually—21 percent of the U.S. market—said earlier this year it would also phase out antibiotics. (Pew photo)

Chick-fil-A last year promised "to convert 20 percent of its poultry supply to a 'no-antibiotics-ever' policy for 2015," Mascarelli writes. "Also, in 2014, Perdue Foods, one of the country’s leading chicken-processing companies, said it has removed all antibiotics from its hatcheries and announced that "it has introduced antibiotic-free chicken products for school lunch programs and has committed to a no-antibiotics-ever policy for additional school lunch items sold under various labels."

"In late May, Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery store chain, said it would ask its poultry, meat, seafood, dairy and egg suppliers to report annually on their use of antibiotics following the principles of the American Veterinary Medical Association," Mascarelli writes. "And in June, the White House convened its first forum on how to combat antibiotic resistance. The meeting included 150 food producers, agriculture groups and public health organizations and showed a new focus on the issue by the federal government."

Elizabeth Jungman, director of Pew’s public health projects, told Mascarelli, “This is unprecedented change in a relatively short amount of time. This changes how chickens will be produced for Americans and marks real progress for consumers’ health.”

The change has come about in the past year years after decades of poultry and meat producers "using antibiotics that are essential for people’s health to help promote the growth of their farm animals," Mascarelli writes. "Scientists explain that overuse of these medically important antibiotics enables germs to encounter them repeatedly in the environment and, over time, to become superbugs, by developing mutations that make them resistant to the drugs. People can be exposed to these bugs in soil and groundwater that is fouled with animal waste as well as through contaminated meat."

"A Pew analysis of data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows that 7.7 million pounds of antibiotics were sold to treat sick people in 2011, compared with 29.9 million pounds sold for food animal production—a number that rose to 32 million pounds in 2012," Mascarelli writes. "An FDA report found that between 2009 and 2013, domestic sales and distribution of medically important antibiotics approved for use in food animal production grew by 20 percent."

Antibiotics used in chicken hatcheries are "injected into eggs to prevent bacteria from getting in during vaccination and causing disease when the chicks hatch," Mascarelli writes. "Chicken, cattle and pigs are routinely fed small amounts of antibiotics to promote growth. Another type of routine antibiotic use in livestock involves feed additives called 'ionophores,' which are thought to increase feed efficiency by as much as 10 percent. Ionophores are not used in human medicine and have not been found to result in resistance to medically important antibiotics." (Read more)

Corn, soy prices drop on higher harvest estimates

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that corn and soybean harvests are will exceed earlier expectations, which sent prices of the crops falling. The USDA predicted that the 2015-16 soybean harvest would be 3.916 billion bushels, an average of 46.9 bushels per acre, and "both figures were above the government's previous forecasts and topped the high end of the range of market estimates," reports Reuters, published on CNBC.
Getty Images

After the report came out, corn and soybean futures dropped. Dennis Gartman, author of the Gartman Letter, said the report was shocking and that the "bean and corn numbers are stunningly bearish."

Eight states were predicted to have record soybean yields, while yields were predicted to fall in Illinois. "Corn production was seen at a 13.686 billion bushels, with average yield projected at 168.8 bushels per acre," Reuters reports. "The corn yield outlook topped the range of market estimates. Harvested soybean acres were seen at a record 83.549 million acres, lower than the USDA's previous outlook." Ending stocks for domestic soybean in 2015-16 were 470 million bushels, a 45 million bushel increase from the government's July estimate.

The USDA projected 2015-16 domestic ending stocks for corn at 1.713 billion bushels, "up from 1.599 billion in July and above the high end of trade forecasts," Reuters reports. Also, the USDA raised its estimate of ending stock for wheat, which has been harvested, from 842 million bushels to 850 million. (Read more)

Clean Power plan uniform standards not sitting well with coal-heavy states

Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy told a Washington, D.C., audience on Tuesday that the agency's Clean Power plan standards "guarantee equity and fairness across the board," Jean Chemnick and Emily Holden report for EnergyWire. "States with more coal power than natural gas disagreed, seeing themselves on the losing end of the new calculations."

