Friday, December 04, 2015

Senate passes measures to fund broadband in Appalachia, increase lending to rural areas

The Senate this week passed legislation that will help bring broadband to Appalachia. The five-year transportation bill includes the ARC High-speed broadband development initiative. The measure "authorizes $50 million over the life of the bill for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to provide grants, technical assistance, training and equipment to the Appalachian region in an effort to increase affordable access to broadband networks, distance learning opportunities [and] telehealth technologies and promote e-commerce applications," states a press release from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Majority Leader.

The Senate also passed legislation to improve lending practices in rural and underserved areas, McConnell states in a separate press release. Concern has centered around the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a lending group whose "original definition of rural unfairly excluded a significant number of demonstrably rural areas and neglected to provide rural communities with any input in the process," states the press release. "While the CFPB recently undertook efforts to revise its definition, it once again neglected to allow input from rural communities themselves."

The Senate's Helping Expand Lending Practices in (HELP) Rural Communities Act "would create a process to allow areas to petition the CFPB with important local information for reconsideration of their rural status," states the press release. "This would give rural counties across the country a voice when the CFPB has incorrectly deemed them 'non-rural.' The bill also takes important steps to address the challenges rural communities face by eliminating arbitrary mortgage origination requirements that will help ensure that rural communities bordering urban areas are still able to access credit services that are essential to rural small businesses and farmers."

Map shows high rate of U.S. gun ownership; nation home to as high as 50% of civilian owned guns

Mass shootings in Colorado and California have once again opened up the debate about access to firearms, with critics calling for stricter gun control and gun advocates pointing to the Second Amendment and their right to bear arms. A map created by The Washington Post using information from the 2007 Small Arms Survey shows that the U.S. is the gun capital of the world, with an average of 88 guns per every 100 people, Ana Swanson reports for the Post.

"The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population, yet it's home to between a third and a half of the world's civilian-owned guns, according to that data," Swanson writes. "The takeaway is that high levels of gun ownership aren't the sole cause of gun-related deaths around the world—countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Swaziland see a horrific number of gun deaths, despite having only slightly more guns than Japan. But in rich countries, having low levels of gun ownership does seem to be an effective way to prevent people from being killed by guns." (Post map)

Maine to no longer publicly disclose details about rail shipments of crude oil through the state

Officials in Maine announced this week that they will no longer publicly disclose details about shipments of crude oil by rail through the state, Dave Sherwood reports for Reuters. More oil was spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, and the 2013 derailment in Quebec that resulted in 47 deaths was on route from North Dakota to Maine. (Associated Press photo: The 2013 train derailment in Quebec that was on its way to Maine)

"A U.S. Department of Transportation Executive Order in 2014 required railroads to inform emergency responders about large cargoes of Bakken oil passing through their states," Sherwood writes. "But many railroad companies, citing security concerns along their tracks, have lobbied to keep that information from the public."

On Wednesday Maine's Department of Environmental Protection "declined a reporter's request for monthly volumes of crude oil shipped by rail, citing a June law that prohibits emergency responders from disclosing certain details about rail shipments of hazardous materials through the state," Sherwood writes. Bob Klotz, a spokesman for 350 Maine, an activist group that has protested oil-by-rail cargoes in the state, told Sherwood, "When people are aware of what's coming through their community, they pay attention. To take that information away is very concerning." (Read more)

Region with nation's highest methane emissions collects 25,000 signatures in support of regulations

Environmentalist joined local activists in southern Colorado "to express support for proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulations on oil and gas industry atmospheric methane emissions," James Fenton reports for the Farmington Daily Times in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. A coalition of environmentalists in New Mexico said they "had collected 25,000 public comments in favor of the Obama administration's proposed rule." (Best Places map: Farmington, N.M.)

"New Mexico is the second-leading producer of natural gas in the U.S.," Fenton writes. "Last year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other scientists published a report that showed a 'hot spot' of atmospheric methane over 2,500 square miles of the Four Corners region, which is the highest concentration of methane in the U.S. Results from a follow-up study are expected next year."

"In August, the EPA proposed placing limits on methane pollution as part of the Obama administration's efforts to combat climate change," Fenton writes. "Obama has set a goal of cutting methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels over the next decade. Natural gas is 90 percent methane, which is a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, though not as potent over longer periods of time," said Camilia Feibelman of the Sierra Club.

Alex Renirie, of the Sierra Club, said "oil and natural gas producers in New Mexico emitted more than 250,000 metric tons of methane in 2013," Fenton writes. While Sierra Club members said the rules don't go far enough to reduce methane emissions, members of the Navajo Nation said they are the ones "suffering health and environmental impacts from fugitive methane." (Read more)

Congress rejects proposal to restore $3 billion cuts to crop insurance program

The Senate on Thursday rejected a proposed effort to restore $3 billion in cuts to the crop insurance program, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The cut, which was part of the two-year budget agreement enacted in November, would be repealed by the highway legislation to fulfill a pledge the House GOP leadership made to House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) before votes on the budget deal."

Sens. Jeff Flake, (R- Ariz.), and Jean Shaheen, (D- N.H.), forced a vote on the cut Thursday by raising a point of order against including the repeal provision in the transporation measure," Brasher writes. "The Senate rejected their move, 75-22, and then approved the legislation, 83-16. The bill replaces the $3 billion through a reduction in the Federal Reserve dividend that goes to big banks."

"The budget agreement requires the Agriculture Department to cap the insurance companies' rate of return at 8.9 percent, down from the current 14.5 percent," Brasher writes. "The cut was supposed to be made through renegotiating the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation's Standard Reinsurance Agreement (SRA) with the companies. Since 2011 the rate of return has varied from a loss of 15 percent in fiscal 2012, a drought year, to a gain of 13 percent in fiscal 2014. Insurance companies argue that their real rate of return is closer to 4 percent." Legislation now goes to President Obama for his signature.

