Friday, January 29, 2016

Hepatitis B cases increased 114% in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia from 2006-2013

The number of hepatitis B cases in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia increased 114 percent from 2009-2013, while hepatitis B cases remained stable nationally during the same time period, says a study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study, which cites intravenous drug use in Appalachia for the rise in cases—rates were highest among non-Hispanic whites ages 30-39—found that 42 percent of cases occurred in rural areas in both the national study and in the three targeted states. From 2006-2013 a total of 3.305 hepatitis B cases were reported in the three states, with numbers increasing 20 percent from 2009 to 2010 and 114 percent from 2009-2013.

Hepatitis B, a potentially serious liver infection, "spreads when someone comes in contact with blood, semen or other bodily fluids from an infected person," Laura Ungar reports for USA Today. "For some patients, it’s a short-term illness, but others develop long-term, chronic infections. About 2.2 million Americans live with chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer."

"Unlike hepatitis C, which is caused by a similar virus and can be spread in similar ways, hepatitis B can be prevented with a vaccine, which is recommended for infants at birth, people with multiple sex partners and injection drug users, among others," Ungar writes. "But federal surveys show that hepatitis B vaccination coverage is low among adults nationally." (CDC graphic: Hepatitis B infection in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia from 2006-2013)

Study: 5% of industrial facilities responsible for about 90% of industry-generated air pollution

A small minority of industrial facilities are responsible for the majority of air pollution generated by the industry, says a study by researchers at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the University of Maryland published in Environmental Research Letters.
Researchers "examined what they term 'hyper-polluters': Industrial facilities that, based on EPA data, generate disproportionately large amounts of air pollution," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. The study, which examined industrial emissions at about 16,000 industrial facilities—excluding power plants—"found that '90 percent of toxic concentration present in the study area is generated by only 809 (about 5 percent) of facilities.' The highest polluting facilities were also more likely to be located in proximity to poor and minority neighborhoods." (Study map of exposure to pollution based on low income (red), mostly white areas (green) and low-income mostly non-white areas (blue))

Hawaii, Alaska top Well Being Index; Southern states stuck at the bottom of list

Hawaii is the place to be if you want to be happy. West Virginia not so much. The Aloha State grabbed the top spot in the  2015 Gallup-Healthways Well Being Index, while the Mountain State was stuck at the bottom for the seventh consecutive year. The poll, which consisted of 177,000 interviews in every state throughout 2015, ranked states based on 100 point scale for: Purpose (liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals); Social (having supportive relationships and love in your life); Financial (managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security); Community (liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community); and Physical (having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.)

The average score in the U.S. was 61.7, up from 61.4 in 2014. Hawaii scored 64.8, followed by Alaska, 64.1; Montana, 63.8; Colorado, 63.6; Wyoming and South Dakota, 63.5; Minnesota, 63.3; Utah, 63.1; and Arizona, 63. West Virginia scored a 58.5. Kentucky, which ranked 49th for the seventh consecutive year, scored a 60.3. Following Kentucky was Oklahoma, 60.4; Ohio and Indiana, 60.5; Missouri, 60.8; Arkansas and Mississippi, 60.9; and Louisiana, 61.1.

While the gap in numbers does not seem that large, "In most cases, a difference of 0.5 to 1.0 point in the Well-Being Index score between any two states represents a statistically significant gap and is characterized by meaningfully large differences in at least some of the individual metrics that make up the overall Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index," states Healthways.

America's well-being was statistically the same between 2014 and 2015, with financial well-being rising, "and American perceptions and ratings of their lives reached an all-time high," Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. "At the same time, food and health-care insecurity and smoking rates fell. But there is some backsliding, too. Obesity continued to climb, and more part-time employees were seeking full-time work." (Post map)

Federal grants for $10.5M awarded to projects to study early education in rural areas

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced $26 million in grants to create the Early Learning Network that will provide funds for several projects, including some focused on rural education. Ruth C. Neild, delegated director of the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), said in a statement: "Early Learning Network will study what is happening in early education programs across the country and how successfully children are making the transition from preschool to elementary school. The network will seek to identify what policymakers and practitioners can do to improve early learning programs so students are prepared for long-term success in school."

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was awarded $6.5 million to "study how education policies differ in rural and urban areas for children in pre-kindergarten through third grade to learn how educators can close the achievement gap for at-risk students," Chris Dunker reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. "The project will track children over time to study how changes in the educational environment—including the move to new classrooms and different instructional approaches among teachers—impact the transition through the early elementary years." The study will focus on 10 rural school districts and two urban ones.

Another grant for $4 million was awarded to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study early learning policies and programs in rural North Carolina. Acting Secretary of Education John King said in a statment: "As we increase access to early education, we need high-quality research to show us the most effective ways to prepare children for success in elementary school and beyond. The Early Learning Network will develop important information and tools that will help policymakers and practitioners improve preschool and elementary school teaching and learning across the country."

Iowa caucuses give rural voters an opportunity to be heard

In Iowa, where rural areas "make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population," the caucuses give rural voters the chance to have their voices heard and get face-to-face time with presidential candidates, Alicia Parlapiano, Brent McDonald and Larry Buchanan report for The New York Times. "Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities."