One problem is the way EPA calculated its final regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, Chemnick and Holden write. "Many coal-heavy states originally faced relatively lax targets, based on a formula EPA had devised to account for current clean energy policies and infrastructure. But the draft rule's algorithm was left on the cutting room floor and replaced by uniform standards applied directly to fossil-fuel power plants, no matter where they're located—771 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour of power for natural gas plants, and 1,305 pounds of CO2/MWh for coal or oil plants."

"The result of the new math is stricter goals for the coal-reliant Midwest, Appalachian and Rust Belt regions—areas that weren't fans of EPA's bid to curb emissions anyway," Chemnick and Holden write. "Meanwhile, states with cleaner power fleets got some relief. Many find themselves easily within reach of targets or with room to grow mass emissions of CO2 between 2012 and 2030. Those early movers have the happy choice of either selling credits back to the power market or setting them aside as further contributions to climate change mitigation."

"The changes are likely to further entrench states supporting and opposing the rule, fueling political and legal pushback from some that had previously avoided taking sides," Chemnick and Holden write. "They also may affect which states work together to reach targets." Bill Bumpers, a partner at law firm Baker Botts LLP, "estimated that 22 to 26 states are looking at suing, and he said the decision is 'more political than practical.' Soon after the final rule came out, 16 state attorneys general asked EPA to stall the rule, pending judicial review." (Read more) (EnergyWire map)

Patriot's bankruptcy plan could cost West Virginia taxpayers hundreds of millions in clean-up costs

Lawyers for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection "are warning that Patriot Coal’s current bankruptcy plans could leave West Virginia stuck with the liability for hundreds of millions of dollars in land reclamation and water treatment costs," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "DEP lawyers filed a formal objection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Richmond, Va., to Patriot’s 'disclosure statement,' a document that spells out the company’s current finances and is supposed to detail a firm’s proposal for reorganization."

"Patriot wants to sell certain of its assets—those without significant long-term pollution liabilities—as part of a bankruptcy plan being considered by the court," Ward writes. Lawyer Kevin Barrett, who is representing the DEP in the case, "said in the agency’s objection that the move would leave Patriot with 'enormous environmental liabilities and obligations and little to no ability . . . to reclaim the land and treat acid mine drainage and other water pollution problems left in the wake of its mining operations.'”

Barrett said the plan “would leave the people of the state of West Virginia and other states in which the debtors operated exposed to imminent public health and safety risks," Ward writes. "Patriot would be 'denuded of its only valuable assets and the proceeds therefrom' and 'will be left with no real assets with which to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars of legal obligations to reclaim the land and treat water.'” (Read more)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

North America's first offshore wind farm ready to roll; could cut Block Island energy bills by 40%

Block Island, part of Rhode Island, is home to about 1,000 year-round residents and 15,000 summer visitors. It also has some of the nation's highest energy costs, with residents—who frequently lose power—relying on expensive, noisy, diesel-fueled generators that require millions of liters of diesel shipped by ferry, reports The Economist. All that could be changing "because Block Island is soon to be home to North America’s first offshore wind farm." (Maine Aerials photo by Dave Cleaveland: Block Island)

"On July 26 the first 'steel in the water' for the foundation of the small offshore wind farm was installed three miles off the coast," reports The Economist. "The five turbines, each with six-megawatt capacity, will be working by autumn 2016. Deepwater Wind, the company behind the project (which is privately financed at a current cost of $250 million), expects the farm to cut energy bills for the island by 40 percent. The farm will produce more energy than the island needs, enough for 17,000 homes, so surplus energy will be used on the mainland."

"Block Island is the pilot program for the nascent American offshore wind industry," reports The Economist. "If successful, Deepwater will develop a farm with 200 turbines, between Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees renewable projects in federal waters, has issued nine commercial offshore wind leases to companies all along the eastern seaboard. If these areas are built to capacity, some 3,000 offshore turbines could generate enough energy to light up the equivalent of New Jersey. More offshore wind projects are in the works in New Jersey, near Atlantic City, as well as in North and South Carolina and New York."

