Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Texas paper points out risks of many dams, lack of state inspection, public records and awareness

Federal Emergency Management Agency map; click on it to see a larger version
The near-disaster at California's Oroville dam and the disaster of Hurricane Harvey in Texas prompted the Austin American-Statesman to do what news outlets all over the country should do on a regular basis: alert their audiences to the dangers of dams that are classified as "high hazard" by state and federal officials.

Texas has "several hundred substandard dams upstream of populated areas in Texas that violate state law intended to guard against dam breaching, or failure, in catastrophic floods," Ralph K.M. Haurwitz reports. "The adequacy of hundreds more dams that could put people in harm’s way is unknown because they haven’t been studied. . . . A state law passed by the Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry in 2013 permanently exempts 45 percent of the dams in Texas from inspections and other safety requirements because of their relatively small size and rural locations."

Awareness of the risks appears to be low. "Few people who could be at risk are aware of the hazard of living in what engineers call the potential inundation zone, which includes areas well outside the 100-year flood plain," Haurwitz writes. "Lack of public awareness about the hazards posed by dams is no accident. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, federal and state officials, citing security concerns, have restricted the ability of news organizations and the public to obtain information about the hazards posed by many dams."

And the problem in Texas is probably worse that it might seem, because the state "applies its strictest safety standards only if a dam’s failure would probably cost seven or more lives," the Statesman reports. Some states doubtless do likewise. What about yours?

Gobble, gobble, go the turkeys, and the firms who sell them, as USDA withdraws Obama-era rules

Turkey growers posed with the president
as he "pardoned" two turkeys Tuesday.
Thanksgiving is a day for turkey, but the Trump administration does not appear to be one for small turkey farmers, Christine Haughney reports for Politico.

The Agriculture Department has killed "Obama-era rules that had yet to take effect [that] would have given smaller farmers more power to set the terms of their deals with massive meat companies, empowering the growers to sue and better define abusive practices by processors and distributors under federal law," Haughney writes. "Major agribusinesses like Cargill and Butterball fought the rules, saying they would lead to endless litigation between farmers and global food companies."

Now some companies are pressing their advantage. "In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, some turkey farmers said the processing and distribution companies already have been setting tougher terms. Farmers who produce birds for Plainville received letters in October amending their contracts by cutting performance incentives and demanding that they invest in equipment upgrades. They blame the Trump administration."

However, "distributors and large poultry growers" support the decision to withdraw the rules developed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration. The regulations "would have opened the floodgates to frivolous and costly litigation," said Mike Brown, president of the National Chicken Council, told Haughney.

Texas columnist shows how modern times create a "whenever" Thanksgiving for many

Columnist Mary Jane McKinney of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas, brings us a thoughtful exploration of how Thanksgiving is changing in modern times:

The "Whenever" Thanksgiving is catching on. Families are getting together weeks before the official holiday. A recent survey reports that 16 percent of respondents plan a "Whenever" Thanksgiving. Another 13 percent say they will consider a "Whenever" in the future (Source: CivicScience). Thanksgiving is morphing into something new in American culture. Reducing stress, maximizing time off from work and school, and exercising freedom of choice is transforming Thanksgiving. Playing around with the traditional holiday is a response to the following factors:
  • Air fares. The airlines hike up fares for the holiday and will not allow the use of most frequent-flyer miles. To save money on travel, families are flying to grandma and grandpa's on a weekend in early November at bargain rates.
  • Work schedules. Ever since the long Thanksgiving weekend became a shopping marathon, more and more people have to be on the job that weekend. People who work in retail, restaurants, law enforcement, transportation, and many other industries do not get Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday off. They have been enjoying the "Whenever" Thanksgiving for years.
  • Shopping. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday have become traditions. Many stores are open for business on Thanksgiving Day. Some families celebrate the shopping get-together more than the dining get-together aspect of the holiday. Thanksgiving dinner for bargain-hunters is pizza at the food court in the mall.
  • Vacation. Four-day weekends are rare. A Thursday holiday is weird to begin with. It was only a matter of time before the four-day weekend out-weighed tradition. The opportunity for a  family vacation at Thanksgiving is tempting families and singles to plan trips in advance and use the four days for a mini-vacation.
  • The meal. The turkey dinner is a turn-off. To great-grandma, baking turkey and dressing, making gravy, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pies was perfectly normal. The thought of spending a holiday preparing the labor-intensive turkey and trimmings drives many men and women cooks to embrace alternative traditions. Why spend a holiday slaving away in the kitchen? The fast food and take-out dinner generations prefer easy food preparation that doesn't take time--or waste vacation time. Even accomplished cooks are used to tossing a salad and throwing some meat in the crockpot or on the grill.
  • Charity work. Volunteering to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a church, soup kitchen or homeless shelter is taking hold as a holiday ritual. Families are sitting down for turkey dinner at a local charity instead of eating at home.
American culture moves fast and is constantly changing. The Thanksgiving tradition is getting together with family and friends for a communal meal. It doesn't matter if the meal is at a homeless shelter, the mall, or three weeks before the holiday. Friends in California have been gathering at a park with old friends and neighbors for a covered dish Thanksgiving picnic for 30 years. Friends in New York watch the Macy's parade, shop at Macy's afterwards, and join friends for Peking duck at a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. Other friends take an annual camping trip on the Llano River and eat, campfire style.

There is another factor in play that is driving the change in Thanksgiving traditions: divorce. My nephew, Billy's, parents divorced and remarried. He married a woman whose parents divorced and remarried. Now, Billy's two sons have four sets of grandparents who expect to spend holidays with their grandsons. The stress at holiday time is overwhelming. Last year, Bill and his wife hosted a "Whenever" Thanksgiving for most of the family members involved--those on speaking terms anyway. The "Whenever" was a huge success.

Whenever you are celebrating, here's wishing you happy shopping-volunteering-vacationing-Thanksgiving!

State-mandated drug-monitoring databases appear to have boosted use of heroin, W.Va. study shows

The opioid epidemic was partly caused by prescription-drug abuse, so almost all states have instituted prescription-monitoring databases so doctors can judge whether a patient is pain-pill shopping. But those efforts to lower addiction appear to have created a perverse incentive for addicts to choose a more easily accessible high: heroin. Researchers from West Virginia University found that "after West Virginia required doctors to use its database, overdoses from heroin among 18- to 34-year-olds actually went up, more than doubling in just three years," Francie Diep reports for Pacific Standard.

The data came from an analysis of WVU-affiliated hospitals and outpatient centers; lead researcher Sara Warfield and her colleagues looked for how often the facilities admitted adults for prescription-painkiller and heroin overdoses between 2008 and 2015. The prescription-monitoring database was mandated in 2012, and that year heroin overdoses among young adults began spiking "significantly." Kentucky has experienced a similar pattern.

The study isn’t deep enough to prove cause and effect, but it jibes with other research suggesting that increasing prescription monitoring without taking steps to help people overcome addiction triggers an increase in illicit opioid use. "Another way to think about this idea is that to solve a drug problem, you can't only dry up the drug supply," Diep reports. "You also have to reduce drug demand." The researchers recommend more needle exchange programs, naloxone availability, and drug treatment programs, and note that West Virginia has done all three in recent years.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Opioid epidemic cost U.S. half a trillion in 2015, six times more than in 2013, White House council says

White House Council of Economic Advisers chart
The opioid epidemic cost the American economy more than $504 billion in 2015, according to a new analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisers. That's almost 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product that year, and is more than six times higher than the $80 billion estimated for 2013. The latest analysis includes the impact of heroin, which previous studies didn't include.

The council identifies a few other reasons for the increased cost: the epidemic has grown more severe, and "Previous studies underestimated the economic cost of the loss of life from this epidemic, and second, those previous estimates did not account for the under-reporting of opioid deaths," Quinn Lisbon reports for Route Fifty.

President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency in October, but did not allocate any additional funding to the effort. The declaration gives agencies more flexibility in dealing with the epidemic and allows the government to negotiate lower prices for first-response overdose drug naloxone (sold under the brand name Narcan).

