Friday, April 21, 2017

State licensing laws bar treatment of opioid addiction, especially in areas that lack doctors

State laws prevent nurse practitioners and physician assistants from using a federal license to prescribe potentially life-saving medicine for opioid addiction, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. Earlier this month two federal agencies—Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration—"gave more than 700 nurse practitioners and physician assistants the authority to write prescriptions for the anti-addiction medication buprenorphine."

But 28 states "prohibit nurse practitioners from prescribing buprenorphine unless they are working in collaboration with a doctor who also has a federal license to prescribe it," Vestal writes. The problem is that half of all counties in the U.S., mainly in rural areas, "do not have a single physician with a license to prescribe buprenorphine." (Stateline map: Barriers for nurse practitioners to prescribe treatment for opioid addiction)
Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming have laws that "explicitly prohibit nurse practitioners from prescribing buprenorphine—one of three anti-addiction medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—with or without a doctor’s supervision," Vestal notes. A law in Kentucky prohibits physician assistants from prescribing it.

In the 15 years since doctors have been allowed to prescribe buprenorphine, fewer than 39,000 have sought a license to do so, Vestal writes. Overall, there are "more than 222,000 nurse practitioners and about 109,000 physician assistants in the nation, and many of them offer primary health care in rural parts of the nation where the opioid crisis is most acute."

Rise of wind energy in Iowa creating a divide among rural residents

Iowa has become a national leader in wind power, but not everyone is celebrating the state's success, Donnelle Eller and Kevin Hardy report for The Des Moines Register. Clean energy has led to hundreds of jobs, property tax revenues "and $20 million annually that farmers and rural landowners earn in lease payments for hosting the giant turbines." The state's growing amount of green energy—Iowa leads the nation with 37 percent of its annual electricity portfolio—also has helped attract billions of dollars in capital investment from Facebook, Microsoft and Google data centers.

"But Iowa's growing energy harvest has birthed a new wave of opposition from critics who call wind turbines noisy, over-subsidized eyesores that can be dangerous," reports the Register. "And groups have popped up across Iowa seeking to stop local wind development. Opponents elsewhere have raised familiar arguments against wind farms, from the tax credits they receive to the birds and bats they kill. Landowners have long objected to offshore wind development near pricey coastal real estate."

Concern has grown especially in rural areas, notes the Register. The rural debate "has intensified over wind's merits, drawing comparisons to the hotly contested hog confinements that pockmark Iowa's soybean and corn fields—and foul the air and water, detractors say." (Register graphic: Wind energy in the U.S.)
Some say wind energy can revitalize Iowa's rural towns, which since 1969 have lost more than 171,000 residents. During that same time the state's urban areas gained nearly 500,000 people, reports the Register. Daryl Haack, an Iowa farmer who receives about $20,000 annually in lease payments for two turbines, told the Register, "Rural Iowa needs something to put money and people back into the community."

Others "say they feel betrayed by the actions of neighbors and county officials who they believe have sold out to energy firms by allowing an influx of wind turbines across the landscape," reports the Register. Mason Fleenor, a cattle producer who said he and his wife built their dream home seven years ago in Ida County and planned to retire there, told the Register, "They're just greedy. I'd move if I could."

Farm Foundation Forum on NAFTA's future rescheduled for April 26

The Farm Foundation Forum, "The Future of the North American Free Trade Agreement," has been rescheduled for 9-11 a.m. ET on April 26. It will be held at the National Press Club in Washington. It also will be available via audiocast and archived on the Farm Foundation website.

Panel members will include: Bob Stallman, a Texas farmer and former president of the American Farm Bureau Federation; Melissa San Miguel, senior director of global strategies for the Grocery Manufacturers Association; and Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs with the National Association of Manufacturers.

There is no fee to participate, but registration is requested. Register here if you plan to attend in person; register here for the live audiocast.

Aging population in Maine, the nation's oldest and whitest state, impacting workforce

Washington County,
Maine (Wikipedia map)
Maine, which is the nation's oldest and whitest state and has the largest percentage of rural population, is facing a population crisis, Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR. Maine has one of the nation's lowest birth rates and is seeing young people leave for other states, leading employers to struggle to fill positions. Even those that are able to hire enough workers, face an uncertain future, with many aging workers.

For example, Charles Rudelitch, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council in Washington County, told Wang, "We have a lot people who are at their prime earning years, in their 50s and early 60s, and they're beginning to retire."

One solution could be immigrants, Wang writes. A Pew Research Center study found that "new immigrants will be the main drivers of growth in the U.S. workforce through 2035." Immigrants, mainly Somali and Sudanese refugees, have migrated to Maine's largest cities, but have been slower to relocate to the state's rural areas. Latinos only make up one percent of the state's population, although some towns, like Washington County's Milbridge with six percent of the population Latino, have seen higher numbers.

Not everyone in Maine has been welcoming to immigrants, Wang writes. "About a decade ago, tensions over new immigrants settling in Milbridge spilled over. There was a legal battle over building a small apartment complex for local farmworkers, most of whom are Hispanic, after voters approved a moratorium on multi-family units. The apartments were eventually built."

Annie Sokoloski, an office manager in Steuben, Maine, located in Washington County, "sees newcomers to Milbridge as a welcome addition, especially at job fairs and other recruiting events," Wang reports. "Still, she says she is concerned about the future of Down East Maine's economy." She told him, "It's disheartening. It's going to be more of a retirement-type area. There's nothing to really sustain a long-term growth of a younger generation." Sokoloski said after she retires she'll probably move away.