As part of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan that calls for using more renewable energy, "39 states have some sort of land wind project," reports The Economist. "Wind and other renewable, such as solar panels, have had much support from the Obama administration, beginning with stimulus funding in 2009 from the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It was designed to kick-start the economy by investing in 'shovel-ready' projects. Green energy may have received as much as $90 billion." (Read more)

States with doctor shortages lack enough residencies to keep medical school grads local

Some states experiencing doctor shortages lack enough residencies to keep medical school graduates in state, Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline. Overall, 68 percent of doctors who receive all their training in one state stay in that state, compared to 47 percent of doctors who stay in the state where they performed their residency alone.

Iowa, which only has 238 residency positions available, graduated 369 medical students last year. Missouri had a shortage of 186 positions and Tennessee 200, Beitsch writes. That means that states with plenty of residencies, such as New York, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, are snagging medical students from other states and often keeping them once they finish and begin practicing. (Stateline map)
"This is the world of medical resident matching," Beitsch writes. "When states don’t have enough residency positions for the medical students they’ve trained, they become resident exporters. When states have more residency positions than they have students to fill them, they become importers. So while some states spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to support medical schools and build new ones, a handful are recognizing that it’s just as important to invest in residency programs—to increase the number of doctors practicing within their borders."

"Across the U.S., the number of medical students in each state tends to correspond to population, but there is a disproportionately large number in the Northeast, where medical education got its start in the late 1700s," Beitsch writes. "But as many states have expanded the number of medical students they train, the growth in residency slots has proceeded at a slower pace, pushing many graduates to California and the Northeast, where there are extra slots." (Read more)

Railroads that fail to meet year-end safety deadline could face $25,000 fine per day for each violation

Railroads that fail to meet a year-end deadline to install a new collision avoidance system could be facing major fines from the Federal Railroad Administration, Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "Congress mandated Positive Train Control in 2008, but most of the nation’s commuter and freight railroads won’t have the system ready by Dec. 31. The technology is required for about 60,000 miles of track, including those that carry passengers or chemicals that are poisonous or toxic by inhalation."

"A push in Congress to extend the deadline by three to five years has stalled, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until next month," Tate writes. If Congress doesn't extend the deadline, beginning on Jan. 1, 2016, railroads "that have failed to install Positive Train Control on the required track segments face fines up to $25,000 a day for each violation."

The American Public Transportation Association said only 29 percent of railroads will meet the deadline, and some will need as long as five years to comply, Tate writes. Michael Melaniphy, the association’s president and CEO, told Tate, “Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts, implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible.” (Read more)

Less than one-third of Appalachian breast cancer survivors continue taking prescribed medicine

About one-third of Appalachian breast cancer survivors stop taking prescribed medicine, despite having insurance that covers the costs, says a study published in the July issue of Medicine. Researchers looked at 428 patients from 2006 to 2008 in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, finding that 31 percent "were not adherent to adjuvant endocrine therapy (AET) and 30 percent were not persistent over an average follow-up period of 421 days." Adjuvant drugs are typically used to enhance pain relief from pain medicine in difficult to treat conditions. (Map: Appalachia, as defined by Congress)

Lead author Rajesh Balkrishnan, professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said, “We found that a complex variety of factors including poverty, geography and preventive health orientation affect the health of women with breast cancer in Appalachia."

Patients "receiving catastrophic insurance coverage were three times more likely to adhere to their adjuvant endocrine therapy and also had a 44 percent lower risk of discontinuing therapy," Heather Lindsey reports for Oncology Times. Among the study group, "43 percent of patients were categorized as being economically distressed, 67 percent lived in largely rural environments and 88 percent experienced health care professional shortages."

