Friday, August 24, 2018

Wildfires almost always have a human origin

Mendocino Fire (Photo by Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
Though the wildfires blazing throughout the Western and Southern U.S. get bigger and last longer because of climate change, almost all of them are started by a human, either on purpose or by accident. Sometimes because of what people do, as when a flat tire dragging on asphalt sparked the Carr Fire in California, and sometimes because of what people don't do, such as when trees around rural power lines are poorly pruned or nature-protection policies don't allow for many controlled fires to burn dead vegetation.

"Experts also worry that not enough attention is given to all the ways people have made the problem of wildfires worse. Population growth in California means there are more people on the roads — cars are a prime culprit in wildfires — and more homes built in wilderness areas," Tim Arango and Inyoung Kang report for The New York Times.

Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University, told the Times that he worries the public has gotten used to wildfires and won't be willing to talk about how to prevent them: "I’m beginning to think of these like mass shootings. A shooting happens in a grade school and nothing changes."

U.S.-China trade war escalates with new 25% tariffs

In the latest salvo of the trade war between China and the United States, both countries implemented 25 percent tariffs on $16 billion of each other's goods on Thursday.

That makes for tariffs on a combined $100 billion of products since July, and more may come: "President Donald Trump has threatened to put duties on almost all of the more than $500 billion of Chinese goods exported to the United States annually unless Beijing agrees to sweeping changes to its intellectual property practices, industrial subsidy programmes and tariff structures, and buys more U.S. goods," Michael Martina and David Lawder report for Reuters. "That figure would be far more than China imports from the United States, raising concerns that Beijing could consider other forms of retaliation, such as making life more difficult for American firms in China or allowing its yuan currency to weaken further to support its exporters."

Chinese officials said they would "continue to take necessary countermeasures" to American tariffs and will file suit under World Trade Organization dispute resolution rules. Meanwhile, mid-level officials from both countries keep trying to hammer out an agreement. The Trump administration appears to believe it's winning the trade war, since China's economy and stock markets have taken recent dives

Program keeps unwanted horses from slaughter

A vet examines a horse for the Horse Plus Humane Society.
(Photo supplied by Tawnee Preisner)
Tawnee Preisner has always loved horses, and grew up riding them in her backyard. But she noticed that many horses are unwanted and end up getting slaughtered (though not for human consumption, at least in the U.S). Because she lived next door to a horse trader, she saw how cheaply some horses could be purchased, and how much of a difference it made in their fate when they were trained. That's how she came up with an idea: buy unwanted horses cheaply, train them to take a rider, then rehome them.

"She launched NorCal Equine Rescue as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2005 to expand her rescue/rehoming efforts. NorCal's work grew from Northern California to the whole country and became Horse Plus Humane Society," Natalie Voss reports for the Paulick Report, a publication usually focused on horse racing.

Horse Plus has an open-door policy at its Centerville, Tenn., site: horses can be dropped off with no questions asked and placed for adoption. It also tries to intercept horses before they end up at auctions or sales kill buyers frequent, Voss reports. The organization also held 13 horse surrender events around the country where people could give up horses they could no longer afford to care for.

The organization's newest venture? An initiative "to stand in the gap for at-risk horses: its We Buy Horses program will use donated funds to purchase horses for sale on social media whose listing prices are low enough they may attract kill buyers or end up in the slaughter pipeline. Preisner anticipated the project would launch this summer," Voss reports.

Trust in news media, especially local news, is up

Finally, some good news for journalists: after years of declining trust in the press, Americans are starting to trust the news media more, and most say they trust their local news sources. The findings come on the heels of the fatal shooting at the Annapolis Capital-Gazette and a nationwide editorial campaign defending the importance of a free press against President Trump's assertions that journalists are enemies of the people.

"The new Poynter Media Trust Survey found 76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount' of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent have confidence in local newspapers," Indira Lakshmanan and Rick Edmonds report for the Poynter Institute. "That contrasts with 55 percent trust in national network news, 59 percent in national newspapers and 47 percent in online-only news outlets."

Republicans especially tend to trust local news more than national news: 71 percent said they trust local TV news a great deal or a fair amount, but only 28 percent said they trust national network news. And 62 percent of Republicans trust their local newspapers, while just 29 percent trust national newspapers. Comparatively, 88 percent of Democrats say they trust local newspapers and the same percentage say they trust national newspapers. And slightly more Democrats say they trust local TV news than national TV news, at 81 and 88 percent, respectively.

