Thursday, October 15, 2015

Appalachian agency head: E. Ky. economic effort 'most exciting' thing in community development

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky

SOMERSET, Ky. -- The bipartisan effort to revive and diversify Eastern Kentucky's coal-dependent economy "is the most exciting thing occurring in local community development and revitalization anywhere in this country," the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission said at an ARC economic-development conference Thursday.

Earl Gohl said the key has been the involvement of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who leaves office in December, and Republican U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers of Somerset, whose 5th District is the poorest in the nation and includes virtually all of the East Kentucky Coalfield.

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region initative covers all 54 of the counties served by the Appalachian commission, but its focus is on the coal counties, which have seen half of their mining jobs disappear in the last three years.

Republicans and some Democrats have blamed that on President Obama's environmental policies, but  Rogers, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, has downplayed that in his work with Beshear. At an announcement of the latest round of federal grants to help the region, he said the coal industry needs "regulatory relief" but let it go at that.

Beshear said, "When the coal industry took a real dive . . . we didn't know what to do, but we knew we had to do something. . . . The key to where we are today is the realization of folks in Eastern Kentucky is that while the coal industry is gonna be with us for a long, long time . . . it's never gonna employ the people that it used to employ."

Rogers said his partnership with Beshear "has been a model of non-partisanship, bipartisanship" that is "now extending to the local level," where he and Beshear agree the keys to success lie.

"This could not be a top down process; this had to be built from the ground up," Beshear said. "We've both been amazed how quickly people here have grabbed his and made it their own and said, by golly, we're gonna make our region great."

Beshear will leave office in December, and "SOAR is going to face a real critical period of time because of that," Rogeers said. "We will never have a governor . . . as excited about SOAR as you are," he told Beshear. "I know that concerns you, and it concerns me."
Rogers told the audience, "We've been really lucky in Eastern Kentucky that we've had a governor who would get so involved in our future," Rogers said. "This governor has devoted himself, excited himself, about East Kentucky. . . . He could have taken the easy way out and the political way out, but he didn't."

Beshear put state money where his mouth was, getting $30 million from the legislature to build, largely with private investment, a statewide broadband network that will go up first in Eastern Kentucky.

"Kentucky is dead last in the speed of its Internet system," Beshear told the crowd. "We put together the biggest public-private partnership in Kentucky's history," and perhaps the largest such project in nation, "but we have to do the last mile, and the last mile is up to your local communities and the telcos." The "middle-mile" project will make very high-speed Internet service (up to 25 megabits per second) availlable in every county, but it will be up to telecommunications companies, local governments or other entities to build the "last mile" to consumers.

Some of the grants announced at the meeting will fund training to help key players in the region help other leaders and potential consumers understand the value and potential of higher-speed Internet, and its essential role in economic development.

Beshear and Rogers noted that SOAR is also tackling the region's great problems of poor health and substance abuse, which have compromised its economic potential. Beshear said the latter issue has been exacerbated by more people being out of work. "Education is a key, treatment is a key, but improving the economy is the key," he said, adding that the region's leaders need to create hope and make people think they have a future.

Rogers said, "You can't arrest yourself out of this problem, you can't educate yourself out of this problem; you cant treat yourself out of this problem. You've got to have all three."

He said churches have also played an important role when they "get out of the other side of the stained glass windows where the ox is in the ditch and help your neighbor. . . . We've got to solve the attitude toward people abusing themselves."

In response to a question, both men said the region needs to develop an entrepreneurial culture. "This is going to be the key to success," Beshear said. "The basis of our economy is small business; we need to encourage more start-up companies."

Rogers said entrepreneurship withered in the era when people knew they could get good-paying jobs at coal companies. "We've had a dearth of entrepreneurs," he said, "and we've almost forgotten how to do it."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fewer families opting to pay full price for school lunches; costs up 4.7% percent in rural areas

State-level data shows that fewer school children who do not qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches are paying full price for meals, Katherine Ralston and Constance Newman report for Amber Waves, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The main reasons are that the number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increased, school lunch prices increased, the recession has led some families to opt to pack lunches and changing nutrition standards are causing some children to lose interest in eating school meals.

In fiscal year 2014, 37 percent of students paid full-price for school lunches, down from 47 percent in fiscal year 2008, Ralston and Newman write. The number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increased by five million over the past decade—overall the percent of children that qualify for free or reduced-price meals has increased from 60 percent to 72 percent.

During that same time the number of children paying full-price decreased, Ralston and Newman write. "The 2007-09 recession and slow recovery not only resulted in more students' qualifying for free lunches but also reduced the ability of many non-eligible families to pay for lunch . . . Americans cut back on the number of meals and snacks eaten away from home, as unemployment both reduced incomes and increased the time available for preparing meals at home." Increasing costs for a paid lunch are especially high in rural areas, where schools reported an average increase of 4.7 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in urban areas.