Some patients stopped taking medication because of doctor shortages or long distances to drive to a pharmacist, Lindsey writes. "Another factor is the amount and type of insurance coverage patients have to cover these costs. While insurance typically covers most adjuvant hormone therapies, people in this study population may be watching every dollar." (Read more)

Chances are pretty good that you live in a potential earthquake area, U.S. Geological Survey study says

The number of Americans living in potential earthquake areas is significantly higher than previous thought, says a study by the U.S. Geological Survey published in the journal Earthquake Spectre. The study does not include earthquakes linked to man-made activities, such as earthquakes blamed on the oil and gas industry.

Overall, 43 million Americans in the 48 contiguous states live in potential earthquake areas, 75 million more than estimates from 2006, Elahe Izadi reports for The Washington Post. "Add in Alaska and Hawaii, and just about half of Americans live in potential earthquake areas." (Post graphic)

Researchers said potential earthquake areas have increased significantly since 2006, mostly because of the development of more advanced research methods, increased overall population "and a concentration of population in high-risk areas, such as California," Izadi writes. That means that 28 million people live in "high potential" areas and 57 million in "moderate" hazard zones. (Read more)

Rural police officers indicted for banishing mentally ill man on a 900-mile bus trip

A rural Northern Kentucky police chief and a veteran officer were indicted by a grand jury on Monday "for allegedly springing a mentally ill man from jail, putting him on a bus and banishing him to Florida earlier this year," R.G. Dunlop reports for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KyCIR). Carrollton (TownMapsUSA map) police chief Michael Willhoite and officer Ron Dickow "are charged with two felony counts, complicity to commit kidnapping and custodial interference, and also official misconduct, a misdemeanor. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison on each felony count and a year imprisonment on the misdemeanor charge."

Additionally, Carroll County sheriff Jamie Kinman "is awaiting trial on charges of official misconduct and tampering with physical evidence," Dunlop writes. Kinman has pleaded not guilty and remains in office. Willhoite and Dickow also pleaded not guilty but were ordered by a judge to "not perform law-enforcement functions or be involved with police-related paperwork while under indictment." Carrollton, which has 3,994 residents, now only has eight active police officers.

"Records and jail surveillance video show that Dickow had removed Horine, a troubled 31-year-old mentally and physically ill man, from the Carroll County Detention Center five weeks earlier in violation of a judge’s order," Dunlop writes. Horine had been ordered to be taken to a hospital in Lexington, but "Dickow—who later said he was acting at Willhoite’s direction—took Horine out of jail before dawn, drove him to Louisville, gave him about $18 and put him on a bus for a 900-mile, one-way trip to Florida," according to an investigation by KyCIR. (Read more)

Nationwide teacher shortage leads some districts to hire teachers who haven't earned full credentials

Because many teachers were laid off during the recession and fewer people are training for the profession today, many school districts are facing teacher shortages, especially in math, science and special education. An increase in English-as-second-language learners in public schools has caused districts to search for bilingual teachers wherever they can find them. Some districts are "even asking prospective teachers to train on the job, hiring novices still studying for their teaching credentials, with little, if any, classroom experience," Motoko Rich writes for The New York Times.

Rural schools have a chronic problem of recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. Following the Great Recession, potential teachers wanted to avoid collecting debt or training for jobs that might not exist, so the number of people in the U.S. entering teacher-preparation programs dropped by 30 percent from 2010 to 2014, Rich reports.

Some of the large, urban school districts struggling to find enough teachers include Louisville, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Providence, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. In California, districts had to find teachers to fill 21,500 positions after losing 82,000 jobs from 2008 to 2012 during the recession.

Usually a teacher in California has to finish a post-baccalaureate credentialing program and serve as a student teacher, but in 2013-14, almost 25 percent of the teaching credentials distributed in California were for internships that candidates completed while already working full time as teachers. "There are not enough people who will look at teacher education or being a teacher as a job that they want to pursue," said Carlos Ayala, dean of the school of education at Sonoma State University.

