Friday, September 29, 2017

Reporter rides along with food-bank delivery truck to examine one rural county's food insecurity

Food bank director Jeff England distributes food to residents. (Photo by Lisa Morehouse)
A great story from The Food & Environment Reporting Network zeroes in on tiny Trinity County in California to tell readers about why this rural area is struggling--and what one man is doing to help. Though more than 10 California counties have higher poverty rates, Trinity is still one of the state's most food insecure places. To find out why, reporter Lisa Morehouse rode along with Jeff England, the director of the Trinity County Food Bank as he began his monthly food distribution run around the mountainous northern California county.

She quickly discovered that the roads can be treacherous, and the nearest large grocery store is more than 100 miles away in Eureka or Redding. And Trinity County residents struggle with opioid addiction, as many places in rural America do (Trinity County, as we mentioned in a recent blog piece, has more opioid prescriptions than people). Some have criticized England's food bank, saying it only enables drug addicts. "We don’t judge people, and those druggies have kids. The kids might not get food normally," England told Morehouse. Besides, England says he struggled with addiction many years ago. "A lot of people don’t know what it is to be hungry,” he told Morehouse. "But if you’ve ever been hungry, it’s a horrible feeling. You’re weak. You can’t do anything. You don’t have any ambitions. I’m so happy to be able to turn the table and be able to help people that might have been in my shoes before."
Trinity County
(Wikipedia map)

Opioid addiction isn't the only cause of the food insecurity in Trinity County. At one food bank stop, Greg Raines told Morehouse he was frustrated because of the lack of senior housing, and that the influx of marijuana farmers have caused rents to increase. He worked in a now-closed sawmill in the town of Hayfork for 17 years until he broke his back; now he gets about $800 a month in social security.

Morehouse found that there are very few farmers in Trinity County. Sue Corrigan, the manager of the farmer's market in Weaverville, said only about 10 farmers sell produce there. Partly because the territory is so mountainous, but locals say the government flooded much of the county's arable land with a reservoir from the Trinity Dam. "We’ve had three different rushes: First the gold rush, second the timber rush, and now the marijuana rush which is called the green rush," Corrigan told Morehouse. "The focus has been on other industries and not a food sustainable industry."

"England says he and his team have more than doubled the amount of food they’re bringing into Trinity County in the last year. The Food Bank and Trinity County Food Assistance deliver one bag or box of food to 2,500 households each month. That’s 20 percent of the county. And they could do more, but their antiquated refrigerator and freezer are so small, sometimes they have to decline donations of perishable food," Morehouse reports.

Study identifies COPD as main culprit behind recent rise in deaths from chronic respiratory disease

Researchers found that "despite mortality declines in recent years, deaths from chronic respiratory disease in the U.S. have increased significantly over the last 3.5 decades, driven largely by the larger burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)," Salynn Boyles reports for MedPage Today. The research was conducted by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and is the first nationwide study of such data on a county level.

The institute's analysis of chronic respiratory disease deaths between 1980 and 2014 showed an overall 29.7 percent increase in such deaths. Of those 4.6 million deaths, 85 percent were from COPD, with the highest percentage of COPD deaths occurring in central Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley. During that 35-year period, COPD went from the fourth-leading cause of death in the US to third place.

Asthma, asbestos exposure (especially near petrochemical facilities) interstitial lung disease, and smoking were also significant causes of death. One of the researchers, Laura Dwyer-Lindgren, said that regional rates of tobacco use are mostly responsible for the county-level differences in mortality. "County-level changes in the mortality rate from COPD during the study period ranged from a 60.5% decline in deaths to a 263.7% increase," Boyles reports.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Drs. David Mannino and Wayne Sanderson of the University of Kentucky said that the findings provide insight about where interventions should be focused. "For example, pneumoconioses should be nearly completely preventable by occupational safety measures," they wrote. "For asthma, these data demonstrate success in reducing mortality over 35 years in most, but not all, parts of the country; future success will require focusing interventions in the counties that have lagged behind in the overall mortality decrease." COPD, they said, is a "particularly pressing" challenge that will require major investments in smoking prevention and cessation, and research to develop better COPD treatments.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Aging, and John W. Stanton and Theresa E. Gillespie.

Washington state denies key permit for terminal that would help export U.S. coal to Asia

"Washington state on Tuesday rejected a key permit needed for a proposed terminal to export coal to Asia, another blow to companies eager to sell Wyoming and Montana coal to Asian markets and to the Trump administration’s policy of global energy dominance," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters.

The state Department of Ecology denied Millennium Bulk Terminals the water-quality permit because the project would cause environmental harm in nine important areas: air quality, vehicle traffic, vessel traffic, rail capacity, rail safety, noise pollution, social and community resources, cultural resources, and tribal resources. "The coal terminal also would have increased diesel pollution, a toxic air pollutant, and caused an unavoidable increase in cancer risk rates in a neighborhood along the rail line in Longview," said Department of Ecology spokesperson David Bennett in a press release.

