Friday, November 17, 2017

Study takes a broad look at the state of small-market newspapers in the digital age

Al Cross
A new study published in the Columbia Journalism Review offers a comprehensive look at small-market newspapers in the digital age, along with a side project survey of more than 400 small-market journalists.

Small-market newspapers, which have a circulation below 50,000, represent a large part of the nation's news mix, but are often overlooked in both research and in the popular narrative about newspapers. The authors, Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe, sought to correct this oversight by researching how small-market newspapers are responding to the encroaching Digital Age, and how they can best prepare for the future. Both authors are Fellows of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Ali is an an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and Radcliffe is a journalism professor at the University of Oregon.

The researchers interviewed 53 experts, from journalists to academics and representatives of relevant organizations, including Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Seven key findings emerged from their interviews:
  1. We need more nuance when talking about local newspapers. There's a huge variety of publications within the category of small-market papers, from online-only publications to alt-weeklies. We can't make broad generalizations about small-market newspapers without losing important perspectives.
  2. Local papers face the same challenges as larger papers, but they may be more resilient than metro papers because of their exclusive content, captive advertising markets and physical proximity to their readers.
  3. Small newspapers are changing to more digital content, but more slowly than larger papers.
  4. More national chains in rural areas are reducing the number of local newspapers' potential advertising clients. 
  5. Small papers must diversify income to survive. 
  6. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to success in local journalism. Raising revenue is the main concern, and many small-market newspapers rely on advertising revenue, single-copy sales and paywalls. Smaller publications, especially weeklies, tend to heavily depend on single-copy sales. "People are making the buying decision every single week, plunking down fifty cents, or seventy-five cents, or even a dollar for that paper," Cross said. He argued that many small papers are "vulnerable" because they don't have the security of subscription income, which makes them understandably ware of rocking the readership boat. An unpopular editorial decision can have a much more profound effect on a small paper's bottom line.
  7. Small-market papers have cause for optimism and must change the "doom and gloom" narrative prevalent in the industry. "The kinds of things people get from a local newspaper are the kinds of things that people will continue to want one hundred years from now," Cross said. He continued, "What’s going on within my locality? What’s happening with my school system? What’s happening with my taxes? What’s happening with planning and zoning? What kind of businesses or jobs might we get? It’s only the local newspaper that is likely to be the consistently reliable source of that information."

Farm fertilizer runoff creating a worsening algae bloom problem in U.S., global waters

Fertilizer runoff created the largest-ever 'dead zone' in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, caused by algae bloom using up most of the oxygen in the water. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration graphic)

"Harmful algae blooms have become a top water polluter, fueled by fertilizers washing into lakes, streams and oceans. Federal and state programs have spent billions of dollars on cost-sharing payments to farmers to help prevent nutrient runoff, yet the problem is worsening in many places," John Flesher reports for The Chicago Tribune.

Several factors contributing to larger algae blooms include warm water temperatures, slower water circulation and too many nutrients, like the nitrogren and phosphorus present in fertilizers. Nutrients can come from fertilizers from farms and urban lawns as well as industrial wastes and sewage.

Some of the algae blooms can be toxic to humans and animals; one such toxin, microsystin, was found to be present in almost 40 percent of lakes sampled around the nation (though at low levels that wouldn't likely hurt anyone). Even blooms that aren't toxic to humans can stink, discolor the water, and kill fish.

The U.S. isn't the only one experiencing increased algae blooms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "China's largest blooms on record washed onto beaches in 2013 from the Yellow Sea, as bulldozers scraped up rotting mats by the ton. A bloom the size of Mexico spreads across the Arabian Sea twice a year," Flesher reports. And blooms in Greece, Italy and Spain cost the economies of those countries a total of $355 million annually.

The problem may get worse. Since warm water encourages algae blooms and the global temperature is warming, more algae blooms could happen. If greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing, nitrogen runoff could increase 19 percent by the end of the century, according to a study in Science.

The U.S. government has had laws in place since 1998 to deal with harmful algae, but only began focusing on inland waters in 2014--without additional funding. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $1.8 billion since 2009 on preventing fertilizer runoff, the majority of which was pledged to farmers in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Nebraska.

Pakistani immigrants feel at home in rural Pa.

Akram Khalid
(Public Opinion photo by Ashley Brooks)
In a time where divisiveness and anti-Muslim sentiment grabs headlines, The Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Penn. brings a heart-warming alternative about a Pakistani couple who were welcomed by locals after moving to the small town of Chambersburg.

Amatul and Akram Khalid, along with their children, immigrated from Pakistan to New Jersey in 1990 because they were persecuted for following a minority Muslim sect. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Akram said he was one of several Muslim engineers laid off by his employer, and the family decided to start over in Chambersburg.