In Rohnert Park, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, Superintendent Robert A. Haley asked his daughter's high school cross-country coach to fill in as an elementary-school physical-education teacher. The coach, David Kimari, is studying kinesiology and will teach P.E. at two schools this year. He will enroll in teacher credential classes next January, Rich writes. Kimari said, "I went into it like, 'Oh, man, I don't know what I'm getting myself into.'" But then he realized that "as long as you are passionate and as long as you can communicate with other people and you don't give off hostile vibes, you can pick it up along the way." (Read more)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Worlds apart, two states form unlikely bond over shared concern of deaths from opioid overdoses

A pair of unlikely states are joining together to fight the same war over high rates of opioid overdoses, Brian MacQaurrie reports for The Boston Globe. In 2014, Massachusetts had 1,256 deaths from opioid overdoses, while Kentucky had 1,087, many of them occurring in poverty-stricken Appalachian Eastern Kentucky communities where coal mines have shuttered.

In Bell County, Kentucky, (Wikipedia map) "nearly two-thirds of adults in the county do not have jobs, and addiction to opioid painkillers has metastasized," MacQuarrie writes. "Miners often turned to painkillers after injuries, and many of their children became dependent on opioids stashed as close as the medicine cabinet. Nearly everyone here knows someone who has become addicted or died from opioids."

"The opioid death rate in 2013 was 93.2 per 100,000 people in Bell County, nearly double that of any other Kentucky county," MacQuarrie writes. "But C. Frank Rapier, who directs a federal task force attacking the epidemic in Appalachia, said the devastation in Bell County also reflects what is happening in neighboring counties, where federal officials believe opioid deaths have been grossly underreported."

In an attempt to eliminate pill mills, Kentucky in 2012 became the first state "to enact a strict mandate that physicians check a patient’s drug history before writing new prescriptions," MacQuarrie writes. As part of the plan, the Attorney General's office has been "aggressively targeting doctors whose practices are designed to profit from addiction." As a result, "prescriptions of oxycodone, a powerful opioid, have dropped 10.5 percent. Prescriptions for hydrocodone—also used to relieve pain—have fallen 11 percent."

In Massachusetts, "officials are pushing for greater availability of naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses," MacQuarrie writes. "That effort is based on the pioneering success of police in Quincy, Mass., where the drug has been used to combat more than 400 overdoses since 2010."

The two states have formed an unlikely partnership in Washington, between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), MacQuarrie writes. "The pair—who, McConnell said, 'have absolutely nothing in common on virtually every issue you can name'—have asked for a surgeon general’s report on the crisis and detailed answers on how the Department of Health and Human Services will measure progress on opioid deaths and addiction." Markey told MacQuarrie, "I think we can learn from each other. We can’t be ostrich-like any longer.” (Read more)

More than 82% of public middle and high schools start too early for students to be healthy, says CDC

Public middle schools and high schools in many states start too early for students to get the necessary amount of required sleep to be healthy, says a study released on Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study says, "Adolescents who do not get enough sleep are more likely to be overweight; not engage in daily physical activity; suffer from depressive symptoms; engage in unhealthy risk behaviors such as drinking, smoking tobacco and using illicit drugs; and perform poorly in school."

"Among an estimated 39,700 U.S. public middle, high and combined schools (with an estimated total enrollment of 26.3 million students), the average start time was 8:03 a.m.," the study found. The study, which recommends schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., found that only Alaska (8:33 a.m.) and North Dakota (8:31 a.m.) have average start times later than 8:30 a.m. Overall, only 17.7 percent of the 39,700 schools start after 8:30 a.m. (CDC map: School start times before 8:30 a.m.)

Several schools have average start times earlier than 8 a.m.: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Louisiana's average start time of 7:40 a.m. is the earliest, and 29.9 percent of the state's public schools start before 7:30 a.m.

CDC recommends that adolescents get nine hours of sleep per night, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. "They need all that extra sleep to support their still-developing brains. But surveys consistently show that only about eight or nine percent of teens are getting that much sleep. Because teens' brains are naturally wired to keep them up past 11 p.m. or so, starting the school day later is essentially a requirement for allowing most of them to get adequate sleep."