"It is the last of six proposed coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest that have been denied approval by state regulators or the Army Corps of Engineers amid opposition from states and the Lummi Tribe, who argued that coal terminals interfered with their fishing rights," Volcovici reports.

The proposed export terminal would be the largest in the United States, exporting up to 44 million tons of Powder River Basin coal each year. The terminal would give coal companies a domestic alternative to exporting coal from the Westshore Terminal in Vancouver, British Columbia. That could be important, since British Columbia has threatened to stop exporting U.S. coal through Canada, following a trade disagreement over softwood exports.

"U.S. coal exports have jumped more than 60 percent this year because of soaring demand from Europe and Asia, according to a Reuters review of government data in the first half of the year," Volcovici reports. "Some analysts say the trend may be temporary, depending on coal price trends in Asia." Approving the terminal would bolster President Trump's goal of turning the U.S. into an "energy dominant" nation by exporting domestically produced energy.

Forum on improving rural infrastructure coming up

The Farm Foundation will host a free forum on the task of improving, expanding or replacing parts of the nation's rural infrastructure. The Task of Rebuilding Rural Infrastructure Forum will go from 9 -11 a.m. Oct. 3 in the Holeman Lounge at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW, Washington D.C. A free live audiocast will be available if you cannot attend, as well as a recording for later.

"We all recognize that the need for infrastructure improvements exists--everything from roads and bridges to electric and water supply systems and broadband service," says Contance Cullman, President of The Farm Foundation. "To make effective and efficient infrastructure investments, we need to understand the economic, public safety, national security and financing factors that must be considered."

Forum panelists will provide perspectives on the critical role of the broadband superhighway, rural transportation needs, financing options and how infrastructure impacts rural businesses and communities. Cullman will moderate the discussion. After comments by the panelists, the floor will be opened for questions and discussion. The panelists will be:
  • Mark Burton, Director of Transportation Economics at the University of Tennessee's Center for Transportation Research.
  • Robbie Boone, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Farm Credit Council, one of the member organizations of Rebuild Rural
  • Nick Tindall, Director of Government Affairs with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which recently completed a member task force report on infrastructure needs. 
  • Jannine Miller, Senior Advisor for Rural Infrastructure, Office of the Secretary, US Department of Agriculture.

Click here to register if you plan to attend the Forum in person (the event is free, but advance registration is mandatory).

Click here to listen to the live audiocast.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

US and Mexico expand Colorado River Compact

The Colorado River is in the midst of a historic drought.
(Smithsonian photo by Peter McBride)
After months of negotiations, U.S. water district officials said that "the United States and Mexico have agreed to renew and expand a far-reaching conservation agreement that governs how they manage the overused Colorado River, which supplies water to millions of people and to farms in both nations," Dan Elliott reports for the Associated Press. The deal, which was signed yesterday, is known as Minute 323, an amendment to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty. It will be in effect for nine years.

The U.S. and Mexico first created the Colorado River Compact in 1922; the two nations agreed to work together on river management since the Colorado and its tributaries run through seven U.S. states before passing briefly through Mexico and emptying into the Gulf of California. Because of heavy use, the river usually dries up before it reaches the ocean.

The average annual flow of the river is about 20 billion cubic meters of water; Mexico is promised 1.9 billion cubic meters of that under the agreement. Also, the U.S. must invest $31.5 million in conservation improvements to Mexico's water infrastructure to reduce water loss to leaks and other problems. Mexico, in turn, must develop specific plans for reducing water consumption if the river runs too low to supply everyone's needs. Major consumers of the Colorado's waters would have to agree on their own shortage plan before Mexico produces one. And the deal will extend a previous agreement that both countries will cut back on water use if the river runs low.

Figuring out what to do in case of water shortage was paramount in the agreement. "The Colorado River is in the midst of a prolonged regional drought, and some climate scientists have said global warming is already reducing the amount of water it carries. A study published in February by researchers from the University of Arizona and Colorado State University said climate change could cut the river’s flow by one-third by the end of the century." Elliott reports.

Maryland sues EPA over air pollution from out-of-state power plants

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency over air pollution from out-of-state power plants that he says is hurting Maryland. The move is an attempt to force the EPA to act. The agency did not respond to his November 2016 petition or his threat in July to file suit because officials missed the deadline to respond to the petition, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

"My office has filed suit because the EPA and Administrator Pruitt have failed to stop these violations, ignoring our request to require those power plants to comply with the Clean Air Act," Frosh said in a statement. "This federal law is supposed to protect everyone against the harm of breathing polluted air, so the federal government must ensure that power plants everywhere be held accountable."

"The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Maryland, cites research and EPA data to argue that 36 power plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are violating the 'good neighbor' provision of the Clean Air Act by not using pollution control technology that is already installed," Cama reports. The air pollution drifts into Maryland and dirties up the air there, Frosh argued.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has taken a harder line on lawsuits like Frosh's than his Obama-era predecessors, criticizing them as "sue and settle" cases.

Rural students are the least likely to go to college

The National Student Clearinghouse highlights a startling trend: While 42 percent overall of people ages 18-25 are enrolled in college or other higher education, only 29 percent are from rural areas.
Why are so few rural students going to college? "The reasons for this are as myriad as they are consequential, affecting everything from regional economic competitiveness to widening political division," Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick report for The Atlantic and The Hechinger Report.

