Friday, May 05, 2017

Biggest obstacle for Appalachian coal industry is that it requires more workers to produce less coal

One of the biggest challenges for President Trump to fulfill his promise to revive the coal industry is that surface coal mines in Appalachian are unable to produce the amount of coal as strip mines located mainly out West, Tim Meko and Bonnie Berkowitz report for The Washington Post. The average miner at a Wyoming strip mine can produce 28 tons of coal per hour, compared to about three tons per hour at a surface mine in West Virginia.

It also takes more workers to produce less coal at a surface mine, which means that Appalachian mines employ more people than Powder River Basin ones, but produce far less coal, notes the Post. Most of the work at strip mines is done with a mobile dragline excavator, which can be operated by three people, and a truck, only requires one person. Underground mines require more workers, working at a slower pace. (Post graphic)
Coal still accounts for 30 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S, reports the Post. "The problem for Appalachia is that when the market is squeezed, its mines often can’t produce as much as the vast strip mines out west, where coal is easier to access and the machines that harvest it can be as big as engineers can build." Jürgen Brune, professor of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, told the Post, "It’s an economy of scale. Smaller spaces require smaller equipment and that reduces the productivity and the amount of coal you can get with the same number of miners.”

Nearly half—45 percent—of coal produced in the U.S. came from 16 Powder River Basin mines in Wyoming and Montana, notes the Post. Brune said "the coal seam there is thicker than 70 feet in places, far larger than the seam running through Appalachia, which tops out at around 13 feet. The coal is less than 200 feet below mostly flat land, an ideal scenario for strip mining."

Competition from natural gas responsible for 49% of coal's decline, says Columbia University study

Herald-Leader graphics
Obama administration regulations are not solely to blame for coal's decline, says a study by Columbia University researchers. Researchers found that "competition from cheap natural gas is responsible for 49 percent of the decline in domestic U.S. coal consumption." They also say "changes in the global coal market have played a far greater role in the collapse of the U.S. coal industry than is generally understood," largely because of a slow down in demand from China, but also because "more than half of the decline in U.S. coal company revenue between 2011 and 2015 was due to international factors."

Researchers also said "lower demand for electricity and growing use of renewable energy such as solar power also took a bite out of coal’s market share," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Tougher federal environmental regulations also played a role in coal’s decline, but those rules were a significantly smaller factor than reductions in the cost of natural gas and renewable energy, the report said. That finding counters arguments that a regulatory 'war on coal' was the main reason for the industry’s problems."

Researchers said the best the coal industry can hope for is "a modest recovery to 2013 levels of just under 1 billion tons a year." They note, "under the worst case scenario, output falls to 600 million tons a year. A plausible range of U.S. coal mining employment in these scenarios ranges from 70,000 to 90,000 in 2020, and 64,000 to 94,000 in 2025 and 2030, lower than anything the U.S. experienced before 2015."

The study said in 2011 U.S. coal exports surpassed 100 million tons—up from 40 million in 2002—and employment was 133,000, Estep notes. From 2011 and 2016, domestic demand and exports slumped and employment plunged to 70,000.

Rural Kansas town devastated by 2007 tornado has come together as a community to survive

Greensburg, Kan. (Best Places map)
Ten years after an EF-5 tornado turned homes in rural Greensburg, Kan. to dust, killing 13 people in the area, the town and region has managed to survive, largely by coming together as a community, Roy Wenzl reports for The Wichita Eagle. The town, which had between 1,400 to 1,500 residents at the time of the tornado, which struck May 4, 2007, now has between 800 to 900.

After the tornado, the town no longer had "a grade school, a high school, a City Hall, a hospital, a water tower, a fire station, a business district or a main street," Wenzl notes, referring to an Eagle story from 2007. "We also could have said there were no longer dentists, doctor’s offices, eye doctors, car repair shops and all other things a small town needs to keep from dying. Greensburg could easily have become only a memory and not a town."

Darin Headrick, who was superintendent of schools at the time of the tornado, told Wenzl, “The tornado opened all our eyes. People were living scattered everywhere; no one was living in Greensburg anymore. We’d all lost everything, but what we all found that we missed the most were friendships, neighborhoods, the daily interactions. We realized we’d lost relationships." Headrick said one of the keys to rebuilding was to ensure that the town had schools rebuilt inside city limits by the time the fall semester began on Aug. 15.

Marvin Lawson in what used to be his home
in Greensburg, Kan. in May 2007 (Eagle photo)
To do that, Headrick and Greensburg High School principal Randy Fulton "built relationships—with displaced students, with parents," Wenzl writes. Headrick told Wenzl, “We got back 96 percent of the high school students, 50 percent of the grade school kids.” Headrick said they didn’t just replace the school, "they built with future school consolidation in mind, hoping to attract children from neighboring towns such as Haviland and Mullinville."

Headrick "forged new relationships with people from Mullinville and Haviland. People from those towns had raced to help Greensburg, he said. Now he tried to help them. That laid the groundwork for when school consolidation happened after the tornado. But he knew Greensburg needed to give up something to get cooperation. So that meant telling Greensburg residents they had to give up some of their decades-long identity."

That meant giving up school colors and mascots to make sure students from other schools weren't being forced to accept the Greensburg High School identity, Wenzl writes. So Greensburg High School became Kiowa County High School, the Greensburg Rangers were now the Kiowa County Mavericks and the colors went from red and blue to burnt-orange and white.

Master's student from Eastern Kentucky focused research on Appalachian stereotypes

Chelsea Adams with a poster of her research (UK photo)
Chelsea Adams, an Appalachian native from Lee County, Kentucky, where only 6 percent of the population has a college degree and nearly a third live in poverty, titled her master's thesis, “I Wonder What You Think of Me: Stereotype Awareness in the Appalachian Student," Amanda Nelson reports for University of Kentucky News. Adams, who earned her undergraduate degree from UK, will celebrate receiving her master's degree at this weekend's graduation.