The two-year budget deal "worked out by Republicans and the Obama administration included a provision to cut $3 billion over 10 years from the crop insurance program to help offset increases to defense and domestic programs," Charly Haley and Donnelle Eller reported in October for The Des Moines Register. While the proposed cuts were in the bill, it was expected that the crop insurance program would be restored to the bill this month.

Former Massey Energy CEO convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy Co., "was convicted Thursday by a federal jury of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion," Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "The federal jury found Blankenship not guilty of two other charges, securities fraud and making false statements, after a landmark two-month trial that revisited the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation and closely examined the longstanding argument from Blankenship’s critics that he put coal production and corporate profits ahead of the safety of his company’s miners." (Gazette photo by F. Brian Ferguson: Don Blankenship smiling as he leaves the courthouse Thursday)

"Blankenship faces a maximum of one year in prison—compared to the 30-year maximum sentence had he been convicted on all three charges—but he also could be sentenced to pay fines of up to twice the financial gain resulting from the mine-safety conspiracy," Ward writes. Blankesnhip's attorneys said they would appeal the verdict and were confident it would be overturned.

"Blankenship, 65, had faced three felony counts in an indictment that resulted from a nearly five-year federal probe following the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch, an underground mine in Raleigh County that produced a valuable form of steel-making coal that was key to Massey’s financial success," Ward writes. "While Blankenship was not charged with causing the disaster, the accusations focused on rampant violations of basic safety standards—mine ventilation, roof support and dust control—known for decades to be effective in preventing mine explosions."

"During the trial, more than a dozen former Upper Big Branch miners testified about working day after day with inadequate fresh air, high levels of dust and other problems and still being ordered to keep 'running coal,'" Ward writes. "Prosecutors introduced evidence that Massey—and the Upper Big Branch Mine in particular—racked up far more serious safety and health violations than other mines operated by other major coal producers. Prosecutors alleged that these violations could easily have been prevented, but Blankenship refused to hire additional miners to do things like spread adequate amounts of crushed limestone, or 'rock dust,' to dilute explosive coal dust generated by mining. The government also noted specific examples where Blankenship refused budget requests for a new ventilation shaft and rock-dusting machine for the Upper Big Branch Mine."

Blankenship, who was once one of the most powerful men in the coal industry, earned the nickname the "King of Coal" for nearly tripling the Massey's revenue during the decade he was in charge, Evan Osnos reports for The New Yorker. "But he was perhaps better known for building a four-story villa on a West Virginia mountaintop and for travelling around by black helicopter. He tended to his mines and to his favored politicians; he once spent millions of dollars in campaign funds to reshape the state Supreme Court, ultimately helping to oust a progressive justice and install an obscure replacement."

Oklahoma earthquakes force 7 more disposal wells to be shut down, another 66 to reduce volumes

Oklahoma regulators have responded to another rash of earthquakes by ordering seven disposal wells to be shut down, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. "The Oklahoma Corporation Commission directed the owners of 66 other wells to reduce volumes by 25 to 50 percent. Operators of another 67 disposal wells were told to prepare for possible changes to their operations."

"Northern Oklahoma was shaken Monday afternoon by the second magnitude-4.7 earthquake in two weeks," Soraghan writes. "It was centered west of Medford but was felt as far away as Iowa. The first occurred the morning of Nov. 19, centered near Cherokee. It was the largest quake since the aftershocks of the state's largest-recorded quake, a magnitude-5.6 quake near Prague in 2011 that destroyed 16 homes and injured two people. In November, the state had 68 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger. This year, it has had more than 800, a substantial increase over the 585 in 2014."

"Scientists say the unprecedented swarms of man-made quakes in the state since 2009"—Oklahoma averaged two earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or higher per year before then—"can be attributed to favorably aligned faults and production methods that create uniquely large volumes of wastewater," Soraghan writes. (U.S. Geological Survey graphic)

Thursday, December 03, 2015

House passes revision to No Child Left Behind law, allowing states to set own goals

The House today approved a revision to the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), giving more control to states, a positive move for rural and remote areas, advocates say. The overhaul, which passed by a vote of 359 to 64, "allows states and school districts to set their own goals and to decide how to rate schools and what to do with those that underperform," Emmarie Huetteman and Motoko Rich report for The New York  Times. The bill is expected to pass in the Senate next week and be immediately signed into law by President Obama.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House Education Committee, "said the existing law had left the federal government 'micromanaging' the education system," reports the Times. He said in a statement: “No Child Left Behind was based on good intentions, but it was also based on the flawed premise that Washington knows what students need to succeed in school."

Mark Hawkins, superintendent of the small North Star School District in northeast Montana, "said NCLB mandates to improve test scores each year were a disaster, especially for rural schools," reports Matt Hoffman for the Billings Gazette. Hawkins, who said the NCLB goals were noble, but unattainable, said that for "small schools, test scores can 'change greatly from year-to-year,' independent of long-term trends."

The bill will allow states like Alaska the "freedom to set its own performance goals, standard for teachers and testing plans," Ma. Elena Garcia reports for ISchoolGuide. "The pending bill will also have strong provisions for native education. It supports a current program that offers a curriculum specific to Alaska native students."

The bill passed Wednesday "retains the annual testing requirements in math and reading," reports the Times. "Schools must also continue to report the results by students’ race, income and disability status . . . Although the new bill requires that states take action to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state as well as high schools that graduate fewer than two-thirds of students, the bill does not impose any specific action if those goals are not met."