It isn't that the students aren't academically prepared. Rural students score higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their urban and suburban counterparts, and they're more likely to graduate high school too.

Because fewer than one in five people in rural areas have a college degree, students may lack role models who could encourage them to attend. Lack of high-speed internet can keep kids from being able to experience the world outside of rural areas and see the professional possibilities that college would offer. Widespread mental-health issues, poverty and opioid addiction can also discourage students from going to college. Some rural areas can't attract enough teachers to offer college-prep classes. And because of culture shock, rural students are more likely to drop out of college.

Some students (and their families) may believe it's still possible to make a good living from rural jobs like farming, mining and logging that don't require degrees, says Charles Fluharty, the president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Iowa. But those sorts of jobs are much more scarce in modern times, which can cause rural residents to feel hopeless and not engage in preparing for college. "A third of rural whites, and 40 percent of rural white men, are resigned to believing that their children will grow up with a lower standard of living than they did, a far higher proportion than people who live in cities (23 percent) or suburbs (28 percent), a survey by the Pew Research Center found," The Atlantic reports. And only 71 percent of rural white men think that higher education is necessary, compared with 82 percent of urban and 84 percent of suburban white men.

Fluharty told The Atlantic that this is more a cultural phenomenon than an educational phenomenon, and that encouraging a rural student to go to college instead of following in their parents' footsteps is like "suggesting that that child should not do what I have done, should not be where I have been, should not value all that I have raised them to honor, whether that’s going to the mill or turning on the tractor at 6 a.m."

Jeff Hawkins, the executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which works to encourage students in that state’s coal-mining southeast corner to go on to college, told The Atlantic that understanding and addressing this "is critical to our future, not just for employment but for civil discourse and kids feeling like they can contribute and achieve and not feeling lost and ignored."

"There are practical reasons to raise rural college-going rates. Economies in states including Iowa are shifting toward such industries as information technology, wind energy, and healthcare, which require postsecondary educations," The Atlantic reports.

Study: rural drivers more likely to die in car wrecks, less likely to wear seatbelts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last week saying that people in rural areas are less likely to wear a seat belt, and more likely to die in car crashes. "The report said that America’s most rural counties had motor-vehicle death rates 'three to 10 times higher than those in the most urban counties.'  It found that 44.4 percent of drivers and passengers were not buckled at the time of a fatal crash in urban counties, compared with 61.3 percent in rural counties," Jason Nark reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The rural West had the highest death rates, with 40 per 100,000 caused by car wrecks, while the rural Northeast had the lowest with only 10.8 per 100,000.

Philadelphia Inquirer map; click on the image to enlarge.
Click here to use the interactive version.
Laurie Beck, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, told Nark that what's most interesting about the study is that it shows that the more rural the area is, the higher the risk of crash-related death. "Seat belt laws have a lot to do with those rates. People buckle up more in 'primary enforcement' states, where a police officer can pull over and ticket drivers and passengers for not wearing one," Nark reports. "In secondary enforcement states, a passenger or driver can be ticketed only if another offense has occurred. A large swath of Western states are secondary enforcement states."

The reasons for the trend are numerous, besides the seat belt issue: In rural areas, inebriated drivers can't call a taxi or an Uber, and may be tempted to drive home. There are fewer traffic lights and stop signs, giving drivers more room to speed. Drivers in rural areas drive older cars on average, which may be more prone to mechanical failure. Deer are more likely to jump out into the road in rural areas. And when a crash does happen, it could take a lot longer for an ambulance to get there and drive the victim to a hospital.

Children's health program to run dry if not reauthorized by Sept. 30

A health care program that provides coverage for millions of children in the US is in danger if Congress doesn't act within the next few days. "Federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program—through which 8.9 million children receive health coverage—is set to expire on Sept. 30 and an act of Congress is required to reauthorize its allotment," Quinn Libson reports for Route Fifty. "If Congress fails to act, funding for the program could run out in as many as 10 states, as soon as the end of this year. Twenty-seven states will run out of their CHIP funding by March 2018." CHIP covers children in families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid.

The Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission and the Kaiser Family Foundation gather data on how much money states have for CHIP funding. Based on those numbers, the two organizations have slightly different projections about which states would run out of money for CHIP. MACPAC says Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia will likely run out of funding by the end of 2017. Kaiser has a bigger count: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Utah. Both organizations agree that all 50 states and the District of Columbia will run out of CHIP funding by the end of 2018 though, unless the program is reauthorized, Libson reports.

Kaiser Family Foundation map; click to enlarge.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the committee's ranking member, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), reached an agreement on Sept. 12 to extend CHIP for five years, with some slight alterations. Their plan would cut federal contributions to the program in half in 2020 and eliminate them in 2021, leaving states to fend for themselves. But with the recent brouhaha over the Cassidy-Graham bill, Congress hasn't been paying much attention to CHIP.