"At the same time, major changes were made to school meal program reimbursements and revenue requirements, along with changes to the meals themselves," Ralston and Newman write. "In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Act addressed concerns about the nutritional quality of children’s diets, school meals and competitive foods available in schools (those not part of the school meal, such as a la carte items or foods and drinks sold in vending machines). Key provisions of the Act also addressed concerns about the financial and administrative challenges of school meal operations."

Some students have refused to eat the healthier foods, complaining that the food doesn't taste good, and have gone to social media to post photos of what they say are unappetizing meals. School officials have also complained about an increase in the amount of food waste. A recent study said the healthy lunch program is leading to less intake of fruits and vegetables. (USDA map)

Increasing number of Americans believe in climate change, survey finds; 70% say evidence exists

An increasing number of Americans believe evidence exists for global warming, says a survey by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College. The survey of 911 participants conducted in September found that 70 percent of Americans believe in the science of climate change, up from 63 percent from a survey from July, Emma Howard reports for The Guardian. "The swing is largely due to recognition of the role that climate change is playing in changing weather patterns, with respondents citing weather events close to home, according to Prof Barry Rabe, a co-author from the University of Michigan."

"Researchers said the significant rise in acceptance is particularly notable among Republicans and evangelical Christian groups," Howard writes. Another factor is Pope Francis, with 15 percent of respondents saying his recent visit to the U.S. made them believers in climate change and 61 percent "supporting the call to action in his landmark climate change encyclical in June." (University of Michigan graphic: Results from the last survey released in July)

Supreme Court's black lung ruling could make it easier for others to get benefits

"The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of a major coal company’s appeal of the award of federal black lung benefits to a Kentucky widow is expected to make the pursuit of the benefits less of a struggle for many," reports The Mountain Eagle in Eastern Kentucky. "The Supreme Court denied Peabody Coal’s appeal of the award of black lung benefits to Eva Elizabeth Hill, a widow from Drakesboro in Western Kentucky." (Best Places map: The Mountain Eagle is located in coal country in Eastern Kentucky)

Her husband, Arthur Hill, "was awarded federal black lung benefits in 1987 because after 41 years in the mines, he was disabled because of black lung," reports the Eagle. "When Mr. Hill passed away in 2000, Mrs. Hill filed for benefits but was denied because she was not able to prove that black lung caused his death. For most widows, this would have been the end of the story. But in 2010, as a part of the Affordable Care Act, Congress restored the 'automatic entitlement' provision to the Black Lung Benefits Act. Under this provision, when a miner who is receiving federal black lung benefits dies, his widow needs only to fill out a simple form to begin receiving benefits."

"In 2011, Mrs. Hill filled out that form and was awarded benefits. Since then, Peabody Coal has been challenging her award, arguing that it is unconstitutional to reconsider her entitlement to benefits because her previous denial was affirmed by a federal court," reports the Eagle. "After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed her award of benefits, Peabody Coal took the case all the way to the Supreme Court."

"The Supreme Court issued an order late last week, declining to review Mrs. Hill’s case," reports the Eagle. "This is a win for Mrs. Hill and leaves her award untouched. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hill passed away this fall, while her case was pending before the Supreme Court."

Her attorney Evan Smith of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which provides free legal services for miners and widows seeking black lung benefits, told reporters, “Mrs. Hill’s perseverance in fighting for her widow’s benefits for over 15 years created precedent that should make the pursuit of black lung benefits less of a struggle for other widows going forward.” The Mountain Eagle is behind a two-week paywall.

Expanding broadband to ag communities would boost economies, John Deere exec tells committee

Cory Reed
Expanding broadband to rural areas is crucial for boosting the economy of agricultural communities, John Deere senior vice president of intelligent solutions Cory Reed told senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week, reports Agri-Pulse. Reed told the committee, “Large swaths of agricultural land in the United States—where people do not reside, but where they work and contribute to the rural and national economy—are wholly lacking broadband coverage."

In rural America, 53 percent of people "don’t have access to Internet with at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download/3 Mbps upload speeds—the slowest speeds the Federal Communications Commission say qualify as broadband—when only 9 percent of urbanites go without," reports Agri-Pulse.

Reed said the "most important technologies to modern, precision agriculture are wireless data transfer systems and GPS-enabled machinery—both of which need reliable broadband access to function," reports Agri-Pulse. He told committee members, "The rapid adoption of information technologies and services across the agricultural economy today is no less significant than was the introduction of mechanization to farming almost 100 years ago."

"Wireless Internet access allows farmers access to data communications both on and off the tractor, Reed said," reports Agri-Pulse. "For instance on the tractor, farmers can receive real-time information on field conditions, weather and other environmental factors and manage fleets and collect data needed for regulatory compliance. Off the tractor, data collected on the field can be sent to another machine, a database housed on the farm, to John Deere or other companies and be aggregated and analyzed alongside millions of other data points collected across the country."