FCC votes to scale back program to help low-income households access phone and internet

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 today along party lines to begin scaling back a federal program that helps low-income Americans access phone and internet services, saying it's necessary to reduce fraud, waste and abuse. The Lifeline program, which was established in 1985, expanded to include broadband last year, and gives participating households a $9.25 credit per month to use for internet services, Selena Larson reports for CNN.

The immediate fallout of the vote is that a $25 extra subsidy for homes on tribal lands will be rolled back to apply to rural areas only. That benefit stacks on top of the $9.25 subsidy.

The FCC is still considering a few other related issues, including one that prevents internet resellers (i.e., companies that don't create their own infrastructure) from providing Lifeline support, which means that some in the program might not be able to stick with their current ISP or sign up for one in the first place.

Another proposal would cede federal authority to approve internet providers to the states in which the ISPs would operate. The FCC blocked nine companies from participating in Lifeline in 2017.

And commissioners are also mulling a proposal to cap the program's budget at $820 million instead of the current budget of $2.25 billion."Some of the proposals will go out for public comment before the commission meets to vote again next year," Larson reports.

FCC schedules Dec. 14 vote on rollback of net neutrality rules; will likely end up in court again

The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote Dec. 14 on a proposal to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality regulations, which prevented internet service providers like AT&T from blocking or slowing down access to websites that don't pay extra. Conversely, without net neutrality, ISPs can also create paid internet "fast lanes" where websites that pay extra can be accessed more quickly.

The proposal, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai officially declared today, includes a transparency mandate that would require ISPs to inform customers about their blocking and throttling practices. It would also shift authority to police internet service providers to the Federal Trade Commission. The proposal will be publicly released Nov. 22, Jim Puzzanghera reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, says current regulations are too burdensome and stifle investment in broadband networks. Telecommunications companies have said that repealing net neutrality regulations could benefit rural America by clearing the way for a "smarter and more practical approach", but net neutrality helps rural areas because small, rural companies that can't afford to pay ISP tolls for faster connection could wither without a decent web presence.

The FCC is likely to approve the rollback on a 3-2 party-line vote, but the issue will probably end up in court again. "A federal appeals court upheld the current net neutrality rules in June 2016, siding with the FCC against a challenge from AT&T, USTelecom and other industry trade groups. This time, it’s likely to be net neutrality advocates taking the agency to court," Margaret Harding McGill reports for Politico. Watch this Politico video for a primer on net neutrality:

Nonprofit rural Va. news sponsor bucks odds with success, offers to help others follow suit, updates work

Rappahannock County in Virginia
(Wikipedia map)
The nonprofit Foothills Forum, funded mostly by donors, has been getting recognition for its in-depth enterprise reporting about small, rural Rappahannock County in Northern Virginia for the past few years, and now its founders want to expand.

"On top of its 2018 budget of $55,000, the nonprofit has raised an additional $40,000 to increase capacity over the next two years. One idea on the table: funding a full-time reporting position at the [weekly] Rappahannock News, which co-publishes the Forum’s projects," David Westphal reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

Retired newspaper and Knight Foundation executive Larry "Bud" Meyer, chairman of the Forum board, told Westphal that other communities of the same size might interested in copying their model.

Nonprofit local news isn't a new concept, but its success has been spotty. One of the most prominent, Voice of San Diego, has been around for a decade and has a budget of $1.64 million. Charlottesville Tomorrow and the New Haven Independent are also doing well, but only 30 of the Institute for Nonprofit News's 127 members are dedicated strictly to local news.

"The reasons are many and well reported—unpredictable foundation funding, dashed expectations for digital advertising, local markets too small to produce sufficient individual philanthropy," Westphal reports. "Many founders of local nonprofits also have waited too long to establish solid business operations."

But Foothills Forum has dodged the odds, and has a long list of possible projects it might tackle next, like the county's transportation issues, the need for new job opportunities for under-40 residents, and a package celebrating area residents' love of volunteering.