Adams told Nelson, “My goal was to understand students’ perceptions of stereotypes and whether they think of themselves as others think of them." It was a personal subject for Adams, who grew up in a rural Eastern Kentucky town, before leaving home to attend college in urban Lexington. She told Nelson, “When I would go home, people would say ‘you’ve lost your accent,’ or ‘you think you’re big and bad now that you live in Lexington,’ and then I would return to Lexington and feel like people were thinking badly of me because I still had that country accent."

Nelson writes, "Adams recalls going back to her freshman dorm room and crying after a multicultural psychology class one day. It was dawning on her just how much her limited experience of being around people from different backgrounds influenced how she viewed others. After all, she didn’t want to be stigmatized for being from Appalachia. But was that fair, she wondered? She too was learning about her own stereotypes about people from other cultures."

Lee County, Kentucky (Wikipedia map)
Adams joined Ellen Usher, a UK researcher, as part of her research team in her Motivation and Learning Lab that "looks at what motivates students to do well in school," Nelson writes. That led to the formation of a 20-member research team that began "looking at academic motivation in rural Appalachian students and teachers for the past four years."

"For several years, Usher’s team traveled east to conduct surveys and interviews among elementary, middle, and high school students," Nelson writes. "One question asked students to describe what they think people from their community expect them to do after high school." Adams told Nelson, “For those who were struggling academically, they assumed people expect them to possibly get a job after high school. But they also contended people expected them to be a bum, to draw a check. If students are hearing no encouragement and assuming there are low expectations for them from all angles in their lives, then there’s no wonder there’s such an education gap between rural Appalachian students and those in other settings."

Most states lack oil and gas pipeline regulations to cover instances like fatal Colorado explosion

A home explosion in Firestone, Colo. April 17 killed two
and sent two people to the hospital. (Denver Post photo)
"Most states don't have regulations covering the pipelines that carry methane and other fluids around oil and gas well sites that were blamed this week for a fatal explosion in a Colorado neighborhood," Mike Soraghan and Mike Lee report for Energywire. "Colorado is one of the few states with rules for 'flow lines'—the low-pressure pipes that run to collection points and tank batteries. Under a program started in 2015, well owners must pressure-test the flow lines every year, and the state audits a portion of all the tests."

The Colorado explosion "focused attention on a key gap in Colorado's rules—regulators didn't have good information on where most flow lines are located, even in areas with intense home development," reports Energywire. "After the explosion, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered oil companies to recheck lines near homes and buildings, and provide an inventory of their locations."

"Flow lines are more common with conventional oil and gas development, in which vertical wells are scattered across vast acreage. In modern shale development, horizontal well bores spread out underground," reports Energywire. "But wellheads are concentrated in one area at the surface, so there's less need for long flow lines."

California has pressure-testing rules, but Soraghan and Lee note that most states have far less stringent rules than Colorado on flow lines. Pennsylvania has pressure-testing rules "for 'well development pipelines' that carry frack water to sites," but "the rules for gathering pipelines that carry gas are primarily related to how the trenches can be dug and backfilled."

"In Oklahoma, where there's an oil well on the Statehouse lawn, a state law prohibits regulations that are stricter than federal rules. So the state is prohibited from overseeing most small pipelines, including gathering lines and flow lines," reports Energywire. "A spokeswoman for Texas regulators said the state doesn't impose construction or testing rules on lines that run from a wellhead to the first point of measurement, or on small, low-pressure lines in rural areas. North Dakota and Wyoming have rules on flow lines, but they kick in only when the well is being closed down for good."

AP offers tips for journalists on how to fight the spread of fake news

The Associated Press has created a list of tips on how to fight fake news, which AP defines as "stories that contain misinformation that is designed to mislead people, stories containing some truth and some falsehoods, and stories that contain information that is not false, but may be misleading," Eric Carvin reports for AP.

AP says journalists should build stories around facts, be clear about where conclusions came from and "come up with ways to let the public come to you with questions about suspicious content online—then provide detailed answers, and thank them for being part of the process," Carver writes.

Refrain from being insulting. Carvin writes. "No matter how preposterous a false story may seem to you, don’t talk down to the people who shared it or believed it. When possible, even acknowledge why someone may have found something believable. Then let facts rule the day."

Another tip is to stray from the norm, such as experimenting with video or different text forms "that connect people with information quickly" and will keep an audience on its toes, Carvin writes.

Fact-checking also is key, Carvin writes. "Don’t just focus on fake news debunks, or on distinct fact-checking items. Whenever you produce anything that shares information from a newsmaker, fact-check what they say immediately, and include what you find out right there in your reporting. If someone says something particularly egregious, don’t even get to the end of the sentence without bringing in a reality check."

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Smithsonian magazine names 20 best small towns to visit in 2017

Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., pop. 293
While trying to decide where to take a vacation this year, you might consider traveling to an interesting or scenic rural town, perhaps one that Smithsonian magazine included in its sixth annual list of America's Best Small Towns.

"We once again consulted geographical information company Esri to identify tiny towns chock full of local culture, history and natural beauty," Jackie Mansky reports for Smithsonian. "We then narrowed down our list to pinpoint the destinations that are especially worth making the trip to this year—whether they’re celebrating a special birthday, commemorating a famous resident or happen to be smack on the path of the 'Great American Eclipse',” which will traverse the nation on Aug. 21.

The list of 20 towns includes: Talkeetna, Alaska; Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; Rockland, Maine; Kent, Conn.; Makanda, Ill.; Grand Marais, Minn.; Ojai, Calif.; Snowmass Village, Colo.; Abilene, Kan.; Spencer, Iowa; Mineral Point, Wis.; Hana, Hawaii; Bell Buckle, Tenn.; Oakland, Md.; Zoar Village, Ohio; Rincón, Puerto Rico; De Smet, S.D.; Cheraw, S.C.; Page, Ariz.; and Hill City, S.D.