Rural Mainstreet Index dips in April, remains negative for 20th straight month

The Rural Mainstreet Index in April remained below 50, on a 0-100 scale, for the 20h straight month, indicating economic weakness in the 10-state region that stretches from Illinois to Wyoming and is dependent on agriculture and energy. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss surveys bank CEOs in rural areas of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

The index in April was 44.6, down from 45.3 in March and 45.8 in February, which was the highest since it reached 49 in September 2015. Farmland prices declined for the 41st straight month, "but the percent of cash farmland sales remained steady from 2015," Goss writes. He notes that loan volume soared to a record level as banks rejected fewer loan applications and almost one-third of bankers indicated "no change in lending practices stemming from the downturn in the farm economy." He writes, "for 2017, bank CEOs expect approximate cash expenses to exceed cash revenues for 17.1 percent of grain farmers, down from 19.5 percent in 2016."

Goss said, "Weak farm commodity prices continue to squeeze Rural Mainstreet economies. Over the last 12 months, livestock commodity prices have tumbled by 5.8 percent and grain commodity prices have slumped by 4.5 percent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is estimating 2017 will mark the fourth consecutive year that farm income has declined. This downward trend has pushed our survey results into negative territory,” (Creighton graphic: Rural Mainstreet Index)

National Health Security Preparedness Index ranks states; Vermont most prepared, Alaska least

How prepared is your state for a public health emergency? The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has released the results of its 2017 National Health Security Preparedness Index, which uses more than 130 measures—such as hazard planning in public schools, monitoring food and water safety, wireless 9-1-1 capabilities, flu vaccination rates, and numbers of paramedics and hospitals—from 59 sources to rank states in six categories: health security surveillance; community planning and engagement; incident and information management; health-care delivery; countermeasure management; and environmental and occupational health.

States were ranked on a 10-point scale, with the national average being 6.8, a 1.5 percent increase over last year and 6.3 percent increase since the index was created four years ago. Vermont led the way with a score of 7.8, while Alaska had the worst score, 5.9. Many Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina—were below average, along with Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

Joining Vermont with above average scores were Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. (For an interactive version of the index click here)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Advocates fear 'crisis in rural counties' if Affordable Care Act marketplaces aren't stable in 2018

Click on map to view a larger version of it
Rural areas, which already have fewer options than urban areas under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, could "be hit particularly hard if Congress and the Trump administration don’t send clear signals that they’re committed to helping keep Obamacare’s insurance marketplaces stable next year," Rachel Roubein reports for The Hill Extra. Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said "a 'crisis in rural counties' is possible without more clarity." He told her, “Without any intervention, this is going to be a mess.”

In 2017 about 41 percent of rural counties had only one Obamacare health insurer, Roubein notes. There is fear that "without certainty, insurers could exit marketplaces, leaving rural areas without any carriers," she writes. "Rural hospitals could then be tasked with providing care to a population that could be increasingly uninsured." Cynthia Cox, associate director of Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance, told Roubein, "It really does all come down to that one company's decision about whether to stay or go."

House Republicans are trying to revive their bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, which fell apart last month. "Meanwhile, insurers are readying their rates for plan year 2018 and want to know that they’ll continue to receive payments for providing their consumers with cost-sharing reduction subsidies," Roubein reports. "The White House hasn’t been particularly clear on what it will do, as Trump floated the possibility of ending the payments to force Democrats to the healthcare negotiating table. Health executives met a top Trump health official on Tuesday but came out with no assurances."

Big crowds at national parks in recent years leading to an increase in emergency situations

Big crowds at Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park
(National Park Service photo by Neal Herbert)
National parks in recent years have been overrun with large crowds, leading to an increase in emergency situations, David Erickson reports for the Billings Gazette. A sharp increase last year in visitors to Yellowstone National Park and Montana's Glacier National Park led to an increase in "arrests, car accidents, search and rescue operations, traffic headaches, full parking lots, long lines at overused bathrooms, crowds in scenic overlooks, full campgrounds and a myriad other problems."

Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, said "many park managers are now having to deal with the same emergency situations as cities that have a police force and other city departments to manage the problem," Erickson writes.

Nickerson, who recently published a report on overcrowding at national parks, said Glacier saw a 20 percent increase in visitors last year. Also, visitors were up 23 percent at Crater Lake National Park, 20 percent at Yosemite National Park, 18 percent at Zion National Park and 13 percent at Arches National Park. While two of the most popular national parks, the Grand Canyon National Park and Yellowstone only saw increases of eight and four percent in 2016, that's up from increases of 17 and 16 percent in 2015.

At Yellowstone, search and rescue incidents increased 61 percent in 2015, injuries were up 167 percent, emergency medical responses were up 37 percent and Life Flight evacuations were up 25 percent, Erickson notes. Last year nearly three million people visited Glacier, where it's not uncommon in July and August for some parking lots to be filled up by 11 a.m. and many campgrounds to be fully booked every day during those two months.

TVA says it won't reopen coal-fired power plants, but Trump could change the utility's board soon

Tennessee Valley Authority area
Bill Johnson, CEO of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's biggest public utility, said Tuesday "that the agency isn't going to reopen coal-fired power plants under President Trump," Jonathan Mattise reports for The Associated Press. "TVA has said it's on track to cut its carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. By the end of 2018, the utility will have retired five of its original 11 coal-fired power plants."

TVA says on its website that it provides electricity for nine million customers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Trump has promised to revive the coal industry.

Johnson said cheaper natural gas, not Obama administration regulations, is responsible for the downturn in coal, so retiring coal plants is the cheapest way to serve customers, Mattise reports. "Our statutory duty is to produce electricity at the lowest feasible rate. And when we decided to close the coal plants, that was the math we were doing. We weren't trying to comply with the Clean Power Plan or anything else," Johnson said. "What's the cheapest way to serve the customer? It turned out to be retiring those coal plants."