Coke study tells obese Americans to quit counting calories, keep drinking soda and get more exercise

A Coca-Cola-backed study says the cure to obesity is to stop worrying about cutting calories and spend more time exercising, Anahad O'Connor reports for The New York Times. It's not surprising that the company would preach this method, considering a 12 ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar.

Americans consuming large quantities of soda has been partially to blame for at least 30 percent of adults in 18 states—many of them rural—being obese. Cutting soda has been one way many Americans have tried to lose weight, and "consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American" has dropped by 25 percent in the past two decades, O'Connor writes.

To help spread their new message of how to live a healthy lifestyle, Coca-Cola "has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise," O'Connor writes. "Leaders of the Global Energy Balance Network disclosed that Coke had donated $1.5 million last year to start the organization."

"Since 2008, the company has also provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members: Dr. Blair, a professor at the University of South Carolina whose research over the past 25 years, has formed much of the basis of federal guidelines on physical activity, and Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health," O'Connor writes.

Steven N. Blair, Global Energy Balance vice president and an exercise scientist, said in a video, “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh, they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’—blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on. And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

That contradicts everything health experts are saying, O'Connor writes. They "say this message is misleading and part of an effort by Coke to deflect criticism about the role sugary drinks have played in the spread of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. They contend that the company is using the new group to convince the public that physical activity can offset a bad diet despite evidence that exercise has only minimal impact on weight compared with what people consume." (Read more)

Beekeepers more at risk of going extinct than bees

Declining bee populations are not threatening the existence of bees but the jobs of beekeepers, especially those running small operations, Leah Sottile reports for The Washington Post. Ramesh Sagili, principal investigator at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab, told her, “People ask me, ‘The bees are going to be extinct soon?’ I’m not worried about bees being extinct here. I’m worried about beekeepers being extinct.” (Post photo by Leah Nash: Beekeepers in Oregon move their hives to orchards and farms around the West Coast)

The bad news is that honeybees, which pollinate $15 billion worth of crops, lost 42.1 percent of colonies last year. The good news is that overall colony numbers in 2014 were the highest in 20 years, at 2.7 million. Pesticides have been partially to blame for colony losses.

"Bees are still dying at unacceptable rates, especially in Florida, Oklahoma and several states bordering the Great Lakes, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a research collaborative supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Sottile writes. "Last month, Ohio State University’s Honey Bee Update noted that losses among the state’s beekeepers over the past winter were as high as 80 percent."

One of the main problems is that losing a queen likely means that hive is doomed, Sottile writes. That spells trouble for smaller operations because too many queenless hives could mean the end of a business. Other disasters could also be deadly for smaller businesses running on a fixed budget. George Hansen, past president of the American Beekeeping Federation, told her, “It is hard, and it costs a lot of money. There’s a certain toll you have to pay for when things go wrong. . . . How many times can you take those kinds of hits and still get up and do it again?” (Read more)

More than 1.8M Alabama residents, 500,000 of them children, live in food deserts, report finds

More than 1.8 million Alabama residents—including more than 500,000 children—live in communities without grocery stores, says a report by The Food Trust. The report, which recommends the creation of a statewide healthy food financing program to incentivize healthy food retail development in communities of need, says food deserts have led Alabama to have the nation's highest rate of diabetes among adults and the third highest rate of obesity among children. Over the past 30 years, Alabama's obesity rate has more than doubled in children to 35 percent and quadrupled in adults to more than 32 percent.

"The lack of access to affordable and nutritious food has a negative impact on the health of children and families in both rural and urban areas of Alabama," the report says. "A growing body of research indicates that people who live in communities without a supermarket suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems. In contrast, when people live in a community with a supermarket, they tend to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight." (Food Trust map: Areas with the greatest need)

Jada Shaffer, campaign manager for the non-profit VOICES for Alabama Children, said a lack of grocery stores means residents in rural and underserved areas have to travel 10 to 20 miles to a purchase healthy food or rely on less healthy options at nearby gas stations, convenient stores and fast food restaurants, Anne Kim reports for Washington Monthly. To try to improve the situation, legislators recently approved "a revolving loan fund—the 'Healthy Food Financing Fund'—to help finance the construction or expansion of grocery stores in currently underserved neighborhoods."

