Friday, August 03, 2018

Commerce Dept. lowers and limits newsprint tariffs

The Commerce Department ruled yesterday that it will proceed with tariffs on Canadian newsprint, though at a lower rate than it had initially imposed and on a smaller scale. "The agency said it would cap the tariffs at 16.88 percent, down from 22 percent, and apply them to just one Canadian manufacturer, Catalyst Paper Co,," Catie Edmondson reports for The New York Times. But the department "said it would also impose tariffs of up to 9.81 percent on several Canadian paper companies to counter subsidies that those manufacturers receive from the government."

Though the tariffs will be lower, the damage has been done to the American newspaper industry. After the initial tariffs went into effect in January, many papers reduced their print offerings and some have blamed the tariffs for layoffs, Edmondson reports.

And small-town newspapers are perhaps even less financially prepared to cope with the extra expense. The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C., announced last week it was dropping its eight-page color Sunday comics section due to the tariffs. So did The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.

Donnie Douglas, executive editor of The Robesonian, told Jonathan Drew of The Associated Press that it was better to cut the comics than risk having to lay off staff or freelancers who cover local news and serve as watchdogs for local government. "All newspapers our size are operating on really thin margins," he said. "When you have this thing imposed on you, you can’t say let’s cut over here, or let’s cut a position, let’s cut the stringer budget . . . There’s really nowhere to go."

David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, was blunt: "Although this is a step in the right direction, the reduced rates only lessen the pace at which the tariffs are harming the industry. We hope that the International Trade Commission will entirely reverse these misguided tariffs at the end of the month."

Editorial: Rural America needs a Theordore Roosevelt

Today's country has a lot in common with the United States of 110 years ago, according to a thought-provoking editorial from The Roanoke Times. Back then, our New York-born president saw that rural America was lagging behind the prosperous urban parts of the country.

But our president in 1908, Theodore Roosevelt, saw himself as a man of action and decided to try to close that gap. The U.S. could use that kind of effort again, the editors write. Read more here.

Report: rural customers paying more for worse internet

Broadband customers in rural areas pay about the same prices for slower Digital Subscriber Line internet service as urban customers pay for high-speed fiber services, according to a new report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for more equitable broadband deployment.

"In places where AT&T and Verizon don't offer their high-speed fiber-based broadband, they continue to sell customers slower-speed DSL service," Marguerite Reardon reports for c|net. "But recently, the companies have been eliminating lower-tier plans, which has resulted in higher prices for the base cost of service. But in areas where the networks haven't been upgraded, like rural regions of the country or low-income urban markets, this means customers are paying more for slower service."

AT&T called the report misleading. It says it hasn't eliminated speed tiers, but has instead "simplified" its pricing with an "entry level price point that's remained relatively constant while the speed offered has increased," Reardon reports. But NDIA argues that providers like AT&T and Verizon haven't upgraded their DSL networks or increased the speed of those services.

AT&T also noted in its statement that DSL is generally more expensive to maintain, and that the cost per customer is higher in rural areas, Reardon reports.

Study shows urban, rural access to illegal drugs the same; researcher says more studies needed in rural areas

Though popular media often depicts illegal drug use as an urban problem, a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study shows it's just as easy to get drugs in rural areas. The study was published in July in the Journal of Drug Issues.

Sociologist Patrick Habecker, who led the study, found that more than one-third of both urban and rural residents could get marijuana through someone they know. "The study also found that 18 percent of Nebraskans surveyed in the Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey reported access to prescription pills, including opioids. Nine percent reported access to methamphetamine and 5 percent said they knew at least one person from whom they could obtain heroin," Deann Gayman reports for the university's press shop.

Habecker said the study only examined social access, so the actual accessibility of illegal drugs in Nebraska is probably much higher. It didn't account for other sources such as internet delivery.

While social access was about the same for both rural and urban residents, other factors did make a difference in people's ability to access marijuana: older people and regular churchgoers were less likely to know a marijuana source. Regular church attendance also reduced the odds of knowing a prescription-pill source in rural areas. And lesser-educated people were more likely to know a prescription-pill source, Gayman reports.

