Friday, August 04, 2017

Strip-mine law turns 40 years old; under Trump, there are questions about its enforcement agency

Forty years ago yesterday, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act, versions of which President Gerald Ford had twice vetoed. Dylan Brown of Greenwire took the opportunity to look at the strip-mine law and the federal agency that enforces it, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, generally called OSM.

Typically for a relatively new regulator of a controversial and contentious industry, "Greens see OSMRE as being beholden to companies and industry-friendly states, while mining interests decry a heavy hand, particularly during the Obama years," Brown reports.

The two sides also disagree on OSM's management of money gleaned from the law's tax on coal that funds reclamation of mine sites abandoned before its passage. "According to OSMRE, $5.5 billion out of nearly $8.5 billion in fees made available for reclamation has been dispersed, but at least $10 billion of high-priority reclamation work is left nationwide, Brown writes, quoting a citizen critic:

"Some of us, including me, were dumb enough to think if we had the law, everything was going to be all right," said Ellen Pfister, a rancher and advocate with the Northern Plains Resource Council. "That has not been the case. So you have to keep your attention focused on it. That's what some of us have done for the rest of our lives."

The Trump administration has killed the "stream protection rule" that the industry said would prevent most strip mining, but has not yet named an OSM director to replace Joseph Pizarchik, the director who issued the rule. Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt presided at a staff-only meeting to observe the anniversary, Brown reports.

Congress deciding whether to ban, or almost ban, jailing truants, who are disproportionately rural

A bipartisan bill to change aspects of the juvenile-justice system passed the Senate Aug. 1 and now moves to a conference committee to mesh the bill with a similar one the House passed in May. The Senate bill would mostly prevent juveniles from being incarcerated for "status offenses," those that are only a violation for minors, such as skipping school or running away from home.  "The Coalition for Juvenile Justice noted that while the Senate bill would allow young people to be put into the juvenile-justice system for skipping school in certain circumstances, the House bill would eventually disallow the practice entirely," Ujifusa reports. Rural schools have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, according to a Department of Education report. Here's a county-by-county map (click on it for a larger version):
Share of chronically absent students, as mapped by U.S. Department of Education
"The bill also puts a greater emphasis on screening and treatment for those with mental-health issues, retaining educational records of juveniles in detention centers, and ensuring that students in juvenile-justice centers get appropriate credit for academic work while they are in the juvenile-justice system," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. Both bills are a reauthorization and update of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, first passed in 1974 and reauthorized in 2002.

One of the Senate bill's sponsors, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, said the bill includes "important new accountability requirements that safeguard taxpayer dollars and prevent states from being rewarded when failing to provide the minimum standard of protections for minors." The other primary sponsor, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, said the legislation "helps kids stay on track at school."

Death rate in coal mines jumps; feds blame new miners; old miner points to greed and politics

"Deaths in U.S. coal mines this year have surged ahead of last year's, and federal safety officials say workers who are new to a mine have been especially vulnerable to fatal accidents," Dylan Lovan reports for The Associated Press. "But the nation's coal miner's union says the mine safety agency isn't taking the right approach to fixing the problem."

In 2015, top MSHA officials met with miners in the Gibson
North mine at Princeton, Ind. (AP photo by Timothy Easley)
Ten coal miners died in mines in the first seven months of this year, but only eight died during all of 2016. The Mine Safety and Health Administration says it is "sending officials to observe and train miners new to a particular mine on safer working habits," Lovan reports, but the United Mine Workers of America points out that inspectors on such visits can't cite mines for violations they see. "To take away the inspector's right to issue a violation takes away the one and only enforcement power the inspector and the agency has," UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in recent letter to agency, part of the Department of Labor.

The uptick in fatalities was reported July 31 by Gary Bentley, a retired miner, in The Daily Yonder. Relatively few miners have written about their experiences underground, so Bentley's occasional contributions to the Yonder give valuable insight. He writes:
   As an underground miner, I do know that miners often put themselves at risk with no pressure or persuasion from the company. I have done it more times than I can count, but I was lucky enough to not suffer any serious injuries. I also know that as market values change and profits begin to dwindle, many companies become more lax with safety initiatives and often have to reduce the amount of preventative maintenance done on equipment. All of that does result in an increased likelihood for accidents. I also know that many times mine managers would work out deals with state and federal inspectors to avoid fines and tickets, and sometimes to completely avoid a safety inspection at all. The industry is corrupt from the top down, and it’s no news for anyone who has worked in it.
   The problem now is our political climate. We are seeing a steep decline in the coal market values and demand. There are companies cutting benefits to miners and cutting cost wherever possible to continue earning a profit. Now there are politicians and lobbyist groups working to cut environmental and safety regulations in an attempt to keep the coal companies in business, making a profit, and, in turn, keeping that black gold flowing into their political campaigns and pockets.
Tim Loh of Bloomberg has a story about the uptick, with an example of a Kentucky miner who died at a mine that was found to have several violations. With the story is this chart (click to enlarge):

Conservation Fund buys forest to preserve it, bring back logging jobs, thwart developers

A new McMansion in the Cowee Forest (Photo by Alexander Kaufman)
In an effort to preserve dwindling forests in the Northeast, nonprofit organization The Conservation Fund closed a $25 million deal Aug. 1 to buy the Cowee Forest, which covers 23,053 acres in New York, Massachusetts and Vermont. The purchase may help bring logging jobs back to an area hurt by their loss, Alexander Kaufman reports for The Huffington Post. The Cowee Forest was once owned by a wood milling company that made the tiny forked stakes that used to hold up notes in flower arrangements, but the Cowee family sold it to investors in 2009 after increasing competition from plastics companies made the mill unprofitable.