"Iowa often has its first-in-the-nation voting status called into question, in part because its demographics (the state is 92 percent white) don’t represent the country as a whole," reports the Times. "But Iowans will proudly defend their position, citing their deep commitment to the process and the lengths to which they will go to scrutinize the candidates."

"Caucuses are run by the parties, not the state, so the bulk of the organizing falls to volunteer committee members, who are driven by a passion less for individual candidates than for their parties’ values and the grass-roots political process," reports the Times. Jordan Pope, chairman of the Decatur County Democrats, who, at 18, is the youngest county chairman or chairwoman in Iowa, told the Times, "I think being in a rural area, you’re able to step up to the plate and take more responsibilities, which is awesome and a little scary also. I have friends in Texas and Alabama, and they’re always jealous when they see me taking selfies with presidential candidates. Yeah, you have primaries there, but the main way they see their candidates is on a TV screen.” (NYT graphic: Despite losing population rural voters in Iowa take the caucuses seriously)
One of the strengths of the caucuses it that they "are not designed for anonymity: Everyone arrives at once and can make a pitch for their favorite candidate in front of the entire group," reports the Times. "While the Republicans vote secretly on scraps of paper, the process for Democrats requires caucusgoers to declare their preference by physically standing in a candidate’s designated corner." 

One problem is that "Iowa's 99 counties have shrunk in population since 1990, with the most rural areas hit the hardest," reports the Times. "The 18- to 34-year-old share of the population has decreased in all but four counties in the state, rural and urban alike. The shedding of Iowa’s rural population has made it more difficult for the parties to recruit and maintain leaders for their county committees. At the same time, a growing dependence on out-of-state paid staff members in election years has left many counties without local volunteers who have the skills to maintain their organizations in non-election years."

Another problem has been technology, reports the Times. Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus in 2012, but results were not released for two weeks when Mitt Romney "was said to have won." Officials have worked to curb that problem, this year "replacing their paper and landline vote reporting system with a digital one" that will verify totals within 48 hours. Still, some are worried that a lack of high-speed Internet in some rural areas could hamper results.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Candidates ignore most farm, rural issues in Iowa; if not discussed there, where will they be?

While ethanol has been a hot topic among some presidential candidates leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the rest of state's agricultural needs—Iowa relies on agriculture for one-third of its economy—have been mostly ignored, Amy Mayer reports for Iowa Public Radio. The problem is that most Iowa voters live in cities and suburbs, which "makes it difficult to get candidates talking about food system issues from school lunches, to crop supports, to water quality. Yet these all fall under the federal agriculture department. If candidates aren't talking about them in Iowa, it's possible they'll be left out of the campaigns entirely."

Iowa State University political scientist Mack Shelley told Mayer that the closest most candidates get to talking about food in Iowa is when they make sure to be photographed sampling it at fairs: "Sometimes they go to pig races, and they hang around on hay bales and farms and, not that that's necessarily typical of Iowa, but to attract support within the state you kind of have to start there and build out from that point."

Several candidates have published items about food, agriculture and rural issues but have been largely mum on the subjects in public appearances, unless it concerns ethanol, Mayer writes. While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the only candidate to oppose the Renewable Fuels Standard that supports ethanol, "That doesn't necessarily mean they're paying attention to other concerns farmers have. After all, there's a lot more to our food system than renewable fuels," like the farm safety net, trade and conservation, issues that have been largely ignored, Mayer reports. The caucuses are Monday night.

Appalachian State University receives grant to turn out-of-print books about Appalachia into e-books

Appalachian State University will use an $88,000 grant to turn 73 classic out-of-print books about the history and culture of Southern Appalachia into e-books available for free under a Creative Commons license, reports Appalachian State University News. ASU was one of 10 schools to receive $774,000 in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Open Book Program.

Belk Library at ASU will work in conjunction with University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill to create digitized versions of the books that were published by the now defunct Appalachian Consortium Press, reports ASU. The project should be completed by late 2017.

Dr. William Schumann, director for the Center of Appalachian Studies, told ASU News: "The digitization of these important resources is a vital step forward in bringing regional scholarship to interested students and into the public domain. The ease-of-access this project provides will not only broaden our knowledge of these materials but also expand the ways that North Carolina’s students and citizens interpret and utilize these resources. This project is a service to the state of North Carolina and to those interested in the Appalachian region everywhere.” (Read more)

Imprisoned armed standoff leader tells remaining occupiers, 'please go home'

Ammon Bundy, the imprisoned leader of the armed standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Harney County, Oregon, told his remaining supporters on Wednesday to go home, Dave Seminara, Julie Turkewitz and Kirk Johnson report for The New York Times. Bundy was among a group arrested on Tuesday in an incident with law enforcement that left standoff spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum dead. Bundy said in a statement released by his lawyer: “To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home." (Bend Bulletin photo by Joe Kline: A roadblock five miles from the refuge)

As of Wednesday night, seven occupiers remained at the refuge, reports the Times. David Fry, one of the occupiers, told reporters they would stay “until someone starts listening or until they slaughter us." Group members "said they believed Finicum was murdered and that holding Ammon Bundy in jail was an outrage to them." They said they "took a vote and decided to dig in and stay; on a streaming video from inside the refuge, a handful of men could be seen carrying long guns, operating a backhoe belonging to the federal government and speaking darkly of a bloodbath."