Habecker and colleauges have been tracking rural drug-use trends and say this study could help authorities understand more about how to fight it. "There has not been a lot of focus on rural substance use in general," Habecker told Gayman. "It’s largely been city-focused, and it’s clear that should probably change."

Big South American lizards infesting Florida, could spread

A black and white tegu in the Florida Everglades
(U.S. Geological Survey photo)
A huge -- and hungry -- kind of South American lizard has gained a foothold in Florida and may
spread across the southern U.S., Jon Herskovitz reports for Reuters.

Tegu lizards, which can grow up to four feet long, have established two large colonies in the Florida wilds after being brought to the country as pets, though there are no current estimates of the population of wild tegus in the U.S. A study published in July in the journal Nature said that tegus could expand from Central Texas to the Carolinas. 

"They are voracious, omnivorous predatory lizards that can live in a variety of habitats, but we can’t know what is going to happen or how intense this invasion is going to become until the effects are upon us," said study co-author Lee Fitzgerald, a Texas A&M professor and curator of its Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections. He also told Herskovitz that it could take years for the lizards to spread, but new hot spots pop up as more of them escape or are released in the wild by owners. 

Tegus eat the eggs of alligators and grround-nesting birds, as well as insects, fruit and birds. Their potential as an invasive species depends on what resources are threatened in the areas where tegus might live, according to other study co-author Robert Reed, chief of the Invasive Species Science Branch at the U.S Geological Survey

The lizards have strong jaws and tails that they use to thump enemies. Tegu owners describe them as calm and indiscriminate eaters but sometimes ornery and tough to handle. "On private lands, Florida hunters without a license are allowed to kill tegu lizards if it is done humanely. On public lands, the state is trying to get rid of the lizards through traps," Herskovitz reports.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Beech leaf disease spreading in northeastern U.S.

Diseased beech leaves
(Plain Dealer photo)
In recent years a baffling disease has been spreading among beech trees in northeastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. It causes beech leaves to curl and fall off prematurely, and eventually kills affected trees. Ohio naturalist John Pogacnik first discovered it in 2012 in Lake County, Ohio, near Cleveland, James McCarty reports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

"I've sent samples to the U.S. Forestry Service and Ohio State, and contacted botanists in Europe and Asia, and no one has ever heard of it. So where did it come from?" Pogacnik told McCarty. "The worst part is that until someone figures out what is causing it, you can't begin to stop it."

Scientists are studying samples to try and identify the cause of the disease. At Ohio State University, tree and plant pathology professor Enrico Bonello has obtained a grant to study the disease and has already assembled a research team. And U.S. Forest Service plant pathologist James Jacobs has organized a two-day working group conference at Cleveland Metroparks next May for researchers to discuss possible solutions to the disease, McCarty reports.

Wildfire smoke creates health concerns across the West

Smoke hangs in the air in Idaho (Photo by Idaho Department of Health and Welfare)

The wildfires that are ravaging the western U.S. are not just endangering property, but people's health because of the smoke hanging in the air sometimes hundreds of miles away from fires.

"In addition to toxins like carbon monoxide, cyanide and harmful byproducts from homes burning such as plastic and other building materials, it is the microscopic nature of the particles in the smoke itself that are the biggest threat," Barry Kaye reports for Mt. Shasta News in California. Construction dust masks that one might buy from the hardware store don't filter out smoke, which contains particulate matter 2.5 microns across or smaller.

Chris Smith of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare recommends that parents keep young children indoors, since their still-developing respiratory systems are more susceptible to smoke inhalation damage. "The elderly, people with heart or lung conditions, and pregnant women should also avoid breathing in the smoke. If you don’t have air conditioning, Smith recommends spending time at libraries or movie theaters that do," Amanda Peacher reports for Boise State Public Radio.