It's one example of a growing trend of struggling milling companies selling off lands to investors who sell those former logging lands to developers for large summer homes for wealthy city dwellers. This takes away their economic potential for logging. "When properties get fragmented, they lose the economic integrity as timberland," Larry Selzer, chief executive of the Conservation Fund, told Kaufman. "Once they lose the economic value, then it’s an inevitable march toward conversion and development."

But logging jobs can come back to privately owned forests, which welcome sustainable forestry as a way to keep the forests clear of deadwood. "Those jobs are an economic engine for rural areas that industry has abandoned. Conservation easements help not only to preserve the land, but to put it in the hands of the people who depend on it," Kaufman reports. Conservation Fund Chief Executive Larry Selzer says "What we’re doing is preserving the rural character, meaning lands stay as forested lands, preserving the forest-based economy of logging, trucking, value-added manufacturing, like flooring, furniture and molding."

VA pilots programs to help rural veterans get care

Rural veterans often have difficulty getting to appointments if the nearest Department of Veterans Affairs medical treatment center is far away, so the VA is piloting programs to help. Rural areas already struggle with medical access for the general population, but the problem is worse for for the 24 percent of veterans who live in rural areas and are more likely to need medical care. "In recent years, the VA has set up more community-based clinics, and the Obama administration created a program, called Choice, that allows non-VA clinicians to serve rural veterans and receive reimbursement from the VA. But the problem persists," Jen Fifield reports for Stateline, the the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

President Trump announced Aug. 3 that the VA is launching a telehealth program that will allow veterans to access medical care from a mobile-phone app. "This will significantly expand access to care for our veterans, especially for those who need help in the area of mental health, which is a bigger and bigger request, and also in suicide prevention," Trump said. "It will make a tremendous difference for the veterans in rural locations in particular."
Map by The Pew Charitable Trusts (click to enlarge)
Congress voted last week to fund the Choice program for another six months while it debates long-term solutions to the problem. But the program "has been plagued with problems from the start, including difficulty for veterans trying to make appointments, and long wait times for reimbursement," Fifield reports. In order to truly improve care for veterans, "the VA needs to expand both the services it provides and the services it pays others to provide," said Margaret Puccinelli, chairwoman of the Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to VA Secretary David Shulkin.

The task of figuring out new strategies for expanding services falls to the VA's Office of Rural Health, which distributes grants to local programs that show nationwide promise. Such programs include "using home-based rehabilitation for veterans who have heart attacks, and using telehealth for patients with HIV or multiple sclerosis," Fifield reports. Another promising initiative is the Volunteers of America North Louisiana program, which uses paid drivers to pick up rural veterans, including those in wheelchairs, from their homes and ferry them to appointments. Older VA programs to transport rural veterans didn't pick up patients from their homes and did not transport patients in wheelchairs. Another program is run by the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors, which placed 10 coordinators in local health departments to get word out about services available to veterans and teach health-care workers how to identify veterans who need help.

Ultimately though, continued access to Medicaid may be one of the biggest factors in rural veterans' health. Most veterans rely on a mix of VA health insurance and either private insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare. According to a data analysis by Families USA, a health-care advocacy group, more than 1.75 million veterans use Medicaid, and 340,000 were able to enroll because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Andrea Callow, associate director of Medicaid initiatives at Families USA, told Fifield that, for veterans in rural areas, "Medicaid could mean the difference between them getting care, and them not getting care."

Study says minorities drive growth in rural West

A study by rural research group Headwaters Economics found that minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, and/or foreign-born residents, are driving rural growth in the western United States. "Analysts looked at data from the U.S. Census Bureau and compared the populations and demographics of rural counties from 1980 to 2015. Nearly every county saw a growth in minority populations, echoing the shift in demographics of the nation as a whole," Matthew Reichbach reports for New Mexico Political Report.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. in both rural and metropolitan areas, owing to both immigration and a higher birth rate. The pronounced growth in the West may partially be due to industries such as oil and agriculture that require younger workers. "Young people move to where jobs are available," Headwaters geographer Kelly Pohl told Reichbach.
Headwaters Economics map
Some other interesting takeaways from the report:
  • 203 rural Western counties gained population, and in 39 of them it was almost completely due to minorities.
  • 75 rural Western counties lost population overall, but minority population increased in 73 of them. 
  • The number of minorities decreased in only two of the 203 rural western counties in which population grew.
  • The top five fastest-growing rural Western counties were: Nye, Nevada; Eagle, Colorado; Lyon, Nevada; Summit County, Utah, and Teton County, Idaho.
  • African American populations increased in 89 percent of rural Western counties, though at a slower rate than Hispanic or foreign-born residents.
  • Rural Western counties with the most growth in African American population are generally on and near Indian reservations or faster-growing exurban counties near metro areas.
  • The foreign-born population grew in 80 percent of rural counties. The 'foreign-born' category encompasses anyone who was not a U.S. citizen at birth, including naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, temporary migrants, humanitarian migrants, and unauthorized migrants.
  • Undocumented immigrants comprise about a quarter of the foreign-born population in both the U.S. and in the West. 
  • 85 percent of the undocumented are concentrated in urban counties of California and Arizona.