"By using a Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows for sub-inch level accuracy in the planting of seed and the application of fertilizer and pesticides, farmers can reduce their fuel, labor and water costs," reports Agri-Pulse. "Accenture, a company that provides a precision ag service, estimates the benefits of using these systems together could add up to $55 to $110 per acre in increased profit and 15 percent greater overall improved crop productivity. "

"On a macro-scale, these technologies allow farmers to tackle the 'growing challenges' of environmental sustainability and conservation compliance, said Reed, by reducing the amount of nutrient and sediment runoff from their land that could otherwise impair waterways," reports Agri-Pulse. "They also help farmers increase yields in an era where a dramatic increase in the world’s population—estimated to exceed 9 billion people by 2050 from just over 7 billion now—is approaching, and 'the supply of skilled labor for agriculture is not enough to meet (that) demand.' But in order to get the most of modern farm machinery, farmers need faster Internet access—and that takes more infrastructure." Agri-Pulse is subscription-only but offers a four-week free trial.

Lawmakers who cower to pro-gun lobbyists partly to blame for gun violence, rural editor opines

Guns don't kill people—people do, especially the lawmakers who refuse to take a stand against pro-gun lobbyists, opines Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor and publisher of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle. Here is an excerpt from her column:
"Eventually, it begins to make a sick kind of sense, and we realize that maybe it’s true. People kill people. Gutless, greedy lawmakers kill people. They cower in the presence of pro-gun lobbyists, who have convinced them they hold the keys to the kingdom—and perhaps, they do.

Laurie Ezzell Brown
"Well-armed with gleaming campaign cash and boasting, according to grand wizard Wayne LaPierre, over 5 million members, the NRA poses a formidable obstacle to the election chances of any public official bold enough to wonder whether perhaps it is time to take sensible steps to address the growing threat and increasing frequency of gun violence in our country.

"Maybe those people—our duly-elected representatives— should be held accountable. After all, it is they who wield both the tools to write and pass reasonable gun laws. It is they who could require criminal background checks on both gun owners and gun shop employees and restrict concealed carry permits to those who have completed safety training courses and who are 21 and older. It is they who have the power to prohibit the issuance of concealed carry permits to perpetrators of violent misdemeanors or to those arrested for domestic violence and to require instant background checks on all retail and gun show sales.

"People kill people. Indeed. We kill people. Kind and caring citizens like us say and do nothing, allowing our elected officials to be held hostage to the NRA’s narrow and near-sighted agenda, while our children die in public schools and on college campuses. Well-practiced in our grief, we are silent witnesses to what was once-unthinkable. Of course, we mourn, but we are also numbed, paralyzed by this sense of inevitability, as the details of the latest mass shooting are revealed. We nod like puppets when we are reminded, once again, that guns don’t kill—only people do."

Michigan grain farmer cheated government out of more than $500,000 from fraudulent claims

A Southwest Michigan grain farmer has been sentenced to spend one year and one day in prison for cheating the federal government out of almost $525,000 "through fraudulent crop insurance claims and misuse of marketing assistance loans," Eric Freedman reports for Great Lakes Echo, a project of the journalism department at Michigan State University. Leonard 'Lenny' Kolberg Jr. was also "assessed $99,641 in restitution to the government, representing the unpaid loan balance." (Wikipedia map: Kolberg's farm is in Van Buren County, Michigan)

"Between 1995 and 2011, Kolberg received $642,298 in federal commodity and disaster subsidies, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.," Freedman writes. "The nonprofit research organization reported that he collected subsidies primarily for corn but also for soybeans, wheat, dairy, livestock, barley, sorghum and oats in Mecosta, Cass, Isabella, Montcalm and Van Buren counties."

The nonprofit said that Kolberg, who farmed about 5,000 acres, including land leased from more than 75 property owners, owed about $3.5 million in loans to Fifth Third Bank and $2 million in equipment loans, leases and other farm loans, Freedman writes. "The indictment accused Kolberg, now 57, of misusing the proceeds from the sale of almost 34,000 bushels of corn that he had pledged to the government as security for 2008 marketing assistance loans."

"Marketing assistance loans from the Farm Services Agency such as the ones Kolberg received provide interim help to meet farmers’ cash flow needs during harvest season," Freedman writes. "That means farmers don’t have to sell their crops when market prices generally are low and assists with 'more orderly marketing of commodities during the year,' according to the plea agreement he signed. He admitted illegally keeping the money instead of repaying the government." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Giving food desert residents healthier options does not mean they will eat healthier, study says

Giving people in rural food deserts—more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store—healthier choices does not mean they will eat healthier, says a study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rural residents in food deserts purchase significantly greater amounts of healthy foods outside their immediate neighborhoods, but given healthier options locally, "their shopping patterns changed only slightly," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder.

The study used data from the 2010 Nielsen Homescan Panel Survey, which tracks consumers’ purchases of individual items, including where the purchase was made. 