Dr. Norman Edelman of the American Lung Association recommends using an N95 respirator, since it can filter out most of the particulate matter in smoke, Kaye reports.

A few more recommendations from Kaye: "Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. While driving use the air conditioner and the recirculate function rather than drawing in air from the outside. Stay indoors and close all doors and windows. Use an air conditioner if you have one and also check the filter."

International journalism professors and professionals learn about Amish country

Journalism scholars learned how The Budget is put together. (The Budget photo by Bevery Keller)

Journalism professors and professionals from all over the world learned about Amish culture and community journalism in July as part of a Study of the U.S. Institute program hosted by Ohio University. The scholars toured the Sugarcreek, Ohio, office where The Budget is produced, the national newspaper for the Amish and Mennonite communities. They also listened to The Budget's Publisher Milo Miller and National Editor Fannie Erb-Miller, and also heard from Lester and Mary Beachy about the reality of growing up Amish, Beverly Keller reports for The Budget.

The group also learned more about Amish and Mennonite culture and history by touring the Amish Mennonite Heritage Center, then met with members of the Sugarcreek Rotary and Garaway Lions and wrapped up the day with dinner and fellowship. Rotarian Susan Miller summed up the trip by noting that "We are all a little different, but we are also all the same," Keller reports.

Zhao Zin of China said the trip was "an incredible opportunity," Keller reports. "I have learned so much just today, and we are just getting started."

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Writers flew to 'flyover country' for 4 years and wrote a book; will discuss experiences in Daily Yonder webinar Aug. 30

Deborah and James Fallows
The Daily Yonder is sponsoring a free webinar Aug. 30 with James and Deborah Fallows, authors of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.

Wall Street Journal photo
Traveling by air in their small plane, the couple visited often overlooked cities and towns across America, including in the country’s midsection, sometimes called “fly-over country.” The perspective they gained was often surprising as they uncovered off-the-beaten-path communities rising from the ashes of industrialism and re-imagining themselves in creative ways. The writers for The Atlantic magazine chronicled their four-year odyssey in the recently published book. "They share with us their optimistic take on the people and places they discovered, and what’s making communities thrive today," the Yonder says.

The webinar will be held Thursday, Aug. 30, from 1 to 2 p.m. EDT Register here. If you can’t join it live, register anyway and the Yonder will send you a recording of the call. For a review of the book, by Kelsey Thomas in The Wall Street Journal, click here.

Gulf of Mexico 'dead zone' caused by Midwest fertilizer runoff is 4th smallest since 1985 (but it's not all good news)

The 2018 Gulf of Mexico dead zone (Louisiana State University map)
The annual low-oxygen 'dead zone' along the coast of Louisiana is only 2,720 square miles this year, much smaller than in recent years, according to researchers at Louisiana State University, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mark Schleifstein reports for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. That's only one-third the size of last year's record-breaking 8,776-square-mile dead zone and significantly smaller than the 5,770-square-mile average since 2014.

But it's hard to draw conclusions from the smaller area of this year's dead zone. Marine scientist Nancy Rabalais told Schleifstein that strong winds in the weeks before the July 24-28 monitoring cruise likely pushed the largest concentrations of low-oxygen water further out. This year's zone is sized like others that occurred in years with the same weather patterns, such as 2014.

The dead zone is driven mainly by fertilizer run-off from Midwestern farms that flows down the Mississippi River and feeds algae in the Gulf of Mexico. When the algae die and sink to the bottom, microorganisms break them down, using up the oxygen in the water. "This year's smaller dead zone also comes as a surprise because the amount of nutrients carried by the river in May was at near-record levels,"Schleifstein reports. "LSU oceanographer Gene Turner had predicted then that, based on the river's nutrient levels, the dead zone would be 6,570 square miles."

Looking for solutions to sewage problems in Alabama's Black Belt -- and perhaps other rural areas with the issue

Lowndes County, Alabama
(Wikipedia map)
Thousands of low-income rural Alabama residents have had to live with inefficient or failing wastewater treatment systems for decades, sickening them and lowering their property values. Activists, researchers and journalists have pushed the crisis into the public eye, making officials pay more attention, reports Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser.

