Friday, December 08, 2017

Coal CEO Robert Murray slams Senate tax bill

Coal CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy warned that the Senate tax reform bill would destroy thousands of coal mining jobs if it's enacted, calling it a "mockery" that will put a huge tax hike on the coal industry and other companies with a similar financial structure. "This wipes out everything that President Trump has done for coal," he told Matt Egan in an interview with CNNMoney.

The Senate tax bill would lower the corporate tax rate, but preserve the Alternative Minimum Tax rate and limit the interest payments that businesses can write off. Murray Energy and other coal companies borrow heavily to pay for expensive mining operations, but the Senate tax bill would limit the amount of interest payments they can write off to 30 percent of the company's income. Murray estimates that change would increase his company's tax bill by $60 million a year.

"Auto dealers would also have been harmed by the Senate bill's interest deduction cap. But, after fierce lobbying from auto dealers, the Senate made a last-minute change to the legislation that exempts them from the interest deduction cap," Egan reports.

The House bill is much more favorable to Murray, as it eliminates the AMT. Without the AMT, companies could claim so many tax deductions that they could owe nothing in taxes.

N.D. walks back a new rule for dicamba use

North Dakota recently announced statewide rules restricting the use of the controversial herbicide dicamba, after increasing reports of crop damage, but the state Agriculture Department has now changed its mind about one of the new rules.

"The state Agriculture Department has decided not to require farmers or others who apply dicamba to first notify the agency, but it will maintain a restriction on when it can be sprayed," Blake Nicholson reports for the Associated Press. "Both decisions are in keeping with the overall goal of mitigating herbicide drift that can damage neighboring fields, state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said." Goehring decided to walk back the rule because application information will be available through federal record-keeping requirements, so an extra law isn't necessary.

North Dakota and Arkansas have introduced state-specific rules on dicamba use, feeling that the federal regulations approved by the Environmental Protection Agency aren't doing enough to limit crop damage by the notoriously volatile herbicide. "The Environmental Protection Agency in October announced a deal with agribusinesses Monsanto, BASF and DuPont under which dicamba products will be labeled as 'restricted use,' requiring additional training and certifications for those who use it and limiting when and how it can be sprayed," Nicholson reports.

CMS cuts threaten access to critical diagnostic tests

Some rural patients and outpatient health care providers may face some new obstacles when a Medicare reimbursement change goes into effect Jan. 1. The Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General found a few years ago that Medicare pays 18 percent to 30 percent more than other insurers for some lab tests, and the program pays about $7 billion a year overall for clinical diagnostic laboratory tests, Virgil Dickson reports for Modern Healthcare. That led to the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014, which aims to save almost $4 billion over 10 years by only allowing Medicare to pay the same rate for tests as private payers.

The tests that will take the biggest hit in reimbursement rates are genetic tests that offer risk scores for breast and colon cancers. Reimbursement will increase for tests that check for genetic disorders found in Ashkenazi Jews, Noonan spectrum disorders, oncology tumor testers, lung oncology tests, and mRNA breast oncology tests.

Some doctors and clinicians are worried that higher prices will lead to a decrease in patients agreeing to be tested for certain cancers, which could increase cancer diagnoses and deaths. "The lab community is lobbying both the CMS and Congress to push the pause button on the cuts over concerns that the CMS didn't use sound methodology to determine the new rates, Dickson reports.

The problem, the lab community says, is that the CMS exempted many labs from reporting what private insurance companies pay for the tests. The labs the CMS collected their data from were the biggest ones that received volume discounts from test manufacturers, leading to an inaccurate picture of what labs usually cost. Smaller, more rural labs often pay much more for tests.

John Cullen, a rural doctor from Valdez, Alaska, told Dickson that he's worried that his patients' care may suffer if he's not able to get reimbursement for some of the more expensive same-day testing. Many of his patients must travel more than 100 miles to get access to health care, and can't afford to come back later for test results.

"Unlike the hospital industry, which is suing the CMS to stop a planned cut to the federal discount drug program known as 340B, labs for now aren't pursing legal action, but may reconsider," Dickson reports.

Perdue to allow low-fat flavored milk in school again; dairy industry happy but nutritionists worry

Associated Press photo
 Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last week that schools will be allowed to offer low-fat (1%) flavored milk at breakfast and lunch in the 2018-2019 school year. Currently, flavored milks must be fat-free to be offered in school meal and a la carte sales, unless a school applies for a special exemption and can demonstrate that not offering the low-fat flavored milks has led to a reduction in student milk consumption or an increase in school milk waste. The ban on low-fat flavored milks was instituted in 2012, and resulted in "a large drop in milk consumption in schools. Students consumed 288 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2012-2015, even though public school enrollment was growing," Morning Ag Clips reports.