Consumers living in low-income, low access areas (LILA) "bought 4.5 percent less fruit, 2.7 percent fewer vegetables and 10.8 percent fewer low-fat milk products than consumers not residing in LILA areas," states the study's authors. "At the same time, they bought 8.9 percent more red meat, 5 percent more diet (soda) drinks and 3.3 percent more non-diet drinks. LILA consumers who travel farther to buy food purchase more fruits, vegetables, fish and poultry and fewer drinks (diet and non-diet), but the magnitudes of these effects are small, and they cannot explain large nutritional disparities observed in the population."

Allison Hagey, who works in the health-equity and food-access program at PolicyLink, "says one study doesn’t undermine years of research showing that better access to healthy foods is a necessary ingredient in improving nutrition," Marema writes. She told him, “Every few year there’s a study like this that is trying to measure the immediate impact of these types of community initiatives. Often the focus is on one single measurement and misses the bigger picture of what it means to have a healthy community.” (Read more) (For an interactive version of this USDA map, click here)

Most electric utilities not fighting Clean Power Plan; market favors natural gas industry

Many of the top electric utilities are embracing the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, rather than fight them, because "economic forces are pushing the power industry inexorably toward a lower-carbon future," Rebecca Smith reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The new regulations just add certainty to companies’ plans to move away from relying on coal to generate electricity, turning instead toward cheap natural gas as well as renewable energy, which is available at increasingly lower cost."

"Switching from an old coal plant to a modern natural-gas one can cut carbon-dioxide emissions by between 50 percent and 60 percent for each megawatt hour of electricity produced, according to the Environmental Protection Agency," Smith writes. "And although coal also remains a relatively cheap fuel, natural-gas plants can produce power at lower prices and are often much more profitable for the companies that own them." (WSJ graphic)
"In much of the U.S., grid operators take bids from generators every day, tapping the lowest-cost resources first—often natural-gas plants," Smith writes. "But the market price is set by the last producer needed to meet that day’s electricity demand, which tends to be a coal plant. So natural-gas plants can often offer electricity at prices lower than coal plants but collect the higher price set by coal units."

"In the wake of the U.S. shale boom, natural gas has become so abundant and so inexpensive—and forecasters expect it to remain so for years—that the EPA’s new carbon rule has provisions that prevent utilities from relying too much on a single fuel," Smith writes. "Instead, the EPA regulation encourages development of renewable-energy projects. Coal consumption by utilities fell so much in the first four months of the year that it may be headed toward a 25-year low, according to data released in August by the U.S. Energy Information Administration." (Read more)

Tech companies like Facebook grabbing up land in rural areas for the tax breaks

Major corporations like Facebook are thriving in rural towns where "server farms are supplanting scrub brush and cornfields, underwritten by small-town tax breaks," Mike Rogoway reports for The Oregonian. "Those tax deals, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, quietly helped finance a new industry that formed from an unlikely pairing of rural America and Silicon Valley." (Best Places map: Prineville, Ore., is home to a Facebook data center.)

"It's the story of big tech companies that have the world at their disposal and can put their computers almost anywhere," Rogoway writes. "And it's the story of fading rural America, which has few other options and leaps at the chance to bring even a few dozen jobs to town. No one else wants to move their businesses out among the junipers and sage, so small towns and rural states are content to cut a deal with the world's wealthiest companies for whatever they'll bring to town, on whatever terms they'll bring it."

"Nearly half of the states have tax exemptions carved out specifically for data centers, an industry that may spend $1 billion on computers to run a facility that employs fewer than 200," Rogoway writes. "At least eight states, including Oregon and Washington, have enacted or expanded incentives for the industry this year alone. It's state versus state and sometimes town versus town," like the battle in Oregon to secure the Facebook data center, won by Prineville, where Facebook "has spent nearly $800 million since 2010 to build and equip two giant data warehouses on the hill above" the town. The company, which saved $30 million over the past two years on tax breaks, has fewer than 150 employees in Prineville. Computers are managed from company headquarters in California.

"Oregon tax incentives saved data centers more than $30 million last year alone," Rogoway writes. "Those tax breaks and the absence of a state sales tax make this an especially attractive destination for data centers. But it's not alone. Server farms have to be distributed geographically so they're close to the people using the data. Even electrons take time to travel, and over large enough distances that time would become noticeable to Internet users. Since Facebook built its first data center in Oregon, it's put similar facilities in Iowa, North Carolina and Sweden, and it's planning one in Texas."

"Really, data centers just want three things from a site: cheap power, cheap land and, above all, no taxes," Rogoway writes. "Power rates and land prices are largely beyond the purview of local governments. Taxes are another story. States or local governments could, of course, refuse to offer tax breaks. But virtually all big data center projects follow the money."

