Friday, March 04, 2016

In rural Ohio township where school shooting took place, residents say guns are just a part of life

In rural Madison Township, Ohio—where four students were wounded in a school shooting on Monday—owning and shooting guns is just a way of life among the 8,600 residents, Rick McCrabb reports for the Journal-News, which covers Butler County (Wikipedia map), known as a mecca for fishing and hunting though it is close to Cincinnati and Dayton. Sheriff Richard Jones said 22,000 conceal-carry weapon permits have been issued in the county since 2004. He told McCrabb, "They like to carry firearms. It’s OK to have guns.” Jones said the school-shooting suspect stole his gun from a relative.

Residents interviewed by the Journal-News "said safe, responsible gun ownership is commonplace and widely accepted in the township," McCrabb writes. "Some said many homes in the township are surrounded by or near acres of fields and wooded areas where small animals, coyotes and deer can be a nuisance and at times destructive to gardens, flowers or crops making a gun a useful tool."

"Mike Erter, manager at the Middletown Sportsmen’s Club, located a few miles from the school district, said the club has about 2,200 members and probably 200 are from Madison Township," McCrabb writes. Pam Figley, a gun owner who has lived in Madison Township for 25 years, told McCrabb, “Guns are a part of living out here and people out here know how to handle them safely. Everybody is safe with the guns out here.”

Madison Local Schools Superintendent Curtis Philpot, who owns a concealed-carry permit, but doesn't bring a gun to school, said he "understands a person’s right to carry a gun can be controversial, but he also realizes it’s his responsibility for the safety of the 1,600 students, teachers and staff in the district," McCrabb writes. Philpot told him, “School safety is everyone’ responsibility. My message to parents: If you have a firearm in your house, lock them up. Lock them up. That’s all I ask. You’ve got one backpack. I got 1,600.”

Nonprofit investigative reporting unit in Kentucky fills a gap in rural watchdog reporting

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

Fifteen years ago, when I roamed Kentucky as political writer for The Courier-Journal, the Louisville newspaper had reporters in most regions of the state, and in almost every county seat there was someone who knew a C-J reporter to call when a local official was involved in hanky-panky.

Today, like almost all other metropolitan papers, The C-J has a news bureau only in the state capital. That has left a gap in rural watchdog reporting that we have encouraged local newspapers to fill since I became the Institute's first director almost 12 years ago. More recently, a nonprofit investigative unit has helped fill the gap.
Screenshot: KYCIR also investigates state government. For its site, click here.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has done a series of stories about the elected county jailers who have no jails, and are paid to transport inmates; a story about a local police chief who defied a judge's order to take a man for mental-health evaluation and put him on a bus instead; and one titled "How politics, misinformation and money fueled a power plant in coal country," by my former C-J colleague Ralph Dunlop, who worked in the paper's Eastern Kentucky Bureau in Hazard before working as an investigative reporter at the main office.

Brendan McCarthy
The center is a privately funded arm of WFPL, an FM station operated by Louisville Public Media. Its managing editor is Brendan McCarthy, who was interviewed by Alexandra Kanik for a MediaShift story. "Some stories get very little traction in the city but do great in the more rural areas of Kentucky," she writes as part of a series about media audience metrics and data-driven decisions.

"For KYCIR, people are the ultimate metric," Kanik writes. "It isn’t people as a whole that matter, but individuals. Perhaps it comes from taking part in the LPM annual pledge drives, where McCarthy and the KYCIR staff get to interact with people on a more personal basis, rather than just through the normal letters to the editor or comments on a web page. Every tip, every phone call, every letter is recorded and replied to. . . . It’s an approach that seems to be working. By reaching out to individuals — replying to encouraging letters and making sure their content is accessible even to those Kentuckians without Internet access and those who live outside the range of the Louisville Public Media radio station — KYCIR is creating a following of hyper-loyal, extremely concerned citizens."

Chief justice refuses to block EPA's mercury rule

"In a significant victory for the Obama administration, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Thursday refused to block an Environmental Protection Agency regulation limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants," Adam Liptak and Coral Davenport report for The New York Times. "The decision comes three weeks after the full Supreme Court, in a highly unusual move, blocked another major Obama administration rule that would limit planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution from coal plants. The order was issued solely by Chief Justice Roberts, who did not refer the question to the full court."

Roberts "rejected an application from 20 states that said a federal appeals court in Washington had effectively thwarted their victory in the Supreme Court in June, when the justices ruled that the EPA had failed to take into account the punishing costs its mercury regulation would impose," Liptak and Davenport write. "In that 5-to-4 decision, Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, the Supreme Court ruled that the agency had run afoul of the Clean Air Act by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis to show the regulation to be 'appropriate and necessary.'"

"In December, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowed the mercury regulation to stay in place while the agency completed its review, noting that it 'is on track to issue a final finding' by April 15," Liptak and Davenport write.
Legal experts said Roberts' decision "signaled that they might not be successful in further attempts to halt environmental rules while they are still subject to legal challenges," Liptak and Davenport write. "In their Supreme Court brief, the states said blocking the mercury regulation 'is even more warranted' than the halt to the climate change plan, because the Supreme Court had already decided that the agency had exceeded its authority. The mercury regulation, the states said, 'has imposed literally billions of dollars of compliance costs on utilities.'”