Mattise reports, "Johnson acknowledged that Trump could try to change the direction of the agency. By May, Trump can fill five of nine TVA board slots to establish a new majority." Those nominees would need to be confirmed by the Senate. Johnson said "TVA hasn't had direct discussions with the administration about the agency's direction or been invited to meet top administration officials yet."

Trump remains silent on expiring benefits for retired coal miners; benefits to expire April 28

David Van Sickle, who has black lung, stands to
lose benefits (NYT photo by Maddie McGarvey)
President Trump has been vocal on his promise to "put our miners back to work" but has remained mum on expiring benefits for retired coal miners, notes Noam Scheiber of The New York Times. One of those miners is David Van Sickle, who at 59 suffers from black-lung disease. Van Sickle, a Trump supporter who heeded doctor's orders to retire two years ago after four decades of mining in Pennsylvania, said of Trump, “He promised to help miners, not just mining companies.”

About 23,000 former United Mine Workers of America miners or their widows will lose their health care and pensions on April 28, unless Congress intervenes through legislation to keep the government funded, Dylan Brown reports for Greenwire. "Health funds for more than 120,000 total retirees face the same threat down the road."

Scheiber reports, "Responsibility for the retirees’ health plans has increasingly shifted to the federal government in recent years, as struggling coal companies have shed their liabilities in bankruptcy court. Congress voted last fall to finance benefits for a large group of retirees for several months, but House and Senate Republican leaders have yet to agree on a longer-term solution."

"The benefits can easily mean the difference between a middle-class retirement and economic hardship, since many retired miners are too young to qualify for Medicare," Scheiber notes. "Others have chronic or debilitating health problems that would require expensive supplemental coverage—currently provided by the retiree plan—even with the Medicare benefit." VanSickle said he "priced out a private insurance plan that would provide roughly comparable benefits for him and his wife, who takes about a dozen separate medications to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The estimates came in at $1,500 to $1,800 per month."

Van Sickle said many retired miners who supported Trump "understood that his promise to revive employment in their industry was a long shot in the face of cheap natural gas," Scheiber reports. "But they believed their wish was a modest one. The price tag for their benefits averages a little under $200 million per year over the next 10 years, which can be partly offset through interest that accrues in a federal fund for reclaiming abandoned mines. Because no new miners would become eligible for the health benefits awarded to this group, the cost would eventually dwindle to zero."

Nebraska farmers look to derail Keystone XL pipeline by arguing it threatens state's farmland

Canadian Press graphic
About 90 Nebraska landowners, most of them farmers and ranchers, are taking a last stand to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from going through the state, Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. That has put the fate of the pipeline in the hands of an obscure state regulatory board, the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

The group fighting the pipeline is "fine-tuning an economic argument it hopes will resonate better in this politically conservative state than the environmental concerns that dominated the successful push to block Keystone under former President Obama," Volcovici writes. Backed by conservation groups, they "plan to cast the project as a threat to prime farming and grazing lands—vital to Nebraska's economy—and a foreign company's attempt to seize American private property. They contend the pipeline will provide mainly temporary jobs that will vanish once construction ends, and limited tax revenues that will decline over time."

They aren't getting much support from government officials, Volcovici reports. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, most of the state’s lawmakers, its labor unions and Chamber of Commerce all support the pipeline.

"TransCanada has route approval in all of the U.S. states the line will cross except Nebraska, where the company says it has been unable to negotiate easements with landowners on about 9 percent of the 300-mile crossing," Volcovici reports. "So the dispute now falls to Nebraska's five-member utility commission, an elected board with independent authority over TransCanada’s proposed route. The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May, along with a week of testimony by pipeline supporters and opponents in August. Members face a deadline set by state law to take a vote by November."

Rising sea levels caused by climate change could displace 13.1 million in U.S. by 2100, says study

Rising sea levels, due to climate change, could lead millions of U.S. residents to migrate away from areas near oceans, says a study by a University of Georgia researcher published in the journal of Nature Climate Change. Mathew Hauer, author of the study and head of the Applied Demography program at the University of Georgia, said even landlocked states "could see could see significant increases in population because of coastal migration by 2100," Tom James reports for Reuters.

In January the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "predicted a 1-to-8-foot (0.3-2.5 meter) increase in sea levels by the year 2100," James writes. "Previous research by Hauer and others has put the number of Americans displaced by rising seas over the same period as high as 13.1 million."

Hauer "found that Nevada's Clark County, home to Las Vegas, is projected to see an influx of up to 117,000 climate migrants by the end of the century, and nearly every county in Wyoming is predicted to see some increase, as are many counties in western Montana, central Colorado and northern Utah," notes James. (Study graphic of estimated net migration by county because of rising sea levels)

At request of oil and gas industry, EPA will review Obama administration methane-emission rules

In response to a petition from oil and gas industry groups, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to "reconsider Clean Air Act regulations that directly limit emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas," Hannah Hess reports for Greenwire. The Texas Oil and Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups "criticized the potential costs of the regulations and called them unnecessary."

"Environmentalists argue that the regulations played a vital role in falling rates of methane emissions during the Obama administration," Hess writes. "EPA actions against methane were a key part of the Obama administration's goal of lowering emissions from the oil and gas industry between 40 and 45 percent by 2025 compared with 2012 levels." The rule was set to go into effect on June 3.