Small towns love the economic impact, with Facebook leading to new jobs in Prineville—unemployment has fallen to 8.7 percent—and higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs—Facebook jobs average $225,000 in a county where the mean is $42,000, Rogoway writes. Also, the high cost Facebook spends on electricity has helped, with the company spending $12 million last year, generating $600,000 in franchise fees. (Read more)

Impoverished rural areas in the South are turning to local food systems to feed the economy

Local food systems are helping feed people and the economy in impoverished rural areas in the South, Susanna Hegner reports for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation as part of its video Series "Southern Voices." The series of oral histories "documents opportunities, challenges, lessons learned and progress made by our nonprofit grantee partners in the South," states the organization's website.

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture "announced $35 million in grants to support local and regional food systems," Hegner writes. "That includes $13.3 million to promote farmers markets and community supported agriculture and $11.9 million to promote food hubs, aggregation centers, local processors and farm-to-institution programs." USDA is also "awarding $8.1 million in grants to enhance SNAP operations at farmers markets so low-income families can access fresh, local food."

"The grants are aimed at boosting market opportunities for small and mid-size producers, stimulating rural economies and improving health," Hegner writes. "Organizations across the South have been putting that theory into practice for years."

The West Virginia Community Development Hub earlier this year "helped the WV Food and Farm Coalition and the WV Farmers Market Association score major local-foods victories in their state legislature: SB 352 allows businesses to structure themselves as co-ops, and SB 304 streamlines the permitting process for farmers market vendors," Hegner writes.

In coastal Georgia, McIntosh SEED opened a farmers market,” said executive director John Littles, Hegner writes. He told her, “We try to open markets for small-scale farmers to be able to sell their produce directly. We work with local restaurants. . . . And on a larger level, we work with folks in Mississippi and Alabama in building value chains and getting small-scale farmers certifications that they may need . . . whatever it takes to get into the market, to sell institutionally so some of our farmers are meeting demand with Walmart, with local school districts, food chains, Sysco and Red Diamond. And it’s changing their economic conditions.”

Hegner writes, "In the persistently poor Black Belt counties of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, one of the ways the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative generates income for women is through an agricultural network that connects farmers with markets. SRBWI also worked with municipal leaders and community organizations to repurpose an abandoned school into a USDA-certified commercial kitchen for its members." Cofounder Shirley Sherrod told Hegner, “We work with farmers and trying to help women produce food that’s marketed to the school system and through farmers’ markets and other outlets in the area. Many of them are widows who own land and need to derive an income from that land. . . . We have a community foods project, and that’s in 22 counties.”

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund "helps farmers widen their profit margins through credit unions and the cooperative model," Hegner writes. Former executive director Ralph Paige told her, “We’re talking about creating a form of wealth that people own and control, that would help communities to stabilize. We’re talking about sustainable farming, sustainable communities. Someone will come to us and say, ‘I’ve got three acres of land. Can I make a living off it?’ You won’t get wealthy off it, but you can subsidize your income off it. You can grow produce and sell it to a local farmers market. You can get three or four other people to do it as a co-op; then you don’t have to own a tractor, per se. How do you use this kind of thing to make a difference for yourself in your life and livelihood for your family?” (Read more)

Surface spills contaminating water in Marcellus Shale; levels considered too low to be harmful

Surface spills of chemicals are contaminating residential wells near Marcellus Shale fracking operations in northeast Pennsylvania, says a study of 64 private water wells by researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lisa Song reports for InsideClimate News. The contamination, which was not caused by fracking compounds that were injected deep underground, was found to be at low concentrations that are not considered harmful to humans.

"Brian Drollette, a chemical and environmental engineering graduate student at Yale University and the paper's first author, called the results encouraging for local residents because they showed fracking fluids were not moving upward from the Marcellus shale to shallower groundwater aquifers—at least not in the short term," Song writes. "The study authors said this could help improve public health because residential wells near known surface spills could be monitored and targeted for treatment." (Drollette graphic: Increase in Pennsylvania gas wells from 2007-2014)
Homeowners affected by the spills "can remove the chemicals from their water using simple filtration systems," said Desirée Plata, another study author, Song writes. "Drollette said the conclusions of his study only apply to northeastern Pennsylvania. Due to differences in geology, 'our results don't necessarily translate to other shale [fields] in the U.S.,' he said."

Spills can be linked to "faulty gas well casings, leaking waste containment ponds, underground fuel storage tanks, migration from deep shale (formations approximately 1 mile deep) and surface releases associated with hydraulic fracturing activities," Drollette and Plata write for "We determined that the likely exposure pathway was from surface operations at gas well sites and not from deep subsurface transport."

Study charts where each part of the world gets and sends its food

The ingredients that make up any home cooked meal could have traveled thousands of miles from all corners of the world to reach the dinner table, Michele Debczak reports for Mental Floss. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has released a study that tracks the travels of where the world's produce is sent, separated into categories for calories, protein, fat, food weight, production quantity, harvested area and production value.