Legal exports said "blocking the mercury rule would have had little practical impact, because most electric utilities have already put it into effect," Liptak and Davenport write. "Industry groups estimate that it has already led to the closing of about 100 coal-fired power plants. EPA has estimated that the rule will impose about $9.6 billion annually in costs to industry as they either clean up or close down coal plants." (Read more)

Court to decide if feds have authority to cancel oil and gas lease on Native American land

A decades-long battle between Native Americans and oil and natural-gas developers in northwest Montana could soon be decided in federal court. At stake is land outside Glacier National Monument—an ancestral home of the Blackfeet tribe known as the Badger-Two Medicine and the site of 18 oil and gas leases that have been in limbo for more than 30 years, Corin Cates-Carney reports for NPR. (Blackfeet Nation map)

In the early 1980s, Louisiana-based Solenex leased more than 6,000 acres of national-forest land in the area from the Bureau of Land Management for a dollar an acre, Cates-Carney writes. "Solenex's lease was one of dozens issued in the area during the Reagan administration. During that era, BLM was committed to increasing oil and gas production from federal lands. After years of appeals, the permit for Solenex was finalized. But before the drilling could begin, new leadership entered the White House. Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary during the Clinton administration, halted the lease."

The U.S. Department of the Interior last year said it was going to cancel the lease, claiming authority because the lease was originally issued without full environmental review, Cates-Carney writes. The federal district judge will determine whether the department does have the authority to cancel the lease "and whether the government unreasonably delayed Solenex from drilling for 30 years."

Fish and Wildlife Service wants to lift endangered-species protection for Yellowstone-area grizzlies

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday proposed removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzly bears in the area in and around Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service map), saying the bruins' numbers "have rebounded sufficiently in recent decades," Ruffin Prevost reports for Reuters. Grizzly-bear populations in the region are estimated at 700 or more, compared to "as few as 136 bears in 1975 when they were formally listed as a threatened species throughout the Lower 48 states. ... Its current estimated population well exceeds the government's minimum recovery goal of 500 animals in the region."

"Hunters and ranchers, who make up a powerful political constituency in Western states, have strongly advocated de-listing grizzlies, arguing that their increasing numbers pose a threat to humans, livestock and big-game animals such as elk," Prevost writes. "Environmentalists have raised concerns that while grizzlies have made a comeback, their recovery could falter if federal safeguards are lifted, a move that would open the animals to public hunting outside the national park boundaries. Native American tribes, which revere the grizzly, also have voiced skepticism about removing its threatened status." (Read more)

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Georgia attorney general sides with paper battling hospital that failed to conduct open meetings

A daily Georgia newspaper in a battle with a local hospital over transparency told The Rural Blog that it was notified this morning by the state Office of the Attorney General that the hospital authority it is out of compliance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act. The story is a good reminder of the importance of freedom of information, with Sunshine Week coming up March 13-19

"The Valdosta Daily Times reported in mid-February that the board of South Georgia Medical Center had met in an executive session prior to the regularly scheduled meeting," Susanna Nesmith reports for Columbia Journalism Review. When the hospital failed to respond to requests from Times editor Jim Zachary to comply with state open records laws, Zachary wrote an editorial blasting the hospital. The hospital, which buys tens of thousands of dollars in ads with the Times, responded the next day by pulling its ads and refusing to sell the paper in its gift shop.

"Georgia law allows public boards to meet in closed session in limited circumstances, and only after the boards have met in public," Nesmith writes. After the initial Times story ran Zachary said he "went to meet with hospital officials to urge them to follow the law. He even gave them the name of a contact at the state attorney general’s office who could explain the specifics of the law. When he learned that no one from the hospital reached out to the AG’s office, Zachary ran a sharply-worded editorial that condemned the hospital’s clandestine meetings and noted that the Times had notified the AG’s office of the violation."

Bill Ketter, senior vice president of news at Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., which owns the Times, told Nesmith, “Some papers would probably cave on this. We don’t allow our papers to do that. That’s one of the benefits of being part of a larger organization that backs you when you’re right and will support you financially if need be. This is a case of them trying to throw their weight around. We’re not going to let them.”

Here is an excerpt from Zachary's editorial:
Jim Zachary
"The Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County needs to stop violating the Georgia Open Meetings Act. State law requires governing bodies to meet in open public session, entertain a motion and a second, then take a public vote prior to going into a closed door meeting. The intention of the General Assembly is that the public has a right to know both when and why public officials go behind closed doors.

In open public meetings it votes to approve recommendations made in executive session, without including those actions on the meeting agenda and without defining what those recommendations include. This is the exact same violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act the Office of Attorney General chastised the Valdosta Board of Education for last year, resulting in the BOE changing its procedures.

There are a lot of actions by the hospital authority that are never discussed in open public meetings. That must mean either deliberations are taking place illegally outside of the public purview or that decisions are being made unilaterally without the knowledge and consent of authority members. In either case, it is wrong, it is a violation of the law and a violation of the public trust."

Rural voters pick Trump on Tuesday; Republicans not rallying around an alternative candidate

Rural voters helped businessman Donald Trump win seven of 11 contests on Super Tuesday, as he increased his delegate lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to 319-226—1,237 delegates are needed to win the nomination. Trump earned 49 percent of the rural vote in Tennessee, 48 percent in Georgia and 47 percent in Virginia, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. Trump received twice as many rural votes as Cruz in Georgia and Tennessee and nearly triple the votes in Virginia. Trump received twice as many rural votes as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in Virginia and nearly triple the number in Georgia and Tennessee. (Yonder map)

Cruz edged Trump in rural voting in Oklahoma—36 percent to 32 percent—and won big among rural voters in his home state of Texas—47 percent to 31 percent, Marema and Bishop write. The Yonder defines rural areas as counties that do not have a city or town with more than 10,000 people. Overall, Trump won Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Cruz won Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas. Rubio won Minnesota.