The rule change on milk is part of a larger package rolling back Obama-era school lunch regulations. It also halts a plan to make school lunches lower in sodium, and loosens regulations requiring schools to serve meals rich in whole grains.

Jamie Mara, spokesperson of the Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, praised the move because he said some kids might not like the taste of fat-free milk and wouldn't drink as much. Even though flavored milks have added sugar, he said the protein and nutrients students will get mean flavored milk is still a healthy option in moderation, Hope Kirwan reports for Wisconsin Public Radio.

But Cassandra Vanderwall, a clinical nutritionist from the University of Wisconsin Health, disagreed. "I don't think flavoring milk or giving a child chocolate-flavored xyz to get them to eat it because it has some nutritional component is a good idea or a good message," she told Kirwan.

Webinar to discuss CDC report on racial and ethnic minority health disparities in rural communities

Rural communities often have worse health outcomes and less access to health care than metro communities, but health disparities also exist within rural areas for racial and ethnic minorities. The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar to discuss racial and ethnic health disparities in rural communities as addressed in a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The presenters will also discuss current efforts to address these disparities.

The webinar will take place at 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, and will last about one hour. The session will be moderated by Tom Morris, director of the Health Resources & Services Administration Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Featured speakers will be:
  • Cara James, PhD, Director, CMS Office of Minority Health and co-chair of CMS Rural Health Council (one of the authors of the study)
  • Jeffrey Hall, PhD, MSPH, Deputy Associate Director for Science, CDC Office of Minority Health & Health Equity (another author of the study)
  • Palo Verde Hospital, FORHP Outreach Grantee
  • Innis Community Health Center, FORHP Outreach Grantee 
Click here to register or for more information. A recording will be available on the website after the webinar.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Time gives rural America its due in 'Person of the Year' story about 'The Silence Breakers'

Isabel Pascual (Time photo)
When Time magazine announced that its Persons of the Year were "The Silence Breakers," the victims of sexual harassment and assault who came forward with their stories, some were quick to dismiss it as a celebrity-oriented movement. Yes, two women on the cover are entertainers Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift. But sexual misconduct affects men and women all over the country, and the story included rural residents and concerns.

On the left side of the cover photo is a woman, originally from Mexico, who picks strawberries in California. Her name is given as Isabel Pascual, but it's a pseudonym to protect her family from reprisal after she spoke out about the dangers faced by migrant farmworkers.

An anonymous victim from rural
Texas, on the cover. (Time photo)
And at the far right, not even a face: an elbow. Time explained in an editorial that the arm belongs to an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas who fears that coming forward about being harassed would subject her family to reprisal. "She is faceless on the cover and remains nameless inside Time’s red borders, but her appearance is an act of solidarity, representing all those who are not yet able to come forward and reveal their identities," Melissa Chan writes for the magazine.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough addressed the point directly yesterday during a "Morning Joe" interview with some of the editors at Time: "So the question is, we certainly have heard from a lot of people who've been harassed by famous people in the media and politics and in Hollywood. How does this movement spread to Middle America, where people who aren't working for the rich and famous get just as much justice from somebody that's harassing them in Demopolis, Alabama?"

The magazine's representation of the anonymous Native American
Kira Pollack, director of photography and visual enterprise at Time, replied, "It was really important to us to report not only the famous and the notable but also the unknown, the women who represent a much larger swath of the culture." For example, a young Native American office assistant who spoke to the magazine said she quit her job after a co-worker began harassing her. She says she felt trapped because she didn't think her colleagues or family on her small, conservative reservation would believe her.

Sexual harassment or assault survivors in rural areas may face additional obstacles because of "limited access to support services for victims, familial connections with those in positions of authority, a lack of cultural acceptance for alternative lifestyles, distance, transportation barriers, the stigma of abuse, lack of available shelters, and poverty as a barrier to care, among other challenges," the Rural Health Information Hub reports. "In small communities there is often an overlap among health-care providers, law enforcement officers, and abuse victims. Therefore, some people may be reluctant to report abuse, fearing that their concerns will not be taken seriously or that their reputations may be damaged."

Volunteer firefighters are a critical first line of defense, but new membership keeps dwindling

As a record year for wildfires draws to a close, with the Los Angeles area battling three large new fires right now, editor Burt Rutherford of Beef magazine worries about the future of rural firefighting. Most rural areas are protected by volunteer firefighters, but it may be tough to keep recruiting them if wildfires continue to be a major challenge in years to come.

Rutherford writes in a blog post about an interesting conversation he had after speaking at the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's annual convention last week. Wes Morgan, the manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District in Baker City, told Rutherford he was also the chief of the Powder River Rural Fire Protection District, a volunteer fire department that provides fire and EMS services to "a fair chunk of ranchland in Eastern Oregon." Morgan told Rutherford he was having a hard time recruiting younger members of the community to volunteer for the fire department, and worried about having enough people on hand to respond to a disaster.