"Also on Wednesday, law enforcement officials—for the first time since the occupation started Jan. 2—set up barricades and checkpoints on a two-lane road into the refuge where a few weeks ago there were barely any vehicles," reports the Times. "They vowed to stop and interrogate anyone who tried to enter or leave the Malheur, as most people here call it, saying that protesters who wanted to leave peacefully would be allowed to do so. They made it clear that the days when journalists could mingle freely with the protesters, and local ranch families could drop by with a batch of soup or just to chat, were over." (Read more)

Appalachia gets the 'Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie' treatment in new TV show

Nearly two million people tuned in this week to watch the premier of WGN America's original series, "Outsiders," described by some as an Appalachian "Mad Max meets Little House on the Prairie" The series, set in a fictional Eastern Kentucky town, centers around a moonshine-making clan that engages "in armed robbery, vandalism and matricide, but it’s because they really just want to be left alone," Mike Hale writes in a review for The New York Times. (WGN America photo)

"The Farrells, like any self-respecting isolated clan, have their own language," Hale writes. "A lostie is essentially anyone who’s not a Farrell and therefore lives in the shallow, sinful world away from their mountain—all the people who 'gone and lost everything that makes life worth living.' Non-Farrells don’t say 'ged-gedyah' when they hoist a jar of 'myrr-lunnen' (moonshine), or bow down before a leader known as the Bren’in."

"Differences are settled by jousts, with all-terrain vehicles replacing horses," Hale writes. "There are violent wedding rituals, talk of prophecies and demons, and bonfire-lighted bacchanals at which public sex is optional. Even when a pragmatic Farrell tries to debunk the clan’s superstitions, he can’t help sounding ridiculous: 'Them old powers be fool-headed talk!' Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in 'Outsiders' can’t make the Farrells credible or convince us that there’s any real reason that townspeople, cops and energy executives should be afraid of them. On the other hand, the hillbilly vaudeville gives us something to watch and respond to."

The show is filmed in Pittsburgh and based on a story that show creator Peter Mattei read about a New Jersey family living in isolation, Bill Lynch reports for the Charleston Gazette Mail. Mattei told him, “I read an article about a kind of weird family living apart from others on a mountain in New Jersey, since before the Civil War, and then I saw a play about the idea of eviction.” Mattei said "he envisioned a rough-looking group that was part-gypsy clan, part-hippie commune, part-biker gang."

PBS film details early 20th century battle between West Virginia coal miners and coal companies

PBS's popular American Experience program this week premiered the film "The Mine Wars," which examines the early 20th century clash between West Virginia coal miners and coal companies, states PBS. Events "included strikes, assassinations, marches and the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the Civil War." The film is based on James Green’s book, "The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom."

Led by Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, in 1902 West Virginia miners went on strike to protest poor working conditions, states PBS. "Thousands of men, women and children ended up in makeshift 'tent colonies' set up by the UMWA on small strips of land not owned by the coal companies. These tent colonies included a trash dump, sanitary ditches and cellars for storage and shelter. Water often had to be imported in barrels on wagons. With no running water or permanent homes and no income to support their families, many miners returned to work, and the strike was broken." The film is available to watch online. Check local listings for repeat airings. (Read more)

Florida bills would let judges deny attorney fees to winning plaintiffs in open-records cases

A Florida Senate panel this week approved a bill that threatens the state's Sunshine Law for open government by eliminating mandatory awards of attorney fees "when plaintiffs prevail in public records lawsuits that prove that government agencies have violated the law," Grant Stern reports for PINAC News, a advocacy group that promotes the rights of photographers to film police misconduct. A state House committee previously voted to make attorney fees a matter of discretion for judges.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told Arek Sarkissian of the Naples Daily News, "No attorney is going to take the case if they aren't sure they're going to get paid. We know there are some bad actors who are taking advantage of this, but there are better ways to address the issue."

The Senate bill's sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) argued that "his bill would trust a judge to determine whether a public records lawsuit was filed in bad faith," Sarkissian writes. He said he filed the bill in response to a 2014 incident in which the owner of a law firm under investigation was accused of filing hundreds of public record requests "so that he could file claims for legal fees."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 23 other news organizations told legislators in a letter that the bills are "contrary to trends at both the state and federal level," and "financial hurdles can, and frequently do, prevent journalists and members of the public" from going to court to challenge denial of open-records requests, while "Mandatory fee shifting provisions also create a financial incentive for state and local government officials and agencies to consistently comply with public records laws when responding to requests for access."

Florida law "allows people to sue agencies for records and guarantees payment of legal fees if a lawsuit is successful," Sarkissian notes. Some state agencies "deny the public access to public records, requiring them to obtain a court order before the information is released. The bill would require an agency to acknowledge a request within five days of receiving it. That change would prevent lawyers from filing a lawsuit the same day as the request."

Paula Dockery, a former Republican legislator, wrote in a column for The Miami Herald: "In their role as watchdogs, reporters and editors alert the public when there is something controversial, unethical, illegal or just questionable. They rely on these laws to gather information the public has a right and a need to see. . . . The continual erosion of our public records law is gutting Government in the Sunshine and—ironically—it’s all being done in the open."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Appalachia cancer rate is slightly higher than U.S., especially for cancers caused by tobacco

Cancer rates in Appalachian counties occur at a higher rate than in non-Appalachian counties, says a report, "Cancer Incidence in Appalachia 2004-11," published today in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

The overall rate for the region was 4.2 percent higher among men and 2.5 percent higher among women. Researchers said the gap between Appalachian cancer cases and non-Appalachian cancer cases was shrinking in all areas except oral cavity and pharynx, larynx, lung and bronchus, and thyroid cancer.