The smallest town on the list is Zoar Village, pop. 178. It was founded by German religious separatists and became "one of the longest-running communal settlements in American history," Smithsonian reports. "After its dissolution in 1898, many tenants chose to stay behind. . . . Zoar still looks like a German village from the 1800s. It has over 50 of its original historic structures and buildings, not to mention its iconic garden, which takes up two acres in the center of the town," which was recently designated as a National Historic Landmark and is celebrating its bicentennial.

Trump tells IRS to relax enforcement of law barring churches' involvement in politics

"President Trump on Thursday said he would direct the Internal Revenue Service to relax enforcement of rules barring tax-exempt churches from participating in politics as part of a much-anticipated executive order on religious liberties," John Wagner reports for The Washington Post. "The order — which Trump formally unveiled in a Rose Garden ceremony with Christian leaders — also offers unspecified “regulatory relief” for religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans, the officials said."

Growing political divide, a largely rural-urban battle, inspires more secession movements

Supporters of a new state along the California-Oregon
border rally in 2016 (Associated Press photo)
The growing political divide in the U.S. has led to an increased number of states seeking to secede from the U.S. and largely rural areas seeking to secede from their state, Mindy Fetterman reports for Stateline. The movement took a big leap forward among red states in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president, and interest grew among blue states in November when Donald Trump was elected president. There are ongoing campaigns for secession both of and from California, and there have been "smaller pushes in Oklahoma, Maine, Utah, West Virginia and New York’s Long Island, among others," Fetterman writes.

A 2014 online survey by Reuters found that nearly one in four Americans wanted their state to secede, with numbers highest in Texas, at 34 percent, Fetterman reports. "The move for independence, whether it’s from the right of the political spectrum as in Texas, or the left as in California, reflects the political division felt across the country." Edward Meisse, a supporter of the Yes California secession group that just disbanded, told her: “We have two diametrically opposed philosophies in our country, and we’re just not getting anywhere. I think we should allow states to secede so California can be California and Texas can be Texas.”

Seceding is not that easy, Fetterman notes. "Many lawyers and constitutional scholars say it’s legally impossible for a state to secede because the U.S. Constitution doesn’t address the issue, and has no provision to allow it. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in an 1869 case, Texas vs. White, that the U.S. is 'an indestructible union.' And the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2006 letter that 'if there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.'”

Nevertheless, Fetterman writes, "Some lawyers, historians and secession groups argue that Article 10 of the Constitution gives states the right to decide many issues which are not in the power of the federal government. And despite the legal obstacles, the desire for self-rule and separation from others with different political, social or moral views remains strong among some groups."

Joining a secession movement is “about being a part of the group as it circles around its sacred values and marks out what is good and what is evil,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told Fetterman. “Joining a secession movement is an act of both self-expression and group expression.”

Rise of drug-treatment centers brings Georgia traffic from out of state; new law will limit clinics

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said he will sign a bill today for stricter regulations of drug-treatment centers, which have been popping up in rural towns in the northwestern part of the state and are drawing large numbers of people from neighboring Tennessee, Ezra Kaplan reports from Ringgold for The Associated Press. The bill also limits the number of treatment centers that can open in a specific area. Georgia leads the South with the most drug treatment centers, at 71, two more than Florida, which has twice the population.

Relaxed rules in Georgia and stricter regulations in Tennessee have led to an increase in recent years of privately owned treatment centers in Georgia for heroin and prescription painkiller addicts, Kaplan reports. Data from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities shows that last year one in five people treated at an opioid treatment center in Georgia came from out of state. In Northwest Georgia, which borders Chattanooga, two of three patients are from out of state.

Complaints from local residents led state Sen. Jeff Mullis, who represents much of the northwest, to lead a push this year "to pass a new set of statewide regulations on the industry," Kaplan writes. "The new rules will require programs to demonstrate a need for their services, similar to the certificate of need licensing program already used in Tennessee. Previously, open competition was really the only constraint on the number of clinics in Georgia. Mullis's bill also limits the number of centers that can open in newly established regions around the state. His region will already be at capacity as soon as the bill is signed." (Read more)

Lack of health insurance in rural Minn., especially for children, has become much less common

Uninsured rates in Minnesota for residents under 65
(Minnesota Health Access Survey results)
Rural areas in many states have seen larger increases in the number of insured under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and those same areas stand to lose the most if the law is repealed. A study released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Health shows that the state's number of uninsured rural residents under the age of 65 has dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent since 2011, while the uninsured rate dropped 5 points in urban areas. A separate study by the state says that repealing ACA could cost the state $2.5 billion per year and change or eliminate coverage for 1.2 million residents.

The Department of Health found that before ACA, rural children in Minnesota were more likely to be uninsured. Now, rural and urban uninsured rates for kids are now 3 percent. The study notes, "In addition, the gap between urban and rural insurance rates previously seen among people of color and American Indians was eliminated."

Analysis also found that rural Minnesotans have a higher proportion of residents enrolled in the state’s public insurance programs. By 2015, 28 percent of rural Minnesotans under 65 were covered by public insurance, compared to 22 percent in urban areas.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Rural journalism well represented in SPJ's Sigma Delta Chi Awards for work in 2016

The Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Awards for excellence in journalism in 2016 include several stories with rural resonance. Judges chose the winners from entries in categories covering print, radio, television and online.

Jonathan D. Austin, a reporter for the Virgin Islands Daily News, won in Public Service Journalism for circulation 50,000 and under for his investigation into government officials refusing to account for expenses to a meeting in Seattle. Austin and his wife Susan won the 2012 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Howard Berkes, Robert Little, Nicole Beemsterboer and Benny Becker, of Ohio Valley ReSource and National Public Radio, won for investigative reporting (1-100 market or network syndication) for their report, “Advanced Black Lung Cases Surge in Appalachia."

