Saturday, July 15, 2017

House Appropriations Committee votes narrowly to lift federal ban on horse slaughterhouses

Photo by Daniel Bockwoldt, Deutsche Press-Agentur
Congress is making another attempt to restart the slaughter of horses in the United States. The House Appropriations Committee voted 27-25 on July 12 to remove the 10-year-old congressional ban on use of taxpayer money for horse-slaughterhouse inspections by the Department of Agriculture.

A key vote was cast by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart a South Florida Republican who had voted for the ban until recently. "The ban was an amendment tacked on to the annual Department of Agriculture funding bill, and a tie vote would have resulted in the ban failing," Alex Daugherty reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "Diaz-Balart voted in favor of the ban in 2014 but said the ban 'did not yield the positive results that many envisioned and I had hoped for' and voted against the ban the last three years."

Daugherty gives background: "The ban on horse-slaughter inspector funding passed the House committee in 2014 and 2016 but failed in 2015. The Senate overruled the House’s decision that year. Horses raised in the United States are not intended to be eaten by humans, but U.S. horses can be transported to other countries and slaughtered for meat according to European Union standards. Horse meat is considered taboo in the United States, but it is eaten in parts of Europe and Asia."

Diaz-Balart said in a statement, “The reality is, if these horses are not dealt with in USDA-certified and inspected facilities, they will be hauled off to a foreign market where the conditions are much more cruel and less humane.” He noted that the Government Accountability Office “found that the ban shifted slaughter facilities to other countries, including Mexico, where humane methods and responsible oversight are not as rigorous as those in the U.S.  GAO has also observed that there is not enough space in rescue facilities in the U.S. to handle abandoned horses.”

The 2011 GAO report "said horse exports for slaughter to Mexico increased by 680 percent from 2006 to 2010, after Congress stopped funding slaughter inspections," Daugherty notes. "Republicans from Western states with large populations of wild horses were the primary opponents of the ban, arguing that current methods of controlling wild horses aren’t enough. Wild horses, which have no natural predators, can disrupt food sources for other animals, but horse advocates say allowing horse slaughter is a handout to ranchers who dislike the horses because they compete with their cattle for food on public range land." President Trump's budget plan would allow purchase and slaughter of wild horses.

The Humane Society of the United States said it would fight to keep the ban. “We don’t pick up homeless dogs and cats and send them to slaughterhouses. We shouldn’t do that with horses either,” HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle told Maura Judkis of The Washington Post.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Weekly publisher wins fight against coal-ash landfill

Publisher/landowner Dink NeSmith in the Altamaha River. (NNA photo by Fred Bennett)
A community crusade led by a weekly newspaper "fought off the efforts of a Fortune 500 solid waste giant that proposed to dump millions of tons of coal ash in a local landfill," Teri Saylor reports for the National Newspaper Association.

The story of the Jesup Press-Sentinel and publisher Dink NeSmith, who owns several other papers and 4,000 acres along the Altamaha River, two-thirds of it in conservation easements, was most recently told by Dan Chapman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“When I first heard mention of coal ash in Wayne County I said, ‘Whoa. Then no. Then hell no. We don’t want that in our river’,” NeSmith told Chapman. “We threw our heart into the fight and our wallets followed. I have never seen the community more riled up.”

"NeSmith bankrolled much of the coal ash fight and wrote scores of scathing editorials in opposition. The company killed the project earlier this year," Chapman reports. His story is one of five in a series, with seven videos, on the Altamaha (pronounced al-ta-ma-HA).

Republic Services "had won enough battles to consider a small town like Jesup would be a pushover. But Republic had never tangled with newspaper owner, Dink NeSmith, and the power of a feisty small-town newspaper," Saylor writes. He got former president Jimmy Carter to write Microsoft's Bill Gates, "who owns millions of shares of Republic stock. . . . Gates wrote back two months later with promises to ask Republic Services to look into it." That was in August 2016; in April 2017, Republic dropped its plans. NeSmith, who had said his battle was one of David vs. Goliath, also corresponded with farmer-environmentalist-author Wendell Berry, who wrote him a congratulatory note with a P.S.: "David won."

Saylor provides background: "Jesup, the seat of Wayne County, is home to 12,000 residents, and located about 40 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean in southeast Georgia. Wayne County’s landmass is mostly swampy coastal plain and piney forestland. The Altamaha River flows along the northern border of Wayne County . . . It is an ecologically sensitive area, inhabited by at least 120 species of rare or endangered plants and animals, reporter Derby Waters wrote in an email." NeSmith calls the river "the Amazon of the South."

N.C. farmers: Americans won't work in agriculture

Ag-visa worker Ricardo Almeida harvests cucumbers on
a North Carolina farm. (News & Observer photo)
President Donald Trump campaigned on promises to tighten immigration laws, saying that foreign workers are taking jobs from Americans. But North Carolina farmers say they can't find enough locals willing to work for them, reports Madison Iszler for the Raleigh News & Observer.

Of the estimated 80,000 to 150,000 mostly-Latino workers who toil on North Carolina farms, only a quarter of them—a mix of immigrants and U.S. nationals—live in the state permanently. About half the farm workers are undocumented, and a quarter work legally through the federal H-2A visa program. North Carolina farmers told Iszler they would like to hire American citizens, but must hire foreign laborers because few locals want to do the backbreaking work of farming. Jackie Thompson says there's "no doubt" in his mind that he couldn't keep his farm afloat without immigrants. "The U.S. complains with our mouths full. They want to eat it, but they don't want to pick it," he says. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Global Development, native workers don't generally take farm jobs no matter how bad the economy gets.

Agriculture is an $84 billion industry in North Carolina, so in February local and state politicians met with farmers and the North Carolina Farm Bureau begin determining how to best enact immigration reform in the state without damaging the economy. They are focusing on simplifying the H-2A program and determining an avenue for undocumented farm workers to obtain legal status. "Foreign labor is what provides jobs for U.S. citizens and North Carolina residents working in the agricultural industry," Sen. Thom Tillis told Iszler. "It is hard to overestimate what agriculture means to our state."