Amatul Khalid
(Public Opinion photo by Ashley Brooks)
The couple says Chambersburg welcomed them with open arms. "Folks were always willing to lend a hand, they were always smiling and, more importantly, they appreciated having the two in the community," Ashley Books reports. And the Khalids love Chambersburg. They love their neighbors and prefer the slower pace of life in rural America. And they love America, and cherish their freedom to practice religion as they choose.

And though people in town have become more conscious of immigrants in recent years, they still love and support the Khalids. "Even though they voted for Trump, they want to show me that they are okay with (us) and we are safe," Akram told Books.

New book The News Untold explores how local media cover (or don't cover) poverty in Appalachia

A new book by Michael Clay Carey offers "an important new perspective on media narratives about poverty in Appalachia," Abby Freeland writes for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia looks at how journalists in poor, rural areas decide what's newsworthy, contrasted with how their audiences react to that news judgment, followed by a broader comparison of how that creation-reaction process helps shape local and national understanding of the region's economic and social issues.

Carey, who spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, writes that journalists must re-examine social views and traditional approaches to newsmaking that sometimes leave the voices of the poor out of the narrative. "Critical and inclusive news coverage of poverty at the local level, Carey writes, can help communities start to look past old stereotypes and attitudes and encourage solutions that incorporate broader sets of community voices," Freeland writes.

Carey is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, where he researches the impact of stereotypes and the roles media play in the formation and maintenance of individual and group identity.

Order the book here.

Report shows data snapshot of rural schools, calls on Congress to address challenges they face

A new report quantifies the challenges faced by rural students and outlines how Congress can enact or amend federal policies to help fix them. Leveling the Playing Field for Rural Students, which was issued by The School Superintendents Association and The Rural School and Community Trust, has five specific recommendations for legislators:
  • Enable access to new, high-quality educational opportunities
  • Address health barriers to learning
  • Leverage career and technical programs for economic growth
  • End food insecurity for rural children
  • Adequately invest in rural schools
The report is packed with data and statistics that create a clear picture of who rural students are demographically and what they're facing. A few facts from the report:
  • Nearly 1 in 5 students attend rural schools--that's 8.9 million students, more than the enrollments of schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the nation's next 75 largest school districts combined. 
  • 53 percent of school districts in the U.S. are rural.
  • 72 percent of the U.S. is rural.
  • More than 1 in 4 rural students is a minority, but rural schools tend to have about 20 percent more white children than the national average.
  • Despite higher costs in rural and smaller schools, only 17 percent of state funds on average go to rural school districts.
  • Rural schools have an 80 percent graduation rate, compared to 77 percent nationwide, 68 percent in cities, 79 percent in towns, and 81 percent in suburban areas.
  • Rural students in the 4th and 8th grades have higher scores in reading and math than students in cities and towns, but lower scores than suburban students.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

An old coal town in Central Appalachia shows a way forward for rural economies: higher education

Google Earth shows Pikeville, Ky., in a bend of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, which was cut off by a federally financed project decades ago, opening and creating land for development. It was also helped by Paul Patton, who was governor in 1995-2003 and then chancellor of the University of Pikeville. (Click on the image for a larger version.)
A year ago today, economist Lyman Stone published what Noah Smith of Bloomberg News calls "one of the most important blog posts in recent history," describing how a small university has rescued the economy of Pikeville, Ky., population 7,000, deep in the Central Appalachian coalfield.

"It is not too much to say that the University of Pikeville is saving the city," which is far from any interstate highway, Stone wrote. The 3,000-student school, formerly 1,000-student Pikeville College, has an osteopathic medical school, an optometry school and graduate programs in business and education. "Those 2,000 new students amount to essentially 100 percent of the growth in greater Pikeville," Stone declared. "This knowledge-and-talent-production facility in turn helps make Pikeville Medical Center a booming and effective employer, with a brand new building completed in 2014. Pikeville Medical Center is the only Mayo Clinic Network partner in Appalachia which, again, helps it operate as not only a hub for medical services but also a key knowledge-generation site." And the school's growth has spawned many new businesses, so the town "is becoming more amenity-dense, which is a necessary precondition for lasting growth."

Stone concluded, "Pikeville is defying the odds and experiencing real urban growth in the midst of Appalachian population collapse. This is a huge success story with lessons for many communities. The success of small cities is based on their ability to draw people in with jobs, amenities, and low costs: universities serve as excellent incubators for at least the first two. Moreover, universities need not be public, nor enormous. UPike is a private school and isn’t huge. But university and government leadership have both invested in their communities, pouring energy and resources into assets: knowledge creation, civic organizations, institutions, reputational capital, etc. Furthermore, Pikeville’s success shows that post-industrial towns deep in the coal belt totally isolated from the large urban centers can nonetheless succeed. Their success will look different. They may never take home the fat paychecks of Silicon Valley. But they can nonetheless have functional, economically viable towns that give their young people a shot at achieving their dreams, often in their very own hometowns."