Researchers put most of the blame for the higher cancer rate on higher tobacco use, but they also said cancer is higher in Appalachia because of poverty, patient health care utilization and access to care. The official Appalachian region has 25 million people in 420 counties in 13 states, as defined for the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

Previous research has found that the incidence of cancer is not much higher in Appalachia than in the country as a whole, but the rate of deaths from some cancers is higher, probably because people in the region are less likely to get tested for cancer.

57% of manufacturing-dependent counties have seen median income drop by 10% since 2000

In 57 percent of the U.S. counties classified as "manufacturing-dependent," the median income has dropped by at least 10 percent since 2000, according to analysis of the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Just 25 percent of other counties experienced a decline that dramatic."

"More than three-quarters of the counties in Michigan, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina experienced median income declines of 10 percent or more," Henderson writes. Five of the top 10 counties with the biggest drops were in Georgia, a state that has lost more than one-third of its manufacturing jobs since 2000. Lower paying jobs, such as in stores, health care, hotels and restaurants, now employ more people in Georgia than manufacturing.

Nine of the 10 counties where income increased the most—45 percent or more in inflation-adjusted dollars—are in North Dakota, where the oil boom has provided high-paying jobs although the data does not reflect changes after oil prices started dropping in 2014, Henderson writes. (Stateline map: For an interactive version, click here)

Rural law enforcement not happy with Obama administration's call to return military equipment

Local law enforcement agencies that for years have been stocking up on military gear through a U.S. Department of Defense program that allows the transfer of military property that is no longer needed are now voicing their displeasure about notifications from the Obama administration asking for the equipment to be returned, Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. Hundreds of law enforcement offices have been asked to return the equipment by April 1. (Military Today photo: Some local law enforcement agencies have M-113 armored vehicles.)

A report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the equipment has "resulted in more aggressive tactics by departments, particularly in minority neighborhoods, leading to deaths and serious injuries," Williams writes. "In one 2014 episode highlighted by the ACLU, a heavily armed police officer in Cornelia, Ga., threw a stun grenade into a playpen during a raid, blowing a hole in the face of a 19-month-old baby and causing severe burns. The officer was not criminally charged."

But local law enforcement agencies say recent shootings—such as the ones in California and Colorado—highlight a need for officers to be heavily armed, Williams writes. "They point out that fears about terrorism have spread to the smallest communities. They also say that the equipment has been helpful amid tight county budgeting and that it is used in all sorts of ways that do not involve civil unrest or terrorism, including training exercises and confrontations with gunmen. Armored vehicles, which move on tanklike tracks, are often used for search-and-rescue operations after storms or floods to navigate rough terrain, they say."

Sheriff Larry Amerson of rural Calhoun County, Alabama, who was ordered to send back his department’s M-113 armored vehicle, told Williams, "Take them away from anyone who used them improperly, absolutely, but don’t punish everyone. Now, if we have an active-shooter situation with an armed person, we don’t have any piece of equipment to move in safely for my deputies or the people I’m sworn to protect.”

Sheriff Lorin W. Nielsen of rural Bannock County, Idaho, who returned his department’s M-113 in December, argues that "tracked vehicles can climb steep hills and travel along unpaved roads, a significant advantage over other vehicles," Williams writes. He told Williams, “We have some pretty rough terrain here, and we feel like they took a major tool out of our toolbox." (Read more)

One dead at Oregon armed standoff; leader behind bars, but occupation continues

The armed standoff at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Harney County, Oregon, turned violent Tuesday, with one person dead, another wounded and the group's leader behind bars, Les Zaitz reports for The Oregonian. Standoff spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum was killed, and Ryan Bundy, brother of leader Ammon Bundy, was treated and released from a hospital with a gunshot wound. The Bundys and five others were "charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers, a felony." They were on their way to a community meeting set up by local residents when stopped by law enforcement.

While authorities last night did not release the name of the person killed, Finicum's daughter Arianna Finicum Brown confirmed he was the one killed, Zaitz writes. She told Zaitz, "My dad was such a good, good man, through and through. He would never ever want to hurt somebody, but he does believe in defending freedom, and he knew the risks involved." (Oregonian graphic)
There are conflicting reports on the events that led to the shootings, Zaitz writes. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, a vocal supporter of the Bundy family, said that Ammon Bundy called his wife Lisa from the back of the police car, telling her that "Finicum was cooperating with police when he was shot. But sources told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Finicum and Ryan Bundy disobeyed orders to surrender and resisted arrest."

While occupiers remained at the refuge peacefully demonstrating, Operation Mutual Defense, "a network of militias and patriot sympathizers, issued a call on its website for help at the refuge," Zatiz writes. "The post was written by Gary Hunt, a board member from California who has expressed support for Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City and had ties to the patriot movement. He wrote: 'You have an obligation to proceed to the Harney County Resource Center (the wildlife refuge) immediately. If you fail to arrive, you will demonstrate by your own actions that your previous statements to defend life, liberty and property were false.'"

Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Tuesday: "The situation in Harney County continues to be the subject of a federal investigation that is in progress. My highest priority is the safety of all Oregonians and their communities. I ask for patience as officials continue pursuit of a swift and peaceful resolution." (Read more)

Agriculture will be main course at Iowa caucuses

Agriculture will be one the biggest issues facing presidential candidates during the Iowa caucuses, which begin Feb. 1. Jerry Hagstrom, political correspondent for DTN The Progressive Farmer, has put together a comprehensive round-up of the agricultural issues that should be hot topics at the caucuses.

"The impact of the presidential candidates’ views on the Renewable Fuel Standard remains the top agricultural issue in Iowa, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have released papers on their broader views on agriculture," Hagstrom writes. Clinton has titled her paper, "Hillary Clinton: A Champion of Rural America." The paper by Sanders is called "On the Issues: Improving Rural America."

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has surprised some by putting his support behind Republican candidate Donald Trump, who favors the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), Hagstrom writes. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both chronicled the move by Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1981, to get behind the outspoken businessman. Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and the ethanol industry have asked voters not to support Republican candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, from Texas, who is one of the strongest opponents of RFS. The industry even wrote a letter to Iowans asking them to support RFS.

"At least two coalitions are trying to get the presidential candidates’ attention for their food and agricultural agendas before the caucuses," Hagstrom writes. "AGree, the foundation-financed effort on long-term agricultural policy, has issued a 'call to action' to try to convince the candidates to strengthen the agricultural sector. Meanwhile, Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Mark Bittman, the former New York Times columnist now with the meal delivery service Purple Carrot, traveled to Des Moines last week to talk to the candidates’ staff about changing the U.S. agricultural system 'so that every American has equal access to healthy, affordable food; the agricultural and food system is fair to workers; and farmers are incentivized to reduce harmful agricultural practices,' they said in a news release." (Read more)

Weekly publisher Keith Rathbun dies; ran nation's largest Amish and Mennonite newspaper

Keith Rathbun
Keith Rathbun, publisher of The Budget, the nation's largest Amish and Mennonite newspaper, is dead. Rathbun collapsed at his office in Sugarcreek, Ohio, and died at a nearby hospital Tuesday. Rathbun was featured on The Rural Blog and other news outlets, such as NPR and The Wall Street Journalfor his role in running the 125-year-old weekly, which, as of 2013, had 860 correspondents who are only paid with a subscription to help bring news to 18,000 subscribers in Amish and Mennonite communities around the country. For his obituary, click here.

The Budget depends on the mail, and Rathbun was an active member of the National Newspaper Association Postal Committee. Max Heath, NNA postal chair, told The Rural Blog: "Keith was determined to improve delivery quality for his subscribers, most of whom were not candidates for electronic options so prevalent today. He was dogged in his pursuit of improved mail prep on his side and was fully palletized and entered in Cleveland to expedite his nationwide efforts to achieve excellence. His hard work for the Ohio Newspaper Association and the NNA Postal Committee led to his appointment to the board of the National Newspaper Association. He will be sorely missed by his staff, many industry friends, and leaves large shoes to fill."

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Federal appeals court upholds coal dust rule for miners; rule set to take effect Feb. 1

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the government’s new coal dust exposure rule for coal miners, saying the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) "followed the relevant laws in writing the 2014 rule to limit coal dust exposure, which causes black lung disease," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. (NPR graphic)

"In a pair of lawsuits, various coal industry representatives said that the regulation did not properly take into account the scientific body of evidence, which the industry said shows it would not result in nearly the health benefits the government claims," Cama writes. "Mining companies also said the MSHA did not properly consult with the Department of Health and Human Services in writing the rule, which the court rejected as well."

The Atlanta-based court wrote: “We conclude that MSHA’s decades-long effort, culminating in the publication of this rule, adequately took into account the scientific evidence of record and arrived at conclusions which, given MSHA’s expertise, are worthy of deference. We therefore deny the petitions for review.”

The standards, which are scheduled to go into effect Feb. 1, require miners "to wear continuous personal monitors to check their exposure to dust, and companies would have to do more frequent sampling to check for compliance with dust limits," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Critics argued that MSHA overstepped its authority "and more frequent sampling is at odds with a separate rule on the use of rock dust."

Webinar Thursday to focus on high mortality rates in rural areas

The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health & Human Services (NACRHHS) is hosting a webinar at 2 p.m. (EDT) on Thursday to discuss high mortality rates in rural areas. The webinar, open to the public, will focus on the the organization's policy brief, "Mortality and Life Expectancy in Rural America: Connecting the Health and Human Service Safety Nets to Improve Health Outcomes  over the Life Course." (NACRHHS graphic)

"The brief examines a broad range of issues contributing to a mortality rate for rural Americans that is 13 percent higher than in urban and suburban areas according to recent data," states NACRHHS. "Among these is the rising rate of opioid use and overdose, lack of primary care and behavioral health services and federal policy and programs that do not take into consideration the challenges unique to rural areas."

One of the event's speakers is Wayne Myers, who was head of the federal Office of Rural Health Policy during the Clinton administration, Tim Marema and Shawn Poynter report for the Daily Yonder. Myers told the Yonder, “Several million people dying too soon is as important as a terrorist attack, but it’s not on the candidate debates or the evening news. I hope the webinar will get some more people wanting to know why too many rural people are dying young. Eventually I’d like to see a group convened to sort out what is scientifically known about the impact of social and economic change on people’s health and what actually works to improve the health of groups of people.”