A United Nations team that investigates extreme poverty around the world toured the U.S. last year and reported that people in Alabama's Black Belt are "suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place [inspector Philip Alston] has visited in a developed country," Connor Sheets reported at the time for Alston noted that residents in rural Butler and Lowndes counties often fall ill with infections from E. coli bacteria and hookworm because of the sewage -- ailments that he said were "very uncommon in the First World."

Lowndes County is one of the poorest counties in the state, with a median income below $28,000. So residents and towns can't afford to put in better waste-disposal systems -- which are more expensive there anyway. Civil engineer Kevin White told Brown that "Normally, it might cost $2,000 to put in a septic tank and a drain field in Mobile or Tuscaloosa . . . But in the Black Belt, with the poor soils, the system has to be so large or so complicated that we’re talking $8,000 to $10,000 or even more." White has been working on creating more innovative and affordable Black Belt wastewater solutions for decades; he led a study for the University of South Carolina more than 10 years ago that found that half of rural households in Bibb County had raw sewage pooling on the ground. He's currently studying similar conditions in Wilcox and Hale counties.

White says these rural areas need creative solutions, such as compost toilets or outhouses, or more efficient (but more expensive) toilet systems that use air and a small amount of liquid to flush. Brown notes, "Plumbing manufacturer American Standard sent a team of engineers to Lowndes County last year and is in the initial stages of developing potential product solutions for rural septic issues."

Catherine Flowers, a Lowndes County native and rural development manager for the Equal Justice Initiative, has been working with researchers at Duke University to explore policy changes, funding mechanisms and septic system engineering solutions to the problem. Flowers told Brown she hopes their work can help other rural communities across the U.S. struggling with similar issues.

"It’s not just a Black Belt problem. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this," Flowers told Brown. "I think what we’re putting together is a template for how these different entities can and should work together to find solutions. We’re working on a life-giving and life-sustaining solution."

Rural businesses need more investment capital, says founder of Rural Opportunity Initiative at Georgetown Univ.

Matthew McKenna
Though many think of agriculture when they think of rural communities, that only makes up 6 percent of today's rural economy. Small businesses are critical to rural economies, but they need more venture capital to succeed, according to an op-ed in The Hill by Matthew McKenna, the founder and executive in residence of the Rural Opportunity Initiative at the business school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

"One way of addressing the issue of scale that is often a limiting factor for rural investment is the development of funds that target mid-tier investments. The recent wave of Rural Business Investment Companies (RBICs) is a good example," McKenna writes. "Their charters limit their investments to rural-based businesses and their typical investment slice has been in the $1-5-million range. Another tool is a fund of funds approach, where many small funds are brought together by institutions as way of allowing their customers to obtain the diversity and scale that is denied them in more targeted funds."

The federal government can also help by removing some obstacles to rural small business investments and contribute funds for RBICs. The Opportunity Zones program in last year's tax bills could also help; it's designed to bring investment and development to blighted areas, and about 23 percent of such state-designated Opportunity Zones are in rural America. The Senate version of the Farm Bill and the bipartisan Rural Jobs and Investment Act of 2018 also have provisions that expand opportunities for RBICs and Rural Innovation Centers, McKenna writes.

But though federal support is important, McKenna believes the primary source of investment for rural businesses will come from the private sector. "We know those dollars are available — $57 Billion in the first half of 2018 alone — but the challenge is how to change the direction of those investments toward sectors of the economy and geographies where venture capital has not been well represented," McKenna writes. "That is ultimately a challenge of building awareness of those investment opportunities and connecting those opportunities with investors ready and willing to make investments as they become available."

If rural small businesses don't have more access to capital in the future, McKenna warns, rural America will continue to lag behind the rest of the nation's prosperity.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Appeals court cancels permits for Mountain Valley Pipeline

A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously rescinded permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline last week, saying the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had not fully vetted the project for its environmental impact and had simply accepted assurances from the builders. The natural-gas pipeline is now under construction and would pass through West Virginia and Virginia, including a 3.6-mile stretch of the Jefferson National Forest.

Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post, "Pittsburgh-based EQT Midstream Partners, which is leading the coalition of companies building the pipeline, said it was 'evaluating the court’s decision.' Spokeswoman Natalie Cox noted that the ruling left the door open for the federal agencies to redo their permits. The judges ordered the agencies to reconsider the permits using proper procedure."

The pipeline has been challenged with multiple lawsuits and other protests from environmentalists and some landowners. "Opponents said Friday they hope the federal court decision will cause a more robust state review of water quality issues raised by pipeline construction," Schneider reports.

Could digital media startups fill the vacuum left by community newspapers?

A growing number of digital media startups are taking the place of traditional community news organizations, but it's unclear whether they can be economically solvent enough to fill the news vacuum left when traditional community newspapers close down.

The news gap is a growing problem: "Nearly 1,800 local newspapers have closed their doors since 2004, according to a 2017 study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media . . . And small-town newspapers with circulations of fewer than 20,000 are the markets taking the biggest hits," Phil McCausland reports for NBC. Meanwhile, "U.S. daily newspaper circulation — print and digital combined — fell an estimated 11 percent in one year to 31 million in 2017. That’s half of the readership that newspapers enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told McCausland that community journalists play a vital role in holding local governments accountable. "What happens when people aren’t being watched?" Cross said. "As they say, when the cat’s away, the mice will play."

Cross was skeptical of the sustainability of digital startups to cover issues in small towns. Another problem is finances: some startups are non-profit and some are for-profit, but many are having trouble creating coherent financial strategies to achieve solvency, according to the Local Media Association's February survey of almost 200 media leaders in charge of small digital operations. Fewer than a quarter of the operations surveyed said they had enough staff to meet revenue goals.

Non-profit ventures like Report for America could help with staffing though; the program places journalists in local newsrooms. "In the past five or 10 years, there’s been a lot about how technology is going to save journalism, and a lot of that is partly true," Steve Waldman, the nonprofit's co-founder, told McCausland. "But we’ve now discovered that none of that matters if there’s not enough reporters. At the end of the day you’re not going to improve local journalism without local journalists."

Monday, July 30, 2018

Trade-war package for farmers won't make them whole

The Trump administration's $12 billion aid package for farmers hurt by the trade war will have $7 to $8 billion in direct payments, less than the $11 billion hit farmers are expected to take in lower crop prices, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Saturday.

"Obviously this is not going to make farmers whole," Perdue told Hugh Bronstein of Reuters. He added that it will be a one-time thing: "It's for the 2018 crop. We do not expect to do this over a period of time."

The USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. will use existing legal authority to borrow the money from the Treasury and use it three ways: Direct cash payments to farmers of soybeans, sorghum, corn, wheat, cotton, dairy and hogs; government purchases of fruits, nuts, rice, legumes, beef, pork and milk for distribution to food banks and nutrition programs; and $200 million for a trade promotion program to develop new markets for American agricultural products.

Applications for the cash payments are expected to begin in Septemner, and "We expect the checks to go out in late September or October, as soon as they prove their yields," Perdue told Reuters. "They will be based on actual production, not historical averages." Read more here.

Proposed changes in tele-health services could help rural seniors get help when they need it, and more of it

Falls are a big risk for seniors, possibly leading to hospital stays, surgeries and rehabilitation. They are even more risky for rural seniors, who may be far away from help, or family who might check in on them. But proposed changes to rural broadband and tele-health could help seniors deal with falls better, allowing them to stay in their homes longer, Craig Settles writes for The Daily Yonder.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently proposed to pay doctors more for tele-health appointments, which would make such services more readily available to rural seniors who need them for general medical services, mental health services, and home health care.

