Friday, July 08, 2016

Cost gap between humans and machines shrinking, meaning robots could be farming

Robots could soon replace human labor on farms, says Lux Research, a Boston-based firm that concentrates on emerging technologies. Costs are the main reason robots haven't taken more agriculture jobs, Carole Jacques reports for Lux. Sara Olson, lead author of the study, told Jacques, “Currently robots often aren’t affordable—cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption. However, the costs of many systems are coming down, while wages rise due to labor shortages in some areas, and the benefits robots bring in the form of increased accuracy and precision will start to pay off in coming years." (Lux graphic)
Some corn farmers are already using cost-effective auto-steer for tractors and harvesters, Jacques writes. "The gap between labor cost and auto-steer- or edrive-assisted labor in U.S. corn farming is relatively small and will become negligible by 2020." In Europe, regulatory limitations on agrochemicals have made automated lettuce weeding competitive with human labor, while in Japan's strawberry fields, where picking is "slow and labor-intensive, and labor scarce and expensive—the average agricultural worker in Japan is over 70 years old—the robot is quickly likely to become the cheaper option." (Read more)

Study finds many reasons for rural hospital closures, not just lack of Medicaid expansion

A study of three rural hospital closures last year found that several factors led to the hospitals' demise and that access to care, especially emergency care, was reduced as a result. The study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured and the Urban Institute also said new models for care, and expansion of Medicaid in states that have not done so, could help.

The study looked at the 2015 closures of non-profit Mercy Hospital in Independence, Kansas; for-profit Marlboro Park Hospital in Bennettsville, South Carolina; and Parkway Regional Hospital in Fulton, Kentucky. Only the latter was located in a state that expanded Medicaid, but much of the for-profit hospital's service area was in Tennessee, which is still debating expansion.

Besides Medicaid expansion, the study said the closures stemmed from "aging, poor, and shrinking populations;" high rates of uninsured patients, creating bad debts; heavy reliance on Medicare and Medicaid; economic challenges in the communities; "aging facilities, outdated payment and delivery system models, and business decisions by corporate owners and operators."

The study said the closures led to the departure of health-care professionals and made specialty care all the more difficult to access. "Elderly and low-income individuals were more likely than others to face transportation challenges following the closures, and were thus more likely to delay or forgo needed care," the study said.

It said more rural hospitals can be expected to close, but others "may be able to adapt, and new models may be created to address changing demographics and delivery systems. Such reconfiguration may require federal support and assistance as well as regional planning efforts. A state’s decision about the Medicaid expansion has an important impact on hospital revenues and access to care, but the sustainability of rural hospitals depends on a broader set of factors."

'Slowpoke' or 'left-lane courtesy' laws on interstate highways are becoming more common
Some states are enacting stiffer penalties for driving slowly in the left lanes of interstates, mostly a problem on four-lane roads in rural areas. "While all states require slow-moving vehicles to keep to the right, laws that went into effect in Tennessee this year, Indiana last year, Georgia in 2014 and Florida and New Jersey in 2013 are setting harsher penalties for dawdling drivers," Niraj Chokshi reports for The New York Times. "The new penalties, proponents say, are aimed at reducing congestion, frustration and accidents."

In Tennessee, violating the so-called "slowpoke" or "left-lane courtesy" laws could cost drivers $50, Chokshi writes. State Rep. Dan Howell, who sponsored the bill, told The Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this year, “It’s not the speed on the highway that kills as much the weaving in and out of traffic, which is caused by people who impede the flow of traffic." Indiana, where driving slow in the left lane can cost drivers $500, has issued 109 tickets and 1,535 warnings since the law went into effect last year.

The laws aren't aimed at getting drivers to slow down, but to get slower drivers to move to the right, Chokshi writes. Capt. David Bursten of the Indiana State Police told WISH-TV, “The purpose of this law is for those rude, inconsiderate drivers who think they own the left lane.” (Vox map)

Wildfire, insects, global warming, mismanagement are destroying Western forests

Last year more than 10 million acres of the nation's 766 million acres of forest were destroyed in wildfires, the largest loss since records began being kept in 1960, reports The Economist. More than 30,000 people fought last year's fires, which cost the federal government $2 billion. While this year's fire season had been expected to be less severe, it is now on pace to equal last year's losses. As of July 1, 2.1 million acres have been burned by 26,000 fires, 19 of which were still burning at the time of the report. (Economist graphic)

"The devastation wreaked in American forests by insects is less headline-grabbing, but ecologically as dramatic," the British-based magazine reports. "Last month the United States Forest Service said that, since October, it had recorded 26 million trees killed by the mutually-reinforcing effects of bugs and drought in the southern part of California’s Sierra Nevada range alone. That suggested 66 million trees had died there since 2010."

"Such destruction, caused partly by warming, will itself cause more warming," reports The Economist. "Many American forests are growing denser, in part owing to a reduction in logging, which makes them a significant carbon sink. They suck in greenhouse gases equivalent to around 13 percent of what America emits by burning fossil fuels. Yet USFS predicts that within a couple of decades, because of slowing growth and climate-related blights, the forests will become an emissions source. That would have a commensurate impact on the climate; it would also be grim for America, whose long disdain for one of its greatest bounties, the forests on which its economy was built, is belatedly yielding to smarter, more collaborative sorts of forest management."