"States are required to use test scores and other academic measures to rate schools but can also include other components like student surveys," reports the Times. "The bill specifically prevents the federal government from requiring that states evaluate teachers at all, much less use test scores to rate them, and says the education secretary cannot dictate any specific academic standards to states."

Most education groups welcomed the bill, while civil rights groups were cautiously optimistic, expressing concern that the new bill could put vulnerable children at risk, reports the Times. Andy Smarick, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting and research group, told the Times, "Over the past 10, almost 15 years, we’ve so focused on reading and math scores, and this is the real opportunity to make sure we’re capturing the things that are important, whether it’s grit and persistence or school culture or parent engagement, and the only way to do that is to give power back to the states. You cannot centrally manage an innovative, creative accountability system from Washington, D.C.”

Advocates fighting the stigma of reporting sexual assault and domestic violence in rural South Dakota

Fear of being exposed as a victim of sexual assault and domestic violence has led many women in South Dakota to fail to report crimes, Casey Wonnenberg reports for Keloland Television in Sioux Falls. Even if women do report the crimes, there is a serious lack of resources and facilities in rural areas to help victims, said victim turned advocate Andrea Royer.

"Currently, 40 South Dakota counties don't have local shelters for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence," writes Wonnenberg. That means rural advocates for The Network, a Sioux Falls-based organization that helps victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, travel about 85,000 miles per year to assist victims, said executive director Krista Heeren-Graber. The Network recently received a $25,000 grant, most of which will be used for travel purposes. (CNN map: South Dakota has one of the highest reports of rape, according to 2012 FBI crime estimates)

Clean coal project in rural Mississippi two years behind schedule, over budget by $4.7 billion

A rural Mississippi power plant that is now at least two years behind schedule of opening was supposed to show "the world how to burn coal without spewing climate-warming carbon pollution into the air," reports The Associated Press. Construction costs are already three times above original estimates—at $6.5 billion—making the Kemper County (Wikipedia map) plant "one of the most expensive power plants ever built and pushing up electric bills for Mississippi Power's 186,000 customers."

"Carbon capture entails catching the carbon emissions from a power plant or cement or steel factory and injecting them underground for permanent storage," reports AP. "It's a proven technology that would allow the world to keep burning coal, oil and gas for energy while releasing little of the heat-trapping gas that scientists say is the main cause of global warming. Despite decades of research and pilot projects, however, carbon capture is still waiting for its breakthrough, illustrating how hard it is for the world to do something about global warming even when the tools are there."

While environmental groups have opposed clean coal, pushing for 100 percent renewable energy, spiraling costs shut down carbon capture projects in Norway and Britain, reports AP. "But authoritative bodies like the International Energy Agency and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that without deploying carbon capture technology on a large scale, the world may not be able to reach the U.N. goal of keeping man-made warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which governments hope will stave off some of the worst floods, droughts and heat waves associated with rising temperatures."

In Kempter County, the estimated price tag for the plant when it was announced in 2006 was $1.8 billion, reports AP. That rose to $2.9 billion when construction began in 2010, with costs including improved carbon capture technology and an adjoining coal mine. "In a sprint to grab federal tax credits, Mississippi Power started construction with only 10 percent of the design completed. The company underestimated how much concrete, steel, pipe and cable and how many workers it would need to build the plant. Some parts had to be torn out and rebuilt because of design changes associated with constructing a first-of-its-kind plant."

While Mississippi Power officials say they are wrapping up work on the project, "an engineer hired by state regulators testified in October that it is highly unlikely the utility will meet its June 30 deadline," reports AP. "The project is likely to forfeit $372 million in tax credits because of delays, and shareholders of Southern Co., owner of Mississippi Power, have absorbed $2.3 billion in losses."

The Leapfrog Group's top hospitals list includes 24 rural hospitals, 6 in Maine

The Leapfrog Group has selected 24 rural hospitals—including six from Maine—for its list of 2015 Top Hospitals, "a coveted list of hospitals that performed at the highest levels, nationally, based on Leapfrog’s quality and safety standards, considered the most rigorous of its kind," states a press release from Leapfrog. "More than 1600 hospitals report on those standards through the annual Leapfrog Hospital Survey, and the results are publicly reported for use by Leapfrog’s constituency of employers and other purchasers, as well as their employees and the public at large." Of those, 98 were selected for this year's list.

"Overall, Top Hospitals tend to have lower infection rates, higher survival rates for high-risk procedures, decreased length of stay and fewer readmissions," states the release. "Among other metrics included in the Leapfrog Hospital Survey that Top Hospitals tend to excel on: maternity care, evidence of a hospital’s ability to prevent medication errors and appropriate staffing to ensure quality of care."

"The Leapfrog Hospital Survey compares hospitals’ performance on national standards of patient safety, quality, efficiency and management structures that prevent errors and publicly reports the results for use by consumers and purchasers," states the release. "The Survey provides the most comprehensive picture of how patients fare at individual institutions. The data collected also enables hospitals to benchmark their progress and measure the care they deliver."

Top Rural Hospitals 2015:
  • Colorado: Mercy Regional Medical Center; St. Anthony Summit Medical Center; Sterling Regional MedCenter
  • Illinois: OSF Holy Family Medical Center
  • Massachusetts: Fairview Hospital
  • Maine: Blue Hill Memorial Hospital; Cary Medical Center; Houlton Regional Hospital; Inland Hospital; LincolnHealth; Sebasticook Valley Health
  • Michigan : OSF St. Francis Hospital; Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial; Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital
  • North Carolina: Carolinas Healthcare System- Kings Mountain; Northern Hospital of Surry County
  • New Hampshire: Littleton Regional Healthcare
  • Pennsylvania: Geisinger Medical Center
  • South Carolina: Tidelands Waccamaw Community Hospital
  • Tennessee: Bolivar General Hospital; Camden General Hospital
  • Texas: Baylor Scott and White Healthcare-Llano; Rollins Brook Community Hospital
  • Wisconsin: Beaver Dam Community Hospitals, Inc.