Sarah Butrymowicz and Jackie Mader of The Hechinger Report won for Investigative Reporting for circulations 50,000 and under for their five-part series “Mississippi Child Care Crisis.”

Jonathan Austin
Pat Duggins, Stan Ingold, Alex Aubuchon and MacKenzie Bates of Alabama Public Radio won for their series "... And Justice for All" in which they spent six months researching and producing a series on justice and prison reform. They won for Documentaries (101+ Market).

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein, Lauren Rosenthal, Brit Hanson and Martha Foley won for public service in radio journalism (101+ markets) for their series, “Small Town Justice: The Nick Hillary Trial,” that investigated the murder of a 12-year-old in New York and the methods used by police to arrest a man, who was later found not guilty, for the murder.

The Associated Press was named best Specialized Journalism Site for "Divided America," which examined the U.S. through arenas such as immigrants, the Latino vote, religion, refugees and the dwindling power of white men.

StateImpact Pennsylvania's Marie Cusick, Ian Sterling, Tom Downing and Tim Lambert won for Audio Slide Show for "After the Boom," which examined the impact of natural gas in rural Towanda, Pa.

Madeleine Baran, Samara Freemark, Natalie Jablonski and Catherine Winter of APM Reports won for Digital Audio for "In the Dark," an investigation into a child abduction in rural Minnesota that has remained unsolved for nearly 30 years.

Tele-medicine for mental health on the rise in rural areas, but at a slower rate in some states

Tele-medicine for mental health is on the rise in rural areas, but its use varies widely by state, says a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School published in Health Affairs(Harvard graphic: Tele-mental health visits per 100 rural Medicare beneficiaries with serious mental illness in 2014)
The study looked at Medicare fee-for-service claims from 2004 to 2014, finding that the number of telemental health visits grew on average 45.1 percent annually—to 5.3 visits per every for 100 rural beneficiaries—for any mental illness and 49.3 percent for serious mental illness, or 11.8 visits per every 100 rural beneficiaries. Wyoming and Montana led the way with more than 45 visits for serious mental illness, while four states had none.

Researchers found that during the study period the number of tele-mental health visits among rural patients with any mental illness rose from 2,365 to 87,120, an average annual growth rate of 45.1, while the number of visits among those with serious mental illness rose from 1,040 to 50,050, an average annual growth rate of 49.3 percent. Overall, just 1.5 percent of patients with serious mental health disorders living in rural areas received treatment via tele-medicine.

Creating local colleges, or adjusting focus of existing ones, can boost rural economies

Walla Walla Community College started an enology and viticulture
program in 2000 to help train students and boost the local economy. 
Getting an institution of higher learning to set up shop locally is one way to bolster struggling rural economies, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. That's easier said than done. Randy Smith, president and director of the Rural Community College Alliance, told Semuels, “It’s quite an amazing undertaking in today’s age of starting a brand new college from scratch.” He said earning accreditation is difficult. Some colleges expand a new satellite campus, but he said “that doesn’t have the impact a main campus is going to have."

Rural towns that have a college have seen success, Semuels writes. "The unemployment rate in Kearney, Neb., home to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, is 2.5 percent, compared to the state’s overall rate of 3.4 percent. In rural Corvallis, Ore., the home of Oregon State University, the unemployment rate is 3 percent, while surrounding rural counties such as Lincoln have a rate as high as 4.8 percent."

Josh Wyner, executive director of the non-profit College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, said more common than trying to start a new college is for existing institutions "to change themselves and become economic engines that revive struggling areas," Semuels writes.

For example, after automation reduced farming jobs and lumber mills closed in the 1990s in southeast Washington, Walla Walla Community College "started an enology and viticulture program, and began training local students in the art of winemaking," Semuels writes. "The number of local wineries has since grown from 16 to more than 170, and the local industry has spurred the creation of other industries, including wine distribution and a hospitality sector." Anticipating that health-care and renewable energy would grow the college also tripled the size of its nursing program to train more health-care workers and started a program training technicians for wind turbines.

When a local economic-development organization told leaders at Neosho Community College in Chanute, Kan., that aerospace companies in Wichita were interested in expanding in Chanute, the school developed a program to train workers, Semuels writes. In 2012, aftter a 55,000-square-foot manufacturing facility owned by Spirit AeroSystems opened in Chanute. "And last year Orizon Aerostructures said it was planning to buy a 72,000-square-foot building in Chanute and hire up to 150 people there."

Inmates in Washington will be able to earn a community or technical college degree behind bars

A law that takes effect July 23 in Washington state will allow qualifying inmates to earn a community-college degree while behind bars, Jerry Cornfield reports for the Daily Herald in Everett. The state has helped inmates earn a degree once they get out of prison, but the new program will be for inmates within five years of release that do not already have a post-secondary degree. Many of the state's prisons and community colleges are in rural areas.

Lawmakers wrote: “Recognizing that there is a positive correlation between education opportunities and reduced recidivism, it is the intent of the legislature to offer appropriate associate degree opportunities to inmates designed to prepare the inmate to enter the workforce." The bill passed the Senate 46-0 and the House 78-20 and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Kristyn Whisman, dean of corrections education at Edmonds Community College, which offers classes at Monroe Correctional Complex, told Conrfield, “It is a very big step. The trend in research shows the further along the college pathway a person gets before they leave a facility, the more successful they will be when released. As much opportunity that we can provide, the better ultimately for the community."

State prisons long have offered classes to help inmates get a GED or learn vocational skills, but this is the first program where they will earn a degree, Cornfield writes. From July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, the state's "community colleges served 8,960 men and women incarcerated in the state’s 12 adult prisons, according to a January report compiled by the state board. Thirteen community colleges participated under a $16.8 million contract between the corrections department and state board."