Rural Mainstreet Index drops for fifth straight month, reaches lowest total since August 2009

Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index for January fell for the fifth straight month, reaching its lowest reading since August 2009, Steve Jordan reports for the Omaha World Herald. The index for the region in January was 34.8, down from 41.5 in December. The index, which stood at 50.9 a year ago, has now been below 50 for five straight months, which indicates economic decline. One of the reasons the index has reached such low numbers is that farm prices are down 15 percent and fuel prices down 20 percent over this time last year.

"The total of 178 bank executives surveyed in Nebraska, Iowa and eight other states in the region also had a dim view of the economy in the coming months, said Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who said "bankers see few factors pointing to improvements for the Rural Mainstreet economy.”

"Farm equipment sales showed the lowest rating since the survey began in 2005, and farmland prices declined for the 26th straight month, Goss said, although price trends vary and are increasing in some areas," Jordan writes. "The lower grain and cattle prices are discouraging farm equipment sales, affecting dealers and manufacturers in the region. Lower grain and fuel prices have had 'moderate impacts' on ethanol production in the region, he said. About two out of 10 bankers said ethanol plants in their areas have reduced production, with seven in 10 saying local plants haven’t changed. Hiring remained positive although retail and home sales showed declines."

Rural communities among 27 projects selected for Local Foods, Local Places to boost local economies

Twenty-seven communities in 22 states have been selected to participate "in Local Foods, Local Places, a federal initiative that helps communities increase economic opportunities for local farmers and related businesses, create vibrant places and promote childhood wellness by improving access to healthy local food," states the U.S Department of Agriculture, one of the sponsors of the initiative. Other sponsors are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), with support from the White House Rural Council.

As part of the program, "each Local Foods, Local Places partner community works with a team of experts who help community members recognize local assets and opportunities, set goals for revitalizing downtowns and neighborhoods, develop an implementation plan and then identify targeted resources from the participating federal agencies to help implement those plans," states USDA. The program, created in 2014, has already helped 26 communities. (EPA map of selected communities)
The Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission, S.D., was one of the selected communities. "The government says the group will receive technical assistance to establish a hub of healthy activity centered on local food," reports The Associated Press. "The plan is to use a new trail system that links the local grocery store, community garden, farmers market, creek and wetlands."

Another selection is the Ozark County Homegrown Food Project in Gainesville, Mo., reports Kansas City InfoZine. "Ozark County Homegrown Food Project plans to start a community garden in a city park and open a community kitchen and food shop to make purchasing fresh foods more convenient. A commercial kitchen will allow small producers to create value-added goods for local sale. The food shop will be cooperatively run by farmers and artisans. A community garden will empower people to grow food and get outdoors. The garden will also serve as a venue for hands-on workshops."

Discover Downtown Middlesboro in Middlesboro, Ky., "plans to create pallet gardens, low-cost mobile food carts, and business strategies for restaurants; a co-op grocery store; and other local food enterprises to employ low-income residents," states EPA. "The Winder Housing Authority in Winder, Ga., "plans to develop a pedestrian-accessible community kitchen and garden in the city’s Community Development Center." For a complete list of selected communities and planned projects, click here.

Clinton, Sanders using gun stances to take shots at each other

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton—who has repeatedly attacked her closet rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on his inconsistent record on gun control—may be guilty of the same act. Clinton has aired 740 pro-gun control ads in New Hampshire—24 percent of her total ads from Dec. 18 to Jan. 18—but only 300 in Iowa, where her ads on the wage gap have appeared 23 times more frequently than gun control ads, Chad Day reports for The Associated Press. Less than 6 percent of her more than 5,100 Iowa ads are for gun control. About 1 in 15 Iowans purchase a gun license, compared to 1 in 27 in New Hampshire.

About 88 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters and 82 percent in Iowa say they want to toughen gun laws, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls, Day writes. "In New Hampshire, where Sanders leads in latest surveys, the Vermont senator hasn't aired a single ad about his stance on guns this past month. His ads have almost solely focused on economic and health care issues."

One of Clinton's most effect tactics has been criticizing Sanders' gun record, "particularly the senator's 2005 vote to grant gun manufacturers immunity from prosecution, a vote that Sanders now calls a mistake," Gabrielle Levy reports for U.S. News & World Report. While the Sanders camp has circulated a flier saying he is "a lifelong advocate for gun safety" the Clinton camp has responded by calling him "a lifelong advocate for gun companies' safety from liability." The Washington Post has compiled a list of Sanders' record on guns.

Sanders said Monday at a town hall event in Iowa that Clinton only supports gun control when it benefits her, Awr Hawkins reports for Breitbart News Network. Sanders said: "Some of you might recall that back in 2007, when she was running against Barack Obama, she also focused [on gun control], but she thought that Obama was too strong on gun issues. You may remember him referring to her as 'Annie Oakley.' Today, Hillary Clinton is running a lot of advertisements on gun issues. Interestingly enough, she’s running most of them in New Hampshire, where she thinks it will work. [She’s] not running so many of them in rural Iowa. Now you can form your own judgement as to why that is the case."