Tele-health can significantly reduce the amount of mental-health medication that seniors need, says Nancy Hamilton, executive director of Hearthstone senior living buildings in Pella, Iowa: "In 2015 our anti-psychotropic medications use was at 15.5 percent and now it’s at 6.8 percent even though our acuity of patients with behaviors has increased. Encounter Telehealth [a vendor] brings constant touch points with psychiatric professionals that we need."

Also, tele-health services help hospitals better monitor recently discharged seniors to ensure they don't need to be readmitted for complications. Readmission within 30 days of discharge carries financial penalties for hospitals.

All that said, improved tele-health hinges on seniors having access to good, affordable internet service. Low-income seniors are likely to have a smartphone but not likely to have wi-fi at home without a data cap, according to Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. To that end, the Federal Communications Commission announced recently that it might commit $100 million for telehealth from the Universal Service Fund.

Catholic hospitals play bigger role in rural health care

Some hospitals on the 2011 map don't appear on the 2016 map either because they're no longer associated with a
Catholic institution or because they're no longer classified as the sole community hospital. (FiveThirtyEight map)
More and more, rural residents' access to some health care services may be determined by the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.

"In a growing number of communities around the country, especially in rural areas, patients and physicians have access to just one hospital. And in more and more places, that hospital is Catholic," Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux report for FiveThirtyEight. "That sounds innocuous — a hospital is a hospital, after all. But Catholic hospitals are bound by a range of restrictions on care that are determined by religious authorities, with very little input from medical staff. Increasingly, where a patient lives can determine whether Catholic doctrine, and how the local bishop interprets that doctrine, will decide what kind of care she can get."

Commonly affected services include abortion, birth control, some end-of-life care, and gender-affirmation procedures. Some doctors who had worked at Catholic hospitals told the reporters that they had been unable to give what they felt was the most effective treatment to some patients because of religious restrictions. Some low-income women are not able to go elsewhere for services not provided by Catholic hospitals, due to financial and transportation challenges.

Catholic hospitals have had some latitude to deny certain treatment options for decades, but that power has been expanded under recent moves by the Trump administration. President Trump signed an executive order saying his administration would protect religious freedom, then the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that large employers don't have to cover birth control for employees. HHS also created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to focus on protecting employers' rights.

Nationwide, "best estimates suggest that one in six hospital beds and many of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems are Catholic-owned or -affiliated," Barry-Jester and Thomson-DeVeaux report. "From 2001 to 2016, the number of Catholic-affiliated hospitals in the U.S. grew by 22 percent, even as the total number of hospitals in the U.S. shrunk, according to research by MergerWatch and the American Civil Liberties Union. And the changes vary by region. In Washington state, more than 40 percent of hospital beds are in Catholic institutions. In several Midwestern states, more than 30 percent of beds are in Catholic hospitals.

This is partly because Catholic hospitals may be able to weather financial hardship better because of their nonprofit status, efficiency, and access to Catholic church funding.

Proposal for what would be largest U.S. wind farm, already under construction, is dealt a potentially fatal blow

The Texas Public Utility Commission last week unanimously rejected a proposal for American Electric Power Co. to supply its customers with energy from what would be the nation's largest wind farm, saying it doesn't offer enough benefits for utility customers as currently structured, Jim Efstathiou Jr. and Chris Martin report for Bloomberg News.

The Wind Catcher facility is already under construction in the Oklahoma panhandle and is scheduled to be completed in late 2020. AEP invested $4.5 billion transmission lines from Wind Catcher to customers in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. The company, which plans to eventually buy the wind farm outright, planned to pay for the lines with a strategy often used by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants: by passing on costs and some profit onto customers' bills.

But the Texas commission argued that the project might not be as profitable as AEP is projecting. DeAnn Walker, chairman of the Texas commission, said last week at the hearing that "The costs are known, but the benefits are based on a lot of assumptions that are questionable."

Meanwhile, "Oklahoma’s attorney general and a state administrative law judge concluded in February the company failed to prove there was an economic need for the project and that it left customers shouldering too much of the risk," Efstathiou and Martin report.