Friday, January 05, 2018

Energy Department takes first steps toward creating a distribution hub for natural gas in Appalachia

The U.S. Department of Energy is trying to create a massive natural-gas distribution hub in Appalachia, modeled on the one on the Gulf Coast. West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania would be the key parts of the proposed Appalachian Storage and Trading Hub, since they have large natural gas reserves and booming hydraulic fracturing industries, John Siciliano reports for the Washington Examiner.

Appalachia Development Group LLC announced the proposed hub after the Energy Department invited the group this week to apply for a $1.9 billion loan guarantee to support its development. A loan guarantee is used to make companies more confident in taking out loans on risky or first-of-its kind projects; it assures borrowers that the federal government will pay back the loan in full if the company must default on it. The invitation is the first step in the department's plan to provide federal backing to construct the facility.

Large reserves of the area's abundant natural gas will be stored in the hub, hopefully tempting companies from around the world to build refining facilities nearby. The hub could bring economic expansion and jobs to an area that sorely needs it. "The American Chemistry Council says the hub would spur $36 billion in petrochemical investments and create more than 100,000 new long-term jobs," Siciliano reports.

Coal deaths surged in 2017, one year after record low

Coal mining deaths surged to 15 deaths in 2017, after a historical low of eight deaths in 2016. Eight of this year's deaths were in West Virginia, two were in Kentucky, and one each occurred in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. West Virginia has had the most coal mining deaths of any state in six of the past eight years, including 2010, when 29 miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.

"Eight coal mining deaths this year involved hauling vehicles, and two others involved machinery. None were attributed to an explosion of gas or dust, which was to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster," the Associated Press reports. And according to data from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, "seven of the eight U.S. coal mining fatalities in the first half of 2017 involved miners with one year or less experience at the mine, and six involved miners with one year or less experience on the job. In June, MSHA announced an initiative focusing on less experienced miners, including improved mine operators' training programs."

But as retired miner Gary Bentley pointed out, the initiative may have limited impact because some mines may be deliberately encouraging unsafe practices to save money, and MSHA officials sent to observe and train new miners can't cite mines for safety violations they see.

Overall coal mining fatalities are far below where they used to be, clocking in under 20 for the fourth straight year. That's compared to 1966, when there were 233 deaths, and 100 years ago when there were 2,226 deaths. The MHSA says the lower numbers are due to the far fewer coal mining jobs available and tougher mining safety rule enforcement. It's possible that the uptick in deaths could be related to the temporary bump in coal production in 2017.

"According to the Energy Information Administration's weekly estimates, U.S. coal output increased 8.9 percent in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 23, the latest available. Production in West Virginia rose 16 percent, including 25 percent in coal-rich southern West Virginia. Wyoming, the top coal-producing state, saw a 10.7 percent increase," The AP reports. "The U.S. had about 92,000 working miners in 2011, compared with about 52,000 in 2016, the lowest figure since the EIA began collecting data in 1978. The 2017 numbers aren't yet available."

Anniston Star's former publisher resigns as company chair following revelations that he spanked female employees

H. Brandt Ayers, the former publisher of Alabama daily The Anniston Star and chairman of its parent company Consolidated Publishing, resigned yesterday after allegations surfaced that he spanked several female employees in the 1970s.

The Star reports that Ayers is no longer serving as director, chairman or an employee of the company effectively immediately. His wife, Josephine Ayers, will step up from her role as vice chairman to replace him as chairman, William Thornton reports for

Ayers told the Star, "It is of utmost importance to me that this newspaper continue to serve its role of reporting on matters of concern to the Anniston community and that nothing stand in the way of preserving the newspaper as an independently owned publication serving the community. I feel my resignation at this time is in the best interests of the paper and its mission."

Ayers is the third generation of his family to own the paper, and was the publisher from 1969 to 2016. The Star's story includes several tributes to him and his career.

UPDATE, Jan. 9: The University of Alabama will continue its community-journalism internship program at the Star, the university announced.