Rural teachers fight opioid epidemic by using best-selling book Dreamland to teach about it

Scioto County, Ohio
(Wikipedia map)
Lawmakers and communities all over the country, especially in rural areas, are scrambling to find ways to combat the opioid epidemic. One teacher in southeast Ohio had a novel solution: teach high-school students about the crisis to forewarn and forearm them. When history teacher Cyndy Hykes read Sam Quinones' book Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opioid Epidemic, which includes much reporting from their region, she immediately saw its potential as a cross-curricular teaching tool. "She thought it provided valuable insight about the outside forces shaping the opioid crisis in their community and explained why the author deemed Appalachia the canary in our societal coal mine for opioids," Martin Blank writes for The Huffington Post. Black is the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, based at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

In fall 2016, Hykes and an English teacher colleague, Judy Ellsesser, began teaching the material to students at South Webster Junior-Senior High, a school of 650 students in Scioto County. "During English class, Ellsesser worked through the text with the students, thinking critically about the information. Then with Hykes in history, the students learned more about the political side of the crisis and the policies affecting the epidemic; they also learned about how they could get involved. The math teacher, Matthew Whitt, was also involved. He helped students analyze and understand the statistical information in the book documenting opioid use and deaths," Black reports.

The teachers also brought in guest speakers such as a judge who spoke about the spike in foster care and babies born addicted, as well as current efforts to focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment for drug offenders. U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio talked to the kids about how politics and government affect the area's opioid epidemic, and encouraged students to speak up on issues to their representatives.

The students became heavily engaged in the project, creating public service announcements and volunteering at the local hospital to hold babies born with an addiction. The teachers report that the project was a success with high community support, and that they intend to teach it again. "It is real-life stuff that shows students how these things shape their life and how they can have a role in it," Hykes told Black.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Mobility, especially rural, is at historic low; affects national and local economies, and politics

Americans have always been a mobile crowd, prone to move to other communities or states for better opportunities in times of economic stress. But that's changing. "The overall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985," Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report for The Wall Street Journal. That drop is affecting everything from the economy to the political climate.
Wall Street Journal map (click on it to view a larger version)
In rural areas, though "lots of struggling residents see leaving as the best way to improve their lives, a surprising share remain stuck in place," Adamy and Overberg write. "For a number of reasons—both economic and cultural—they no longer believe they can leave."

The decline in rural mobility is caused by a number of practical factors, they report: Housing costs are a big barrier to entry: many rural Americans just can't afford to live in the city without a substantial nest egg or a good job already waiting. Government aid programs and community support may also make some people unwilling or unable to leave. In the small town of West Branch, Michigan, where one in 10 residents live in subsidized low-income housing, civic leaders say "extended networks of friends and family and a tradition of church groups that will cover heating bills, car repairs and septic services—often with no questions asked—also dissuade the jobless and underemployed from leaving."

A trend toward requiring state-level job licensing may also discourage people from moving across state lines for a better job in their field. More than one quarter of U.S. workers now require a license to do their jobs. "Janna E. Johnson and Morris M. Kleiner of the University of Minnesota found in a nationwide study that barbers and cosmetologists—occupations that tend to require people to obtain new state licenses when they relocate—are 22 percent less likely to move between states than workers whose blue-collar occupations don’t require them," the Journal reports.

Cultural issues may play just as important a role in dampening rural mobility as practical considerations. "Tom W. Smith, who runs the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, says that cities’ welcoming attitudes toward immigrants from abroad, same-sex marriage and secularism heighten distrust among small-town residents with different values. That widens the cultural gulf," the Journal reports. And people may feel overwhelmed and isolated when they move to the city, as West Branch woman Taylor Tibbetts did after trying college in South Carolina. She came back home after just a week, but laments her inability to leave: "I can’t be the kid that just stays here forever."

Yale University law professor David Schleicher told the Journal that "this drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful. This limits the economic growth that naturally occurs when people and capital cluster together." The "brain drain" that happens when rural residents move to bigger cities for better jobs has always hurt rural economies, but keeping people home isn't helping either, because the high-paying jobs aren't available in rural areas. Staying put for years or generations can also make communities more insular, contributing to the deepening political divide.

Study finds that growing up in areas that are the most rural leads to higher income as an adult

If you want to give your child a leg up in life, especially if you're of modest means, consider living in the country. A study by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty says that children who grow up in most rural areas succeed more as adults. "Children growing up in poor families in three out of four rural counties have higher incomes than the national average at age 26 simply as a result of spending time in these communities," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. Wealthy children benefit from the rural effect too, but to a lesser extent than children growing up poor. Teasing out the data even further shows that the upward mobility effect is greater for boys than girls, and less overall for children who are black or Native American.
Map by Dave Mistich,, w/Equality of Opportunity Project data
"This increased income is the result of 'neighborhood effects' that can either help or hinder children who grow up in every community. . . Rural places more often have the combination of factors that help poor children succeed in the labor market," Bishop reports. Such positive factors include less segregated communities, good schools, low crime rates, less wage disparities (so communities are not starkly separated into haves and have-nots), and strong civic connection. Based on those yardsticks, neighborhood effects in urban centers are largely bad for children in poor families, Chetty found. A county-by-county map shows that the very best place for children to grow up is in the rural expanses of the Great Plains states. The catch? In order to earn those higher incomes as adults, rural residents may have to move away to more populated areas where the jobs are available.