If CHIP is not reauthorized, most states will face a significant budget shortfall, since 48 out of 50 states have already passed their budgets for 2018 as if CHIP funding will continue. Linda Nablo, the chief deputy director of the Virginia Department of Medical Services, told Libson "It would be just a terrible time to try to find tens of millions of dollars more."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wind power increasingly popular in Wyoming

A wind turbine on a ranch near Casper, Wyoming. (Photo by Madelyn Beck)
President Trump wants to increase coal production in the U.S., but red states are showing a startling trend: "Over 80 percent of new wind power last year went up in states that voted for President Donald Trump," Madelyn Beck reports for Inside Energy. In Wyoming, a state known for coal, wind power is becoming especially popular.

Some of that is because farms and ranches, increasingly strapped for cash, see small wind turbine plots as a good way to supplement their income. A few years ago, for example, rural farmer Gregor Goertz (just north of Chugwater, pop. 212) "got a bunch of farmers together to form an association to pool properties and attract wind energy companies. They now have a contract with wind company Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy, which will put up the turbines once they find a buyer for all that wind energy," Beck reports. 

Critics say federal wind subsidies give wind an unfair advantage over petroleum products and ruin Wyoming's beautiful viewsheds. And that wind wouldn't even benefit Wyoming, they say, since it will likely find a market in California. 

Still, wind power's popularity is on the rise. Two huge private projects are in the works, "both among the largest in the world. And earlier this year, regional utility Pacificorp announced a multi-billion dollar plan to upgrade and expand wind production in Wyoming," Beck reports.

In all, there are plans to build more than 2,000 wind turbines across the state within the next five to 10 years. And while most of that wind power will be used in other states, the production could help farmers in conservative rural areas stay afloat.

Pulitzer-winning reporter tells students the key to investigative journalism: old-fashioned digging

We love to peek in on what journalism students are learning these days, and this story has some good reminders for the rest of us:

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter reminded some journalism students this week that good old-fashioned digging is the most important part of investigative reporting. Kimbriell Kelly, who calls herself a "data nerd," spoke Sept. 25 to students at South Dakota State University about "what it takes to get to the bottom of big stories such as police shootings and her more recent work: police officers who are fired and then get rehired at their former departments," Executive Director David Bordewyk reports for the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

Kimbriell Kelly talks to student journalists. (S. Dakota Newspaper Assn. photo)
The key to getting that information is getting access to government records, through Freedom of Information Act requests if necessary. "Kelly’s reporting the last few years has focused extensively on law enforcement and criminal justice," Bordewyk reports. "But she also has tackled other big topics as well. Before coming to the Post, she was a reporter in Chicago where she investigated housing inequities that later helped lead to large settlements from Countrywide Financial over unfair lending practices to minorities."

Her advice for journalists who need government records and information? Know your state's open government laws well, since FOIA laws can vary greatly from state to state, and ask the state attorney general's office for help when you're denied access to records. The attorney general's office understands the FOIA laws in its state and can help you navigate an appeal.

Broadcaster hires local journalists instead of 'parachute coverage'

An ambitious new project at TVO, a nonprofit educational television network in Toronto (similar to PBS), aims to cover a broader area of Canada in its current affairs show The Agenda with Steve Paikin. So far, so normal. But it's how the $2 million Ontario Hubs project accomplishes this that's interesting: Instead of dispatching in-house journalists from Toronto for short-term "parachute" coverage, TVO has hired four journalists from around Canada who have deep ties to their region, as well as one roving on-air reporter, a copy editor, and a regional editor. The reporters act as one-person bureaus and can bring knowledgeable, in-depth stories to Toronto, Karen Ho writes for the Columbia Journalism Review. To help manage costs, local universities have agreed to provide TVO reporters with office space, studio space, and access to high-speed internet in exchange for internship opportunities.

John Ferri, TVO’s vice president of current affairs and documentaries, says the project is important because of decreasing local news coverage in rural areas. "You're seeing less and less journalism on the ground, and it's affecting smaller communities," he said. "There's really a sense of something fundamental that's lost."

"The model presents an approach that could be replicated in underserved parts of the US, where the loss of local-news reporting is at a crisis point as newspapers close and remaining outlets orchestrate round after round of layoffs," Ho writes.

Rural Texas towns struggle with finances after Harvey damages water infrastructure

A month after Hurricane Harvey dumped record amounts of water on Texas, rural areas are still struggling with infrastructure issues and the cost of repairing them. "Across the state’s coastal areas, raging water from flooded rivers snaked through rural areas and hit water systems hard, gumming up sewer mains with sand and mud, pushing raw sewage into waterways and rendering drinking water wells unusable," Christopher Collins reports for The Texas Observer. "As of Monday, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) data showed that 40 counties had issued 367 notices to residents that they’d need to boil water before safely drinking it. But even after water service is fully restored, cities could be holding the bag for millions of dollars in repairs."

In Patton Village, a town of almost 2,000 just north of Houston, the hurricane destroyed a brand new $10 million wastewater treatment plant. The treatment system is running on generators now; repairing the plant could take months and cost $150,000. The town also owes $200,000 to contractors who manually pumped wastewater for days following the storm. With nearly a third of its residents living below the poverty level, the town's finances are in dire straits.