Smith says Stone's piece, dense with data by leavened by graphics and photos, "shows the way forward for the U.S. economy and American society." But he sees a risk in the tax bill moving through Congress, because it "contains big cuts to higher-education funding. It eliminates tax credits and deductions that students use to help pay for college. And it makes certain kinds of financial aid taxable -- for example, tuition waivers, which help graduate students eke out a meager living while they get their advanced degrees. . . . These cuts -- about $65 billion during the next decade -- would force universities to cut costs and tighten their belts. But they would also crush the nation's Pikevilles. The Ivy League universities and big flagship state schools would survive, but many smaller colleges in more vulnerable regions would be devastated. The same struggling working-class regions that Donald Trump promised to save during his campaign would find one more path to a brighter future cut off."

EPA, under Bush and Obama, greenlit fracking chemicals associated with known health risks

Newly released documents reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency had concerns that chemicals used in horizontal hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells could cause serious health problems for people living near wells, but allowed the chemicals to be used anyway.

The EPA approved more than 40 drilling and fracking chemicals with known health risks between 2003 and 2014, and only requested chemical safety tests for less than 10 percent of them. "What risks? Agency documents list poisoning of the brain, lungs and liver; tumors; poor development in infants and fetuses," Scott Tong reports for Marketplace.
Marketplace map that shows some fracking sites that used chemicals associated with health problems; click on image to enlarge or click here to view the interactive map.
Bryan Latkanich, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, sold Chevron the right to drill on his property seven years ago, but he says he thinks improperly stored fracking chemicals in the water made his young son Ryan ill. When Ryan was 7, he took a bath and immediately became covered in rashes that Latkanich says were "beyond poison ivy or oak." Since that bath, Ryan has been diagnosed with asthma and regularly loses bowel control. "Latkanich himself has been diagnosed with neuropathy, a kind of nerve damage that causes him joint pain," Tong reports. Latkanich's claims may not be without reason: the state of Pennsylvania found that Chevron illegally dumped fracking water on his property.

It's difficult to prove cause and effect for chemical exposure, since health problems may not occur until years later, but several studies show that people who live near fracking wells are more prone to have cancer, asthma, high-risk pregnancies and heart defects.

Food-stamp use declined less in rural areas in 2016

University of New Hampshire chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
Rates of food-stamp use held steadier in rural areas in 2016 as the rate for urban and suburban areas declined more, reports Jessica Carson of the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy.

In 2016, 12.4 percent of households nationwide received food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Among rural households, the share was 14.8 percent. Urban households had a slightly higher share than rural households in 2016, but a decrease in urban SNAP usage from 2015 narrowed the gap considerably, Carson reports.

Carson also found that 79.1 percent of SNAP households nationwide have at least one person employed, and that SNAP households in rural areas have a lower median income than those in suburban or urban areas.

"Rural America’s food-stamp usage rate mirrors other national economic trends," Tim Marena reports for The Daily Yonder. "Non-metropolitan counties’ job growth has been anemic compared to metropolitan areas (especially compared to major metro areas). Rural counties have yet to return to pre-recession job numbers, while metropolitan counties have more jobs now than before the recession." 

Calif. requires warnings that glyphosate (Roundup) may cause cancer; Monsanto and farm groups sue

"Monsanto Co. and U.S. farm groups sued California on Wednesday to stop the state from requiring cancer warnings on products containing the widely used weed killer glyphosate, which the company sells to farmers to apply to its genetically engineered crops," Tom Polansek reports for Reuters.

Glyphosate, which has been used by farmers for more than 40 years, is the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup; Monsanto also sells "Roundup Ready" corn, wheat and soybean seeds that are genetically modified to live through direct spraying of the product. The lawsuit says required testing of crops for glyphosate could push up food prices, and Roundup Ready seeds would be less attractive to California farmers if the government requires warnings that it may cause cancer. It also protests the warnings because it says sellers of products containing glyphosate would be forced to spread false information.

A large-scale study published last week found no concrete link between glyphosate exposure and cancer, but said there was a possible, and worrisome, association between glyphosate use and acute myeloid leukemia.

"The controversy is an additional headache for Monsanto as it faces a crisis around another herbicide based on a chemical known as dicamba that was linked to widespread U.S. crop damage this summer," Polansek reports. "The company, which is being acquired by Bayer AG for $63.5 billion, developed the product as a replacement for glyphosate following an increase of weeds resistant to the chemical."