In May 2016, Coral Davenport of The New York Times wrote: "EPA estimates that the rules will cost companies around $530 million in 2025, but it also estimates that they will yield companies savings of as much as $690 million from reduced waste, a potential net benefit of $160 million. The agency said the regulations would lower methane emissions by 510,000 tons in 2025, the equivalent of 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Eliminating Essential Air Service would have a big impact in Michigan, second to Alaska in subsidies

One of the programs that would be eliminated under President Trump's proposed budget is Essential Air Service, "which last year subsidized commercial flights to 173 rural airports at a cost of about $283 million," Melissa Nann Burke reports for The Detroit News. Michigan, which Trump carried in the November election, ranks second behind Alaska in most communities supported by the program. The state would lose federal subsidies that provide service to nine of its most isolated airports. Last year in Michigan subsidies per passenger ranged from $23 to $366.

"Advocates contend that discontinuing the subsidies could harm tourism and business development in northern Michigan, where the nine airports are located, including five in the Upper Peninsula," Burke writes. "The Trump administration says the program wastes taxpayer dollars on mostly empty flights to places that are within driving distance of larger airports. Other critics of the Essential Air Service say fears about cutting off rural communities from the rest of the world are overblown." The end of the program would not mean closure of airports, regional airport directors say, because they have many corporate and general-aviation users.

Congress created the program in the 1970s to ensure air service to small communities would continue. "The program is funded in part by overflight fees—$108 million last year—paid to the federal government by foreign aircraft that fly through U.S. airspace," Burke reports. "The remainder comes from discretionary appropriations by Congress, which set aside $175 million last fiscal year. Lawmakers have since narrowed the program’s scope, but spending has increased more than 132 percent since 2008, adjusting for inflation, in part because of rising fuel costs, according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service."

The service is especially important in states like Alaska, where in some cases there are no roads "to connect people to a larger hub where they can get medical care, prescriptions and groceries, air travel is a part of everyday life," Annie Zak reports for Alaska Dispatch News. The Alaska Department of Transportation said about 82 percent of the state's communities are not connected to the road system. John Binder, deputy state transportation commissioner for aviation, told Zak that a total of 230 Alaska communities are eligible for the program, though not all participate.

Alaska gets about $21 million in federal subsidies from the program, Burke writes. "Without the Essential Air Service program, carriers speculate that ticket prices might go up and service frequency might go down, if regular flight service remains in such remote hamlets at all."

Horses allow Border Patrol agents to cover areas vehicles are unable to traverse

Horse border patrols in La Grulla, Texas
 (New York Times photo by Todd Heisler)
Along the U.S.-Mexico border in South Texas, where the terrain consists of "shallow riverbanks and craggy trails that are impassable for vehicles," the Border Patrol has been using former wild horses to patrol the border, Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times.

The Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector Horse Unit, formed in 2011, has about 40 horses "obtained from a wild mustang program run by the federal Bureau of Land Management," Nixon writes. "The agency catches horses and turns them over for basic training to inmates at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas."

Inmates at Hutchinson have been training horses since 2001, says the Kansas Department of Corrections. The facility has the ability to house up to 499 horses. "Through a cooperative agreement with the BLM, a dozen minimum-custody inmates care and train the wild horses with the goal of making them suitable for adoption. The program also provides inmate work opportunities that help inmates reintegrate back into the community." Each May, the prison holds a horse auction, with sales going to continue the program’s funding. Horses not adopted are transferred to long-term holding locations.

Nixon notes, "Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. has spent over $100 billion on various border-security technology, including ground sensors, video cameras, walls, layers of fencing and infrared cameras. But in the thicket along the river where smugglers can easily hide, the horse patrol unit plays an essential role in efforts to detect illegal activity." The number of illegal immigrants caught in South Texas has dropped in the past few months from 600 per day to 100, largely because of aggressive enforcement under President Trump and improving conditions in countries people are fleeing.

Fast-food chains are phasing out antibiotics in chickens, but are slow to do so in beef and pork

It's more difficult to ensure that cattle and swine are
raised without antibiotics (Tribune photo: Antonio Perez)
While major fast-food chains such as McDonald's have promised to phase out using chickens that are fed antibiotics, they have been much slower to do likewise with cows and pigs, Samantha Bomkamp reports for the Chicago Tribune. McDonald's, the world's largest burger chain, told Bomkamp it's more difficult to phase out antibiotics in beef and pork, "because it doesn't purchase the entire cow or pig as it does with chickens." The company said that limits its "ability to directly influence change."

McDonald's said it's difficult to monitor cows and pigs, because they often move from farm to farm, leading to a "lack of traceability," Bomkamp writes. Also, McDonald's "buys beef from thousands of ranches, each with an average of just 50 cows," while there are only two main U.S. suppliers of chicken. McDonald's said that with chickens, it "has a clear line of sight from farm to table."

McDonald's also claimed "it could see meat shortages if it moves too quickly to antibiotic-free pork and beef," Bomkamp reports. "While chicken are slaughtered in just weeks, cattle can be two years old when they go to market, leaving far more time in which an animal can get sick. That raises the likelihood that a farmer would need to use antibiotics, even if they weren't using them routinely in the animal's feed as is commonplace in many industrial farms."

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "more than 70 percent of antibiotics important to human medicine in the U.S. are sold for livestock use," Bomkamp writes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization "have said the overuse of antibiotics has led to a global health crisis because the more people are exposed to them, the less effective they are."

Texas lawmakers want more research conducted before pesticides used in 'hog apocalypse'

Feral hogs (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
The "hog apocalypse" in Texas is under attack. The state House on Tuesday voted 127-12 to approve legislation "that would require state agency or university research before the use of lethal pesticides on wild pigs," Morgan Smith reports for The Texas Tribune. "A companion bill in the Senate has 10 co-sponsors." Under the House bill, "before approving a feral hog poison for use, the state would have to conduct a study on its potential negative impact on other wildlife."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in February "announced an emergency state rule change allowing the use of the warfarin-based poison Kaput, which was recently approved by the Environmental Protection Agency to kill wild pigs," Smith writes. The state's feral hogs, which are blamed for eating newborn lambs, uprooting crops and trampling parks and highways, are estimated to cause $50 million in damage per year.

