Friday, September 04, 2015

California EPA plans to list Roundup as carcinogen

The California Environmental Protection Agency wants to list glyphosate, brand name Roundup, "one of the most widely-used herbicides in agriculture, and three other chemicals to a list of carcinogens under the state's Proposition 65 law," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse.

"Under the law, substances identified as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer are to be added to the list. There is no separate evaluation of the evidence considered by the agency," Chase writes. "In March, the IARC, an arm of the World Health Organization, said glyphosate was 'probably carcinogenic to humans,' a move widely unpopular with many in agriculture."

Sam Delson, a spokesman for the agency's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, told Agri-Pulse that listing doesn't ban use or sale of products, "but businesses with 10 or more employees that use chemicals on this list must provide a 'clear and reasonable warning' of the product's potential dangers." The agency is developing a "no signifcant risk" level at which a warning would not be required.

A spokeswoman for Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, told Agri-Pulse that "The IARC classification overlooked decades of thorough and robust analysis by regulatory agencies, including a multi-year assessment just completed on behalf of the regulatory authority in the European Union. Another registration review is currently underway by the U.S. EPA.  No regulatory agency in the world considers glyphosate to be a carcinogen." (Read more)

Judge keeps water-rule order limited to 13 states

A federal judge in North Dakota has declined to make nationwide his ruling that has blocked in 13 states the Environmental Protection Agency's redefinition of "waters of the United States," perhaps the most important term in the Clean Water Act.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson's injunction against the WOTUS rule came in a lawsuit filed by the states of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. "His decision conflicted with other district court rulings in other lawsuits, including one brought by 11 different states," Jeremy P. Jacobs and Annie Snider report for Greenwire. "EPA and the Army contended that the injunction only applied to those 13 states," and "argued that a national injunction was unwarranted, in part because several states have indicated their support for the rule. . . . The agencies put the rule into effect as planned for the remaining 37 on Aug. 28."

The 13 states and the American Farm Bureau Federation said the injunction should apply nationwide, but Erickson rejected the states' motion for that Friday. "Four courts have denied preliminary injunctions in cases on the issue before the court," he noted. "Seven states and the District of Columbia have moved to intervene on behalf of the agencies in the consolidated matter before the Sixth Circuit" Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati.

As coal slips, so do school rolls in coal communities, putting some schools at risk of closure

Some coal communities are seeing low enrollment numbers in public schools—because of the loss of coal jobs—and fear that fewer students will lead to less funding and could put schools at risk of closing. In Boone County, West Virginia (Epodunk map), parents are concerned about rumors that Jeffrey-Spencer Elementary School will shut its doors, Hillary Hall reports for WOWK 13 in Charleston-Huntington. The school has 109 students.

"While the Boone County Board of Education could not confirm if the school was slated to be shut down, Superintendent John Hudson did say that the county has lost millions of dollars in taxes and if the school were to close the decision would need to be made by December," Hall writes. Christian Foster, mother of a special-education student, told Hall, "A lot of us are prepared to do whatever we have to do. Until it's set in stone and they say it's closed and the books and teachers are out of is building, we're not going to quit."

In Eastern Kentucky, enrollment in the the Pike County School District is down by more than 200 students this year, the third time in four years enrollment has gone down, Chase Ellis reports for the Appalachian News-Express. The district reported 8,600 students this fall, down from 8,887 at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. (Kentucky Department of Revenue map: Pike County)

Director of Pupil Personnel Joe Moore told Ellis, “We lose money for every kid that we lose. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s more than $20 per day per student that we lose. If jobs were created, if the coal industry was able to come back, if people didn’t have to move away for jobs we wouldn’t see this, but we are." (The News-Express is behind a paywall.)

Arkansas isn't really a coal state, but it burns coal, and the proposed shutoff of a coal plant in White Bluff—local officials are phasing out coal for natural gas and solar and/or wind power—could have a drastic effect on the White Hall School District, which is the biggest local beneficiary of taxes from the coal plant, Emily Walkenhorst reports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. In 2013 the Jefferson County (Wikipedia map) school district closed Redfield Middle School because of low enrollment and reduced financial viability.

Supt. Larry Smith said that if the plant closed completely, it would result in an estimated $1 million in losses for the school district, which has an annual budget of $25 million, Walkenhorst writes. Smith told her, "That's 17 teaching positions that you would lose funding for. We couldn't cut 17 teachers right now because we would be out of compliance with standards."

More than a third of eligible rural children do not participate in free school lunch program

Rural school children eligible for free lunches participate in the federal program at lower rates than urban children, says a report by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Overall, 63 percent of eligible rural children participate in the program compared to 70 percent of eligible urban children. Only 59 percent of eligible suburban children participate. (Carsey graphic)

Overall, 63.5 percent of eligible children participate in the lunch program and 52 percent in the breakfast program. The programs are designed to help children living in households with incomes below 185 percent of the federal income poverty guidelines (below $44,097 for a family of four in 2013).

"Enrollment in these programs may be moderate for several reasons: for example, there may be stigma associated with eating school meals, or food meeting required nutritional standards may not appeal to children," study author Jessica Carson writes. "The breakfast program may have especially low enrollment because students with long commutes or later-arriving buses might not arrive early enough to eat breakfast before the school day begins."

States that are home to 37% of illegal immigrants allow those residents to obtain driver's licenses

Ten states—mostly out West—and Washington, D.C., issue driver’s licenses, or similar documents, to illegal immigrants, reports The Pew Charitable Trusts. The 10 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Vermont and Washington—and Washington, D.C., are home to 37 percent of unauthorized immigrants. Many of the 11 million illegal immigrants work in agriculture.

"In 2013 alone, eight states and the District of Columbia passed laws making unauthorized immigrants eligible for driver’s licenses (one was later repealed)," reports Pew. "In 2015, Delaware and Hawaii enacted similar laws. As of this report’s publication, neither state had begun issuing licenses."

"States consider legislation regarding these immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses in the context of the federal REAL ID Act, the 2005 law that created national standards for state driver’s licenses that can be used for federal identification," reports Pew. "This law expressly authorizes states to provide licenses to unauthorized immigrants but only if the licenses are distinct from regular ones in specific ways. State decisions also are likely to be affected by the federal executive actions announced in November 2014 that, if fully implemented, could allow millions of unauthorized immigrants who meet certain conditions to acquire the documents needed to apply for regular driver’s licenses under existing state laws." (Pew map)

Saying 'I do, I do, I do,' more than 9 million Americans have been married at least three times

Americans love to get married so much that more than 9 million U.S. residents—or 5.3 percent of the married population—have been married at least three times, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. State-level data shows where residents are most likely to get married at least three times, and several states with large rural populations lead the way.

