Friday, April 08, 2016

Nonprofit investigative unit in Ky. wins top industry honor for stories on rural jailers without jails

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting has been honored by Investigative Reporters and Editors with its annual award for radio investigative journalism for the series "Jailers Without Jails." KyCIR is a privately funded arm of WFPL, an FM station operated by Louisville Public Media. KyCir fills a gap in rural Kentucky watchdog reporting.

"KyCIR's R.G. Dunlop and WFPL's Jacob Ryan collaborated on the investigative report, which aired in January 2015," reports KyCIR. "The duo revealed that more than a third of Kentucky's counties have no jails, yet all 41 of these counties have elected jailers. The investigation examined a nepotism-laced, but little-discussed, jailers system that costs Kentucky taxpayers approximately $2 million annually. The reporting prompted several calls for reforms. A state lawmaker filed a bill that calls for more oversight of the no-jail jailers. That legislation passed the Senate but is awaiting consideration in the House. The Kentucky Jailers Association has acknowledged the need for reforms, but has been mum about any such changes." (KyCIR map: Kentucky counties with no jailers. To view an interactive version click here)
KyCIR has continued to follow the story. "Legislation designed to hold Kentucky’s jailers more accountable has achieved mixed results so far in this year’s General Assembly," Dunlop reports in a story published Thursday. "A bill that would require jailers who don’t have a jail to run to file quarterly progress reports with their county fiscal courts passed the Senate but is awaiting consideration in the House. Legislators are set to reconvene in Frankfort for a day next week, concluding this year’s regular session. And Sen. Danny Carroll, who sponsored the bill, said he’s hopeful that the bill will pass."

"No-jail jailers were paid salaries ranging from $20,000 to nearly $70,000, KyCIR found," Dunlop writes. "Jailer-accountability legislation that Carroll proposed last year in the wake of KyCIR’s reports passed the Senate but died in the House. That bill would have given fiscal courts some control over jailers’ salaries. Carroll said he removed that element from his latest proposal because of concerns from jailers that fiscal courts would have power to negatively manipulate salaries of jailers elected from an opposing party. A second measure, filed by Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, would create a panel to review deaths and near-deaths in Kentucky’s state and local correctional facilities. After the proposal was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, it never received so much as a hearing."

Miners fired for using profanity to tell off Murray Energy CEO are reinstated by federal judge

Contains language that some readers may find objectionbale.

The dream of telling your boss off and getting away with it is alive and well in West Virginia. A pair of miners who were fired for telling off Murray Energy Corp. CEO Bob Murray with written profanities had a legal right to say what they did "because they have a right under the law to band together to improve their working conditions," said a federal judge who reinstated the miners Tuesday, Dave Jamieson reports for The Huffington Post.

Under a program at Murray Energy’s Lovejoy #22 mine, in Fairview, W.Va., miners were told they "would earn extra pay if they avoided safety citations and accidents and hit certain production marks," Jamieson writes. The United Mine Workers of America, which represents employees at the mine, "opposed the bonus program on the grounds that it posed an inherent conflict with safety," saying that it financially rewarded employees for not reporting safety citations and accidents.

"Murray Energy launched the program anyway," Jamieson writes. "Bonus checks went out in early 2015. Workers who didn’t want to participate in the plan were encouraged to void their checks and return them. At least two miners went a step further. On his voided check for $11.58, Richard Harrison, a 10-year-veteran of the mine, wrote, 'Kiss My Ass Bob,' and underlined 'Bob' twice. On his voided check for $3.22, Jesse Stolzenfels, a seven-year veteran, wrote, 'Eat Shit Bob.'"

"Both miners had voted against the bonus plan, believing it ran counter to safe mining practices," Jamieson writes. "They also felt it was an insult for the company to implement what the union had democratically rejected. The company asserted that Harrison and Stolzenfels violated a company policy against insubordination and profanity in the workplace. "

"The two miners appealed the punishment, but an arbitrator upheld it. (There was no evidence that Murray himself had seen the checks or been aware of what was written on them, according to testimony. The suspensions were carried out by mine management.)," Jamieson writes. "Harrison and Stolzenfels took their case to the federal government. They argued that they had a right to protest an unsafe work program, and that they didn’t need to be polite when they did it. They claimed that their suspensions violated mine-safety law and labor law. . . . Last year, a judge ruled that under mining law, they should be temporarily reinstated on the job; they later settled their cases, getting back pay for the time they missed and the right to return to their jobs."

"The miners’ favorable ruling Tuesday resolves the case before the National Labor Relations Board. They prevailed by proving two points," Jamieson writes. "The first was that they were treated differently from other miners for the profanity they used—i.e., that miners and managers routinely cussed in the mine, and so it wasn’t fair to discipline Harrison and Stolzenfels for what was typically ignored. The second was that their act of protest, however foul-mouthed it may have been, was 'protected concerted activity'—i.e., that it was illegal to discipline them for it, since they were working in concert to improve their working conditions."

USDA proposes stricter regulations for treatment of livestock by organic producers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed new regulations on the treatment of livestock and poultry by organic producers, Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. "The rules set maximum indoor and outdoor living space requirements. Barns, pens, coops and other shelters, for example, have to be big enough for the animals to lie down, stand up and fully stretch their limbs without touching other animals or the sides of the shelter. They must also be designed to allow the animals to express normal patterns of behavior. Under the USDA’s proposal, organic livestock would also receive 'unencumbered' access to the outdoors at all times unless the animals need to be confined to protect them from predators."

"USDA estimates the rule will cost organic farmers $9.5 million to $24.1 million per year over the next 13 years, and public benefits are estimated to range from $14.7 million to $62.6 million per year," Wheeler writes. Dena Jones, farm animal policy director for the Animal Welfare Institute, told Wheeler, "The lack of specific requirements for animal welfare has resulted in great variability in the level of animal care provided by organic producers. Some producers raise animals on pasture with high welfare, while others raise animals in a manner similar to conventional, intensive agriculture. In some instances organically raised animals are never even given the opportunity to go outdoors.”