"Climate change is estimated to have made California’s drought 15 to 20 percent more severe; in Alaska, where the average winter temperature has risen by over 3°C in the past six decades—over twice the average for the rest of America—its impact is greater," The Economist reports. "By accelerating the melting of winter snow, for example, in Alaska and the mountains of the West—the Rockies, Cascades, Sierra Nevada—hotter temperatures have made the fire season longer. Since 1970 the average duration has increased from 50 to around 125 days; in Alaska, which had its second-biggest year for fires on record in 2015, some of last year’s blazes are still alight." (Economist graphic)

"Mismanagement is also fueling the flames," reports The Economist. "Ever since 3 million acres of Idaho, Montana and Washington went up in smoke in 1910, the government has suppressed fire zealously. It was said that any new blaze must be extinguished by 10 a.m. the next day. This has stopped some sequoias from reproducing for decades. It also removed the self-moderating effect of frequent fire from a landscape prone to burn. Logging, followed by dense modern tree-planting, reinforced the effect. Where most western woods were once dominated by well-spaced large trees, they are now a tangle of smaller specimens, fighting over too little water, atop rising mounds of brush." (Read more)

Rural Oklahoma town the poster child for EPA's failure to enforce its own coal-ash regulations

Best Places map
Bokoshe, Okla., a town of 500 residents, has become the "microcosm of a fierce—some say one-sided—battle over coal ash that has dragged on in Washington’s corridors of power for nearly four decades—and is not over yet," Kristen Lombardi reports for The Center for Public Integrity. "After a disastrous, billion-gallon spill of coal ash in Tennessee in late 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to regulate this industrial waste. It then sat on its plan for five years."

"When agency officials finally acted, they chose the minimalist approach, setting baseline national standards for coal-ash disposal at more than 1,400 sites nationwide while leaving regulation essentially up to the states," Lombardi writes. "Under the coal ash rule, the agency has no authority to enforce its own requirements. At the same time, EPA officials determined that so-called beneficial uses, like the recycling that fills the pit here, could continue."

In Bokoshe, residents began complaining to state regulators in 1998 about dust from the coal-ash pit eight miles outside town, Lombardi writes. "More than a decade later, EPA got involved and in 2014 finally acknowledged that the pit has shown 'evidence' of escaping coal ash dust. But the grime that coats the town has not gone." Some residents "filed a class-action lawsuit against the pit operator and others, only to see the case dismissed."

"Utility companies and ash recyclers say such uses are safe if voluntary industry guidelines are followed," Lombardi writes. "For some uses, however, the science argues otherwise. And for others, regulation has been passed on to the U.S. Department of the Interior—which has been studying the issue for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, residents of Bokoshe cannot help but feel victimized by what they say amounts to a cruel regulatory hoax—with no end in sight. Tim Tanksley, who lives one mile from the pit, told Lombardi,  They’re still dumping it, and we’re still breathing it. It’s still making people sick.” (StateImpact Oklahoma photo by Joe Wertz: Bokoshe)

Lombardi writes, "The situation in Bokoshe exposes the weakness in the EPA’s coal ash rule, the fallacy that dumping can continue under the guise of beneficial use. To encourage recycling of coal ash, the agency exempts from federal oversight any disposal method that meets this definition. And this gives carte blanche to sites like the Making Money pit, an old coal mine where disposal of coal ash is considered a beneficial use by the state."

"For the purposes of coal ash recycling, there are two types of beneficial use: encapsulated, in which, for example, the ash becomes part of concrete or wallboard; and unencapsulated, in which loose material is reused as fill for road construction or dumped in active and abandoned coal mines, a practice known as minefilling," Lombardi reports. "The most common reuse method, minefilling remains unregulated at the federal level because of a loophole in the EPA’s coal-ash rule. The EPA handed off regulation of the practice to the Interior Department, which has yet to act. The deferral was partly the product of vigorous lobbying by the utility industry over many years." (Read more)

Senate passes GMO bill to counter Vermont's; loopholes could exclude labeling some foods

The Senate voted 63-30 Thursday to require labels listing genetically modified food ingredients in the form of "words, pictures or a bar code that can be scanned with smartphones," Chris Prentce reports for Reuters. The measure now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass. (Image from Reddit)

Sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) the move "is the latest attempt to introduce a national standard that would override state laws, including Vermont’s that some say is more stringent, and comes amid growing calls from consumers for greater transparency," Prentice writes. "A nationwide standard is favored by the food industry, which says state-by-state differences could inflate costs for labeling and distribution. But mandatory GMO labeling of any kind would still be seen as a loss for Big Food, which has spent millions lobbying against it."