"The high trust in local news observed in Poynter’s study is on par with the historical high-water mark of 72 percent trust in all news media recorded in 1976 by Gallup, which began asking the trust-in-news question four years earlier," Lakshmanan and Edmonds report. "Gallup previously recorded an all-time low of 32 percent trust in media in September 2016, at the height of an ugly presidential campaign, but measured an uptick to 41 percent trust last September."

What happened when the Labor Department recruited high school students to replace migrant farm workers in 1965

The barracks where Randy Carter and classmates lived in 1965.
The argument that Central Americans are taking American farm jobs is a fairly modern phenomenon. In 1964, when the World War II-era Bracero Program, which brought Mexicans to harvest U.S. crops, ended because of accusations of inhumane conditions, farmers weren't happy. They said Mexicans did the jobs Americans wouldn't, and that crops would rot in the field, Gustavo Arellano reports for NPR.

Enter then-Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, who wanted to prove farmers wrong. He announced on Cinco de Mayo of 1965 that he wanted to recruit 20,000 high-school athletes to replace the hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmworkers. He called the project A-TEAM: Athletes in Temporary Employment as Agricultural Manpower.

After weeks of heavy nationwide advertising with slogans like "Farm Work Builds Men!" about 18,100 teens signed up, though only about 3,300 of them ever actually picked crops. One was Randy Carter, now a member of the Directors Guild of America. He and 25 classmates at his San Diego high school joined up and were assigned to pick cantaloupes near Blythe, Calif., Arellano reports.

It was brutal work, Carter told Arellano: The students worked six days a week and weren't allowed to go home during their stint. They were paid minimum wage, then $1.40 an hour, and began work before dawn to minimize working in the blistering heat of daytime in the irrigated desert. They were housed in dilapidated barracks that regularly reached nighttime temperatures in the 90s.

Though some teens stuck it out all summer as a point of pride, the program fizzled quickly. "In California's Salinas Valley, 200 teenagers from New Mexico, Kansas and Wyoming quit after just two weeks on the job," Arellano reports. "Students elsewhere staged strikes. At the end, the A-TEAM was considered a giant failure and was never tried again."

Stony Brook University history professor Lori Flores, who researched the program for a book, said it demonstrates a valuable perspective on the reality of farm work: "These [high school students] had the words and whiteness to say what they were feeling and could act out in a way that Mexican-Americans who had been living this way for decades simply didn't have the power or space for the American public to listen to them," she told Arellano. "The students dropped out because the conditions were so atrocious, and the growers weren't able to mask that up."

Thursday, August 23, 2018

U.S. Department of Education may let states use its grant funds to buy guns for teachers

The U.S. Department of Education is considering whether to allow states to use federal grant funding set aside for educational purposes and student services to buy guns for teachers.

"Such a move would reverse a longstanding position taken by the federal government that it should not pay to outfit schools with weapons," Erica Green reports for The New York Times. "And it would also undermine efforts by Congress to restrict the use of federal funding on guns. As recently as March, Congress passed a school safety bill that allocated $50 million a year to local school districts, but expressly prohibited the use of the money for firearms. But the department is eyeing a program in federal education law, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, that makes no mention of prohibiting weapons purchases. That omission would allow the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to use her discretion to approve any state or district plans to use grant funding for firearms and firearm training, unless Congress clarifies the law or bans such funding through legislative action."

Education Week reports that rural Arkansas teachers told the Federal School Safety Commission that sheriffs were 20 to 30 minutes away from their schools, and they felt arming teachers was the best way to keep their students safe.

But one Texas school says it and other rural schools can have a harder time getting grant money to add security measures to protect against active shooters. At Granger Independent School District in Williamson County, leaders say using funding for such measures means diverting scarce funding from educational needs, Steffi Lee reports for KXAN-TV in Austin. Supt. Randy Willis told Lee that rural schools are sometimes ignored when federal and state officials discuss grant options.

"I have two principals and I have two people in central administration that help me with counseling, our accountability and our testing," Willis told Lee. "So when you have to write a . . . grant application and you have to put all this stuff in to write that grant, it takes time and it takes expertise."