School bus transporation costs in rural Arizona county are more than triple the state average

In rural and remote areas where the area is expansive but population is sparse, schools are racking up the miles and paying out big bucks for transportation costs to bus students to and from school. Buses for Arizona's Patagonia Union High School, 18 miles from the Mexican border, on average travel more than 600 miles per day. Buses for the Patagonia Elementary School District travel 336 miles a day, and nearby Sonoita Elementary School District run 480 miles a day, Paulina Pineda reports for Nogales International. The combined student population is 260. The school districts in Eastern Santa Cruz County are part of a transportation consortium that provides buses to all three districts.

In fiscal year 2014-15, transportation costs for students was nearly $386,000, Pineda writes. "At PUHS and Patagonia Elementary, transportation accounts for 8.7 percent of total expenditures, and at Sonoita Elementary, it’s 7.9 percent, according to an Auditor General report on school district spending." While the state reimburses each school district for miles driven, the costs per rider are triple the state average. At both Patagonia districts the cost per rider is $3,762, while cost per rider at Sonoita Elementary School District is $3,669 in 2015, up from $1,600 in 2014. The state average is $1,071, according to the Auditor General report.

"Jerome Rhoades, dean of students at Patagonia Public Schools, said one reason costs have started to rise is because the consortium now has six buses rather than three, which means there are fewer students on each route—even though the consortium is spending more money on drivers’ salaries, gas and bus maintenance," Pineda writes. "Previously, Rhoades said, the consortium transported students from each district on a single bus, but the Auditor General forced the consortium to provide a bus for each of the three districts so that each school could be reimbursed for mileage."

In response to Mississippi religious-objections law, tourism group launches 'Everyone's Welcome Here'

In response to a new Mississippi law that many say will discriminate against gay people and others, the Mississippi Hospitality & Restaurant Association announced that later this month it will launch a campaign called "Everyone's Welcome Here," a voluntary, no cost program for members of the hospitality and tourism industries, states a MHRA press release. The organization will design, print and distribute decals to restaurants and hospitality related business with the new slogan. They also plan to create a web presence with a master list of participating businesses. (Facebook photo: More than a year ago, a similar campaign of inclusion started across the state)

Mike Cashion, executive director of MHRA, said in a statement: "Regardless of its intent, this legislation has created a level of controversy and public perception that affects the image of our state and the hospitality community. And while we may not be able to manage the image and brand of the entire state, we can affect the image of our restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses. When our industry is challenged, we as an organization will take prudent steps to protect and promote the restaurant and hospitality industry. Our industry serves a diverse customer baseand we want to make sure all customers are appreciated and welcomed. We have a very clear and strong message to convey. Mississippi's restaurant industry is open for everyone's business.”

A similar campaign was launched more than a year ago, reports WLOX-TV. "Blue stickers announcing, 'We don't discriminate. If you're buying, we're selling' can still be seen on the doors of businesses across Mississippi."

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Tool shows risk of lead exposure by census tract; 55% of rural tracts are higher than average

The crisis in Flint, Mich., over lead in water supplies has caused concern about the safety and cleanliness of the water people drink. It turns out "that exposure risk is surprisingly difficult to estimate, due to a variety of state-by-state differences in reporting standards," Sarah Frostenson and Sarah Kliff report for Vox. They worked with epidemiologists in the Washington State Department of Health to add housing and poverty data to the mix to create a tool "that allows anyone to look up the risk exposure in their community."

"While only 17 rural tracts have a lead exposure risk of 10, the highest risk, 55 percent of rural areas have lead exposure risk levels of 6 or greater," Frostenson and Kliff write. "Some states with large percentages of rural census tracts, like Kansas and Nebraska, have large swaths of lead exposure risks. In Nebraska, 92 percent of rural areas have a lead risk exposure score of 6 or greater." (Vox map: Orange and red are higher levels of risk for lead exposure)

Three major companies on the verge of controlling more than half of all global seed sales

The seed industry, which once consisted of hundreds of family-run businesses, could soon be dominated by three major companies, Dan Charles reports for NPR. "A new round of industry consolidation is now underway. Multibillion-dollar mergers are in progress, or under discussion, that could put more than half of global seed sales in the hands of three companies." (NPR graphic)

The groundwork for the corporate domination began in the 1990s when "chemical companies like Monsanto found a way to genetically engineer crops," Charles writes. "They inserted new genes into corn and soybeans, giving plants the power to kill insects or survive weedkillers, and farmers wanted those genes. Traditional seed companies, if they wanted to stay competitive, had to license those genes from their inventors. Many worried about being cut off from this new technology. In 1998, Monsanto and other biotech companies started trying to buy some of the biggest seed companies outright. It gave them more control over an increasingly lucrative business."

Sygenta, which is headquartered in Switzerland, "has struck a deal to be acquired by Chem China, a state-owned enterprise. Meanwhile, other seed and pesticide companies are getting bigger, too. DuPont and Dow are merging. There are reports that Monsanto is in talks to buy either Bayer or BASF. If the deals go through, it's estimated that three of these companies will control more than half of global seed sales." (Read more)

Nation's least populated state gets rare chance to play a larger role in presidential election

Wyoming, the nation's least populated state, could finally have a larger say in a presidential election, Laura Hancock reports for the Casper Star-Tribune. "As one of the country’s reddest states, Wyoming rarely plays a major role in the presidential election. But this is no ordinary year, with competitive Republican and Democratic presidential races." (Star-Tribune photo by Ryan Dorgan: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz speaking in Wyoming)

The Democratic caucus will be held Saturday. The Republican caucus was held March 1—Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won nine delegates, to one for Donald Trump—but the state could still have a big say at the Republican convention, if no Republican candidate earns the nomination through delegates, Hancock writes. The Wyoming GOP is sending 29 delegates to the national convention. The Wyoming Democratic party is sending 18 delegates, four of whom are superdelegates committed to Hillary Clinton, to the national convention.