When pigs eat the pesticide, "it kills them slowly, often painfully and turns their innards blue. It’s already wiped out swine herds in Australia, which later banned the product as inhumane," Avi Selk reported in March for The Washington Post.

Coal company says it wants to turn E. Ky. strip mine site into Appalachia's largest solar farm

Berkeley Energy Group photo of mine site
An Eastern Kentucky coal company on Tuesday said it wants to build Appalachia's largest solar farm on a reclaimed mountaintop strip mine in far Eastern Kentucky.

The Berkeley Energy Group said the project, which is still in the early stages, would be the first large-scale solar project in Appalachia. It didn't say how much the project would cost; former state auditor Adam Edelen, who is involved, told The Rural Blog that it would require "tens of millions in capital investments and will be largely determined by the size of the project," which is still under evaluation. The key funding partner is EDF Renewable Energy, a major company.

Eastern Kentucky doesn't get as much sunlight as much of the nation, and has not been considered a hot spot for solar development. However, it gets as much as Germany, which is "the solar leader," Edelen said. One key to the project, he said, will be its access to eastern energy markets through PJM Interconnection, the regional electric-transmission organization that reaches as far as Newark and Norfolk. "Without PJM it would be much more difficult," Edelen said.

Ryan Johns, BEG project development executive, told James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal, "We are not looking at this as trying to replace coal, but we have already extracted the coal from this area." Edelen said the site is about 10 miles east of Pikeville, near Bent Mountain.

Declining wolf populations lead to explosion of moose on Isle Royale, posing possible problems

National Park Service map
The declining wolf population in Isle Royale National Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula has led to a population explosion of moose, which could hurt the region's vegetation and cause starvation among moose, says a study by scientists at Michigan Technological University. Wolves are the island's top predator.

During their annual study, scientists counted only two wolves and 1,600 moose, Stefanie Sidortsova reports for Michigan Tech News. John Vucetich, a professor of ecology at Michigan Tech and co-author of the study, said a lack of wolves could lead the moose population to double over the next three to four years. He said more moose means more vegetation is eaten, which would deplete food supplies.

Scientists also fear that without predators cutting their numbers, moose are overeating the park's balsam fir trees, John Flesher reports for The Associated Press. Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech, said "balsam fir is the predominant tree of Isle Royale and has long characterized its landscape." He told AP, "It's a race between the slowly growing trees and the rapidly growing moose."

Wolf numbers have plummeted since 2009, from 24 to 2, Sidortsova writes. The decline is largely blamed on inbreeding. The two remaining wolves, which are believed to be father and daughter, have mated before, but are not expected to reproduce again. The National Park Service in 2016 published a proposal that includes reintroducing 20 to 30 wolves in the next three to five years. A final decision is expected in the fall.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Immigrant farmers stand to lose loans and funds for training, under budget proposed by Trump

Yakima County, Washington (Wikipedia map)
President Trump's proposed budget cuts would hurt agriculture communities that rely on immigrants, like Yakima County, Washington, where Hispanics or Latinos make up 48.3 percent of the population, compared to 44.3 percent of whites, Bryce Oates reports for the Daily Yonder. In 1990, only 23.9 percent of Yakima County's population was Latino or Hispanic.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census, in 2012, Yakima County "produced $1.65 billion of agricultural products," Oates writes. Yakima County leads the nation in in apple acreage, revenue from hops production and sweet cherry production, and is seventh in revenue from milk production and 15th in wine grape acreage.

Yakima County's Center for Latino Farmers, which only serves U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, provides resources and training for local farmers, Oates reports. It's part of Rural Community Development Resources and "is highly dependent upon federal grants and partnerships to serve the non-farming population." The center is a certified Department of Treasury Community Development Financial Institution and its staff and technical assistance resources are supported by the Economic Development Administration. A portion of the loan funding they provide to entrepreneurs comes from the Small Business Administration. Oates notes that all of these federal programs have been slated to be cut or eliminated by Trump.

Maria Giedra, outreach specialist for the center, told Oates, "The people we assist are looking for capital, loans for land and also for operating capital. We help them find loans from the Farm Services Agency, help them understand what program is best for them." The center also "serves farmers with education, technical assistance, and support for enrolling in USDA programs. They hold meetings and training on crop production, record-keeping, post-harvest handling of farm outputs, and regulations that affect their farms."

Dental therapists in Minnesota leading to increased care in rural and underserved areas

Kassie Scott works as a dental therapist in
Minnesota (Times photo by Dave Schwarz)
Minnesota's goal to increase dental care to rural and underserved areas is beginning to pay off, but still lacks enough qualified workers, Stephanie Dickrell reports for the St. Cloud Times. In 2009 the Minnesota Legislature authorized the licensing of dental therapists "to expand access to dental care to more state residents, especially those with low incomes or who live in rural areas where dentists may be rare." Minnesota "has some of the lowest reimbursement rates for pediatric dental care services in the nation. As a result, dentists say they can't afford to treat any or many Medical Assistance patients."

The first class of dental therapists, who "perform routine dental work, including fillings, while the dentist concentrates on more complicated cases," graduated in 2011, Dickrell reports. "A 2016 study by the University of Minnesota found that dental therapists saw up to 90 percent of uninsured patients or patients on public assistance."

Having dental therapists is also leading to shorter waiting times for appointments, Dickrell writes. A study in 2014 by the Minnesota Department of Health, "showed that almost one-third of all patients saw a reduction in wait times to get an appointment, especially in rural areas. Time with a provider increased by 10 minutes."