Now more than ever, North Carolina farmers are having a hard time filling agriculture jobs. Increased enforcement of illegal immigration laws and a generally slow-recovering economy have caused a decrease in undocumented Mexican workers. 

In April, President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue held a roundtable discussion with farmers and North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler to discuss their concerns, according to Iszler. Trump also created a task force focused on agriculture and rural issues. Though the president has consistently advocated for a wall between Mexico and the U.S. to "stop a lot of people from coming in that shouldn't be here," Perdue said in a speech soon afterward that Trump "understands that there are long-term immigrants, sometimes undocumented immigrant laborers, out here on the farms, many of them that are doing a great job, contributing to the economy of the United States.”

Mountaintop mining makes streams saltier and more perennial, study in W.Va. watershed finds

Map shows mined areas in red and a star on study area.
Mountaintop-removal coal mining has made the streams of West Virginia's Mud River basin run saltier but more regularly, researchers at Duke University and the University of Wyoming have found.

It has long been known that excavation of rock around coal seams, which is then placed into engineered fills at stream headwaters, releases salty substances into streams. But the study also confirmed something that has long been surmised, that "the porosity of the crushed rocks increases the water storage capacity of the valley fills. This decreases natural storm runoff during high-flow winter months while contributing proportionately more water to stream flows during the drier months that make up about 80 percent of the region's calendar year, says a UW press release published in Science Daily.
3-D map and chart in study compare streamflow in mined and non-mined areas.
The more frequent flows in ephemeral streams mean that the Mud River and its tributaries, "the site of extensive mountaintop mining in recent years . . . run consistently saltier for up to 80 percent of the year," the release says. That "has implications for farming, urban water use and the environment, as well as degradation of streamwater quality," says Matthew Ross, a Ph.D. student at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. His co-author is Fabian Nippgen, assistant professor of ecosystem science and management at UW. Their study was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. "It is among the first studies to document mountaintop-removal coal mining's long-term impacts on watershed, and to show how mined areas contribute to local and regional stream flow," the release says.

Wind companies offer job training to former oil, gas and coal workers in Wyoming

Turbines at a wind farm in Wyoming
(Wyoming Public Media photo)
Wind-energy companies are offering job training in Wyoming, a state known more for fossil fuels, and will expand to coal country next, Heather Richards reports for the Casper Star-Tribune. Wind-turbine manufacturer Goldwind Americas has partnered with wind-energy developer Viridis Eolia to offer three seminars in the state to see if Wyoming workers are interested in becoming wind technicians.

The wind companies are looking to snap up oil-and-gas workers who are looking for jobs, figuring that those workers "have skills that are transferrable to the wind industry," such as working in hazardous conditions with heavy machinery, Goldwind Americas CEO David Halligan told Richards.

At the first meeting in Rawlins, more than 100 people showed up. In Casper, 40 came. The final seminar will be in Gillette, the "center of the nation's coal industry." The companies will offer free training for wind technicians, and hope to employ many of them on a planned 600- to 800-turbine farm near Medicine Bow. Wind technician is the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S., and is expected to grow another 108 percent over the next 10 years. And though Wyoming has been a coal powerhouse for the past 40 years, the industry is increasingly changing to other sources of power such as natural gas and renewable energy.

Some local politicians acknowledge that wind farms could be good for the economy of Wyoming. "I'm a former, probably, wind hater," Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, told Richards. "I was raised in Midwest, [where] it's all about oil and gas and coal. But I think I've kind of jumped over that fence in the last year because of these realities coming at us."

Duke Energy wants customers to help pay for coal ash cleanup

Duke Energy dug up toxic coal residue from a spill from its
Dan Rivervpower plant in Eden, N.C.(Associated Press photo)
Duke Energy Corp. wants to increase electricity bills an average of 15 percent for 1.3 million North Carolina customers to pay for cleaning up the toxic byproducts of burning coal to generate power, Emery Dalesio reports for The Associated Press. People who live near the power plants were already unhappy, since they've been living on bottled water since toxic chemicals appeared in their wells. Charles Walker Jr. of the western North Carolina town of Allen says the company's profits should paying for the disposal. "In my opinion, if you’re going to be negligent, if you made a mistake, you need to feel the sting. Don’t just pass it on,” Walker said in an interview. “If a septic company comes to my house and accidentally spills sewage all over my property, are they going to send me the bill for that?”

The request for the rate increase from Duke Energy Progress was filed in June and is the first time Duke has tried to get North Carolina consumers to pay for part of the estimated $5.1 billion it will cost to clean up the waste there and in South Carolina. The increase would generate an extra $477 million per year. "The bulk of that would cover ongoing costs of replacing coal-burning plants with natural gas and storm repairs," reports Dalesio. "But it also includes $66 million already spent to deal with coal ash, and $129 million more in future clean-up costs." Duke Energy Carolinas is the holding company's other North Carolina subsidiary, and will likely request a similar rate increase for its 2.5 million customers in coming months.

Duke produces an average of 150 pounds of coal ash a year per household, but says it is disposing of it appropriately and coal-ash storage basins are not allowing toxic chemicals to seep into the surrounding groundwater, and that cleaning up the coal ash is a routine expense.

In one county, many non-coal jobs link to coal, but seeds of a more diverse economy are there

A new coal mine in western Pennsylvania is generating an estimated 70 jobs, but locals say that's not enough. Somerset County, which made news in 2002 when nine coal miners were rescued from several hundred feet underground after being trapped for four days, has a population of about 77,000 and voted overwhelmingly for President Trump. NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed workers and employers in Somerset County to see how they make a living and what else they think Appalachia needs in order to attract opportunity.

Somerset County, Pennsylvania
Many locals work in tourism. Terry Smith was a miner for 25 years and says he would love to do it again if he could. But he developed black lung and now manages the bowling lane at a nearby ski resort. People have mined here for generations but even if the coal industry expanded again, modern mines employ far fewer people than they used to.  And "Somerset County has other employers in bigger industries where President Trump's influence is much less certain."