Rider blocking Waters of the U.S. rule a sticking point in budget talks

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said a policy rider included in negotiations for the omnibus budget bill that would block implementation of the Obama administration's Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules has significant Democratic support, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. The rider redefines which ditches, wetlands, streams and other feature fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. When asked if the White House was resisting the provision, Cole told Brasher, “They're not as flexible as they need to be.”

Brashers writes, "The appropriations provision would guarantee that the rule could not be implemented even if the court stays were lifted. And once enacted, lawmakers believe the WOTUS provision could be extended beyond fiscal 2016." Another rider, introduced by Democrats, calls for a ban on horse slaughter.

"Lawmakers are trying to wrap up negotiations on the massive, omnibus spending bill by the end Friday so that the Senate and House have time to debate before the continuing resolution that is currently funding the government expires Dec. 11," Brasher writes. "The omnibus is critical to agriculture interests beyond the WOTUS issue because the bill would provide the legislative vehicle for moving several major pieces of legislation that are being negotiated in the Senate, including a repeal of mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for meat and reauthorization of child nutrition programs and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The food industry also wants to use the bill to enact legislation that would block state GMO labeling laws." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Enrollment opens for USDA land conservation fund program for farmers

Farmers can begin enrolling in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, which "pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers' removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality," states USDA. Enrollment, which runs through Feb. 26, 2016, is open to landowners for the first time since 2013, reports Tiffany Stecker for Environment and Energy News.

"The 30-year-old Conservation Reserve Program pays landowners to set aside highly erodible and environmentally sensitive tracts for conservation," writes Stecker. "The program hit its peak in 2007, when 36.8 million acres was enrolled. Since then, high crop prices have encouraged farmers to let their conservation acres expire and to plant corn and soybeans instead. In response to declining interest in the program, the 2014 farm bill cut the cap on acres enrolled in the program by a quarter, from 32 million acres to 24 million acres, over the five-year life of the bill. With the lowered caps, conservationists are concerned there may not be enough funding to cover the number of landowners requesting entry into the program." (Read more)

Rural providers should be required to participate in federal pay-for-performance programs, says report

"Rural providers should be required to participate in federal pay-for-performance programs, but the measurements should reflect rural patient volume and demographics and practice size," says a report requested by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Shannon Muchmore reports for Modern Healthcare. The report by the National Quality Forum was designed "to determine how to deal with the difficulties in using performance measures to judge rural practitioners for Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) pay-for-performance programs."

The report "recommended a two- to four-year phased-in approach for including rural providers in federal quality-improvement initiatives," writes Muchmore. "Programs such as Medicare's value-based purchasing and readmissions reduction programs generally exclude rural providers because they're limited to hospitals paid under the inpatient prospective-payment system. Similarly, the value-based payment modifier for physicians is limited to those in practices with at least 100 clinicians." Initiatives could include paying rural hospitals for "reporting quality data and transitioning to public reporting requirements before pay-for-performance implementation."

The report, which suggests that CMS should use performance-based payment incentives but not institute penalties, "recommends developing quality measures with rural providers in mind," Muchmore writes. "These measures would need to consider the small patient populations as well as the challenges posed by heterogeneous rural populations. The data would have to be easily gathered and reported by small staffs."

The report was met with mixed reviews. The American Hospital Association said "that mandatory participation in value-based performance programs is premature and developing a set of measures that examines the right issues in the right way will be difficult" and that "adopting payment incentives without penalties might be politically unfeasible," Muchmore writes. "The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health said any measures would have to be adjusted to reflect the effects of the rural provider shortage on population health and that they should focus on assessing the quality of primary care and procedures actually conducted in rural settings."

Already 50 rural hospitals have closed this decade, and another 283 are in danger of closing, says an October report from iVantage Health Analytics. (Read more)

Central Appalachia struggling to survive decline of coal industry

The declining coal industry is ravaging some Central Appalachian towns, reports The Associated Press. "West Virginia is the only state in the country where more than half of adults are not working, according to the Census Bureau. It is tied with Kentucky for the highest percentage of residents collecting disability payments from Social Security, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And the death rate among working-age adults is the highest in the nation, 55 percent higher than the national average, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention." (Center for Appalachian Studies and Services map)

"Now, the one main source for decent-paying work, the brutal life of coal, seems to be drying up for good," reports AP. "The thick, easy, cheap coal is gone, global competition is fierce, and clean air and water regulations are increasing costs and cutting into demand."

"Central Appalachia’s struggle is familiar to many rural regions across the United States, where middle-class jobs are disappearing or gone and young people have no other choice but to leave to find opportunity," reports AP. "The problems are amplified in coal country, though, where these difficult economic and social conditions have gripped the region for decades and where there is hardly any flat land to build anything."

"Big federal and state programs and initiatives, some dating from President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, have failed to help the region diversify its economy much beyond digging or blasting coal out of mountains," reports AP. "If anything is going to help the people of Appalachia, poverty experts and residents of West Virginia now say, it’s themselves: local entrepreneurs who know their communities and customers well—and are committed to them."

"Coal employment in Central Appalachia has been declining for decades, a result of mechanization in the 1960s, the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the 1980s and, now, cheaper rivals at a time when much of the world is trying to turn away from coal," reports AP. "Coal is, by far, the biggest source of carbon dioxide and airborne pollutants among fuels used to make electricity. As jobs disappeared from coal country, people fled, leaving behind abandoned buildings and empty lots."