Divide growing between pay for coal executives and coal workers; executive pay up 60% since 2004

Average annual wages of coal chief
executives and managers (Times graphic)
The wage gap between coal executives and coal workers has expanded significantly in recent years, according to a New York Times analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

For example, from 2004 to 2016 the average pay for chief executives in the coal industry rose 60 percent from $125,000 to $200,000, Hiroko Tabuchi reports for the Times. During the same period pay for truck and tractor operators rose 15 percent, from $38,060 to $43,770, and construction jobs in mining rose 11 percent, from $31,470 to $35,080.

"Pay for chief executives in the coal industry also grew much faster, on average, than that of their counterparts across the wider economy, while the average pay for coal industry construction workers failed to keep up with similar jobs in other fields," Tabuchi writes. "Data excludes bonuses, share options and other perks, which often inflate executive compensation—and the pay gap—many times more." (Times graphic: Changes in coal wages from 2004 to 2016)
One problem is that work in the coal industry is unstable, Tabuchi writes. Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said average pay for a UMWA miner "comes out to at least $61,650 a year, and closer to $85,000 a year with overtime." But according to Unionstats, a census-based database, "just 2.5 percent of coal mining jobs were unionized in 2016, compared with over 40 percent two decades ago. Instead, many coal miners now compete for temporary jobs, which pay by the hour and offer few benefits."

'Rolling study halls' in rural South Carolina county connect students to wi-fi on school buses

Middle school student Lakaysha Governor works
on her Chromebook (AP photo by Meg Kinnard)
Students at six schools in rural Berkeley County, South Carolina now have access to broadband through a Google pilot program that equips 28 school buses with Wi-Fi, reports The Associated Press. Google "also has given the school district 1,700 Chromebooks, the stripped-down laptops on which many schoolchildren now do their class and homework."

Plans of "rolling study halls" were released earlier this year, and with more classroom and homework assignments migrating online, Google hopes to expand the use of Wi-Fi on school buses in other rural areas around the country. Google spokeswoman Lilyn Hester told AP that they will start "in other rural areas where it already has data centers that process search queries and other information," adding that the expansions are also need-based.

The "rolling study halls" allow kids "who have commutes as long as an hour and a half to maximize the time between the classroom and home," Liza Lucas reports for WCSC Television in Charleston, S.C. The program focuses on Title 1 Schools, which receive federal assistance because of high numbers or high percentages of low-income children. Berkeley County has a poverty rate of 13 percent and only 22.3 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to Census Bureau data.

Berkeley County, South Carolina
(Wikipedia map)
John Rivers, mayor of St. Stephen, which has three schools participating in the program, told Lucas, “It’s huge because in a rural area like St. Stephen, most of our students don’t have access to Internet or WiFi. You’d be surprised how many of our young people have never even left St. Stephen, this gives them a chance to explore and travel around the world without even leaving home.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

New agriculture secretary relaxes Obama-era rules that mandated healthier school lunches

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue getting
lunch Monday at a school in Leesburg, Va.
(Associated Press photo by Carolyn Kaster)
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Monday "he would be relaxing guidelines and providing greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for schools’ meal programs," Melissa Etehad reports for the Los Angeles Times. The guidelines, championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama, called for stricter nutritional standards for school lunches in response to the growing obesity epidemic, which is particularly problematic in rural and under-served areas.

Perdue said during a visit to a Virginia school: “This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools and food-service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals. If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program." Critics of stricter guidelines said they were difficult to meet.

"Under the changes to the federal nutrition standards, schools won’t have to [further] cut salt in meals, states will be able to allow some schools to serve fewer whole grains, and schools will be allowed to serve 1 percent milk rather than only nonfat milk," Etehad writes.

"The Obama administration placed standards on school lunch nutrition in 2010 when it passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act," Etehad reports. "During that time, Michelle Obama was seen by many as a leading advocate in the fight against childhood obesity. She started the Let’s Move! campaign, which sought to encourage children to take part in more physical activity and help provide healthier food options in schools in under-served communities."

Spending bill has rural resonance: keeps post offices open, funds parks, Amtrak, other programs

Post office in Bon Air, Ala.
The $1 trillion spending package drafted for passage by Congress this week includes funding for several rural programs with rural resonance, but omits funding for several others. The 1,665-page bill also ensures that several programs important to rural areas remain intact.

"The bill prohibits the nation’s mail delivery system from consolidating or closing 'small rural and other small post offices'," Kelsey Snell and Ed O'Keefe report for The Washington Post. The U.S. Postal Service has struggled financially for several years, reporting a loss of $5.1 billion in 2015. That has led to the closure of some post offices and put others in danger of being shuttered.

The bill also denies funding for President Trump's proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. "Trump didn’t get the wall money he wanted but Republicans did get $1.5 billion to spend on repairs to existing border fencing and new technology, such as drones and sensors to help agents keep an eye on parts of the border not protected by barriers," Snell and O'Keefe report.

When it comes to "funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the main agency in charge of deportations and immigration monitoring," the spending bill "includes money for 100 new officers and approximately 5,000 more beds," far less than Republicans wanted, the Post reports. "Funding will bring the number of beds available for immigration detainees to about 34,560, far less than the roughly 43,000 beds the Trump administration requested."

"But a $1.5 billion spending increase for the Justice Department will help pay for 'short-term detention space' that Republicans say will help house undocumented immigrants and other federal offenders," the Post reports. "A $20 million increase for the Executive Office of Immigration Review will help pay for 10 more federal immigration judges," and the bill requires monthly reports on the performance of immigration judges.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will get $11 million more than last year "partly to whittle down the endangered-species delisting backlog," reports the Post. Money will "also help fight invasive species and illegal wildlife trafficking."

"The National Park Service would be fully funded, including a modest bump of $81 million for park maintenance and projects related to the agency’s centennial celebration," the Post reports. "The money is also designed to put a dent in an $11 billion maintenance backlog that includes much needed repairs."