The medical sector is a large source of local jobs. One firm makes devices to help people with sleep apnea or black lung. Jeremy Rogers moved to Somerset County in his 30s to work there, and says they're a union shop employing about 300 people. Somerset Hospital, meanwhile, employs 900. CEO Craig Saylor says "We have a largely senior community that does not want or cannot travel." Inskeep reports up to 80 percent of the patients here rely on Medicare or Medicaid, and "The hospital could be affected by a Republican health bill that would restrain Medicaid spending." Saylor worries about the impact of Medicaid cuts on local employees: "Ultimately, someone has to either take a pay cut or, in the case of hospitals, absorb that loss of care."

Some locals work in the expanding field of renewable energy. Erik Widner, 28, oversees a wind farm with 68 turbines spread out over two mountain ridges near the town of Berlin. He's a Somerset County native who came back after college to work at the wind farm. "There's a lot of young folks that are just leaving the area. But with the wind industry coming in, there's a lot of good-paying jobs for technicians," Widner told Inskeep.

The owner of auto repair shop Barron Trucking says some employers would love to hire more, but are having a hard time finding qualified workers. "Trying to find a blue-collar worker in this area that can pass a drug test is the biggest challenge," says Jim Barron, and estimates that eight out of 10 applicants would fail a drug test. He acknowledges that auto repair is hard work and that "the pay does not justify the hours that you put in." The lack of high-paying jobs and economic development means that many qualified workers leave to find jobs elsewhere. "You've got to go where the jobs are," says Barron. "The only thing that has moved to Somerset is fast food."

"One thing we saw in the rural economy was possibility," reports Inskeep, a graduate of Morehead State University near the Appalachian coalfield. "No one industry will likely dominate as coal once did here, but we found the seeds of a more diverse economy with multiple employers, more flexible in hard times. It'll be up to Somerset County residents to grow it, though decisions being made in Washington will influence their chances."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Federal Reserve looks at farm economy by district

The Federal Reserve Board's latest "Beige Book" update about the U.S. economy includes several observations about agriculture in several banking regions. Here's a sample, thanks to the Farmdoc Project at the University of Illinois:

Atlanta: “Heavy rainfall due to Tropical Storm Cindy exacerbated areas’ crop moisture conditions in much of the District that were already categorized as abnormally moist to excessively wet, and there were early indications of some crop damage. . . . On a year-over-year basis, prices paid to farmers in April were up for cotton, soybeans, and broilers but remained down for corn, rice, beef, and eggs.”

Chicago: “The agricultural sector continued to operate under stress in late May and June, with reports of some crop and dairy operations exiting or filing for bankruptcy. . . . Milk prices were lower, which contributed to mounting losses for many dairy operations.”

Minneapolis: “Agricultural conditions weakened since the previous report. Severe drought conditions affected the Dakotas and parts of Montana, hampering crop progress and triggering disaster relief payments to ranchers in some areas.”

Kansas City: “Farm revenue remained subdued since the previous reporting period, as most agricultural commodity prices remained low. . . . Livestock operators were slightly more optimistic than earlier, as cattle prices increased modestly from a year ago. Hog prices also increased modestly from the previous reporting period as global demand for meat products remained relatively strong.”

For the full Farmdoc excerpts from the report, click here. For the report, go here.

Scopes trial town has long had statue of Bryan, the prosecutor; it's getting one of defender Darrow

In the small Tennessee town where the "Monkey Trial" of John Scopes brought Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to the forefront of national debate in 1925, a group of atheists and agnostics will unveil a monument to honor the defense attorney in the case, reports Michael Miller of NPR.

In the trial, three-time Democratic presidential nominee and former secretary of state William Jennings Bryan was the special prosecutor of Scopes for teaching evolution in a Dayton, Tenn., high school, saying it violated a state law that made teaching human evolution illegal in public schools. Clarence Darrow, a leading civil libertarian, defended Scopes. Bryan was an influential "Christian crusader," while Darrow was a famous proponent of science and secularism, Miller notes. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 but the verdict was voided on a technicality.

The trial put Dayton, which then had a population of 2,000 or less, on the map. Now numbering about 7,200, it has an annual Scopes Trial Festival, which starts Friday, and businesses with sly nods for names such as the Monkey Town Brewing Co. (serving Evolution IPA on tap). A bronze statue of Bryan has long stood in front of the Rhea County Courthouse, funded by Bryan College, a local evangelical institution. The statue of Darrow, which cost about $150,000 and was created by Philadelphia sculptor Zenos Frudakis, was funded mostly by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"It'll get people thinking and talking," Frudakis told Miller. "And it's just more historically balanced and accurate that way to have him there."

Rhea County, Tennessee (Wikipedia map)
Some locals are unhappy about the statue, as the Dayton Herald-News reported, but others have no problem with it, Miller reports. Christian writer Rachel Held Evans, who wrote the memoir Evolving in Monkey Town, told him, "I'm a Christian who believes in evolution, and those two things can exist together."

Texas special session may limit cities and towns' control over local issues, please rural voters

Urban Texas leaders are fuming over a 30-day special legislative session which many believe will give conservative state officials more control over local issues in more liberal cities, report Andy Duehren and Shannon Najmabadi for The Texas Tribune. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick applauded the session for addressing issues important to conservative, rural Texans, saying it "solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas."

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called the session, which will begin Tuesday, July 18, after partisan gridlock kept necessary legislation from passing earlier in the year; without this "sunset legislation," several state agencies would have to shut down. But Abbott also announced 20 items he plans to add to the agenda, including "how much cities can collect in property taxes, how much cities can spend, how cities can physically grow in size, permit construction projects, regulate land use and prohibit texting while driving," reports Matt Dotray for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

Mike Ward of the Houston Chronicle reports that Abbott also wants to pass a transgender bathroom bill, prevent most union dues from being deducted from government paychecks, give teachers a raise by restructuring how schools spend their money, toughen mail-voting fraud penalties, expand a task force studying maternal mortality, limit state and local spending, and prohibit local governments from using taxpayer money for abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

The Texas Municipal League says the bills are "an all-out assault on the ability of citizens to decide what’s best for their communities and neighborhoods." Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope told Dotray that these bills are coming from "the same state legislature that sued the Obama administration countless times for interfering with state decisions." He says he agrees with some of the proposed items, but they should still be decided locally.