Fertilizer runoff causes biggest oxygen-free 'dead zone' ever measured in Gulf of Mexico

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that the oxygen-deprived "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest one ever measured, "adding fuel to a debate over whether state and federal governments are doing enough to cut pollution that comes from farms," Dan Charles for NPR.
This year's dead zone (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration graphic)
The New Jersey-sized dead zone is the result of heavy rains this year that washed fertilizer nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from Midwest farms down the Mississippi River. "When it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, those nutrients unleash blooms of algae, which then die and decompose. That is what uses up the oxygen in a thick layer of water at the bottom of the Gulf, in a band that follows the coastline," Charles reports. Fish that live closer to the surface can get away, but bottom-dwelling organisms that form a vital part of the food chain die off.

Government agencies have promised to take action, and have encouraged Midwest farmers to limit fertilizer runoff by taking such measures as planting grassy strips along streams to use up the fertilizer. One Iowa farmer has been tinkering with crop rotation methods to reduce fertilizer use and waste. And scientists at the University of Illinois are tackling the problem with a filtration system made of woodchips. But former NOAA top scientist Don Scavia, who prompted the agency to start analyzing the dead zone in 1985, wrote in a blog post that voluntary measures will not be enough to improve the situation.

Scavia argues that the Gulf should receive the same kind of federal protection as the Chesapeake Bay. "In 2010, though, despite fierce objections from farmers, the federal government set mandatory limits on nutrient pollution entering the bay. State governments spent billions of dollars to meet those targets. Now pollution in the bay is down, and some wildlife in the Chesapeake is starting to recover," Charles reports.

Immigration bill unlikely to pass; House chairman wants visas for undocumented farm workers

Sen. Tom Cotton, President Trump and Sen. David Perdue
unveiled the immigration plan. (AP photo by Evan Vucci)
President Trump and Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed an immigration bill that would prioritize applicants who speak English, are younger, have more education and have job offers in place. The bill, a revised version of legislation introduced in February, would also "eliminate a program to allot visas to countries with low rates of immigration to the United States; cap the number of refugees granted permanent visas at 50,000 per year; and eliminate visa preference for family members of U.S. residents except for spouses and minor children," Alexis Simendinger and James Arkin report for Real Clear Politics.

Trump said that the legislation would raise wages for American citizens and reduce federal spending on government benefits for some unskilled immigrants. The president's campaign promises of immigration reform won big points with voters. His endorsement of this bill is important because it signals how he intends to deliver on those promises. However, "The legislation is unlikely to see the Senate floor, let alone become law," Simendinger and Arkin report. "It received mixed reviews from senators in both parties Wednesday, and is unlikely to gain much traction in the coming months."

If passed, the legislation “could have a distant effect on farm labor because it would halve the flow of legal immigrants,” reports. "House Judiciary [Committee] Chairman Bob Goodlatte expects to introduce soon a bill to create a new agricultural guest worker program, to be called H-2C, which also would be open to farmworkers now in the country illegally. It would allow guest workers to work at year-round jobs on farms and at food-processing plants for up to three years at a time. An estimated half to 70 percent of farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. Growers say the current H-2A visa system for seasonal workers is cumbersome and sometimes does not deliver enough workers in time for harvest."

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Sam Shepard chose to die in rural Kentucky, where people in Midway respected his privacy

Shepard at the Sundance Film Festival in
2014 for the opening of "Cold in July."
(Photo from
Tonight on Broadway in New York, the lights of theater marquees will go dark for one minute to honor Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, screenwriter, director, author and Oscar-nominated actor, who died Thursday at 73. In one small town in Kentucky, spirits are already dimmer, because folks there remembered Shepard as a good neighbor, and one whose privacy they respected.

Shepard had a home at a small horse farm near Midway, a town of 1,800 halfway between Lexington and the state capital of Frankfort. John McDaniel, a city council member and correspondent for The Woodford Sun, the local weekly, wrote a 1,700-word appreciation of Shepherd for the Midway Messenger, which has the same publisher as The Rural Blog.

"The news did not surprise me, because I had seen him out just a few couple of months ago on Main Street and saw how much different he looked from just a little over a year ago before he found out that he had ALS," McDaniel reports. "Seeing him in his wheelchair, it was easy to surmise that his days left on this earth were few."

"It’s going to be a little bit different not seeing Shepard in town anymore, hanging out on the downtown patios or squirreled away in back of one of the Midway restaurants, writing notes in his notebook or reading a book as he ate," McDaniel writes. "I think a lot of people were intimidated by Shepard. Though they were excited to see him in the flesh, it was very seldom that onlookers would actually stop to ask him for an autograph; most would just stare at him. Midway residents would smile and speak but, I only knew a few who ever bothered him for a picture or autograph. Townspeople made it a point to respect his privacy, and I believe that is why he liked Midway so much."

McDaniel concludes: "There is no doubt that Sam Shepard was a very talented, complex and intelligent person. He could be rude, he could be funny, he could be compassionate, and he had days that he just didn’t give a damn. I liked him for a lot of reasons, but he won me over because during one of our talks he once told me that he really did like Midway and that it had such a quality that even he had a hard time finding the words to describe the area around here. Maybe that’s why he chose to spend his last days here."