Using dental therapists is also saving money, Dickrell reports. Sarah Wovcha, executive director of Children's Dental Service, a nonprofit clinic that treats low-income, uninsured and diverse kids and pregnant women, said "while a dentist might make an average of $75 an hour for a filling, a dental therapist would make half that for the same work." Wovcha said that leads to weekly savings of $1,200 and annual savings of $62,400, "or the cost of another full-time dental therapist."

One problem is that Minnesota only has two programs to train dental therapists, producing about 20 graduates per year, Dickrell writes. The health department said there are currently about 70 licensed dental therapists in Minnesota, which accounts for only 1 percent of the state's dental workforce.

Trump plan to renegotiate NAFTA threatens dairy trade war

Dairy cows in Sheboygan, Wis. (Post photo by Darren Hauck)
President Trump’s promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico is leading to a dairy war that is hurting U.S. farmers, Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post. The dispute has already affected 75 family farms and caused more than $150 million in losses.

NAFTA "contains terms governing dozens of different dairy products alone," Dewey writes. "Reworking many of these, experts say, will involve not just complex technical discussions but a fight between powerful political interests on both sides of the border. And in almost every case, on the line will be the livelihoods of the people who grow or make the products, each with a compelling case for why their side should prevail."

"Trade agreements between the U.S. and Canada govern what kinds of tariffs the countries can impose on each other’s goods," Dewey writes. "While NAFTA eliminated many tariffs between the countries, some large tariffs on dairy remained. But ultrafiltered milk hit the market after NAFTA’s 1994 enactment. As a result, it could enter Canada without facing big tariffs. Ontario farmers, frustrated with the arrangement, last April dramatically cut the prices on Canadian ultrafiltered milk. Other provinces plan to follow suit, posing a dire threat to U.S. farms.

"American agricultural interests have decried Canada’s actions as deeply unfair," Dewey writes. "The Canadian dairy industry disputes these allegations, arguing that U.S. milk producers have built far too much capacity in recent years and face such an oversupply of milk that they have to cut back."

A bipartisan alliance of policymakers, "have called on the Canadian government to intervene in its dairy industry," Dewey notes. "Industry groups, meanwhile, have called on the Trump administration to intervene directly. On Thursday, several powerful dairy trade associations sent a joint letter to Trump, asking that he push Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the issue and direct U.S. agencies to 'impress upon Canada in a concrete way the importance of dependable U.S. trade.' The letter called on Trump to escalate the issue to the World Trade Organization if Canada doesn’t respond positively." Trump so far hasn't responded.

"The industry is also concerned the dispute could spill into other products," Dewey writes. "The Ontario price drop applied not only to ultrafiltered milk but also to skim milk powder, which could eventually result in Canadians selling more of the ingredient on global markets. That could depress prices for American farmers, and ultimately hurt them even more than the lost trade in ultrafiltered milk. Without renewed access to the Canadian market, U.S. dairy farmers find themselves in a deeply precarious situation. They are scrambling to find new processors to buy their milk, but finding few takers because of the overall glut."

Ride sharing start-up filling transportation needs in rural areas

Van Wert County, Ohio (Wikipedia map)
A start-up is bringing ride-sharing to rural areas, M.L. Schultz reports for NPR. Erica Petrie, mobility manager for a seven county region of Area Agency on Aging in western Ohio, is responsible for finding transportation options in towns like Van Wert, which has no buses and only one taxi. So Petrie helped recruit drivers for Liberty Mobility Now, a start-up that began two years ago in Nebraska and has since expanded to Ohio and Texas, with plans for Colorado.

Vickie Smith, executive director of the Van Wert County United Way, said transportation assistance was the county's top unmet need in 2015, Kate O'Connell reports for The Van Wert Independent. Liberty Mobility Now is filling that need, providing rides for $1 per mile, plus a booking fee. The service, which began in February, takes riders anywhere for reason—"medical appointments, employment, shopping excursions, or a safe ride home after a night out."

Liberty in Van Wert County has hired 13 drivers, who work as independent contractors and use their own vehicles, and has plans to hire a fleet of 20 drivers "to ensure access to riders throughout a 24-hour cycle," O'Connell writes. "Drivers work whenever they want and find passengers through the Liberty Mobility app, available through the Apple Store and Google Play." A call center will soon be opening in Nebraska, for people who don’t have the technology to use the app. "Liberty is also developing an online portal for agencies to schedule rides for clients up to one month in advance."

California wildflowers are so bright they can be seen from space

After struggling for years through a drought, recent rain in Southern California has caused wildflowers to bloom so amazingly bright that they can be seen from space, Angela Fritz reports for The Washington Post. Photos were captured by Planet Labs, an American Earth imaging private company based in San Francisco. (California Poppy Reserve)
"The California poppy is native to California and Mexico. It’s actually considered a weed by some people, because they can be overwhelming in good (read: rainy) weather. It’s small and it grows fairly close to the ground. Its stems grow to about 12 inches and the flower itself is no more than 2 to 3 inches across when it’s fully open," Fritz writes. "It’s a particularly fun flower to watch throughout the day because it won’t open until the sun hits it. It looks like they wake up in sunny weather and sleep through the foggy days. At dusk, they curl up for the night (Carrizo Plain National Monument)
The Carrizo Plain National Monument "is booming with lupine, poppies, fiddleneck and baby blue eyes," Fritz writes. "People in the know say that if you want to see the flowers at Carrizo, you should go now. If the weather turns hot and dry, the blossoms will fade quickly.the sun hits it. Similar scenes are occurring in Los Padres National Forest and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge(Carrizo Plain National Monument: Getty images by Robyn Beck)

Weekly editor finds surprise wedding proposal in full-page ad; she said 'yes'

What's the most romantic way to propose to a community newspaper editor? Through a full-page newspaper advertisement that is sure to catch her attention, of course. That's what Alex Butler did when he proposed last month to his girlfriend Abigail Whitehouse, editor of The Interior Journal in Stanford, Ky.