One story on Super Tuesday "was the failure of Republican voters to coalesce around an alternative to Trump," Marema and Bishop write. "In the seven states Trump won on Tuesday, second place went to three different candidates (Cruz in Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee; Rubio in Virginia; and Kasich in Vermont. Cruz and Rubio tied for second in Georgia; Rubio and Kasich tied for second in Massachusetts)." (Yonder map)

Clinton scored big in rural areas on Super Tuesday, but low turnouts could spell trouble in the fall

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton fared well with rural voters on Super Tuesday—especially in the South—although low turnouts in rural areas could spell trouble for her in the fall if she wins the party's nomination. Clinton won 77 percent of the rural votes in Georgia—more than three times what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders received—she earned 70 percent of rural votes in Tennessee and Virginia and 67 percent in Texas, more than double the rural votes for Sanders in all three states, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. Sanders won the rural votes in Oklahoma, 56 percent to 35 percent. The Yonder defines rural areas as counties that do not have a city or town with more than 10,000 people. Overall, Clinton won seven of the 11 contests on Tuesday, with Sanders taking Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Vermont. (Yonder map)
Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan weekly online newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Yonder "that Sanders’ popularity in Oklahoma was likely a protest vote against President Obama by conservative Democrats, who broke for Sanders 54 percent to 22 percent, according to polling," Marema and Bishop writes. "Sabato’s also notes that liberal support for Sanders fits with Oklahoma’s 'strong though ancient Socialist tradition' dating from the early 20th century."

While Clinton increased her delegate lead over Sanders to 1,052 to to 427—2,383 delegates are needed to win the nomination—Nicholas Confessore reports for The New York Times that one concern could be that "Democratic turnout has fallen drastically since 2008, the last time the party had a contested primary, with roughly three million fewer Democrats voting in the 15 states that have held caucuses or primaries through Tuesday, according to unofficial election results tallied through Wednesday afternoon."

Voting "declined in almost every state, dropping by roughly 50 percent in Texas and 40 percent in Tennessee," Confessore writes. "In Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, the number of Democrats voting decreased by between a quarter and a third. The falloff in Democratic primary turnout—which often reveals whether a candidate is exciting voters and attracting them to the polls—reached deep into some of the core groups of voters Clinton must not only win in November, but turn out in large numbers. It stands in sharp contrast to the flood of energized new voters showing up at the polls to vote for Donald J. Trump in the Republican contest."

"Some Democrats now worry that Clinton will have difficulty matching the surge in new black, Hispanic and young voters who came to the polls for President Obama in 2008 and 2012," Confessore writes. Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Obama’s re-election campaign, told Confessore, “Barack Obama without that surge is John Kerry. Just turning out the traditional minority base is not a 51 percent pathway going into November.”

PBS documentary, new album detail Loretta Lynn's Appalachian roots; she is 83

PBS on Friday will air a documentary, "Loretta Lynn: Still a Mountain Girl," detailing the Appalachian roots of the 83-year-old country singer who was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky coal country, Kristin Hall reports for The Associated Press. The documentary coincides with the release of Lynn's first album since 2004, "Full Circle," which includes many of the Appalachian songs she listened to growing up in Butcher Hollow. (Donn Jones photo: Loretta Lynn on Feb. 10 at the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville)

"Although her rags-to-riches story is already well known thanks to a best-selling autobiography and Oscar-winning film starring Sissy Spacek, Lynn has never before recorded many of the Appalachian songs that inspired her career," Hall writes. The album contains covers of songs from the Carter Farmily, as well as "In the Pines," an Appalachian folk traditional dating back to the 1870s, and the first song Lynn ever wrote, "Whispering Sea," which was the b-side of her first recording, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," released in 1960. (Read more)

With coal companies sputtering, concern grows about who will pay for reclamation projects

The dramatic downturn of the coal industry "has raised questions about the ability of companies to follow through with that promise and whether taxpayers will be responsible for returning land and water to pre-mining conditions," Dylan Brown reports for Environment & Energy Publishing. "The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) gave coal companies two general paths for securing reclamation—they can put down cash or assets as an assurance, or simply prove their finances are solid enough to foot the bill, a practice called self-bonding. Environmental groups and other watchdogs, long skeptical of self-bonding, are now calling for an immediate end to the practice. But regulators say change is not so easy or fast. Despite some reforms, companies still hold roughly $3.7 billion in self-bonding."

"Even though not all companies self-bond and not all states allow it, the biggest coal companies rely on self-bonding in the top-producing states," Brown writes. "Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and Arch Coal Inc. both took more than $1 billion in cleanup promises with them into bankruptcy. Now Peabody Energy Corp., the world's largest publicly traded coal mining company, holds roughly $1.4 billion in self-bonding." (E&E graphic)

"With Peabody shuffling assets and embroiled in bankruptcy rumors, environmentalists are demanding that states and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement force the company to use its dwindling liquidity to secure third-party bonds," Brown writes. "But regulators say they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can either force broke companies to get new financial assurances and further imperil their finances or bet on them to survive bankruptcy and meet their cleanup liabilities. The two biggest coal-mining states, Wyoming and West Virginia, have chosen the latter. They have signed deals with companies putting some reclamation needs ahead of other creditors and are working on gradually moving the companies away from self-bonding."

"Companies are eligible for self-bonding under SMCRA if they have operated continuously for five years, have a net worth of at least $10 million and have fixed U.S. assets worth at least $20 million," Brown writes. "In addition, they must either keep an A credit rating or certain financial ratios. Total company liabilities can be no more than 2.5 times larger than the company's net worth or no more than 1.2 times larger than its assets. Some states with self-bonding give themselves the discretion to reject applicants. Others, like Kentucky and Montana, don't allow the practice at all. And while self-bonding is technically available in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State has never issued any self-bonds." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Understaffed prisons in rural areas leading to fatigued guards and creating dangerous situations

Overcrowded and understaffed prisons—located disproportionately in rural areas—are leading to potentially hazardous environments in states such as Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Missouri and West Virginia, Jen Fifield reports for Stateline. Officials say "understaffed prisons result in long hours, fatigue and stress for guards, and canceled recreational and social programs for inmates, such as family visits—all of which can lead to potentially dangerous situations."