Arkansas is No. 1 in serial marriage, with 10.8 percent of married residents having been married at least three times, Ingraham writes. Oklahoma is second at 9.7 percent, followed by: Idaho, 8.7 percent; Alabama, 8.6 percent; and Nevada and Tennessee, 8.5 percent. In Kentucky, where critics of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis—who has refused to issue marriage licenses because of religious beliefs—have taken her to task for being married four times, 7.9 percent of state residents have been married at least three times.

"By contrast, states in the northeast and upper Midwest have the lowest rates of serial marriage," Ingraham writes. "New Jersey has the absolute lowest rate, with only 1.9 percent of ever-married residents having been married three times or more. I've put the numbers for all the states in a table below." (Post map)

Initiative looks to use art to drive economic development in impoverished rural communities

A new initiative, Performing Our Future, is creating a model to show how art and culture can drive community and economic development in impoverished communities, states a joint press release from the governing organizations. Three communities will receive funding for two years to "demonstrate how artistic expression leads to community-wide empowerment and how the assets of local culture can develop economic sustainability."

Funding is from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, ArtPlace America and the National Endowment for the Arts, the release states. "A union of economists, artists and scholars is behind the initiative’s methodology: the rural arts and humanities institution Appalshop and its Roadside Theater; the economists and students at Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project in Easton, Pa.; and the national consortium of 100 colleges advancing public scholarship, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Key elements in the methodology include creating public performances based on local stories and mapping community assets to identify opportunities for value and wealth creation through market exchange."

"To enrich learning, ensure national impact and develop and disseminate findings, the three local projects will interface with each other and with the national research team of economists, artists, scholars and students," the release states. "The local college partners in each community will be drawn from Imagining America’s network of more than 100 higher education institutions elevating higher education’s public purposes."

"One of the project sites is Appalshop’s home of Letcher County, Kentucky, a county in the nation’s poorest and sickest congressional district, which has developed and enacted Performing Our Future’s methodology for two years," states the release. "Community residents are exploring new strategies for entrepreneurship to replace the decline of the coal mining industry" by translating "the region’s cultural assets into new and expanded businesses, leadership development programs and tourism." Appalshop earlier this year was one of 38 recipients of the 2015 National Grants Program.

Farm dust helps children raised on dairy farms have reduced allergies and asthma, study says

A study published Thursday in Science says that "growing up on a dairy farm protects children from allergy, hay fever and asthma." Using mice as subjects, researchers said "that chronic exposure to low-dose endotoxin or farm dust protects mice from developing house dust mite induced asthma." Researchers said children growing up on dairy farms "breathe air containing bacterial components, which reduce the overall reactivity of the immune system."

The research is related to the hygiene hypothesis, "where a lack of exposure to microbes as a tyke leads to more allergy and asthma," Rachel Feltman reports for The Washington Post. "There's increasing evidence that farms have the best germs for preventing respiratory problems and allergic reactions later in life. One study found that just 25 percent of children living on Swiss farms reacted to common allergens like dust mites, pollen, animals and mold, while 45 percent of children in the general population reacted." Among Amish children, the rate is 8 percent.

"Scientists believe that the bacteria native to farms, especially ones that house livestock, may trigger something in children who live nearby," Feltman writes. "Scientists induced dust mite allergies in mice, then showed that exposure to dust from a dairy farm made early in life made them immune. Then, they studied the mechanism that was protecting the mice, making their mucous membranes less likely to react to the allergens. They found a protein called A20, which the mice were producing when exposed to the farm dust. When the researchers knocked out the A20 in their subjects' lungs, the farm dust stopped protecting them from allergic reactions." (Read more)

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Ky. clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses jailed; same-sex couple gets license Friday morning

UPDATED, Sept. 4: "James Yates and William Smith Jr. paid $35.50 and filled out some paperwork early Friday to become the first couple to get a marriage license in Rowan County since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage June 26, prompting a license ban by County Clerk Kim Davis," John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Herald-Leader photo by Pablo Alcala: Rowan County deputy clerk Brian Mason shook hands with William Smith Jr., center, and James Yates on Friday morning after granting them a marriage license)

A federal judge today ordered an elected Kentucky county clerk jailed for contempt of court after she refused on religious grounds to obey his order to resume issuing marriage licenses. U.S. District Judge David Bunning said he chose not to fine Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis because her supporters were planning to raise money to pay the fine. "Plaintiffs in the case had asked Bunning to fine Davis, but they specifically requested that he not jail her," notes John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Read more here:

Bunning ordered Davis's six deputies to issue licenses, and five of them said they would comply. "The one holdout was Ms. Davis’s son, Nathan," Alan Blinder reports for The New York Times. "Another hearing was scheduled for later Thursday, and Judge Bunning was expected to consider a request that Ms. Davis be released if she agreed to not interfere with marriage licenses for same-sex couples."

Bunning gave Davis "the chance to stay out of jail if she 'purged her contempt' by allowing one of her deputies to sign marriage licenses in her place," James Higdon and Sandhya Somashekhar report for The Washington Post. "But through an attorney, Davis told the judge that 'She does not grant her authority nor would allow any employee to issue those licenses.' Davis’s decision means the 49-year-old elected public servant will be kept in custody indefinitely as the legal wrangling over her case continues. It also suggests she is willing to martyr herself for her cause, which is the right of public officials to be guided by their personal religious beliefs."

Two other Kentucky clerks, in Casey and Whitley counties, have refused to issue marriage licenses because of their objections to same-sex marriage, but they have not been sued. Neither have any of those in Alabama taking the same stand. The group Freedom to Marry says its surveys of clerks have found 13 in Alabama refusing to issue licenses, Greg Sargent reports for the Post.

More than one-third of 867,000 veterans with pending VA applications for health care are dead

Of the 867,000 veterans that had pending applications—as of Sept. 30, 2014—to receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, 307,143 were dead, said a report released Wednesday by the department's inspector general. More than half of the applications—477,000—did not have application dates, which means the watchdog “could not reliably determine how many records were associated with actual applications for enrollment."

Rural areas are home to 5.6 million veterans, and the VA has been criticized for making veterans wait one month or longer for appointments. The VA, which has said it has no way to purge the list of dead applicants, has publicly acknowledged its system needs improvement.

The report, which recommended a total overhaul of the VA record-keeping system that could take years, found that VA workers incorrectly marked thousands of unprocessed health-care applications as completed and "may have deleted 10,000 or more electronic transactions over the past five years," Emily Wax-Thibodeaux reports for The Washington Post.

Scott Davis, a whistleblower and program specialist at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta, "said he told the VA that 34,000 men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are losing their guaranteed five-year eligibility for VA service due to 'systematic obstacles,'" Wax-Thibodeaux writes. "He said that combat veterans are not required to verify their income when applying for VA benefits. But the enrollment applications of 34,000 such veterans were delayed when the VA system classified them as pending."

Linda Halliday, the VA’s acting inspector general, told The Associated Press "that the agency’s Health Eligibility Center 'has not effectively managed its business processes to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data,'" Wax-Thibodeaux writes.