Ag-deregulation appointee scrutinized for meeting with pesticide lobbyists; she used to be one

Adock during Tuesday's testimony
(NYT photo by Zach Gibson)
Rebeckah Adcock, a former pesticide lobbyist appointed to the Agriculture Department by President Trump, is under scrutiny after an investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica revealed that she met with former industry allies even after signing an ethics agreement limiting such meetings. She leads the deregulation team at the USDA, and is one of dozens of Trump appointees with deep ties to the industries they're meant to deregulate.

"Adcock took part in a meeting in May that included a lobbyist for her former employer, the industry trade group CropLife America, according to visitor logs at the Department of Agriculture. Participants in the meeting said that Adcock had discussed the effect of pesticides on water, a topic she previously lobbied on and was supposed to refrain from working on inside government," Robert Faturechi of ProPublica and Danielle Ivory of the Times report.

A USDA spokesperson said the meeting didn't violate the ethics agreement, and denied that Adcock had discussed topics forbidden by the agreement.

Adcock's tenure at the USDA has been marked by secrecy. In September she refused to release the names of the members of her deregulation team to congressional aides. USDA didn't release the names until Nov. 14, right before Adcock testified before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; even then, the list was initially only shared with Republicans on the committee. When subcommittee Democrats asked for the list, Adcock said the names had already been sent over, possibly days beforehand.

Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, a Democrat on the committee, wrote Adcock Nov. 14, demanding that she release all emails with lobbyists or anyone else in the pesticide industry. Watson Coleman also wanted documents and more information to see if Adcock had misled the committee about release of the list of her deregulation team members.

"According to a Democratic aide, Adcock will be compelled to answer because these requests will be included in the committee’s 'questions for the record,' which are generally sent after a hearing to gather more information from a witness," Faturechi and Ivory report.

Duke Energy edited scientific reports on coal ash

Duke Energy hired two University of North Carolina-Charlotte professors to prepare supposedly independent scientific reports about the impact of coal ash ponds on groundwater, then edited some of those reports before releasing them, according to emails and documents obtained by WBTV in Charlotte.

"Environmental attorneys who reviewed the documents obtained by WBTV said the correspondence shows [Dr. John Daniels and Dr. Bill Langley] preparing scientific reports at the direction of Duke company officials," Nick Ochsner reports. "The thousands of emails, draft reports and other documents obtained by WBTV cast doubt on the company’s claims that Langley and Daniels performed independent scientific work."

The documents also show that Daniels chaired what was meant to be an independent advisory board that Duke Energy was required to charter as a condition of its probation, which stemmed from a guilty plea in a federal criminal case.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Checking in on a rural area of Wisconsin (and adjoining states) that swung from Obama to Trump

Red counties voted for Obama and Trump;
the Driftless Area is shown in green.
A year after President Trump's election, a deeply purple rural region of southwestern Wisconsin that swung red in 2016 is seething with frustration, Craig Gilbert reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"Hillary Clinton voters are disconsolate and appalled by Trump. Trump voters who are happy with Trump are unhappy with Congress and Trump’s GOP critics. Trump voters who are critical of Trump — and they’re not too hard to find here — display everything from resignation to pique to exasperation with his behavior," Gilbert writes. "Voters of all stripes complain about the political culture, including the media, the parties, and the inability to have a respectful conversation about politics with your political opponents."

Journalists and political interest groups are paying attention to the Driftless Area (which the glaciers somehow missed) because it was a hotbed of rural white voters who tipped the election for Trump. The area is particularly interesting because it defies easy stereotypes about red rural America. It contains the largest cluster of blue and purple counties in rural, white America, and has the largest concentration of counties that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. So though the Driftless Area is no good as a microcosm of America, "what this swingy slice of the heartland does offer is a window into the trends and tumult of the Trump era," Gilbert reports.

Many of the 30 voters Gilbert interviewed felt ambivalent or pessimistic about both Clinton and Trump, and about both major parties as well. It's difficult to predict how they'll vote in the 2018 midterms or the 2020 presidential election, but the answer for many will depend on whether Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress are able to enact palatable legislation and whether Democrats will offer any better alternatives.

New app maps opioid overdose deaths in real time

A new app is helping more than 250 law-enforcement, first-responder and public-health agencies in 27 states manage the opioid-overdose epidemic. The app, called ODMAP, was created by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area team a year ago. With it, first responders can record the time and location of overdoses and send the data to a regional mapping database.

Because funding to cope with the epidemic is often limited, this kind of data helps agencies pinpoint efforts where they're needed most. And it fills a gap: though some cities and states collect data on opioid-related drug busts, arrests and overdose deaths, there has been no effort to compile consistent, timely nationwide data, and few states share data with each other. "The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiles overdose death data from state death certificates, but the information is published only once a year and is more than a year old," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. "So far, ODMAP has been adopted in parts of Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia."