Fearing Whitehouse would see the advertisement too soon, he placed the ad in the paper's sister paper, The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.

Because Whitehouse also had access to PDFs of that paper, some trickery was required. Advocate-Messenger Executive Editor Ben Kleppinger told The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, of which Whitehouse is a member, “We worked with the press staff at The Winchester Sun (Winchester, Ky.) to pull off a page swap. Our sports editor, Jeremy Schneider, sent the C8 proposal page as the very last one on Friday night."

ISWNE reports, "As soon as he confirmed with the press that they had the plate with the proposal ad, he deleted the real C8 out of the system and uploaded a fake C8 that was just a full-page house ad. At that point, any nosy editors inside the system would only see a house ad and think nothing more of it. Whitehouse told ISWNE, “Once I had confirmation Saturday that Abigail had seen the ad in the paper, I replaced the fake C8 with the real one again, so that our E-edition would have the correct page.”

Oh, and by the way, Whitehouse accepted the proposal. The happy couple has yet to set a date. More on Whitehouse and her contributions to community newspapers can be found here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lack of rural birthing units, long drives, putting pregnant women, babies at risk

The hospital in Grand Marais closed
its birthing unit. (Best Places map)
Closures of rural hospitals with birthing units is putting pregnant women and babies at risk, Casey Ross reports for Stat, the national health-and-science website of The Boston Globe. A study by the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center found that from 2000-2014 "financial pressures, insurance problems, and doctor shortages forced more than 200 hospitals to close their birthing units."

"That’s left millions of women of reproductive age facing longer drives to deliver babies—who sometimes arrive en route," Ross writes. "The long drives, understandably, increase anxiety. They also make mothers and babies less safe; studies show these distances bring with them increased rates of complications and infant deaths, as well as longer stays in neonatal intensive care units."

A 2011 study in rural British Columbia of 50,000 births "found that infant mortality rates increased by as much as three times for women who had to travel several hours to get to the hospital," Ross reports. "It also found that more travel was associated with longer stays in intensive care units and that unplanned, out-of-hospital deliveries were highest for mothers located one to two hours from the hospital."

In Texas, for example, "just 70 of the state’s 162 rural hospitals still deliver babies," Ross writes. "More than two-thirds of rural counties in Florida, Nevada, and South Dakota do not have obstetric services. Sixteen percent of Minnesota’s rural counties lost those services in just the past decade."

Some rural hospitals lack the same updated technology as urban hospitals farther away, Ross reports. For instance, Cook County North Shore Hospital in Grand Marais, Minn.—population 1,350—has 53 beds and an emergency room, but it's delivery unit wasn’t high-tech, it didn’t have the staff to offer epidurals for pain relief, or an operating room to provide C-sections, leading many patients to travel farther away to Duluth. As a result, North Shore Hospital, which only delivered 10 of the roughly 45 babies born in the county each year, closed its birthing unit in 2015.

North Shore's "biggest issue was that it could not provide its patients with a C-section within 30 minutes, a guideline established by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists," Ross writes. An administrator told Ross meeting the guideline "would have required the hospital to build an operating room, hire both a surgeon and an anesthesiologist and provide new equipment and training for nurses. Operating expenses alone would top $1 million a year," which wasn't feasible "for a hospital that was already barely breaking even, with an annual budget of about $14.4 million."

Fentanyl deaths up 175% in Virginia; state had one of nation's lowest opioid death rates in 2015

A report from Virginia's medical examiner found that deaths in the state attributed to synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription fentanyl increased 38 percent from 2015 to 2016, with fentanyl deaths up 175 percent, Patricia Sullivan reports for The Washington Post. The total reported drug overdose deaths in Virginia in 2016 were 1,420, but health officials say that number is most likely low, "because the cause of death has not yet been certified for 60 cases." (Post graphic: Fatal fentanyl and/or heroin overdoses in Virginia)
State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine, who in November classified opioid addiction as an epidemic and declared a public health emergency, said she expects the problem to only get worse, Sullivan writes. Levine told her, “I don’t know when we’ll see a peak in deaths. It’s not just heroin causing people to die. It’s fentanyl and synthetic fentanyl with different potencies. We’re now seeing carfentanil (a drug 100 times more potent than fentanyl, used to tranquilize elephants). Someone who’s getting heroin laced with carfentanil could die easily.”

About 700 people died in Virginia from drug overdoses, mostly prescription opioids, from 2007-2010, Sullivan writes. That number jumped to 800 in 2011, then after the arrival of fentanyl, 1,028 in 2015. Nationwide, more than 28,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2014. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said heroin deaths have tripled since 2010, with 10,500 deaths in 2014. Rural areas nationwide have been hit especially hard by opioids. 

Deaths from synthetic opioids other than methadone—such as fentanyl and tramadol—increased from eight percent to 18 percent in 2015, says a study from February by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To show how bad the epidemic has gotten in the U.S., despite the high numbers in Virginia from the state medical examiner, in 2015 Virginia had the 12th lowest age-adjusted drug-overdose death rate at 12.4 per 100,000 people. West Virginia led the nation in 2015, with a rate of 41.5.

Farmers' expectations 'have blown the roof off,' says economist who created Ag Confidence Index

While farmers are concerned about current conditions, optimism about the future is sky high, according to DTN/The Progressive Farmer's Agricultural Confidence Index. The survey, which tracks farmer opinions of their current and future conditions, had an overall score of 130 in March, "a significant improvement from the mostly neutral 98 for the December 2016 survey and a complete flip from the pessimistic 75 score produced in spring 2016," Greg Horstmeier reports for DTN.