"Volunteer fire departments are the first responders in any kind of fire, whether it’s a wildfire on private land or your barn burning down," Rutherford writes. "Wes told me that volunteer firefighters have to go through the same training as firefighters who do it for a living, and it’s getting harder and harder to find people willing to invest the time and energy to be a volunteer."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers serving in small communities; of an estimated 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. in 2014, 788,250 (69 percent) were active volunteer firefighters. And though 70 percent of career firefighters serve communities of 25,000 or more, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than half of those serve communities of fewer than 2,500.

But though the number of calls to fire departments has increased by 166 percent since the mid-1980s, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has declined by 12 percent, according to a report by the National Volunteer Fire Council. Some of the reasons for the decline cited by the report include:
  • Economic realities: Economic conditions make it more necessary than ever for families to have more than one income. This is especially true in rural communities that have lost businesses and jobs. Many who would volunteer must instead work long hours or multiple jobs. Employers, also squeezed financially, are less tolerant of employees taking time off to volunteer.
  • Training requirements: The days of on-the-job firefighting training are long gone. Volunteers must meet stringent qualification standards and federal requirements. At the same time, the public expects a broad range of response services (emergency medical, hazmat, technical rescue, etc.) from their fire departments, each of which requires extensive additional training.
  • Increasing call volume: False alarms (due in part to the propagation of automatic alarm systems) and the public’s increased reliance on (and sometimes abuse of) response services, especially emergency medical services, mean that volunteer responders are busier than ever, and often overwhelmed.
  • Sociological changes: Even in many rural communities, community coherence and pride are waning, and volunteerism is less valued. Younger people are seeking education and employment away from home and are less focused on community involvement.

Meat and poultry workers achieve best workplace safety year ever in 2016

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo

"U.S. meat and poultry packers and processors continued to make significant progress in workplace safety in 2016, as the newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) incidence rate for non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses reached an all-time industry low," Morning Ag Clips reports.

In 2016 there were 5.3 occupational injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers in the meat and poultry industry, down from 5.4 in 2015; the number of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses has decreased more than 36 percent since 2007. Of those 5.3 average cases. 3.8 were serious injuries, down from 3.7 in 2015. Those figures do not count temporary or part-time workers.

"In the early 1990s, the Meat Institute declared worker safety a non-competitive issue, which encouraged member companies to collaborate to find solutions that prioritized and enhanced worker safety," Morning Ag Clips reports. "The meat industry, together with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, also developed Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the Meat Packing Industry — guidelines that OSHA called a 'model' for other industries."

Rural schools may have been hurt by state tax incentives for wind farms in Kansas

The wind industry is booming in Kansas, but tax incentives that state officials used to lure foreign wind-farm investors may have hurt rural schools. The incentives sparked a decade-long wind boom in the state, which is one of only five that gets more than 20 percent of its power from wind (the others are Iowa, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas).

But because of those exemptions, almost $630 million of wind-farm equipment will never be taxed. If it were, it would generate around $82 million a year for the 24 rural counties with wind farms. "Of that amount, more than $32 million a year would go to rural school districts in those counties, according to revenue-department estimates. And that doesn’t include five wind farms that have yet to be evaluated," Mike McGraw and Ryan Hennessy report for Flatland, the digital magazine of Kansas City PBS. The report was done in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent nonprofit news outlet based in Illinois.
Flatland graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
Kansas' largest wind farm, the $1 billion Flat Ridge project, spans 70,000 acres near the Oklahoma border. It's owned partly by British Petroleum, and it doesn't pay any property taxes on its generators that could fund local schools and services. The lost revenue is partly made up by state subsidies.

"That lost revenue has far-reaching consequences for a state with more than its share of financially struggling rural school districts and a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars in constitutionally required school funding, at least according to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October," McGraw and Hennessy report. Rural school districts are having a harder time hiring and keeping good teachers, partly because they pay teachers the lowest salaries in the country.

Kansas wind farms have agreed to make small "payments in lieu of taxes" in those counties, but it's only a fraction of what the taxes would be, Flatland reports. Wind industry officials say the lost taxes are worth it because of the thousands of jobs created and the more than $16 million a year paid to Kansas land owners each year for land leases. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Smaller news outlets can affect national debates on public-policy issues, through social media

"In an age that relies on internet publication and social-media dispersal, even small- to medium-size media outlets can have a dramatic impact on the content and partisan balance of the national conversation about major public-policy issues," according to research by a Harvard University political scientist's research, Peter Reuell reports for the university.