  • The U.S. Geological Survey received $23 million more in funding, with nearly half for an early earthquake warning system.
  • The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities would see a funding increase of $2 million, bringing each budget to $150 million for fiscal 2017.
  • The Food and Drug Administration would be allowed to continue reviewing electronic cigarettes, which are increasing in popularity.
  • Western states will receive $407 million in emergency funding to help fight wildfires this year
  • Amtrak gets $1.5 billion, a $105 million increase from the last budget year.
The bill does not include "assistance sought by cotton and dairy producers," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. Democrats "were seeking to provide milk producers about $840 million over 10 years by reducng the cotton industry's proposal, which was estimated to trigger more than $4 billion in Price Loss Coverage payments."

Instead, the bill directs the Agriculture Department "to prepare a report within 60 days on the 'administrative options for financial relief and recommended legislative actions to provide the cotton industry with a viable safety net," Brasher reports. "USDA also is told to consider providing immediate, direct assistance to dairy producers using the department's existing Commodity Credit Corp. authority. Separately, USDA is urged to allow milk to be covered as a crop under revenue insurance policies."

Budget deal permanently guarantees health benefits for 23,000 retired coal miners or families

The deal in Congress to fund the government through September includes permanent funding of health benefits for retired coal miners.

About 23,000 former United Mine Workers of America miners or their widows were set to lose their health care and pensions at the end of April, because they had "lost permanent funding for those benefits during the bankruptcy reorganizations of companies like Peabody Energy, Patriot Coal and Alpha Natural Resources," reports Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "Health funds for more than 120,000 total retirees face the same threat down the road," Dylan Brown reported last month for Greenwire.

The health benefits "would be funded through part of an already statutorily mandated transfer of up to $490 million a year in general tax dollars that flow through the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, as part of the complex formula that provides additional money for the abandoned-mine cleanup program and the UMW benefits plan," Ward reports. "As a budgetary offset . . . the bill extends certain customs user fees on goods that are brought into the United States," starting in 2026.

The federal role in coal miners' benefits stems from a 1946 deal that "helped end a stalemate between the union and the government, which had seized the nation’s mines in response to a strike," Ward notes. UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement: "Swift passage of that bill by Congress this week will mean that those senior citizens and their families will finally have the peace of mind about their future that has eluded them for years."

Post probe finds flaws in USDA certification program for organic dairy farms, especially big ones

Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains complex in Greeley,
Colo., is home to 15,000 cows. (Screen shot of Post video)
An investigation by The Washington Post found major flaws in how the Department of Agriculture inspects the growing organic dairy industry, especially at large farms, to ensure that foods labeled as "organic" actually are so.

"The U.S. organic market now counts more than $40 billion in annual sales and includes products imported from about 100 countries," Peter Whoriskey reports. "To enforce the organic rules across this vast industry, USDA allows farmers to hire and pay their own inspectors to certify them as 'USDA Organic.' Industry defenders say enforcement is robust."

"With milk, the critical issue is grazing," he notes. "Organic dairies are required to allow the cows to graze daily throughout the growing season—that is, the cows are supposed to be grass-fed, not confined to barns and feedlots. This method is considered more natural and alters the constituents of the cows’ milk in ways consumers deem beneficial."

When the Post spent eight days last year visiting Aurora Organic Dairy’s High Plains complex in Aurora, Colo., home to 15,000 cows and one of the nation's biggest suppliers of organic milk, "signs of grazing were sparse, at best," Whoriskey writes. "Aurora said its animals were out on pasture day and night, but during most Post visits the number of cows seen on pasture numbered only in the hundreds. At no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out. A high-resolution satellite photo taken in mid-July by Digital Globe, a space imagery vendor, shows a typical situation—only a few hundred on pasture."

"The milk from Aurora also indicates that its cows may not graze as required by organic rules," Whoriskey reports. "Testing conducted for The Post by Virginia Tech scientists shows that on a key indicator of grass-feeding, the Aurora milk matched conventional milk, not organic." Aurora dismissed the Post's observations as "drive-bys" and its tests as "isolated."

The Post also contacted inspectors who certified the farm as “USDA Organic,” finding that they conduced the annual audit well after grazing season—in November, Whoriskey writes. "That means that during the annual audit, inspectors would not have seen whether the cows were grazing as required, a breach of USDA inspection policy."

Critics of Wisconsin governor say his plan to cut magazine is latest effort to limit transparency

Critics say Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's call to eliminate Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, which they say has often been censored by government officials, is his latest attempt to stifle government transparency, Cassandra Willyard reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

"The state estimates that eliminating the magazine would save nearly $545,000 a year," Willyard writes. "That’s just 0.001 percent of the state’s $45 billion annual budget. And that money doesn’t come from taxpayers. The magazine is fully funded by its subscribers. About 48,000 people pay the $8.97 annual subscription fee, and another 40,000 receive the magazine as a perk when they purchase a premium hunting and fishing license. Content comes from non-profits, unpaid freelance writers and photographers, and Department of Natural Resources staff."

Supporters of the magazine say the Walker administration has been interfering with the magazine's content for years. Natasha Kassulke, a journalist who was named editor in 2011, said at first she had her choice of stories. That changed in 2013, two years after Walker was elected, when "she published an insert on climate change funded by the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies."

Before the story ran, Kassulke had always submitted a list of the stories she planned to run to the agency’s communications director, Willyard reports. After the climate change story she was required "to submit the full text of all stories to the entire leadership team for review." That led to several stories being scrapped, such as one about the American marten, an endangered species in Wisconsin. Kassulke said "the story included a map of the animal’s habitat, which overlapped a proposed iron mine site in Northern Wisconsin."

She said "agency leaders also prohibited stories on frac-sand mining, privatization of groundwater and climate change," Willyard writes. "And they told her she could no longer use the terms 'global warming' and 'climate change'."