D.C. reporter visits county labeled worst in natural amenities and learns a lesson about rural life

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Amenities Index, which ranked the most desirable counties to live in based on scenery and climate, has received criticism for downgrading counties for having cold, wintry winters and lacking bodies of water and varied topography. Perhaps no reporter took more heat than The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham, who offended residents of Red Lake County, Minnesota, for pointing out that it was dead last on the list.

"As a reporter, I'm used to folks disagreeing with me, especially when covering contentious topics like guns, gay marriage and drug policy," Ingraham writes. "But until I wrote about the natural amenities index I had never been disagreed with so much. And so politely. Could it really be that bad? I had to find out. At the invite of local businessman Jason Brumwell, I took a trip up there last week to see the truth behind the numbers. I wanted to find out what life in America's worst county was really like."

"Brumwell welcomed the media attention the county's last-place ranking brought and encouraged other businesses to do the same," Ingraham writes. "My original story hadn't quite framed it this way, but some locals took it to mean that we called their county ugly. So, soon after my article went up, restaurants and bars began offering specials on 'ugly burgers' and 'ugly wings.' Officials in Red Lake Falls, the county's largest town, with a population of 1,410, floated the idea of renaming next year's Summerfest the 'Uglyfest.'"

"In the course of my visit, I learned how crucial farming is to the local economy," Ingraham writes. "Agriculture directly or indirectly supports a lot of economic activity in the county. And the small-town narrative we're all used to hearing—of boom and decline, of good jobs leaving for overseas and Main Streets hollowed out by relentlessly low prices—doesn't really seem to apply here. The economic opportunity is a big reason many people stay, and some others who left eventually make their way back here." (Christopher Ingraham)

"Despite a population of only 4,000, the county supports two elementary schools and two high schools," Ingraham writes. "Each of the high schools graduates roughly two dozen students each year, and even the county's poor have a remarkably good shot of becoming middle class later in life, according to a 2013 study by Harvard University's Equality of Opportunity Project. In fact, by most economic metrics, the county looks pretty good. The unadjusted employment rate in July was 4.6 percent, well below the national average. The median household income is $48,000, while the median home value is about $89,000, according to the U.S. Census. The poverty rate is 11.9 percent, below the U.S. average of 15.4 percent."

"What I found most striking is how friendly everyone I'd met had been," Ingraham writes. "They were fiercely proud of their community in a way I'd never seen before—not even during my childhood in small-town upstate New York. . . . Over and over, the folks I spoke with told me it was that sense of community that kept them here, and that contributed to that enormous outpouring of civic pride in response to my original article."

"There's perhaps something amiss in a ranking that places Red Lake County at the absolute bottom of the nation when it comes to scenery and climate," Ingraham writes. "As I noted in my original story, the USDA's index places a lot of emphasis on mild weather and a little less on true scenic beauty, which of course is harder to quantify. But there's no doubt that the Red Lake County region is flat-out gorgeous. You can see that beauty everywhere, from the open farm country to the craggy bluffs and hills of the river valley." (Ingraham photo: Red Lake River)

"When people and places halfway across the country are just a mouse-click away on your computer, it's easy to assume that the we live in a nation made small and manageable by technology," Ingraham writes. "But traveling to a place like Red Lake County, hours away from any major metro area, is a reminder that in much of the country, the rhythms of daily life are, still, markedly different than the coastal city grind of long commutes and high-octane jobs. For some of us, it takes a place as small as Red Lake County to drive home just how big this country really is." (Read more)

Study finds radioactive contaminants in coal ash in Illinois, Appalachian and Powder River basins

A study by researchers at Duke University and the University of Kentucky published in Environmental Science & Technology found the presence of radioactive contaminants in coal ash in the Illinois, Appalachian and Powder River basins, reports Duke. "The study found that levels of radioactivity in the ash were up to five times higher than in normal soil and up to 10 times higher than in the parent coal itself because of the way combustion concentrates radioactivity." The study is the first to compare radioactivity in coal and coal ash, said researchers.

Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said, “Until now, metals and contaminants such as selenium and arsenic have been the major known contaminants of concern in coal ash. This study raises the possibility we should also be looking for radioactive elements, such as radium isotopes and lead-210, and including them in our monitoring efforts.” He said coal ash disposal sites are not currently monitored for radioactivity.

The Illinois basin exhibited the most levels of radioactivity, followed by the Appalachian and then the Powder River, which is in Wyoming and Montana, reports Duke. "The tests also showed that the ratio of radium to uranium in the parent coal was consistent with the ratio found in its residual coal ash." (Read more)

District Court vacates 'threatened' status for lesser prairie chicken

A U.S. District Court on Tuesday vacated federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken, which was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act last year by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Devin Henry reports for The Hill. U.S. District Judge Robert Junell said FWS "did not properly consider active conservation efforts for the bird when listing it last March." The oil and gas industry has challenged the listing of the bird, arguing that the voluntary program would have done enough to protect the bird, which lives mainly in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. (Encyclopedia of Earth map: location of lesser prairie chickens)

"The court ruled that the FWS should have better predicted how many people would participate in the protection program before moving forward with an Endangered Species Act listing," Henry writes. The judge wrote, “The Court finds FSW did conduct an analysis; however, this analysis was neither ‘rigorous’ nor valid as FWS failed to consider important questions and material information necessary to make a proper . . . evaluation.”

Republicans, who have been critical of the listing, applauded the ruling, Henry writes. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Henry, "The U.S. District Court decision ruled that by listing the Lesser Prairie Chicken as threatened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been illegally steamrolling states by their own secret rules."

Conservationists criticized the decision, Henry writes. Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement, “This decision turns the Endangered Species Act on its head by concluding the Fish and Wildlife Service should have given the benefit of the doubt to the oil and gas industry, rather than a species that has seen its habitat and populations vanish." (Read more)

Free webinar Sept. 23 to examine dangers youth face during harvest season

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety is hosting a free webinar on youth safety, "Harvest Season: Are the Children Safe?" at noon (EDT) on Sept. 23. The webinar will look at "actual childhood injury incidents, preview an injury news clippings website and explore the issues and hazards that children are exposed to on farms," such as the dangers of tractors and equipment, engulfment and suffocation hazards with grain harvesting and storage, hazards resulting from harvesting crops and exposures to hazards while visiting farms. Proven safety strategies and resources will also be discussed. A question and answer period will follow a brief presentation. To register, click here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Boone Newspapers expands to Ky. with purchase of The State Journal in Frankfort, the state capital

A recent front page had coverage
of a scandal in the legislature.
The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., can be a difficult newspaper to run because it has two main audiences. The daily is fundamentally a community newspaper because its circulation is almost totally limited to Franklin County, which falls just short of being its own metropolitan area, with a population of 49,285 in 2010. By the broadest definition, that makes it rural, and most of the county is. However, Frankfort is also the state capital (the nation's fifth smallest, with a population of 27,741). That makes it the the residence of about 8,000 state employees, creating a high demand for state government and political news not normally found in a newspaper market of that size. So, The State Journal is a hybrid between a metro paper and community paper.