"Globally, coal will not go away completely anytime soon—it’s the cheapest way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people who lack access to it, and even developed nations still need to burn it as they transition to cleaner fuels," reports AP. "However, the thin seams left in Central Appalachia are too expensive to compete with cheaper coal being mined in places like Illinois, Wyoming, Australia and Indonesia. The industry will persist—driven by small, determined operators like Asbury, who are after high-quality coal used to make steel—but as a niche that’s no longer able to support a region’s economy."

Anti-obesity group with ties to Coca-Cola disbanding; group has promoted drinking soda

An anti-obesity group with ties to Coca-Cola is disbanding over scrutiny that the group's views were heavily influenced by the soda manufacturer, reports The Associated Press. The nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise, "said on its website Monday night that it is 'discontinuing operations due to resource limitations.' The decision was effective immediately."

Global Energy, which in August released a Coke-funded obesity report that said people should keep drinking soda, "had previously said that it received an 'unrestricted gift' from Coke and that the Atlanta-based soft drink giant had 'no input' into its activities," reports AP. Last week AP "reported on emails showing that Coke helped with the selection of the group’s leaders, edited its mission statement and suggested content for its website. When contacted about the exchanges, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent said in a statement there wasn’t enough transparency regarding the company’s involvement."

"The emails obtained by the AP through a records request showed Coke executives and the group’s leaders held meetings and conference calls to develop the group’s mission," reports AP. "A proposal circulated via email at Coke laid out a vision for a group that would 'quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue.' It said the group would run a political-style campaign to counter the 'shrill rhetoric' of 'public health extremists.'"

Americans' consuming large quantities of soda has been partially to blame for at least 30 percent of adults in 18 states—many of them rural—being obese. Consumption of full-calorie sodas by the average American has dropped by 25 percent in the past two decades, according to a report.

Wyoming releases draft proposal to stop deadly disease affecting deer, elk and moose

Wyoming officials have released a draft proposal to help stop the spread of chronic wasting disease, a neurological disease that is almost always fatal for deer, elk and moose, Scott Streater reports for Greenwire. The disease, which is related to mad cow disease, is easily spread among elk and deer populations through animal-to-animal contact and exposure to contaminated feed and water. Vaccines have so far proved ineffective for the disease, which has spread from southeastern Wyoming into the Bighorn Basin and south-central and northeastern parts of the state. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is expected to approve a final plan by the end of January.

"The proposal calls for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to better coordinate management of the disease—first discovered in free-ranging deer and elk in the state in 1987—with other state, federal and tribal agencies," Streater writes. The proposal includes increased surveillance to better identify affected animals, restrictions on moving carcasses and a ban on moving animals 'to other locations for any reason within or outside of Wyoming without prior review, approval or permitting' by the Game and Fish Department."

Environmental groups are cautiously optimistic, Streater writes. Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for the Sierra Club's Wyoming chapter, said one area for improvement "is focusing not so much on numbers of deer and elk but on achieving healthier herds." He said "this should include 'phasing out' winter feeding areas where the disease can spread, as well as acknowledging the 'positive role' of predators that can be used for 'selected predation of diseased deer and elk.'" (Read more) (This June CDC map shows the levels of chronic wasting disease among free-range deer and elk.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

USDA Rural America at a Glance report has data on employment, population, poverty, education

Employment in rural areas is on the rise, according to Rural America at a Glance, an annual report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report, released today, also features valuable information on trends in rural population, poverty and education.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "Today's report reflects a rural America on the road to recovery. Rural employment has increased; rural population decline did not increase over the past year and some rural counties have seen population growth; and the rural child poverty rate has declined by one percentage point. These trends are promising."

The report states: "Employment grew more than 1 percent in rural areas during the year that ended in the second quarter of 2015. This is a marked improvement from previous years of very slow growth or decline. Nonetheless, rural employment in mid-2015 was still 3.2 percent below its pre-recession peak in 2007. In contrast, urban employment rose nearly 2 percent in the past year, continuing a trend of consistent growth since 2011, and is now well above its pre-recession peak. In both urban and rural areas, employment growth is slightly ahead of population growth." (USDA graphics)
At the same time, "unemployment rates fell by a full percentage point or more in each of the last 2 calendar years in both rural and urban areas," states the report. "The share of adults who are working (total employment as a share of residents age 16 or older who are not on active military duty or in institutions such as nursing homes or prisons) remains 3 percentage points below its level prior to the recession in both rural and urban areas."

Rural population has declined by 30,000 each of the past two years and 116,000 over the past four years, states the report. "While these declines are small, 2010-2014 is the first period of overall population decline on record for rural America as a whole and stands in stark contrast with the urban population, which continues to grow by more than 2 million per year." From 2010 to 2014, about 300 rural counties lost population due to natural change and net migration, with 230,000 more births than deaths and 346,000 more people having moved out of rural counties than moved in.
Child poverty has increased from 21.9 percent in 2007 to 24.2 percent in 2009 to 25.2 percent in 2014, states the report. Deep poverty rates for rural children have increased from 9.6 percent in 2007 to 11.3 percent in 2014. The poverty rate for rural working-age was 6.2 percent in 2007 and 7.8 percent in 2014.

"The proportion of rural adults with a 4-year college degree or more increased by 4 percentage points between 2000 and 2014, and the proportion without a high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED (General Education Diploma), declined by 9 percentage points," states the report. "Between 2000 and 2014, the share of young adults ages 25-34 with bachelor’s degrees grew in urban areas from 29 to 35 percent. In rural counties, the college-educated proportion of young adults rose from 15 to 19 percent."