Volunteer firefighter says controlling traffic after a wreck can be scarier than fighting fires, gives tips for motorists

Firefighters and deputies clean off a road after an accident.
(Photo by Donna Kallmer)
Rural areas often depend on volunteer firefighters to battle the blazes spreading over the western and southern U.S. this summer, but that's not all they do. According to Donna Kallner in an essay for The Daily Yonder, she and her fellow rural volunteer firefighters also play a vital part in helping EMTs, sheriff's departments and professional firefighters respond to car wrecks. That includes not just cleaning up the roadway afterward so it's safe for traffic, but sometimes controlling traffic. That can be scarier than fighting a fire:

"Traffic control takes grit, whether you’re a Good Samaritan with an angel on your shoulder or a trained volunteer. Believe me, it’s scary out there. Folks who are good about pulling over for emergency vehicles running with lights and sirens can’t resist taking a quick peek as they drive past the scene of a wreck. They want to see what happened, what’s happening now, if anyone they know is involved. It’s human nature. But it’s scary to be on an accident scene trying to do your job when motorists are moving through with their heads on full swivel," Kallner writes. "It’s even scarier to be the person holding a sign on a pole a quarter mile away trying to stop traffic before it reaches a scene. You’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to notice the flashing lights, the high-visibility gear, or the person holding the sign who looks like he’s ready to dive for the ditch — which he is."

Kallner wants readers to keep three things in mind if they approach a roadside emergency, for the safety of first responders and drivers: First: there's often very little room to maneuver past a wreck on a country road, so drive carefully and watch for first responders and their vehicles. Second: resist the urge to rubberneck and pay attention to first responders' signs and directions to avoid getting into a secondary accident. Third: remember that the scene of a wreck is very loud, what with idling diesel trucks, sirens, and radios, so don't assume a first responder can hear your vehicle approaching.

"As a passing motorist, you have an important role on the scene," Kallner writes. "We need you to watch out for any and all unexpected movement, and be prepared to stop on a dime or move along briskly if you’re waved at to do so. We’re counting on you. And if you happen to be stopped by traffic control on a hot day and you happen to have a cold bottle of water or Gatorade handy, pass one out the window to the person doing the scariest and most thankless job. They like cookies, too."

Appalachian agency says personal income down in E. Ky. coalfield; no significant increase in coal jobs under Trump

"Personal income has gone down in several Eastern Kentucky counties where coal employment has been decimated in recent years, according to a report from the Appalachian Regional Commission," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Studies have cited competition from cheap natural gas for electricity generation as the biggest factor in coal’s decline, though other factors have played a role, including efforts to beef up environmental rules in the Obama administration and the rise of renewable energy such as wind power."

There has been no significant increase in coal jobs in Kentucky during President Trump's tenure, and the report "shows that the average unemployment rate went down across the region over the last three years, but that the gap widened between the rate in Appalachia and the rest of the country, showing employment in the region is not improving as quickly as in the nation," Estep reports. 

Trump's newly announced replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan aims to narrow that gap that by softening regulations on coal-fired power plants, but experts are skeptical that it will have much impact because gas and renewables are increasingly competitive with coal.

Rural caregivers face more financial challenges

Rural caregivers have more financial barriers to their service work than those in urban areas, according to a study of 2011-13 data from Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, published in The Journal of Rural Health. Caregivers were defined as people "providing care to a family member or friend because of a long‐term illness or disability."

Though they were more likely to report financial barriers to their work, rural caregivers were less likely "to report that caregiving created any difficulty" for them, either financially or health-wise, the study report said. "Rural caregivers’ coping strategies or skills in identifying informal supports may explain this difference, but additional research is needed to explore this hypothesis."

We'll bet "coping strategies" would be found to include a dedication to the work that overrode financial concerns, and a feeling that if they didn't do it, no one else would. That seems more likely in rural areas.

After rural opioid roundtables, USDA official sees need for creativity, use of assets, small actions that can turn big

Anne Hazlett
Since March, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have held roundtables with state and local leaders in seven largely-rural states to learn more about the impact of the opioid epidemic. Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett, who led these roundtables, spoke with Kay Temple of the The Rural Monitor about what she learned from the tour through Pennsylvania, Utah, Nevada, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Missouri and Maine.