A home in Patton Village, Texas. (Photo provided by Jill Carlson)
The Rural Community Assistance Partnership estimates that around 30 other small town and rural water systems with more than 100,000 people have also been significantly damaged by Harvey. RCAP is a nonprofit that helps small town and rural areas apply for grant funding to fix water systems after disasters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a grant that gives emergency funds to communities whose water systems have been damaged in disasters. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency helps cities pay to repair damage to publicly owned facilities.

Returning the water systems to normal will take years, said Tommy Ricks, RCAP's director of environmental services. Part of that is because even small water systems must conform to federal drinking water standards. "This recovery process is not a bunch of farmers and ranchers connecting water hoses to get the water to flow again," Ricks said. "The same standards that apply to Houston apply to Patton Village."

Hospice services in rural areas can cut medical costs

"Expanding the use of hospice services among rural residents in the last six months of their lives could reduce patients’ need for more expensive and inconvenient medical treatments, a new report suggests," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

The South Carolina Rural Health Research Center analyzed a sample of Medicare records and found that 44 percent of rural Medicare patients who died in the last six months of 2013 used hospice services. More than half of their urban counterparts used hospice.
Graph by South Carolina Rural Health Research Center: click to enlarge
 That's significant because "patients who use hospice services are less likely to visit a doctor’s office, be admitted to hospitals, or require an ambulance, the study said. That can save money and allow patients to spend less time going to and from appointments and undergoing exams and treatments," Marema reports. Hospice patients in both rural and urban areas were less likely to use skilled nursing facilities or receive in-home health-care services.

The percentage of rural Medicare patients who used hospice care has increased more than 140 percent from 2000 to 2014. But access to hospice and palliative care in rural areas can be challenging because of possible factors like a lack of family caregivers living nearby, financial reimbursement issues, lack of qualified staff, and too-large travel distances, according to the Rural Health Information Hub.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Grants to fund young reporters for major news outlets in Central Appalachia

Central Appalachia will get more news coverage with funding of reporters for established news organizations by a philanthropic initiative.

The Galloway Family Foundation and The GroundTruth Project’s new “Report for America” initiative will offer establish three year-long fellowships next year for emerging journalists at the Lexington Herald-LeaderWest Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The Herald-Leader reports, "The three journalists will report directly to their respective news organizations and combine daily assignments with a longer, in-depth project that will be a collaboration of the three news organizations. (Journalists interested in applying may do so here.)

The Galloway Foundation finances journalism fellowships all over the world. Founder L. Thomas Galloway, a Kentucky native, said he hopes the effort “will increase the resources available to Appalachian journalism, and in doing so, allow for more in-depth coverage of the serious issues confronting the region.”

The Herald-Leader reporter will be assigned to Pikeville, re-establishing a bureau the McClatchy Co. newspaper closed in 2011. "In West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and West Virginia Public Broadcasting both plan to have their reporters in the southern part of the state, which like Eastern Kentucky lies in the depressed Central Appalachian coalfield.

The reporters' mentorship and training program "will include a collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting to prepare and guide the reporters to work together on a long-form piece for Reveal, the public radio program and podcast that CIR produces and distributes nationally with PRX," the Herald-Leader reports.

Tyson scraps plans for chicken plant near Kansas town after locals protest

Tonganoxie locals protest the proposed Tyson plant. (Kansas City Star photo)

After local backlash, Tyson Foods announced Sept. 19 that it will likely not build a planned $320 million poultry plant near Tonganoxie, Kansas. "In a letter to the Leavenworth County community on Tuesday, Tyson poultry president Doug Ramsey wrote, 'We’d still like to get to know each other, however, after Monday’s reversal of support by the Leavenworth County commissioners, we will put our plans in your community on hold. We still have interest in Leavenworth County, but will prioritize the other locations in Kansas and other states that have expressed support,'" David Frese and Hunter Woodall report for the Kansas City Star. Tonganoxie is a town of almost 6,000 just west of Kansas City.

Three weeks ago, Tyson announced plans to build the complex, which would have provided 1,600 jobs and processed 1.25 million birds every week. Locals protested the plans, "pointing to Tyson's environmental record and numerous other concerns about what the plant would mean to the community, Todd Neeley reports for The Progressive Farmer.

"As of Wednesday morning, more than a dozen communities in Kansas have contacted the state about having Tyson build the proposed $320 million plant in their area, said Jackie McClaskey, Kansas secretary of agriculture," Frese and Woodall report.

Media researcher who started in rural journalism sees value in newspapers' community columns

Before Sam Ford was a research fellow for MIT helping lead a study of political polarization for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, he was a rural journalist. In fact, he got his start as a community columnist for his tiny hometown, McHenry, Ky., when he was in elementary school. As he tells it in an article for Columbia Journalism Review, Ford took responsibility for the column when he grandmother became ill and needed a break.

Now, as he examines American politics in the wake of the November 2016 presidential election and how Americans view the reliability and value of journalism, Ford sees some lessons in the ways old-fashioned society columns in newspapers helped create community. It's an important lesson given the impact of social media on the country today -- especially in rural areas.