University Professor Gary King
The average print circulation of the 48 newspapers in the study by University Professor Gary King was 50,000, so we’re not talking rural journalism here, but the five-year study suggests that a similar phenomenon could exist on a smaller scale or a state level among news outlets with smaller audiences.

"I would guess that something similar might work on a smaller scale, but we'd have to study the issue to be sure, of course. It would also be interesting to study what happens if a group of local sites collaborate on stories, along the lines the outlets did for our study," King told The Rural Blog.

King and two former students, Benjamin Schneer of Florida State University and Ariel White of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "found that if just three outlets wrote about a major national policy topic — such as jobs, the environment, or immigration — discussion of that topic across social media rose by more than 62 percent, and the balance of opinion in the national conversation could be swayed by several percentage points," Reuell reports.

King told Reuell, “These national conversations about major policy areas are essential to democracy. Today this conversation takes place, in part, in some of the 750,000,000 publicly available social media posts written by people every day — and all available for research. At one time, the national conversation was whatever was said in the public square, where people would get up on a soapbox, or when they expressed themselves in newspaper editorials or water-cooler debates. This is a lot of what democracy is about. The fact that the media has such a large influence on the content of this national conversation is crucial for everything from the ideological balance of the nation’s media outlets, to the rise of fake news, to the ongoing responsibility of professional journalists.”

Census releases annual estimates of poverty and income for counties and school districts

Census Bureau map; for a larger version, click on it or go here.
The Census Bureau has released its latest income and poverty estimates for every county and school district in the United States. The release provides the only single-year income and poverty statistics for all 3,141 counties and 13,245 school districts. The tables and maps provide statistics on the number of people in poverty, the number of children in poverty, and median household income in each county. At the school-district level, estimates are available for the total population and the number of children aged 5 to 17 in poverty.

The South as a whole is struggling, with almost 40 percent of its counties reporting a poverty rate above 20 percent in 2016. The dataset was created to guide allocations of federal education funds for high-poverty school districts, but some other state and local programs also use it to allocate funds and manage programs. The figures also provide a good opportunity for local economic reporting.

The Lexington Herald-Leader used the data to show that Appalachia is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, with nine of the poorest 30 counties in the U.S. in Eastern Kentucky. Part of the region's problem is the declining coal industry, which has erased more than two-thirds of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky since 2011. Road improvement projects, new fiber-optic broadband lines and growth in work-from-home jobs are helping, but "There's not enough jobs," Cale Turner, judge-executive of Owsley County, with the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, told reporter Bill Estep. Here's the Herald-Leader's poverty map; click on it for a larger version.
Herald-Leader graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.

2/3 of rural counties have fewer jobs than in 2007

Daily Yonder map shows job growth or loss. The Yonder report has an interactive version.
"The number of jobs in rural America increased in the last year, but rural counties remain well below their pre-recession employment level," The Daily Yonder reports. "Only 40 percent of urban counties have fewer jobs now than in 2007. In rural America, however, two-thirds of the counties had fewer jobs in October than in 2007. . . . Pike County, in Kentucky’s coal country, lost over 5,000 jobs. Chautauqua County in New York has lost over 11,600 jobs since 2007."

Rural unemployment rates have dropped since 2007, "not because there are more jobs, but because the total workforce has shrunk. Since 2007, the total number of people working or looking for a job in rural counties has dropped by nearly 1.1 million people," Bill Bishop writes. In the last year, the rural workforce shrank by 27,000. The number of rural jobs increased by fewer than 200,000 from October 2016 to October 2017. The report includes an interactive map with Bureau of Labor Statistics data for each county.

Fugitive Ky. lawyer, who pled guilty to massive disability-benefit fraud, is captured in Honduras

Eric Conn, shown at a Honduras Pizza Hut
immediately before his arrest. (FBI photo)
An Eastern Kentucky lawyer who disappeared after pleading guilty to massive Social Security disability fraud, was arrested by the FBI at a Pizza Hut in Honduras on Dec. 2, six months to the day after the manhunt began.

Eric Conn "once had one of the biggest practices in the country specializing in representing people seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He pleaded guilty in March to bribes of a Social Security judge totaling more than $600,000, and defrauding the government of more than $550 million in benefits by putting false evidence of clients' disabilities in their claims and paying doctors to sign off on disability forms without actually examining the patients. About 700 of his clients have kept their disability benefits, but 800 lost them.

Conn was on house arrest while awaiting his July sentencing, but after a June 2 meeting with his attorney and prosecutors, he cut off his ankle monitor and fled. An accomplice, Curtis Lee Wyatt, allegedly helped him escape by opening a bank account used to send money out of the country to Conn. He also bought Conn a truck and drove to Mexico to scope out the security.