New diabetes cases in the U.S. are on the decline; first substantial decline in 25 years

For the first time in decades, diabetes cases in the U.S. are on the decline, Sabrina Tavernise reports for The New York Times. In 2014, the number of new cases of diabetes in the U.S. was 1.4 million, down from 1.7 million in 2008, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's "the first sustained decline since the disease started to explode in this country about 25 years ago."

Diabetes is one of the symptoms of obesity, an epidemic that has been particularly bad in rural areas. Seven of the top 10 most obese states are in the South, and 23 of the top 25 are in the South or Midwest, led by Arkansas with an obesity rate of 35.9 percent. The obesity epidemic is costing taxpayers $147 billion to $210 billion each year. (CDC graphic: Annual number of new cases of diagnosed diabetes in adults 18-79 from 1980-2014)

While experts say the percent of Americans with diabetes is still more than double what it was in the early 1990s, "there is growing evidence that eating habits, after decades of deterioration, have finally begun to improve," Tavernise writes. "The amount of soda Americans drink has declined by about a quarter since the late 1990s, and the average number of daily calories children and adults consume also has fallen. Physical activity has started to rise, and once-surging rates of obesity, a major driver of Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, have flattened. Type 1 diabetes, often diagnosed in childhood and adolescence and not usually associated with excess body weight, was also included in the data."

Dr. David M. Nathan, the director of the Diabetes Center and Clinical Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Tavernise, “It has finally entered into the consciousness of our population that the sedentary lifestyle is a real problem, that increased body weight is a real problem.” (Read more)

Wells Fargo & Co. and Morgan Stanley to decrease coal investments

Wells Fargo & Co. and Morgan Stanley "are the latest banks to announce limits to coal mine and power plant financing," Manuel Quiñones reports for Environment & Energy Publishing. In March PNC Bank announced it was cutting financing to coal firms using mountaintop removal.

Wells Fargo "said its exposure to mountaintop-removal coal mining was small and declining and promised to keep moving away from boosting the practice," Quiñones writes. In a document the company stated: "Due to these significant industry changes, Wells Fargo has and will continue to limit and reduce our credit exposure to the coal mining industry . . . Wells Fargo will not extend credit or facilitate capital markets transactions to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining."

Morgan Stanley "said it would continue to reduce its exposure to coal mining worldwide," Quiñones writes. "When it comes to mountaintop-removal mining, the bank said it would not fund companies that rely heavily on the practice." The bank also said "it would stay away from financing coal plants in the developed world without significant carbon controls. The bank said it would scrutinize coal plant financing in poorer countries."

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, "said the announcements were largely 'for cosmetic effects' timed to coincide with the Paris climate talks," Quiñones writes. Popovich told him, "It's a sign of the low regard in which big banks are held in this country and how they are reviled among leading presidential candidates in both parties." (Read more)

Rural Ky. residents stayed away from polls during gubernatorial election, say their vote doesn't count

In Kentucky, where 400,000 residents gained health insurance through the state's expansion of Medicaid under federal health reform, residents—especially in rural areas—showed little interest in the recent gubernatorial election, even though one of the candidates said scaling back Medicaid expansion was one of his top priorities, Ashley Lopez and Ja'Nel Johnson report for WFPL News in Louisville.

Jackson County (Wikipedia map) has one of the state's highest Medicaid enrollment rates, with about 50 percent of the 13,289 residents on Medicaid and 2,000 gaining enrollment through Medicaid expansion, Lopez and Johnson write. The county is also one of the state's poorest, with 34 percent of residents living below the poverty line, compared to 19 percent statewide.

So when Republican candidate Matt Bevin said he would scale back Medicaid expansion and eliminate Kynect—the state-run insurance exchange program—it would seem like Kentuckians might voice their concern at the polls. Not so. Bevin earned 83 percent of the votes in Republican-heavy Jackson County. But that's not the whole story. Only 2,771 of the county's 9,846 registered voters cast a ballot. Similar numbers were seen statewide, with only 30 percent of the state's registered voters casting ballots in the election.

One reason is that rural residents say they feel ignored by politicians, Lopez and Johnson write. When asked why he didn't vote, Chad Tankersaley of Mckee, a town of 800 in Jackson County, told Lopez and Johnson, "I don’t know. I just didn’t. I just got tired of voting. Because it don’t matter. It doesn’t seem like who got in there or who it was or who you vote for—I don’t know, it always ends up with the same result.” Small business owner Stephanie Wilson told Lopez and Johnson, “I feel like . . . and I know this is going to sound terrible, but it’s not going to matter what we think. Our vote doesn’t really count at all.” (Read more)

Center for Rural Strategies president Dee Davis: Rural America has room, need for Syrian refugees

Struggling rural American towns should welcome Syrian refugees with arms wide open, Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, opines for the Daily Yonder. Here is an excerpt from his column:
Dee Davis
"Rural America is falling further behind. Farms don’t need farmers. Manufacturing moved offshore. And the rate of rural kids living in poverty is worse than it is in the inner cities. Here’s a solution. Let’s take in the Syrian refugees. Make them rural Americans. As many as we can feed.

"I live in a small town. The billboard says welcome to Whitesburg, Kentucky, population 1,534 friendly people plus two grouches. We are losing industry, businesses and people with alacrity. We are losing alacrity, too. Small towns often struggle to hang on to critical mass to keep a tax base or to have enough tuba players for the school band. In small towns everyone is necessary. Not even the grouches are expendable.

"We’ve got room here for more folks. Rural downtowns have empty buildings where dime stores and haberdasheries once catered to customer needs. Those can be converted to lofts and exotic food stands. And everybody’s Aunt Dovie has an empty house with a length of bottomland that she has been holding for her boy, if he ever gets tired of being a schoolteacher in Sheboygan or a comptroller in Orlando. The refugees who have fled across continents on foot, in overloaded boats, with their belongings on their backs and infants on their hips are not basket cases. I see people here who will drive around the Walmart parking lot in their pick-up trucks until they can find a spot by the door. Why not welcome some extra pluck, people who have invented ways to survive harsh times? Syrians can rebuild housing stock, turn weeded fields into gardens and help us create economies where economies once resided.