The measure does have loopholes, Prentice writes. "Food ingredients like beet sugar and soybean oil, which can be derived from genetically-engineered crops but contain next to no genetic material by the time they are processed, may not fall under the law’s definition of a bioengineered food, critics say. GMO corn may also be excluded thanks to ambiguous language, some said." (Read more)

Advocates look for ways to turn Appalachian food trend into more profits for the needy region

Appalachian cuisine has become the hot new trend, but there is some concern about whether or not being trendy will boost the economy of a region hit hard by the loss of coal jobs. Some "say while this newfound attention could bolster the region’s financial fortunes, it could also play into the same 'extraction economy' that has drained Appalachia for decades, Ashlie Stevens reports for WFPL of Louisvillle. (Mountain Community Radio photo: Appalachian Food Summit)

"What we’re seeing a little bit of is folks using the ‘Appalachian’ brand and using Appalachian food as a way to market their own food and use it for their own benefit without really benefiting the region at all," Stevens heard from Ivy Brashear, a former Rural Blog writer who is now a communications associate working on Appalachian transition with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky.

Advocates hope to change that through the Appalachian Food Summit, which draws writers, chefs, food scholars, farmers and food entrepreneurs, Stevens writes. Lora Smith, who co-founded the summit in 2013, told Stevens, “It’s focused on preserving and celebrating the vernacular cooking traditions that exist in the mountains, but it is also really forward-thinking in what will support a sustainable future." Also, the Appalachian Regional Commission every year releases "Bon App├ętit Appalachia!" an online map of local food businesses and entrepreneurs operating in Appalachia.

"Smith says giving those in Appalachia the tools to grow, harvest, prepare and promote their own food would lead to demand for a more dynamic regional workforce," Stevens writes. "And that, in turn, would provide jobs in the economically depressed area. But that’s only if food professionals from within and outside the region borrow responsibly."

Travis Milton, a chef who was raised in Appalachia but now lives in Richmond, Va., told Stevens, "I thought about opening up my Appalachian-themed restaurant here in Richmond, but I kind of took a step back and really did some soul-searching, and realized that in doing so I would be a part of that problem. Me being outside the region, I would be putting that money into my pocket and the community would see no real, tangible benefit from it other than the word ‘Appalachia’ being used in an article about me, or something of that matter." (Read more)

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Judge has misgivings about her charges against Ga. publisher and his lawyer; prosecutor drops them

"Three felony charges brought against the publisher of a local weekly newspaper and his attorney that were brought based on their efforts to see public documents" have been dismissed on motion of the prosecutor, reports Rhonda Cook of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The charges were brought by Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver when "she learned of the subpoenas for records from her office’s operating account and from another jurist," Cook reports. "She said in a letter attached to the dismissal that she had had second thoughts about pursing a case." Yesterday, the Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists filed a complaint against her. Weaver wrote, "I in no way want to diminish or infringe upon the First Amendment Rights we have."

Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason and his attorney were "indicted, arrested and jailed overnight on June 24," Cook notes. "Thomason was charged with making a false statement in a request made under the Georgia Open Records Act for copies of checks drawn on the office accounts of two local judges that may have been 'cashed illegally.' Thomason and Stookey were charged with identify fraud and attempted identity fraud because the attorney secured subpoenas for bank records they wanted to present as evidence in a pending court matter over whether the two had to pay the legal fees of a court stenographer who had sued the newspaper man for defamation."

Poor Black Belt residents fighting coal-ash landfill are hit with $30 million defamation suit from it

Owners of a coal-ash landfill in a poverty-stricken African American community in rural Alabama filed a $30 million lawsuit against residents who have fought the landfill, saying posts on a Facebook page have ruined the company's reputation, Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for InsideClimate News. The lawsuit, filed by the Arrowhead Landfill, Green Group Holdings and the wholly owned subsidiary Howling Coyote LLC, accuses Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice of defamation.

Residents of Uniontown (Best Places map), which is 90 percent black and has a median household income of $14,000, unsuccessfully fought the license for Arrowhead. "When the landfill started to accept coal ash, their previous complaints about the foul air now focused on the health risks," Pierre-Louis writes. "Residents say a litany of problems—asthma, headaches, rashes, neuropathy, even the death of pets—cropped up. They filed several lawsuits, a civil-rights complaint and took to Facebook to make those grievances public."

InsideClimate News graphic
The lawsuit is being referred to as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, seen as a move "to burden defendants with legal costs as a way of silencing dissent," Pierre-Louis writes. "Twenty-eight states have enacted protections against SLAPP suits, on the grounds that they infringe on First Amendment rights. Alabama is not one of them. Georgia, where the plaintiffs are headquartered, is."

Lee Rowland, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing the Uniontown defendants, told Pierre-Louis, "The effect of the filing is obviously intimidating. When an average citizen, let alone those who live in a town where the per-capita income is under $10,000 receive notice that they've been sued in court for $30 million ... it's hard to overstate the terror that you would feel just for speaking about your community from the heart." (Read more)

Coal groups say conviction of former Massey Energy CEO wrongly puts execs at risk of criminal liability

Coal trade groups in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia say the conviction and one-year prison sentence of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship "wrongly puts any coal executive at risk of criminal liability," Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Blankenship was convicted in December 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. (Gazette-Mail photo: Don Blankenship leaving the Charleston, W.Va. courthouse last year)

"Attorneys for the West Virginia Coal Association, the Illinois Coal Association and the Ohio Coal Association said in a 40-page brief: "Operating a coal mine is a difficult venture that presents tough decisions for its managers, who are required to navigate a regulatory minefield in order to operate a successful company. ... Those decisions, especially with respect to production, safety, and regulatory compliance, may at times be imperfect, prone to second-guessing, and, despite the best intentions, even incorrect. However, those decisions should not lead to criminal liability unless it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual possessed the 'evil purpose' necessary to establish that the conduct was illegal, not just general knowledge of the effects of broad regulatory involvement.”