A 2014 survey of correctional officers by the nonprofit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found that 20 percent of the of 592 respondents from 44 states "had high levels of 'corrections fatigue,' feeling stressed and unsupported," Fifield writes. Caterina Spinaris, founder of the organization that studies officer well-being and trains officers on how to stay healthy and alert, said "guards experiencing a high level of fatigue take an average of 10 sick days a year," compared to five days for guards not experiencing fatigue. "In a prison system with 1,000 guards that pays an average wage of $15 an hour, the annual cost of lost productivity for those additional sick days would be $406,778, according to a calculator on the organization’s website." High levels of overtime also increase department budgets.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline, conducted a survey in 2014 that found that 28 of the 34 states that responded said they expect "their state prison populations to grow by 2018, from 1 to 16 percent," Fifield writes. In New Mexico, for example, prisons are at 98 percent capacity, but in the two most understaffed prisons—where the starting pay is $13.65—half the jobs are open and most employees leave within three years, mainly because there is little chance of receiving a raise. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in her January budget proposed raising funding for corrections by $12 million. Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel said most of the funds "would probably go to boosting starting salaries in corrections, but won’t help much with retention or with maintaining programs designed to deter recidivism and stem the growing inmate population."

One problem is that an improving economy is states like Kansas has job seekers bypassing $13.61 officer pay for higher paying jobs, Fifield writes. Kansas, where unemployment was at 4 percent in December, has seen the turnover rate for corrections officers increase from 20.8 percent in 2010 to 29.7 percent last year. Additionally, once a prison guard in Kansas gains experience they can earn more money by getting hired on at Leavenworth, a medium-security federal prison that offers higher wages.

Supreme Court declines to hear appeal of EPA plan to cut agricultural pollution in Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay drains parts of six states.
"The Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, the largest attempt by the federal government and states to rid the pollution from a body of water and to restore its health," Daryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. That means that a 2013 U.S. District Court ruling stands and "the Environmental Protection Agency is within its rights under the Clean Water Act to partner with the six states in the bay watershed to cut the pollution that pours in from sewers, construction developments and chemical and biological waste from farms," largely poultry and pork.

Critics said the groups leading the challenge showed no interest in the bay before the suit was filed in 2011, "and they called it a strategic effort to preempt the federal government from regulating pollution that runs off mega-farms it represents into the Mississippi River," Fears reports. The American Farm Bureau Federation led the charge to stop the cleanup, arguing "that EPA overstepped its authority in leading the effort because the bay can be managed only by the states that sit in its watershed." Attorneys general in 21 states joined Farm Bureau's appeal of the lower-court decision. Mostly Republicans, they argued that, “If this (cleanup) is left to stand other watersheds, including the Mississippi River Basin, could be next." (Read more)

Study: Single docs and married ones with highly-educated spouses less likely to work in rural areas

Single physicians, and married physicians with a highly educated spouses, are less likely to work in rural Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) than married physicians with a spouse who is not highly educated, says a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, which sampled 1 percent of employed physicians from 1960 to 2000 and 2005 to 2011, found that the number of physicians with a highly educated spouse—six or more years of college before 1990 or a master’s degree or higher since 1990—increased from 8.8 percent in 1960 to 54.1 percent in 2010. In every year of the study about one-third of spouses with graduate degrees were also physicians.

Overall, 5.3 percent of physicians worked in HPSAs from 2005-2011, according to the study. Among all physicians, 7.2 percent of those who were married with a spouse who was not highly-educated worked in underserved areas, 4.2 percent of married physicians with a highly-educated spouse worked in underserved areas and 4.1 percent of single physicians worked in underserved areas.

Montana State University nursing professor Peter Buerhaus, co-author of the study, told MSU: “Other recently published studies show that nurse practitioners are more likely than physicians to practice in rural areas and underserved areas. Because people living in these areas are nearly three times more likely to have inadequate access to primary care, policy makers need to broaden their approach and consider increasing the number of nurse practitioners as a means to provide health care to these populations."

"Using nurse practitioners, physician assistants, tele-health care, changing the way care is delivered by organizations and by teams of clinicians and non-clinicians, locating medical schools in rural areas, and exposing physicians and nurses to rural health early in their education, all are needed to overcome the persistent problem of inadequate access to primary care," he said.

Residents in Alabama's last dry county vote to allow alcohol sales in two rural communities

Continuing a "wet" trend in much of the South, alcohol will now be served legally in every county in Alabama. Residents in rural Ashland (population 1,980) and Lineville (population 2,320) voted on Tuesday to allow alcohol sales within city limits, reports The Associated Press. Alcohol sales will still be illegal outside Ashland and Lineville in the rest of Clay County (Encyclopedia of Alabama map), which has 605 square miles and has a population of about 13,500.

"Opponents argued against legalizing alcohol sales on moral and public-safety grounds," AP reports. "But supporters say allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages will help stimulate business in the rural, east Alabama county. Bootleggers have operated in Clay County for years, and possession of small amounts of alcohol in the county has been legal. The issue last came up for a countywide vote in 1986, when church opposition killed a proposal to go wet." The same refrain has been heard in much of rural America since the end of Prohibition, but less often in recent years, most recently noted here.

Public transit offers door-to-door, at-request service in some rural Minnesota communities

Public transit is the only means of transportation for some rural residents in states like Minnesota, where a 2014 study by Minnesota's Center for Rural Policy and Development found that "about 70 percent of transit riders using the most rural systems reported not having either a car or a driver’s license," Gregg Aamot reports for MinnPost, a non-profit news organization based in Minneapolis. In rural areas small buses "mainly serve people with limited transportation options: students and the elderly, the developmentally disabled, immigrants who have yet to obtain driver's licenses."