For 53 years, the Dix family of Wooster, Ohio, has owned The State Journal. Today, Dix Communications sold the paper to Frankfort Newsmedia LLC, mostly owned by Alabama-based Boone Newspapers Inc., for an undisclosed price. "Other owners are Natchez-based Carpenter Newsmedia LLC (CNL) and key BNI personnel," Boone says on its website. "Jim Boone of Tuscaloosa is BNI’s chairman. Todd Carpenter of Natchez is BNI’s president and chief executive officer and principal owner of CNL. . . . BNI owns and manages 70 newspapers in similar-sized communities in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. The State Journal is its first Kentucky newspaper."

The State Journal will continue to be edited by Phil Case, 68, a longtime employee who has been editor since July 2014. “I am delighted to be afforded the opportunity to continue to direct the news operation with the Boone folks,” Case said in the Boone story. “I have been very impressed with their dedication to the communities in which their newspapers are located and their passion for local news will do nothing but enhance this newspaper going forward.” The paper's general manager will be Lloyd Lynch, a longtime employee who has been advertising director and once ran the pressroom. Following some equipment problems recently, the paper has been printed at The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

Labor Day weekend is one of the busiest and deadliest times for driving rural highways

Nearly 33 million drivers are expected to hit the road over Labor Day weekend, Greg Abel reports for CARCHEX, a Baltimore-based company that provides extended auto warranties and inspections. That means many rural highways and interstates will be jam packed with people. (Ann Arbor News photo by Melanie Maxwell: a fatal accident on U.S, 23 in Michigan)

Drivers should try to travel during non-peak times, like early Saturday morning, Abel writes. He also suggests traveling to somewhere that will be less crowded, always checking travel conditions, obeying posted signs, driving carefully and if driving on toll roads, purchasing a pass that lets drivers avoid lines.

Labor Day weekend is the deadliest weekend of the year in some states, such as Michigan, where Michigan State Police say the state averaged 20 deaths per year from 1972 to 2014, Julie Mack reports for MLive. Numbers are down 24 percent in the past decade, down to six last year, a record during the 43 years of available data. Alcohol and drugs were involved in 36 percent of the state's vehicular deaths in 2014, and 56 percent of fatal crashes occurred on a local street or country road, with the majority occurring in rural areas.

To accommodate extra traffic in the popular tourist region around the Virgin River, a 200-mile tributary of the Colorado River that runs through Zion National Park and northwestern Arizona’s Virgin River Gorge before emptying into southern Nevada’s Lake Mead, the Arizona Department of Transportation is opening an extra lane on Interstate 15, Mori Kessler reports for St. George News. The area has been part of a major reconstruction project.

"Labor Day weekend ends what officials call the 100 deadliest days on Utah roads," reports KSL in Salt Lake City. As of Monday, the state has had 189 traffic deaths this year.

Recruiting locally is the key to filling psychiatrist needs in rural and underserved areas

Despite all the incentive programs to bring psychiatrists to rural and underserved areas, the best way to fill the need is through local residents, said Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Lauren Silverman reports for NPR. Diehl told Silverman, "The most successful strategies are to find young people within the rural community. They know the community, they have an investment in the community. Otherwise the turnover rates in these loan repayment programs are pretty high." (Texas Department of State Health Services map)

Travis Singleton, who tracks physician shortages for Merritt Hawkins, a Texas-based consulting firm, said that 185 of the state's 254 counties—consisting of nearly 3.2 million people—lack a psychiatrist, Silverman writes. Singleton told Silverman, "You have less and less residents wanting to go in this specialty in general, and then you have those that actually do practice medicine not necessarily in the most optimal settings for us."

Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Texas) "sponsored a law that, starting in 2016, will help around 100 medical health professionals repay loans if they go to work in underserved areas," Silverman writes. There are also a number of loan repayment programs for students that Diehl said are "at least somewhat successful."

But the key is people like Texas native Karen Duong, a medical student at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who said she is committing to finding a job in a rural town after becoming part of the community in Hereford, a rural town in the panhandle that refers to itself as the "Beef Capital of the World," Silverman writes. Duong told Silverman,"It doesn't compare, having all these luxuries in a city versus being able to go out there and really make a difference in your patients' lives." (Read more)

Walmart, which just raised its minimum wage, announces plans to cut employee hours

Walmart—which in April announced it was installing a company-wide minimum wage of $9, with plans to raise the minimum wage to $10 in February—announced this week that it will reduce employee hours at some stores to cut costs, Sarah Nassauer reports for The Wall Street Journal. A spokesman said stores that will cut hours are those that have been scheduling more hours than they have been allocated. Walmart, a staple in rural areas, has 4,600 stores in the U.S.

Officials, who said some stores increased hours during peak times to move shoppers quickly through checkout lines, said "those efforts contributed to a 15 percent drop in second-quarter net income compared with a year earlier," Nassauer writes. "Store managers being told to cut back have been exceeding those already expanded employee hours . . . In the latest quarter, Wal-Mart also lowered its profit target for the rest of the year despite gains in sales and shopper traffic. Shares of the retailer are down 25 percent so far this year." (Read more)

Clean Power plan a challenge to Western states, but not a death sentence

The Obama administration's Clean Power plan that calls for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 is not the death sentence Western coal states are making it out to be, mostly because "any shutdowns after 2012 will count toward the 2030 targets" and could go a long way toward helping states meet goals, Cally Carswell reports for High Country News.

For example, the Navajo Generating Station and Four Corners Power Plant, both of which sit on the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico, were originally required to cut emissions by 6 percent, but that number increased to 38 percent under revised regulations, Carswell writes. That goal is not as hard as it sounds, considering "three units at Four Corners were idled in 2013 and one at the Navajo Generating Station will likely close in 2019." The 38 percent goal is one "that the planned closures at the two plants could still achieve—or at least come close to—under one of the EPA’s proposed compliance options, according to a rough calculation provided by the Natural Resources Defense Council."

"Similarly, New Mexico’s existing renewable energy and efficiency standards, plus the planned closure of two units at the San Juan Generating Station, seem likely to put the state within striking distance of its 2030 goal," Carswell writes. "PNM, New Mexico’s largest utility, agreed this month to reconsider the remaining units’ future in 2018, and environmental groups remain hopeful it will abandon San Juan. Since the EPA is encouraging participation in emissions trading markets under the Clean Power Plan, PNM might even stand to profit from closing more units. If it reduces emissions more than required, it will have credits to sell on the market, explains Steve Michel, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates."