Some believe Abbott called the special session partly to outflank his more conservative lieutenant governor, writes Ward. "This was clearly to take control of the situation back from Dan Patrick and to be clear that he's in charge of the right wing of the [Republican] party in Texas," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. The session will cost at least $800,000 and could be as much as $1 million.

Secretive deregulation teams in administration include dozens with potential conflicts of interest

The Trump administration is creating teams to aggressively cut government regulations, and some appointees have deep ties to the industries they aim to deregulate, Danielle Ivory of The New York Times and Robert Faturechi of ProPublica report.

Since most government agencies aren't disclosing who has been appointed to their deregulation teams, the reporters investigated and identified 71 appointees; 28 have potential conflicts of interest. "Some appointees are reviewing rules their previous employers sought to weaken or kill, and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone," they report. "The appointees include lawyers who have represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark-money groups, employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules and at least three people who were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for." Appointees can seek ethics waivers in order to work on issues in they may have a conflict of interest.
Two appointees to deregulatory committees may personally profit. (NYT graphic)
Agency responses to requests for records have been "denied, delayed or severely redacted," but the investigative team found ways around it. They went through 1,300 pages of guest sign-in sheets at the Interior Department and found that appointees met "regularly" with representatives from the oil and gas industry. Lobbying groups are peddling economic and legal analyses that they hope the short-staffed deregulatory panels will use to make decisions more quickly.

Here are a few of the appointees with potential conflicts of interest the Times and ProPublica discovered and the deregulation teams on which they're serving:

Agriculture: "Rebeckah Adcock was a senior director of government affairs at CropLife America, the trade association for pesticide manufacturers, where she lobbied USDA. Before that, she was director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation," where her portfolio included conservation programs.

EPA: "Samantha Dravis was general counsel for the Republican Attorneys General Association, president of its Rule of Law Defense Fund and an attorney at Freedom Partners, an organization of conservative political donors led by billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, owners of a conglomerate that sells coal, gas and other products."

Energy: "Daniel Simmons was vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank that has opposed efforts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and that has received funding from the American Petroleum Institute and the Charles Koch Institute. Prior to that, he was a task force director for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an industry-funded model bill organization, and a research fellow at the Koch-funded conservative think tank Mercatus Center" at George Mason University.

Interior: "Scott Cameron founded and was president of a non-profit organization called the Reduce Risks from Invasive Species Coalition, which has received money from Syngenta, a pesticide company that has been lobbying the Interior Department, and other industry groups. He also worked for Dawson and Associates and worked as an advisor to several companies, including an Interior contractor. Before that, he was at Interior himself."
Interior: "Daniel Jorjani previously worked for groups connected to the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch."

Consol Energy, once known as Consolidation Coal, spins off its coal assets into a separate company

Consol Energy Inc. announced that it is spinning off its remaining coal assets into a separate publicly traded company so it can focus exclusively on natural gas production, Jamison Cocklin reports for Natural Gas Intel's Shale Daily. The company, former known as Consolidation Coal, said in February that it would get out of the coal business by selling or spinning off is coal assets.

The new coal company, which will drop the Consol name, may go public as early as October of this year. Assets will include the Pennsylvania Mining Complex, a coal export terminal in Baltimore, undeveloped coal reserves in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, and an ownership interest in CNX Coal Resources LP, Cocklin notes. Consol CEO Nicholas Deluliis will continue as head of the new gas-only firm; Jimmy Brock, who leads Consol's coal division, will be CEO of the new company.

Consol coal profits have sunk while natural-gas profits have risen. (Shale Daily chart)
Consol's coal production has waned in recent years, but gas production increased more than 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, and the company has many prospective sites still to explore, Cocklin reports. It has sold off billions of dollars in coal assets over the past five years, encouraged by investors who believe they will see greater profits when Consol focuses only on natural gas.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Annual water system reports make it a good time for a primer on covering drinking-water issues

Many rural households depend on private
wells. (Photo:
Many drinking-water systems are publishing their required annual reports this month, so Joseph Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists provides a primer with general information on the topic, including the names of major players and links to good sources.

"Telling the story requires understanding of a complicated partnership involving federal, state and local governments, as well as water utilities and private citizens," writes Davis. "It also requires understanding of where water comes from and what treatment can and can't do."

Almost everyone in the U.S. drinks water from a public water system or a well. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires testing of public water systems and their water sources by state or local agencies, and you can find the data in annually published Consumer Confidence Reports. You can find nationwide data in The National Public Water Systems Compliance Report.

Water systems can issue their annual reports to the public by mail,
as Frankfort, Ky., does, or with public-notice newspaper ads.
Understanding where public water systems get their water—and the laws governing those sources—is also essential. About 66 percent of public systems are supplied by lakes, streams, or aquifers, Davis notes. Surface water, whether ultimately drinkable or not, is protected by the Clean Water Act. which is enforced by the federal government and the states.

Around 15 million American households get their water from private wells, but these are not regulated on the national level and may not be regulated much at the state level, Davis reports. This can cause problems since wells can be contaminated from "failed septic tanks, poorly managed landfills, underground fuel storage tanks, fertilizers and pesticides, and urban runoff."

"When thinking about source-water protection, it is important to understand what treatment of drinking water in public systems can and cannot do," writes Davis. Polluted water can be treated, but methods vary according to the pollutant, and the cost for more advanced treatments may be prohibitive for small public systems. Also, the chemicals used in treatment, such as chlorine, can react with organic chemicals in the water to form cancer-causing substances such as trihalomethanes. That is an example of the sort of chemical levels that systems must report to the public.