Wyoming has been busy welcoming or preparing to welcome candidates or their supporters, Hancock writes. "Former President Bill Clinton campaigned Monday in Cheyenne for his wife. Her chief Democratic rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, spoke Tuesday night at a rally in Laramie. Sanders’ wife, Jane, hosted town hall meetings to talk about her husband on Monday and Tuesday. The state’s Republicans will have an opportunity to see Cruz and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who is stumping for Trump, on April 16 at the Wyoming Republican State Convention. It will be Cruz’s second visit to the Cowboy State." (Read more)

Buses with wi-fi keep students in high-poverty district connected outside school hours

Best Places map
The poverty rate for students at Coachella Valley Unified School District in Southern California is more than 95 percent, meaning that many of their families are unable to afford internet service at home and they have to rely on service from the schools.

When Supt. Darryl Adams found that students couldn't afford the internet, he brought it to them, with wi-fi routers on school buses. And he used the devices to serve the community, not just the students. "Eight Wi-Fi buses are now left overnight in various neighborhoods, and the school district is now turning salvaged cars into even more mobile hot spots," Carter Evans reports for CBS News.

Adams told Evans, "I would be here sometimes on Friday night and drive by school and there would be parents with kids in the car sitting there doing their homework. ... I have made the joke that I will put a router on a pigeon if I have to, and fly them around the neighborhood. Whatever it takes to get these kids connected, I will do. It is essential to education." Coachella, the first school district in the country to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through 12th grade, has already seen the benefits of increased internet access, with its graduation rate up 8 percent.

W.Va. fracking wastewater contaminates New River with compounds harmful to fish, study says

A study published Wednesday in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that water around and downstream from a hydraulic-fracturing wastewater-disposal facility in Fayetteville, W.Va., contains high levels of compounds that may harm the endocrine systems of fish, Brian Bienkowski reports for Environmental Health News. "Contamination seems to affect the reproductive development of some fish species, which can lead to threatened populations. In recent years researchers are finding more 'intersex' fish—male fish with some female reproductive parts—and believe the culprit is endocrine-disrupting chemicals in water."

"Researchers collected water upstream, downstream and around a wastewater facility that has a disposal well, holding ponds and storage tanks—all used to house excess wastewater from drilling," Bienkowski writes. "There is a small stream flowing through the site, which flows into Wolf Creek. Wolf Creek flows into the New River, which is used for some people’s drinking water. Samples near the site and downstream had 'considerably higher' activity for a number of hormones, including estrogen, androgen and thyroid receptors, than reference samples in the watershed far from any disposal sites."

Industry officials criticized the study, "saying that the concentrations of compounds found do not warrant health concerns," Bienkowski writes. Seth Whitehead, a researcher at Energy In Depth, an outreach program launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told Bienkowski that endocrine-disrupting chemicals “are found in just about everything we use on a day-to-day basis, including dyes, perfumes, plastics, personal care products, detergents and cleaning agents. Concentration level is far more relevant than merely detecting EDCs." (Read more)

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship sentenced to a year in prison, fined $250,000

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship received the maximum sentence of a year in prison and a $250,000 fine Wednesday for his December conviction of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners died in an April 2010 explosion, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Blankenship was also ordered to serve one year of supervised release. (Gazette-Mail photo by F. Brian Ferguson:Blankenship smiling as he leaves the courthouse in December after being convicted of a much less serious charge than the one on which he was found not guilty)

Blankenship continued to deny his guilt in court Wednesday, but U.S. District Judge Irene Berger told him: "The crime is serious. By putting profitability of the company ahead of the safety of your employees, you, Mr. Blankenship, created a culture of noncompliance at Upper Big Branch where your subordinates accepted and, in fact, encouraged unsafe working conditions in order to reach profitability and production targets.” Federal prosecutors last month told CBS's "60 Minutes" that Blankenship ran the mine like a drug operation.

Blankenship "was granted permission to surrender voluntarily at a prison yet to be identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons when notified to do so by the federal Marshal’s Service," Ward writes. "Berger denied a request from Blankenship to remain free on his current $1 million bail pending a decision by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on an appeal of his conviction. Defense lawyers asked, and Berger agreed, that Blankenship would not have to report within the next 10 days, so they would have time to ask the Fourth Circuit to allow him to remain free pending a full appeal. Typically, though, it takes more than 10 days for offenders to receive notification about where they will serve their sentences and when they must report to prison." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Merle Haggard, working man's poet who hugely influenced American music, dies on 79th birthday

Haggard at the Opry, 2003 (Tennessean photo by Alan Poizner)
"Merle Haggard, the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound, and a fiercely independent artist who influenced country music like few others, died Wednesday in California," Juli Thanki reports for The Tennessean. "He had just turned 79 years old, and had been in failing health for some time, leading to the diagnosis of double pneumonia and subsequent cancellation of several concert dates," two at the Ryman Auditorium, birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry.

"Haggard recorded 40 No. 1 country singles, and wrote some of the genre’s most revered classics, which have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, Vince Gill, The Grateful Dead, and countless others," Thanki writes. His life, "which took him from a San Quentin prison cell to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was a truly American success story. . . . The Haggard family lived in a converted railroad car in Oildale, Calif., and while they were poor, they weren’t destitute like many of the Okies who went west."

Haggard had “a string of hits that are now an integral and beloved part of the country music canon, including "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues" and "Mama Tried." . . . Other songs that weren’t released as singles, including “Today I Started Loving You Again" (perhaps the Haggard song most-covered by other artists) and "Irma Jackson," about an interracial romance, display Mr. Haggard’s depth as an artist,” Thanki notes.

“The plainspoken power of his lyrics touched listeners across generations. In 1969, Mr. Haggard released a career-changing song, "Okie From Muskogee," about the values of small-town life. Co-written with Roy Edward Burns, it spent four weeks atop the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts as well. “Okie” was followed by another hard-nosed single, 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Both became signature songs for Mr. Haggard, and after the songs were released, he rarely, if ever, left a stage without playing them.