Here's how it works: on the scene of an overdose, first responders record the incident with a single click on one of six color-coded bars on the screen. The information is transmitted to a central database with location and time. Interested parties from hospitals to lawmakers can access the data at any time and act accordingly. For example, if a spike in overdoses happens in a community, surrounding areas can be on standby for a potential surge in ODs, since the same dealers will likely be selling those drugs nearby, Vestal reports.

Map shows global croplands in highest resolution ever, reveals India has more cropland than U.S.

U.S. Geological Survey map shows North American croplands in neon green.
Click on the image to enlarge or click here to see the interactive map.
As part of a global food-security data project, the U.S. Geological Survey has just released a map detailing croplands worldwide at 30-meter resolution, which is the highest resolution ever achieved. The study brought some startling facts to light. For one thing, it reveals that there are 1.87 billion hectares of croplands on Earth, which is 15 to 20 percent higher than previously thought.

And though earlier studies showed that China or the U.S. had the most net cropland, "This study shows that India ranks first, with 179.8 Mha (9.6 percent of the global net cropland area). Second is the United States with 167.8 Mha (8.9 percent), China with 165.2 Mha (8.8 percent) and Russia with 155.8 Mha (8.3 percent). Statistics of every country in the world can be viewed in an interactive map," Morning Ag Clips reports. South Asia and Europe are the overall agricultural capitols of the world in terms of total geographic area dedicated to croplands.

In a world with rapidly increasing population, it's important to understand and monitor agriculture, since it's the main vehicle for food security. The map also helps provide a baseline for assessing global water security, since almost 80 percent of all water used by humans goes toward food production. The project, which bears the somewhat unwieldy name "Global Food Security-Support Analysis Data @ 30-m Project", aims to continue recording and releasing croplands data year after year.

Rural interest groups protest proposed elimination of USDA undersecretary for Rural Development

As the Senate mulls over the appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2018, which began Oct. 1, rural interest groups are asking them to retain an important administrative position that may be eliminated. On Oct. 31, a coalition of 68 organizations sent a letter to House and Senate Appropriation Committee and Agriculture Subcommittee chairs and ranking members, urging them to retain language in the Senate agriculture appropriations bill that directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to retain the Rural Development Mission Area and appoint and fund an Under Secretary for Rural Development.

In May, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed eliminating the Under Secretary for Rural Development and giving oversight of rural development agencies to the Deputy Secretary, the USDA's second-in-command. The move came after President Trump called on Perdue to cut the USDA's budget by more than 20 percent.

The letter stresses the importance and complexity of Rural Development: "Rural Development is an organization of 5,000 people, 400 offices, and 40 programs, with a loan portfolio of $216 billion dollars. In FY 2015 alone, USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service helped rural business owners and entrepreneurs create or save over 52,000 rural jobs; the Rural Utilities Service helped 5.5 million people receive new or improved electric facilities and 2.4 million people receive new or improved water facilities; and the Rural Housing Service provided over 140,000 new home ownership opportunities."

Cutting the position would be disastrous for rural development programs, the letter continues: "Without the political leadership of an Under Secretary, agencies will tend to drift to separate agendas and difficult issues will go unresolved. Moreover, Rural Development deserves a seat at the table when high-level decisions are being made. As part of the USDA subcabinet, a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary can offer that leadership and political legitimacy."

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Groups tell FCC chair his broadband proposal, up for a vote Thursday, would hurt rural areas

Consumer watchdog groups have banded together to tell the Federal Communications Commission that its broadband plan could leave millions of rural Americans stuck with poor or no high-speed internet connectivity.

The FCC's proposal seeks to spur industry investment in rural areas by letting broadband carriers cut costs when updating old copper-wire networks. "The groups report there are roughly 48 million U.S. residents who depend on legacy copper networks and many of these are located in rural communities with no affordable alternatives," Jason Shueh reports for State Scoop. "Within the current FCC guidelines, carriers are prohibited from discontinuing or impairing services unless there is a comparable replacement. The new rules would give AT&T, Verizon and others the right to leave residents with broadband that — in addition to slow or spotty connectivity — might be incapable of servicing devices that require reliable and persistent connections, like health monitors, alarm systems, credit-card machines, hearing-aid devices and even 911 calls, the letter states."

A group of 22 organizations, including the National Consumer Law CenterCommon Cause, the Communications Workers of America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Center for Rural Strategies and the California Center for Rural Policy, wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai saying the plan would  "particularly hurt rural and low-income communities where [broadband] is historically more expensive to deploy."

