Friday, March 02, 2018

Some schools already arm teachers. Here's how they do it.

Since the 2013 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, some opposed to gun control have suggested arming teachers. Critics say it's inappropriate or unworkable, but hundreds of school districts in at least 10 states across the country, most of them small and rural, already allow the practice, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States.

Sidney, Ohio
Sidney, Ohio, is one example. Dozens of guns are stashed in biometric safes in the district's seven buildings. "The district spent about $70,000 on safes, bulletproof vests, cameras, guns, radios and ammunition. Uniformed, armed officers cost $200,000 a year, and an insurance policy of $100,000 a year includes coverage for its staff with access to firearms. Those are negligible costs for a school district with a $36 million budget, the superintendent said," Erica Green and Manny Fernandez report for The New York Times. Every classroom also has a panic button, every school has a uniformed, armed guard, and metal detectors and a bulletproof window at the front entrance. School Supt. John Scheu told Green and Fernandez: "We can’t stop an active shooter, but we can minimize the carnage."

More than 100 public school districts in Texas have allowed teachers and administrators to carry firearms for more than a decade. Interested staff members must undergo specialized training and receive prior approval to either carry a concealed weapon or store one nearby. Gun-rights advocates say no mishaps or accidents have happened, and the state's program could serve as a model.

Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs expose GOP rift; agriculture 'particularly vulnerable' to trade conflicts

Washington Post graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
President Trump's planned tariffs on steel and aluminum have exposed a deep rift in the Republican Party that will be difficult to bridge. It wasn't hard to see it coming: Congressional Republicans largely supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump jettisoned immediately upon taking office

But Trump's protectionist philosophy brought most Republican voters to his side of the debate. "During the campaign, a fascinating shift happened in Republican circles, one that gives Trump leverage in this intraparty debate on tariffs. The GOP base became openly wary of trade. And Republicans probably have Trump to thank for that shift," Amber Phillips writes for The Washington Post.

Many Republican leaders fear the tariffs will trigger a trade war not just with China, but allies like Canada, Mexico and Brazil. China is already threatening a trade war over U.S. sorghum and soybean exports in the wake of Trump's solar-panel tariffs. Republicans also worry that, by making imported aluminum and steel more expensive, products that need those imports will become more expensive for Americans. "U.S. car companies have warned that the last time there were such tariffs, in 2002, they lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Critics of Trump's policy point to the Dow Jones industrial average falling 500 points after the announcement," Phillips writes.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said "Let's be clear: The President is proposing a massive tax increase on American families. Protectionism is weak, not strong. You'd expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one." Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was also highly critical.

China sends relatively small amounts of steel and aluminum to the U.S., but "the Trump administration is already planning another action aimed solely at Chinese policies and practices that it says puts billions of U.S. intellectual property at risk and forces American companies to hand over valuable technology," report Doug Palmer and Adam Behsudi of Politico. "That could potentially lead to the United States imposing retaliatory tariffs on an array of Chinese goods — setting the stage for a bilateral trade row that could hit an array of U.S. sectors. Agriculture would be particularly vulnerable since China is the top U.S. customer for soybeans, as well as overall U.S. agricultural exports."

UPDATE: Farm leaders "expressed shock" at Trump's plans, Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer

Columbia Daily Tribune 'gutted' since sale to GateHouse Media, journalism review story says

The Tribune's publishing plant
Journalists once knew Columbia, Missouri, as the best-covered small city in America, thanks to the daily Columbia Missourian run by students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the 113-year-old daily Columbia Daily Tribune. But it's not likely able to claim that title any more.

In the 18 months since GateHouse Media Inc. bought the Tribune, "the staff has been slashed, readers are frustrated and circulation has plunged," Terry Ganey reports for St. Louis-based Gateway Journalism Review. "No doubt daily newspapers have retrenched within the last 10 years in the face of market challenges. But the Tribune has been bled dry to achieve financial results. As of mid-February, layoffs and departures had left the newspaper with one full-time reporter in a city of more than 100,000." Subscriptions have dropped accordingly: almost 3,000 daily and 4,300 Sunday since the paper's sale.

Charles Westmoreland, the Tribune's managing editor, wrote in a column last December that the layoffs haven't been "a joyride for us either" and said canceling subscriptions is the wrong way to fix the paper's woes. "For every 100 subscribers we lose, there’s a $20,000 hole in the budget to fill. So we fill that hole with more cuts, but more subscribers show their disdain of the new changes by cancelling. So we lose another 100 subscribers, and now there’s another $20,000 hole needing filled. The cycle then repeats over and over and over."

George Kennedy, former associate dean of the Missouri School of Journalism and former managing editor of the Missourian, told Ganey: "What we are seeing here is a tragedy – a journalistic and civic tragedy. . . . One of the country’s best small-sized newspapers has been gutted." Ganey did not mention contacting GateHouse for comment; The Rural Blog's attempts were unsuccessful.

EPA proposes rollbacks to Obama-era pollution rules for coal ash waste, air pollution from oil and gas drilling

The Environmental Protection Agency announced significant changes Thursday to Obama-era regulations governing air pollution from oil and gas operations and coal ash waste. States and utilities would have more freedom in how they dispose of such wastes, but detractors say the revisions would lead to a dirtier environment and could be hazardous to human health.

"The announcement came on the eve of a deadline for utilities to release reports documenting coal-ash contamination of water supplies at hundreds of power plants across the United States. The pollution reports were intended as a first step toward cleaning up the contamination leaking from the ash pits," Michael Biesecker and Matthew Brown report for The Associated Press.

"The EPA also proposed amending rules to give state regulators more authority over how utilities dispose of the ash left behind when coal is burned to generate electricity. The gray ash, typically dumped near coal-fired power plants in unlined pits, contains toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic that over time can leach into groundwater or nearby rivers, potentially contaminating sources of drinking water," Biesecker and Brown report.

Another part of the Obama-era standards were aimed at reducing the amount of methane and volatile organic compounds released from oil and gas drilling operations. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and VOCs can aggravate respiratory ailments and lead to early death. The agency said the proposed changes will save utilities $100 million per year, and oil and gas operations up to $16 million by 2035.

The EPA said it will accept public comment on the proposed changes for 45 days, and will hold a public hearing.

EPA restores grants for Chesapeake Bay Journal

"The Environmental Protection Agency agreed Thursday to restore $325,000 in funding this year for the Bay Journal, a publication with a print circulation of 50,000 that has covered environmental issues involving the Chesapeake Bay for more than a quarter-century," Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni report for The Washington Post.

EPA grants account for 40 percent of the Journal's budget. The publication lost those grants last August, one week after EPA political appointee John Konkus, who was in charge of reviewing grants, told Nick DiPasquale, the now-retired head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, that the Journal should not have published editorials criticizing Trump administration policies. After DiPasquale retired in January, he started talking to reporters, and Konkus' possible motivations came to light.

The Journal appealed to EPA directly to restore its funding, arguing that the agency had violated the terms of its cooperative agreements. Maryland's two Democratic senators, Benjamin Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, also pressured EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The EPA restored funding yesterday, but the Journal has already been hurt: since August the publication has lost two reporters due to lack of money.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

High Plains Aquifer depletion slows in Kansas, thanks to rain and better water-management practices

Water-level changes in High Plains Aquifer 2013-18 (Kansas Geological Survey map; click on image for larger version)
The High Plains aquifer is still losing water overall, but a new study shows that the depletion is slowing down in Kansas, thanks to good rains and better practices among farmers.

Every January the Kansas Geological Survey and the Kansas Department of Agriculture's Division of Water Resources measure water levels in 1,400 wells in western and central Kansas. Those wells draw water from the Ogallala, Equus Beds and Great Bend Prairie aquifers. This January's survey showed that groundwater levels rose slightly or stayed about stable in 2017, Amy Bickel reports for the High Plains Journal.

The Ogallala, which covers eight states, is still nearly depleted in some places, though. "Groundwater levels in southwest Kansas, where the Ogallala is the richest, have fallen an average 40 feet since 1996 when the KGS took over monitoring the wells. Some areas have had more significant declines," Bickel reports.

Some farmers have responded to the threat by using soil sensors and other technologies to irrigate their crops more efficiently. Kansas farmer Tim Franklin told Bickel that soil moisture probes have benefited his farm. He's had two good harvests and the water level in his family well, which had declined for several years, rose 1.29 feet. "What we are doing might not work for everyone," he said. But "if we can all do a little bit, it adds up."

As rural hospitals face choice of closure or change, key is catering to the needs of the local population, execs say

Rural hospitals are reacting to the recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, which said the rural health-care system needs restructuring and suggested that some critical-access hospitals be turned into emergency treatment centers or other useful facilities. Adrienne St. Clair of NPR and Kaiser Health News talked to some hospital executives in the seven upper-Midwest states that were the basis for the report.

"Darrold Bertsch, chief executive officer of Sakakawea Medical Center in Hazen, N.D., says he agrees with the idea of catering health care facilities to the population — whether it's with an outpatient clinic, urgent care center, a hospital or something else," St. Clair reports, quoting him: "If communities had a little bit more flexibility, then they could adapt a health care delivery system in their area that is more relevant to the needs that they have, rather than trying to make a hospital fit in a community where it might not be able to be supported anymore."

"Hospitals tend to be cornerstone institutions in rural communities," St. Clair notes. "For many citizens in small-town America, losing the local hospital would threaten the livelihood of the town and its people, says Patrick Roche, chief operating officer at Faith Regional Health Services based in Norfolk, Neb." He told her, "There are two things they don't want to lose. The first one is their school, the second one is their hospital."

Challenges to keeping rural hospitals open include reduced federal reimbursements, difficulty finding a qualified workforce, problems with transportation, "broadband internet accessibility and the unique characteristics of the population, according to Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor with the Bipartisan Policy Center and one of the report's authors," St. Clair reports.
"You know, you don't have to close your hospital," Parekh told her. "You can transform the hospital to meet your community needs, improve health and still continue to improve your local economy. Rural America can thrive as health care transforms." (Read more)

Ga. teacher who barricaded himself in classroom and shot through a window had encountered police before

A social-studies teacher in Dalton, Ga. (pop. 34,000), is facing charges after he barricaded himself in his classroom at Dalton High School with a gun yesterday. When the principal tried to enter the room, Randal Davidson, 53, fired a shot through his classroom window with a .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver. Students were evacuated and he surrendered to police within 30 to 45 minutes. No one was injured except for a girl who hurt her ankle while evacuating, Lauren Foreman and Ellen Eldridge report for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The incident comes as President Trump and the National Rifle Association have recommended armed teachers as a defense for school shootings, sparking a national debate. Most proposals to arm teachers would require vetting for mental health and experience with firearms. Dalton High does not allow guns on campus, and Davidson has had two previous run-ins with police that would make him unlikely to pass such vetting.

Though Davidson has no criminal record, in March 2016 he told local police that he wanted to confess to having someone killed. He told the police that he had had an internet affair with his adopted son's girlfriend, but then had her killed because she was an abusive parent. He also said he was on several medications for depression and had been released from the hospital that day. Police couldn't verify any of his information from, including whether the victim existed, and concluded that he might be delusional, the Dalton Daily Citizen reports. Davidson was taken to a local hospital because of suicidal thoughts, and police promised to follow up with his son later.

"Then, in January 2017, Davidson disappeared from the high school campus after saying he didn’t feel well," Foreman and Eldridge report. "He was found hours later sitting on a curb about a mile away, unable or unwilling to respond to police, according to the report. He was again taken to the hospital and no further action was taken by officers."

Davidson has been at Dalton since 2004, and in 2012 was recognized as the school's top teacher. Before teaching, he was the sports and news director at local radio station WBLJ-AM.

As California political winds shift, separating counties by cannabis, one that enticed marijuana farms bans them

Calaveras County (Wikipedia map)
Marijuana farmers in Calaveras County, California, say they feel betrayed after county supervisors enticed them to do business there but banned them when political winds shifted.

The county of 45,000 was devastated after the 2015 Butte wildfire caused millions of dollars in damage. After medical marijuana was legalized in 2016, supervisors saw marijuana farming as a way to bring in revenue and lured pot farmers in with friendly laws and cheap land. The gambit paid off: the county earned nearly $10 million from a cultivation tax, and $3.7 million in registration fees in less than two years. But soon after, anti-marijuana supervisors were elected, and the board voted 3-2 in January to order growers to cease operations by June.

"The county’s stance has some growers feeling betrayed. Cultivators say they started businesses here with good intentions and want to provide tax revenue to the government. Now, they feel officials have stabbed them in the back — after taking their money," Sarah Parvini reports for the Los Angeles Times. "The debate here reflects a different side of the mania that has swept the state since the sale of recreational marijuana rolled out in January. As some places move to position themselves as pot havens, more conservative counties have decided they want nothing to do with cannabis — either selling it or growing it."

Residents offered different reasons for supporting the ban. Some say they dislike recreational drugs and think funds earned from marijuana farming are "dirty money." Others say they fear gang violence and worry that open cultivation will encourage more illegal operations. One woman said gang members grew marijuana illegally on an nearby property and were storing guns and other illegal drugs there. The sheriff says there are about 1,000 illegal pot farms in the county, and doesn't have the money to keep track of them all. Dennis Mills, an anti-pot county supervisor, says he worries that the pesticides used on cannabis fields could contaminate the Mokelumne River and argues that the ordinance allowing the farms was always meant to be temporary.

But marijuana farmers argue that the money the county earns from them could pay for resources to help protect the environment and beef up law enforcement, while not allowing any legal farms at all opens the door to more illegal sites, more gangs, and less revenue for the county and local businesses. Pot farmer Prapanna Smith told Parvini that illegal growers won't buy equipment and supplies at local stores: "The underground guys are going to buy elsewhere and bring it in. . . They're not going to the Ace Hardware." Marijuana growers and their supporters are trying to push out the anti-pot supervisors, and some plan to file suit.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Gun debate could break U.S., conservative columnist says

More than two weeks after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the public debate about gun rights is still at a fever pitch. "This divide won’t go away, and it has the potential to break us as a nation," conservative David French writes for National Review.

The debate goes way past gun control, French writes. It's just one part of the growing cultural divide between urban liberals and rural conservatives. Both sides are sincere and have legitimate concerns, but they must stop demonizing each other and try for extra charity and empathy in public debate, if they want to keep America strong.

"It takes more than a constitution or a government to hold a nation together. The ties that bind us as Americans are strong and durable, but the great challenges that formed them are receding into the past. Geographic differences create cultural differences, and cultural differences hasten ever-greater geographic change. Like clusters with like, and it results in the fury we saw last night, when one of the bluest communities in America vented its rage at the red emissaries in their midst," French writes of the Feb. 21 CNN town hall meeting on gun violence. "A nation cannot endure forever when its people are consumed with such hate."

Surveys show fewer Americans want coal-fired plants

A study suggests that fewer Americans want coal-fired power plants — even Republicans, though a majority in that party still supports them. The National Survey on Energy and Environment, an annual nationwide opinion poll by the University of Michigan's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, released a series of reports about changes in public opinion over the past 10 years. It found that "while Americans still seem lukewarm on reducing fossil-fuel production in general, and they are ambivalent and uncertain about natural gas, they are rapidly turning against coal," David Roberts reports for Vox.

NSEE chart; click on the image to get a larger version.
When NSEE first asked about a purposeful phaseout of coal-fired plants in the spring of 2016, most Democrats and even more Republicans opposed it. But support increased dramatically in both parties when the question was asked again in the fall of 2017. The share who said they strongly supported the idea increased to 29 percent from 18 percent, and in states with coal mines, strong support went up to 26 percent from 17 percent. Strong support among Democrats rose to 37 percent from 23 percent, and to 15 percent from 10 percent among Republicans.

The surveys found that mentioning President Obama's name with a hypothetical coal-plant regulation made it more likely that Democrats would support it and less likely that Republicans would.

Meanwhile, support for development of "clean coal" technology has fallen in the surveys, with strong support decreasing 15 percent over the past decade.

Louisiana town's battle with rising sea levels raises a question: How far should the public treasury go to save it?

A view of Jean Lafitte, La., along Bayou Barataria. (New York Times photo by William Widmer)
How far should the public go to save a town losing its battle with rising ocean levels? The New York Times' Kevin Sack and John Schwartz explore the question in a gorgeous multimedia package about Jean Lafitte, La., a village steadily losing ground to rising sea levels. The story is part one of "The Drowning Coast," a three-part project by the Times and the The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about Louisiana's vanishing coast.

Just a few miles south of New Orleans' levees, Jean Lafitte (pop. 1,903) is only two feet above sea level and loses more ground with every year and every hurricane. The coastal land southward is disappearing fast: "In all, more than 2,000 square miles, an expanse larger than the state of Delaware, have disappeared since 1932," Sack and Schwartz report.

But though the land is disappearing, and fishing and offshore oil drilling jobs have declined, locals are trying their best to stay. New homes are built on six-foot mounds, and some older buildings have been placed on pillars--which can cost almost as much as the house is worth. Some residents say the government isn't spending enough to help with such flood-proofing programs, and complain that a cost-benefit analysis doesn't take into account the value of their community or its culture.

Lawmakers "don’t place value on anything but the money, not the longevity of these communities, not the culture," resident Tracy Kuhns told Sack and Schwartz. "One of the problems in this country is that people don’t have any connection to where they live. People really want that. Why would you take it away from people who already have it?"

Trump is stalling for time on NAFTA, analyst concludes

President Trump has been famously critical of the the North American Free Trade Agreement, but as the seventh round of negotiations to recast it continues, one wonders why the U.S. hasn't just bowed out. Edward Allen of Politico thinks he knows the answer: Trump is stalling for time.

"Whether by design or by luck, Trump is already winning the NAFTA renegotiation. It turns out the uncertainty over NAFTA’s fate is Trump’s friend. It is part of what appears to be a systematic — U.S. trading partners might say predatory — strategy to shift investment dollars to the United States," Allen writes. "I have had conversations with business leaders in recent weeks in which they all quietly acknowledge the same thing: Until they know what the new rules will be under NAFTA, they are likely to hedge their bets by locating new investments in the United States rather than in Canada or Mexico, just in case the rules change and they are frozen out of the largest North American market."

Trump is sweetening the deal for multinational businesses who may want to open up shop in the U.S. with with a weaker dollar policy, lower corporate tax rate and business-friendly laws on the environment, workplace safety, overtime pay, and fuel economy standards. But this may not be effective for long, as trading partners catch on.

Making a decision either way on NAFTA could hurt Trump, which gives him an incentive to stall even longer. If Trump pulls out, he risks backlash from his agricultural base, which benefits enormously from the deal, as well as Republican lawmakers. At a recent meeting, nearly 30 House Republicans asked Trump to update NAFTA but urged him to be careful about adding import tariffs.

If Trump signs a deal, "then he will have to pivot from being NAFTA’s biggest critic to being a cheerleader for the new agreement in Congress, which Democrats are all but certain to denounce as inadequate," Allen writes. "A long negotiation in which he can continue to claim he is fighting for a better deal looks by far the best bet."

Coal slump puts Wyoming in budget crisis; citizens' group offers fixes for collecting taxes on mineral extraction

"As Wyoming faces a statewide budget crisis caused by declining tax revenue from fossil fuel and mineral extraction, a group of rural citizens is calling for reforms to state and local government tax collection and financing systems," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Wyoming gets more than 70 percent of its total revenue from taxes on mineral extraction (such as coal, oil and gas), but extraction companies owe over $42 million in unpaid county taxes throughout the state, according to a recent report from the Powder River Basin Resource Council. Many are bankrupt or otherwise defunct, so collecting will be difficult.

Though the basin is the nation's most productive coalfield, production peaked in 2008. And as coal jobs melted away, so did some of the state's tax base: Wyoming lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state in 2017.

The report lays out four suggestions to help fix state and local tax systems hurt by the coal bust:
  • Counties should collect mineral taxes monthly instead of yearly;
  • Counties should file liens for mineral taxes, making them a higher priority for collections if a company goes bankrupt;
  • Establish a state fund to help counties hire specialized legal counsel during bankruptcy proceedings;
  • Pass a law allowing regulators to check the status of a company's tax debt in Wyoming before allowing sale or transfer of assets. 
"There may not be many booms left for Wyoming, and we need to ensure that citizens benefit from minerals that, once severed, will never be replenished,” the report says. PRBRC's previous recommendations for fixing state and local tax systems failed to pass the state legislature in 2016 and 2017.

The group also recommends that the state better enforce mine-reclamation laws to restore the environment and extend mining-industry jobs, as well as diversify the state's economy so it won't be as dependent on mineral extraction.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

USA Today shows one charming Main Street per state

Main Street in the Dutch town of Pella, Iowa, includes tulips, pastries, and this whimsical windmill. (Google Maps photo)
Here's a fun piece from USA Today with a can't-miss list of the most charming Main Streets (and main streets) in each state of the U.S. Is yours included? Click here for the full list.

W.Va. governor fails to pay tax struggling Ky. schools need

Justice (AP photo by Walter Scriptunas)
Coal companies controlled by the children of billionaire West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice owe $2.9 million in delinquent taxes in Kentucky, "shorting schools and local government programs of money at a time many are struggling with tight finances," mainly due to the Appalachian coal industry's decline, Bill Estep and Will Wright report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

As of 2016, Justice controlled 154 coal mines or facilities in Kentucky, West Virginia and other states, but in 2017 he handed control of most to his son James C. "Jay" Justice III and daughter Jill Justice. Though other coal companies are behind on taxes, Justice's Kentucky Fuel Corp. owes $1.92 million in delinquent taxes and $119,221 in current taxes in cash-strapped Knott County on real estate, mining equipment and coal reserves. The state gets some of the property taxes collected, but most go to local schools.

"Justice companies also owe . . . more than $570,000 in Floyd County; $250,891 in Pike; and $54,842 in Magoffin, according to county clerk records. The outstanding debt in Harlan County is $85,372, according to the county attorney’s office."

Justice, whose net worth is an estimated $1.7 billion, owned 102 companies before being elected governor in 2016, including a luxury golf resort and enough corn, soybean and wheat operations to make him the largest farmer east of the Mississippi.

Jay Justice told Estep and Wright that the company has been working on paying off delinquent taxes, but most of his father's wealth is in assets and not liquid cash. Knott Countyhas had an especially hard time collecting; Kentucky Fuel agreed to pay $1.2 million by 2015 to settle its bill, but stopped paying after $800,000. A court ordered the firm to sell its property to satisfy the rest of the debt, but some of the subsequent checks it sent bounced. The county has filed suit again, but counties have to wait two years to file such lawsuits, so the taxes it's seeking to collect are from 2015.

Read more here:

Fellow GOPers criticize W.Va. governor for pushing gas-drilling bill that landowners and mineral owners oppose

Legislators of both parties have criticized Republican Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia for proposing a special session on natural-gas issues and dangling a resolution of the statewide teachers' strike as a carrot. "Justice advocated for killing a co-tenancy drilling bill that has already passed the House, for backing a controversial joint-development bill and for raising severance tax," Brad McElhinny reports for West Virginia MetroNews. "That, the governor said, would raise enough revenue to increase teacher salaries and shore up the Public Employees Insurance Agency."

Under the widely supported co-tenancy bill, if a tract has seven or more mineral-rights holders, drilling would require need permission from 75 percent of them. The much more controversial joint-development bill would allow drillers with old leases (created before horizontal hydraulic fracturing was developed) to drill wells across some individual property lines without signing a new lease, as long as the driller already owns the leases on all adjoining properties. The issues are important in a state that has many tracts still divided among heirs.

House Speaker Tim Armistead, a Republican, criticized Justice for trying to pass joint development when it can't get enough votes, as well as his attempts to use the teachers' strike as leverage. When Justice tweeted "I believe there is a chance of your PEIA being fixed permanently by a severance tax on oil and gas if we have a special session," House Democratic Leader Tim Miley tweeted back: "There were bills introduced during the legislative session to do just that. What makes you think it will be accomplished in a special session when the bills didn't even make it on any agenda during the regular session?"

Other Republican delegates joined the speaker in rebuking Justice. John Kelly, vice-chairman of the House Energy Committee, said "Joint development is a program that has no chance of passage in the House of Delegates. It’s failed every year since I’ve been here and I believe it’s going to continue to fail." Bill Anderson, chairman of the House Energy Committee, said joint development won't pass the House, but "co-tenancy has the horsepower to pass this year."

Justice has also been called out by organizations representing land and mineral-rights owners that have worked on the co-tenancy bill, which has passed the House and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Some of Justice's detractors have pointed fingers at one of his top advisers, Bray Cary, who is a director of gas-pipeline company EQT. Cary works on a volunteer basis and says he has stayed away from gas issues.

First story from ProPublica's Local Reporting Network says nuclear lab workers may have been exposed to toxin

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, may have exposed workers to harm after failing to keep track of a toxic metal used in nuclear weapons production. "The New Mexico lab’s failure to adequately track beryllium — small amounts of which can cause lung disease and cancer — violates federal regulations put in place to prevent worker overexposure, according to a report last week from the Department of Energy’s inspector general," Rebecca Moss reports for The Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica.

The story is the first from a year-long project, the Local Reporting Network, which ProPublica launched to support local and regional investigative reporting. Moss will be examining workplace safety issues at Los Alamos and other national laboratories that develop nuclear weapons for the DOE.

Los Alamos has had safety problems in the past. In October 2017, an independent federal safety board found that the lab's emergency preparedness plan was inadequate. Soon afterward the DOE investigated an incident in which a worker responded to an alarm by walking into an oxygen-deprived room, which could have killed the worker.

Los Alamos, which employs more than 11,000 workers, told the inspector general that the insufficient oversight is a result of staffing problems and the sheer number of the programs it oversees, but added that it is not aware of any workers having been exposed to beryllium. "Over the last decade, the inspector general has found issues with beryllium protections at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California," Moss reports.

Oxycontin maker quietly but repeatedly tried to weaken laws that can help send corporate executives to jail

It's well known that Purdue Pharma made Oxycontin a popular drug through aggressive and misleading marketing tactics, which led to today's opioid epidemic. "What has not been previously revealed is that as the death toll mounted, officials at the company attempted to work behind the scenes to make it less likely that they could ever be successfully prosecuted for the carnage opioids were unleashing," Lee Fang reports for The Intercept.

Purdue quietly helped finance efforts to weaken the Responsible Corporate Office doctrine, a liability standard used to prosecute executives and directors of companies that affect public health and safety. Under the RCO doctrine, federal prosecutors could go after Purdue's higher-ups for their role in the opioid epidemic without having to prove they had knowledge of or motivation for wrongdoing. That happened in 2007, when three Purdue executives pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that the company had misled doctors and patients about the addictive nature of Oxycontin, and agreed to pay $634.5 million in civil fines.

"Purdue didn’t attach its name to the recent effort to weaken the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine," Fang reports. "Instead, the company provided funding to the Washington Legal Foundation, a legal nonprofit that litigates in support of business interests, to petition the Supreme Court last year to accept a case that would give it the opportunity to weaken the RCO doctrine. The foundation closely protects the names of its donors and the drugmakers’ ties to the group were unclear until recently."

The case is DeCoster v. United States, a suit that challenged the conviction of executives at Iowa-based Quality Egg LLC, who were found guilty after 56,000 people were sickened by salmonella-tainted eggs. In its petition, the foundation argued that an executive could be imprisoned for little more than being a supervisor, and urged the Supreme Court to revisit the RCO doctrine. The court declined to hear the case.

The foundation also went to bat for Purdue in 2014, when it petitioned the court to support the company in a bid to chip away protections for corporate whistleblowers under the False Claims Act, and "helped Purdue Pharma attempt to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from issuing voluntary guidelines to discourage the over-prescription of opioid narcotics," Fang reports. The foundation, which routinely filed briefs in support of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA in the 1990s, has been accused of being a nonprofit legal front for corporations seeking to weaken public health and safety standards.

Monday, February 26, 2018

White House defends, explains lack of direct investment in rural broadband in Trump's infrastructure plan

"Amid criticism that President Trump's infrastructure spending plan -- $200 billion meant to seed more than $1 trillion in ultimate public/private investment -- earmarked no money specifically for rural broadband, the White House Friday was trying to explain just how rural broadband access would benefit from the plan," John Eggerton reports for Broadcasting & Cable.

In a fact sheet sent out Feb. 23, the White House press office said Trump has helped facilitate rural broadband expansion with an executive order to streamline requests for creating rural broadband facilities. And though none of the $50 billion earmarked for rural infrastructure was dedicated specifically for rural broadband, the fact sheet says that states have the flexibility to spend all of that money on broadband.

Map shows how well your state is fighting the opioid epidemic with best practice, medication-assisted therapy

"There’s a simple way to understand how the opioid epidemic got so bad in America: In the U.S., it is much easier to get high than it is to get help for addiction," German Lopez reports for Vox. This is more true in some states than others, as illustrated by this map by health research firm Avalere Health, which shows the ratio of certified buprenorphine providers to opioid overdose deaths. Buprenorphine is one of three different medications for medication-assisted therapy (MAT), widely acknowledged to be the most effective form of treatment for opioid addiction. Lopez reasons that a state with  a low number of MAT providers and a high number of overdose deaths is not fully addressing its opioid crisis.
Avalere Health map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that it will loosen restrictions on MAT by allowing pharmaceutical companies to sell medications that curb cravings without fully stopping addiction, Sheila Kaplan reports for The New York Times. The move is a change of diredction; last year, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price suggested he was skeptical" of MAT, Politico Pulse reports.

Columnists say 'Let's spread some rural values' as America debates response to school shootings

Annette Tait and Katy Kassian
The recent school shootings in Florida and rural Kentucky have prompted debate all over the country about how to end the violence. A column in Ag Week says there are no easy answers, but applying rural values would help.

In rural America, people look out for each other, with needs big and small, write North Dakota marketing specialists Annette Tait and Katy Kassian: "We see it all the time. People and businesses alike donate meal fixings and items for silent auctions, and people give free-will donations that are far greater than the cost of the meal. Everyone chips in to make sure plenty of proceeds go toward getting the job done."

That kind of neighborly love is something we should all practice daily, and can help lonely people know that someone cares for them, they say: "This is why it's so important to connect. To invest time in families, friends and neighbors. To be the support system that guides our children to be responsible and accountable. To be listening ears when others need them, and to help those who are struggling become whole again. To be aware, and involved. We need to become the proverbial village — not just to raise our children, but to take care of all who live here." (Read more)

Governors Association meeting addresses broadband, opioids, farming; guns not on agenda, but discussed

Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey spoke during a panel at the NGA
2018 meeting. (Associated Press photo by Jose Magana)
Several issues of rural interest were on the agenda at the National Governors Association 2018 winter meeting this weekend, including agriculture, broadband, and the opioid crisis.

Guns: Firearms weren't on the official agenda, though President Trump said at the conference's opening night black-tie ball that the recent school shooting in Florida was the top issue he wanted to discuss with the governors, Darlene Superville reports for The Associated Press.

Republican governors were skeptical about the possibility of arming teachers, which Trump has said would help deter future attacks. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, the NGA chairman, met with Vice President Mike Pence Friday to discuss school shootings. Sandoval told reporters he supports Trump's proposal to ban bump stocks that make rifles automatic, but arming teachers "needs a lot more discussion. At first blush it concerns me . . . You've got to look and see what the other alternatives are. Perhaps we just need to secure the schools a little better," Gary Martin reports for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told Politico, "I’m not certain I see arming teachers as being the answer because I think there’s a very small percentage of teachers who say 'Yes, I want to do that.'" And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey told Politico that he prefers only resource officers to have guns in school so teachers can focus on teaching. "Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican in a relatively liberal state, pled with his legislature last week to fast-track a bill that would remove guns from people deemed a threat. He said he’s 'changed completely' on gun issues since the Parkland shooting," Politico reports. Florida Gov. Rick Scott is urging his legislature to raise the age on gun sales to 21, ban bump stocks, and spend at least $450 million on mental health and enhancing security in schools.

Broadband: Microsoft announced its first rural broadband partner, Packerland Broadband, to bring broadband internet to about 82,000 people living in rural northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the next four years. The initiative is part of a coalition between Microsoft and a host of rural broadband and tech groups called Connect Americans Now, aimed at eliminating the digital divide in rural America by using the "white spaces" between TV channels. During his NGA address, Microsoft President Brad Smith criticized the Federal Communications Commission's failure to generate reliable data on broadband availability.

Agriculture: Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the governors that the agricultural economy hinges on infrastructure, reports Eleanor Lamb of Transport Topics: "Roads, bridges, dams and locks are so important," Duvall said. "What sets us apart from the rest of the world is our infrastructure. Yes, it is crumbling, but we have a president who wants to rebuild it." Duvall also said preserving the North American Free Trade Agreement is necessary, though parts of it could be reworked. NAFTA negotiations are now in their sixth round.

Opioids: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at the meeting that the Food and Drug Administration plans to expand medication-assisted treatment by allowing pharmaceutical companies to sell medications that help curb cravings, even if they don't completely stop addiction. HHS will issue draft guidelines for the proposal in the next few weeks, Sheila Kaplan reports for The New York Times. Azar's remarks were "different from the tone struck by his predecessor Tom Price, who last year suggested he was skeptical of medication-assisted treatment," Politico Pulse notes.

Earlier this month, the NGA announced two projects aimed at the opioid epidemic. "Participating states will travel to Kentucky to learn about how that state is addressing the increased risk of infectious disease through public-health surveillance and community prevention efforts," said an NGA press release. "In the second, states will learn from Ohio’s efforts to better serve pregnant and post-natal women with opioid use disorder and improve health outcomes for their babies." 

Ex-con coal baron's bid for W.Va. Senate seat gains traction

Convicted misdemeanant at his campaign kickoff in January
(Associated Press photo by Steve Helber)
Don Blankenship's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia would have sounded like a pipe dream last year. After all, the former Massey Energy CEO just got out of prison for his role in 2010's Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed 29 men. But "opponents who once dismissed his candidacy now see him as a credible threat in the Trump era, positioned to appeal to many West Virginians’ resentment of elites of any kind," Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times.

Blankenship' events have drawn protesters, but some in coal country support his claim that he is a former "political prisoner," unfairly targeted by federal prosecutors and safety inspectors. No evidence has been found to back up those claims, but Gabriel notes that Blankenship "is running for office in an era of nationwide voter credulity for conspiracy theories." That dovetails with many West Virginians' belief that the federal government, especially Barack Obama, is to blame for coal's decline, despite experts' belief that a larger factor was cheap, plentiful natural gas that stole coal's prime market, power generation.

West Virginia has a long history of miners vs. mine operators, but once non-union operators began paying union wages, the United Mine Workers union weakened, and when the miners and operators found a common foe in Obama's anti-coal policies, they became allies and operators were seen as job creators. R. Booth Goodwin II, who prosecuted Blankenship as U.S. attorney and then ran for governor unsuccessfully in 2016, told Gabriel: "I have heard people say, 'When Don was in charge, we always worked.' . . . The coal industry is still perpetuating a lie that coal mining is coming back, and it’s going to be just like it was before, when all objective evidence is to the contrary."