"The center, which issued a transit report in January, ahead of the legislative session, predicts that more Minnesotans in rural areas will need public transit in the coming years, especially as the elderly population increases," Aamot writes. "The report also notes the varied nature of public transit across Minnesota. For instance, the larger regional centers, such as Rochester and Duluth, have transit systems with elements that are familiar to transit users in the Twin Cities: terminals, multiple routes, park-and-ride options. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Owatonna, which has a population of 25,000, often have scheduled, fixed routes that move people around the city daily, stopping at shopping malls and other popular locations."
The center "calculates that rural transit systems carry 11 people per hour, at a cost of $7.39 per rider; Twin Cities transit systems, meanwhile, carry 26 people an hour, at a much cheaper $4.50 per rider," Aamot writes. There is one advantage to riding rural buses, Aamot notes: "Transit systems in rural Minnesota respond to the needs of riders. While many buses travel fixed routes, others routinely deviate from set routes to pick up people who have called dispatch centers for rides." While that meets the needs of rural residents, it can be inefficient, with buses traveling out of the way to pick up and deliver one rider to a specific location.

EPA tries to ban a widely used pesticide to protect fish; two big chemical companies fight decision

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to ban "the pesticide flubendiamide, which under the trade name Belt is registered for use on more than 200 crops," including soybeans, almonds, tobacco, peanuts, cotton, lettuce, alfalfa, tomatoes, watermelon and bell peppers, Stephen Davies reports for Agri-Pulse. Two major chemical companies, Bayer CropScience and Nichino America, have told EPA "they plan to fight the cancellation decision." Last month Bayer refused a request from EPA to remove the pesticide from the U.S. market.

"Once a Federal Register notice is published announcing the intent to cancel, the registrations will be cancelled unless the companies ask for a hearing under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act within 30 days," Davies writes. EPA said in a press release: "EPA studies that show flubendiamide breaks down into a more highly toxic material that is harmful to species that are an important part of aquatic food chains, especially for fish, and is persistent in the environment. EPA concluded that continued use of the product would result in unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. EPA requested a voluntary cancellation in accordance with the conditions of the original registration.”

Bayer and Nichino stated that they "do not agree that continued registration of flubendiamide poses unreasonable adverse effects on the environment. EPA's concerns are focused solely on the possibility that flubendiamide and a metabolite might accumulate in ponds and water systems to levels that may be toxic to aquatic invertebrates that dwell in sediment," Davies writes.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Series on suicide as a public-health issue is one of five finalists for journalism ethics award

UPDATE: The Associated Press won the award.

A newspaper series on suicide as a public issue is among the five finalists for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, which is given for aggressive reporting on important issues with care for the consequences of that reporting.

Reporters from The Columbus Dispatch dealt with privacy and public-safety issues issues in reporting on suicides as a public-health issue while considering the probability that reporting on suicides might lead to copycat attempts. The title of the series, "Silent Suffering," reflected the taboo that still attaches to suicide and discourages reporting about it, as noted on The Rural Blog in January.

"The Dispatch spent nine months examining the effects of a public-health crisis spawned in part by a broken mental-health-care system," the paper says in a headnote for the series. One story was headlined "Most people who commit suicide have mental illness, don’t receive care needed."

Other finalists are a McClatchy Newspapers team that preserved medical privacy of victims of nuclear-energy programs; ProPublica and NPR, which protected the privacy and dignity of sick and injured employees in revealing how states are curtailing workers' compensation programs; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Gina Barton, who faced ethical challenges reopening a 40-year-old unsolved murder; and a team from The Associated Press that protected its sources from retaliation, including death, in reporting on the use of slave labor in supplying fish to the U.S.

The award is named for the late Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post and a journalism graduate of the University of Wisconsin. The university's Center for Journalism Ethics oversees the award and will present it at its annual conference April 29.

Perceived Washington indifference towards rural South fuels support for Trump and Sanders

Trump in Radford, Va., Monday (Roanoke
Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis)
Discourse in the rural South over a downturn in local economies and a perceived notion that Washington politicians don't care about the region "is driving the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and has turned the 2016 election upside down," Mason Adams reports for Politico. "The right blames illegal immigrants, President Barack Obama and congressional leadership that hasn’t fought Obama hard enough. The left blames big banks, the rich and a Republican Congress that only obstructs."

Adams, a former reporter for The Roanoke Times, writes: "The American South is about to put its stamp on the 2016 campaign—a stamp that could all but end the presidential primary race." Voters today in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia "will decide two-thirds of the day’s vote for both Democrats and Republicans, definitively framing the campaign and perhaps ending it."

Residents in the rural South are "haunted by empty factories and warehouses that symbolize the once-dominant businesses that have long since departed for more profitable locales," Adams writes. "Economic instability has left those who haven’t fled to the metro areas feeling anxious and unrepresented. The resulting frustration has propelled politicians who have harnessed that angst into outsider campaigns by attacking those at fault." (Huffington Post map: States voting today)
"Everyone wants to overhaul, if not dismantle, political and economic systems that they see as rigged against them," Adams writes. "Around the South, longtime employers where generations of families could be assured of steady work have sloughed off jobs, shuttered their factories and shifted operations overseas. In its place is what’s known as the 'gig economy,' where workers must reinvent themselves several times within a lifetime. The chaotic—and unequal economic—transition continues to create anxiety, frustration and fear across rural communities. The anger is not just over lost jobs, but the indifference of Washington in watching them go."

Adams uses southwest Virginia as his object example. John Bassett III, subject of former Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy's book Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, told Adams, “Politically, I don’t care whether you’re on the right over there, or if you’re on the left, all the way over to Bernie Sanders, I think you’ll find not only anger, you’ll find frustration. We have a whole segment of our population that has been forgotten. They have been left behind.” The book, based on Bassett's experiences in Galax, Va., is reportedly in production to be a mini-series on HBO produced by Tom Hanks.