The lawyers "suggest that Blankenship’s conviction, if upheld, could lead top coal executives to avoid becoming closely involved in safety and health decisions at their mines to avoid the potential for criminal prosecution," Ward writes. The brief states: “As such, it is imperative to clearly and definitively distinguish between legal and acceptable business practices for the lawful production of coal and willful criminal behavior. Without that distinction, one person may face serious criminal exposure for setting certain production goals while another may choose to insulate him or herself from receiving important information regarding safety and MSHA compliance for fear that such knowledge may subject them to criminal prosecution.” (Read more)

Western coal mines have lost more than 1,600 jobs since 2012; laid-off workers have few options

Western coal mines are seeing greater layoffs. They have lost more than 1,600 jobs since 2012, including the announcement in March that Peabody Energy and Arch Coal were cutting 465 jobs in the Powder River Basin. "Historically low natural-gas prices mean that the fuel has been out-competing coal and stricter environmental regulations make it harder for coal companies to stay in business," Paige Blankenbuehler reports for High Country News. "And many companies have been hurt by questionable business decisions and high executive salaries and bonuses." (High Country News map: For an interactive version click here)
"In early June, 80 full-time employees received notice of their layoffs from the West Elk Mine in Somerset, one of Colorado’s largest energy producers," Blankenbuehler writes. "The mine is the last still in operation in the North Fork Valley on the state’s Western Slope, where coal mining has been a mainstay of the rural economy for nearly 120 years. Just five years ago, approximately 1,200 people in the North Fork Valley were employed by three local coal mines." Kathleen Welt, an environmental engineer at the West Elk Mine, said less than 250 people remain employed. One of the other miners shut down permanently and the other is idled.

"For coal miners out of work, Western states have done little to provide a safety net; so far there are no statewide programs that provide re-training, counseling or economic development strategies for extractive resource dependent economies," Blankenbuehler writes. "Some coal companies offer laid-off workers a severance package, but former miners have few options to gain positions that match their previous salaries—on average, more than $80,000 a year."

Telemedicine helps stroke victims in rural New Mexico get treatment from urban specialists

Doctors in rural New Mexico are turning to telemedicine to treat stroke patients during the crucial hours after the incident, Leah Todd reports for "Small Towns, Big Change," a six-month series by seven news organizations in Colorado and New Mexico. "Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in New Mexico, and a leading cause of adult disability. In 2014 alone, 822 New Mexicans died from a stroke—more than those who died from drug overdoses and homicides combined." (University of New Mexico Department of Neurosurgery photo: Video feed helps treat rural stroke patients)

"A life-saving procedure called a clot retrieval, for instance, is only effective within about eight hours of a stroke’s onset. A drug called tPA, which dissolves stroke-inducing blood clots, must start acting within about four," Todd writes. Howard Yonas, a neurosurgeon at the University of New Mexico, said "only a tiny fraction of rural stroke victims eligible for the life-saving blood-thinner actually get it. Instead, many rural doctors opt to fly patients by helicopter to the state’s only Level 1 trauma center in Albuquerque, a costly and sometimes unnecessary measure that consumes precious hours."

Medical professionals are using a program, Access to Critical Cerebral Support Services, that was created in 2014 with a $15.1 million grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "to loop Albuquerque specialists into rural emergency rooms by video and immediately share brain scans before deciding to transfer the patient," Todd writes. In the two years since the program was initiated hospitals have seen significant results. One rural hospital has reduced the number of brain trauma victims it sends to Albuquerque from 50 percent to 6 percent, and another rural hospital has more than doubled the number of patients given tPA.

So far nine rural hospitals use the system, with five more set to join, Todd writes. The move is cost effective, especially now that telemedecine is more common. Dale Alverson, who runs UNM’s Center for Telehealth said that "In the late 1990s, a telemedicine setup cost about $100,000 to install. Today, a comparable outfit costs less than $10,000." (Read more)

Kansas can now charge to apply for incentive program to move to rural areas, but won't, for now

Kansas can now charge people to apply for an incentive program that encourages recent college graduates to move to the state's rural areas, Jonathan Shorman reports for The Topeka Capital-Journal. A new law allows the Kansas Department of Commerce to charge up to $750 to apply for the state's Rural Opportunity Zones program, which offers $15,000 in loan debt repayment, and in some cases waives income tax for up to five years. The Commerce Department said the fees are meant to offset administrative costs, and it will not charge people who apply for the incentive.

Fees will be charged, beginning Oct. 1, for other state programs, such as Promoting Employment Across Kansas Program, High Performance Incentive Program, Job Creation Fund, Angel Investor Tax Credits and Kansas Industrial Training and Retraining programs, Shorman writes. There is still the possibility that a fee could be added to the incentive program at a later date, a move supported by at least one state leader. Sen. Julia Lynn (R-Olathe) who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, told Shorman. “If there were some nominal fee, I don’t think that should deter anybody." (Read more)

National Small Farm Conference will be held at Virginia Beach Sept. 20-22

The seventh National Small Farm Conference will be held Sept. 20-22 at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Va. Hosted by Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, Virginia Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with support from Virginia Tech, the conference title is "Creating and Sustaining Small Farmers and Ranchers."