“Throughout his career, Mr. Haggard wore his influences on his sleeve. He released tribute albums honoring two of his favorite artists, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, and his 1983 version of "That’s the Way Love Goes," which was co-written by another artist he admired, Lefty Frizzell, spent 21 weeks on the charts and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Just as Mr. Haggard studied the works of his musical heroes, contemporary acts look to him: stars like George Strait and Miranda Lambert have cited him as influences, and Eric Church recorded a song called "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag."” (Read more)

Trump hits bump in Wisconsin, but rural areas stick with him as race enters new phase

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has performed well in rural areas. Now, more than ever, he may be relying on rural votes to get the required number of delegates to receive the Republican nomination. If rural areas don't push him over the top, the nomination could be decided at the Republican National Convention, which could spell trouble for the businessman, who has quickly been alienating himself from members of his own party. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been surging, having won Utah, North Dakota and Wisconsin, picking up 86 delegates, to six for Trump. Overall, Trump leads 743-517, with the magic number being 1,237 and only 882 not yet allocated. (New York Times map)

While Cruz won Wisconsin, 48.2 percent to 35.1 percent, his "strength did have limits," Nate Cohn reports for The New York Times. "It was heavily concentrated in the more populous eastern part of the state. In the older, more rural, less religious and less educated western and northern areas of the state, Trump still ran far ahead of Cruz. The distinctly regional element of Cruz’s strength at least raises the possibility that it won’t be replicated elsewhere. The region is one of the few places in the northern U.S. where Republicans dominate in well-educated suburbs."

If no candidate reaches 1,237 delegates, "the Republicans’ choice for the Nov. 8 election will be made at a contested convention, picked by delegates gathering in Cleveland in July," Steve Holland reports for Reuters. "Trump needs to win 55 percent of the delegates that remain to be awarded. Cruz needs to win more than 80 percent of the remaining delegates up for grabs to secure the nomination,  a difficult task even with momentum. A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed Cruz about even with Trump nationally, as his recent gains mark the first time since November that a rival has threatened Trump's standing at the head of the Republican pack."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich remains in the race as it heads to primaries in northeastern states, most notably New York.

Slow internet speeds hinder ag production; farmers more interested in uploading than downloading

Slow internet speeds in rural areas are hurting the agricultural industry, especially when it comes to telematics, which includes GPS and navigation systems, James Schmidt reports for Kansas State University. Terry Griffin, assistant professor of agricultural economics at KSU, said that 20 percent of service providers, ag retailers, cooperatives and other input suppliers used telematics in 2015, up from 15 percent in 2013. He told Schmidt, “The point is, the adoption of telematics is increasing at a steady rate, but still a pretty small percentage of service providers use the potential of that technology.”

Griffin said another area that affects agriculture is that internet providers are more concerned with download speeds, instead of upload speeds, Schmidt writes. Griffin told him, “The problem with that for agriculture is we tend to want to upload data from fields that we generate from our farming equipment rather than download." Griffin told Schmidt, when it comes to slow speed, “Transferring data is still possible, it just may not be in real time as the data in the fields are collected. There is opportunity to move data after the fact, which is going to be the status quo for a little while. There is pressure from farms that the cellular connectivity providers can see the need to improve their services.” (Read more)

9-year-old rural reporter who broke murder story fires back at critics who questioned her skills, age

A nine-year old reporter in rural Selinsgrove in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Valley, who broke the news of a local murder, fired backed at critics who questioned her reporting skills and young age.

Hilde Lysiak posted on Facebook, “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?” Tom Jackman reports for The Washington Post that Lysiak is the brains behind a monthly community newspaper, the Orange Street News, that doesn't shy away from covering the hard news in the town of 5,000. She is responsible for all story ideas, writing, reporting and photography, while her father, Matt, a former New York Daily News reporter, handles editing, typing, layout and printing. (Photo by Matt Lysiak)

In breaking the news of the murder, Hilde not only beat the local newspaper to the punch but also provided video from the scene, Jackman writes. Facebook posters were critical of the story. One wrote, “I think this is appalling that u would do a story like this when all the facts are not in yet," while another wrote, “Does no one realize that this is a 9 year old reporting this type of graphic information! I mean, what parents are encouraging this type of behavior!”

Like any thick-skinned reporter, Hilde isn't too concerned about the criticism, only reporting the news, Jackman writes. She told him, “People thought I should be like playing tea parties or doing something other than being at the crime scene. ... Because of my work, I was able to inform the people that there’s a terrible murder, hours before my competition even got to the scene. In fact some of the adult-run newspapers were reporting the wrong news, or no news at all.”

The Orange Street News, which has a paid subscription of $10, last month "racked up nearly 18,000 page views, driven in part by her investigation of drugs in the middle school," Jackman writes. Hilde told him, “I just like letting people know all the information. It’s just what I really want to do. And crime is definitely my favorite.” She said she learned of the murder story because she 'got a good tip from a source and I was able to confirm it.' Well, that’s how it works." (Best Places map: Selingsgrove) (Read more)

Rural Georgia property owners win fight over eminent domain, force suspension of pipeline

Rural eastern Georgia property owners, many of whose families have owned the same land for 300 years, are a big reason why Kinder Morgan has suspended construction of its $1 billion Palmetto Pipeline (Kinder Morgan map) for transporting gasoline, diesel and ethanol from Belton, S.C. to North Augusta, S.C., Savannah and Jacksonville. Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, announced the suspension last week, Phil McKenna reports for InsideClimate News. "The decision is being hailed as a victory by an unlikely coalition of Republican legislators, private property owners and environmental organizations."

"The announcement came the same day Georgia state lawmakers sent a bill to the state's governor that would place a moratorium on the 360-mile pipeline's construction until 2017, after they voted overwhelmingly in support of the legislation," McKenna reports. Rep. Bill Hitchens, a Republican who sponsored the House bill, told McKenna, "My constituents were up in arms. It's a conduit to pump petroleum from South Carolina into Florida. It doesn't do anything for the state of Georgia."