Davis lists specific issues of interest to journalists covering drinking water, along with background information and informative links for each. Topics include sewage-treatment plants, industrial discharges, septic systems, agricultural runoff, feedlots and manure, watersheds and reservoirs, and horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Rural lag in colon-cancer screening can be erased by overcoming the reluctance to talk about it

Screening for colorectal cancer isn't as common in rural areas as it is in metropolitan areas, and that's one reason the rural death rate from it is higher. But health professionals in Idaho and Kentucky have launched simple screening-promotion programs that could provide examples for the rest of rural America.

Dr. Van Breeding talks with a patient. (WEKU-FM photo)
When Dr. Van Breeding of Whitesburg, Ky., found that only 19 percent of patients at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp. had been screened, he said, "That's horrible! We've got to do better than that!" reports Dr. Kay Miller Temple for The Rural Monitor's Rural Health Information Hub:
"He said their effort started with everyone in their clinic talking about it: from check-in personnel to lab team members to providers — everyone started talking about colorectal cancer screening." Breeding told her, "We got everyone who had contact with the patient to talk about it, starting with a simple question: ‘Have you ever been screened for colon cancer?’" Breeding says the rate is now 73 percent, in "an area where its incidence and death rates are the highest in the country," Temple reports.

A similar approach was used at Clearwater Valley Hospital and Clinics and St. Mary’s Hospital and Clinics in Orofino and Cottonwood, Idaho, respectively. "Using an electronic record indicator, providers were reminded to talk to unscreened patients during any appointment scheduled for any reason," Templre reports. "In addition to talk, they mailed reminders to patients" and did community outreach.

The screening rate at the Idaho facilities was much better, 52 percent, but their quality-improvement director, Heather Hodges, said their goal was 70 percent. They are now at 69 percent and have set a new goal of 75 percent. The national rate is 60 percent; the rural rate is 58 percent and the metro rate is 63 percent. The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable’s 2018 goal is 80 percent, which acknowledges that some patients will always choose not to be screened.

"Hodges said the subject of CRC screening is a bit distasteful, but this can’t prevent healthcare organizations from doing community outreach," Temple reports. Such outreach includes a much-latger-than-life-size colon, through which people can walk. Here's a video:

“Screening rates are lower in rural areas, where geography causes barriers like lack of access to providers and lack of specialists or access to those specialists,” Dr. Djenaba Joseph, medical director for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program, told Temple. “In some states, there are hundreds of miles between the patient and the nearest endoscopist. But, regardless of location, I tell everyone, rural and urban, you can improve rates by knowing your population. Know the number of endoscopists in your area, know the population you are trying to reach, know the income limits, and know insurance status.”

Cities in Midwest come to rescue of bats threatened by fungus in rural areas but not in cities

Ten cities across the Midwest are coming to the rescue of rural bat populations that are being killed off by white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus in the caves where they hibernate. Just one example: In the mountains of North Carolina, nine of the state's 17 species have been decimated. "Since 2006, white-nose syndrome has been found in 31 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, killing millions of bats," Nick Wilson reports for the region's Mountain Xpress.

A big brown bat at the Bat Zone in
Pontiac. Detroit Free Press photo)
Bats play an important role in local ecosystems. They pollinate crops, disperse seeds, and keep down the insect population, notes mammalogist Katherine Caldwell of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that losing bats from the ecosystem could cost North American agriculture more than $3.7 billion per year.

The white-nose fungus kills bats in two ways: one direct, and one indirect. The direct way: when the fungus grows on bats while they're hibernating, it causes them to use twice as much energy as normal to maintain bodily functions. Bats must ration their energy carefully to make it to spring without eating, so the fungus can be fatal. The indirect way: the fungus irritates the bats so much that sometimes they wake up and leave the cave in the middle of the winter. The disoriented bats often starve.

Bats that roost in urban buildings are typically not affected by the fungus, so the Midwestern cities are giving rural bats a home. In Michigan, some bats that wandered away from their caves in winter have ended up in downtown Pontiac. The Organization for Bat Conservation is welcoming them with Bat Zone, a 10,000 square-foot center for preservation and education, John Wisely reports for the Detroit Free Press. He says it's part of an effort in "10 cities around the Midwest" but doesn't name them. We're asking around.

Salmon fishers' big run clouded by EPA opening door to mine that they say threatens their fishery

New York Times map
"As commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay were busy landing salmon," Alex DeMarban reports for Alaska Dispatch News, "the Trump administration on Tuesday moved to cancel the Environmental Protection Agency's 2014 action that would have blocked development at the Pebble gold and copper prospect in Southwest Alaska," which foes say threatens the salmon fishery.

The mine, which would also produce molybdenum, has been proposed for more than a decade. Last month the Trump administration settled a lawsuit by the developers, allowing them to apply for federal permits. On Tuesday, EPA "proposed withdrawing its 2014 determination barring any large-scale mine in the area because it would imperil the region’s valuable sockeye salmon fishery," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. "Even if the EPA eventually does withdraw its opposition, Pebble Mine would have to undergo a federal environmental review and clear other state hurdles before construction could begin. The EPA said Tuesday that after it hears from the public and consults with local tribes, its regional administrator will make a final determination 'in consultation' with" EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

"The opposition to the mine, including lodge owners led by Trout Unlimited, appears to be just as active as before," DeMarban reports from Alaska. "The proposal came as fishermen enjoy one of their biggest salmon-fishing seasons in years," according to Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, who DeMarban "reached by cellphone as she was commercial fishing with a net off the beach near Dillingham," he reports. She told him the announcement was "a stab in the back" to subsistence and commercial fishermen in the bay.

Shale-gas boom leads to plastic-pellet plants, but Appalachian infrastructure for them is lacking

A planned cracker plant in Beaver County,
Pennsylvania. (Royal Dutch Shell rendering)
Appalachian states are poised to capitalize on the world's growing appetite for plastics, not only with shale gas and oil drilling, but with plants called "crackers" that turn natural gas byproducts into usable plastic pellets for manufacturers, Tom DiChristopher of CNBC reports.