Rick Hall, 'Father of Muscle Shoals Music,' dead at 85

Rick Hall, the producer and songwriter who put Muscle Shoals, Ala., on the map of American music, died at his home there Jan. 2 at 85 after a long illness. "Through FAME, his publishing company and studio, Hall made Muscle Shoals synonymous with a sound of soul, R&B and country that often featured sparkling, ultra-live percussive sounds and vocal performances that seem simultaneously removed and intimate," Andrew Flanagan reports for NPR.

Hall was born in Mississippi and raised in Franklin County, Alabama, next to Muscle Shoals. His childhood was marked by poverty and a dysfunctional family, the shame of which made him a tough businessman determined to succeed, he told roots music journal No Depression.

Hall said Sun Records' co-founder Sam Phillips, who first recorded Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Roy Orbison and more, was an early mentor and a big influence on him. "The pair, two white record producers from the south, would each have a deep impact on the history of African-American music of the twentieth century," Flanagan reports.

Hall's career began taking off after co-writing Roy Orbison's "Sweet and Innocent" with Billy Sherrill. The pair established FAME, which Hall moved to Muscle Shoals after parting ways with Sherrill, who went on to a great producing career in country music. After local hotel bellhop Arthur Alexander recorded surprise hit "You Better Move On" with FAME, the studio was able to afford to move to its current location.

"From there, Hall began producing some of the most indelible soul and R&B recordings of the century: Aretha Franklin's 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),' Etta James' cover of 'Tell Mama' (the original version of which was also recorded at FAME), Otis Redding's 'You Left the Water Running' and Wilson Pickett's cover of 'Mustang Sally' among them," Flanagan reports.

Though there's no doubt Hall made an indelible impression on American music, he received little professional recognition. He was nominated for a Grammy Award as a producer in 1974, his only nomination before being named a National Trustee in 2014 -- an honor reserved for those who have made significant contributions to the field of recording other than singing. He began to get more recognition after he was the subject for the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals.

Flanagan reports that, after hearing about Hall's death, country star Jason Isbell said Hall gave him his first job in the music business, and that "nobody in the industry ever worked harder than Rick. Nobody. American music wouldn't be the same without his contributions. His death is a huge loss to those of us who knew him and those who didn't."

Project will explore using sawdust and waste coal to generate electricity in Eastern Kentucky

A new partnership based at the University of Kentucky is trying to turn waste from Eastern Kentucky industries -- sawdust and coal fines -- into a source of power for Hazard and Perry County. The UK Center for Applied Energy Research received a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the technology, which could serve as a model for other energy projects in Central Appalachia that have active lumber and coal industries, Dave Melanson reports for UKNow.

China's Beijing Baota Sanju Energy Science and Technology Co. Ltd. will collaborate with CAER to create a preliminary design for the 5-megawatt gasifier, which will use sawdust from Gay Brothers Lumber in Hazard and coal fines from Blackhawk Mining. The test location will be at the Coal Fields Regional Industrial Park in Hazard.

The project is called Gasification Combined Heat and Power from Coal Fines, and 20 percent of its funding will come from the UK Research Foundation, Arq Coal Technologies LLC, and Beijing Baota Sanju.

Jack Groppo, a faculty member in the UK Department of Mining Engineering and a principal research engineer at CAER who is working on the project, told Melanson that he thinks localized power generation would work well in rural Kentucky, and that "We have a tremendous amount of coal fines left over throughout Kentucky coal fields as well as a strong, vibrant lumber industry that has industrial waste as well. This project will allow us to combine those two products to create fuel that will help power rural Kentucky communities for years to come."

Thursday, January 04, 2018

U.S. agriculture markets jump during frigid weather

 "Bone-chilling cold across the U.S. farm belt riled agriculture markets at midweek as concerns over crop damage and delayed export shipments sent prices of key food commodities soaring," Karl Plume reports for Reuters.

Hard winter wheat prices hit the highest levels in six weeks because of worries that crops will be damaged by the freeze. Cattle prices too hit a seven-week high because of concerns that the cold could slow cattle production at feedlots. And exporters jostled to buy barge loads of corn and soybeans to get them down the Illinois River before it froze. After it did freeze, Gulf Coast exporters turned to shipments along the Ohio River, which wasn't iced over. An anonymous grain barge trader said exporters are trying to get hold of bushels now because there won't be anything coming off the Illinois River for a few weeks, Plume reports.

Though the worst of the cold in the farm belt is likely past, forecasters say temperatures will be well below normal through the end of the week, and ice accumulation will continue in the upper Mississippi and Illinois River basin over the next four days, Plume reports.

Tribes hire lobbyists to push for Indian Health Service reform

"Two Native American tribes in South Dakota, the Yankton Sioux and Crow Creek Sioux, have hired lobbyists to push for reforms to the Indian Health Service," Bob Herman reports for Axios.

The move is an attempt to drive Congress to act on repeated calls for reform to the IHS, which many say provides inadequate and sometimes incompetent care to Native Americans. A blistering article in The Wall Street Journal in July brought widespread attention to the problems plaguing the agency. The IHS hospital in Winnebago, Neb., for example, lost its Medicare and Medicaid certification in 2015 because the hospital's staffing and care posed "immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety," Herman reports for Modern Healthcare.

Native Americans often must rely on the chronically underfunded IHS hospitals, since many if not most live in rural areas where there are few if any other health care providers available, Eric Whitney reports for NPR.

Tribes are also concerned about inadequate funding for the agency. President Trump proposed cutting the 2018 IHS budget by about $300 million, though Congress' stopgap funding bill in December did include $1.1 million to maintain a new clinic in Flandreu, S.D.  Herman reports that the clinic almost closed because IHS suggested less funding and didn't inform the locals.

Another concern is the long delay in approving a new IHS director. "It's been two months since President Donald Trump nominated Quapaw tribal member Robert Weaver to the job. But the agency hasn't had a permanent leader for nearly two years," The Associated Press reports.

High Plains Journal announces finalists for 2017 Agriculture Cares award for rural people who make a difference

In rural America, we think there's just something a little extra neighborly about our neighbors. People who "go above and beyond to improve their community, their country and their world. People who see a need in their community and find a way to meet it," Shauna Rumbaugh writes for High Plains Journal. "People who willingly serve their neighbors and inspire others to make a difference, no matter how small or wherever they may live."  That's a perfect description for the six reader-nominated finalists for the Journal's Agriculture Cares award for 2017. Read more about them:

Mel Thompson
Mel Thompson was nominated for his dedication to listening to constituents in his capacity as an agricultural assistant for Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Part of the reason he knows so well what farmers care about is that he keeps a hand in his Medicine Lodge cattle farm while traveling the state listening to constituents' input about agriculture, Dave Bergmeier reports. "Having an agriculture background is very helpful as you experience first hand what producers face and you can relate to their concerns," Thompson told Bergmeier. "I enjoy making a difference and hopefully I can continue to make a difference . . . Sen. Roberts has been very supportive of me over many years and I value that partnership. It is a joy and pleasure if you do something you love and it never has become a job."

Earl Moss surrounded by his dedicated family (L-R): wife Opal,
son Gary, grandson Jaxsen, son Tim. (Photo by Larry Dreiling)
The Moss family of Sheridan County, Kansas, is a sterling example of loyalty, nominated for the way they came together to help the family patriarch after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003 at the age of 70, Larry Dreiling reports. Gary and Tim Moss, along with their mother Opal and their extended family, work hard to make sure their father Earl remains active in the family farm. When Earl wanted to help with the harvest, Gary and Tim designed and built a lift that would help their father get up into the combine to drive it. It worked for several years until a fall from the lift injured Earl's back and forced him to retire from combine driving. The brothers also build a lift on their boat trailer so their father could go fishing with them. These days Earl says he's the "advice giver" to his sons and grandson Jaxsen, who has joined the operation to take care of the cattle herd.
Rodney Beer

Rodney Beer is a longtime bulldozer driver, nominated after he brought a dump truck and excavator all the way from his Minnesota home to help clean up homes devastated by the wildfires in Clark County, Kansas. In all, he helped clean up seven homes and 13 outbuildings on three ranches, Kylene Scott reports. Though he did most of the work alone, his sons pitched in to help and his daughter raised money among friends and business associates to pay for almost all of the nearly $1,800 in diesel Beer needed for the trip. "To me, something like that is meant to be," he told Scott. "God provided. He did not have people give me more than I needed, but I had enough to pay for the diesel fuel."
Richard Porter
Richard Porter was nominated for using his business sense to carve out a profit on his cattle farm, then donating some of that profit back to his community of Reading, Kan. With degrees in chemical engineering and law, there's no arguing that he could have done anything he wanted to with his life. But he chose to return home to run the family cattle business in 1979; it was a lean time, but his ingenuity helped him find ways to make it profitable. And he says he's glad to have the opportunity to give back. "Some of the donations are given in memory of someone close to him that has passed away. Porter thinks this is a terrific way to honor that person, the money goes to something great and it is an efficient way to make a donation," Doug Rich reports.

Alec Gotto and his steer, J.D.
(Photo by Jennifer Carrico)
Alec Gotto is a 12-year-old boy who hasn't let a lifelong medical condition prevent him from pursuing his first love: showing cattle. Paralyzed from a bout with transverse myelitis as an infant, Alec depends on an electric wheelchair to help him get around. But he's always loved being in the cattle yards and pastures with his dad on their Winterset, Iowa farm, and two years ago began showing cattle, Jennifer Carrico reports. His family has helped make his dream a reality by carefully choosing a calf that will pay attention to Alec and not get spooked by his chair. But sometimes his chair can get mired in the wood chips of the show ring, so his family and friends are raising money to buy a wheelchair on tracks that will help him show cattle more easily. They say they have about three-quarters of the $25,000 needed and hope to make the purchase soon. (Click here if you want to donate.)

Ashland, Kan., is the last finalist, a community nominated by several people because of the way residents came together to help their neighbors after the Starbuck wildfires ravaged the rural town in March. Mayor Kendal Kay says the city was able to deploy resources effectively because of a task force that has been working to keep Ashland thriving, addressing such issues as youth activities, civic pride, health care, and economic development, Jennifer Latzke reports. The task force had previously identified people in the community who had certain skill sets, which made it much easier for the town to organize a response to the wildfires.

Deadline to make nominations for a major journalism ethics award is Monday; how about some rural nominees?

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Monday is the deadline to nominate journalists for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics, presented by The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the six years the award has been presented, none of the winners have been rural journalists. None may have been nominated, but I think there should be no shortage of qualified candidates because rural journalists frequently deal with ethical challenges. I teach my community journalism students that it is more difficult do do good journalism in rural areas, partly because of the constant conflict that rural journalists must deal with, between their professional responsibilities and their personal desires.

The Anthony Shadid Award recognizes ethical decisions in reporting stories in any journalistic medium, including print, broadcast and digital, by those working for established news organizations or publishing individually. It focuses on current journalism and does not include books, documentaries and other long-term projects. Entries must involve reporting for stories published or broadcast in 2017. Individuals or news organizations may nominate themselves or others.

Letters of nomination must include: Name and contact information of the nominators and their relationship to the story; names of the reporter or reporting team that produced the report; brief description of the story and a link to it online; description of conflicting values encountered in reporting the story; options considered to resolve the conflicts; and final decisions and rationales behind them. Nomination letters of three pages or less should be saved in pdf format and attached to an email sent to For more information, visit the website.

The award includes a $1,000 prize and travel expenses to accept the award and discuss the reporting at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on April 5. It differs from most other journalism awards because it honors difficult decisions journalists make in pursuing high-impact stories while fulfilling their ethical obligations to their audience, their sources, and people caught up in news events. “The stories nominated are always phenomenal, but the committee makes the decision on the finalists and winners by considering how reporters and editors negotiated ethical dilemmas while reporting,” said Lucas Graves, chair of the judging committee.

The award is named for Anthony Shadid, a UW-Madison graduate who died in 2012 on a reporting assignment in Syria for The New York Times after winning two Pulitzer Prizes for foreign correspondence. He was a member of the ethics center’s advisory board and strongly supported its efforts to promote public interest journalism and to stimulate discussion about journalism ethics.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Alabama newspaper owner admits spanking female employees; his paper struggled with reporting it

H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers
The owner of an Alabama newspaper long considered one of the nation's best small dailies has acknowledged spanking at least one of his young female reporters at her home in the 1970s. H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers, until 2016 the publisher of The Anniston Star, left unchallenged a story that he spanked another young female reporter in the newsroom.

The story began emerging in mid-November, when Joey Kennedy, a columnist for the Alabama Political Reporter and a former Star reporter, published a column largely about the allegations facing U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, in which he said his wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy, had been spanked by her employer when she was first starting out at a newspaper.

Eddie Burkhalter, then a reporter at the Star, noticed the column and started to pursue the story. Kennedy wrote in a Jan. 1 column, "It was pretty much common knowledge in The Star newsroom that Ayers had this strange proclivity. Women were warned not to be alone with him, if they could help it." Star Editor and Publisher Bob Davis says in a column that he had never heard such allegations in his 14 years at the paper.

Davis writes that Managing Editor Ben Cunningham told Burkhalter "to suspend work on the story for a few days until we had a chance to sit down and discuss it the following week," and "to review how we would go about treating sources who wished to remain anonymous and inquiring into events alleged to have happened more than 40 years ago." At a subsequent meeting, Davis says Burkhalter revealed that he had continued to gather information despite agreeing not to do so, and resigned.

Kennedy said in his Jan. 1 column, "Burkhalter said he believes management thought he would just drop the story, and, indeed, ordered him to." Davis says in his column that the paper had made no decision to publish or not publish. Cunningham, in his own column, says the charges were "flatly false, and were delivered without any attempt to verify their accuracy or opportunity to respond." He also writes, "As of Monday morning we felt we needed more before we could publish — more women willing to share their stories and their names with our readers. Our hand was forced, though, when another outlet published its version of the story first."

After Burkhalter quit, he continued to gather sources, contacting Kennedy to compare notes. The Alabama Political Reporter first broke the story with a Dec. 28 column by Kennedy. On Jan. 1 Burkhalter published a more extensive story in APR naming both Ayers and some of his alleged victims who had agreed to speak up. He recounted the assaults in detail: "Kennedy said Ayers picked up the chair with her in it, wrested it out from under her, bent her over the desk behind and spanked her hard 18 times with a metal pica pole, leaving marks," Burkhalter reports. Another reporter in a corner of the otherwise deserted newsroom saw the incident but didn't report it. Kennedy says she didn't report it because she was afraid she would lose her job and feared that her father would kill Ayers and be put in prison for it. Burkhalter reported that another woman who didn't want to be named said Ayers spanked her in his office in 1975. Another woman named Wendy Sigal, now apparently deceased, told colleagues that Ayers had come to her apartment, told her she had been bad, and spanked her.

The Star quickly followed up with its own story about Veronica Kennedy; it mentioned other victims but said the paper did not have permission to publish their names. Ayers first denied any memory of the incidents, but in a later Star story by Tim Lockette he said that had spanked Sigal on doctor's orders, claiming that she had been out of work because of a psychological problem.

Ayers took over as publisher of the paper in 1969 from his father Harry Ayers and stayed on until 2016. He's now chairman of Consolidated Publishing, which owns five other papers, and writes occasional columns for the Star. He told Burkhalter that has no intention of stepping down as chairman. He later told the Star, "As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret. At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age." He is 82.

Interior rolls back Obama-era rule to tighten environmental standards for fracking on public lands

"On the last business day of the year, the Interior Department rescinded a 2015 Obama administration rule that would have set new environmental limitations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post.

The Bureau of Land Management regulation would have "tightened standards for well construction and wastewater management, required the disclosure of the chemicals contained in fracking fluids, and probably driven up the cost for many fracking activities," Mooney reports, but it never took effect because it was stalled in court. A Wyoming district court had said the regulation exceeded the Interior's authority; a spokesperson for the Interior said that rescinding the rule takes care of the legal question and will save the industry money. The spokesperson said that existing laws ensure that fracking operations will be adequately regulated.

Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute applauded the move, saying the regulation would have hurt economic growth in states such as New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Mike Freeman of EarthJustice, which defended the regulation in court, said that it was a "reasonable and long overdue update" of regulations that were adopted long before horizontal hydraulic fracking became common.

Volunteer rain-and-snow reporters are needed to help predict weather, especially in Midwest and South

Want to help scientists better predict rainfall in your area? You can help by becoming a volunteer precipitation reporter for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, called CoCoRaHS.

CoCoRaHS, which is based at Colorado State University, has 20,000 volunteer reporters so far, and the work is easy: you put up a professional-grade rain gauge, check it every morning, and file a simple report either on the website or the mobile app. The reports help climatologists get a better picture of how much rainfall areas get, especially since rainfall totals can be different even a few miles apart. "The rainfall reports – including reports of zero precipitation – are used every day by weather forecasters, the insurance industry, recreation entities, and many others," Gene Johnston reports for Successful Farming.

CoCoRaHS National Coordinator Henry Reges says the reporting can save lives. "One example is the flooding rains that hit Colorado in 2013. CoCoRaHS reports triggered warnings that ultimately saved lives," Johnston reports.

Reges says there's a big shortage of volunteer reporters in the rural Midwest and South, and he'd love to see more sign up. "It’s like the resolution on a camera. The more pixels (dots), the sharper the photo. We’re always looking for more observers."

Slaughterhouse cleaners on graveyard shifts, many of them immigrants, are in a dangerous job with little oversight

Injury rates for workers in meatpacking plants are at an all-time low, according to the North American Meat Institute. But those numbers may be misleading, because plants commonly hire contractors to do the often-dangerous work of cleaning the plants at night, and they aren't required to report numbers on contractor injuries, Peter Waldman and Kartikay Mehrotra report for Bloomberg.

Meatpacking plants have a hard time filling even daytime production jobs; finding workers for the graveyard sanitation shift is even harder, which is why the larger plants often hire third parties to clean. These companies, like Packers Sanitation Services Inc., are cost-effective for the plants because they pay their mostly immigrant workforce a third less than what day shift meatpackers earn.

"Such is the genius of American outsourcing. In an era of heightened concern about food safety, meat and poultry producers are happy to pay sanitation companies for their expertise. The sanitation companies also assume the headaches and risk of staffing positions that only the destitute or desperate will take—very often undocumented immigrants," Bloomberg reports. "And they relieve the big producers, including household names such as Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., of responsibility for one of the most dangerous factory jobs in America."

The immigrant workers, many undocumented, are pressured to complete work quickly, and accidents happen. But the immigrant workers rarely receive legal compensation after being injured.

"Judging from Packers’s record, the nightly storm of high-­pressure hoses, chemical vapors, blood, grease, and frantic deadlines, all swirling in clouds of steam around pulsing belts, blades, and blenders, can be treacherous. From 2015 through September 2016, Packers had the 14th-highest number of severe injuries—defined as an amputation, hospitalization, or the loss of an eye—among the 14,000 companies tracked by OSHA in 29 states, according to data analyzed by the National Employment Law Project," Bloomberg reports. Packers had the most injuries per worker by a wide margin, "with a rate of 14 severe injuries for every 10,000 workers. Its amputation rate of 9.4 dismemberments per 10,000 workers was almost five times higher than for U.S. manufacturing workers as a whole in 2015."

California's legalization of recreational cannabis might increase rural crime, law enforcement officials fear

Santa Barbara County, California
(Wikipedia map)
One of the popular arguments for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana is that it might reduce crime, but some California officials are worried that legalization might increase crime in rural areas. Medical marijuana has been legal in California for years, but recreational use became legal on Jan. 1.

The problem is that some pot farmers don't want to sell their product legally, since they can make far more money selling it in states where marijuana is still illegal. These illegal growers sometimes steal equipment from local farmers who don't even necessarily grow marijuana themselves.

"As more of the high-dollar crop is planted in 2018, more opportunities will exist for thieves looking to make a quick buck, sheriff’s officials said," Mike Hodgson reports for the Lompoc Record, citing the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.
Legal cannabis growers sometimes get their plants stolen, Senior Deputy John McCarthy said. Their money is at risk, too. Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, most banks won't allow growers, processors and dispensaries to open accounts. About 75 percent of medical marijuana operations don't have bank accounts, which means they're dealing mostly in cash.

McCarthy, who has worked on rural crime for nearly 20 years, told Hodgson he investigates between 100 and 160 rural crimes a year in his county. "The most common crime McCarthy deals with is the theft of equipment — water pumps, irrigation lines, tractors and, more recently, tractor batteries." "We’ll see an increase in the theft of chemicals and drip irrigation lines at the start of the marijuana season,” McCarthy told Hodgson. "That will be taken out into the backcountry for the illicit grows."

Hodgson reports,"Khurshid Khoja, general counsel of the California Cannabis Industry Association, recently related how a dispensary testing agent was attacked inside his lab by a man armed with a hammer. Another man involved in a cannabis operation was kidnapped and driven out into the desert, where he was tortured to force him to give up the location of his money." And beyond stolen equipment and robbery, illegal grow operations can bring with them the problems usually seen when dealing with drug cartels, including kidnapping and murder.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Microsoft launches coalition to bring broadband internet to rural America; its proposed solution is controversial

"Microsoft, along with a slew of rural broadband and technology groups, is launching a new issue advocacy coalition called Connect Americans Now that aims to eliminate the digital divide in rural America," Sara Fischer reports for Axios. "It's part of a greater push by the company and others to close the broadband gap by using TV 'white spaces' spectrum — or vacant channels.that use TV frequencies that are generally cheaper than fiber optic cable." That's important because 23.4 million rural Americans lack a broadband connection.

CAN will urge the Federal Communications Commission to reserve unlicensed low-band vacant channels in every U.S. market to make white-space technology more viable. National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith urged caution on C-SPAN though, saying that "it made no sense to push forward with opening up more TV spectrum to unlicensed use before the FCC determined how much would be needed for licensed broadcasters in the repack," John Eggerton reports for CNN. "Smith said he thought rural broadband should be part of an infrastructure package and that there could be room for Microsoft once the technology is more 'proven up.'"

White-space tech is a controversial solution to the rural broadband problem. Some have speculated that Microsoft's endgame for promoting white-space tech has little to do with rural America, and some agriculture lobbyists have protested that it will hurt the ability of low-powered rural television stations to broadcast. But there's little doubt the tech has the potential to be a game changer in rural America.

Microsoft has already given white-space technology a trial run, providing broadband connections in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after their infrastructure was severely damaged by hurricanes last year. The tech giant has made other investments in rural broadband as well, recently announcing public-private partnerships with small metro and rural communities in six states to invest in tech and tech jobs, including broadband internet.

Tips for preventing and dealing with frozen pipes

Weather Channel map of wind chills this morning. Click to enlarge.
The nearly nationwide cold snap is expected to continue for a week or so, increasing chances that household pipes might freeze, and in some cases burst. Here are some tips from American Water, the nation's main for-profit water company, on how to prevent and deal with frozen pipes, which usually occur in areas such as crawl spaces or along the outside walls where unprotected
plumbing is more vulnerable to the elements.
 When below-freezing temperatures occur, keep a slow trickle of water flowing through faucets that are supplied by pipes running through an unheated or unprotected space to keep the water from freezing. Also, keep kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open to allow warm air to reach water pipes.
 Set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees if you’re going out of town.
 Know the location of your home’s main water shut-off valve so that you can turn off your water quickly if a pipe bursts inside your home. This valve is often located in a utility room or closet or in the basement, close to where the water supply enters the home.
 If a pipe freezes, first shut off the water to your home immediately, at the main shut-off valve.
 Thaw your pipes with warm air so that you melt the frozen water in the pipe. Do this with a space heater, for example, but avoid the use of kerosene heaters or open flames.
 Once pipes are thawed, slowly turn the water back on and check pipes and joints for any cracks or leaks that might have been caused by freezing.

Racial minorities in rural areas are especially likely to be undercounted in the 2020 census

Poverty and lack of internet access make it more likely that people in some rural areas will be undercounted in the 2020 census, according to a report from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy. Some places and population segments will be especially difficult to count, such as African Americans in the South, Hispanics in the Southwest, Native Americans living on reservations, Alaskan Native Americans, residents of deeply rural Appalachia, and migrant and seasonal farm workers.

Under-reporting can have serious consequences for rural areas, since census numbers determine allocation of seats in the U.S. House and state legislatures, and distribution of federal funding for many programs.

The chief author of the study, William O'Hare, identified 316 counties that had census mail-return rates in 2010 below 72.7 percent, putting them in the bottom 10 percent of counties. "The majority of the population living in hard-to-count counties (71 percent) are in urban areas, but the majority of HTC counties (79 percent) are in rural areas," O'Hare reports.

Studies over the past 50 years show that racial and ethnic minorities have been consistently undercounted, and this is born out in O'Hare's findings: Of the 316 HTC counties, 75 are rural counties where a racial or ethnic minority makes up more than 50 percent of the population. There are 34 black-majority HTC rural counties, mostly in the Deep South, and 29 Hispanic-majority HTC rural counties, mostly in the Southwest. Appalachia, though its population is majority white, also has pockets of HTC counties because of the remoteness of certain areas, the high poverty rate and lack of internet access, according to the report. About 40 percent of people living in poverty in those rural areas don't have internet access.

University of New Hampshire map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The undercount may be exacerbated by recent budget cuts to the Census Bureau and changes in its data collection methods. The 2020 census will rely more on residents to fill out forms online, rather than having people go door to door to collect responses. But 21 percent of rural homes don't have internet service, so they will likely have a lower response rate. The Census Bureau planned to test the new data collection method in rural West Virginia, but had to drop the test because of budget cuts.

FCC fines Sinclair Broadcasting $13.4 million for failing to identify sponsored content on Utah station

"The Federal Communications Commission recently fined Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. more than $13 million for failing to identify sponsored content that the broadcaster aired on its stations," Holden Wilen reports for the Baltimore Business Journal. The fine is the largest-ever penalty for that offense.

KUTV, Sinclair's station in Salt Lake City, aired paid programming about the local Huntsman Cancer Institute more than 1,700 times without disclosing that Huntsman paid for the content. Some stories resembled news coverage and some were 30-minute programs. Sinclair told the FCC that it repeatedly told stations to identify the content as paid, and said the violation was because of "miscommunications and misunderstanding, David Goldman reports for CNN.

Sinclair said in a statement that the fine was "unreasonable" and it plans to contest it. The two Democratic FCC commissioners wanted the fine to be much larger. One, Jessica Rosenworcel, wrote in her dissent against the judgment that the fine was an "unreasonable and suspicious favor" to Sinclair. The other, Mignon Clyburn, called the fine a "mere slap on the wrist" and questioned whether the amount of the fine was "another example of special treatment by the FCC majority." FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a responding statement that the Democrats' proposed $82 million penalty would be unprecedented, and insinuated that they wanted to punish Sinclair for its well-known conservative political leanings, CNN reports.