Florida's national leader for open government has success defending awards of attorneys' fees

Barbara Petersen
For more than 20 years Barbara Petersen has been leading the fight—largely behind the scenes—to defend open government and freedom of the press in Florida, Susannah Nesmith reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Recently Petersen made a rare appearance in the limelight to lead the fight against state legislation introduced last year that threatens the state's Sunshine Law for open government by letting judges deny attorney fees to winning plaintiffs in open-records cases. So far, she's gotten most of what she wanted, again showing how she is one of the nation's most effective open-government advocates, and a reminder of Sunshine Week, coming up March 13-19.

Petersen, the president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, was already Florida's "leading advocate for government transparency," Nesmith writes. "The foundation, started in the 1980s by a consortium of media groups, is a leading institutional advocate for open government in the state—but Petersen didn’t come to this fight alone. The foundation had recently worked to organize the Florida Sunshine Coalition, gathering together a variety of groups and individuals who have an interest in government transparency, even though it isn’t their primary focus. Those connections were helpful in getting people like Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, pushing back on the [proposed] change to the law. Petersen also alerted the media, helping to attract widespread coverage to the proposal."

Nesmith continues, "And she worked directly with the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia, and testified before a Senate committee, something she rarely does. Those efforts paid off: Garcia was willing to listen to reason, Petersen said. He amended his Senate bill to require a judge award attorneys’ fees when an agency wrongly withholds records unless the judge finds, according to the revised language, that the public record request was made for the primary purpose of (1) harassing the agency or (2) causing a violation of the public records law.”

"That change addresses concerns about predatory records requests, while maintaining the default expectation that violators will have to pay legal fees—an important incentive to comply with the law," Nesmith writes. "The House version hasn’t been amended, so the issue isn’t entirely resolved yet. But at this point, the Florida Senate is no longer considering a bill that would have dramatically weakened the state’s public records law. That’s a win—one Petersen can claim much of the credit for."

Petersen told Nesmith, “I get frustrated, but I don’t get tired of it. I don’t think there’s anything more fundamental to a democratic society than the people’s right to oversee their government and hold it accountable. That’s why we call public officials public servants—they work for us.” (Read more)

Hundreds of rural Minn. towns struggling to find funds to replace aging sewer and water systems

Hundreds of towns in rural Minnesota with limited budgets "are struggling to find money to replace aging wastewater, stormwater and drinking water systems or upgrade them to meet changing environmental standards," Bill Salisbury reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In the village of Dennison (Best Places map), population 190, Mayor Jeff Flaten has to perform a daily ritual of climbing into the sewer to make sure the village's two pumps are working, or else the sewer mains will get backed up. "The task landed in the mayor’s lap when the city’s longtime sewer and water system operator retired. Flaten hasn’t been able to hire a replacement, because not only is the work unpleasant but the lift station, built in 1962, also fails to meet federal safety standards." Flaten told Salisburg, “It’s obsolete and essentially dangerous."

Last month, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton "proposed a $220 million plan to upgrade sewer and water systems and protect groundwater across the state," Salisbury writes. "About 60 percent of the state aid for water projects money would go to rural communities. His plan would increase state aid for municipal sewer and water projects from an average of $160 million to $300 million a year and enable the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, which provides grants and loans to local governments, to fund up to 80 projects a year, compared with fewer than 50 now, said Jeff Freeman, the authority’s executive director."

"But that would just be a down payment on meeting cities’ needs," Salisburg writes. "The Pollution Control Agency and the state Health Department have 567 local projects totaling $1.7 billion on their priority lists for funding for sewer and water system construction over the next five years. Based on a survey of Minnesota cities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the state will need $11 billion in sewer and water improvements over the next 20 years."

Some rural Oregon speed limits went up today; safety advocates fear a rise in traffic fatalities

Speed limits on major rural hughways in Central and Eastern Oregon were raised to 70 mph in some areas and 65 mph in others today, Eliot Njus reports for The Oregonian. The limits went from 65 to 70 for passenger vehicles and from 60 to 65 for trucks on some interstates and US 95, and from 55 to 65 for passenger vehicles and to 60 for trucks on some other highways. Traffic engineers "are studying whether to increase some speed limits to 75 mph." (Oregon Department of Transportation map: Speed limit increases; click on it for a larger version)

"Safety advocates say raising speeds might amplify a recent increase in traffic fatalities," Njus writes. "The spike in road deaths comes as people are driving more in response to a stronger economy and lower gas prices, and the increase in Oregon was one of largest in the country.  Ken Kolosh, who heads the nonprofit National Safety Council's statistics department, told The Oregonian, "Even with safer automobiles, the increased speed does increase the severity of crashes when crashes do occur. The roads with higher speed limits are most at risk for fatal crashes. It's really just a question of physics." (Read more)

West Virginia Republican lawmakers block science standards that teach man-made climate change

The Republican-led West Virginia House of Delegates voted last week to block implementation of new science standards that require instruction on man-made climate change, saying the standards will negatively influence students in a state that relies heavily on fossil fuels, Eric Eyre reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The House voted 73-20 to block the rules for at least one year. New standards were supposed to go into effect July 1.

"Last year, state school board members modified the standards that mentioned climate change in hopes of satisfying global-warming skeptics," Eyre writes. "West Virginia's new Next Generation Science Standards three times address human-influenced climate change—in sixth-grade science, in ninth-grade science and in a high-school environmental science elective course." Current science standards received a D grade in 2013 from a conservative think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The same Fordham study rated the Next Generation standards a C.