Northern Appalachian states such as Pennsylvania and New York have large shale-gas deposits and are already profiting from drilling, but the petrochemicals boom has triggered increased investment in crackers. "Since 2010, 301 chemical industry projects worth $181 billion have been announced in the United States," writes DiChristopher. Appalachia saw $16 billion of that, but states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia could bring the region an even bigger slice of the pie.

Royal Dutch Shell will begin building a cracker plant next year along the Ohio River in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, next year. The project will create about 6,000 construction jobs and 600 permanent positions. A Thai petrochemical company, PTT, is considering building another such facility in economically distressed Belmont County, Ohio. 

Cracker plants are used because because plastic pellets are much easier to transport than raw petrochemicals, a critical factor since much of the output from cracker plants will be exported. But because of a lack of infrastructure, investors may be hesitant to locate crackers in much of Appalachia. The American Chemistry Council said that they're unsure how a transportation-and-storage hub in Appalachia could be created. "It's something of a chicken-and-egg situation: The region needs infrastructure to attract petrochemical facilities, but it's hard to get financing for infrastructure without the facilities," DiChristopher writes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Microsoft promises to harness unused TV channels to bring 'super wi-fi' to rural areas in 12 states

Microsoft map using June 2017 data from Federal Communications Commission
Microsoft says it will use the bandwidth from unused television channels, called white spaces, to deliver high-speed broadband to many of the 24 million rural Americans who lack fast internet access. The initial service will serve 12 states: Washington, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, New York and Maine, "to connect 2 million rural Americans in the next five years who have limited or no access to high-speed internet," Cecelia Kang reports for The New York Times.

Fast, reliable, affordable internet service has been a longtime problem in rural America. Internet service providers often can't justify the cost of building infrastructure in sparsely populated areas. Microsoft and other companies have been testing white spaces as an alternative since 2008. Microsoft President Brad Smith told Kang that white spaces were "the best solution for reaching over 80 percent of people in rural America who lack broadband today." For Microsoft's blog post, click here; for its white paper, here.

White spaces technology is sometimes called "super wi-fi" because it "behaves like regular wi-fi but uses low-powered TV channels to cover far greater distances than wireless hot spots, "up to 10 miles in rural areas," Jay Greene reports for The Wall Street Journal. "It is also more powerful than cellular service because the frequencies can penetrate concrete walls and other obstacles," Kang reports. Microsoft stands to profit from the service because Americans who have internet access are better positioned to buy Microsoft apps and products.

But the initiative has its challenges. TV broadcasters argue that white-space tech can interfere with broadcasts on neighboring channels. Also, not many manufacturers have devices compatible with white-space technology, and such devices cost upwards of $1,000. Only 800 such devices are registered in the U.S., according to the National Association of Broadcasters. Microsoft promises to roll out compatible devices that will cost under $200 by next year, Kang reports.

Some, including broadcasters who jealously guard their parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, remain skeptical. “Microsoft has been making promises about white-spaces technology for well over a decade,” Patrick McFadden, an associate general counsel for the NAB, wrote in a comment filed with the Federal Communications Commission. “At what point do we finally conclude that the white spaces project is a bust?”

Microsoft declined to say how much it will spend on the 12 projects, but "estimates it would cost $10 billion to $15 billion to connect rural America with broadband access using TV white spaces, compared with $15 billion to $25 billion using fixed wireless technology, and $45 billion to $65 billion running fiber-optic cable to homes," Greene reports.

Democrats target several districts to win House in 2018; several are rural and labeled 'Left Behind'

For Democrats to win the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections, they "will need to make big gains with suburban voters, defend incumbents in rural districts where President Trump remains popular, topple a handful of Republicans in the Sun Belt and probably win a handful of seats that still aren’t on anyone’s radar," writes analyst James Hohmann of The Washington Post.

Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to control the House. But while 23 Republican-held districts went for Hillary Clinton, those members are not necessarily vulnerable, since many are popular and have distinguished themselves from Trump's message, Hohmann says. Another complicating factor for Democrats: They must defend seats in 12 districts that went for Trump in 2016.

The analysis features an in-depth look at 65 districts where a majority might be won. The "Majority Maker" district analysis, created by the Third Way think tank using 48 census data points, divides swing districts into four categories: "Diverse/Fast-Growing Regions, Thriving Suburban Communities, Left Behind Areas, and Non-Conformist Districts." The districts are demographically diverse; some are suburban and mostly white, some are rural and heavily Latino. There are also wide differences in income, education level and employment. Many of the districts are mainly rural or have significant rural populations, and are mostly categorized as "Left Behind Areas."
"The most important takeaway is that there is no one kind of voter or district that can deliver the House for Democrats in 2018,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, who co-authored the report with Ryan Pougiales. "There are a lot of different kinds of candidates and policies we’re going to have to welcome into the coalition to win. There’s no single kind of candidate that would resonate in all these places. The idea of purification – that we just need one kind of person who is going to bring us the majority – is not borne out by how different these places look."

Research shows hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil can contaminate drinking water 1 kilometer away

A new research paper indicates that horizontal hydraulic fracturing can contaminate drinking water up to one kilometer from the well pad. Elaine Hill of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and economist Lala Ma of the University of Kentucky looked for a consistent connection between shale-gas drilling and water quality in Pennsylvania, a state with large shale-gas reserves.

Many Pennsylvania residents have said for years that the drinking water near fracking sites made them sick, David Trilling notes in Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. The Environmental Protection Agency agreed in December 2016 that there is a connection between fracking and contaminated groundwater. The research from Hill and Ma answers the question of how far shale gas drillers need to stay away from drinking water.

Hill and Ma took 54,809 water samples over five years within 10 kilometers of a well pad, a group of wells. Trilling lists their takeaways:
  • Adding a well pad within 0.5 kilometers of a water-intake location is associated with a 2.7 percent increase in fracking-related contaminants.
  • Contaminants fall as the distance increases. A well pad within 1 kilometer is associated with a 1.5 percent increase in contaminants.
  • Beyond 1 kilometer, the results are no longer statistically significant.
  • A well placed uphill from a water source poses a slightly greater threat, providing “evidence that, unsurprisingly, it is the uphill threats that are disproportionately affecting drinking water quality.”