"One key lesson is that an effective response in rural America takes creativity in harnessing existing community assets, and limited resources mean we have to get creative. For example, in the context of prevention, we can’t always just turn to school districts or sheriff’s deputies who already have strapped resources and are stretched thin," Hazlett told Temple. "What are the assets in a community that can be used as a platform for prevention? It’s the 'who': those who are already touching the lives of people living and working in rural America. When we take that creative lens, the sky is the limit in these rural areas. There are opportunities in churches, in the Cooperative Extension, in the Rotary, in the Lions Club."

Another thing Hazlett saw was how small actions can have a big impact in a way that wouldn't happen in a larger community. One example she saw was in Talbot County, Maryland: the county launched a campaign called "Talbot Goes Purple" in which community leaders and organizations partnered to use the color purple everywhere possible as a message of support to families hurt by substance abuse. Stigma is a powerful barrier to getting help in rural communities, but the campaign helped reduce that and let people know it's okay to get help, Temple reports.

Hazlett's final takeaway was that rural communities must become more prosperous to fight the opioid epidemic and keep people from becoming addicted. "This rural epidemic has been fueled by hopelessness and despair, stemming through lack of economic opportunity, feelings of isolation, and so to remedy that we can’t just look at prevention, treatment, and recovery," Hazlett said. "Rural leaders really need to double down on addressing some of these deeper, systemic issues in rural communities — things like lack of broadband and the need to improve the quality of life, develop the next generation of the workforce, drive innovation, and increase economic development." 

Hazlett acknowledged that rural broadband access is a critical ingredient in rural prosperity, and touted the USDA's $600 million broadband pilot program. The program has not yet been implemented, but is open to public comment until Sept. 10.

Baptist preacher, Buddhist swami team up to fight pipeline

Natural-gas pipelines are lightning rods for controversy, drawing protests from environmentalists, musicians, disgruntled land owners, and even nuns. They have made for some strange-at-first-glance bedfellows too: Two longtime friends, a Southern Baptist preacher and a Buddhist swami, joined together to fight a proposed compressor station in rural Virginia for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The compressor station is slated to be built just down the road from one of the two Baptist churches where the Rev. Paul Wilson preaches in Union Hill, a rural community founded by freed slaves. Dominion Energy says the station will generate as much as $1 million a year in tax revenue for the low-income county. Though state regulators say Dominion has promised to take great pains to make the station safe, "federal documents say such stations — which keep the gas flowing — emit toxic chemicals that can harm health. They can be noisy, and they light up at night. Once in a great while, such facilities explode — causing damages and fatalities for a significant distance all around," Gregory Schneider reports for The Washington Post.

Wilson's friend, Swami Dayananda, was also concerned. The pipeline would go under the James River next to the yoga shrine and retreat where she has worked for more than 30 years. Both feel that Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has failed to adequately oppose the project despite proclaiming himself an environmentalist. Dayananda and Wilson have led local resistance to the pipeline and hope to convince the Virginia State Air Control Board to deny a necessary permit next month.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's impact report says "compressor station emissions could include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds, and it notes that African American populations are more susceptible to related asthma. But it concludes that Union Hill is not populous enough to be of concern," Schneider reports.

Dominion Energy says it has appointed a community liaison to make sure the town's concerns are heard: Basil Gooden, a Union Hill native who served as state agriculture secretary under former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Nearly 2 million U.S. acres on fire; effects widespread

Time-lapse map of wildfires and smoke this summer
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration images compiled into a GIF by The Washington Post)
Smoke from wildfires in the western and southern U.S. and western Canada has blanketed a large percentage of both countries, Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post

Weather observers at the Mount Washington Observatory in New Hampshire even reported seeing the smoke, Adres Picon reports for The Boston Globe.

The smoky state of things may not improve in years to come: experts say wildfires are burning longer and spreading faster since at least 2005, Jake Whittenberg reports for KING-TV in Seattle. Those increased fires coincide with increased temperatures fueled by climate change, Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press.

California legislature is on the verge of virtually eliminating money bail, an increasing problem in much of rural U.S.

Both houses of the California State Legislature have voted to "virtually eliminate the payment of money as a condition for release from jail," Jazmine Ulloa and Maya Lau report for the Los Angeles Times. Senate Bill 10 passed the Assembly 41-27 and returns to the Senate for approval of amendments, including one "that gave judges greater power to decide who should remain incarcerated ahead of trial."

The virtual end of money bail in the nation's largest state would be likely to spur similar efforts across the country, drive partly by overcrowding in jails, especially in rural areas.