"For current food supplies and production systems, we analyzed data for each crop commodity per country per measurement over the most recent three years for which sufficient data were available (2009-2011)," states the report. "All (177) countries consistently reported during the time period were included for food supplies variables, as well as for production quantity and harvested area (covering 98.5 percent of the world’s population. All (141) countries reported for production value were included, covering 94.1 percent of the world’s population." (The plot on the left only shows the most significant contributions (those in the 95 percentile) while the one on the right includes everything)
"For the analysis of change in dependence over time, food supplies data were assessed for each year from 1961-2009, and production systems from 1961-2011, utilizing the full set of commodity and country listings, standardized across all years," states the report. "The resulting 152 comparable countries treated in food supplies data comprised 98 percent of the world’s population across the study period. The 182 comparable countries covered in production quantity and harvested area data comprised 99.7 percent of the global population, and the 115 countries covered in production value data covered 88.5 percent. (For all the study's graphics, click here)

Wildcard Democrat with rural ties could benefit during tonight's debate if others start bickering

While much of the focus of the Democratic presidential primary has been on Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the wildcard could be a lesser known candidate, who has much deeper ties to rural America, Rachel Weiner reports for The Washington Post. While "running an unconventional presidential campaign with little ground support, advertising or even public appearances" former Virginia senator Jim Webb "somehow manages to march on. And with an eclectic set of views that defy categorization, he has a chance to draw attention and find, or repel, a new audience" at tonight's debate. (Post photo by Melina Mara: Jim Webb prepares to speak at Iowa Democratic Party dinner in July)

"A one-term senator from Virginia, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan and a Vietnam War veteran, Webb falls both to the left and right of Clinton," Weiner writes. Like Sanders, Webb "was an early opponent of the war in Iraq. Long before Black Lives Matter protesters demanded attention from the Democratic candidates, Webb was working on criminal justice reform in the Senate."

"Yet Webb holds conservative leanings as well," Weiner writes. "He opposes President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. After a white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, he called the symbolism of the Confederate flag 'complicated.' He speaks often of low-income white men as ignored and disparaged by the Democratic Party."

"His idiosyncratic views have not gotten traction so far," Weiner writes. "He polls in the low single digits both nationally and in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Unlike former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, he has not built a large campaign or tried aggressively to challenge front-runners Clinton or Sanders. Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said that reservation could be helpful in a debate. Republicans Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, he noted, surged in polls after debates during which they bypassed other candidates’ bickering." (Read more)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Heavy weight of trains carrying crude oil could be taxing tracks, increasing derailments

The heavy weight and long cars of trains carrying crude oil could be to blame for an increase in oil train derailments, Ralph Vartabedian reports for the Los Angeles Times. More oil was spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, and that doesn't count the spillage and 47 deaths from a derailment in Quebec of a train running from North Dakota to Maine. A Times review of 31 crashes from 2013 found that 59 percent were the result of track problems, more than double the overall rate for freight-train accidents. Many crude oil trains carry more than 100 cars and weigh 19,000 tons or more.

"Not since the early days of John D. Rockefeller's oil trust have railroads played such a central role in moving oil from wells to refineries," Vartabedian writes. "Oil shipments by rail have soared—an eighteenfold increase between 2010 and 2014—as domestic oil production has escalated faster than the construction of new pipelines to carry it to market."

"The Federal Railroad Administration is preparing to issue in coming weeks a new set of initiatives to address the track problems, after previously clamping tighter restrictions on tank-car designs and railroad operations," Vartabedian writes. "Weight, oil sloshing and cold temperatures are among the issues that might be exacerbating the problem, according to rail-safety experts. Investigators at Safety Transportation Board Canada, which is examining the eight accidents that have occurred in that country, are beginning to suspect that the oil trains are causing unusual track damage." (Read more)

Telemedicine program launched in rural Georgia can serve as a model for areas that lack hospitals

Officials in rural Hancock County, Georgia, (Wikipedia map) hope that technology can provide much-needed healthcare and boost the economy in an impoverished area with 9,000 residents, "no transportation system, no hospital and insufficient alternative care to treat residents plagued with chronic illnesses," Virginia Anderson reports for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Officials said the initiative can serve as a model for other areas whose economies have been hurt by hospital closings.

Anderson writes in a separate story, "The Hancock Rural Healthcare Initiative, an ambitious telemedicine program, equips ambulances with computers, cameras, electrocardiogram leads and 4G cards that allow EMTs to share patient information in real time with hospital emergency room doctors in neighboring counties. The EMT can move the equipment from the ambulance into the patient’s home, as needed. The ER doctor can then determine how best to treat the patient—whether at home or en route to the hospital."

"Hancock isn’t devoid of care for chronic or occasional maladies," Anderson writes. "There is a federally qualified health center in Sparta whose nurse practitioners provide treatment during basic office hours, regardless of a patient’s insurance status or ability to pay. But the health center doesn’t have a doctor. And since many people in Hancock lack transportation, even a Sparta-based facility can be hard to reach, especially for someone in a wheelchair."