"As the gathering places of many small towns have dwindled, and our online conversations are increasingly polarized, I keep thinking back to how important those columns were to my family, and many of those around me, in connecting us to the other few hundred who lived in our little town," Ford writes.

Ford took the column up in 1995, when he was 12 years old, and continued it until he was a senior in high school and then handed it off to his mother. Betty Hillard Ford's column is the last of its kind still running in the Ohio County (Ky.) Times-News.

"Over the past 15 years, I've watched as those columns slowly began disappearing - as the curators of each of these small towns' news fell ill or passed away, without anyone coming along behind them to take up the tradition, and as new communication platforms take on the functions these columns once had," he writes.

Communities like McHenry (pop. 400), observes Ford, "have city governments that no news outlet has the staff resources to give much coverage to. These towns have often lost the general stores, local diners, post offices, elementary schools, and other gathering places that once defined them. And the tone of polarization of communication in digital spaces do not necessarily lend themselves [to] being the best venue for civic engagement at the most local of levels."

Ford, an independent media consultant who teaches at Western Kentucky University, co-leads the study of political polarization and media with Andrea Wenzel, who teaches journalism at Temple University. Their research was the subject of a daylong workshop, "From Polarization to Public Sphere," Aug. 18 in Bowling Green.

Facebook CEO visits Eastern Ky. to support education initiative

 Zuckerberg checks out a robotics project by Appalachian
students. (Photo provided by Jacob Stratton)
Students and teachers in Eastern Kentucky got a big surprise Saturday when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came for an unannounced visit, Valarie Honeycutt Spears reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Students from five counties were invited to meet with staff from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in Hazard. The purpose of the visit, they were told, was to "demonstrate and discuss some of the innovations taking place in schools and classrooms that are transforming teaching and learning," said Ron Daley, an official with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, which is a consortium of 22 public school districts in Eastern Kentucky.

"KVEC is working to help pilot a technology initiative called the Summit Learning Platform in several schools in the region," Spears reports. Summit is a free online tool that helps teachers create customized lessons for each student. It's funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which explains Zuckerberg's visit. He wanted it to be a "listening and interaction opportunity without media," Daley told Spears.

Zuckerberg, who also visited West Virginia over the weekend, was impressed. He posted on his Facebook page: "I talked to some students who were using the Summit personalized learning tools we’ve been building at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and who were learning how to code. These kids were showing me the games, robots, drones, and VR apps (!!) they were coding." His post went on to say that more than 300 schools in the US will be using the Summit program this fall.

Rural Kentucky tech ed innovations have gotten increasing media attention in recent years. KVEC and Belfry, Ky., teacher Haridas Chandran were written up in a recent Atlantic magazine article. Chandran and KVEC are also featured in a documentary that will air at 10 ET tonight on the National Geographic Channel. "Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America" is about schools in disadvantaged areas that are trying to prepare students for life in a high-tech world.

Raycom Media and CNHI announce merger

"Two media organizations that own dozens of newspapers and television stations across the nation are announcing a merger," The Associated Press reports. Raycom Media Inc. and Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. are merging into a new privately owned media group, CNHI said in a press release.

CNHI will be a Raycom subsidiary. The merger will result in one of the nation's largest privately owned media groups, CNHI said. "Raycom’s stations cover more than 16 percent of U.S. television households. Most of its stations in are in southern states, but it also owns stations in Ohio and Indiana and as far west as Honolulu, Hawaii," the AP reports.

CNHI is one of the largest owners of community newspapers in the U.S. "Among CNHI’s largest newspapers: The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass.; The Joplin Globe in Missouri; and The Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown, Pa.," AP reports.

After the merger, if Raycom stations overlap with CNHI newspaper territory, the newspapers will be sold to a third party. The companies expect to complete the merger Friday, Sept. 29.

Hurricane Maria ruins agriculture in Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans lined up for drinking water outside a police station in Juncos.
(New York Times photo by Victor Blue)
After surveying his ruined plantain farm, farmer Jose Rivera summed up his fears succinctly: "There will be no food in Puerto Rico," he predicted. "There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won't be any for a year or longer."

When Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it left "a rich agricultural region looking like the result of a postapocalyptic drought," Frances Robles and Luis Ferre-Sadruni report for The New York Times. In just hours, the storm "wiped out about 80 percent of the crop value in Puerto Rico -- making it one of the costliest storms to hit the island's agriculture industry." That's according to Carlos Flores Ortega, Puerto Rico's agriculture secretary. The department's preliminary figures say that's about $780 million in lost yields.

Though Puerto Rico imports 85 percent of its food, its economy was once based primarily on agriculture, the Times reports. In recent years, partially because of the island's economic recession, farming has become more popular. But with those crops wiped out, Puerto Ricans will be forced to import even more food, and possibly pay higher prices for it. To complicate matters, nearby islands that export food to Puerto Rico were also hit hard by Maria.