UPDATE, Aug. 7: John J. Winters writes on The Conversation that Shepard grew up rural and told Playboy in 1984, “One of the biggest tragedies about this country was moving from an agricultural society to an urban, industrial society. We’ve been wiped out.” Winters adds, "Shepard's characters embody this loss. . . . Shepard’s love of the country and its open spaces would mark all aspects of his career." He also cites Patti Smith's tribute in The New Yorker.

Examining rural broadband with a profile of county that may have the nation's worst internet access

A fascinating article from FiveThirtyEight puts the issue of rural broadband access under a microscope with a profile of Saguache, Colo., which has the worst internet access in the country. It's emblematic of the 23 million rural Americans—almost 40 percent—who don't have broadband access. Only 5.6 percent of adults in Saguache were estimated to have broadband.

The mountains that define its beauty are part of the problem. Clare Malone writes, "Saguache (sa-WATCH) is nestled in between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan ranges, a four-hour drive southwest of Denver. Its population of 6,300 is spread across 3,169 square miles 7,800 feet above sea level, but on land that is mostly flat, so you can almost see the full scope of two mountain ranges as you drive the county’s highways." The mountains sometimes block telecom signals and make it more expensive to lay fiber-optic cable. The size of the county, sparsity of population, and average income are also problematic. "In Saguache, internet problems are both logistical and financial; the county is three times the size of Rhode Island, while 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line," Malone reports.
Estimated share of adults with typical internet speeds faster than dialup (FiveThirtyEight)
Price disparities can be huge even when rural Americans do have access to it. "For around $30 a month, New York City internet providers offer basic packages of 100 Mbps service. In Saguache County, such a connection is rare; if a household wants a download speed of 12 Mbps with an upload speed of 2 Mbps, they can expect to pay a whopping $90," Malone reports. That's a problem when so much of modern life depends on decent internet access: not just Netflix and video games, but banking, news, telemedicine, studying, and business needs. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, cited a 2016 study from the Hudson Institute that estimated that online retail sales in rural areas would be at least $1 billion higher if their internet was as high-quality as their city counterparts'.

Some argue that internet access is now as necessary to Americans as electricity. Could the government lend a hand in bringing broadband to rural areas, as President Franklin Roosevelt did with electricity? Then, the government provided loans to local co-ops that were already building networks; a similar model may prove promising in modern times. President Trump has proposed $200 billion in infrastructure spending, and said he would promote broadband access in rural America, but there are no concrete plans yet.

CSX, which once lived on coal, won't buy any more coal trains: 'Fossil fuels are dead,' its boss says

Hunter Harrison
If you live in Appalachia, CSX trains carrying coal down the rails has been an everyday sight. But CSX's new president thinks that may soon be a thing of the past. During a conference call with industry analysts last week, Hunter Harrison said he thinks "fossil fuels are dead" and the company will not buy any more locomotives for coal trains, Gregory Meyer reports for Financial Times. He stressed that coal will be mined for years, and said "The last carload of coal that’s shipped out of this country, I want to be the carrier that ships it." But he believes the end is coming. "That’s a long-term view. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to be in two or three years. But it’s going away, in my view.”

Harrison's comments underscore those of other industry experts predicting the continued decline of coal, despite President Trump's efforts to revive the industry. In March, "Robert Murray, owner of the world’s largest private coal company, said he told Trump to 'temper his expectations' about reversing coal’s decline. And in May, Gary Cohn, director of the White House's National Economic Council, told reporters that coal 'doesn’t make sense anymore,'" Chris D'Angelo reports for The Huffington Post.

Jacksonville-based CSX had a strong second quarter overall, but profits from coal were about half what they were in the second quarter six years ago. "U.S. power generators are building more plants fuelled by cheap natural gas, displacing old coal-fired unites. Falling costs for solar and wind energy have also eaten into coal's market share," Meyer notes.

The company's stock dropped about 6 percent following the announcement, perhaps also because Harrison said during the conference call that he doesn't plan to stay at CSX long. "I'm a short-timer here," he said. I'm the interim person that's going to try to get this company to the next step and good foundation." He also said that 700 more layoffs may be on the way, Will Robinson reports for the Jacksonville Business Journal.

A Kentucky team just won yet another national championship, but not the one you're thinking of

Kentucky is well-known for college basketball championships, but a very different kind of team is well on its way to a dynasty. The Future Farmers of America's dairy judging team from Spencer County High School in Taylorsville has been on a roll in recent years: they've won the national FFA contest for the past four years, and seven total of the contests since 2005. And in June they placed second in the International Dairy Judging competition in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Spencer County High School FFA Dairy Judging Team (photo provided)
What's really interesting about the team is that none of the four boys, all honor students, live on a farm or own any dairy cattle, retired journalist Keith Runyon of Louisville reports for The Huffington Post. But veteran agriculture teacher Bland Baird, who has mentored Spencer County teams and agriculture students since 1977, mentored the boys every step of the way. Though he retired two years ago, he stayed on part-time to coach the team. Let's meet them:
  • David Luke Williamson will be a finance major at Western Kentucky University, and he plans to attend law school afterward.
  • Michael Bentley will attend the Speed Engineering School at the University of Louisville, where he will major in electrical or mechanical engineering.
  • Max Dippell will attend the University of Kentucky, majoring in agricultural education. His goal is to follow in Baird’s footsteps as an agriculture teacher.
  • John Brumley will be a pre-veterinary medicine major at Murray State University. in far Western Kentucky.
Mary Berry Smith, the daughter of writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry and executive director of the Berry Center in New Castle, Ky., told Runyon that the team is practicing skills that are too often ignored in schools: "How wonderful to know about a good teacher and bright students studying what, I believe to be, the essential knowledge of how human beings feed themselves. Especially in a state with a strong dairy farming history. That in itself is the most hopeful of news. That they have been and are being internationally recognized for their achievement is a credit to them for their hard work, and it gives me another reason to be a proud citizen for the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

Bipartisan commission asks Trump to declare opioid epidemic a national emergency

"The White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis has asked President Donald Trump to 'declare a national emergency' to help fight the deadly opioid epidemic" in an interim report released July 31, Meredith McGraw reports for ABC News. The bipartisan task force, led by Republican N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, was created by President Trump in March to combat the opioid epidemic ravaging America.