Republican delegate Michel Moffatt told Eyre, “Starting in kindergarten, you're talking about teaching the kids about how humans negatively affect the Earth. In an ideal world, you could interpret that as, sure, everyone has a footprint, but you could also twist that into all fossil fuels are bad.” Republican Del. Jim Butler told Eyre, “In an energy-producing state, it's a concern to me that we are teaching our kids potentially that we are doing immoral things here in order to make a living in our state. We need to make sure our science standards are actually teaching science and not pushing a political agenda.” (Read more)

Radio series looks at how one Central Appalachian town is using arts, tourism to revitalize economy

Central Appalachian communities continue to look for ways to revitalize local economies hurt by the loss of coal jobs. One such community is Hindman, Ky (Best Places map). Making Connections News and WMMT 88.7 in Whitesburg teamed up to produce a two-part radio series that looks at how the tiny county seat has turned to tourism and arts for economic development.

In the first segment WMMT reporter Kelli Haywood examines how efforts are "being made to use the distinctive cultural resources available to the community in hopes that arts, traditional music, education and skill-building opportunities, and tourism will create a thriving economy in the years to come," Making Connections News reports. Hindman has a rich tradition in the arts, with the Hindman Settlement School annually hosting the Appalachian Writers' Workshop and Family Folk Week, both of which draw well-known Appalachian writers and musicians.

In the second segment Haywood examines how Hindman is using "the community’s cultural assets to rebuild the economy," reports Making Connections News. Haywood joins staff of the Settlement School "to discuss their place within the community and how they use their historical perspective to envision the future. Jessica Evans, assistant director of the Appalachian Artisan Center, also continues the conversation along with artist, Sean Starowitz." (Read more)

Monday, February 29, 2016

Rural weekly newspaper localizes problems with homeless counts in rural communities

Earlier this month NPR reported that inaccurate counting of the number of rural homeless is costing local services federal funding. Josh Little of the thrice-weekly Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Ky., localized the effects of the annual count on the newspaper's coverage area in far Eastern Kentucky.

This year's "K-count" found 134 homeless people in Floyd, Martin, Magoffin, Johnson and Pike counties, which make up the Big Sandy Area Development District. Anna Coleman of the Pikeville WestCare Emergency Shelter "said the shelter served more than 500 people without homes in 2015. She said on the day of the K-Count, the shelter was housing 22 people," Little writes. Coleman said, “You cannot count a whole county in a day. Imagine how many hollows are in Pike County. You can’t cover that in one day, plus ask the four pages of questions that they want you to ask. It takes a while for them to trust you, even when they come to the shelter, because society has made them promises and not kept them.” Only people living on the street or in shelters on the day of the count, not people who escape the cold by staying with friends, family or finding money for a hotel, are considered homeless.

Brenda Mullins, who has worked for three years as a direct care worker at the West Care Emergency Shelter, "attributes a lack of jobs in the area to the increasing number of people without homes," Little writes. "She said as of Feb. 23 there were 26 people housed in the shelter, which has a capacity of 30." She told Little, “There’s no jobs. The coal miners who were making pretty good wages are now working for minimum wage. They have house payments and car payments." The News-Express, which is behind a paywall, can be accessed by clicking here.

Investigative report on farmland preservation tax break spurs change; many states have such laws

A large Lexington tract now being developed is surrounded by
development but still gets a tax break designed to protect farm
land from development. (Herald-Leader photo by Faron Collins)
"Cities and suburbs displaced more than 40 million acres of rural land over the past 50 years, even as rural landowners were heavily subsidized to keep their properties undeveloped," said Richard England, a professor of economics and natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, told Linda Blackford and John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader for their series that "found scores of examples of the tax break benefiting suburban homes surrounded by vast lawns, qualifying as agricultural land that can knock as much as 40 percent off their tax bills, and large parcels rezoned for commercial or residential use, where plat maps have been filed with the city and concrete slabs are expected to be poured soon."

The series looked mainly at Kentucky, but noted that similar laws in other states are enforced differently. "In Texas, South Dakota, Montana and Alaska, landowners must show that a substantive part of their income is from agriculture. They have to submit income tax documents as proof. Other states, including Ohio and Rhode Island, set a smaller threshold of $2,500 in farm income. Delaware, Idaho and Indiana collect as much as 10 years of deferred property taxes at market value when farmland is converted to other uses, such as a shopping center. In Vermont, land getting the tax break faces a penalty of as much as 20 percent of its market value if it’s developed. These penalties are often referred to as 'clawbacks'."

Cheves also wrote, "Arizona strips agricultural land of the tax break if the owner requests a rezoning for some other use; if he files a development plat map or plants survey stakes; or if he brings in a utility service not required for farming. Nebraska forbids land inside a city limits from getting the tax break unless it has a conservation easement that permanently prohibits development.Nevada, South Dakota and Washington state require a minimum of 20 acres to grant the tax break. It’s 25 acres in Vermont and 160 acres in Montana."

In Kentucky, policies vary by county, Cheves and Blackford write. Some counties "don’t ask questions about the tax break," while others require landowners to "sign a short application each year to qualify for the farmland preservation tax break" and ask "for the acreage devoted to agricultural production and how those acres are used." Other ask for proof of farm income.

The series had an impact. State Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, said she would file a bill to stop developers and owners of 10-acre-plus lots from getting the tax break, and Fayette County Property Valuation Administrator David O’Neill said he would change his policies. He wrote in an opinion piece for the Herald-Leader that the paper and its reporters "have done an excellent job identifying an area of tax law long overdue for modernization."

GOP has 11 of the 12 elected ag commissioners

There's been a changing of the guard among agriculture commissioners. Of the 12 states that elect such a position, 11 are held by Republicans, with eight of those states switching from Democrats since 2001, Louis Jacobson writes for Governing magazine. "Three states elected Republican agriculture commissioners prior to 2001—Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. The eight that switched to the GOP between 2001 and 2011 were Florida (2001), Kentucky (2004), North Carolina (2005), Iowa (2007), Louisiana (2008), North Dakota (2009), Georgia (2011) and Alabama (2011)." Now the only elected Democrat is in West Virginia.