UPDATE, March 2019: The Rapp News and the forum published Rappahannock Snapshot, an update on the five reporting projects: broadband, land-use planning, the local economy, health care, fire and rescue services, and transportation. Tentative plans call for it to appear annually.

Shop at home? Editor's headline: 'Bah, humbug'

Laurie Ezzell Brown
From The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas, comes a tongue-in-cheek column from Editor Laurie Ezzell Brown about the importance of shopping for Christmas presents at locally owned stores:

   I swore last year I wouldn't do it. Swore I'd never write another column scolding readers about shopping at home.
   Nope, It's sad, but true. Main Street businesses just aren't trending that heavily, anymore. I've read the studies.
   Ten years ago, it was all about big box stores and the Black Friday throngs that flock to them, communing in Thanksgiving night camp-outs by the soft glow of 78-watt LED parking lot security lights, while waiting for the doors to open and make all their Christmas shopping dreams come true.
   Mom-and-pop stores across the country closed their doors forever, as a result of the hit they took on the year's most important retail shopping seasons, but otherwise, the economy was booming.
   This year, it's all about shopping in comfort, swaddled in pajamas and cozy blankets, in the privacy of our own bedrooms, ordering from that megalith of marketing,, by the light of our iPad Pro's retina display, with its ProMotion technology and 120Hz refresh rate--all while dreams of drones and personalized home delivery to our "smart-locked" front doors dance in our heads.
   A few more "going out of business" and "for rent" signs will no doubt appear in the windows of businesses in small towns like this one, but Wall Street is bullish on Apple and Amazon, and life is good.
   No, sir. You won't read one word from me about shopping small, shopping at home, supporting your local merchants. No more. No mas.
   Peppermint Tree owner Connie Albin nearly undermined my newfound editorial resolve the other day, when she stopped by our office to pay a bill. "How can we convince more people to shop at home?" she wondered, the frustration evident in her voice. A lump formed in my throat, my typing fingers twitched, and my ire briefly flared, as I bit my editorial tongue.
   I've shopped with Connie every Christmas for years, knowing that she will offer me thoughtful gift suggestions and hot spiced tea and free gift-wrapping, whether I'm spending $50 or $500. She would probably not even blink if I showed up to shop in my favorite flannel pajamas, either. In fact, flannel pajama bottoms are practically de rigueur at your, uh, "neighborhood" Walmart -- which isn't actually in our neighborhood--where the slogan "Always Low Prices," might more aptly be "Come As You Are."
   Still, I'll never forget watching my mother unwrap each lush, warm sweater or jewel-toned jacket that Connie had suggested she might like, knowing that her eyes would light up as she eagerly donned the new garment, which would last, and be treasured, for years. Mom always knew, not only that the fit would be perfect, but that the color would match several other things in her closet, because it had been selected by her personal shopper at The Peppermint Tree.
   But no, I'm not going to let that deter me from my commitment not to badger readers about keeping their dollars circulating locally by shopping at home, just to save a few jobs and to keep a few more downtown storefronts lit up. I've learned my lesson.
   Sorry, Connie. But save some hot tea for me. I'll be there soon.
   Oh, and hey kids, hate to break it to you, but there is no Santa Claus any more -- only Fed Ex and UPS drivers, and those pesky red-nosed drones.

RFD-TV gets in a basic package and House offices

Many television networks cater to younger and suburban or urban audiences, but RFD-TV bucks the trend by wooing rural viewers, who are older on average. The family-owned channel, which launched in 2000, reaches 52 million homes and has an avid following.

Though RFD-TV was cut from Verizon's FIOS TV lineup in 2016, late in the year the channel was included in AT&T's DirectTV Now line-up. "RFD-TV was in the basic package — with ESPNDisneyCNNFox NewsMTV and USA and everything else, which makes us real proud," founder Patrick Gottsch told The Washington Post's Emily Yahr. "I think it’s a reflection that programming devoted to rural content and senior citizens does have a place going forward in media." It was also recently announced that RFD-TV will be available in U.S. House of Representative members' offices.