"As the West’s largest coal economy, Wyoming in particular faces big changes," Carswell writes. "Rob Godby, a University of Wyoming energy economist, says the concern is less how Wyoming will meet its own target than how other states—its coal customers—will meet theirs. Godby led a recent study that found that the regulations could reduce Wyoming coal production by 34 to 50 percent. How big the hit will be depends in part on how much coal power Wyoming’s customers will have the option of keeping, which in turn depends on whether emissions can be offset elsewhere, by improving energy efficiency or buying emissions credits." Godby told Carswell, “This isn’t the death of coal," but he said "it is a formidable new challenge." (Read more)

Algae in Lake Erie hurting fishing industry; prized walleye fleeing water

Algae blooms in Lake Erie are having a major impact on the region's fishing industry, causing the coveted walleye fish to flee for less greener pastures and forcing charter boat captains to cancel trips, John Seewer reports for The Associated Press. "Fishing guides who make their living on the lake say this year's algae bloom is quickly rivaling the worst they've seen in past years." (Blade photo by Vanessa McCray: Algae on the Lake Erie shoreline)

Blooms are being blamed "for contributing to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can't survive," Seewer writes. "Charter boat operators say the first question they hear is no longer about whether the fish are biting. It's now 'How bad is the algae?' and 'Can I eat the fish?'" Blooms, which tint the water a ghoulish green color, "produce a toxin that can cause vomiting, diarrhea or liver damage in extreme cases." Last summer, toxins contaminated the drinking water for 400,000 in the Toledo area and southeastern Michigan.

While officials say the walleye is safe to eat, based on tests conducted over the past four years, that hasn't eased concerns for customers, Seewer writes. Boat captain Dave Spangler, who has spent more than two decades taking groups on the lake, said "the walleye have become so scare that he has discouraged some customers from coming out" and has canceled four trips in the past few weeks. He said he ends up having to take groups farther away, costing him gas money. Spangler told Seewer, "We can get into cleaner water but never completely out of the algae." (Read more)

Judge removes portrait of Confederate general and town's namesake, saying it promotes inequality

A judge in southern Virginia announced on Tuesday that he has removed the portrait of a Confederate general from the courthouse in a town named for the general, saying the courthouse has to remain a neutral location, Ben Williams reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. Judge Martin F. Clark Jr. said that on Aug. 19 he removed the portrait of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart from the Patrick County Circuit Court’s room in Stuart (Best Places map).

Clark wrote in a statement: “The courtroom should be a place every litigant and spectator finds fair and utterly neutral. In my estimation, the portrait of a uniformed Confederate general—and a slave owner himself—does not comport with that essential standard.” Clark said it is his "duty as a judge to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice." He wrote, "Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African-Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history.”

Clark wrote: “I’m proud to live in Patrick County, proud to live in the South. I’m proud of our music, our food, our literature, our accomplishments in every possible field, our manners and traditions, our sense of connection with our neighbors, our quiet sacrifices, our grit and courage throughout generations, our savvy and intelligence and the rhythms, feel and strength of this slice of the world. That’s my Southern heritage, and it’s far, far distant from the battlefields of the 1860s." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Activist law firm says 141 counties have more voters than eligible residents, threatens to sue

An Indiana-based law firm that pushes conservative causes, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, is threatening lawsuits against 141 U.S. counties that it says has more registered voters than residents who are eligible to vote, Joe Schoffstall reports for The Washington Free Beacon. (Associated Press photo)

The PILF says the counties are not being accused of voter fraud, but are putting themselves in position to be victims of fraud, Schoffstall writes. J. Christian Adams, PILF's president and general counsel, said, “Corrupted voter rolls provide the perfect environment for voter fraud. Close elections tainted by voter fraud turned control of the United States Senate in 2009. Too much is at stake in 2016 to allow that to happen again.”

Here is a letter sent to the Wayne County, Michigan clerk. Michigan has the most counties on the list, at 24. Kentucky is second with 18, followed by Illinois, 17; Indiana, 11; Alabama, 10; Colorado, 10; Texas, 9; and Nebraska, 7. The phenomenon appears to be mainly a function of emigrants leaving their voter registration in their former county; many of the Kentucky counties are in Appalachia, which is losing population. In Alabama, “Every one of the counties has lost population since the 2010 census,” Secretary of State John Merrill told The Tuscaloosa News.
Franklin County, Illinois, has the biggest registration rate, 190 percent. Greg Woolard, Franklin County’s clerk and chief elections official, "said it is difficult to keep up with voters who move," Brendan Kirby reports for LifeZette. “When someone moves, we have no way of knowing. They don’t tell us,” Woolard said. “Right now, we’re in the middle of a purge. I just took office in December. I don’t think there had been one previously for a few years.”

All 10 Alabama counties on the list are located in rural areas. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the counties have all lost population since 2010 and he believes that many of those people remain on the voting rolls, Mike Cason reports for The Huntsville Times. Merrill told Cason, "This is just something we inherited, but it's something we intend to fix."

Rural companies that supply coal equipment feeling the crunch from loss of Appalachian coal jobs

The loss of Appalachian coal jobs is not only affecting coal-mining towns but also the rural towns that supply coal equipment, John Miller reports for The Wall Street Journal. "As big coal miners struggle, their equipment suppliers—thousands of firms sprinkled throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky—are scrambling to find new customers anywhere they can." (Journal photo by Jeff Swensen: Metalworkers at Brookville Equipment rebuild a streetcar)

"The modern coal industry is heavily mechanized, and miners depend on a broad web of equipment makers and tool shops," Miller writes. "The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy estimates that four subsidiary jobs depend on every coal-mining job." Ted Boettner, the center’s executive director, told Miller, “Coal mining requires tons of machinery and equipment. And the problem is that coal companies tend to not be diversified. They’re not also into solar panels.”

Suppliers are feeling the crunch, Miller writes. Petra Industrial Services Inc., a Lochgelly, W.Va.-based machine shop, has had to reduce staff from 12 to 10 employees and is scrambling to find buyers, mainly because its big buyer, Arch Coal, has been downsizing. Princeton Machinery Services Inc., in Princeton, W.Va, once boasted 50 percent of its clientele as coal miners, but that number is now 10 percent. Jerry Fredericks, whose family owns Petra, told Miller, “It’s been catastrophic. And there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re just part of the supply chain.”

While companies trying to find other buyers, "nothing will replace the massive scale of the coal-mining sector, and as the generational coal crisis ripples throughout the hamlets and hollows of Appalachia, economists are debating the region’s most viable path for growth," Miller writes. "The plight of big coal is particularly bleak in Central Appalachia, where coal seams are thinner and costs have increased, and where the oil-price collapse has hurt natural-gas drilling and steelmaking. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., one of the nation’s biggest miners, declared bankruptcy on Aug. 3, and other filings are expected." (Read more)

Only 2% of farmland will be available to new farmers, USDA survey finds

More families are creating trust investments to make sure farm land remains in the family, leaving less land for beginning farmers, Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey shows that about a 10 percent "of the 911 million farmland acres outside of Alaska and Hawaii—about 91.5 million acres—is slated for ownership transfer in the next five years, not including farmland that is in or expected to be put into wills."