Alan Zipperer, whose family has owned his land since the mid 1700s, "successfully sued Kinder Morgan over its attempted use of eminent domain," McKenna writes. Zipperer, whose family still holds an original land grant document from the king of England, own a 350-acre tract of woodlands. "Kinder Morgan sought to run a pipeline through a half-mile length of the property and would have cleared a 125-foot-wide swath of woods as they went, an area of approximately eight acres."

"Since 1970, Zipperer said, he and his family have lost 40 acres of their land through eminent domain for natural gas pipelines and power lines," McKenna writes. "The family received as little as $700 an acre for the land at the time, but property values have risen significantly in recent decades and now sell for approximately $20,000 an acre, Zipperer said." (Read more)

Montana rural-urban exchange program helps students bridge gap between communities

Students in Montana are seeing how the other half lives, as part of One Montana, "a statewide program focused on building and sustaining connections between rural and urban Montanans," Traci Rosenbaum reports for the Great Falls Tribune. Program manager Bobbi Geise told Rosenbaum, "There is this disconnect. This lack of understanding, even lack of awareness that when you live in an urban or rural community, you’re intricately dependent on the other’s community. We offer a variety of services and programs that all work towards the mission of bridging urban and rural communities across the state, and this program that I offer is through an entrepreneurship program.” (Rosenbaum photo: Students visited Montana Milling)

Urban students toured Montana Milling, "where they learned what it takes to get commodities such as wheat, barley and corn from the farm to the consumer," Rosenbaum writes. Rural students then visited businesses in downtown Great Falls. The program currently "serves 10 urban, rural and reservation schools and has a goal of adding six more next year." After completing the exchange students are assigned to create a business. A past venture led to an in-school printing business. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Data visualization tools available for journalists

There are plenty of data visualization tools available on the internet for journalists. A website called Data USA "bills itself as 'the most comprehensive visualization of U.S. public data' and aims to make open data more user-friendly," Shaunacy Ferro reports for Mental Floss. The site allows users "to explore the nation by pulling from data sources like the Census Bureau, the Department of Education, national health rankings, and more. With that information, Data USA helps you create data visualizations and breakdowns on topics as diverse as local commute times, a state’s most popular college majors, the average age of podiatrists nationally, and the highest paid construction-related occupations."(Data USA map: The average median age in every county in the U.S.)
Many sources of help are available. Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets "are good places to experiment and learn," John Wihbey reports for Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

"Of course, one of the biggest hurdles beginners face is figuring out how to organize the data properly in rows and columns. Storybench has an excellent primer on examples of how to do this." Good examples of applications with increased design and storytelling capabilities are: CartoDB (makes uploading and visualizing geographical information easy); (good for beginners and experts); Chartbuilder (designed to empower more editors and reporters, not just specialists, to do their own data visualization); Datawrapper (allows for quick, easy visualization of many kinds); and (great for exploring interactive data presentations and helps journalists tell interactive stories).
    "Quartz has an excellent guide to 'bad data' – the typical problems inherent in datasets," Wihbey writes. "There are some go-to blogs on data and data journalism that are worth following. The Journalist’s Toolbox has a huge roundup of tools and resources related to data visualization. And the Data Journalism Handbook has some great case studies."

    Lawyer, doctor, ex-judge in Central Appalachia charged with defrauding federal disability program

    UPDATE, June 14: Charlie Paul Andrus, who was the chief administrative law judge in Huntington, has pleaded guilty "to scheming to retaliate against an employee who blew the whistle" on Conn, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

    In other ads, Conn called himself "Mr. Social Security."
    (Lexington Herald-Leader photo)
    A lawyer, doctor and former Social Security disability judge in Central Appalachia have been charged with massive fraud of the Federal Disability Insurance Program, a major source of income in the rural region.

    Charged are Eric Conn of Stanville, Ky., who had the third-largest disability law practice in the U.S.; a psychologist, Dr. Alfred Bradley Adkins; and David Daugherty, who resigned his administrative law judgeship at Huntington, W.Va., in 2011 after The Wall Street Journal began probing his unusual generosity: approving all 729 appeals he considered in the first half of that fiscal year.

    The Senate Committee on Government Affairs reported in 2013 that Daugherty approved virtually all the 1,823 appeals submitted to him by Conn, and that Conn paid five doctors roughly $2 million to regularly sign off on bogus medical forms that had been manufactured and filled out ahead of time by Conn's staff. The operation was the topic of a "60 Minutes" report by CBS. It reported that in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia, more than a quarter of a million people, or 10 to 15 percent of the population, are on disability benefits, three times the national average. Disabillity cases are prevalent in rural areas where men without a high-school diploma are injured and unable, or less able, to perform the sort of manual labor that once sustained them.

    The indictment also lists three unnamed 'unindicted co-conspirators,' including two other doctors Conn used and one of Conn’s former office managers," John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The charges include mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, making false statements and money laundering," Cheves writes. "The charges carry criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. The government also seeks more than $5 million in forfeited assets from the defendants." Conn's clients have been awarded $500 million in claims, and he has collected at least $35 million in legal fees from the federal government, Cheves reports.

    Conn was arrested Monday and is due in court today. Last year, Social Security reopened hundreds of Conn's cases and told his clients that their benefits could be suspended unless they provided more evidence of their disability. "After a request by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, Social Security officials agreed to continue people’s disability checks while redetermining their eligibility," Cheves reports. "Those hearings are underway."
    Read more here:

    Walla Walla venture capitalists invest in nonprofits, creating another form of rural philanthropy

    Wikipedia map: Walla Walla County
    A growing venture-capital firm is turning investments into philanthropy in the Washington's rural areas, Sheila Hagar reports for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. The business, Intermountain Impact Investments, "puts its money into enterprises that strengthen and sustain rural communities, in a strategy known as impact investing. Soon tangible signs of that philosophy will be on the roads, in physical therapy settings and on the dinner tables of residents in Eastern Washington."