Gottsch told Yahr that the network's mission is to "reconnect city with country" and says that rural people often feel left out by the lack of programming geared toward them. In the 1960s, he said shows like 'Gunsmoke', 'Petticoat Junction', and 'Green Acres' were popular, but these days "I think it's hard to connect any show with rural America anymore."

It's interesting to note the network's strategy: where other networks run programs that present rural life as an entertaining curiosity to metro viewers ("Duck Dynasty", "The Simple Life", "Alaskan Bush People"), RFD-TV features programming it knows rural viewers love, such as "Ag Day" and "Market Report" for farmers, popular reruns for older viewers like "Hee Haw" and "The Lone Ranger", and original programming like "FarmHer," about women in agriculture. RFD has also branched out with the launch of the Cowboy Channel in July.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Rural population decline tied to opioid deaths, out-migration and some areas' reclassification as metro

USDA map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The population of rural America is in decline, partially because of opioid overdose deaths, according to the latest edition of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual digest, Rural America at a Glance. The report, which examines employment, population and poverty trends in rural counties, says that "since the end of the Great Recession around 2010, population declines have become widespread throughout rural America, even in the Eastern United States, where the rural population had been relatively stable for several decades," Peter Hancock reports for the Lawrence World-Journal in Topeka.

Rural mortality increased for adults between the ages of 20 and 54, not just because of opioid-related deaths, but because of increasing deaths from heart disease, cancer, and other natural causes. USDA geographer John Cromartie said during a webinar Friday afternoon that if these trends continue, not only will the overall rural population decrease, but so will the number of working people, which will increase the number of people depending on safety-net programs such as Medicaid and Social Security.

Another reason for the population decline is that rural residents are increasingly moving to urban areas. Also, fast-growing areas that once counted for rural growth have gotten big enough to be classified as metropolitan areas. The only areas that have seen population growth are in the Western U.S., partly because of the oil and gas boom and jobs that hinge on tourism and recreation.

The employment rate and median income in rural America habve increased modestly since 2011, helped by increasingly diverse sources of employment such as manufacturing, services and trade. Traditional rural sources of employment like agriculture and mining account for only 5 percent of jobs in rural areas. The employment rate still hasn't returned to pre-recession levels, though, and is still well below the urban growth rate. Broadband and other infrastructure investments would likely help employment in rural areas.

Poverty rates also remain higher in rural areas, especially in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and the Rio Grande Valley.

Research in rural New England says affordable housing hard to find; offers possible solutions

UNH graphic
Adequate and affordable housing in rural America is hard to find for working families, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. Researchers zeroed in on two rural New England counties to study the problem in detail and explore solutions proposed by both residents and experts to make housing affordable. Though the study focuses on New England, the research could be useful for other rural areas.

Many rural New England areas are attractive to people who want a second or vacation home and retirees. Almost 29 percent of New England's rural housing units are vacant, and almost 75 percent of those vacant units are designated for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use. Only 3.5 percent is available for rent. That imbalance, combined with efforts to conserve acreage and preserve viewsheds, effectively diminishes the supply of housing and makes it unaffordable for many low- and moderate-income residents.

Because of the limited housing stock, many low-income rural New Englanders seek federally subsidized housing (aka "Section 8"), but the demand for such housing exceeds the Department of Housing and Urban Development's ability to keep up. That means that would-be renters face one- to two-year waits for Section 8 housing. Some have moved to motels, finding them cheaper than any area housing, and some end up couch-surfing.

The researchers say changes in policy can help the situation, but it will require approaches on several different fronts. At the local level, residents can encourage local zoning and planning boards to require a certain percentage of housing units to meet affordability standards and offer incentives to developers for building affordable housing. Zoning boards could also reduce lot size requirements and allow construction of multi-family housing such as duplexes, townhouses or apartments.

Communities with a high percentage of seasonal rentals or vacancies caused by seniors moving to assisted living could encourage those homeowners to rent to families instead of allowing their homes to sit vacant.