The conference will include short courses, oral and poster paper presentations, exhibits, success stories and educational tours in and around Virginia Beach. Organizers say attendees will "learn about innovative advances in research, extension and outreach; network and strengthen existing partnerships with other small farm professionals, and take home new ideas that will help to ensure small farmers and ranchers in your region not only survive, but thrive in today’s economy."

The basic conference fee is $325 for registrations through Aug. 5, $400 afterward. Pre-conference short courses are an additional $25. For more information click here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Investment in agriculture technology skyrocketing; The Economist takes a deep dive into it

Investment in agriculture technology nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015, from $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, Rob Leclerc reports for Forbes. Michael Macrie, chief information officer at agriculture cooperative Land O’ Lakes said he counted only 20 ag-tech companies as recently as 2010. Currently, there are at least 503 individual companies raising funding. "The opportunity to bring agriculture, a $7.8 trillion industry representing 10 percent of global GDP, into the modern age has caught the attention of a growing number of investors globally." (Chart from AgFunder’s AgTech Investing Report: 2015: Investment in ag tech)

"There is huge potential, and need, to help the ag industry find efficiencies, conserve valuable resources, meet global demands for protein, and ensure consumers have access to clean, safe, healthy food," Leclerc writes. "In all this, technological innovation is inevitable. It’s a complex and diverse industry, however, with many subsectors for farmers, investors, and industry stakeholders to navigate. Entrepreneurs are innovating across agricultural disciplines, aiming to disrupt the beef, dairy, row crop, permanent crop, aquaculture, forestry, and fisheries sectors. Each discipline has a specific set of needs that will differ from the others."

The Economist magazine's latest Technology Quarterly insert last week was titled "The Future of Agriculture" and carried this intriduction: "If agriculture is to continue to feed the world, it needs to become more like manufacturing, says Geoffrey Carr. Fortunately, that is already beginning to happen." Some of the subheads capture the narrative:
"In various guises, information technology is taking over agriculture"
"Farms need better products. Genomic understanding will provide them"
"Farming marine fish inland will relieve pressure on the oceans"
"Technology can improve not only productivity but animal welfare too"
"Technology will transform farmers’ lives in both the rich and the poor world"

Feds seek more $ for opioid abuse, allow docs more buprenorphine patients, require drug data checks

President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to approve $1.1 billion in new funding to make opioid treatment available for every American. A White House press release includes county-level maps of every state's opioid and heroin overdose deaths from 2010-14 and how much funding each state would qualify for under the proposal. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $1.4 million for five Appalachian projects to fight opioid use. (White House map: If the $1.1 billion is approved West Virginia would qualify for $10 million over two years to treat opioid addiction)

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services "is issuing a final rule to increase from 100 to 275 the number of patients that qualified physicians who prescribe buprenorphine for opioid use disorders can treat," the release says. "Providers, policymakers, advocates, and experts have pointed to the current 100-patient limit for buprenorphine prescribing as a barrier to opioid-use-disorder treatment. The rule aims to increase access to medication-assisted treatment and associated behavioral-health supports for tens of thousands of people with opioid use disorders, while preventing diversion."

White House Drug Policy Director Michael Botticelli said if Congress approves the budget request "there would be more doctors trained in buprenorphine, particularly in rural areas where there is a shortage of physicians who can prescribe the drug," Jayne O'Donnell reports for USA Today. "House and Senate conferees are expected to meet on the conference report for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would improve treatment for addiction and overdoses and reform prescribe practices." The House version of the bill has no extra money, while the Senate has $920 million, and Democrats have vowed not to sign a conference report without "significant funding," Botticelli told reporters. (HHS map)

The White House press release says that in an effort to improve drug monitoring by federal prescribers, the Indian Health Service "will now require its opioid prescribers and pharmacists to check their state prescription drug monitoring programs' databases prior to prescribing or dispensing any opioid for more than seven days." The Department of Veterans Affairs is releasing a new policy requiring its health-care providers to do likewise "in most cases . . . to determine if a patient is receiving opioids or other controlled substances from another provider and document that in the electronic patient record."

'Clean coal' power-plant project is a debacle, puts financial burden on customers in a poor state

A "clean coal" power plant that was designed to be a model "for future power plants to help slow the dangerous effects of global warming;" that was supposed to "bring thousands of jobs to Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state; and to extend a lifeline to the dying coal industry" is two years behind schedule and nearly $5 billion over budget, Ian Urbina reports for The New York Times, offering new details of a promised boon that is appearing more like a boondoggle. (Wikipedia map: Kemper County)

"The Kemper project is a story of how a monopoly utility, with political help from the Mississippi governor and from federal energy officials who pressured state regulators in letters to support the project, shifted the burden of one of the most expensive power plants ever built onto the shoulders of unwitting investors and some of the lowest-income ratepayers in the country," Urbina writes.

"Kemper’s rising price tag and other problems will probably affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules on new power plants, and also play into broader discussions about the best way to counter climate change. EPA regulations in effect require new coal plants to have carbon capture technology but are being held up in federal court partly by arguments that the technology is not cost-effective."