Landlords are expect to keep or put nearly 48 percent of these acres in trusts, Enoch writes. "Some 26 million acres are expected to be sold to a relative or given as a gift, and only 21 million acres are expected to be sold to a non-relative. This means that only a small percentage of farmland—just over 2 percent—will be available for new entrants into the farming sector."

"The survey showed that 353.8 million acres of land were rented out for agricultural purposes by more than 2 million landowners last year," for about 39 percent of total farmland, Enoch writes. "Of the 2 million or so landowners, 13 percent were farmers and ranchers, and 87 percent were landlords who do not operate a farm."

Joseph T. Reilly, administrator for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, said "the total value of the land and buildings on the rented acres was $1.1 trillion," Enoch writes. "About 63 percent of the total land rented was for cropland, and 34 percent was for pasture. Non-operator landlords leased oil and gas rights on 31.9 million acres and sold those rights on 4.1 million acres. Out of total farmland, oil and gas rights were leased on 61 million acres and sold on 11.3 million." (Read more)

Vermont battling opiate addiction by offering offenders treatment instead of prosecution

Vermont, one of the most rural states in the nation, is waging one of the most aggressive battles against opiates by offering "people who are picked up by police the choice of treatment instead of criminal prosecution," Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. Since making a January 2014 speech pledging to reduce opiate sales and use, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin has "signed bills and executive orders that included $6.7 million for a 'hub and spoke' treatment program of central facilities and small treatment outposts, a medication-assisted addiction therapy program, tougher sentences for drug traffickers and new regulations for prescribing and monitoring prescription drugs."

The plan has been a huge success, with a state report saying that medically assisted drug treatment increased by 40 percent from January 2014 to January 2015, Povich writes. "Of those who completed treatment plans, 75 percent showed improved functioning. But the report also said more treatment opportunities are needed, citing the difficulty in hiring and retaining clinicians and other health care providers as a major obstacle."

Shumlin told Pobich, "When I became governor, I kept having moms grab my jacket, or dads, or sons or daughters, saying addiction is going on in our families. So I went into the prisons, talked to addicts, recovery folks, I talked to law enforcement, to the judiciary, everybody I could talk to. And what I learned was that we were doing almost everything wrong. We seized the opportunity to change the system to one that deals with this as a disease, like cancer or kidney disease or any other health challenge." (Stateline map)

"The window of opportunity to move folks from denial to recovery is when they are most in crisis—when the blue lights are flashing and the handcuffs are on," Shumlin said. "But we used to have a system that took months. And by the time you got to the judge, you are back abusing, back dealing and back denying. So, we changed the system. We said if you go to treatment, if you move to recovery, you will never see a judge or have a criminal record. And we do that while the blue lights are flashing. This happens immediately. We move non-violent offenders into recovery."

"I think the biggest surprise is the more we change attitudes about the disease, the more we have people coming forward confessing that they have it," Shumlin said. "The secrecy, shame and grief that accompany opiate addiction stand in the way of recovery. I underestimated that when we changed the debate . . . We have succeeded in removing some of the shame and that has resulted in more folks signing up for recovery treatment." (Read more)

PBS to rebroadcast 'The Civil War'; first episode looks at impact of slavery on war

Supporters of the Confederate flag say it represents heritage, not hate, a claim disputed by Civil War historians. The flag has been at the heart of controversy since the June 17 murders of nine African Americans in a historic Charleston, S.C., church and the arrest of a white suspect with ties to hate crimes. Since the shootings, some have called for banning the flag, others have rallied behind it and disputes continue about what the flag means and how the Civil War is taught in classrooms in relation to slavery. (Slaves working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, South Carolina, 1862)

That makes this the perfect time for PBS to broadcast a completely restored version of the nine-part series, "The Civil War," by Ken Burns. The series, which begins airing on Sept. 7, will offer a great opportunity for rural newspapers to write about the war and get lively discussions going in the community about what it means locally and nationally.

The first episode, "The Cause," gets right to the heart of the impact historians believe slavery had on the war. Here's a description of the episode: "Beginning with a searing indictment of slavery, this first episode dramatically evokes the causes of the war, from the Cotton Kingdom of the South to the northern abolitionists who opposed it. Here are the burning questions of Union and states' rights, John Brown at Harpers Ferry, the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the firing on Fort Sumter and the jubilant rush to arms on both sides. Along the way the series' major figures are introduced: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and a host of lesser-known but equally vivid characters. The episode comes to a climax with the disastrous Union defeat at Manassas, Va., where both sides learn it is to be a very long war."

Small hog farmers cry foul, say payments to National Pork Board are used to lobby against them

The National Pork Board, a government-sponsored entity funded by a tax on hog farmers, pays an industrial pork lobby with close ties to the board $3 million every year to license the slogan, the "other white meat," even though the slogan hasn't been officially used since 2011, Danny Vinik reports for Politico. "Farmers who pay for the board are crying foul, saying the deal amounts to a scheme to let the board skirt anti-lobbying laws and promote an agenda directly against their interests."

The 20-year deal sends $60 million from the nonpartisan Pork Board to the slogan’s legal owner, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), a lobby with which it once shared an office, Vinik writes. "Small farmers have long been unhappy about the close relationship between the two groups and see the rich payments for a defunct slogan as an egregious example of the government taking their money and then letting it be siphoned off to an industry group."

That has led a group of small hog farmers and the Humane Society of the United States to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture "to undo the deal and recoup the millions of dollars already paid for the defunct 'other white meat' slogan. Earlier this month a U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit allowed the suit to proceed."

"Many critics also see the deal as symptomatic of a far broader problem with the 'checkoff' programs that have become common across the agricultural world, in which the government requires farmers to make regular payments to promotional boards," Vinik writes. "Checkoffs exist for dairy farmers, mushroom producers and even popcorn processors. Critics say they violate economic freedom and distort the market; big corporate farmers, they allege, easily find ways to influence the boards and siphon the money off to push their own causes."

For hog farmers, "the current problem started with the 1985 Pork Law, when Congress set up the National Pork Board and required all farmers to contribute," Vinik writes. "Today, hog farmers must hand over 40 cents out of every $100 in revenue from pork sales. The board uses the money, totaling nearly $100 million a year, to conduct research and promote the pork industry but is not allowed to lobby."

"The main pork lobby is the National Pork Producers Council, which donated nearly a half million dollars to candidates in the 2014 midterm— mainly, its critics say, to press the interests of big corporate hog farms," Vinik writes. "Legally, it isn’t supposed to use Pork Board money for its lobbying activities. But critics say the two groups have never been as separate as the law calls for and now are essentially colluding through a deal that lets the Pork Board funnel money to the NPCC by assigning an absurdly inflated value to the 'other white meat' slogan; the money then goes to promote the NPPC’s lobbying agenda." (Read more)

Toxic algae blooms spreading in Ohio River on Ohio/West Virginia border

High levels of toxic algae blooms have been reported in two areas of the Ohio River in Monroe County, Ohio, reports WTRF7 in Wheeling, W.Va. The Monroe County Health Department has posted signs that people and pets are advised not to touch or drink the water at Sunfish Creek in Clarington (Best Places map) while algae levels are also high at Duffy, where the marina is currently shut down for renovations.