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, told CJR that when he served as DNR secretary, employees could freely speak with the media, now "they’re basically gagged." He said "cutting the magazine was never about saving money," telling Willyard, “They don’t value providing information to the public. They don’t see the public as people they work for.”

N.C. journalist dies at 43, after challenging bill that would rob papers of public-notice advertising

Mark Binker
Just days before dying unexpectedly on Saturday at the age of 43, a political journalist who didn't work directly for a traditional newspaper defended papers against a bill that would take away most of their legal-notice advertising in North Carolina. Mark Binker, editor of the NC Insider State Government News Service, wrote April 26 in response to a Senate committee's approval of a bill to let cities and counties post public notices on their websites, "It's bad for journalism and bad for democracy."

Binker wrote: "Those ads help pay for reporters who will not only read public notices, but head on down to the city council meeting and ask about why the town is giving away incentives to a new business, or hasn't filled a pothole Main Street or is bothering to pay for the mayor's junket to the big League of Municipalities confab this June, hosted at the Embassy Suites Spa & Golf Resort in Concord, if you must know."

Binker was well respected among his peers, Jennifer Fernandez reports for the Winston-Salem Journal. "Binker covered the Guilford County commissioners, Greensboro City Council, High Point government and the General Assembly during nearly 12 years with the Greensboro News & Record. In 2012, he took a job reporting on the legislature with WRAL in Raleigh. In March, he became editor of N.C. Insider, a state-government newsletter owned by the News & Observer" in Raleigh.

Gov. Roy Cooper said in a statement: “He never ducked asking tough questions, or stopped digging for more. His death leaves a huge hole in the press corps." Former News & Record editor John Robinson said of Binker, “He earned great respectability and credibility in Raleigh because his reporting was so good. He was just a straight down the middle, shoe leather reporter.”

Social media has lit up with tributes to Binker. Tyler Dukes, a WRAL colleague, who headlined his Twitter feed "Thinking about all the lessons learned from watching, reading and collaborating with Mark Binker, wrote: "Be courageous. Be fair. Be skeptical. Know the context, and communicate it clearly. Respect sources. No cheap shots. No surprises.Hold power to high standards. Hold yourself to high standards. Trust your ethics, discuss and defend them. Share your knowledge."

Writer says low jobless rates are good for rural Americans but bad for places they live and leave

Conor Sen
While low unemployment rates could be good for rural Americans, they could be bad for rural America, Conor Sen opines for Bloomberg. He explains the apparent contradiction: A low jobless rate "puts local employers in a bind. Rural economies tend to be poorer, with lower average incomes than the country as a whole. In a tight labor market, many businesses simply don't have the profit margin cushion necessary to raise wages to attract or retain talent. And if they're unable to get the workers they need, their choices are shutting down or leaving for another place with deeper labor pools."

From employees' point of view, he writes, "Rural workers are subject to their own dynamics in a tight labor market. In high demand, they have the bargaining power to ask for raises. More importantly, they have an easier time of doing something that's difficult in a bad labor market—leaving for another job or another locale."

For example, unemployment rates in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are all 3 percent or lower, compared with 4.5 percent nationwide, he writes. "The populations of all three states skew older, and they have very low population growth. For the economy to grow at all, these states are relying on an increase in the labor force participation rate or workers to move in from elsewhere. But you can only coax so much labor force growth out of a rapidly graying population, and rural New England is not attracting significant domestic or international migration."

Lower immigration numbers under President Trump could mean that fewer people will migrate to urban areas. Sen notes that there is pent-up demand for migration among the two largest generations in America: "millennials, who are getting to an age where they're looking to settle down or move to start their families; and baby boomers, who are ready to retire, which frees them up to move away from wherever they made their careers."

"There are many benefits to this new environment," he writes. "Rural workers who have previously felt trapped are now able to move somewhere else for opportunity and a better life. Low-productivity businesses will die, replaced by higher-productivity ones as workers shift from less productive rural employment to more productive urban employment."

"Perhaps some of the populist angst in the country will dissipate, if large swaths of people who feel left behind by the modern economy are able to move toward cities and share in its wealth," he writes. "But the rural communities, with even fewer working-age residents, will be even worse off than they are now. It will still be a tale of two Americas, but more and more people will be able to move from the withering America to the thriving America."

Monday, May 01, 2017

Experts say fear tactic working to cut down illegal immigration, but actions speak louder than words

While President Trump's travel ban, his vow to target illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall have run into obstacles, experts agree that one tactic to stop illegal border crossings is working, fear, David Nakamura reports for The Washington Post. Federal data shows that the number of apprehensions at the border was 12,193 in March, down from 40,000 per month at the end of 2016.

Immigration experts "attribute at least part of this shift to the use of sharp, unwelcoming rhetoric by Trump and his aides, as well as the administration's showy use of enforcement raids and public spotlighting of crimes committed by immigrants," Nakamura writes. "The tactics were aimed at sending a political message to those in the country illegally or those thinking about trying to come." 

Through the middle of March federal agents "arrested 21,362 immigrants, mostly convicted criminals, compared with 16,104 during the same period last year," Nakamura writes. "Arrests of immigrants with no criminal records more than doubled, to 5,441 in that period." At the same time the number of immigrants planned for deportation is up, although the Trump administration has faced the same hurdle as the Obama administration in trying to get countries to take back convicted criminals. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection graphic)
Even immigrant rights advocates and restrictionist groups "said there is little doubt that the Trump administration’s tough talk has had impact," Nakamura writes. Doris Meissner, who served as the commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration, told him, "The bottom line is that they have entirely changed the narrative around immigration. The result of that is that, yes, you can call it words and rhetoric, and it certainly is, but it is changing behavior. It is changing the way the U.S. is viewed around the world, as well as the way we’re talking about and reacting to immigration within the country."