"Our nation is in a crisis," said the report. "Our citizens are dying. We must act boldly to stop it. The opioid epidemic we are facing is unparalleled. The average American would likely be shocked to know that drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined." With 142 deaths each day related to opioids, the report says that "America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks."

"The commission hopes that by declaring a national emergency, the federal government will be able to do things like negotiate pricing on naloxone for governmental units and grant waivers to states to increase treatment availability," McGraw reports. Democratic W.V. Senator Joe Manchin said in a statement that such a move would help his constituents, who have been among the hardest hit by the epidemic. "When I’m on the ground in my home state of West Virginia and when I hear the stories of those struggling with opioid addiction it’s obvious our country is in crisis. Declaring a national emergency will allow the Administration and Congress to act with the immediacy that’s needed to end this epidemic."

The report also recommends equipping law enforcement officers with naloxone (an emergency treatment for overdoses), as well as mandating education initiatives for legal prescribers of opioids, finding ways to detect fentanyl, and trying to reduce the stigma associated with addiction. The commission plans to travel the country to meet with struggling communities and learn about successful approaches to addressing the issue. Their final report is expected to be released in the fall.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Bipartisan groups of governors, House members propose fixes for subsidized health insurance

Congress has tried and so far failed to repeal or replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so a bipartisan group of governors is trying to repair it. The seven Democrats and six Republicans in the Governors' Bipartisan Health Reform Learning Network have crafted a slew of proposals: They want "federal money to stabilize the ACA’s health insurance marketplaces, and greater power to manage them," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "They argue it should be easier for states to customize Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance for the poor, and they want new tools to curb fast-rising drug prices. And they insist that states should continue to regulate the health policies sold within their borders."

The group, which was assembled by the National Governors Association in March, released a list of its ideas in June. They plan to continue meeting for the next 18 months to distill their ideas into policy proposals that, they hope, will be enacted through congressional legislation or Cabinet-issued regulations. The states in the governors' group are: California, Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

In Washington, a bipartisan group of House members called the Problem Solvers Caucus has also proposed some fixes: "permanently funding extra Obamacare subsidies for cost-sharing discounts, repealing the ACA’s medical device tax, giving states greater flexibility to manage their marketplaces and creating a federal fund to help cover the costs of the sickest, most expensive patients," Paige Winfield Cunningham reports for The Washington Post. "Yet Republicans face ongoing, heavy pressure from the White House to revisit their partisan repeal-and-replace effort, largely via a string of tweets from President Trump blasting them for failing to pass a bill and threatening to hold hostage extra Obamacare subsidies for insurers that could help stabilize the marketplaces." Those cost-sharing discounts are especially important to rural areas.

States paying more attention to risky dams

The Federal Emergency Management Agency classified about 14,000 of the more than 87,000 dams in the U.S. as "high hazard potential" in 2016, and some states are taking it seriously.
A map of U.S. dams shows that many are rated "high hazard." (FEMA map)
California officials have ordered the owners of 93 dams, many of them utility companies, to inspect their flood-control spillways. The inspection was prompted in part by the failure of the Oroville Dam north of Sacramento in February, which caused 188,000 downstream citizens in small towns and rural areas near the dam to evacuate. The list of dams to be inspected includes some of the largest in California, but the number is still less than 10 percent of the 1,250 dams overseen by the state's Department for Water Resources dam safety division, Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow report for The Sacramento Bee. The dam safety division wrote in a letter to the dam owners that preliminary assessments of the dams, which are 70 years old on average, "may have potential geologic, structural or performance issues that could jeopardize its ability to safely pass a flood event."

In Virginia, about $1.15 million in state grants has recently been dedicated to upgrading 72 dams in the state. More than half are classified as "high hazard", which means they pose the greatest threat to life and property if they fail, Spencer Burke reports for WVIR-TV in Charlottesville. Albemarle County Environmental Services Chief Greg Harper told Burke, "Some of the dams around here started out as being farm ponds, so a lot of the construction techniques maybe weren't that great."

In Kentucky, where the eastern coalfield has many dams rated as high hazards, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate awarded the state Division of Water a $200,000 grant for a pilot project on dam safety. The funds are to be used to research and "develop instrumentation monitoring and flood warning systems for dams," The Associated Press reports. The state anticipates additional funding in 2018 to execute the plan on a state-owned dam.

In Oregon, legislators have approved a bill that would "require the owners or operators of high-hazard dams to develop emergency action plans for their structures," Michael Harris reports for HydroWorld.