John Shreve, Director of Environmental Health, told WTRF, "We just urge residents to stay out of the water. If a child or a pet happens to get in it, wash with soap and water as quickly as possible. And if they get at all sick, seek medical attention." He said "it's actually fortunate that it looks so disgusting because it naturally discourages people from swimming, water skiing or boating. He said if it were invisible, he thinks a lot of people would be getting sick." Symptoms range "from a itch, to a rash, to stomach problems and nervous system problems." (Read more)

Clerk who continues to deny marriage licenses is ordered to appear in court with deputies Thursday

A federal judge has ordered the Kentucky county clerk who continues to refuse marriage licenses to anyone, citing her religious objections to same-sex marriage, to appear in court with her deputies Thursday to explain why she shouldn't be held in contempt of court, John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Cheves photo: A crowd gathered at the clerk's office Tuesday)

Read more here:

This morning Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis "told two couples who asked for marriage licenses that she would not issue them, despite a federal court injunction ordering her to do so," Cheves writes. "In a brief but tense encounter between Davis and a couple dozen marriage-equality demonstrators who crowded into her office, the clerk repeatedly said she was not issuing licenses." When asked "Under whose authority?" she replied, "God's authority. I'm willing to face my consequences, and you all will face your consequences when it comes time for judgment. Plain and simple." For video of the confrontation, from Lexington's WKYT-TV, click here.

Cheves reports, "Outside the Rowan County courthouse, more than 100 protesters—some supporting Davis, others opposing he  shouted slogans at one another from across the entryway. Sheriff's deputies stood and watched, but there were no arrests." District Judge David Bunning "ordered her to resume on Aug. 12, an order she unsuccessfully appealed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and, over the weekend, to the Supreme Court," which denied her appeal. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union said they are not seeking to have Davis jailed, but fined so heavily that she will be forced to relent or resign. (Read more)

Rowan County is just outside the Eastern
Kentucky Coal Field. (Wikipedia map)
In Kentucky, an elected official can only be removed by impeachment or conviction for official misconduct, which is currently being pursued by the county attorney through the office of Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor in the Nov. 3 election. Religious conservatives have criticized Conway for not appealing the initial ruling against the state's ban on same-sex marriage; that was one of the rulings upheld by the Supreme Court in June. For coverage from the local weekly, go to

Monday, August 31, 2015

More than 1.2 million U.S. students are homeless; rural areas seeing an increase in homelessness

The number of homeless students in the U.S. reached an all-time high of 1,258,182 during the 2012-13 school year, up 8 percent from the previous year and up 85 percent since the 2006-07 school year, Allie Bidwell reported in September 2014 for U.S. News & World Report. Of those students, 75,940 live on their own. It's not just an urban problem. Rural homelessness has become an epidemic, according to an interactive map with state-level data.

Kentucky has the highest rate of rural homeless students, with more than 30,000 total homeless students, or 5 percent of the state's 685,167 students, Beth Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. New York has the second highest rate, at 4.85 percent, followed by California, 4.18 percent; Alabama, 4 percent; New Mexico, 3.45 percent; Oklahoma, 3.39 percent; and Oregon, 3.36 percent. (The number of rural homeless in Kentucky peaked at 35,000 during the 2011-12 school year but is down to around 30,000 now)
The U.S. Department of Education considers a child homeless "if they are living in a shelter, motel or campground, car, outside, or with another family member due to loss of housing or economic hardship," Musgrave writes. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "does not include children who are 'couch surfing' with friends and family because their parents can't keep stable housing. Education officials do. That means the 'official' homeless count leaves most of these kids out."

"The number of homeless kids in Kentucky schools has nearly doubled in less than six years," Musgrave writes. In Eastern Kentucky—where many impoverished counties have struggled with the loss of coal jobs—homeless students are especially high. The homeless rate in Harlan County is 26.21 percent, Knott County is 24.87 percent, Rowan County, 24.38 percent; Lee County, 20.83 percent; and Lawrence County, 20.12 percent.

Kentucky Department of Education officials say the greatest reason for the increase in homeless is better identification techniques, Musgrave writes. Other factors are a depressed economy, Kentucky's high rate of drug addiction and limited shelter options.
While homeless rates are up, funding is down, Musgrave writes. "Federal funding for homeless students in Kentucky has remained flat for the past five years at about $1 million, data from the state Department of Education shows. Only 17 of 172 Kentucky school systems receive the funding. But by law, school systems are required to provide services to homeless children, whether the districts receive the grant or not."

In light of brutal fire season, Congress needs to act to protect National Forests, writers say

This year's brutal fire season—with more than seven million acres burning, including nearly one million acres of National Forests—should be a concern to everyone, regardless of where you live, writes Marshall Matz, who specializes in agriculture issues at OFW Law, and Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, for Agri-Pulse.

"The 153 National Forests—covering 191 million acres in 40 states—were originally set aside to secure water flows, provide forage for livestock and provide needed timber for our forest products industry," Matz and Imbergamo write. "That mission—since added to and modified—has evolved but not fundamentally changed. With heavy fuel loads, a warming and drying climate and a dysfunctional system for funding fire suppression, however, it's not clear the National Forests will be able to provide these public benefits for much longer."

"The Obama administration rightly points out that the current system for funding wildfire suppression is broken—and just announced plans to begin another round of 'fire borrowing'—where funds Congress appropriates for land management are redirected to pay for the firefighters, air tankers and other material needed to try to stop the megafires burning in California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington, among other states," Matz and Imbergamo write. "The fires are having a devastating economic impact on local communities and Indian tribes." (U.S. Department of Agriculture map)

Agriculture Commissioner Tom Vilsack has said that in another decade fire suppression will consume two-thirds of the Forest Service's discretionary budget, up from a decade ago when it was 16 percent of the budget, Matz and Imbergamo write. That means Congress needs to step up "and start treating fire suppression costs like the emergencies they are—and fast."

In July the House passed a bi-partisan bill "which would speed up needed forest management on the National Forests," Matz and Imbergamo write. The bill "provides streamlined NEPA compliance mechanisms for projects designed by collaboration between key stakeholders. It also encourages creation of needed wildlife habitat, and provides alternative funding mechanisms for management projects—many of which focus on reducing the threat of catastrophic fires."

"Just before the bill came to the floor, a provision was added that would give the Forest Service access to emergency funds after the 10-year average in suppression costs had been expended," Matz and Imbergamo write. "A similar provision was included in the Senate Interior bill, which cleared committee but has yet to come to the floor. Just before the Senate left for August recess, a critical group of 11 Senators expressed commitment to addressing the fire funding problem."