"In the Appalachian Mountains, Syrians, Lebanese, Persians and Palestinians came in throughout the 20th-century booms and stayed through the busts. They were coal miners and merchants and soldiers in the great wars. This nation welcomed strangers then, and strangers pitched in. Steve Jobs’ people were Syrian. eBay’s Pierre Omidyar is Iranian. There is an upside to an open-door policy.

"What is the downside? That these refugees are Muslims? Rural America was built by religious dissenters, and in my town dissent still thrives. We have a breakaway church in the old bowling alley. We have one where the picture show used to be. One in a warehouse. We do have a new legal moonshine distillery in an old tire shop. Maybe teetotaling newcomers would be troubled by that. But then again, not every Baptist is devout when it comes to booze. Sinners walk among us. Maybe we will all meet in the middle.

"Sharing the future with people who want to be here cannot be as daunting as preserving a present that’s straining under the load. The Statue of Liberty’s plaque plainly states: 'The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.' That sounds like a plan. And it’s a more thoughtful rural policy than any we have now."

BLM unofficial photographer capturing forgotten National Conservation Lands

Bureau of Land Management unofficial photographer Bob Wick is showing Americans a different side of an agency "long known for promoting oil drilling, mining and grazing but less known for supporting outdoor recreation," Phil Taylor reports for Greenwire. "His images—from a fog-filled, desert sagebrush valley to a lush California redwood forest—have exposed thousands of Americans to the agency's National Conservation Lands, a 30-million-acre system of wilderness, monuments, conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers, and historical trails."
Ken Rait, director of U.S. public lands at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told Taylor, "BLM lands are frequently referred to as the forgotten lands. Bob is making sure these lands are given the iconic status they deserve." (Wick photo: Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada)
Wick "spends up to six weeks a year prowling the agency's starkest landscapes," Taylor writes. "He's hiked hundreds of miles, camped in subzero temperatures and scrambled up dicey slopes to capture scrubby BLM terrain as it unfolds in early-morning sun. He's taken tens of thousands of photographs since the agency hired him in the late 1980s." The photos, which are published on BLM's Instagram account, can be used by the public without permission because Wick shoots as a federal employee. (The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area in Arizona)

The photos have also been used to help environmental causes, Taylor writes. "In March 2014, CBS Evening News reported that Wick's photos of the Northern California coastline helped catalyze grassroots support for President Obama's decision to expand BLM's California Coastal National Monument." Wick told CBS, "My photos did play a role in that people who weren't visually aware of how spectacular this coastline could get a feel for it."

Monday, November 30, 2015

About 50% of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions unnecessary; South leads nation in most antibiotics

Residents in the South are prescribed more antibiotics than in any other part of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates "that about 50 percent of antibiotic prescriptions written in outpatient settings, such as primary care offices and clinics, are unnecessary," Lena Sun reports for The Washington Post. West Virginia had the highest rate of prescribed antibiotics in 2014, at 1.24 per person. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were not far behind.

Over-prescribing is leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, causing public health officials to worry that "even minor infections could become dangerous and that clinicians will lose their ability to treat cancer, transplant organs and save victims of burns and traumas," Sun writes. "At least 2 million Americans become infected every year with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections."

A Pew Charitable Trust study found that "45 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in outpatient settings in 2013 were written by primary care physicians, including family practice doctors, pediatricians and internal medicine doctors," Sun writes. "They wrote prescriptions for more than 120 million courses of antibiotics—an average of 512 prescriptions each. Physician assistants and nurse practitioners accounted for 18 percent of antibiotics prescribed in these settings, followed by dentists at 9 percent, emergency medicine providers at 5 percent and dermatologists at 3 percent." (Post map)

Rural Mississippi Delta town passes resolution to accept Syrian refugees

While many states—especially in the South—have said they don't want Syrian refugees, officials in a small rural town in the Mississippi Delta unanimously approved a resolution "in support of the U.S. policy to accept refugees from war-torn areas of the world," Bracey Harris reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Officials in Louise (Best Places map), which has less than 200 residents, cited a moral religious responsibility to help those in need.

The resolution states: “This town’s governing body fears no threat but rather feels its Christian duty and obligation to divine providence, which has led this great nation from its founding to contribute relief for these poor peoples’ needs.” While the resolution doesn't cite specific groups, Louise Mayor Thomas Ruffin Smith said the town is open to taking Syrian refugees.

Even though Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he opposes resettling Syrians in Mississippi, Smith "said he is not worried about the resolution creating a conflict with the state," Harris writes. Smith told Harris, “There’s a long history of Southern governors resisting federal policy, and history has shown us it doesn’t work out well." Smith also said neighboring states have resettled Syrian refugees, which would make it difficult to keep them out of Mississippi. (CNN map: (Kentucky Governor-Elect Matt Bevin, a Republican, said the state will not accept Syrian refugees once he takes office Dec. 8))

Despite methane explosion, dirty water in rural Texas, officials deny any link to oil and gas industry

Rural Palo Pinto County, Texas, (Wikipedia map) residents in the Barnett Shale region whose water wells were found to be contaminated with dangerous chemicals say state officials are refusing to offer any assistance, Brett Shipp reports for WFAA 8 in Dallas-Fort Worth. According to documents obtained by WFAA, state inspectors found wells containing chemicals "that may pose 'adverse health effects' and an 'explosion hazard.'" State officials, who "suggested the contamination could be due to a 'natural occurrence in the groundwater,'" said "there were no baseline water tests to prove the chemicals did not already exist." The state's solution to property owners was to "vent your water well" and consider "installing a well water aeration system," documents show.