While on the lam, Conn sent emails and faxes to the Herald-Leader and others. "Some of those messages poked the government for not being able to catch him. He said in one message to a prosecutor on his case, Dustin Davis, that when he fled he 'knew the game was afoot' and that he had learned the FBI’s playbook before he left," Estep reports. "The message from mid-June also said the FBI 'could not be more wrong' about his whereabouts."

Read more here:
What comes next for Conn? Because he fled the country, he forfeited the terms of his plea deal, which would have dropped more than a dozen charges from the original rap sheet. So now he faces a possible life sentence if convicted. And he was tried and sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison on charges of conspiracy and escape.

Rural newspaper owner poisoned with thallium

Joe Soldwedel
The co-owner of a small-town Arizona daily has been poisoned with what could have been lethal levels of thallium and other metals, probably deliberately. Joseph Soldwedel, who is also the co-publisher of The Daily Courier in Prescott, sought medical help after a lengthy unexplained illness. Medical toxicologists found dangerously high levels of thallium, lithium, aluminum, barium, and zinc in Soldwedel’s body, Richard Haddad reports for the Courier.

No other environmental factors would explain the presence of the metals in Soldwedel’s body. One of the nation’s leading toxicologists, Dr. Ernest Chiodo, wrote in his report that “The test findings are highly suggestive, but not confirmatory, of an intentional poisoning with an intent to kill.” Soldwedel, 65, is expected to recover.

Soldwedel sought to quash any rumors in the small community about the source of the poisoning. “While the newspaper owner said he has a good idea of who might be behind the possible deliberate poisonings, he does not want to make that information public until police and the county attorney have finished their review and potential charges have been filed or arrests made,” Haddad reports. “He did say that his son, daughter and lone sibling [sister] are in no way involved.”

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

3 new Nieman fellowships will be for journalists from undercovered areas, smaller newsrooms

For 80 years, journalists from all over America and the world have been able to spend a year at Harvard University on fellowships sponsored by the Nieman Foundation. Most of them have come from large or relatively large news outlets. Now the foundation and the Abrams Foundation are creating three annual fellowships for "journalists who work in communities undercovered by existing news organizations and are from smaller newsrooms that don’t have the resources — whether technical skills or money or time — to pursue investigative work," Nieman announced today.

"There’s no restriction on medium: radio journalists, podcast editors, freelancers, daily newspaper reporters, TV reporters are all welcome to apply," the foundation says. "Nor is there any lower limit on the size of the applicants’ home newsroom, but applicants’ newsrooms should be willing to support their proposed projects through the fieldwork phase of the fellowship," which can last up to nine months following two semesters at Harvard.

Nieman Curator Ann Marie Lipinski said, "Some of the greatest, most noble public-service journalism in this country has come from small staffs working hard to shed light or right wrongs in their communities. The work of Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, to solve civil rights cold cases — work that sent Ku Klux Klan members to prison. Stories about the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners published in Virginia’s tiny Bristol Herald Courierstories that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting. The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s relentless digging to expose the opioid traffic into West Virginia counties with the nation’s worst overdose death rates, also a Pulitzer winner."

Lipinski added, "Harvard University and the Nieman community offer abundant opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills to help our fellows decode the world around them and explain it to others. We’re eager to hear from journalists who would benefit from that education and support.

The sorts of markets and newsrooms we’ll be looking for are those that, without this support, might not be able to do this work."

Applications for the 2018-19 Abrams Nieman Fellowships are open to U.S. journalists until Feb. 15. For more information on how to apply, visit the Nieman Foundation page.

Wind-energy growth could stall under tax proposals

The renewable-energy industry is booming across the U.S., but it could face challenges, depending on what the final tax-reform bill looks like after the House and Senate reconcile their differences. CBS MoneyWatch reports that 86 percent of the nation's wind capacity was in Republican congressional districts in 2016, and much of the job growth is happening in rural areas.
CBS MoneyWatch map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The Senate bill would retain the tax credits that have spurred huge growth in renewable energy, but would impose the alternative minimum tax on these companies’ foreign transactions. "If they have to pay a minimum tax, they may no longer have any need for the credits acquired through tax-equity deals," Brian Eckhouse reports for Bloomberg. That could cripple the industry, because a critical source of investment comes from multinational corporations that invest in tax equity for solar and wind farms.

Ken Silverstein writes for Forbes, "The Senate bill would treat the investment tax credits provided to the wind and solar industries as income. Right now, projects are eligible to receive 30 percent tax credits — incentives that have led to the development of $50 billion in renewable energy facilities, say advocates, and something that could come to a screeching halt if the bankers and financiers that are backing them stop doing so."
The House bill would retroactively change the rules that dictate how wind developers qualify for production and investment tax credits, meaning that developers depending on the credits would have to eat the costs or abandon the project. "The Texas wind industry supported upwards of 22,000 direct and indirect jobs and accounted for annual lease payments to landowners of more than $60 million in 2016, according to AWEA," the American Wind Energy Association, John Austin reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. in Texas, where "wind-generation capacity for the first time exceeded installed coal-fired generation capacity" in October.