Dairy farmers are in dire straits too, since they don't have the electricity to run milking or refrigeration machinery, or the gas to deliver products to stores (which don't have refrigeration either). "Since Wednesday, I have thrown out 4,000 liters of milk a day," dairy farmer Efrain Robles Menendez said, "Come back later and watch me pour it all down the drain."

Local officials hope there's a silver lining in the destruction: federal aid will help rebuild antiquated infrastructure with modern technology, and that could help the agriculture industry come back better than ever, the Times reports. Some farms could be operational within a year, but others will take longer. In the meantime, Puerto Ricans--especially in rural areas--are stranded with little food, money, medical equipment, gas or water.

Food, water and diesel fuel have been dispatched, and FEMA teams are canvassing the island to assess its needs, but getting aid to the island is difficult because it must come from sea or air. Only the Port of San Juan has been cleared for operation, and airports are damaged. Gov. Ricardo Rossello said "We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico," Samantha Schmidt and Joel Achenbach report for The Washington Post.

President Trump announced today that he will travel to Puerto Rico next Tuesday to survey the hurricane damage. "The president told reporters at the White House that damage on the ground prevents any earlier travel to the island, which he said has been 'literally destroyed.' Trump expressed confidence that 'they’ll be back' and said the people of Puerto Rico 'are important to all of us,'" Jordan Fabian reports for The Hill.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Vaccine to prevent HPV-caused cancers gains ground among teenagers, but rural areas lag

The vaccine is administered in three shots.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more teenagers nationwide are getting the human papillomavirus vaccine, but rural areas are still lagging. "Sixty percent of adolescents received one or more doses of the HPV vaccine in 2016, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2015, researchers found. About a decade ago, the figure was less than 30 percent," Aneri Pattani reports for The New York Times.

But rural HPV vaccination rates are 15 percentage points lower than in cities. The report speculates that the discrepancy could be because of differences in parents' opinions or a shortage of pediatricians in rural areas. Shannon Stokley, the co-author of the study and the associate director for science at the Immunization Services Division of the CDC, says, "It’s a new finding, and at this point we really don’t know what’s behind that. We need to better understand what’s going on in rural communities."

"The vaccine protects against strains of HPV that can cause cancers of the cervix, penis, anus and back of the throat. Close to half of all Americans are infected at any given time, and nearly 32,000 get cancer from the virus each year," Pattani reports. The vaccine could have prevented 90 percent of those cases, according to the CDC. New guidelines may make it easier for teens to complete the series; last year the CDC changed the guidelines from three doses to two doses for teens under 15.

National Newspaper Week starts Sunday, Oct. 1; plenty of materials available for download

National Newspaper Week runs Oct. 1-7; here's some information to help you plan your paper's participation.

This year is the 77th anniversary of NNW, an observance that celebrates the impact of newspapers of all sizes to communities of all sizes. This year's theme is "Real Newspapers ... Real News!" NNW 2017 Chair Tom Newton explains: "The aim is to applaud and underscore newspaper media’s role as the leading provider of news in print, online or via mobile devices. Many publishers and editors also editorialize about their newspapers' unique relevance. This can be about your government watchdog role, coverage of community events, publication of timely public notices, etc."

Materials are available at The kit has editorials, editorial cartoons, promotional ads and more. All materials are free to download for any U.S. newspaper. New and archived materials from years past are available on the website year-round as resources.

National Newspaper Week is sponsored by Newspaper Association Managers Inc., the consortium of North American trade association executives representing the industry on a state and provincial, regional and national basis.

Indian Country Today shuts down, comes back

UPDATE: On February 28, 2018 Indian Country Today announced its return, with Native American journalists Mark Trahant Vincent Schilling as editor and associate editor, respectively.
A major source of Native American news has shut down, possibly for good, unless it can find a more sustainable business model to keep it going. On Sept. 4, Publisher Ray Halbritter announced that Indian Country Today Media Network was ceasing production, saying in an editorial that he and others in management were looking at "alternative business models." He told NPR's Leah Donnella that he is looking for ways to best repurpose the publication "in a way that's viable, both journalistically and economically."

Ray Halbritter
Halbritter, the CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises in New York state, bought the 30-year-old weekly paper in 2011 because he wanted to see more journalism by and about Native Americans. "In media, Native people are often looked at as relics or mascots," he told NPR. "And there's so much more complexity, so much more beauty. There's struggle and nuance to the Native American experience in this country. There was such a great need because the perception and image of Native people was very many times inaccurately portrayed, and as a result, the truth about Native people was not always presented."

Relying on non-Native news outlets to report on Native Americans meant that important stories were often distorted or not told at all, Halbritter said. When Native Americans tell their own stories, he believes it helps readers to better understand their concerns.

The publication extensively covered the latest studies on inter-generational trauma as well as the controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. He told NPR there's one topic he hopes will get more coverage, even if Indian Country Today won't be around to write about it: "The critical issue to me, for Native America, I mean, they have highest teenage suicide rate in the world on Indian reservations. And that comes from, to me, a lack of self-esteem. A lack of even having an understanding, or a perception, or an image about themselves to see any hope for the future."