"Of course, affordable housing is not just an issue in New England—rather, the issue affects rural (and urban) families across the nation. At the federal level, policies that fund and support upgrades to existing housing and expand access to existing subsidy programs could relieve some of the pressure on rural residents. However, as budgets from both the President and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations include significant cuts to HUD programs that support low income housing options, state and local policy makers and practitioners may have to continue efforts that extend beyond the federal safety net," the report says.

Researchers find way to economically produce rare-earth minerals from coal; pilot plant planned

"University of Kentucky researchers have produced nearly pure rare-earth concentrates from Kentucky coal using an environmentally-conscious and cost-effective process, a groundbreaking accomplishment in the energy industry," the university says in a news release.

The Hicks Dome area of Southern Illinois is considered a
good potential source of coal for rare-earth production.
The 19 rare-earth elements are used in essential parts of smartphones and other high-technology devices, including missiles and other military hardware, but the market for them "has been all but monopolized by China," The New York Times reports. That has created urgency in the U.S. for alternate sources of the elements, and the Kentucky researchers tested coal with the help of a Department of Energy grant and a process for which they are seeking a patent.

"It wouldn't take very much for China to turn the switch off and then we would be in a lot of trouble," said Rick Honaker, a mining-engineering professor who co-developed the process, told The Rural Blog. China's control of the market also makes it possible to reduce rare-earth prices to quash competition, but U.S. companies could choose to contract with U.S. suppliers for reasons of security, and there is talk of federal subsidies to help them do so.

Rare earths have long been recoverable from coal and its waste products, but not economically, Honaker said. "The real breakthrough was economics," he said. "You could set up an operation today and make money." He said in the news release, "As far as I know, our team is the first in the world to have provided a 98 percent pure rare earth concentrate from a coal source. . . . We are excited about the new development and look forward to testing the process in our pilot-scale facility which will be operational during spring 2018."

Honaker said certain coal seams or areas affected by volcanic activity have the greatest potential; one is the Hicks Dome area in Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky, where the geology has long produced fluorspar, a mineral critical to certain industrial uses.

Pruitt says EPA will make cleaning up abandoned mines a bigger priority

Scott Pruitt (Photo by Ricky Carioti)
In a sprawling interview with The Washington Post's James Hohmann, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt talked about redefining environmentalism, his controversial relationships with lobbyists, and his plans to clean up abandoned mines and tackle lead in drinking water.

In February Pruitt delayed a proposal to require mining companies to show they have the financial means to clean up pollution so taxpayers don't have to foot the bill, saying he wanted more input from mining companies and other stakeholders. He's made steps since then, vowing in August to make a priority of cleaning up the 2015 Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. EPA's Office of Inspector General ruled in June 2017 that the Gold King Mine spill was so bad because EPA had no rules for dealing with toxic mines that were prone to blowouts. Tens of thousands of abandoned mines still leak toxic material into streams and rivers in Western states. And just days ago, the OIG said it would review the agency's handling of abandoned uranium mine cleanup that may be causing serious health problems for Navajo Nation residents.

Coal-mine cleanups are the province of the Department of the Interior and its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which manages the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, financed by a tax on coal.

Pruitt told Hohmann his close ties to mining companies and other industry lobbyists are a strength, not a conflict of interest. His agency doesn't view lobbyists as adversaries, he said, but as "partners and allies in improving the environment." Pruitt has been criticized for listening to corporate interests than longtime staff and scientists, going so far as to hand-pick sympathetic experts to review proposed policy and blocking scientists who receive EPA grants from serving as agency advisers.

He's diverged from previous EPA chiefs by refusing to promote renewable energy over fossil fuels because he believes the government shouldn't pick "winners and losers" in the private sector. However, it should be noted that the Trump administration has shown a marked soft spot for coal-friendly legislation.

True environmentalism, Pruitt told Hohmann, is "environmental stewardship — not prohibition. . . The last administration talked about putting up fences. [They said,] 'Let's not develop, we're not going to use the natural resources to feed the world and power the world.' I think that's wrong. I think our focus should be on using our natural resources — with environmental stewardship in mind. … We can be about jobs and growth and be good stewards of our environment. The last several years we've been told we can't do both."