Elena Schneider of Politico writes, "Democrats appear to be seizing on a moment that wasn’t as viable before 2016." Isaac Baker, a Democratic media consultant, told her, "I think there's a tipping point for Democrats that is fueling a new sense of confidence in using [gun control] as an issue, which they see as potent both in the primary and general."

Monday, January 25, 2016

Gun deaths outnumbered motor vehicle deaths in 21 states in 2014

In 2014 the number of gun deaths outnumbered motor vehicle deaths in 21 states and Washington, D.C., states a report from the Violence Policy Center using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number is significantly higher than in 2005, when only Maryland and Alaska had more gun deaths than motor vehicle deaths, Christoper Ingraham and Caroyln Johnson report for The Washington Post. "The trend was driven largely by the sharp drop in the rate of traffic fatalities, a result of a series of laws and safety measures aimed at making driving safer." While gun homicide rates are down, suicides account for two-thirds of all gun-related deaths.

Alaska had the biggest disparity, with 19.68 gun deaths per every 100,000 people, compared to 11.81 motor vehicle deaths per every 100,000 people, states the report. Utah had 11.45 gun deaths per every 100,000 people, compared to 8.87 motor vehicle deaths, and Vermont had 11.01 gun deaths compared to 7.82 motor vehicle deaths. Of the 21 states, Georgia (1,391) and Pennsylvania (1,390) had the highest number of overall gun deaths, and Louisiana was second behind Alaska, with 19.27 gun deaths per every 100,000 people. Louisiana also had the highest number of motor vehicle deaths—17.36 per every 100,000 people—of the 21 states. (Violence Policy Center graphic)
Utah has one of the nation's highest suicide rates, accounting for 87 percent of gun-related deaths from 2009-2013, reports Matt Canham for The Salt Lake Tribune. The national average of gun-related suicide deaths in 2013 was 63 percent. Utah's gun-related deaths are up from 9.34 per every 100,000 people in 2009 to 11.45 in 2014, while motor vehicle deaths dropped from 9.19 to 8.87 during that time.

In Tennessee, gun deaths increased from 865 in 2004 to 1,020 in 2014, while motor vehicle deaths dropped from 1,191 to 906 during that period, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security (the report states Tennessee had 1,000 motor vehicle deaths in 2014), Shelly Bradbury reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Statewide, the pace of gun-related and vehicle-related deaths has seesawed during recent years. But while vehicle-related deaths saw a large drop between 2004 and 2008, gun-related deaths have generally increased, with only occasional year-over-year declines."

Report suggests that natural gas overtook coal as top power source in U.S. in 2015

Natural gas in 2015, for the first time, appears to have overtaken coal as the top power source for electricity in the U.S., Scott DiSavino reports for Reuters. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration through October 2015 shows that power plants used more gas than coal to produce electricity in five of the 10 months, including the last four—July, August, September and October—that data was available. Analysts credit the change to the "cheapest gas prices in 16 years and a record number of coal-fired plants retired from service because of the high cost of meeting environmental regulations."

"While EIA does not forecast that gas produced more electricity than coal in 2015, some analysts conclude it did because gas in November and December traded at the lowest levels for the entire year, prompting more substitution in what was already an unrivaled year for coal-to-gas switching," DiSavino writes. "Coal has been the primary source of fuel for U.S. power plants for the last century, but its use has been declining since peaking in 2007, which is expected to continue as the federal government imposes rules to limit carbon emissions."

"EIA said gas produced a record high 37 million megawatt hours per day of electricity on average during the first ten months of 2015," DiSavino writes. "Coal, meanwhile, produced about 39 MWh per day. One megawatt is enough to power about 1,000 U.S. homes." (Read more)

More women are becoming farmers; 30% of farms are female-operated, up from 5% in 1978

About 30 percent of all principal and secondary farm operators—one million total—are women, up from five percent in 1978 and 14 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Elizabeth Zach reports for The Washington Post.
"Researchers have observed some possible reasons why more women are farming and ranching. Some women regard themselves less as entrepreneurs and more as gentle stewards of the land or bulwarks against corporations overtaking family farms and developers sweeping in with seductive offers. Others are drawn to the farm-to-fork movement, where locally grown produce and meat hold much greater appeal. Also, more women are inheriting farms and ranches." (Post photo by Mark Holm: Laura Jean Schneider runs a farm in New Mexico)

Breanne Wroughton, program assistant for the California Farm Academy at the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, Calif., told Zach that "downsizing and mechanization have also made the work more affordable and less physically demanding—although 'smaller parcels tend to require more physical labor because they are typically managed using hand tools and practices.'"

USDA says "women who identified themselves as earning their primary income from farming or ranching run the gamut in terms of what they produce," Zach writes. "They raise cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and goats in the West and Midwest. They are viticulturists—or, as they refer to themselves at times, 'vit-chicks'—who nurture malbec and pinot noir grapes in California, Washington and Oregon. They grow lavender, melons and seemingly every other delicacy under the sun. Some have taken on teaching roles and find that more and more women are joining their ranks." (Read more)

Obama administration proposes regulations to limit methane gas flaring at drilling sites

"The Obama administration on Friday proposed new rules to clamp down on oil companies flaring natural gas on public land, arguing the effort will reduce waste and harmful methane emissions as part of President Barack Obama’s bid to curb climate change," Matthew Daly reports for The Associated Press. The "rule is part of the Obama administration’s target to cut methane from oil and gas drilling by 40 to 45 percent by 2025, compared to 2012 levels." One of the problems with the proposal is that the federal government has limited authority over the practice, with most oil and natural gas operations regulated at the state level.