Read more here:

After record number of ballot initiatives, state legislators scramble to challenge or change them

"State legislators across the country fought back this year against a recent surge in citizen-generated ballot initiatives by modifying or scrapping voter-approved laws and passing new laws to make it harder for people to put measures on the ballot in the first place, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline, the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2016, citizens initiated 76 ballot measures in 26 states and Washington, D.C., the highest number in 10 years. Part of the reason is that a lower voter turnout in the 2014 elections meant that voters in some states didn’t need as many signatures to submit ballot initiatives. In response to this, some states tried to make the process more difficult to discourage future attempts. In 2017, 186 bills in 33 states have been introduced to make changes in the initiative process; 17 have been approved and 61 are still pending. The bills "added or lifted restrictions on the process, changed campaign finance rules, and added supermajority requirements, among other provisions," Povich reports.

Ballotpedia graphic
Another, larger reason for the glut of initiatives was that voters were attempting to address controversial issues that lawmakers didn’t want to deal with, like marijuana legalization. And finally, a growing number of initiatives have been submitted by citizens representing lobbyists. "The intent of progressives in initiating initiatives and referenda [historically] was to circumvent legislatures that were not doing the people’s will,"says Maurice Cunningham, an associate political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "Now referenda are often used by interests that can’t get something through the legislative process — hearings, amendments, debates — but can put a measure on the ballot and, by virtue of campaign spending, have a pretty good chance to get voters to pass it."

Josh Altic of Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that tracks ballot initiatives, told Povich, "We have definitely seen some notable cases of legislative tampering this year, especially with regard to the boldness with which legislatures are willing to change or repeal initiatives." For example, a voter initiative helped make medical marijuana legal in Florida, but state lawmakers then decided that it couldn't be smoked (triggering a lawsuit from one of the initiative's backers). In Maine an initiative was passed that imposed a new tax on the wealthy, but state lawmakers repealed it.

Why so much resistance to voter initiatives? One reason might be that the issues highlighted lawmakers' unwillingness to tackle lightning rod issues. But lawmakers say "many of the ballot measures voters approve are sloppily written, don’t take into account current law, or wouldn’t have the effect intended," Povich reports.

California dairy farm's electricity comes from manure; may save money and help environment

California organic dairy farmer Albert Straus says he has the perfect, if ironic, energy-saving solution for his operation: cow poop. "All of the electricity needed to run the Straus truck, several smaller vehicles and the entire dairy farm comes from a system fueled by methane gas from the cows’ manure," Tara Duggan reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. Straus says his Marin County farm has been off the grid since he installed the methane-based energy system in 2004, and hopes he is an example to other dairy farms.

"What we’re trying to make here is a model of showing that farms can be part of the solution for climate change," Straus told Duggan. His farm has a "20-year plan to sequester the equivalent of 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The United Nations estimates that livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions," Duggan reports. Keeping the methane from hitting the atmosphere could help California's efforts to improve the environment. The state has resolved to cut greenhouses gases down to 40 percent of where they were in 1990 by the year 2030.
Straus and his cows (San Francisco Chronicle photo by Gabrielle Lurie)
Converting to methane could save money for farmers and ranchers in the long run, but the up-front costs can be high. Straus says the truck will save the farm about $10,000 a year in fuel and maintenance, but a new truck is $65,000 to $100,000, and Straus spent $130,000 to convert the truck to the new fuel system. And the methane digesters that convert the gas into electricity cost more than $300,000, though some grants are available. Straus says he has been trying to convince state lawmakers to create loans for farmers to buy the digesters. He's also consulted with a company in Washington state that farmers might be able to hire to build and maintain the digesters.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Next health-insurance battle is over cost-sharing subsidies that are more important in rural areas

"Even if they weren't able to snuff out Obamacare, Republicans appear determined to ensure its marketplaces accelerate their meltdown," Paige Winfield Cunningham writes for The Washington Post's "Health 202" roundup. With the GOP fractured on what to do legislatively, if anything, a top aide to Donald Trump said the president will decide this week whether to keep funding the cost-sharing subsidies that help lower- and mid-income people pay deductibles and co-payments. The funding is more important in rural areas, because they have lower incomes and fewer choices of insurance, which leads to higher premiums.
New York Times graphic; click on it to view a larger version
Trump has repeatedly threatened to stop the subsidies, as part of a "let Obamacare implode" strategy that he mentioned again Friday. Some expert observers doubt he will do that, but "Trash talking has its own effect," Timothy Jost, a health-reform expert and emeritus law professor at Washington & Lee Universitytold Mara Lee of Modern Healthcare. "We could see Anthem withdraw from all the markets in all the states if they think he's about to do something really stupid."

Trump could also drop an appeal of a federal court decision that says the payments are illegal because Congress hasn't appropriated money for them. That would put the ball back in the lap of Congress, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after his last-ditch, Republican-only bill was defeated Friday that he wanted to hear ideas from Democrats, but "Bailing out insurance companies without any thought of reform is not something I want to be part of."

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of three Republicans to vote against McConnell's bill and a former state insurance commissioner, said Trump's threats have "contributed to the instability in the insurance market" and "I seriously hope that in the meantime the president doesn't do anything to hasten that collapse." She said the payments are "not an insurance company bailout, but help people who are very low income avoid their out-of-pocket costs . . . It would really be detrimental to the most vulnerable citizens if those payments were cut off." The subsidies are available to people with incomes up to 250 percent of the poverty line.

Collins and some other Republicans want a bipartisan approach, starting with committee hearings on stabilizing the individual market. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said immediately after the bill's defeat that it "leaves an urgent problem that I am committed to address—Tennessee's state insurance commissioner says our individual insurance market is very near collapse."