"Since 2010, DTN has surveyed farmers three times a year to determine their opinions about their current economic situation and about that situation in the year to come," Horstmeier writes. "Those answers create a score for farmers' 'current condition,' how they feel about their businesses at the time of the survey, and a score for their 'future expectations' for the coming year. Those two scores are combined to create the Ag Confidence Index."

When asked about current conditions, the score was 70, "pessimistic, but much higher than the 42 farmers gave conditions back in December," Horstmeier writes. But when asked about the future, the number jumped to 163.6, up from 126.6 in December and 71.7 a year ago.

Robert Hill, economist and researcher who helped create the index, said the high numbers could be attributed to news headlines around the time of the survey, Horstmeier writes. That includes President Trump signing an executive order to rollback the waters of the U.S. rule, "a regulatory refinement of the Clean Water Act, potentially called for heavier regulation of pesticide applications." Also, that same week, House Republicans unveiled their bill to replace the Obama administration's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Hill told Horstmeier, "Expectations have blown the roof off, more than doubling the index scores of 12 months back. This completely overwhelms the negative movement in present situation to yield a highly positive overall confidence index."

Iowa twice-weekly that won Pulitzer Prize has since generated $4,000 in new subscriptions

Art Cullen being interviewed
by KCCI-TV of Des Moines
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing has put a small Iowa newspaper in the national spotlight and is drawing a huge response in the fight for open government by the paper and its allies, Erik Wemple reports for The Washington Post.

The Storm Lake Times, a 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly, won the Pulitzer for a series of columns written by co-owner Art Cullen about the battle between Des Moines Water Works and the rural northwest Iowa counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to pay for cleaning up nitrate runoff from farms to the Raccoon River, part of the watershed that provides drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents served by the utility. Storm Lake is in Buena Vista County.

The Times also dug into who was paying the counties' legal bills to defend the water works' now-dismissed lawsuit, finding that the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation was a secret donor for the counties' legal bills. That discovery helped lead to the "dark money" contributors bailing out.

Cullen, who said part of the $15,000 prize will go to charities and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the Times has generated $4,000 in new subscriptions since winning the award, Wemple writes. Cullen told him that it's “almost all online and with little interest in Storm Lake, just people wanting to contribute to the cause."

Podcast follows the struggles of six Central Appalachian residents to stay in the coal region

Colt Brogan, 19, wants to stay in West Virginia, if he
can find a decent job (WVPB photo by Roxy Todd)
West Virginia Public Broadcasting has launched a podcast, "The Struggle to Stay," that follows six Appalachian residents for a period of six to 12 months, "as they decide if they will stay or leave home — and how they survive either way," WVPB reports. The subjects, from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, range in age from 19 to 38, and include an aspiring farmer, a disabled veteran working to be a comedian and artist, a single mother, a young man who recently returned to his coal-mining community, an aspiring actress and a laid-off miner.

The first story focuses on Colt Brogan, a 19-year-old resident in Lincoln County. "In high school, Colt planned on joining the Army, or maybe working for a construction company, anything except working to avoid working in the coal mines," Roxy Todd writes. "When he was in high school, he saw many miners lose their jobs- including his stepfather. Despite the economic challenges, he wants to stay in West Virginia to be close to his family, especially his 7-year-old brother, River. It’s been a struggle for Colt to find a way to stay in West Virginia."

Brogan says drugs have ravaged the county and his mother has struggled with addiction, Todd writes. What's keeping him in Lincoln County is a "training program that’s teaching him agriculture and helping him go to college. But will farming pay the bills after his two years in the program are up? And in the meantime, how is he going to juggle a full-time job, school, and the stress of his turbulent relationship with his mother? Because things do change between them over the next year. Well, kind of."

Urban investors buying up farmland in the hopes of getting long-term returns

Soybeans on LandFund Partners' property. The Nashville
firm manages 25,000 acres worth more than $100 million.
Investors are increasingly turning to farmland to generate profits, Getahn Ward reports for The Tennessean. "Investing in farmland is seeing growth as a vehicle for taking advantage of the long-term need to feed a growing world population. More wealthy individuals, pension funds and other institutions also see that emerging asset class as a way to reduce risk in their portfolios."

Farmland, a safe bet for investors, "is a $2.4 trillion sector in the U.S., which is the world's leading agricultural exporting country," Ward writes. "Generally, as the price of goods produced using agricultural commodities rises, the value of farmland also increases. And with the average age of U.S. farmers around 58 and less than one percent of the nation's farmland owned by institutional investors, companies see a lot of opportunity to expand their portfolios."

Since 1970 "farmland produced an average return of 10.27 percent, which according to the TIAA | Center for Farmland Research at the University of Illinois, reflects cash rent plus capital gains less property taxes," Ward notes. "Comparatively, the S&P 500 returned 6.79 percent during that period, while the NASDAQ gained 9.63 percent."

Todd Kuethe, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, "cautioned that investing in farmland isn't for everyone," Ward reports. "That's in part because farmland is expensive to buy and sell in transactions that require a large amount of time to identify a buyer and complete a sale." Kuethe told Ward, "There's an old joke: 'It's a get rich slowly investment.' It's a way of managing wealth across a couple of generations."

While land prices have dipped in recent years along with the global downturn in commodity prices, "Kuethe still sees a positive long-term outlook for land prices and growth for investing in farmland,'" Ward writes. He said, "By 2050, we will have nine billion people on the planet. Globally, we'll have to almost double our food producing capability. As people get wealthier, they get more of their calories from protein, which means more feed is required for livestock and also means that more crops has to be grown."