"The plant and its owner, Southern Co., are the focus of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, and ratepayers, alleging fraud, are suing the company," Urbina writes. "Members of Congress have described the project as more boondoggle than boon. The mismanagement is particularly egregious, they say, given the urgent need to rein in the largest source of dangerous emissions around the world: coal plants."

"Kemper’s rising price tag and other problems will probably affect the EPA’s proposed rules on new power plants, and also play into broader discussions about the best way to counter climate change," Urbina writes. "EPA regulations in effect require new coal plants to have carbon capture technology but are being held up in federal court partly by arguments that the technology is not cost-effective."

Study finds that children are highly susceptible to TV ads for unhealthy foods and beverages

Television commercials for unhealthy foods and drinks have an immediate effect on youth, leading to poor diets and obesity, says a study by researchers at Ontario's McMaster University, published in Obesity Reviews. Researchers "examined 29 trials assessing the effects of unhealthy food and beverage marketing and analyzing caloric intake and dietary preference among more than 6000 children. Researchers found that the marketing increased dietary intake and influenced dietary preference in children during or shortly after exposure to advertisements."

Youth obesity rates—a major concern in rural areas—are on the rise, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study released last month. Another study published last month, by NYU Langone Medical Center, found that most food and beverage products endorsed by popular musicians lead to childhood obesity.

The McMaster study found that "when children were exposed to unhealthy advertisements, they consumed significantly more unhealthy than healthy calories." The study, which said children are exposed to an average of five food advertisements per hour—more than 80 percent of all food ads in the U.S. are for unhealthy foods—found that children 8 and under "might be more susceptible to the impact of food and beverage marketing in terms of quantity and quality of calories consumed. Researchers hypothesize that younger children might be more vulnerable to the influence of advertisements and associate the marketed products with positive features of commercials and subsequently try to imitate the behaviors they see."

Residency program created to fill doctor shortages in Montana's rural areas graduates first class

The University of Montana Family Medicine Residency Program, created in 2012 to fill doctor shortages in rural areas, graduated 10 new medical doctors on Sunday, Ellie Baty reports for KTVH in Helena. Five of the graduates have accepted jobs in rural areas in Montana, while the other five will work in rural areas in other states. In Montana 53 of 56 counties are federally recognized as being underserved.

The three-year program, affiliated with the University of Washington Family Medicine Residency Network, "welcomed its inaugural class of 10 residents in the fall of 2012, with the first year of the program beginning in July of 2013," Baty writes. "It is the only family medicine residency program in Western Montana." When the program began "Montana ranked 50th in the nation for graduate medical education per capita. The creation of the program more than doubled the number of family medicine physicians being trained in Montana each year."

Dr. Ned Vasquez, founder and director of the program, told Baty, “Rural communities in our state tend to have a challenging time consistently recruiting doctors to come and practice in those towns. Creating residency programs is one of the major ways of satisfying those needs, because residents tend to stay in the vicinity of where they do that training." (Read more)

Weekly editor: Supporting advertisers ensures that good community journalism remains alive and well

Mary Henkel Judson
If you love good community journalism, support the advertisers who help keep the newspaper afloat, writes Mary Henkel Judson, editor and co-publisher of the Port Aransas South Jetty in southeastern Texas. "If you look forward to reading the South Jetty each week, if you count on it for factual news you can trust about the people, places and events that matter to you in Port Aransas, I have a suggestion: Support those the businesses and individuals who place advertising in the South Jetty—advertising that works for them, and supports good journalism."

Advertisers are the reason employees get paychecks and bills get paid, she writes. "Our staff puts blood, sweat, tears and many hours into their work to make sure our stories reflect the standards of good journalism, from the hottest controversy to meetings of civic organizations; to make sure that your advertising does its job to bring customers to your business and to make sure all this is presented in a way that makes it easy and attractive for readers to consume, whether in print or online."

"No newspaper can survive without the support of its advertisers," she writes. "Subscription costs do not cover the actual cost of mailing and do nothing toward the cost of producing the newspaper. Advertisers, therefore, are responsible for making the South Jetty, and every other newspaper, possible. With more advertising, a newspaper can offer more and better content and can hire and/or retain better qualified reporters, photographers, editors and other staff members to create an improved product."

"Good newspapers are essential for communities because they are rallying points around which the entire community can gather and participate," she writes. They are available to all, not just those with computers. If it’s important to you to be kept informed about what our city council and school board are doing that may impact you financially and socially, if it’s important to you to know what is happening in town that might affect your quality of life or well-being, if it’s important to you to know how well your tax dollars are educating our students and maintaining our infrastructure, you need to support the advertisers that make it possible for the South Jetty to report on those things—and much more." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Economic and cultural issues, and Donald Trump, make rural America 'redder' than ever

Rural America is increasingly becoming red, mainly because "Democratic messages are potent in big cities, but simply aren’t selling in rural America," Alan Greenblatt reports for Governing magazine. "Rural voters tend to be more conservative on family and social issues than city dwellers and suburbanites. They have higher rates of property ownership. And they’re more likely to be self-employed, which means they’re less likely to turn to government for solutions."