Most of Tennessee has only one Obamacare insurer, and Humana, which serves counties around Knoxville and Maryville, Alexander's home, has announced it will heave at year's end. State officials are negotiating to bring Anthem back into the region. Alexander "was one of seven Republicans who broke rank with their leaders and voted against an amendment to repeal the Affordable Care Act within two years, which would have given lawmakers more time to come up with a replacement plan," Michael Collins reports for the USA Today Network.

Bloomberg News is continuing to update its county-by-county interactive maps of individual insurance coverage under Obamacare; here's a screenshot of one map, showing gains and losses:

Shipping companies' extra delivery charges for rural areas pinch small-business owners

Most small businesses in rural areas already operate on tight margins, but one factor might be making things harder: the surcharges for mail delivery to remote areas. The "delivery-area surcharge" is a long-time practice of both UPS and FedEx, but some small business owners say it's putting a big dent in their finances. Sarah Sell reports for WZZM-TV in Fremont, Mich.: "Chad Korytkowski, owner of Tru Fit Birkenstock, gets multiple deliveries a week from footwear companies. Each time, there is an extra, 'rural delivery' charge and Korytkowski says it adds up quickly, leaving him to pay $500 to $1,000 on busy months." Korytkowski told her, "As a small business, mom and pop, brick and mortar business, dollars count. And shipping is a big part of that expense."

Sperling's Best Places map
Adding to the confusion, WZZM discovered that the ZIP codes considered "rural" by FedEx were hit-or-miss. Fremont is listed, but several smaller surrounding communities are not. The 2017 list of ZIP codes that are assessed a delivery-area surcharge are listed here for FedEx and here for UPS.

Delivery-area surcharges are just one way mail carriers are trying to make rural delivery cost-efficient. UPS began testing drone deliveries in February, saying that reducing the driving distance by one mile per driver per day could save the company up to $50 million. Drone delivery is still probably years away from implementation. The U.S. Postal Service is also exploring ways to make its rural routes more helpful, such as providing basic financial services. That could be helpful since more than 60 percent of USPS branches are in ZIP codes where there are either one or no bank branches.

CDC reports spike in fentanyl overdose deaths

The monthly Vital Signs report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids spiked from 3,007 to 9,580 between 2010 and 2015—a 219 percent increase, concentrated mainly in 2013-15. Since prescription rates for legal opioids such as fentanyl, tramadol and Demerol remain much higher than in 1999 but are fairly steady, illegally manufactured fentanyl is likely the biggest culprit for the spike, Wendy Holdren reports for The Register-Herald in Beckley, W.Va. Fentanyl is often mixed with cocaine and heroin and can contribute to overdose deaths from those drugs.

The amount of legally prescribed opioids varies widely by county, but is higher in large towns and small cities. Prescriptions also spike in areas, many of them rural, where there is a larger percentage or residents who are white, uninsured or unemployed, or have diabetes, arthritis or other disabilities.

CDC graphic; click on it to view a larger version
"West Virginia has seen the most dramatic spike of drug deaths related to synthetic opioids followed by Ohio and Maine," reports Kara Lofton of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. "Experts say the data points to the need for closer collaboration between public-health and public-safety groups. They recommend increasing the amount of the overdose antidote naloxone on hand for first responders and expanding naloxone access to people at risk for opioid-related overdose."

Perdue's changes make chickens, animal welfare organizations, and corporate customers happier

A new Perdue chicken house with plenty of light
and enrichments. (NPR photo by Dan Charles)
In a move hailed by animal-welfare organizations, major poultry producer Perdue Farms is making big changes to treat its chickens more humanely, Dan Charles reports for NPR. Perdue recently invited representatives from the Humane Society of the United States, Compassion in World Farming and Mercy for Animals on a tour of a sample chicken house with the new modifications.

The chickens will still be raised in the long barns typical of the industry, but Perdue added plenty of windows so the hens can get more light, as well as wooden boxes to hide in, hay bales to perch on, and wooden pallet ramps to play on. CWF Executive Director Leah Garces told Charles that the windows made a big difference, and that the chickens were "running around, climbing on things, pecking, perching."

Perdue isn't just making the changes for chickens' happiness. Company Chairman Jim Perdue says the company learned that organic chickens, which have more room to run around, have higher quality meat. "Activity is the key," he told Charles. And, Perdue is responding to pressure from big corporate customers. Major institutional food-service companies such as Aramark and Compass say that by 2024 they'll only buy chickens raised and killed according to new rules set forth by the Global Animal Partnership. "That means, in addition to natural light in chicken houses, a new slaughtering process that uses gas to make the birds unconscious before they're killed," Charles reports. "This would replace electrical stunning, in which the birds are hung by their feet on a kind of conveyor belt and their heads come into contact with electrically charged water."

Perdue is working toward satisfying almost all of GAP's standards, but is still researching how to fulfill the most difficult one: A demand that poultry producers use slower-growing breeds instead of the fast-growing hybrids such as Cobbs or Cornish Crosses that are typically used by large-scale operations. Those hybrids tend to have more health problems than heritage breeds and also wouldn't be able to run around and enjoy chicken life on the hay bales in the new Perdue houses. But slower-growing chickens cost more to raise and look different, so grocery store shoppers will have to pay more for smaller chickens with more dark meat.