Experts caution that it's too early to say the fear tactic has been a success, because slashing illegal border crossings could be reversed if the Trump administration "fails to follow through on more aggressive enforcement actions that will require more than just rhetorical bombast," Nakamura writes. "Many of the other initiatives Trump has called for—including additional detention centers and thousands of new Border Patrol officers and immigration agents—are costly. Others, such as his vow to withhold federal funds from 'sanctuary cities' that protect immigrants, are facing legal challenges."

After 270% surge in painkiller prescriptions to veterans, focus redirected to therapy, exercise

Use of prescription painkillers among veterans increased 270 percent from 2001 to 2012, Jessica Lilly and Roxy Todd report for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as part of a series on opioids in Appalachia. About 24 percent of all veterans live in rural areas.

In West Virginia, which leads the nation in opioid use, VA clinics were known for prescribing painkillers for chronic pain, reports WVPB. For example, one-fourth of all veterans who visited the VA in Beckley in southern West Virginia in 2012 was prescribed opioid painkillers, well above the national average. (WVPB graphic: VA center opioid rates in West Virginia)
Since 2012 the number of opioids prescribed at VAs have decreased in West Virginia and the U.S., reports WVPB. "For the past three years, the VA has begun implementing new pain management recommendations for treating veterans who have chronic pain. In 2013 the VA released a new set of guidelines called The Opioid Safety Initiative, which concluded that opioids are not the best treatment for most types of chronic pain. Instead, VA doctors are encouraged to prescribe alternative therapies, like yoga, physical therapy and chiropractic care."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year released similar guidelines that ask doctors to encourage patients to try physical therapy, yoga, chiropractic or exercise therapy before they are prescribed painkillers, Lilly and Todd write in another story in the series. That's because a CDC study found "that one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in primary care settings struggle with opioid use disorder."

Some areas waiting for a coal revival might look to natural gas; here's a look at one Ohio county

Belmont County, Ohio
(Wikipedia map)
Many coal regions where President Trump won heavily are still waiting for him to deliver on his promise to revive the industry. One such area is Belmont County, Ohio, where Trump won by 42 percentage points, and where coal mining jobs were once plentiful, but now account for less than 400 jobs, reports If Belmont residents are "longing for an industrial renaissance" it won't come in the form of coal, but natural gas, a cheaper alternative to coal. The county, which once has seven working coal mines, now only has one.

"If natural gas has been killing coal, it has also been creating new jobs here, though nowhere near as many as coal and the old industries did," reports Currently, there are 261 shale gas wells producing in Belmont County and another 32 are being drilled. Thailand's PTT Global Chemical Public Company is looking to build a multi-billion-dollar petrochemical refinery in the region that "would create 6,000 to 7,000 construction jobs and 600 to 700 permanent jobs, which in turn would support other employment."

"Rice Energy, which is just one of nine gas producers working in Belmont County, has budgeted a little over $1 billion for drilling and completion of gas wells this year there and two western Pennsylvanian counties, said spokeswoman Kimberly Price," writes "About $450 million of that money will be spent in Belmont County," she said.

Price said Rice Energy has 508 full-time employees and currently has openings for another 29, reports "The networks of pipes needed to connect wells to gas lines also spurs employment, at least temporarily. But once the construction is completed, the very efficiency of gas operations is a threat to future employment. It takes only a few employees to monitor the high-tech metering, cleaning and 'de-watering' equipment installed on huge concrete well pads."

Report shows that rural Western Mass. is older, poorer, less educated than rural Eastern Mass.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graphic
There's a rural-rural divide in Massachusetts. Data released on Friday by the state's Rural Policy Advisory Commission shows that rural areas in the western part of the state tend to be poorer, older and less educated than rural areas in the eastern part of the state, Shira Schoenberg reports for MassLive. Western towns also are losing population faster than those in the east. Massachusetts has 170 towns that are considered rural, many of them located in the western half of the state.

"The population of rural towns is growing slightly faster in rural communities than in the state overall -5 percent compared to 3 percent," Schoenberg writes. "However, most of the places where the population is declining are rural towns in Western Massachusetts. While the age of the population is similar between rural towns overall and statewide, rural towns in the west have fewer children and more seniors than the state average. Median income as well as home values are lower in the western rural towns than in the rest of the state. There are some exceptions, such as the southern Berkshires, which have a large population of second homes that drive up housing prices."

Data also found that rural residents in the western part of the state face more barriers than those in the east, such as a lack of broadband, public transportation or water and sewer infrastructure, Schoenberg writes. "Areas in the northwestern part of the state are most likely to be classified as being in 'economic distress.'"

Colorado lawmakers pass bill to fill rural teacher shortages with retirees

The Colorado Senate last week passed an amended House bill that would help fill the state's teacher shortage with retired teachers, Marianne Goodland reports for The Colorado Independent. "Under the bill, retired school teachers with pensions from the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) can teach a full school year at rural schools." That would allow 147 of the state's 178 school districts to hire retired teachers. Current PERA rules cap the number of days a retired school teacher can work at 140 days, short of a full school year.

The amended bill limits the program to 2023, five years short of the House bill, Goodland writes. Rep. Jon Becker, co-sponsor of the bill, called the Senate change a "poison pill" amendment designed to cause the bill to fail, but said he would agree to the amendment in order to get the bill to Gov. John Hickenlooper's desk.

Colorado, whose teacher shortage mirrors the national trend, needs as many as 3,000 teachers to fill existing spots, Monte Whaley reports for The Denver Post. The main problems are a lack of interest and aging teachers. "The number of graduates from teacher-preparation programs in the state has declined by 24.4 percent over the past five years" and "enrollment in the state’s teacher preparation programs in 2015-16 remained flat from the previous academic year with 9,896 students." Also, "at least a third of the teachers in Colorado are 55 or older and closing in on retirement."