Most inmates can't afford their bail bonds, raising questions about how bonds are set, the policies and lobbying of the commercial bail-bond industry, and the decisions of prosecutors and judges, which may be harsher on the accused in rural areas, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the nonprofit Pretrial Justice Institute, said at a conference for journalists on rural jails last month.

Research shows that money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety, Burdeen said: “Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety.”

Some inmates stay in jail because they can't afford even “incredibly small bail amounts,” said G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of Trouble in the Heartland: Challenges Confronting Rural Jails.

The California bill, much like one Indiana passed two years ago, would require counties to create pretrial services agencies that would use a risk-assessment tool analysis, "to evaluate people booked into jail to determine whether, and under what conditions, they should be released," the Times reports.

Because of the Assembly amendments giving judges more discretion, some "criminal justice reform groups have rescinded their support and are actively working to kill the legislation — landing on the same side as a bail industry that has worked to sink the bill from the beginning," the Times reports. "The American Civil Liberties Union became the latest major supporter to move its stance from neutral to opposed on Monday. Three of its executive directors said the new bill fell short of its intended goals and would compromise the right to fair court proceedings for criminal defendants."

With SNAP and subsidies being negotiated in Farm Bill, how much does each have at stake in districts of negotiators?

As the House pushes for a Farm Bill that would put the first work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once called food stamps, The Daily Yonder did a deep data dive to see how many SNAP recipients and farm-program beneficiaries are in each district of the 48 House members on the conference committee that is reconciling the House and Senate versions.

"One of the key sticking points is SNAP," Bryce Oates and Tim Marema write. "The Senate bill calls for more oversight but does not expand the work requirement. . . . Some rural districts, particularly those with high volumes of row-crop production, had high levels of government payments to farmers. Many other predominantly rural districts had very low levels of government payments to farmers, documenting the somewhat limited geographic reach of farm support payments as economic stimulus. In non-farm dependent communities, SNAP benefits dwarf government payments to farmers and also reach a significantly higher number of households."

Daily Yonder maps; click on either one to view a larger version

Rural Mainstreet Index shows impact of tariffs; nearly 1/3 of bankers say they're turning down more farm loans

Creighton University's latest Rural Mainstreet Index is above growth-neutral for the seventh straight month because of an expanding economy outside of agriculture. "However, the negative impacts of recent trade skirmishes have begun to surface, weakening already anemic grain prices," said Ernie Goss, the economist who compiles the RMI. The RMI is a monthly survey of small bank CEOs in rural areas of 10 states with agriculture and energy-dependent economies: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Wyoming.
Creighton University graphic; click on the image to view a larger version.
Citing weak commodity prices and farm income, almost a third of bank CEOs reported rejecting more farm loans, and more than half support cutting the recent tariffs on Chinese products that prompted China to retaliate with tariffs on U.S. products such as soybeans and corn. Bankers also reported a decline in the sale of agriculture equipment, and expect sales to decline another 7.8 percent over the next year.

Jim Stanosheck, CEO of State Bank in Odell, Neb., told Goss: "The tariffs have and are costing our ag customers on grain prices and items they must purchase. Talking to one of my customers this morning, he thought that maybe the tariffs would bring about better prices in the future."

Creighton University graphic; click on the image to view a larger version.

California jury says Monsanto should pay $289 million to dying man who said Roundup helped cause his cancer

On Aug. 10 a San Francisco jury found that the Roundup helped cause a man's terminal cancer and slapped manufacturer Monsanto with $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Dewayne Johnson applied the herbicide 20 to 30 times a year while working as a school groundskeeper and was accidentally doused in it twice. Two years after the first such accident, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Holly Yan reports for CNN

It's impossible to prove what causes someone's cancer, but under California law Johnson only had to prove Roundup was a significant factor, and that Monsanto failed to warn consumers about its cancer risk. The World Health Organization ruled in 2015 that there is limited evidence to suggest that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans. Monsanto said in a statement after the verdict that many studies suggest Roundup, or its main ingredient glyphosate, do not cause cancer. Roundup is the most-used herbicide in the world and has been on the market for more than 40 years, Yan reports.

Though more than 800 people have filed such lawsuits against Monsanto, Johnson's is the first to go to trial because California allows plaintiffs to get an expedited trial if they are near death. The verdict may have spurred a flurry of new lawsuits against Monsanto and other companies, Yan reports.