The groups point to Verizon's failure to replace its copper network with a wireless service in New York City's Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy in 2013. "Verizon replaced its damaged copper network on Fire Island with a fixed wireless service that did not work with a range of third-party services and couldn’t even complete 911 calls, sparking massive consumer, business, and first responder outrage," the letter says. Pai was formerly an attorney for Verizon.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Nov. 16.

Coal magnate Robert Murray looks like intended beneficiary of federal power-plant proposal

Coal magnate Robert Murray (left) stands to benefit from a proposed rule change that would raise electricity prices paid to any power plant that has a 90-day fuel supply on hand. That would help coal compete with natural gas, which is more costly to store.

Murray, who donated heavily to both President Trump's 2016 campaign and Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry's 2012 bid for the White House, wrote a letter to Trump in August asking for a two-year moratorium on closing coal plants. "One of Murray's largest customers, FirstEnergy Solutions, which operated four large coal-fired plants in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, was on the verge of bankruptcy - a move that could lead to some or even all of the plants to close and force Murray Energy into 'immediate bankruptcy,'" James Osborne reports for the Houston Chronicle.

Perry and Trump didn't grant Murray's request, but the proposed rule "appears designed to particularly benefit Murray and his company," Osborne reports. Analysts from three independent research firms said only four of the country's dozens of electricity markets would be affected by the proposal, most of them in the core market for Murray Energy's coal. The main market is PJM Interconnection (map).

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposal Dec. 11. Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Trump appointee, said he doesn't think the proposal benefits any one company in particular and stressed that no one in the administration was trying to influence his vote.

"Outside of the coal and nuclear industries, support for the proposal is hard to find. A coalition of eight former FERC commissioners, Republicans and Democrats, called the proposal a 'significant step backward' for 'transparent, open, competitive wholesale (power) markets,'" Osborne reports. "Lobbyists as diverse as the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, and American Wind Energy Association have teamed up to stop the proposal."

Quick hits: How rural and urban areas depend on each other in Ohio; a necessary step for prison reform; how rural and urban schools are alike

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Can urban and rural communities be successful without collaboration? A Michigan State University report examines how rural and urban communities in the state of Ohio depend on each other. Read more here.

The primary focus of economic development in America has been attracting and retaining businesses, but Don Macke of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship says that model doesn't work in much of America now. Creating slow-growing local entrepreneurships is a better way, he writes.

Rural and urban schools have many of the same struggles, teacher Shane Phipps writes in an opinion column for The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana. "There is a finite pool of money set aside to fund public education. When you cut it, it affects everyone, but it affects the already financially struggling most of all. There could conceivably come a day where many rural schools could have to close their doors forever."

The American South must acknowledge how much it benefits from cheap or free prison labor before criminal justice reforms can move forward, sociologist Heather Schoenfeld writes for In Justice Today.

Rural Tenn. program gives ex-prisoners a second chance with training for work in auto plants

Christine Hopkins
(Inquirer photo by Von Bergen)
An innovative program in rural Tennessee is helping ex-convicts stay out of jail and remain gainfully employed. The nonprofit Middle Tennessee Rural Reentry Program asks local employers what kind of workers they need, and trains ex-offenders to fill those jobs. It was conceived by Christine Hopkins, an 82-year-old grandmother who partnered with Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, who strongly believes in rehabilitation.

Hopkins, now the program's executive director, had worked for 50 years in social services and workforce development, helping people with disabilities and mental illnesses find jobs after they had taken job-readiness training, Jane Von Bergen reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The inmates needed more. They needed guided group therapy, which helps people understand the impact of their behavior, so they change how they think about themselves and life’s challenges . . . There was also training in parenting, budgeting and computer literacy."

Franklin and surrounding counties have many auto-parts plants, so many of the program's enrollees train to work in that field while still in jail, gaining  certifications in skills such as injection molding and computer-machining fundamentals. "In Franklin County, when re-entry program graduates get out of jail, they head to the factory — neatly dressed, screened for drugs, resume in hand, ready to interview and begin working," Von Bergen reports. "Since January 2016, 61 have participated in the injection molding training and been released. And of those, only 16 have returned to jail — that’s 26 percent, compared to 80 percent, the county’s usual recidivism rate. The number is even lower for successful graduates, less than 10 percent."

Local employers benefit too: the unemployment rate in Franklin County is only 2.9 percent, so some of the automotive manufacturers have a hard time finding workers. The program is funded through private donations and a three-year federal Second Chance Act grant for $747,619.

Free webinar to discuss USDA's annual Rural America at a Glance report

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar from 1-2 p.m. EST Nov. 17 to discuss the agency's annual Rural America at a Glance report, which highlights the most recent indicators of social and economic conditions in rural areas of the nation. USDA Economic Research Service geographer John Cromartie will lead the webinar, focusing on changes in population, employment, income, poverty, and broadband internet access. The 2017 edition of the report will be released Nov. 16 on this page. The 2016 report can be found here.