Trump slashes 2 Utah national monuments, draws lawsuits from Indians and environmentalists

Yesterday in Salt Lake City President Trump reduced the area of two major national monuments in Utah and split them into five new monuments. No president had ever done such a thing, and Native American tribes and environmentalists quickly filed lawsuits to stop it. "Several high-value sites the original monuments were designed to protect are left out," Brian Maffly reports for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bears Ears National Monument, created by Barack Obama as he left office, was slashed from 1.35 million acres to 202,000 acres, and split into two new monuments: Shash Jaa (Navajo for Bears Ears) and Indian Creek. Grand Staircase-Escalante, created by Bill Clinton in 2001, was reduced from 1.9 million acres to 1 million, and was split into three new monuments: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits  and Escalante Canyon. "Trump’s order specifically authorizes grazing in the Bears Ears area as well as motorized recreation and American Indian gathering of wood and herbs, and it asks Congress to pass legislation to mandate co-management by tribal leaders," Thomas Burr and Lee Davidson report for the Tribune.
The original Bears Ears National Monument (light pink) and new ones in red: Indian Creek at top, and Shash Jaa at bottom. Brown dots are sites proposed for oil and gas development. (Click here for interactive map)
Formerly protected areas that were cut from the monuments include Cedar Mesa and Elk Ridge. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said more than 400,000 acres of Cedar Mesa is "inaccessible wilderness" and can't be effectively monitored and protected by the Interior. He said that as a wilderness, it is protected more than it would be as a monument. The Kaiparowits boundaries were drawn in jagged lines apparently meant to free up some of the plateau's rich coal seams to mining.  Paleontologist Jeff Eaton, who has worked on the plateau for more than 30 years, told Maffly that the new boundaries for Kaiparowits were a "land management nightmare." Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote on Fox News that national-park lovers should applaud Trump's move because over-reaching monument proclamations "have strained land management budgets and limited public access to beautiful places."
The original Grand Staircase-Escalante (light blue) and new monuments in dark blue, L-R: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons. (Click here for interactive map)
Zinke said no land removed from monument status will be sold or transferred, and will return to its previous status as wilderness, national forest, or land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. "Raising the possibility of drilling and mining inside that monument’s former boundaries, 10 environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., alleging the Antiquities Act does not allow presidents to diminish or rescind monument designations by their predecessors," Burr and Davidson report. A similar claim is made in a suit filed by five Native American tribes: Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian), Courtney Tanner reports for the Tribune.

What would net neutrality look like in rural areas?

The Federal Communications Commission will soon vote on -- and likely pass, along party lines -- a proposal to roll back net-neutrality rules. Those rules force internet service providers to allow access to all web content at the same speed. Without neutrality, ISPs could force web hosts to pay tolls for faster access, and throttle access speed or even block access for those who don't pay up.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, says neutrality rules stifle broadband development in rural America. But some public-interest groups say rolling back these regulations could hurt rural communities, reports KELO-FM in Pierre, S.D.

Jessica Gonzales, deputy director and senior counsel for Free Press, told KELO that most rural communities only have one ISP, which would be able to do as it pleased if net neutrality were repealed. "We can't vote with our feet when it comes to how we're getting our access to the Internet and that really is the main reason why we need to regulate Internet access providers – to ensure that they're not blocking, throttling or prioritizing certain traffic on the Internet," Gonzales said.

Cash-strapped small businesses in rural areas could be at the mercy of ISP access fees, she said. "If rural folks do not have net neutrality, it means that they will not be guaranteed that they can reach (an) audience, that they can reach customers if they're running a business from their home, and that they will have equal access to the news and information and things they need to survive and thrive."

N.D. joins states restricting herbicide dicamba

North Dakota has set new rules for using the herbicide dicamba on soybeans, after increasing reports of crop damage by farmers who aren't using the controversial product. Under the new rules, North Dakota farmers may not use dicamba on certain kinds of soybeans after June 30, or the crop's first bloom phase, whichever comes first. Violations could carry a fine of up to $5,000, Blake Nicholson reports for The Associated Press.

Dicamba is known for its volatility; it can evaporate after being applied and drift onto neighboring farms. It has been used for decades, but was used only before crops sprouted. But since the introduction of cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to resist dicamba, it can be sprayed on crops that are already growing. Recent research from the University of Missouri indicates that about 4 percent of all soybeans planted in the U.S., more than 3.6 million acres, were damaged by dicamba this year, and other crops, gardens, and trees were also damaged.