    Co-founder Lawson Knight "said investing works much like a mutual fund does," Hagar writes. "His office builds a portfolio of low-risk transactions grouped into a fund. Those who invest in a fund do so with the expectation of return, socially and financially, he added. Via its recently established rural asset replacement fund, Intermountain takes the money and creates equipment loans at lower rates, typically 4 to 6 percent. Nonprofit groups who need to make large-ticket equipment replacements can take out those loans, he said. As the nonprofits repay their loans, the money returns to the revolving fund that can help another nonprofit."

    "Through Intermountain’s newly established rural asset fund, service-centered nonprofits can replace aging equipment or buy new medical devices," Hagar writes. "Items might include multi-passenger vans for transporting clients, refrigerated trucks to haul food donations, supplies to create safe housing for people with mental illness and pool equipment for rehabilitation needs. Often, agencies must address old or missing equipment through fundraising, loans or charge cards." Knight said "Intermountain expects to invest up to $2.5 million in its first rural asset fund venture." The organization currently has about about 10 percent of that money. (Read more)

    Northeast Rural Philanthropy Days boosts funding for economic development in rural Colorado

    Residents of northeastern Colorado this summer will be promoting rural philanthropy this summer with a three-day event, Northeast Rural Philanthropy Days, designed to "introduce local nonprofits, businesses and government entities to Front Range foundations to increase the awareness of needs in rural communities," Darci Tomky reports for the Fort Morgan Times. The event, scheduled June 8-10, "is an annual statewide program that comes to the northeast region every four years." (Best Places map)

    This year's theme, "Revealing the Potential," include "training, professional development, networking sessions, presentations and discussions with funders about northeast Colorado's needs and opportunities," Tomky writes. About 250 to 300 people are expected to attend the event, which features nonprofit, governmental and business leaders from nine northeast counties—Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Lincoln, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington and Yuma.

    "Prior to RPD, which started in the early 1990s, only 3 percent of grant funding from the major funders in Colorado made its way outside the Front Range," Tomky writes. "Today, the core funders of RPD make 15-18 percent of total contributions to rural communities. From 2009-2014, the 12 core funders of the RPD program awarded 617 grants for a total of nearly $18 million to northeast Colorado nonprofits." (Read more)

    Hospital on Ky.-Tenn. border illustrates the value of Medicaid expansion to rural health-care facilities

    Sperling's Best Places map
    Jellico Community Hospital, on the Kentucky border in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, was taken over by Texas-based Community Hospital Corp. last May after the previous owners wanted out because they were losing "millions a year," Harris Meyer reports for Modern Healthcare. Now, jobs are safe and the economically depressed community can hold onto the hope that its hospital will survive.

    Losing money is all too common in rural hospitals, especially in states like Tennessee that haven't expanded Medicaid, but about half of the hospital's patients are from Kentucky, which did expand Medicaid, and it operates a clinic in the seat of the Kentucky county Jellico borders. "The hospital's administrators, doctors and nurses all say it's easier to get testing and specialty care for Kentucky Medicaid patients," Meyer writes.

    The 31 states that have expanded Medicaid have been able to "shore up finances" in many of their rural hospitals, Meyer writes, but others have not fared so well. Nationwide, more than 50 rural hospitals have closed in the past six years, and nearly 300 more are in deep financial trouble, according to the National Rural Health Association. In Tennessee, Meyer notes that three hospitals have closed since 2013 and a fourth will close in May.

    Meyer notes that the Jellico hospital still has big problems. It serves an area where good-paying jobs with health benefits have dwindled, only 10 percent of the population has private health insurance, residents have higher-than-average rates of disease, and there is rampant obesity and drug abuse.

    The 54-bed hospital with its staff of 232 is the community's largest employer, as many rural hospitals are. The mayor emphasized how important it is for the hospital to survive, telling Meyer that new businesses will often not consider moving to an area that doesn't have one. (Read more)

    Mississippi religious-objections bill draws protests, including one from a rural weekly editor

    The Republican-led Mississippi House sent GOP Gov. Phil Bryant a bill "that proponents say protects religious freedom but opponents say sanctions discrimination against gay people and others," Geoff Pender reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. (Ledger photo by Justin Sellers: Protesters Monday at the Governor's Mansion)

    "House Bill 1523 would allow business and government workers to deny services based on religious beliefs," Pender writes. "Ten states have passed or are considering bills in response to last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. North Carolina's governor and Legislature recently approved a similar law. In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday vetoed one passed by the Legislature after protests from businesses."

    Today Bryant signed the bill, which allows clerks "to deny marriage licenses to gay couples because of their religious beliefs and not face any repercussions," Pender writes. It also allows "private businesses and faith-based organizations to refuse services based on those same beliefs without retribution." Republican lawmakers pointed to a poll that said two-thirds of Mississippians agree with the bill, but Democratic leaders say it legalizes discrimination.

    Groups opposed to the bill urged businesses to pressure Bryant to kill it, Jimmie Gates and Pender report for the Jackson paper. "The Human Rights Campaign, ACLU of Mississippi and LGBT equality advocates blasted the bill as hateful legislation Monday during a news conference outside the state Capitol. On Monday evening, hundreds of people surrounded the Governor's Mansion to protest the bill."

    Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin "said several corporations, including GE, Levi, Tyson Foods, MGM Resorts, Hyatt Hotels, Nissan, Toyota have spoken against the bill," Gates and Pender write. "Mississippi Human Rights Campaign director Rob Hill said Monday he also hopes Continental Tire Co., which is scheduled to build a mega-plant in Hinds County, will pressure the governor to veto the bill. ... The Mississippi Manufacturers Association representatives said Monday it is opposed to the bill."

    Ray Mosby
    Ray Mosby, editor and publisher of The Deer Creek Pilot, wrote in a column, "The first thing to say about the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act . . . is that it honestly has nothing to do with freedom of conscience—especially as that relates to religion—but rather has everything to do with discrimination."