Click here to register for the webinar.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Water levels keep dropping in massive Ogallala Aquifer, hitting rural areas the hardest

Michigan State University map;
click on the image to enlarge it.
Overuse of groundwater is dangerously depleting the High Plains Aquifer (also known as the Ogallala Aquifer) to the point where six miles of surface streams are drying up every year. And "while the drying out of America’s agricultural breadbasket ($35 billion in crops a year) ultimately may pinch people in cities, it is hitting rural areas hardest," Bruce Finley reports for The Denver Post.

The Ogallala covers eight states (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, South Dakota). No agreement has been reached among them about how to save the aquifer, despite years of concern; here are our reports from 20152013 and 2012.

The stalemate has led to some perverse actions. "Colorado officials faced with legal challenges from Kansas over dwindling surface water in the Republican River have found that their best option to comply with a 1942 compact is to take more water out of the aquifer," Finley reports. "The state bought wells from farmers during the past decade and has been pumping out 11,500 acre-feet of water a year, enough to satisfy a small city, delivering it through a $60 million, 12-mile pipeline northeast of Wray to artificially resuscitate the river."

Farmers say they're trying to use less groundwater, but it's difficult. "We have come to realize that, yeah, we are overmining it. We are acutely aware of that now. There’s a definite attitude to make more than just the natural progression as far as efficiency," said Rod Lenz, president of the Republican River Water Conservation District. Here's a worst-case scenario: If the Ogallala runs dry, it will take about 6,000 years to replenish itself, David Biello wrote in Scientific American magazine.

Farmers struggle with more sustainable watering practices, which are often more expensive, with corn prices that have dropped to $3.50 a bushel, down from $7 a bushel in recent years. But they can't address the problem alone, since their customers are urban. "People in cities increasingly demand environmentally correct crops, which requires more water. "If they want natural grain-fed cattle, and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) crops — all that good stuff — it is going to take water," farm-equipment dealer Cody Powell told Finley. By using pesticides and GMO seeds, he points out, "With the same amount of water, you could get twice as much corn."

China Energy's interest in W.Va. natural gas may not necessarily turn into big investment

China Energy, the world's largest power company by asset value, signed a non-binding letter of intent last week to invest $83.7 billion over 20 years to develop West Virginia's natural gas industry, but some remain skeptical that the deal may ever materialize.

For one thing, "As Bloomberg Intelligence energy analyst Michael Kay points out, not even U.S. energy pipeline giant Kinder Morgan Inc. budgets that much for growth projects. There just isn’t enough infrastructure with high enough returns to make it worthwhile," Emma Ockerman and Lynn Doan report for Bloomberg.

Politicians and companies have been trying to develop an energy hub in Appalachia since shale gas began booming almost a decade ago, but it's still easier and cheaper to drill for gas and use the from the long-existing transport hub on Louisiana's Gulf Coast. Energy companies in the Eastern U.S. also face substantial regulatory hurdles in getting projects approved. "Some project developers have spent over a year waiting for federal approval as landowners and environmentalists there lodge complaints and stage protests. Even as politicians push for more investments, pipeline giants from Energy Transfer Partners LP to Williams Partners LP are being forced to delay projects because of regulatory setbacks and legal challenges," Ockerman and Doan report.

Another pitfall of the China Energy deal is that most of the major infrastructure investments needed for the Appalachian energy market may have already been made. "Enough pipelines are coming online to increase the region’s take-away capacity by about a third. And so much gas-fired power generation has been built in the area that Moody’s Investors Service has warned of 'a gas-driven apocalypse' in the power market," Bloomberg reports. "Later this year, Dominion Energy Inc. will bring online a liquefied natural gas export terminal in Maryland, and an ethane export terminal at Marcus Hook, Pa., is already sending cargoes overseas."

China Energy will need to supply more details before the deal's feasibility can be assessed -- details that the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. says are thin on the ground: "What kinds of natural gas processing plants, pipelines or cracker plants will China Energy Investment Corp. Ltd. build? Where? How many jobs will be provided and how many of them will go to West Virginians? Is the state’s environmental regulatory system up to the task of protecting residents? What about the long-term climate effects of the drive to burn more fossil fuels? Will this kind of investment in natural gas spell an even faster decline for West Virginia’s already struggling coal industry?"

Whether the memorandum of understanding comes to fruition remains to be seen. "At the end of the day what really counts is contracts," Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at Poten & Partners Inc. in Houston, told Bloomberg's Jim Polson. "An MoU is usually an agreement to continue talking."