First came meetings, then Pruitt decisions for coal, utilities, Alaska mine and rural truck 'glider' firm

Scott Pruitt (AP file photo)
It's not surprising that corporate interests have found a friend in Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, but when a story lays out several possible cases of cause and effect, the concept gets more real.

Pruitt, former Oklahoma attorney general and Kentucky native, "has met regularly with corporate executives from the automobile, mining and fossil fuel industries — in several instances shortly before making decisions favorable to those interest groups, according to a copy of his schedule," report Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. "There were, by comparison, only two environmental groups and one public health group on the schedule, which covers the months of April through early September."

After meeting with "the executive committee of the National Mining Association, and the next day with representatives of rural [electric] cooperatives, whose rural and suburban customers rely largely on aging coal plants . . . Pruitt granted an industry coalition’s request to revisit a 2015 EPA rule to tighten federal requirements for how companies contain coal ash, the toxic waste produced from burning coal in power plants. A range of the groups he met with this spring, including several of the nation’s largest coal-fired utilities, had sought the regulatory change," the Post reports.

After meeting with "a Canadian firm that had been blocked by the agency in 2014 from building a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed" and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, "the two sides struck a legal settlement that cleared the way for the firm to apply for federal permits for the operation," the Post reports.

Google map
After meeting "with Fitzgerald Truck Sales, the nation’s largest manufacturer of commercial truck 'gliders,' which are truck bodies without an engine or transmission . . . Pruitt announced that he would revisit an October 2016 decision to apply greenhouse-gas emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks to gliders and trailers, saying he was making the decision following 'the significant issues' raised by those in the industry," the Post reports. Fitzgerald is based in Byrdstown, Tenn., in one of the nation's most rural areas.

Carbon-fiber manufacturing could boost coal

A 3-D printed, carbon-fiber submersible made mostly from coal. (Dept. of Energy photo)
As more utilities switch from coal to cheaper, cleaner energy sources, America's huge coal reserves are increasingly untapped. But scientists are experimenting with new uses for coal, and while "no one expects the research to revive all the coal-mining jobs that disappeared in recent years, experts say new sources of demand are emerging for the carbon-rich rock, from battery electrodes to car parts to building materials," Tim Loh and Patrick Martin report for Bloomberg.

Probably the biggest potential use for coal right now is in creating carbon fiber, a stiff, strong, and ultra-lightweight material that has been widely used for aircraft and other items for years. The lion's share of most carbon fiber is made from a polymer resin called polyacrylonitrile, with a dash of petroleum pitch. But Mitsubishi has used coal for decades to create carbon fiber, so it's possible to change the formula to be mostly coal.

At the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, researchers used coal and a 3-D printer to create a 30-foot-long submersible to show what carbon fiber made from coal can do. "At the Oak Ridge lab, the 3-D printing techniques for the carbon-fiber sub hull helped reduce production costs by 90 percent and shortened manufacturing time from months to days, according to the Department of Energy. Improved design and building techniques encourage more use of carbon fibers, which could increasingly come from coal," Loh and Martin report.
Bloomberg graphic; click to enlarge
Most of America's coal is still used for electricity, but it's in decline. Coal accounts for 30 percent of the power mix used by utilities today, down from 50 percent in 2008. Correspondingly, the number of miners in the U.S. fell 40 percent to about 50,000 in the same time period. Oak Ridge researcher Edgar Lara-Curzio says "Coal for power generation is going to continue to decrease. Here is a chance for us to pay back all these coal communities that have sacrificed for so many years to give us cheap electricity."

Experts to hold Twitter chat on rural opioid use

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat Sept. 28 to discuss opioid use in rural areas, the barriers to receiving effective treatment, and explore some of the innovative ways rural communities are fighting back.

The chat will go for about 60 minutes and will begin at 2 p.m. EDT. To participate, log in to Twitter or a Twitter chat client such as TweetChat and search for the hashtag #RuralHealthChat. Experts from around the country will discuss the issue, and everyone is free to jump in with comments, questions, or links to more information.

Click here for a list of the experts who will be participating in the chat, or for more information in general.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Chao says Trump infrastructure plan will direct 'about 25 percent' of resources toward rural areas

Rural America will be the focus of about one-fourth of the Trump administration's infrastructure package, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Sunday on "Connections with Renee Shaw" on Kentucky Educational Television.

"I'm a Kentuckian; I understand rural America," said Chao, a Taiwan native who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "What concerns rural America concerns me, especially as a Kentuckian."

McConnell told The Rural Blog in March that the Republican-controlled Congress isn't interested in adding to the national debt at a time when the federal budget is deeply in deficit, so the infrastructure plan is expected to rely mainly on public-private partnerships. That has cast doubt on its rural impact, since most rural projects don't have the usage that can generate tolls or other revenue to make them as profitable as urban projects.

Chao said the plan will include "a separate title that addresses the concerns of rural America. We will have about 25 percent of all resources directed toward rural America."

Asked about President Trump's criticism of her husband for not passing a health-insurance bill and refusing to kill Senate filibusters, Chao said, "We're all professionals. That's an old story. Everything's fine now."