    "Those who would maintain otherwise, those who would have their fellow men and women in this state to believe that this egregious piece of legislation is about allowing Mississippians to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of government persecution, have either not read it, or are simply misguided," Mosby writes. "What this bill does is let haters hate without fear of consequence. What this bill does is wink at the very worst devils of our nature and say, 'go to it boys, we’ve got you covered.'... This is not about a county clerk’s or a baker’s refusals to do so with 'freedom of conscience.' This bill, this soon to be most unholy law is the state of Mississippi’s codifying discrimination beneath a shroud of religious belief and in the very name of holiness, itself. And if that is not sin a la government, then I don’t know what is."

    How does your state rank in Google searches? Is it better or worse in comparison to population?

    How often do people use Google to search your state? Since 2004 the most searched states are California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Wyoming, the least populous state, is the least searched, followed by South Dakota, North Dakota, Vermont and Idaho.

    "Sharp-eyed readers who have been around the cartographic block a few times are probably already protesting," saying states with bigger populations get more hits, while states with smaller populations get less hits, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. "States with low population will have fewer in-state residents looking up things about that state on Google. And by and large, there will be fewer people doing the interesting things that cause outsiders to look up that state."

    To take a closer look at searches, Ingraham looked at states that underperform or overperform "when it comes to search interest relative to their population," Ingraham writes. That drastically changes results. Alabama, the 24th most populated state, is the 15th most searched, making it No. 1 for overperforming. Many of the state's searches had to do with sports, which is not surprising considering the state has won five of the past seven NCAA football championships, with the University of Alabama winning four times and the Auburn University once. "Other big overperformers include Hawaii and Alaska, Colorado and Connecticut." Indiana, which calls itself the "Crossroads of America," was the most underperforming state, followed by Louisiana, West Virginia, New Mexico and Idaho.

    Monday, April 04, 2016

    Safety at rail crossings remains a concern, especially in rural areas; only 1/3 have lights

    Only about one-third of the nation's 128,000 public railroad crossings have flashing lights, Judi Hasson reports for Stateline. The problem is especially bad in rural areas, where some crossings don't even have arms and drivers are pretty much on their own to decide if it's safe to cross. While railroad crossing deaths are down—last year, 244 people were killed at railroad crossings compared to a high of 1,115 in 1976, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—safety remains a concern. (Associated Press photo: An SUV was struck by a Metro-North Railroad train in Valhalla, N.Y.)

    In February, FRA "handed out nearly $10 million to eight states (Arkansas, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin) so they could install gates, lights and other safeguards at railroad crossings along energy transportation routes," Hasson writes. "The agency acknowledged, however, that more money is needed: It noted that it received applications requesting five times that amount."

    "There is no single cause of such accidents, and there is no single way to prevent them. There are, however, steps states can take to minimize the risks," Hasson reports. Sarah Feinberg, who heads FRA, "recently urged state transportation chiefs to accompany railroad inspectors during their required monthly checks of lights and gates at railroad crossings. A top priority, Feinberg said, should be to verify that the traffic lights and crossing lights are properly sequenced, and that there is enough time for traffic to clear a nearby intersection before a train enters a crossing." About 5,000 crossings are linked to traffic signals.

    Appalachian Virginia blue-collar coal county has been the nation's biggest supporter of Trump

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's biggest appeal has been in blue-collar, lower-educated places where jobs have been disappearing because of outside forces. No county has been more supportive of Trump in the primaries than coal-dependemt Buchanan County, Virginia, on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. In the county, where the unemployment rate is 10.9 percent—the highest in the state—the biggest source of jobs is mining, Thomas Kaplan reports for The New York Times, and "the coal business is troubled," leading to a 40 percent decrease in population since 1980, down to 22,776. It was no surprise that Trump earned 69.7 percent of votes in last month's primary. (NYT graphic)

    In Virginia the number of coal jobs has decreased from 2011 to 2015 from 4,867 to 3,033, a drop of nearly 38 percent, Graham Moomaw reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "If working-class anger is the fuel for Trump’s rise, few places were better primed for a blowup. Among Buchanan’s almost all-white populace, unemployment is high, incomes are low and college degrees are rare."

    Moomaw writes, "That a New York billionaire would find rock-solid support in a hardscrabble place such as Buchanan—where Grundy’s one chain hotel warns guests of an extra cleaning fee for rooms smudged by dirty boots—is one of many unexpected turns of the 2016 campaign cycle. In interviews with Buchanan residents and political observers, the Trump effect here was attributed to a combination of demographics, fury over lost jobs, and economic decline (much of it blamed on President Barack Obama and the so-called war on coal) and, perhaps above all, a desperate desire for something different."

    Buchanan County has also seen a surge of Democrats switching allegiances, Moomaw writes. "On Super Tuesday, Trump won 1,588 of 2,278 Buchanan primary votes for Republican candidates, followed by 313 for Rubio and 266 for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won 523 of 744 total Democratic votes. In the 2008 primaries, Buchanan cast 680 votes for Republicans and 2,497 votes for Democrats, the vast majority of which went to Clinton."

    Eastern Ky. native Chris Stapleton soars to success as one of country music's biggest stars

    Chris Stapleton
    Eastern Kentucky native Chris Stapleton has been cleaning up at awards ceremonies recently. Stapleton, who in February won two Grammy awards, picked up six Academy of Country Music awards Sunday night, including Male Vocalist of the Year, New Male Vocalist, Song of the Year for "Nobody to Blame" and Album of the Year for Traveller.

    Last month Stapleton played two free concerts in his hometown of Paintsville, Ky., one for students at his old high school, Johnson Central, reports the Paintsville Herald. He donated $60,000 worth of instruments to the school band, Andrea Saddler reports for the Floyd County Times.