University of Missouri map; click on the image to enlarge it.

After mounting complaints from farmers, including more than 200 in North Dakota this year, dicamba manufacturers Monsanto, BASF and DuPont made a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency last month to voluntarily require stricter labeling for dicamba products, and also to require more training for applicators and limits to how and when it can be sprayed.

Arkansas has also further restricted dicamba, and Monsanto is suing that state. But Monsanto Vice President of Global Strategy Scott Partridge said that that was a last-resort tactic, and the company wants to focus on urging North Dakota officials to be more flexible on the June 30 cutoff date. "Monsanto also is taking other steps in all states, such as setting up a technical support call center and distributing the proper spray nozzles to applicators free of charge," Nicholson reports.

Monday, December 04, 2017

EPA drops rule requiring hard-rock mining firms to have enough money to clean up their pollution

In this 2015 photo, polluted water from the Gold King Mine disaster flows through retention ponds designed to filter out heavy metals. (Associated Press photo by Brennan Linsley)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced Friday that hard-rock mining companies will no longer be required to prove they have the financial means to clean up their pollution, "despite an industry legacy of abandoned mines that have fouled waterways across the U.S.," Matthew Brown reports for The Associated Press. The Obama administration, on its way out in December 2016, proposed to make hard-rock mining companies set aside money for possible cleanup, under a court order after environmental groups sued the government to enforce the long-ignored provision in the 1980 federal Superfund law. In February, Pruitt delayed enforcement of the rule and said he wanted more input from mining companies and other stakeholders.

In Friday's announcement, Pruitt said that more laws were unnecessary because modern mining practices and current state and federal laws already adequately address the risks from mines that are still operating. Requiring more stringent laws "would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these jobs are based," he said.

While Pruitt says the decision will benefit rural residents, pollution from abandoned mines is hurting rural Americans. "The U.S. mining industry has a long history of abandoning contaminated sites and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanups," Brown reports. "Thousands of shuttered mines leak contaminated water into rivers, streams and other waterways, including hundreds of cases in which the EPA has intervened, sometimes at huge expense."

Since 1980, at least 52 mines spilled or otherwise released pollution, according to EPA documents. That includes an abandoned uranium mine that could be causing serious health problems in rural Arizona, and the 2015 Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, in which an EPA cleanup team accidentally caused 3 million gallons of lead and arsenic-tainted water to contaminate rivers in three states. EPA's Office of Inspector General ruled in June that the spill was worse than it should have been because the EPA had no rules for dealing with toxic mines that were prone to blowouts.

Study: Gun restrictions on the violent appear to reduce intimate-partner homicides

A national study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that state laws restricting gun ownership by domestic abusers and those with violent histories appear to significantly reduce intimate-partner homicides. The study was conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, and considered state-level data from 1980 through 2013 for 45 states.

"Currently, 13 states and federal law prohibit gun purchases by individuals convicted of domestic violence; the study finds that states that extend this ban to people convicted of any violent misdemeanor experience 23 percent fewer intimate partner homicides," the university reports in a news release. Domestic-partner homicides were also reduced when gun restrictions extended to those who had abused dating partners, not just spouses or ex-spouses, and also when laws required that abusers surrender their firearms.

"The evidence from this study and previous research highly suggests that firearm restrictions work to reduce intimate-partner homicides and that laws need to be comprehensive when we think about populations most at risk for committing intimate partner violence," said MSU criminal-justice professor April Zeoli, the lead researcher. "Expanding restrictions from those who have been convicted of domestic violence to those who have been convicted of any violent misdemeanor, and including dating partners in domestic violence firearm laws would likely result in even greater reductions."

In rural America, gun ownership is much more common than in metropolitan areas, and 22.5 percent of women in small rural areas (and 17.9 percent in isolated areas) reported being victims of intimate-partner violence in 2011.

Study says it has a more accurate count of livestock methane emissions

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the livestock industry is the second-biggest source of methane emissions in the country, but figuring out just how much gas the cattle, swine and poultry emit is difficult to pin down. "Current estimates of total livestock methane emissions may rely on outdated emission factors and do not fully consider feed intake and differences in animal diets, or the facilities used to store manure. These data gaps lead to large uncertainties in methane emission figures," the American Chemical Society reports. But a report just published in the ACS journal, Environmental Science & Technology, says a new approach could shed light on the accuracy of current data.