"Finally, current law doesn't allow the Forest Service to use receipts generated from the removal of timber and biomass to pay for needed analysis on future projects," Matz and Imbergamo write. "In short, any legislation to address the fire funding crisis also has to address the forest management crisis. There is a hard core of activists who will use every weapon at hand to delay and disrupt needed management, and Congress needs to send an unmistakable message: management of our forests can't wait. National Forests are not National Parks. They have different statutory purposes, and the Congress should not allow the statutes to be amended through litigation." (Read more)

Auto insurance companies accused of discriminating against low-income rural drivers

Consumer advocates say low-income drivers in some rural areas "are routinely priced out of insurance coverage because they are judged not just by their driving records but by their credit scores, occupation, education level or other factors," Sarah Breitenbach reports for Stateline. "It’s a discriminatory practice by insurance companies that disproportionately increases premium payments for low-income drivers, said J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas insurance commissioner and director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA)."

Some states are trying to stop the practice, Breitenbach writes. "California, Hawaii and Massachusetts prohibit insurers from using credit scores to determine how much drivers should pay. And legislation was introduced this year in almost a dozen others to prevent insurance companies from using credit scores, occupation, education level or other standards in factoring how much they should charge for car insurance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures."

"California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio and, most recently, Pennsylvania, have ruled that insurance companies cannot use 'price optimization'—evaluating consumer data or competitors’ prices to determine whether a customer is likely to shop around—to set prices for policies," Breitenbach writes.

Doug Heller, a California-based consultant to the CFA, said one problem is that insurance companies know that "low-income drivers often are less likely to shop around for competitive rates partly because of lower financial literacy" and "will raise premiums on those drivers because they think they’ll stick with them rather than go to a competitor," Breitenbach writes. Heller told her, “The insurance companies charge the most to the people who can afford it the least. That’s because auto insurance companies place such a large emphasis on their customers’ occupation, level of education, credit history and other factors related to wealth, rather than driving safety.”

Advocates for insurers disagree, saying "they use legitimate tools to set prices based on their financial risk," Breitenbach writes. "Price optimization has actually lowered insurance rates and is likely to create long-term price stabilization, said Robert Hartwig, president and economist at the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit communications group supported by the insurance industry. And, he said, auto insurance rates are declining for all drivers, including moderate- and low-income motorists." (Read more)

Remembering and honoring Joe Lee, the debtors' bankruptcy judge

Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, gave a tribute to the late Joe Lee, a federal bankruptcy judge, at a memorial service in Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 29. Lee was also profiled in the The Huffington Post by financial and best selling author Don McNay, a Kentucky resident.

Smith said of Lee, "He was a reticent man of few words, but his was a powerful mind, his thoughts finding expression in memorable research, writing and editing articles, and crafting legal opinions, yes, and lobbying Congress, in a career that earned him a national reputation as a pioneer for bankruptcy and creditor reform."

Judge Joe Lee
Lee wrote the Bankruptcy Practice Manual "to instruct young lawyers how to write a bankruptcy filing because so many who came to his court didn't know," Smith said. Lee's wife Carol said the royalties from the book, also known as "Lee on Bankruptcy," and the annual editions that followed, "helped educate Carole to become a CPA and each of his four daughters—Caroline, Annabelle, Caitlin and Janet, in different fields."

Smith said, "this soft-spoken, gentle jurist from the mountains, son of a Bell County coal miner and an Alabama-born mother had likely earned more from his legal textbook than nearly all the novelists I knew who turned to teaching creative writing to make a living."

"Whether it was an impressive college record or political connections through a father who had only a sixth-grade education but was a respected union leader, I learned Joe had fast climbed a ladder, clerking for judges and as a committee aide in Congress and then, at 35, becoming perhaps the youngest bankruptcy judge in America," Smith said. "Judge Joe taught an early class at UK Law School before holding court in town or headed for the hills to preside over the largest bankruptcy docket in the U.S., covering 24,000 square miles in—where else?—Appalachian Kentucky."

"At the same time, while my new friend was editing the Academy of Bankruptcy Journal, with a pencil and a yellow legal pad, I found out that much of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 was his doing and that he was strongly opposed to proposed changes at century's end that he felt were inspired by credit card banks and donations to congressmen," Smith said. "This was a campaign he would lose, but I will report that when the editor of one of our largest papers retired, one to whom I had written many letters urging support of Joe's position, the editor confessed to me, “'not listening to you about Judge Lee was the worst mistake I ever made on the editorial page.'”

"Joe was scrupulously fair, but he labored to restore dignity to individual debtors," Smith said. "That was his credo. With Senator Warren he disputed the description of debtors as 'deadbeats.' Not so, they said, asserting data that, in most cases the causes the courts are dealing with are loss of a job, serious illness, or divorce. Joe Lee grew up in our hardscrabble hills with the mindset of folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He believed 'This Land is Your Land . . . made for you and me.' On one of his birthdays, the Lee children arranged for him and Carole to spend a day with Pete Seeger in the New York countryside on the Hudson River."

"It was a meeting of instant friends, with the same convictions:
    It's the hammer of justice
    It's the bell of freedom
    It's a song about love between
    My brothers and my sisters
    All over this land.
Joe Lee: Short name, big man."

Native American officials say power plants should get breaks under Clean Power plan

Operators of four power plants on Native American reservations, who thought they had to cut emissions by 5 percent under the Obama administration's Clean Power plan, say that final regulations that upped their reduction target to 20 percent are unfair, Naveena Sadasivam reports for InsideClimate News. Two of the four plants in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah "provide power to half a million homes and have been pinpointed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a major source of pollution––and a cause for reduced visibility in the Grand Canyon. These two plants alone emit more than 28 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, triple the emissions from facilities in Washington state."

Tribal leaders say they should receive special consideration, Sadasivam writes. Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, wrote in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, "The Navajo Nation is a uniquely disadvantaged people, and their unique situation justified some accommodation." Shelly said "the region's underdeveloped economy, high unemployment rates and reliance on coal are the result of policies enacted by the federal government over several decades. If the coal plants decrease power production to meet emissions targets, Navajos will lose jobs, and its government will receive less revenue." (InsideClimate News graphic)

Some locals disagree, saying Navajo leaders are not considering the best interests of residents, Sadasivam writes. Colleen Cooley of the grassroots nonprofit Diné CARE, said "the Navajo lands have been mined for coal and uranium for decades, resulting in contamination of water sources and air pollution. She said it's time to shift to new, less damaging power sources such as wind and solar."

Environmental groups say "the Navajo plants are responsible for premature deaths, hundreds of asthma attacks and hundreds of millions of dollars of annual health costs," Sadasivam writes. "The plants, which are owned by public utilities and the federal government, export a majority of the power out of the reservation to serve homes and businesses as far away as Las Vegas and help deliver Arizona's share of the Colorado River water to Tucson and Phoenix. Meanwhile, a third of Navajo Nation residents remain without electricity in their homes." (Read more)