The trend appears more pronounced this year due to the presumptive Republican nomination of Donald Trump. Nicholas Ricciardi of The Associated Press reports, "There are few divides in the United States greater than that between rural and urban places. Town and country represent not just the poles of the nation's two political parties, but different economic realities that are transforming the 2016 presidential election. Cities are trending Democratic and are on an upward economic shift, with growing populations and rising property values. Rural areas are increasingly Republican, steadily shedding population for decades, and as commodity and energy prices drop, increasingly suffering economically." Riccardi writes mainly from Colorado, identified as one of the states with the biggest economic disparity between rural and urban areas, along with Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

Another problem is that the Democratic Party has become progressively more liberal, making it more difficult for its officeholders and candidates to connect with rural voters, Greenblatt writes. In the 15 states where rural residents consist of more than half the population, 11 have Republican governors and the other four could have Republicans by the end of the year. Seth McKee, a political scientist at Texas Tech University, told Greenblatt, "Rural voters have become a core component of the GOP, especially white rural voters, which is most of them." Polls show gun and environmental issues are making rural voters more Republican.

Greenblatt writes, "In predominantly rural states, Democratic candidates nowadays struggle to differentiate themselves from the national party’s position on issues such as resource extraction and gun control. In fact, the efforts of state-level Democratic candidates over the years to prove their worth to voters by bashing the national leadership of their own party has served to weaken that party’s brand, says Scott Crichlow, who chairs the political science department at West Virginia University." He told Greenblatt, “There’s a feeling that the national Democratic Party is not representing their interests anymore.” (New York Times map: 2012 presidential election by county. For an interactive version click here)

Supreme Court's decision to ban domestic abusers from owning firearms has rural importance

The U.S. Supreme Court last month voted to uphold a ban prohibiting people convicted of domestic-violence misdemeanors from owning or possessing firearms, a decision that could have particular effects in rural areas. Rural residents are more than twice as likely (39 percent to 18 percent among urban residents) to own guns, says the Pew Research Center, and some studies have found that domestic violence is more common in rural areas. Rural numbers in the studies were estimated to be lower than actual numbers, because of a higher rate of non-reporting.

A key component of the Supreme Court's 6-2 decision to uphold the ban is the difference between the words "reckless" and "intentional," Rachel Louise Snyder reports for The New Yorker. The case involved two men, Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, who had a history of guns and domestic violence. "The defendants’ lawyer had argued that the men’s conduct toward their domestic partners was not intentional but rather merely 'reckless.' Or, to put it another way, neither man had meant to hurt anyone."

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan
"Was it unconstitutional to take away a perpetrator’s Second Amendment rights if that perpetrator hadn’t meant to hurt anyone?" Snyder writes. "The Supreme Court’s decision says no, it does not matter. Bad behavior is bad behavior. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, which followed on a 2014 Supreme Court case called Castleman v. United States, in which the Court ruled that any person convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence that involved intentional physical force was barred from possessing a firearm. Castleman left open the question of reckless behavior, which Voisine snapped shut." She wrote, “The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.”

One of the problems is that "most domestic-violence incidents across the U.S. are charged as misdemeanors, though they are often part of a larger pattern of violence," Snyder writes. "Though most states list non-fatal strangulation as a felony, about a dozen still make it a misdemeanor charge. The burden of proof for victims can be impossibly high given that often there are no witnesses, no corroboration, and sometimes no visible injury at all. (Only 15 per cent of strangulations have evidence visible enough to photograph.)"

"For the National Rifle Association, the issue in the Voisine case was the question of 'recklessness,' and whether that term was too broadly construed," Snyder writes. "Writing at the time the case was heard, the NRA argued that 'an individual who injures a family member while recklessly driving could commit a qualifying domestic violence offense, potentially resulting in a permanent ban on firearm possession." Kagan wrote, “If a person lets slip a door that he is trying to hold open for his girlfriend, he has not actively employed (‘used’) force even though the result is to hurt her. But if he slams the door shut with his girlfriend following close behind, then he has done so—regardless of whether he thinks it absolutely sure or only quite likely that he will catch her fingers in the jamb.”

Snyder writes, "Even the existence of a federal ban on firearm possession for misdemeanors or felonies doesn’t mean that the statutes are enforced—police are often loath to ask abusers about guns, small jurisdictions frequently have no central storehouse, background checks might not turn up domestic-violence charges and judges may not order abusers to relinquish guns." (Read more)

Food fight brewing over provision to school lunches that critics say could defund federal program

Republicans and Democrats are waging a food fight over school lunches. "The fight centers on a key a provision in the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016, introduced by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), that would create a pilot block grant program for nutrition assistance in three states," Lydia Wheeler reports for The Hill. Democrats and school groups argue that the bill "not only slashes school breakfast and lunch budgets that help feed low-income students, but also paves the way for the programs to be defunded altogether in the future. . . . Supporters have hailed the legislation as a way to provide states more autonomy over school meal programs now controlled by Washington bureaucrats."