"The telemedicine program was facilitated by a special waiver agreement for Hancock County that allows EMTs to be reimbursed for treating patients in consultation with doctors," Anderson writes. The program, launched this summer with a grant of $105,000 from the Georgia Department of Community Health, can also cut down on unnecessary trips to the emergency room. "About two-thirds of ambulance trips from Hancock to nearby counties’ hospitals are for non-emergencies," officials said. "In effect, the ambulance becomes a rolling hospital, which can prove particularly beneficial in cases involving a stroke, a heart attack or serious injury."

Sate Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon), whose district includes Hancock, said "the telemedicine program is a tool for economic development that the county desperately needs," Anderson writes. He told her, “Employers can get a $3,500 tax credit for every employee they hire, but we can’t get them here if you don’t have health care." With the backing of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other rural legislators, a waiver was built "that allows EMTs to be reimbursed by Medicaid and Medicare for treating patients in Hancock County." (Read more)

Two of three appeals court judges question how waters of the United States rules were adopted

When a federal appeals court on Friday blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its new definition of waters of the United States, two of the three judges "raised questions about the scientific justification for how key parts of the rule were created," Todd Neeley reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. The court said "it must first resolve pending legal questions, including whether the court has jurisdiction to hear multiple lawsuits against the federal government on the rule."

About 30 states have sued EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop the rule's enforcement, and "a federal court in North Dakota recently issued an injunction preventing the rule's implementation in 13 states," Neeley writes. "In the majority opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court said it believes the plaintiffs have demonstrated their legal claims could be successful."

"The states and other plaintiffs have argued the federal government arbitrarily set distance limitations when determining adjacent waters, tributaries and 'significant nexus' in the final rule, providing no basis in science," Neeley writes. "Internal memos from the Army Corps of Engineers shows Corps personnel raised concerns about those distances being legally defensible in the weeks before the final rule was issued in August."

The court wrote, "We conclude that petitioners have demonstrated a substantial possibility of success on the merits of their claims . . . Moreover, the rulemaking process by which the distance limitations were adopted is facially suspect. Petitioners contend the proposed rule that was published, on which interested persons were invited to comment, did not include any proposed distance limitations in its use of terms like 'adjacent waters' and 'significant nexus.' Consequently, petitioners contend, the final rule cannot be considered a 'logical outgrowth' of the rule proposed, as required to satisfy the notice-and-comment requirements of the APA (Administrative Procedures Act)."

EPA and the Corps of Engineers failed to identify "specific scientific support substantiating the reasonableness of the bright-line standards they ultimately chose," states the court. "Considering the pervasive nationwide impact of the new rule on state and federal regulation of the nation's waters, and the still open question whether, under the Clean Water Act, this litigation is properly pursued in this court or in the district courts, we conclude that petitioners have acted without undue delay and that the status quo at issue is the pre-rule regime of federal-state collaboration that has been in place for several years." (Read more)

Editor/publisher of weekly Deer Creek Pilot (Miss.) explains why community newspapers matter

A column by Ray Mosby, editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, a weekly newspaper in Rolling Fork, Miss., was selected by the National Newspaper Association to be highlighted as part of National Newspaper Week, which ended on Saturday. Mosby's column is entitled, "Why Community Newspapers Matter."

Mosby writes:
Ray Mosby
"The chosen theme for this year’s National Newspaper Week is 'Power of the Press,' and that power, it seems to me, is a very relative thing. Everybody understands the power of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post, but probably less recognized and appreciated is the power of the Deer Creek Pilot and the thousands of other small, community newspapers just like it all across the land.

"In survey after survey, it is these little community-minded newspapers that are continuing to thrive. And there are some very tangible, observable reasons for that, not the least of which might be the notion I share that the smaller the community, the more important its newspaper.

"For more than 20 years now, I have put out a little country weekly that’s been published continuously for 138 years in what most folks might consider Backwater, U.S.A., the two poorest counties in the poorest state in the union with a combined population of less than 6,500 men, women and children.

"And it is neither flippant nor hyperbolic when I say that little country weekly newspaper is the only news organization on the planet Earth that gives the first tinker’s damn about Sharkey and Issaquena counties, Miss. That, folks, is what makes the Deer Creek Pilot mighty, mighty important to those people who call that place home.

"While mine might serve as prime example, it is in that respect no different from all those other community newspapers in all those other towns in this country.

"Community newspapers have the power to bring about great good and make a profound difference within their locales. And among the good ones, the ones who endure and even prosper, there is always to be found one common denominator: trust.

"In a small town, every newspaper subscriber thinks he or she is a stockholder, because there exists a real relationship, an implied contract, if you will, between that paper and its readers.

"They buy your newspaper, advertise in your newspaper, sometimes even when they don’t have to, based on a simple precept: They trust you to do your very best to find the truth and to tell it to them.

"News travels fast in a small town; bad news travels even faster, but all too often that 'news' is no such thing. All too often, that 'news' is little more than rumor, sometimes made up out of whole cloth and at best some grain of truth exaggerated in its retellings vastly, and often alarmingly out of proportion.