One resident said his or her well water turned completely brown, was full of dirt and smelled of rotten eggs, Shipp writes. Another resident's "water well house filled with methane and exploded, severely burning him, his father and daughter. All three survived, but the wells of both families were ruined." Christopher Hamilton, a lawyer representing both families who are suing two oil and gas companies, told Shipp, "These incredibly unnatural events, from methane spewing out of a shower, to methane exploding in a fireball from a water well, don't match 'naturally occurring.' What they do match are the known risks associated with fracking and gas drilling."

The Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the state's oil and gas industry, refused requests for interviews, Shipp writes. Meanwhile, "despite the test results, the contamination and even a near-fatal explosion—there has been no attempt by state officials to suspend operations of the nearby oil and gas wells until a cause can be determined." (Read more)

Lobbyists want to use Syrian refugee crisis to block WOTUS, according to taped strategy session

Lobbyists want to use the Syrian refugee crisis to block the Environmental Protection Agency's Water of the U.S. rule, according to a leaked conference call, Lee Fang reports for The Intercept. During the conference call, "lobbyists representing a number of high-polluting industries agreed that the battle between Congress and President Obama on refugee policy will give them the cover they need to attach a legislative rider to the omnibus budget bill that rolls back newly expanded clean water regulation."

"Attaching a rider blocking WOTUS to the omnibus was potentially going to attract a lot of attention. Until now," Fang writes. "Now, lawmakers are expected to attach a provision to the omnibus bill to block Syrian refugee resettlement—a move that is bound to become the focus of any government shutdown confrontation between Congress and the White House."

"The call was hosted by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for major electric utility companies," Fang writes. "Participants in the call included senior officials and lobbyists from some of the largest trade associations in Washington, including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the National Association of Home Builders and the American Farm Bureau. The total attendance list for the call, however, is not clear given that some participants did not identify themselves or only identified themselves by first name."

Attendees at the conference call deny talking about Syrian refugees, Fang writes. Liz Thompson, director of media relations with the National Association of Home Builders, said in a statement, "The Syrian crisis has absolutely no bearing on our discussions. With only two weeks left in the legislative calendar, the purpose of the call was to have an open discussion on the options available to us, including possibly adding a rider in the final omnibus appropriations bill." Other groups refused to comment.

Spirit of Thanksgiving is about respecting the earth year round, opines Indian Country Today editor

Ray Halbritter, editor of Indian Country Today and the leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, wrote a column about the true meaning of Thanksgiving and the importance of giving back to the earth. Here is the column in its entirety.
Ray Halbritter
"Recently, a new phrase has snuck its way onto TV airwaves during a seemingly relentless bombardment of holiday commercials. The word? Thanksgetting, as in now it’s time to go out and acquire products and things you desperately want (which, an optimist might argue, could serve as gifts for loved ones, but there’s plenty of ambiguity in these advertisements). Thanksgetting is the inverse of Thanksgiving, of course, the true meaning of which is all too-frequently lost in the pell-mell rush of modern life, where supermarket shelves are stocked with summer fruits all year round and there is no lack for those with money and the means to afford it.

"For indigenous cultures, the idea of giving thanks to Mother Earth for her bounty is not an isolated notion or a calendar-driven one. It is simply a world-view woven into how we try to live in relation to our environment and all the plants, animals and people in it. Respect for our fortunate place in this world rein forces the spirit of thanks, and in the best of times we are never too far apart from that spirit. It’s not an alien concept. For eons, harvest festivals were common celebrations for most agricultural societies. The more aware we are of the cycles of life, death and rebirth, the closer we are to what is right and true.

"This year, the National Geographic Channel broadcast Saints and Strangers (discussed in this week’s issue), a mini-series billed as the “true story” of the pilgrims’ encounter with the Native inhabitants of Turtle Island. It is rare for Indian history to be presented accurately by non-Natives, and this production has been no exception to criticism. There is little room here to delve into details, but there is a remark by Native actor Kalani Queypo in a promotional clip that speaks volumes about the inherent difference of perspectives. Queypo, who plays Squanto, relates how his character makes a suggestion that can be subtitled as, 'Let’s teach them how to farm here.' The literal translation? 'Let us speak to them so they know how to work the earth.'

"One could say we have been speaking so ever since."

Essay contest to award rural Virginia property goes bust

The growing rural trend of awarding property to an essay contest winner for a minimal entry fee—typically $100 to $150—has led to big cash rewards for property owners, as well as accusations of cheating. Janice Sage netted more than $906,000 for her rural Maine inn, but the new owner—who got the inn for a $125 essay entry fee—says he has been harassed by people who didn't win the contest who claim they were cheated out of the entry fee for a contest that was rigged. Some have been accused of posting negative online reviews of the inn. (Roanoke Times photo: An essay contest to award The Claiborne House Bed and Breakfast in Rocky Mount, Va., didn't receive enough entries to make it worthwhile to sell)

Tony and Shellie Leete didn't have the same success as Sage in their efforts to sell The Claiborne House Bed and Breakfast in Rocky Mount, Va. The Leetes, who said they were hoping to get $499,000 from an essay contest with a $150 entry fee, failed to award a winner after receiving less than 1,000 entries, Casey Fabris reports for The Roanoke Times. The Leetes needed at least 3,300 entries to get the money they were looking for.

Shellie Leete, who "said she isn’t sure she would have been able to deal with that kind of backlash, and maybe the contest not working out saved them from having to do so," said all entry fees have been refunded, Fabris writes. For now the owners said they plan to keep running the business while trying to sell it the traditional way. (Read more)