"If the pilot program were approved, states that apply and were chosen to be in the program would be given a capped amount of money for child nutrition programs to use as they see fit," Wheeler writes. "The one requirement is that they provide at least one affordable meal a day." The "bill also states that a school district can only provide free lunches to all when the poverty rate for the student body is 60 percent or higher. That threshold is now set at 40 percent." Critics say that change alone "would end the program for 7,000 of the 18,000 schools currently participating and eliminate the option for another 11,000 schools that are eligible but not yet participating."

The School Nutrition Association "argues that once funding is reduced through block granting, a program becomes easier to eliminate," Wheeler writes. "The association argues that with block grants, schools in participating states would be cut off from two key funding streams—the 29-cent reimbursement rate for meals that students pay full price for, and the 6 cents schools receive per lunch if they meet the federal nutrition standards that First Lady Michelle Obama advocated for in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The cuts could result in losses of as much as $78 million in states like California, while Georgia could lose up to $30 million just from the loss of the 6 cents per lunch, according to the nutrition association's estimates."

In 2015, 22 million students received free or reduced lunches and 12 million received free or reduced breakfast under the federal meal programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wheeler writes.

Murray Energy says it might lay off 82% of workers; blames Obama's regulations, natural gas

UPDATE, July 8: The company said in a press release that "no layoffs are contemplated or expected at this time." 

Murray Energy Corp., the largest independent coal producer in the U.S., said it might have to lay off up to 82 percent of its workforce in September due partly to President Obama's environmental regulations, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. The company's owner, Bob Murray, who is holding a fundraiser for Donald Trump this week, "said the potential layoffs would affect 4,400 employees in six states." Friday's announcement "came three days after miners in the United Mine Workers of America rejected the latest proposal for a new contract from Murray Energy and other unionized coal companies." (Murray Energy graphic: company operations)
Murray Energy said in a statement: “These workforce reductions are due to the ongoing destruction of the United States coal industry by President Barack Obama, and his supporters, and the increased utilization of natural gas to generate electricity. Murray Energy hopes and expects to continue operating its mines, and will retain as many employees as practicable to ensure continued operation and to fulfill its obligations to its customers.” (Read more)

Prohibition gradually dying out in rural Kentucky

Kentucky is home to the Bourbon Trail of distilleries, but its Baptist plurality has long made it a state where most counties are "dry," and voting "wet" meant not just legal beer (as in Tennessee) but also whiskey, perhaps due to the liquor lobby's influence. The state has become much wetter over the last 25 years, and the trend appears to be accelerating, as two small, very rural counties and a county seat voted to approve alcohol sales last week.

"Since January 2014, voters have approved new or expanded alcohol sales in 23 cities or counties, and turned them down in only six cases, according to records from the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "A number of factors account for that, observers said, including economic concerns, changes in state law, a greater acceptance of alcohol — even among members of churches that once strongly fought legal liquor — and hopes of keeping pace with nearby wet cities and counties." The latest rash of votes came in Southern Kentucky after the Pulaski County seat of Somerset, near Lake Cumberland, went wet. (Click on map for a larger image)
Lexington Herald-Leader map, updated with last week's Southern Kentucky votes
The broader trend began in 2000, when the state legislature allowed "votes on legalizing the sale of alcohol by the drink at larger restaurants, as well as golf courses and wineries," Estep notes. "Before that, voters had to decide whether to legalize all alcohol sales. That was a hard sell many places because of church opposition and concerns about major changes in rural communities and quiet small towns. The new law made alcohol sales more palatable."

The trend appears to be self-perpetuating. Carol Beth Martin, the state ABC's malt beverage administrator, told Estep, “As places nearby go wet, people are able to see that, if regulated appropriately, alcohol sales can be a benefit for a community as opposed to a nuisance. Alcohol sales oftentimes bring increased economic development to the community as well as provide an increase in tax revenue addressing quality of life issues in their community.”

Town near Yosemite sees more homeless people; churches accused of attracting them

A rural town outside Yosemite National Park has seen an increase in homeless people, especially in an area where people can camp outside for months without being detected, Alice Daniel reports for The California Report, a statewide radio news program. Mariposa, Calif. (Best Places map), has seen a spike in homelessness, blamed partly on the recession and partly on Assembly Bill 109, where "parolees who committed non-serious crimes like theft or drug possession are sent back to the county where they were charged, even if it isn’t their hometown." Last summer there were a reported 40 homeless probationers in the town, reports the Sierra Sun Times. Mariposa's population is about 2,200.

A pair of local churches that have begun providing homeless a place to stay seven nights a week are drawing the ire of some locals, who think offering homeless a meal and a bed only encourages more homeless to come to Mariposa, Daniel reports. Rev. Ginger Foster, pastor of Mariposa United Methodist Church, told Daniel, “I mean people have actually said to me, ‘Because you have this program, people come here.’"

Others fear a rise in homeless will hurt the town's tourism industry, Daniel reports. Ron Iudice, a commercial real estate owner, told her, “We didn’t know who these people were that were in town. At the time there was urinating in public doorways of businesses, just sleeping out in public areas. We were afraid transients were going to scare the tourists away, and so the businesses got up in arms about it.”

Foster said most homeless people she has seen came to town for seasonal work that didn't pan out, or suffer from mental health, substance abuse, or lack of transportation, Daniel writes. "And decent affordable housing in Mariposa is almost impossible to find. ... So far, the county has housed 13 people who were homeless." (Read more)