Butter industry-funded study finds that moderate intake of butter raises cholesterol levels

In a move that backfired, a study about butter funded by the butter industry found that over a two-week period "moderate intake of butter resulted in increases in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol compared with the effects of olive oil intake and a habitual diet."

The study, funded by the Danish Dairy Research Foundation and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, included 47 healthy men and women whose diets were partially substituted "with 4.5 percent of energy from butter or refined olive oil." The study found that "butter intake increased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol more than did olive oil intake and increased HDL cholesterol compared with the run-in period. No difference in effects was observed for triacylglycerol, CRP, insulin and glucose concentrations."

It was a "rare instance in which the interests of the study's sponsor and the findings of the study were not aligned," Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post. "It's even more improbable, given that its findings run in contrast to much of the recent science on the dairy product. It's not the first time, though, that an industry-backed study might not have produced the hoped-for result. Last year, research funded by American Pistachio Growers concluded that eating pistachios is actually associated with poorer performance during exercise. In the fine print, the study says the association played no role in the study's design."

EPA mistakenly releases toxic mining waste into the main river of southwestern Colorado

EcoFlight photo of spill in Durango, via The Durango Herald
The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine at Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River, yellowing it all the way to New Mexico, "meaning about six Olympic-size swimming pools of wastewater came downstream" in "the region's most important waterway," Chase Olivarius-Mcallister, Mary Shinn and Shane Benjamin report for The Durango Herald. The EPA's latest estimate of the size of the spill is three times what the agency first estimated.

The spill began around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday when a crew working for the EPA used heavy equipment to enter the suspended Gold King Mine to investigate pollution and gradually release it but went too far, CNN reports. Durango lawyer Richard Ruth said at a public meeting Sunday that the spill was inevitable: “The problem is a historical one, with the mines north of Silverton continually discharging toxic water into the Animas. The EPA was trying to dam up one of the mines, the dam failed, and anyone who’s worked in construction can understand that.”

The Animas is a popular kayaking stream.
(Durango Herald photo by Jerry McBride)
EPA estimated Sunday that lead and arsenic levels in the river through Durango were up to 3,500 and 300 times the normal levels, respectively. "Officials said those levels have dropped significantly since the plume moved through the area," report Steve Garrison and Joshua Kellogg of The Daily Times in Farmington, N.M. "The mine continues to discharge 500 gallons per minute, EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath said in a teleconference call Sunday afternoon, but the polluted water is being contained and treated in two ponds by the site of the spill."

"The EPA confirmed it is seriously considering declaring parts of Silverton a Superfund site," the Herald reports. "For two decades, the town of Silverton has resisted the EPA’s attempts to make parts of its mining basin Superfund sites—though U.S. Geological Survey scientists have said the heavy metals flowing out of its mines and into the Animas River constitute the worst untreated mine drainage in the state—arguing the designation would hurt the town’s reputation. . . . Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said Sunday he plans to file a lawsuit against the EPA as a result of damages to the nation’s water supply." EPA said it expects no lasting effect to human health. "EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department said they will test private domestic wells near the Animas to identify metals of concern from the spill," CNN reports.

UPDATE, Aug. 11: "The EPA has said the contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat. Experts and federal environmental officials say they expect the river system to dilute the heavy metals before they pose a longer-term threat," Susan Montoya Bryan and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press report. "Dissolved iron in the waste turned the long plume an alarming orange-yellow - a look familiar to old-time miners who call it 'yellow boy' - so 'The water appears worse aesthetically than it actually is, in terms of health,' said Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines."

UPDATE, Aug. 12: Ranchers and farmers are looking for alternative water sources, Noel Lyn Smith and Hannah Grover report for the Times. Lucy Lujan told the newspaper that she fears losing a corn crop that she was going to sell to pay for her grandson's college tuition: "You don't realize how much you rely on irrigation water."