"In a small town, readers expect their newspaper to separate the wheat from the chaff and then to 'tell it like it is.'"

OSHA policy changes could phase out crop fertilizer

Anhydrous ammonia, the most economical form of nitrogen fertilizer for crops, is becoming scarce, Russ Quinn reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Some retailers say they have stopped carrying the product in anticipation of changing Occupational Safety and Health Administration policies regarding how ammonia is regulated for fertilizer retailers.

Changes in fertilizer storage regulations were initiated after the April 2013 deadly West, Texas, fertilizer facility explosion—which was caused by ammonium nitrate, Quinn writes. President Obama in August 2013 issued an executive order to improve chemical facility and safety and security. "At that point, OSHA decided to revise the interpretation of the exemption of retail facilities from Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals (PSM) regulations. The agency wants to eliminate the retail exemption for fertilizer retailers, which would subject retailers to new programs and safety rules. This, in turn, could end up costing retailers money in major renovations. Some smaller retailers may just stop selling ammonia. The deadline for retailers to comply with the OSHA policy change is Dec. 31."

OSHA "estimates the policy change will affect 4,800 fertilizer retailers," Quinn writes. "The policy doesn't affect businesses, such as gas stations, that sell small volumes of chemicals." Industry experts and OSHA are at odd over how costly the move will be to retailers. The industry says it will cost more than $20,000 per site, while OSHA estimated $2,160 per site. Several groups have joined a lawsuit "against the OSHA memorandum withdrawing the retail PSM exemption." (Read more)

Patriot Coal drops plan to divert money from health insurance of retired Indiana coal miners

Patriot Coal is withdrawing its plan to divert "$18 million intended for the health insurance of retired Indiana miners to pay attorneys and other bankruptcy costs," Alec MacGillis reports for ProPublica. The deal worked out by the lawyers and financiers would have left "only $3 million to cover the guaranteed health-care benefits of 208 retired miners and their dependents, enough to last only about a year and a half. The deal was especially striking given that the unionized miners had themselves never worked for Patriot. Instead, they were having their benefits stripped of their value through an elaborate bit of financial engineering."

"The retirees had worked for Squaw Creek Coal Company, a joint venture in southern Indiana between Alcoa and Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, which provided fuel for a nearby Alcoa plant," MacGillis writes. "The venture had mostly petered out by 2000, but as part of the agreement, Alcoa was covering the cost of the guaranteed retiree health benefits, about $2 million per year."

"Earlier this year, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 again," MacGillis writes. "This time, it is auctioning off its mines and going out of business. And to cover the costs of the proceedings, its lawyers, from the New York firm of Kirkland & Ellis, struck an unusual agreement with Alcoa. Alcoa agreed to pay Patriot $22 million in exchange for Patriot assuming the health care obligations for the Squaw Creek retirees. This saved Alcoa money, since the actuarial value of the obligation was about $40 million. But instead of putting the $22 million toward the actual health care obligations, Patriot stated in filings to the court that it was going to put only $4 million toward that purpose—$3 million for rank-and-file miners and $1 million for salaried Squaw Creek managers. The rest, $18 million, would go to the attorneys and others involved in the proceedings." (Read more)

Billionaire coal owner running for W.Va. governor owes $3.5M in delinquent property taxes in Ky.

Southern Coal billionaire owner Jim Justice, who announced in May he was running for governor of West Virginia, still owes "$3.5 million in delinquent property taxes in Eastern Kentucky, shortchanging schools and other public agencies at a time many are struggling," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. In 2014, Southern Coal faced 266 violations at coal mines in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia and Alabama. (Associated Press photo)

"The companies controlled by Jim Justice have delinquent taxes on mining equipment, land or coal reserves—or all three in some cases—in Pike, Floyd, Knott, Harlan, Magoffin and Breathitt counties, tax records show," Estep writes. While Jay Justice, the son of Jim Justice and an executive of a coal company controlled by his father, "said he understood the companies have agreements in place to pay the back taxes . . . officials in Pike and Harlan counties said no such payment plans were in place as of Oct. 8."

"Hundreds of mines in the region have closed since 2011 because of a combination of factors, including competition from cheap natural gas; cheaper coal from other U.S. regions; tougher rules to protect air and water quality; and the depletion of thicker coal seams after more than a century of mining," Estep writes. "The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration lists Justice as the controller of 158 surface or underground mines and related facilities, such as coal-preparation plants, in several states. However, nearly all of Justice's mines are listed as temporarily idled, non-producing or abandoned."

"Still, Justice—who has some of the largest delinquent tax bills among coal companies in Eastern Kentucky—has resources many coal operators do not," Estep writes. "When Jim Justice announced in May he would run for governor in 2016 as a Democrat, his estimated net worth was reportedly $1.6 billion, a fortune he amassed in coal mining, agriculture and timber." (Read more)