Wed. is deadline for big livestock and poultry farmers to file with EPA, which still doesn't have a good measuring tool; universities offer help

Wednesday is the deadline for livestock and poultry producers who emit more than 100 pounds of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide in a 24-period to file reports with the Environmental Protection Agency, even though EPA hasn't come up with a standard way to measure such emissions, as we reported in September.

Land-grant universities such as the University of Illinois and the University of Kentucky are helping farmers figure out whether they have enough hogs, chickens or whatever that they are likely to be covered by the rule. "For example, a grow-to-finish swine farm that uses deep pits for manure storage and has fewer than 2,703 head, or a turkey grower with fewer than 12,970 tom turkeys raised from 36 to 140 days old, would not need to take any further steps," Prairie Farmer reports.

EPA has asked a federal appeals court to delay the deadline, but the court has not acted. “Livestock and poultry farmers should know this issue is evolving daily,” UI livestock engineer Richard Gates told Prairie Farmer. “It is prudent to prepare for the requirement to report, if necessary, under CERCLA,” the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Katie Pratt of UK writes, “Operations that meet the air emissions requirements should email to report an initial continuous release notification. Farm owners should use the language 'initial continuous release notification' in their email. They will need to follow up within 30 days with a short, written notification” to the EPA regional office.

Ethanol and oil lobbies hope to influence Trump with commercials on 'Fox & Friends'

Advertising 101 says you have to go where your audience is. For energy and environmental cause lobbyists hoping to appeal to President Trump, that means taking out ads during Fox & Friends in hopes of catching his eye. The president is an avid watcher of the three-hour morning show, and often tweets ideas he heard on the show with a Fox & Friends hashtag.

"Knowing this, lobbyists for various energy and environmental causes have purchased ads on Fox in the hopes of fixing ideas in the president’s head as he deliberates taking certain executive actions," Dino Grandoni writes for The Washington Post. "The ads, often just 30 seconds long, are crafted for a time-constrained but still TV-obsessed commander-in-chief known for signaling to his national security team that he favors concise points whittled down to a single page."

The Advanced Biofuels Business Council helped fund an ad on Fox because, as Executive Director Brooke Coleman told Grandoni, "We decided that that was the straightest line to the president from a television perspective."

The debate between oil- and corn-producing states over how much ethanol and other biofuels should be mixed into the nation's fuel supply has been playing out on Fox for weeks now. After the Environmental Protection Agency proposed reducing biofuel requirements, powerful Corn Belt lawmakers like Chuck Grassley of Iowa forced the administration to abandon the idea.

"But after the Trump administration made that decision, oil refiners struck back with a 30-second spot on Fox last week in the hope of, like Grassley, catching the president’s ear and swaying him to their side," Grandoni reports. In response to the pro-oil Fueling American Jobs Coalition ad, a group of biofuel producers calling itself Fuels America fired back with an ad saying that the President "kept his promise, protecting manufacturing jobs" and cautioned viewers not to let oil refiners kill American farm jobs.

Not to be outdone, solar energy advocates are airing ads too. "A group of domestic solar manufacturers put together an ad that has aired over the past month across cable news — including  'Fox & Friends' and MSNBC's 'Morning Joe' — advocating against a key tariff over which Trump holds sway," Grandoni reports. And for good measure, in another ad the solar industry hired conservative pundit Sean Hannity to provide the voice-over.

Not all political ads are aimed at currying favor with the President. Activist Tom Steyer ran ads on Fox exhorting Trump's impeachment, but Fox threw out the ads because they were unpopular with the channel's conservative audience.

Despite modest gains recently, coal's long-term prospects remain bleak, Reuters says

"A year after Donald Trump was elected president on a promise to revive the ailing U.S. coal industry, the sector’s long-term prospects for growth and hiring remain as bleak as ever," Timothy Gardner reports for the Reuters wire service. "A Reuters review of mining data shows an industry that has seen only modest gains in jobs and production this year -- much of it from a temporary uptick in foreign demand for U.S. coal rather than presidential policy changes."

Utilities are shutting down coal-fired power plants or switching them to natural gas, and jsing more wind and solar power. Melissa McHenry, a spokesperson for American Electric Power, one of the largest utilities, says the company is not planning to build any more coal plants, and says "The future for coal is dictated by economics … and you can’t make those kinds of investments based on one administration’s politics." AEP gets 47 percent of its power generating capacity from coal, but plans to shrink that to 33 percent by 2030.

President Trump's pro-coal policies may have little long-term effect on the coal industry. Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association, which represents major U.S. coal companies, told Gardner that "The government is no longer against us . . . We now only have market forces to contend with." According to Standard & Poor's Global, natural gas will probably overtake coal permanently by 2030 or 2035.