    In anticipation of Stapleton having a big night on Sunday, CBS featured a special on him on its program "Sunday Morning." "Stapleton grew up in Eastern Kentucky, an area that has produced many big names in country music," Mark Strassmann reports. "Like Loretta Lynn, Stapleton came from a coal-mining family. Both singers attended local high schools. (Chris was a valedictorian at his.) After high school, he met some local songwriters and had a revelation," telling Strassmann, "I didn't know they would pay you money to sit in a room and write songs for other people. I always thought that George Strait was singing a song, he made it up, and that was the end of it. But the instant I found that out, that that could be a job, I thought, 'That's the job for me. I gotta figure out how to do that.'"

    Stapleton relocated to Nashville, Strassman reports. Stapleton told him, "Four days later I had a publishing deal. Which is not—that is not anybody's story, but that's mine." Stapleton, 37, has seen his first album go platinum for topping 1 million sales. Stapleton told Strassmann, "I'm new to a lot of people, and that's true. I'm not new to a lot of people in Nashville. They're like, 'Man, I've known that guy for years. He's been buggin' everybody!"

    While Stapleton is now enjoying success for his debut album he has been writing songs for others for many years. He has had six No. 1s on the country charts, with artists such as Tim McGraw ("Whiskey and You"), Sheryl Crow ("Homesick") and Adele ("If It Hadn't Been for Love") recording his music, Strassman reports. "Critics hailed Traveller and it sold respectably." After Stapleton and Justin Timberlake took to the stage in November at the Country Music Awards—where Stapleton won three awards—to perform "Tennessee Whiskey," sales soared. The album, which had been released in May 2015, "re-entered the Billboard charts at number one—in all genres."

    Atheists respond to Bible giveaways at rural schools by giving away Satanic activity books

    Delta County, Colorado (Wikipedia map)
    When Christians made Bibles available on tables designated at a rural Colorado school for pamphlet and book giveaways, an atheist group on Friday "provided pamphlets on topics like sex in the Bible, problems with the Ten Commandments and a Satanic activity book to middle and high school students, the result of a fight between Delta County schools and critics over whether it should continue to let everyone from Little League organizers to the Gideons distribute literature in schools," Colleen Slevin reports for The Associated Press.

    Pamphlets were distributed by the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, after complaints from a parent, who objected to the religious materials and said students who didn't take pamphlets were bullied.

    "Freedom from Religion Foundation successfully sued over a similar distribution policy in Orlando, Fla., schools," Slevin writes. "In an effort to also change policy in the Delta County district, the foundation asked for permission to offer the pamphlets, which it calls 'non-tracts,' as well as the activity book on the same tables. Despite the name of the activity book, the Satanic theme is limited to symbols in drawings. The book, which includes word jumbles and other games, teaches kindness and 'the basic morals that we all agree on,' foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said. . . . Foundation lawyer Andrew Seidel said the group would rather the district just change its policy and stop all groups from distributing literature in schools."

    "District spokesman Kurt Clay said the policy is not aimed at helping religious proselytizing but allowing the easy distribution of information about outside groups like Little League and the Boy Scouts in small towns where there are no recreation centers and most extracurricular activities are run by volunteers," Slevin writes. "He said officials are considering changing the policy but that will take some time. Clay said the school district did not want to risk a costly lawsuit but also decided that  students would not be hurt by the giveaway and might also learn about different views on religion." (Read more)

    Declining state-police presence in Pa. hurts rural areas that lack their own local police forces

    Around 80,000 residents in 17 rural communities in Pennsylvania do not have local law enforcement and rely on State Police officers to respond to calls, Christopher Pratt reports for LancasterOnline. "By 2025, planners project that some 90,000 people will be living in municipalities that depend on state police. Those residents may be in for even slower response times, as state police deal with an emerging staff shortage triggered by retirements and fewer cadets in training." Statewide, 340 positions—7.2 percent of all positions—are vacant.

    Local residents seem unwilling to pay higher municipal taxes to finance their own police forces and "about a quarter of the more than 4,500 enlisted state police are now eligible for their pensions," Pratt writes. "Currently, the number of cadets graduating from the State Police Academy isn’t enough to make up for retirements, even though last year 406 cadets were graduated—the highest number in a decade. This year, a cadet cheating scandal is expected to pull down the number of academy graduates. In March, 48 cadets graduated after 36 were dismissed following an investigation into alleged cheating. Overall, officials expect about 373 cadets to graduate in 2016, subject to normal attrition rates."

    State Police spokeswoman Maria Finn said "if the state budget would allocate more money, class size could be increased, more classes could be added, and more cadets could be graduated," Pratt writes. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's 2015-16 fiscal year budget included adding more than 350 state troopers, but a clash with Republican lawmakers killed that proposal. (Read more)

    Maple producers say some products falsely claim to contain maple syrup, use artificial sweeteners

    Maple producers say many store products claiming to contain maple syrup are actually made with artificial sweeteners, Sarah Schweitzer reports for The Boston Globe(Globe photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist: different grades of maple syrup on display)

    "Some 31 U.S. senators and congressional representatives have now gotten behind maple producers across the region and are demanding action. In a letter delivered last month to the Food and Drug Administration, the lawmakers asked the agency to 'investigate and take action against mis-branded products in interstate commerce," Schweitzer reports. The letter states, "These practices seem to intentionally mislead consumers who get cheap, industrially produced sweeteners and artificial flavors rather than the pure and genuine natural product they believed they have purchased."

    Schweitzer writes, "Like few other products, maple syrup comes with a ready-made and compelling marketing message. From its earliest days, it has been touted as a pure product, with its light golden color that runs clear and amber, like sunlight. It is produced with hard, backwoods work, bearing the stamp of authenticity. For a time, in the 19th century, it was held up as a symbol of morality—a product made by free men rather then the slave-produced sugar of the West Indies and elsewhere."

    "Protecting the sweetener’s image is key for the industry, which has seen lucrative crops in recent years," Schweitzer writes. "Revenue from maple syrup in the United States totaled $100 million in 2015. The issue has been especially inflaming in Vermont, where some 4.5 million maple trees yielded 1.4 million gallons of maple syrup in 2015—40.7 percent of the nation’s total, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Massachusetts produced 75,000 gallons, Maine 553,000 gallons, and New Hampshire 154,000."