Missouri and Arkansas ban sale and use of dicamba herbicide that drifts on wind and damages crops

UPDATE, July 15: Tennessee placed restrictions on use of dicamba, Pam Smith of DTN reports: New rules "require anyone spraying dicamba to be certified as a private or licensed applicator and keep records of the applications. Available hours to spray dicamba are now restricted to a period of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to avoid temperature inversions. No older formulations of dicamba products can be sprayed in agricultural settings for the remainder of the agricultural growing season. Applications over the top of cotton after first bloom are also prohibited."

Soybeans damaged by dicamba herbicide
(University of Missouri photo)
Missouri and Arkansas announced on July 7 the immediate ban on the sale and use of dicamba, following two years of complaints that the herbicide drifts on the wind and damages crops. The Missouri ban is considered temporary, "until a solution is reached," and the Arkansas ban will last at least 120 days, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

The Arkansas State Plant Board has received almost 600 complaints about the issue, causing it to recommend a ban on June 23. A state Legislative Council committee chose to take no action on the ban, enabling it to go into effect July 11. Arkansas farmers caught using dicamba will face a $1,000 fine, which will increase to $25,000 after August 1, Clayton reports.

Missouri Soybean Association President Matt McCrate estimates that more than 200,000 acres of soybeans in the state have been damaged by dicamba in the 2017 growing season alone. The Missouri Department of Agriculture received 212 dicamba-related complaints in the past fiscal year (July-June), up from 27 the year before, Benjamin Herrold reports for Iowa Farmer Today.

Farmers use dicamba on Xtend brand soybeans and cotton, which are genetically modified to tolerate dicamba, notes Herrold. Many Missouri farmers switched to Xtend beans because most of the cotton grown in the state's southeastern "Bootheel" was already the Xtend variety, and herbicide drift was damaging non-resistant soybeans. "A lot of people felt like they had to protect themselves," said Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri weed scientist who has been speaking out on the issue. "In the Bootheel of Missouri, it's a tremendous problem."

At a recent event, Bradley said that nighttime spraying, tank contamination and improper straying setup could be contributing factors to the problem. According to Herrold, Bradley "called on chemical companies, farmers, applicators and experts at MU and the Department of Agriculture to work together." Bradley said, "Everybody has a role. It's a call to action."

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rural counties with more than half of kids on Medicaid voted overwhelmingly for Trump

More than half the children in 780 mainly rural counties rely on Medicaid and the related Children's Health Insurance Program, and 617 of those counties voted for President Trump, Noam Levey reports for the Los Angeles Times, drawing on data from the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute's Rural Health Policy Project.

For an interactive map, with data for all 780 counties, click here.
Parents and medical providers are becoming increasingly alarmed as the Republicans who many of them voted for are moving to scale back those programs, Noam N. Levey reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"There is just no way to cut Medicaid on the scale that they are talking about and avoid hitting kids," said Dr. Traci Acklin of Montgomery, W.Va., where more than two-thirds of the voters backed Trump. "Without the health insurance, kids aren't going to get the immunizations and the checkups. There are going to be more lost days of school. More trips to the emergency room. . . . It would be food or health care for a lot of these families."

Some Republicans in Congress have been listening to these concerns. Levey and Lisa Mascaro of the Times note that several GOP lawmakers, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, have stalled the Republicans' Senate health-care bill. Polls show the Senate plan is supported by less than 20 percent of the public. The plan would limit payments to states instead of reimbursing them a percentage of what they spend. "The funding cap in the Senate bill would increase only at the rate of inflation, reports Levey, "leaving states with an increasingly larger share of medical costs, which have typically increased faster than inflation."

Medicaid and CHIP coverage for children has expanded over the last 20 years. Today, only 5 percent of children lack health coverage, compared to 14 percent two decades ago, notes Levey. Republicans insist that they won't take away those gains. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price recently said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the new legislation will make sure that "nobody falls through the cracks."

Gun owners' opinions about firearms and gun laws depend partly on whether they're urban or rural

Gun owners have different experiences and opinions about gun laws, depending on whether they live in urban, suburban or rural areas, the Pew Research Center has found in its polling.

Gun ownership is much more common in rural areas (58 percent of rural households report having a firearm), and "gun owners in rural areas are far more likely than urban owners to cite hunting as a major reason they own a gun (48 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively)," Ruth Igielnik reports for Pew. "Rural gun owners also tend to become gun owners at an earlier age," and "Americans who grew up in rural areas are more likely to have grown up with guns in their homes."

Those numbers help explain how firearms are a part of rural culture, which associates the right to own guns with a personal sense of freedom. In rural areas, 82 percent of gun owners "say the right to own guns is essential to their personal sense of freedom, compared with 59 percent of gun owners in urban areas,' Igielnik reports.

"One notable similarity between rural and urban gun owners is how they store their guns. Similar shares of gun owners in rural areas (56 percent) and urban communities (51 percent) say there is a gun that is both loaded and easily accessible to them all or most of the time when they are home."

Appalachians who are unhappy with national news media are telling their own story

Appalachian journalists, fed up with what they perceive to be biased and opportunistic coverage from national news media sources, are trying to reclaim their voice, writes West Virginia-based Catherine Moore for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Even before Donald Trump’s election, Appalachia was treated as a kind of Rosetta stone for deciphering rural white poverty in America," Moore writes. "In its aftermath, media inquiries . . . confirmed many residents’ deep-seated fear that the national press only shows up when the news is bad, or to make them look like fools or freaks. Instead of inviting input on how to frame their stories, reporters seemed to be looking for people to fit a frame they already had in mind."