The Government Accountability Office recently released a report that "said 40 percent of methane gas being burned or vented could be captured economically and sold," Daly writes. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell "said the new rule will modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies, allowing companies to use captured natural gas to generate power for millions of homes and businesses. Between 2009 and 2014, enough natural gas was lost through venting, flaring and leaks to power more than 5 million homes for a year, she said."

Jewell also said that "the new rule also should generate millions of dollars that can be returned to taxpayers, tribes and states while reducing pollution," Daly writes. "Most of the gas being burned at drilling sites is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, although it does not stay in the air as long. Methane emissions make up about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to government estimates."

While environmentalists have pushed for stronger regulations, "the oil industry has argued that new regulations are not needed for methane because the industry already has a financial incentive to capture and sell natural gas," Daly writes. "Methane emissions have been reduced by 21 percent since 1990 even as production has boomed, according to the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group."

Winter weather wreaking havoc on dairy farms; farmers forced to dump milk supplies

A rough winter weekend had some dairy farmers crying over spilled milk. In Kentucky, where some areas received more than a foot of snow on Friday and Saturday, farmers were forced to throw out milk because hazardous roads made it impossible to deliver supplies to stores, Katie Batey reports for the Glasgow Daily Times. Local farmers, who said they have to milk the cows regardless of whether or not it can be delivered to stores, said supplies can only be kept for three days before running the risk of growing bacteria. That led one farm to throw out 30,000 pounds of milk and another to dump 12,000 pounds, resulting in thousands of dollars of lost profits. (Glasgow Daily Times photo; Dairy farmers dumping milk this weekend)

A storm earlier this month near Lubbock, Texas—home to 36 percent of the state's dairy cows—meant some farmers had to go two days between milking, as opposed to three times per day, Josie Muscio reports for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal. That storm also "killed about 5 percent of the region’s mature dairy cows and a yet-unknown number of calves and heifers, according to the Texas Association of Dairymen."

Farmers in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan say they have to milk cows regularly, despite frigid temperatures, Harri Leigh reports for Upper Michigan's Source. Dairy farmer Terry Debacker, who said it takes six to seven hours to complete the farm's daily 60 to 70 pounds of milking, told Leigh, "Winter's a big issue; I mean, there's lots of things that freeze up that you have to make sure they unfreeze. You have to make sure your tractors are plugged in. Otherwise you can create some very long hours."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Feb. 1 is deadline for entries for Public Notice Journalism Award

Monday, Feb. 1, is the deadline to enter the contest for the Public Notice Resource Center's 2016 Public Notice Journalism Award, which honors news reporting that originates with advertising that governments are required to buy in newspapers to notify the public of actions pending or taken. It promotes the value of public-notice laws, which are under attack in several state legislatures.

Last year's winner, Jim Lockwood of the Scranton Times-Tribune, continues to report on public notices, most recently in December on the Scranton Sewer Authority’s special meeting for a proposed purchase of the city’s sewer system (ad at left). He won the 2015 award for his reporting on a proposed commuter tax.

Other recent examples of public-notice reporting: Russ Corey of the Times Daily in Florence, Ala., reported recently on a notice about a development along the Tennessee River. Evan Hendershot of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., reported on a resident’s complaint that the city had forced her to pay for an expensive sidewalk on her short, no-outlet street.

News or feature stories from 2014 or 2015 are eligible for the award. Editorials are not. Entries should highlight the importance of public notice; judges give positive weight to the use of the notice, or linking to it. Send entries by email to The award includes a $700 cash prize.

Telcos, libertarians want new GOP governor in Ky. to rework or scrap public broadband network

Now that Kentucky has "created a nationally recognized public-private partnership to build America’s best statewide broadband network," and the governor is a Republican, "opponents are trying to kill it," reports columnist Tom Eblen of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"Some telecom and cable companies that now provide Internet service around the state, along with several right-wing advocacy groups, are pushing legislators and Gov. Matt Bevin to rethink the project," writes Eblen, the paper's former managing editor. "AT&T has filed a protest over the state’s process for awarding school Internet service contracts, many of which it now has. The Kentucky Telecom Association, which represents 15 rural Internet providers, thinks KentuckyWired should be reconsidered, claiming it would duplicate existing infrastructure and undermine existing businesses that need their state and school service contracts. The telecoms are getting backup from libertarian advocacy groups that object on principle to government-owned broadband networks." Bevin has not commented.
Image via Lexington Herald-Leader; click on it for a larger version
The school and state contracts "are needed to make the financial package work" for the state and Macquarie Capital, the Australian venture-capital firm that would operate the network," Eblen reports. "Macquarie will pay off the bonds and earn a return on investment over 30 years, mainly by providing 1,100 state offices and schools with what it claims will be faster, less-expensive Internet service than what most of them now get from telecom and cable companies using proprietary networks." Macquarie will share revenue with the state.

Then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, got the legislature to create KentuckyWired because Kentucky ranks low "nationally for broadband availability, service and cost," Eblen notes. "Complaining about slow, expensive Internet has become almost as popular a topic of statewide conversation as UK basketball." The project was created as part of the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative of Beshear and 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
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