Livestock-produced methane comes not only from flatulence, which scientists call enteric emissions, but from fermentation of manure. Just how much is generated depends on the size of the animal, the species, the animals' diet, and how their manure is stored. Example: Cattle fed mostly grain generate less methane than grass-fed cattle.
A county-level map of methane emissions in the U.S.; click the image to enlarge it.
Researchers from Penn State analyzed the feed intake for cattle, as well as manure-storage practices for livestock at county and state levels. Their findings varied widely from currently reported numbers by organizations such as the European Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research. "For example, the researchers found that the combined enteric and manure methane emissions from livestock in Texas and California were 36 percent less and 100 percent greater, respectively, than estimates by EDGAR. Based on their data, the researchers say that results from studies that use inaccurate distribution inventories to determine emissions sources should be cautiously interpreted," ACS reports.

Affordable housing shortage drives homeless rural Arizonans to live in parking lots and woods

Doug Stewart (left) volunteers several nights a week to help the local homeless population in Gila County. (Arizona Republic photo by Thomas Hawthorne)
 A growing nationwide shortage of affordable housing is hurting rural residents, since many of the safety nets that help metro areas don't exist in rural areas. Seven percent of the nation's homeless live in rural areas. Rent prices in rural areas are lower, but that doesn't help rural residents much because incomes are lower too."The National Rural Housing Coalition found that almost half of all rural Americans spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on rent," Aiden Woods reports for The Arizona Republic, the latest in its six-part series on rural homelessness.

In Gila County, just northeast of Phoenix, homelessness is particularly bad. The county was once a thriving mining region, but now 22 percent of the population lives in poverty, and there is no homeless shelter. The county has only 53 federal Section 8 housing vouchers, so people must wait for years for one. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition says that there are only 31 available and affordable rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households in the county.

It's hard to get an official count of Gila County's homeless, since the yearly official count is conducted in late January, when most homeless people have fled elsewhere for warmth or are surfing a couch until the weather warms up. In warmer weather, most of the homeless sleep in the local Walmart parking lot, since the company has a nationwide policy of allowing anyone to sleep in their vehicles in their parking lots.

The county's housing director told Woods that federal homelessness-prevention grants wouldn't be large enough to justify the time spent applying for them. To receive those grants, "a community must set up what's called a Continuum of Care, an organization that brings together housing, service providers and local officials. It’s the first step in fighting homelessness at the local level," Woods reports. Arizona has three major COCs: one each in Maricopa and Pima counties, and one for the rest of Arizona. The latter COC spreads about $4 million in grants across the state, and is supposed to have a representative from each of Arizona's 13 rural counties, but Gila County doesn't have one.

Most of the efforts at combating homelessness in the county come from a private citizen, Doug Stewart, who spends thousands of dollars of his own money every month bringing whatever supplies he can muster to the homeless. Stewart regularly meets with local lawmakers and law enforcement to try to organize a more comprehensive program.

Small Ala. daily handles Roy Moore carefully, gets written up by Washington Post media columnist

Covering the controversial can be a minefield for community newspapers, so the Opelika-Auburn News is carefully navigating coverage of former judge Roy Moore's campaign for the U.S. Senate, Margaret Sullivan reports for The Washington Post. The BH Media Group-owned daily has "won numerous statewide awards for excellence" and has a circulation of 12,000 and 12 newsroom employees, led by Editor Troy Turner.
Sperling's Best Places map

Turner told Sullivan "I would have bullet holes in my windows" if he ran a strong anti-Moore editorial like that published last month by the state's three largest papers, all owned by Newhouse-owned Alabama Media Group, in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville. And it's not just the public Turner has to deal with: His own staff has mixed opinions about Moore, who is accused of sexual misconduct against teenage girls and has a statewide following from his controversial career on the Alabama Supreme Court, from which he was ousted twice. "Not everyone is convinced," Sullivan reports.

Turner published a nuanced editorial last month in which he called for Moore to withdraw from the race -- not because the accusations against him were necessarily accurate, but because he believed Moore could not be an effective senator with so much controversy hanging over his head. Withdrawing would enable the state Republican Party to find a more credible candidate before the special election on Dec. 12.

The News' publisher, Rex Maynor, said Turner's editorial was "one of the strongest stances the paper has taken." Turner told her, “At the big papers, they don’t go into the coffee shops and churches with their readers like we do. We have to be strategic crusaders.”

"There were some ticked-off readers, but no bullet holes" after the editorial ran, Sullivan reports. "And the staff has found other ways to give voice to voters grappling with their mixed emotions. Most importantly, it provides a forum for sometimes contentious discussion," including posts on its Facebook page.

Moore is from Gadsden, in northeast Alabama. Thirty miles to the south, in Anniston, the locally owned and usually liberal Anniston Star published an editorial Nov. 20 criticizing Republican Gov. Kay Ivey for supporting Moore. Its most recent editorial urged voters to ignore the national turmoil about Moore and "consider what our state needs."