When Communications Director Jake Lynch of the West Virginia Community Hub became increasingly frustrated by national media coverage, he invited members of the national media to New Story 2017, the organization's yearly conference for "people trying to drive the story and the future economy of the state." None would come, Lynch reported. "There wasn’t enough conflict or controversy, he was told," Moore writes.

At New Story 2017, a two-day conference held from June 16-17 at West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, "showcased a number of new platforms, projects, and enterprises that have sprung up to shape the narrative of Appalachia from the inside out," writes Moore. More than 300 people and organizations from Central Appalachia showed up.

"There was Kentucky-based Southerly, a robust new email newsletter aiming to fill a gap in environmental reporting in and about the South. And Mountain Tech Media's 'Upload Appalachia' internship program, designed as a vehicle for smart, talented young people to stay in the region and take on digital work. Many more inside-out, bottom-up media projects in the region—Vandaleer, Inside Appalachia, Scalawag, the Ohio Valley ReSource, WestVirginiaville, Hollow, Looking at Appalachia, Appalshop—were represented as well," Moore writes.

Large firms that are squeezing organic-milk farmers may not follow the same grazing standards

Amish organic farmer Eldon T. Miller of Kalona, Iowa,
packs eggs. (Washington Post photo by Rachel Mummey)
Amish dairy farmers who produce organic milk may soon be priced out of a living by large organic-milk operations – some of which may not be meeting organic grazing standards, Peter Whoriskey reports for The Washington Post.

Organic milk's increasing popularity has led large-scale dairy farms to get into the act, causing prices to fall, and with it, the paychecks of small organic farmers already operating with thin profit margins. In Kalona, Iowa, more than 90 farms in a 10-mile radius produce milk as well as eggs, corn and soybeans. But because of a glut of organic milk from large operations, "over the past year, the price of wholesale organic milk sold by Kalona farms has dropped by more than 33 percent. Some of their milk – as much as 15 percent of it – is being sold at the same price as regular milk or just dumped onto the ground," Whoriskey reports.

In June 2017, an investigative report by Whoriskey found that Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, one of the country's largest organic dairy producers and a supplier for Walmart, Costco and Albertsons, may not be allowing its cows to graze on grass enough to meet organic standards. Consumers pay more for milk from grass-fed cows because they believe it is healthier for the cows and makes for better milk. But grass-fed cows also produce less milk, so organic farms have an incentive to feed them grain on the sly, Whoriskey reports in his latest story.

The amount of organic milk on the market has risen disproportionately to the number of organic cows, suggesting that many organic farmers are secretly giving their cows grain. Some say that the increase in milk may be due in part to farmers reducing the amount of grazing the cow gets to the minimum required by organic regulations, Whoriskey reports.

The Agriculture Department uses inspectors hired by the farmers to investigate whether its organic standards are being met, but many argue that the department doesn't punish violators enough or at all. "The USDA has shown a remarkable lack of interest in whether these big organic dairies are really organic," Mark Kastel of the small-farm watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute told Whoriskey. USDA said it is reviewing the information from Post's investigation.

Rural Ohio editor writes in Washington Post: Opioid deaths are worse than a terrorist attack

The destruction caused by the opiod epidemic in Ohio is like a terrorist attack, writes Gary Abernathy, editor and publisher of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio, in a thought-provoking opinion piece for The Washington Post. The weapons are heroin and other opioid drugs, he says, and the terrorists are those who push them – not just by selling them on the street, but by inappropriately advertising or prescribing them. Opioid prescription rates increased in many rural areas and small towns from 2010-2015, though they fell elsewhere.

"Our vaunted 'war on drugs' has long represented little more than benign phraseology," Abernathy writes. "But it has become a real war, and the drug cartels and pushers here and abroad are enemy combatants. Until we respond as we would to any terrorist attack, the casualties will continue to mount."

In Abernathy's small town of Hillsboro alone, he notes that increasing overdoses are putting stress on local emergency responders and the foster care system. When parents are arrested for using drugs, their children must be placed in a foster home. But with only 15 foster families available in Highland County, the more than 100 local children in foster care sometimes must be placed in other counties at a higher cost.

Ohio leads the nation in deaths from opioid overdoses, with more than 4,149 Ohioans dying from it in 2016 -- more than died on Sept. 11, 2001. And that's a 36 percent increase from 2015, report Alan Johnson and Catherine Candinsky of the Columbus Dispatch. Ohio coroners say 2017 is on pace to outstrip 2016. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine recently sued pharmaceutical makers, alleging that they encouraged the problem with misleading marketing. And Highland County's prosecutor has been charging purveyors of fentanyl-laced heroin with involuntary manslaughter when it results in a death, instead of treating such incidents as accidental deaths, Abernathy reports.

Minn. governor cancels meeting on walleye fishing ban after protesters in boats surround his

Dayton gave a thumbs up after landing a bass at the
start of the season in Mille Lacs. (Official photo)
UPDATE, Aug. 14: Dayton has a closed meeting today with Mille Lacs resort owners.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton canceled a meeting with business owners around a popular fishing lake Saturday "after about 75 protesters in boats encircled him on the lake to protest a temporary ban on walleye fishing" that started Thursday and runs through July 27, Sarah Jarvis reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Dayton, a Democrat, was trying to promote bass fishing and "spent about 90 minutes on the water before heading back to land," Jarvis reports. "Passengers on roughly 25 boats displayed balloons and signs reading “REGULATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION = TYRANNY” and “GOV. DAYTON STOP LAKE MILLE LACS POLITICS!

"Dayton said he respects the protesters’ frustration, but he defended the ban as a way of preserving the struggling walleye population," Jarvis writes. "He said he canceled Saturday’s meeting — which was going to include several Lake Mille Lacs-area business owners — because he didn’t want to 'reinforce that kind of destructive behavior.' He said he would meet with them later." Some business owners told Jarvis the walleye ban would cost them tens of thousands of dollars.

Jarvis notes, "For more than 20 years the state has managed the lake with Minnesota and Wisconsin Ojibwe bands that net walleye but have been consistently under their quota." Walleye are more prized than bass.