"In many states, the position carries significant authority," Jacobson writes. "In 40 states, according to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, agriculture departments oversee the animal industry; in about half of states, they oversee food safety and meat inspection. In 48 states, they determine what qualifies as 'organic,' while in 43 states they regulate pesticides."

"Interviews with political experts in these states suggest that the shift stemmed, in part, from rising Republican success at the ballot box," Jacobson writes. "Many of the states that elect their agriculture commissioners are solidly red. Over the past decade, growing Republican strength further down the ballot—combined with attrition among long-serving, conservative Democratic incumbents—has helped the GOP win lower state offices and increased opportunities for the types of rural Republicans who can seriously contest the position of agriculture commissioner."

"The GOP has also focused more attention on agriculture offices, partnering with the Republican Agriculture Commissioners Committee and Ag America, a group that works to elect qualified Republican candidates to the position," Jacobson writes. What's more, Democratic electoral and bench strength in these states is concentrated in cities and suburbs, where it’s hard to become a credible candidate for agriculture commissioner. Besides, rural voters feel they have more at stake in voting for agriculture commissioner than urban voters do."

AT&T donated to Missouri legislative committee that voted to limit municipal broadband expansion

"A Missouri legislative committee last week approved a bill that would limit the spread of municipal broadband networks, helping private Internet service providers such as AT&T avoid competition," Jon Brodkin reports for Ars Technica. Municipal broadband has been used to provide high-speed Internet to rural areas that commercial telecommunications companies have been unwilling to serve.

The decision comes a few months after AT&T donated a total of $62,500 to political committees in Missouri, including "$20,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, $20,000 to the Missouri Democratic State Committee, $7,500 to the Missouri Republican Party, and $15,000 to the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee. One of the donations is listed by the Missouri Ethics Commission as occurring just two weeks ago, but we’ve been told it was made in September 2015 and not deposited until this month because the original check was lost." CenturyLink and Comcast have also donated to a majority of the committee members.

"AT&T’s opposition to municipal broadband is well-known. In Tennessee, Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) recently called AT&T 'the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far' and a 'villain' in the state’s municipal broadband battles," Brodkin writes.

"The new bill would mostly close the 'Internet-type services' exception going forward, but it would allow existing networks to continue and allow new ones to be built under some circumstances. City or town Internet services would have to be approved by a majority of voters in the municipality unless certain conditions are met. No vote has to be held if fewer than 50 percent of residents have access to Internet service or if the municipal network will cost less than $1 million over five years. Before a vote could be held, municipal leaders would be required to complete a financial study on the proposed network." (Read more)

Sam Beall, whose East Tennessee restaurant was famous for its farm-to-table approach, dies at 39

Sam Beall, owner of East Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, a nationally acclaimed luxury inn and restaurant famous for its farm-to-table approach in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, died in a skiing accident on Thursday, Dana Kopp Franklin reports for Nashville Scene. Beall, 39, was married with five children. (Maryville Daily Times photo by Mark Large: Beall, right, at the Fort Craig Boys & Girls Club in September 2015)

The inn, which was opened in 1976 by Sam Beall's parents, grows its own food on the property near Walland and turns its produce into artisan items that can be found on store shelves as far away as Nashville, Franklin writes. "In 2012 Blackberry Farm hosted the inaugural installment of the James Beard Foundation's Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. Among its most recent awards, the Barn restaurant at Blackberry Farm won the national James Beard award for Outstanding Service in 2015 and Outstanding Wine Program in 2014. In 2011, Travel + Leisure named Blackberry Farm the No. 1 Resort in the Continental U.S. and Canada."

Ed Mitchell, mayor of Blount County, told The Daily Times, "I always admired Sam’s positive attitude and his kind heart. He always seemed so even and in control of the situation around him. He was very easy to work with, very easy to talk to, and will be greatly missed by not just the people of Blackberry, but the people of Blount County. He had such a caring spirit. We are saddened to hear this news today. Our prayers are with his family." U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is from the county, told the Times, "Sam Beall was a caring young man and one of our state's most creative businessmen. He led a hotel company that has become known around the world for its quality."

Carl West, who brought Washington ideas to a small-town state capital and its newspaper, dies

State Journal photo by Suzanne Feliciano
Carl West, retired editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., died Sunday of complications following a stroke. He was 74.

Frankfort, population 25,000, is the fourth smallest state capital in the U.S., so The State Journal is a community paper that covers state government, the top local employer. West came to the daily after an award-winning career as a Washington reporter, and brought a hard-nosed attitude to political and government coverage, displayed most publicly in his role as the recurring panelist on what was the state's best public-affairs interview show.

West, a native of Northern Kentucky, brought something else to the state from Washington: the idea for a book fair like the one he helped start as a member of the National Press Club. With the newspaper's help, the Kentucky Book Fair became an institution in the state, and is being taken over by the Kentucky Humanities Council, headed by former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles.

Ed Staats, retired Kentucky chief of The Associated Press told The State Journal in 2003, when they went into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame together, that West “set a high journalistic standard for the countless reporters, editors and photographers he has hired over the years. In addition, Carl brought a deep knowledge and a strong interest in politics to the job – essential elements for a strong newspaper in a capital city.” For The State Journal's obituary of West, click here.

West's leadership of the book fair, and his strong career in journalism, won him last year's Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism, given by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. West struggled to overcome health issues to attend the awards dinner, but gave a rip-roaring defense of public-service journalism in his acceptance speech, his final public remarks. Here's a video: