Friday, June 15, 2018

FCC chair calls for increase in rural telemedicine fund

Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai is asking his colleagues to boost funding for a program that funds telemedicine efforts in rural America. In a recent memo, he urged an increase in funding from $400 million to $571 million for the Universal Service Fund's Rural Health Care Program.

Funding has been capped at $400 million since 1997, but that was never raised to account for inflation. "Yet the demand for funding has outpaced the budget and the situation is creating uncertainty for patients, healthcare providers, communications companies and telemedicine providers and patients,"Bernie Monegain reports for Healthcare IT News.

Pai's proposal would adjust the cap annually for inflation and allow unused funds from previous years to be carried forward to future years. That could bring more certainty for rural health care providers, who increasingly rely on telemedicine to treat patients.

Regulators, experts, say Trump's coal bailout unnecessary

Federal regulators and cybersecurity experts say that allowing ailing coal and nuclear power plants to close won't pose a security risk for the United States. President Trump recently ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to halt the shutdowns of such plants because he said they were necessary to maintaining the nation's energy mix, grid resilience and national security.

 "Asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing whether they believed the U.S. faced a national security emergency in wholesale power markets because of the closures, none of the five members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission answered in the affirmative," Miranda Green reports for The Hill. Four of the five members of FERC are Trump appointees.

FERC member Richard Glick told the panel he was "sympathetic to the plight of coal miners who have been disproportionately affected" by coal's long slide, but said it wasn't FERC's job to figure out how to help struggling communities, Green reports.

Some energy companies and grid operators have questioned President Trump's order, such as PJM Interconnection, the nation's largest power grid operator, who called the action "drastic" and warned it could hurt the markets and cost consumers more. Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, agreed, saying in a TV interview that picking winners and losers "can be a very dangerous situation," Alex Thomas reports for W.V. Metro News.

Cybersecurity experts said the action is pointless because "hackers have a wide array of options for hitting electric infrastructure and nuclear facilities that are high-profile targets," Timothy Gardner reports for Reuters.

Quick hits: a tale of town on the Vermont-Quebec border; fracking's effect on a Pa. town

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

Despite recent tensions between the U.S. and Canada, one tiny town shows, in typical rural fashion, how caring for your neighbors transcends borders. Read more here.

What effect is the boom in hydraulic fracturing having on small town America? A new book, Amity and Prosperity, dives into how a fracking company changed people's lives in one rural Pennsylvania community. Read an interview with the author here.

Two new studies detail how climate change could hurt the Corn Belt. Read more here.

Here's a story of how a rural North Carolina town struggled after it lost its hospital. Read more here.

Broadband providers and users in the Upper Midwest invited to offer perspectives in June 19 listening session

Broadband providers and users--or would-be users--in the Upper Midwest are invited to share their perspectives on enhancing connectivity at a listening session from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, June 19 at the Archery Building at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, Minn. A live webcast of the session will be available here.

The session is one of several across the country in the "What's on the Horizon for E-Connectivity?" project, which seeks insights on what is needed to improve e-connectivity and enhance the economic health of rural America. The project is organized and sponsored by the Farm Foundation, CoBank, NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 "We want to hear from the people who live and work with limited broadband access today, as well as those who have innovative solutions for expanding the availability of those services," says Constance Cullman, President of Farm Foundation.

There's no charge to participate in the listening session, but please register ahead of time by emailing

Ala. town council bans press, which editor calls 'flat illegal'

UPDATE, June 20: "In what most cases would not be considered newsworthy, the Town of Paint Rock held a regularly scheduled town council meeting Tuesday evening – and the meeting was open to members of the press and the public," the Sentinel reports. Mayor Brenda Fisk "went on to explain that the guidelines were presented for consideration to the council, but never passed or enacted."

A small town in the northeastern corner of Alabama has voted to close its open meetings to non-residents and the press. Paint Rock (pop. 200) also forbids recording meetings or passing along recordings of meetings or any other town council information to the press, a set of rules that Brandon Cox, editor and publisher of area newspaper the Jackson County Sentinel, calls "flat illegal" in an editorial.

The Alabama Open Meetings Act requires all governmental meetings to be open to the public, Cox notes in an editorial. But the town clerk confirmed for him that the policies were real, and though the town doesn't have an attorney on staff or retainer, "the town clerk said she thought the mayor had consulted the Alabama League of Municipalities about the guidelines."

Paint Rock's mayor, Brenda Fisk, defended the law to Cox, saying "What goes on in Paint Rock is the business of the people who live in Paint Rock," and "I really don’t see the benefit for anyone outside of Paint Rock or who doesn’t own property here to come to these meetings. They’re open to anyone who lives here. Anyone else can stand outside the door, but I can close the door." 

Fisk expressed displeasure at an unofficial Paint Rock Facebook page that posted local news, commentary and information on town council meetings. The page is apparently run by a former town council member, whom Fisk referred to as a "disgruntled citizen who doesn't like that we have a government and can't do whatever they want to do."

Cox called some attorneys specializing in municipal law and learned that Paint Rock's rules violate the Alabama Open Meetings Act and are indefensible in court. Not only that, Cox writes, but the rules are "diametrically opposed to ideals in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provide for a free press and its responsibility to hold those who govern accountable."

If the press is to serve the governed, instead of the governors, as the Founding Fathers intended, the press must be able to attend open meetings without restriction, Cox writes. "I respect that the town’s leadership is attempting to make hard decisions and improvements. The law does not allow policies that censor public input or reject media coverage, however."

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Senate Agriculture Committee advances bipartisan Farm Bill

Hemp farmers process a new crop in Nucla, Colorado.
(Denver Post photo by Andy Cross)
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its farm bill on a 20-1 vote, sending it to the Senate floor for debate. It largely preserves the structure of the 2014 farm bill and keeps costs about the same, while including a provision legalizing industrial hemp. It doesn't include the expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients that the failed House bill had, Philip Brasher reports for AgWeek.

The Senate bill incentivizes rural and urban partnerships for conservation and provides mental health resources for rural areas, the Omaha World-Herald reports. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said it also includes "strong crop insurance, improvements to the ARC program and strong support for agriculture research" and "amendments to provide farmers and ranchers with access to more capital, as well as to make improvements to help make the wetland conservation title more farmer-friendly," Barry Amundson reports for the Duluth News Tribune.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised a full Senate vote on the entire bill before the July 4 recess. McConnell said he hopes the House will pass a farm bill, but said it will likely look different than the Senate's. "The House failed to pass a farm bill last month due to an immigration squabble among Republicans," Jeff Daniels reports for CNBC. Because of House in-fighting, the final farm bill is likely to strongly reflect the Senate version.

The only vote against the bill came from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who objected to the language surrounding industrial hemp. Grassley said he believed any language about industrial hemp should not be included in the farm bill, but rather in another bill that would go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, Marianne Goodland reports for Colorado Politics.

There appeared to be another reason for Grassley's dissention: "Grassley had been pledging for days to force a committee vote on his proposal to tighten the definition of what it means to be 'actively engaged' in farming to be eligible for commodity programs," Brasher reports. "However, sources said he didn’t have the final version of the amendment ready in time because it had to be changed at the last minute to conform to changes made in the manager’s package of amendments. Grassley may get to offer the amendment on the Senate floor, but it’s possible he may require 60 votes to get it adopted."

Report provides in-depth look at rural health care issues

"More than 80 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2010 and hundreds more are in danger. Millions of patients are at risk of being without a community hospital and providers in metropolitan areas could see an influx of patients with significant, untreated conditions," Modern Healthcare reports in its introduction to a six-part package called "Rethinking Rural Healthcare", which provides an in-depth the state of rural health care in the United States.

In "Reinventing a Hospital," Alex Kacik recounts the struggles of Guadalupe County Hospital in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and how it has had to innovate to stay open. 

In "Rethinking Partnerships," Kacik zeroes in on L.V. Stabler Memorial Hospital in Greenville, Alabama to illustrate how financially struggling small-town hospitals are increasingly seeking affiliations with larger hospitals to stay afloat.

In "Refocusing on the Population" Steven Ross Johnson examines how the shift toward population health management puts additional financial pressures on struggling rural health providers.

In "Reexamining Policy," Harris Meyer digs into how "policy disagreements, resistance from rural providers and communities, and opposition to new spending could slow progress in addressing the rural healthcare crisis."

In "Rebuilding a Community," Shelby Livingston illustrates what happens to a rural Tennessee town when its only hospital closes down. 

The report also includes supplemental content:

EPA chief Scott Pruitt faces frosty reception from corn farmers and ethanol producers in Kansas, South Dakota

Kansas corn farmers and ethanol producers confronted Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt Tuesday during his tour of the Agency East Kansas Agri Energy LLC ethanol plant in Garnett, telling him they were "mad as hell" about EPA efforts they believe will undermine the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, help Big Oil, and hurt rural America, AgDaily reports.

Protesters at a South Dakota rally during Pruitt's visit
(Sioux Falls Argus Leader photo by Briana Sanchez)
Pruitt told the standing room-only crowd that EPA is not supposed to pick winners and losers, but Kansas Corn Growers Association President Ken McCauley said Pruitt is "most definitely picking winners and losers right now . . . Our concern was that Administrator Pruitt thought he could come to Kansas, take a few photos with smiling farmers and tell the president that corn farmers are okay with his actions. That would be a gross misinterpretation of what happened here today. I told him that EPA’s attacks on ethanol don’t just hurt plants like EKAE, they hurt farmers, rural communities, and American consumers who benefit from ethanol with lower prices and cleaner air."

Much of the frustration stems from Pruitt's decision to grant an unusually large number of biofuel waivers to oil refineries. The waivers are meant to help struggling small refineries that would face economic hardship if they mixed the required amount of biofuels in their oil. But ethanol interests fear that the increased number of waivers granted is a backdoor effort to help Big Oil after the recent RFS dust-up. The Trump administration attempted to appease oil-producing states by proposing a rollback of the RFS last fall, but relented after strong pushback from corn states.

Pruitt thanked the speakers despite their "harsh criticism" and said "It's important for me to hear how passionate and concerned you are about the issues," Ag Daily reports.

Pruitt also received a frosty reception in Sioux Falls, S.D., yesterday. About 200 corn farmers and ethanol producers held a rally in a nearby park as Pruitt toured Schindler Family Farms and spoke with sorghum farmers about creating a fuel credit program like the one for corn, Patrick Anderson reports for the Argus Leader. Area farmer Troy Knecht led the rally, telling Pruitt to uphold the RFS and President Trump's vow to allow E-15 gasoline blends all year-round.

Area farmer David Fremark, who was at Pruitt's discussion, told Anderson: "I don't think he’s agriculture's friend . . . He talked a good game, but the things that he's doing—he appeared not to grasp the magnitude of the things he’s doing."

"Biofuels have taken a hit because of Pruitt's actions," Anderson reports. "The changes mean less ethanol production and demand for corn. The reduction is equal to 1.63 billion gallons of ethanol, worth an estimated $2.45 billion, plus $1.96 billion in corn, according to the Renewable Fuel Association."

People with positive attitudes about aging likely to live longer, have better health; rural populations tend to be older

How you think about growing old can influence how well you age, says a growing body of scientific research and global data collected and analyzed by nonprofit journalism organization Orb Media. That's especially relevant in rural areas, where populations tend to be older.

"Individuals with a positive attitude towards old age are likely to live longer and in better health than those with a negative attitude. And those with a negative view of aging are more likely to suffer a heart attack, a stroke or die several years sooner," Jim Rendon and Olufemi Terry write for Orb. "Older people in countries with low levels of respect for the elderly are at risk for worse mental and physical health and higher levels of poverty."

Projected percentage of country population over 65 in 2050. Source: United
World Population Prospects. (Orb Media graphic)
Why does it matter?

Orb reports that if population trends continue, by 2050 nearly one of six people in the world will be over 65, and close to half a billion will be older than 80. In 2050, seniors would make up nearly 16 percent of the world's population, compared to today's 8 percent.

In the U.S., the Census Bureau estimates that one in five people will be over the age of 65 by 2030, and by 2035, seniors will outnumber children younger than 18.

Those are the basic figures, reflecting quantity, but what about quality of life for those people? Research shows that a simple shift in attitude can make a difference in how well we age, especially in a world that often has negative views about growing older.

A World Health Organization analysis found that 60 percent of people surveyed across 57 countries reported relatively low levels of respect for older people. A separate Orb analysis found that the level of respect for seniors varied "significantly from country to country."

Of the 58 countries ranked in the Orb study -- in order of how they respect their elderly, with 1 being "very low" and 5 being "very high" -- the United States ranked 50th, scoring 3.29.

Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, and a leading researcher in the field, has found "Those with positive views about old age live longer and age better," Orb reports. "They are less likely to be depressed or anxious, and they show increased well-being and recover more quickly from disability. They also are less likely to develop dementia and the markers of Alzheimer’s disease."

"In one study, Levy found that Americans with more positive views on aging who were tracked over decades lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative views," Orb reports, adding that studies in Germany and Australia have found similar results. In addition, other studies have shown that "the cells of those who have more positive views of the elderly actually aged more slowly than those who had negative views."

Levy told Orb that people with negative views of aging have higher levels of stress, which has been linked to a range of health problems. She added that those with more positive views of aging are also more likely to exercise, eat a balanced diet and go to the doctor. She also said people can decide for themselves how they think about aging, and that her research has found that people who who watch less TV, participate less in social media, and have more resistant personalities are more likely to hold more positive views of aging.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ky. editor who takes stands and tackles tough subjects wins award for public service through community journalism

Stevie Lowery
LEBANON, Ky. – Stevie Lowery, editor and publisher of The Lebanon Enterprise, is the 2018 winner of the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian.

Lowery will receive the award Oct. 18 in Lexington, at the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog) and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which co-sponsor the award.

The award is named for Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky,” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force for creation of the Institute, headed its advisory board and is chair emeritus.

Top three-quarters of special edition front page
Smith nominated Lowery for the award after learning of her successful campaign to pass a supplemental property tax for improvements in Marion County Public Schools. That was one of many efforts she has made to serve the public since joining the Enterprise, owned by Landmark Community Newspapers, as a reporter in 2002. She became news editor in 2004, editor and general manager in 2005, and publisher in 2011.

In 2008, Marion County voters defeated the school board’s proposal for an extra tax of 5 cents per $100 worth of property to finance school improvements. When the board decided in 2016 to try again, Lowery, who has a son in the school system, led the charge, doing several stories on the issue in a sample-copy edition sent to everyone in the county, with a main headline asking, “Are Marion County children worth a nickel?” She supported the cause with editorials and kept up an active conversation about it on the paper's Facebook page.

Third installment of the Enterprise's series on drugs
The next year, though her news staff had been temporarily reduced to herself, Lowery did a five-part series about drug abuse in the county. It won awards for best series and news writing, and one judge wrote, “If any community newspaper has not yet probed deeply into their local drug problems, they should take a look . . . What a read!” Another said, “Lowery’s reporting shows the resilience of her subjects as they cope with the aftermath of abuse, industrial fallout and incarceration. Readers are guided by her lean narrative, which flows through the events, facts and figures that make the sagas complete.”

Smith also cited the drug series. “Addiction overall is a major problem in Kentucky, and she is making a major effort in her rural county to make sure people know the problem. Smith, who tried and failed to win school-tax increases when he was editor and publisher in Logan County, said Lowery “made a heavy commitment to campaign in the paper, and she won the day” on that issue.

Institute Director Al Cross said the newspaper’s handling of the school-tax issue was a model for community journalists who see a need and want to take a stand. “Many rural editors are reluctant to take sides on controversial issues, but when they see a wrong that needs righting, they should take a stand, while being careful to give the other side its due in stories and on the opinion pages. The Enterprise did that.”

The two series were examples of Lowery’s willingness to tackle controversial subjects, such as the first same-sex couples to be married and adopt children in the county, and a feature story this week about a 19-year-old transgender woman.

“I’ve never been afraid to report on what some people consider ‘taboo,’ subjects, especially in a small community,” Lowery says. “I’ve also not been afraid to open up about personal struggles that myself or my family have been through in hopes that my story might help someone else.” For the last edition with the drug series, she wrote a moving column about her late father’s addiction to alcohol.

Lowery is the daughter of Susan Spicer Lowery, a cooking columnist for the Enterprise since 1979, and the late Steve Lowery, who was an award-winning editor and manager of Landmark papers in Lebanon, which he left in 1987, and Bardstown. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Murray State University.

In addition to her journalism, Stevie Lowery has been a civic activist in her native county. She shaved her head to raise money for children’s cancer research; she and her son, Owen, raised more than $15,000 to shave their locks. She organized and still leads Marion County Girls on the Run, a 12-week program that helps 8- to 13-year-old girls train for a running event, build self-esteem, learn to be assertive, respond to peer pressure and bullies, surround themselves with positive influences and complete a community-service project, with an overall goal of preventing at-risk activities as they grow up.

“The Al Smith Award is for journalism, but there are other ways community journalists can serve the public, and doing so helps show that they have the community’s interests at heart,” Cross said.

The Al Smith Awards Dinner is an annual fund-raiser for the Institute and the SPJ chapter, which conceived the Smith Award. But it is also “a grand gathering of people who believe in journalism as an essential element of our democratic processes and want it to observe high standards; who recognize the importance of rural America to the rest of the country; and who agree with us that rural Kentucky and rural America deserve good journalism just as much as the rest of the state and nation, to help our democracy work,” Cross said.

The dinner will also recognize recipients of the SPJ chapter’s student scholarships and Oregon editor-publisher Les Zaitz, winner of the Institute’s 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism. Cross will present that award to Zaitz in Oregon in July. The dinner will be held at the Embassy Suites on Newtown Pike, near Interstates 75 and 64 in Lexington. For more information, contact Al Cross at 859-257-3744 or; or SPJ Bluegrass Chapter President Tom Eblen at Details will appear soon on the Institute website, 

Poisoned newspaper owner files civil suit against suspects

Soldwedel works on a donated bicycle at a thrift
store where he volunteers. (Photo by Vern Shea)
The co-owner of a small-town Arizona daily has filed an $18 million civil lawsuit against the two people suspected of poisoning him with what could have been lethal doses of thallium and other heavy metals. The two suspects, whose names have not been released, are accused of poisoning Jason Soldwedel, the 66-year-old co-owner of The Daily Courier in Prescott and other news outlets in northern Arizona. Soldwedel still suffers the long-term effects of heavy metal poisoning; toxicologists said he had 15 times the normal amount of thallium present in his body, and that he was lucky to be alive, Richard Haddad reports for the Courier.

Soldwedel said he filed a civil suit because he recognizes the limitations law enforcement faces in prosecuting a poisoning case like his. "I refuse to stand silently on the sidelines and willingly allow my attackers to poison more victims, which could be you, a loved one or a friend," he told Haddad. He has also offered a $10,000 cash reward for information on who poisoned him, and says the expenditure is worth it to bring his poisoners to justice. "Let’s say you know there is a potential poisoner living in your town who tried to kill you, and you have my resources at your disposal," Soldwedel said. "Wouldn’t you be obligated to the community to employ those resources?"

Interior official met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists before canceling study on health effects of strip mining

A top official in the Department of the Interior met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists shortly before canceling a study on the public health effects of surface mining, Jimmy Tobias reports for the Pacific Standard.

Katharine MacGregor
Katharine MacGregor, the principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, oversees the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. OSM hired the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to do the study, but Interior abruptly suspended it last August, as researchers were about to hold their final public meetings on it. The meetings were held, and researchers said they expected to continue after a budget review that Interior had cited as the reason for the suspension, but then Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail revealed that the study was the only one suspended. Later, the contract was canceled and the research committee disbanded.

Tobias writes: "Emails obtained through a FOIA request show that Katharine MacGregor had a hand in ensuring the health study's cancellation. Indeed, she appears to have been keenly interested in the matter." She wrote the OSM director Aug. 17: "I thought you told me on the phone that this was postponed?" The next day, OSM suspended the work.

“This is the very essence of what we mean when we describe Appalachia as a sacrifice zone,” said Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, a group fighting mountaintop-removal mining. Bo Webb, coordinator of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign, which helped prompt West Virginia officials to ask for the study, said in the same press release, "It’s clear now that canceling this study was a gift to the coal industry.."

Tobias reports that "in the months leading up to the cancellation," MacGregor's calendar "shows that she had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia."

The evidence is circumstantial, but Tobias sees a broader trend in MacGregor's calendars: At the same time she held a mere handful of meetings—fewer than 10, according to my tally—with conservation organizations like The Wilderness Society and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters." The calendar sshow that she "appears to have a habit of meeting repeatedly with industries and organizations that later receive favorable treatment from agencies she helps oversee," Tobias writes. An Interior spokesperson told him MacGregor is "happy to make time to meet with whomever requests a meeting," including conservation groups. "We have always welcomed input from all citizens and will continue to listen to ideas and concerns from anyone interested in sharing them."

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Nation's biggest truck re-manufacturer says White House delay on pollution rule is endangering hundreds of rural jobs

Tommy Fitzgerald Sr. and Jr. with Trump during his 2016 campaign
The nation's largest truck re-manufacturer, in line for a crucial break from the Trump administration, says the White House is slow-walking the move in response to lobbying from other truck makers, putting hundreds of rural jobs at risk

"There is no doubt that Volvo, a foreign truck manufacturer, whose largest shareholder is Chinese, has lobbied for the limits and ban of gliders and is now lobbying against the repeal," Tommy Fitzgerald of Byrdstown, Tenn., told Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky.

Fitzgerald makes glider trucks "by combining a new cab and chassis with an older, rebuilt engine — as well as a transmission and usually a rear axle — from wrecked or worn-out trucks," Estep explains. Gliders were once exempt from federal emission limits, but in the Obama administration the Environmental Protection Agency abolished that exemption. Now the Trump EPA wants to go back to the old rule, but the White House Office of Management and Budget has delayed that, saying EPA did not do an analysis of the regulatory impact, Fitzgerald lobbyist Jon Toomey told Estep. OMB "did not respond to a question on whether it is considering letting the repeal go through without a regulatory analysis," Estep reports.
Read more here:
Read more here:

Google map, adapted, shows Fitzgerald plant locations.
Fitzgerald's foes argue that gliders don't have the latest safety equipment, that "glider makers shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from a loophole at the expense of businesses that make, sell and use cleaner-running trucks, and which keeps higher-polluting trucks on the road," and that "the glider market traditionally was limited to salvaging usable engines from wrecked trucks," Estep notes. "However, glider production shot up after the first phase of the emissions rule went into effect on new trucks."

That happened because “some companies exploited the opportunity to offer glider vehicles with older ‘pre-emissions’ engines to customers seeking to avoid modern emissions control systems,” Volvo said in a letter to the EPA, which also pointed out that it employs thousands in the U.S. Fitzgerald has cited his employment of 700 people at plants in Tennessee, supported by hundreds of others at supplier plants, and his plans to open a plant in Kentucky. Fitzgerald says he is in his second round of layoffs and has "told the government his company would have to slash production by 90 percent by the end of 2018 under the rule," Estep reports.
Read more here:

California utilities try to limit their liability for wildfires, many of which are caused by power lines

Policymakers nationwide, especially in California, are struggling to figure out who should be responsible for damages from natural disasters like wildfires and flooding.

"The National Flood Insurance Program, for instance, has been struggling financially for years, in part because of political pressure to keep premiums low even in places that repeatedly flood, such as the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast and the beach towns of Long Island," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Meanwhile, California electrical utilities might have to pay billions of dollars in damages if state investigators rule that last year's wildfires were caused by flammable materials coming into contact with power lines, and could theoretically be responsible for such damages in the future, Quinton reports.

The state Department of Insurance has recorded claims worth almost $12 billion from last year's October and December wildfires, which were likely caused by power lines. State investigators found that four fires in northern Sacramento were caused when trees came into contact with Pacific Gas & Electric power lines, and that in three of those cases, the power company hadn't trimmed trees back far enough from its equipment, Quinton reports.

California utilities and the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 "are frantically lobbying Golden State officials for relief from a system that the utilities say is unfair: They’re liable when their equipment ignites a fire, but they can’t automatically pass on the costs to consumers," Quinton reports. That could bankrupt companies like Pacific Gas. But wildfire victims and ratepayer advocates say the system is fine as is, and gives utilities an incentive to trim nearby trees and invest in infrastructure.

The problem has been more or less unique to California, since no other state has both the same utility policies and tendency toward huge, destructive fires. But as climate change triggers more powerful wildfires and flooding, it may become an issue in other states.

Wildfires rage in rural Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming

An aircraft drops fire retardant on a fire near Durango, Colorado. (Associated Press photo by Jerry Day)

Wildfires in rural New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming have forced thousands of evacuations, and experts say the fires may be going for a while.

The Colorado fire has been raging for at least 12 days and has triggered the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes. It doubled in size from Saturday to Sunday, then grew by another third on Monday to cover 22,000 acres of the southwestern part of the state. It is only 10 percent contained now, Christina Zhao and Reuters report for Newsweek.

The National Weather Service's Bob Oravec said "There's no rain in sight and the winds are going to be 15 mph with higher gusts all day. That's a bad combination," Reuters reports.

"According to the U.S. Forest Service, another conflagration—approximately 400 miles to the north which started over the weekend—has prompted the evacuation of at least six communities in Albany County, Wyoming," Zhao reports.

Firefighters battling the blaze in Mescalero, New Mexico, say the 1,300-acre fire is only 28 percent contained but is no longer spreading, Kate Bieri reports for KVIA-TV. The U.S. Forest Service's Gerry Perry said the fire was started by a person and warns that dry conditions mean the danger of more fires is high. "The probability of ignition if there’s a spark that hits any sort of flammable material is very close to one hundred percent," Perry said.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Americans and their journalists largely agree on what news media should do, but neither think the ideal is being met

"The public is ready for a relationship with more understanding and trust, if news media can take the right steps to earn it." That's a bottom-line conclusion of a survey of journalists and the American public that asked parallel questions to get at citizens' understanding of journalistic concepts, their public’s interactions with journalists, and how that affects their assessment of the news media.

American Press Institute
The poll found "substantial agreement on what Americans want from the news media and what journalists want to report, according to a pair of studies that also reveal a troubling caveat: a nagging feeling among both the ideal isn't being met," reports The Associated Press, which sponsored the polls with the American Press Institute. And while citizens and journalists largely agreed on what the news media should be doing, "with one major exception. Only a little more than half of the people said the press should act as a watchdog to powerful people and institutions, while 93 percent of journalists view this as their role."

"The public and journalists want the same things from the press — verified facts, supplemented by some background and analysis," API reports. "But they also reveal dissatisfaction: many Americans think what they see in the news media looks largely like opinion and commentary — not the carefully reported contextualizing they hoped for." The project found that 42 percent of Americans say "journalists stray too far into commentary," AP reports.

API reports, "The public is confused by some basic concepts of news. Half do not know what an 'op‑ed' is. More than four in 10 do not know what the term 'attribution' means, and close to three in 10 do not know the difference between an editorial and a news story."

Social media probably haven't helped. Many Americans get their news through social media, where it isn’t always clear where stories come from, API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel said. "That may contribute to the finding that most American adults aged 18 to 29 think the news is fairly inaccurate, while most above 30 felt it was fairly accurate," AP reports.

The polls suggest that journalists and their craft could benefit from more direct engagement with the public. "Respondents with personal media experience — especially those who have taken a course on the topic or participated in media at their schools — have a better understanding of journalistic terms, more positive views of several types of media, and in many cases an easier time differentiating news and opinion," API reports. "However, they have similar levels of trust and views about the direction of the news industry."

ICE raid on rural Tennessee meatpacking plant prompts locals to question U.S. and state immigration policies

300 marched, reported the Morristown Citizen Tribune (CT photo)
An immigration raid at a meatpacking plant in rural Tennessee has prompted locals to question more deeply our nation's current immigration policy. Anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in Tennessee: President Trump carried 61 percent of the vote and is still popular, and the Republican-controlled state legislature has passed at least two laws aimed at cracking down on the rapidly expanding state population of undocumented immigrants.

But in Morristown, 40 miles northeast of Knoxville, migrant workers have a considerable presence in the town of 30,000. They've been coming ther since the early 1990s, and began staying when increased border security made it more dangerous to head home at the end of a season and try to return for then next one, Miriam Jordan reports for The New York Times. They've been a much-needed addition to the local workforce, as drugs and disability have rendered many Americans unsuitable for hiring, and make up about 11 percent of Hamblen County's population.

So when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided the Southeastern Provision plant in nearby Bean Station on April 5 and arrested 97 (almost every Latino employee, including at least one American citizen), donations of food, clothing and toys for the families of the workers poured in, and a prayer vigil drew about 1,000 people. Immigration advocates organized a peace march. Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told Jordan that the workers have shouldered all the consequences of their employer's violations. "ICE could have decided to audit this employer, and forced him to pay fines and correct his practices. Instead they conducted a raid that left over 160 children without a parent from one day to the next." No charges have been filed against Southeastern Provision, though an ICE spokesperson said a federal criminal investigation is ongoing.

Marshall Ramsey, president of the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce, told Jordan: "We don’t get into immigration issues. As long as they are pulling their weight as workers, that is what we appreciate. We’re very proud of our diverse heritage. My wife is actually a seventh-grade schoolteacher here in town and about 50 percent of her class is Hispanic. She raves about parent-teacher conferences. The parents show up. The kids know that the parents have high expectations of them. The parents feel like the kids have been given an opportunity."

"Not everyone in town has been welcoming, though," Jordan reports. "One theme many expressed: The workers were lawbreakers who got caught. In the parking lot of the local Walmart, where several people were talking about the raid at the meat plant, one woman said it could open up employment opportunities. But not everyone agreed with her."

Rural funders urge philanthropists to let communities lead

"Philanthropists who want to help rural communities thrive need to get out from behind their desks and out into community, according to three executives of foundations that focus on rural projects," Betsey Russell reports for The Daily Yonder. Russell is a philanthropy consultant who assists the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Ned Calonge speaks as co-panelist Elena Marks listens.
(Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)
The executives discussed rural philanthropy during a May 21 panel discussion held before the latest National Rural Assembly. They included Ned Calonge, president and CEO of The Colorado Trust; Anne Kubisch, president and CEO of the Ford Family Foundation in Oregon; and Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation in Houston.

All three spoke about ways to build relationships between organizations and communities and make sure residents are directing the pace and focus of changes. Kubisch said the Ford Family Foundation, created from timber fortunes, partnered with an intermediary organization, Rural Development Initiatives, to create leadership-development classes in rural Oregon and northern California over 13 years. "We do a lot of direct relationship building and, as a result of that, try and keep track of what's going in each community and figure out how to be responsive to that," Kubisch said. Instead of hiring traditional gatekeepers who distribute grants, the foundation has eight field coordinators who live and work in rural areas and help build their communities. 

Calonge said The Colorado Trust once operated as a traditional grantmaker for health and wellness initiatives, but it has retooled its strategy in recent years to be more resident-led.  "We use traditional community organizing techniques to bring together resident teams who identify and prioritize challenges to health equity in their community," said Calonge. "Then we allow them decision making around how and what they spend their money on as they prioritize their issues. [Our strategy] really came out of visiting rural communities and realizing that they know what they have, what their problems are, what their assets are, and what they need to make their things better."

Marks agreed, saying that the most effective way for the Episcopal Health Foundation to cover Texas is to foster coalitions with rural communities instead of doing the grassroots work themselves. Allen Smart, director of the Office of Rural Philanthropic Analysis, praised the panelists's organizations, saying that their ground-up approach is a good example for other organizations that want to invest in rural communities.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Rural America has too few dentists, partly because it has too few patients or Medicaid programs that can pay

Dr. Lynnel Beauchesne's clinic in Preston County, West Virginia,
at lower right. (Photos by Ricky Carioti for The Washington Post)
Efforts to recruit dentists to rural towns, and expand state scope-of-practice laws to allow basic services to be delivered by dental therapists, have long been regarded as two of the best ways to improve oral health in rural America, where 43 percent of residents lack access to dental care. But because the care is so expensive, those efforts may sometimes be counterproductive, Anne Kim, domestic policy director at the Progressive Policy Institute, writes for The Washington Post.

"People don’t go to the dentist if they can’t afford to, no matter how many dentists there are," Kim writes, citing Richard Meckstroth, chair of the department of dental practice and rural health at West Virginia University. "Recruiting more providers into shortage areas can compound the problem, said Meckstroth, putting local dentists into tougher financial straits by increasing competition for a relatively small pool of paying patients. The dentists who arrive under loan forgiveness programs also tend to leave after their two-year obligation is up, what Meckstroth calls a 'revolving door' that deprives patients of continuity of care."

Beauchesne and 15-month-old daughter, Landyn, in the office
And in states like West Virginia, where poverty is widespread and Medicaid doesn't cover adult dental care except for extractions or infection treatment, even dentists can have it tough. Kim's object example is Dr. Lynnel Beauchesne of Preston County, who "keeps prices barely above costs. The office charges $90 for a cleaning, an exam and bitewing X-rays — about half the national average fee and a third of what many big-city dentists would charge for the same services."  Beauchesne tols her, “I try to keep my prices in the realm of what people can afford and so they will want to come. I don’t want people to come just for extractions. I want them to come for cleanings and to keep the teeth they have.” The closest dentist is 30 miles away.

"Poor oral health has an impact beyond mere toothache," Kim reminds us. "A landmark 2000 report by the U.S. surgeon general found that oral health is intimately linked to people’s overall physical health and is often associated with serious systemic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as the likelihood of complications in pregnancy. Nevertheless, some 74 million Americans had no dental coverage in 2016, according to the National Association of Dental Plans, putting the dentally uninsured rate at nearly four times the rate for the medically uninsured." A 2014 report from the American Dental Association said nearly 20 percent of adults under 65 "said they’d foregone needed dental care in the past 12 months, with the most common reason being “they couldn't afford it.”

Which brings us back to recruiting dentists. "Patients’ inability to afford care is one reason younger dentists — many facing up to $250,000 in school debt — are reluctant to settle in rural areas and why dentists like Beauchesne find themselves working hard to keep their doors open," Kim writes, adding, "The dental-care crisis in rural America is closely linked to the broader economic challenges in the parts of the country that have not yet caught up in this recovery." As Meckstroth told her, “How you improve access in rural America is to get people jobs.”

Farm-and-food columnist decries the loss of journalism jobs in rural and small-town America, and the effects of it

Alan Guebert
Agricultural journalist Alan Guebert used the 25th anniversary of his "Farm and Food File" column to look at the changes in journalism, how they are affecting rural America and the essential role of journalists in rural and small-town America.

He notes how five of eight U.S. newspaper jobs have disappeared since 1990, to 174,000, and are now exceeded by the 207,000 jobs in electronic “journalism,” as he puts it — and how 73 percent of internet publishing jobs today are on the east or west coasts. “That means only 27 percent of the remaining online reporters, as well as the ever-draining pool of traditional journalists, are located in the other 40 or so states,” he writes. “No wonder this vast territory — where you, me, and virtually all farmers and ranchers live and work — is 'flyover country' to most Americans.”

Guebert says the loss of journalism jobs between the coasts “is a critical reason why rural America has become increasingly easy to define (We’re red, right?) and increasingly marginalized. There are fewer on-the-ground public sources out here to challenge the beliefs that coastals — and politicians — perpetuate from their East Coast/West Coast enclaves. Worse, it’s an awful fact that less journalism is being conducted in rural America now just as its citizens face challenging public issues like water quality, poverty, declining population, eroding tax bases, exploding addiction rates, critical infrastructure needs, and failing schools.”

Those issues will be covered not by coastals, but by “local reporters armed with local facts drawn from local public officials and their non-local corporate sponsors so local citizens — you and I — can make the best, informed choices for our collective local future,” Guebert writes. “Their local quest, though, isn’t just professional; it’s also personal. They live in the community they serve. You can chat with them in their office or complain to them over a burger at the local diner. They’re at church, the school board meeting, the bank, the T-ball game. And, no, they’ll never have their own YouTube channel because they’re professional listeners, not overpaid shouters. They live to deliver numbers and nuance; information and insight; scoops, not scandals. To them issues are decided by one metric, facts, not a color like blue or red. They are rocks, not rock stars. It’s been my greatest professional privilege to be a part that local effort for 25 years. Thank you.” Read the entire column here.