Less than a week after the San Francisco verdict, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man sued Monsanto, claiming that the Roundup he used on his property for 23 years caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Nick Hytrek reports for the Sioux City Journal in Iowa. A class-action lawsuit was filed against General Mills in Florida a few days ago on the grounds that the company should have warned consumers about the presence of glyphosate in Cheerios, Elaine Watson reports for Food Navigator USA.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Rural influence could keep Dems from gaining the Senate even with a 'Blue Wave' in the midterm elections

New York Times map; click the image to enlarge it.
In the upcoming November elections, the battlegrounds for the House and Senate lie in different arenas. Only 14 of the most competitive House races are in states with highly competitive Senate races. "The Senate hinges on red, rural states where Democrats are on defense. But the House will be decided by swing, suburban seats where Republicans are highly vulnerable," David Wasserman writes for The New York Times. Wasserman is an editor at The Cook Political Report

That dichotomy could yield strange results in the midterms: "If every state’s and district’s election results on Nov. 6 were a uniform eight-point swing in the Democrats’ direction from the 2016 presidential result, Democrats would gain 44 House seats — almost twice the 23 they need to control the chamber," Wasserman writes. "But with that same eight-point swing, the party would lose four Senate seats, leaving them six seats short of a majority."

Wasserman concludes with a reference to the Senate as the rural chamber: "Whereas most House seats have roughly the same number of constituents, a majority of the Senate now represents just 18 percent of the nation’s population. And this fall, the Senate will come down to seats that are much whiter, more rural and pro-Trump than the nation as a whole. In effect, geography could again be Mr. Trump’s greatest protector: After all, the Senate — not the House — would have the final say on any impeachment proceedings."

Trump replacement for Clean Power Plan rolls back anti-coal rules, at its predicted price of more premature deaths

President Trump announced in West Virginia today the details of his new "Affordable Clean Energy" rule, which replaces President Obama's "Clean Power Plan." The new rule would help the coal industry by giving states more power to achieve lower emissions goals, but acknowledges that it would lead to more health problems and deaths.

Under ACE, states have three years to develop their own plans to reduce emissions to federal target levels, which are much less ambitious than those in Obama's CPP. It also allows states to establish emissions standards for coal-fired power plants. The Environmental Protection Agency "estimates that the measure will affect more than 300 U.S. plants, providing companies with an incentive to keep coal plants in operation rather than replacing them with cleaner natural gas or renewable energy projects," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post.

"Trump administration officials say the Clean Power Plan, in its effort to reduce carbon emissions, illegally tried to force electric utilities to use greener energy sources," Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times. "The new plan, they said, would achieve many of the benefits sought by the Obama administration but in a way that is legal and allows states greater flexibility." The plan would take effect after a 60-day comment period.

EPA's impact analysis acknowledges that the plan will allow more emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants than under the Obama plan. In the regulatory scenario that it deems most likely, EPA "predicts its plan will see between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 because of increased rates of microscopic airborne particulates . . . which are dangerous because of their link to heart and lung disease as well as their ability to trigger chronic problems like asthma and bronchitis," Friedman reports. "The Trump administration analysis finds that own its plan would see 48,000 new cases of exacerbated asthma and at least 21,000 new missed days of school annually by 2030 because those pollutants would increase in the atmosphere rather than decrease."

The premature mortality estimates come from a Harvard University study that "formed the backbone of federal air pollution regulations," but EPA is considering a separate rule that would restrict the use of studies for which raw data, including identifying personal details, can't be published. "Scientists overwhelmingly oppose the move, pointing out that participants in long-term health studies typically agree to take part only if their personal health information won’t be made public," Friedman notes. Because the Harvard study and many others are based on confidential health records, the EPA would not have to use them and in future studies would be able to claim a far lower estimated number of premature deaths from the energy plan, Friedman reports.

Feds to work more closely with states to combat wildfires

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last week that the Forest Service will work more closely with states to combat wildfires. The plan, possible because of increased funding from Congress, "focuses on working with state and tribal stakeholders to target localized preventive treatments, including prescribed burns, to areas most likely to benefit from them," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

The plan says wildfires have become a bigger problem partly because efforts to prevent and fight them have not been "uncoordinated, and not at the right scale." The plan also acknowledges that climate change is partially responsible, though "Perdue himself declined Thursday to attribute the growing risk of wildfires to man-made climate change," Queram reports. "Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did as well, noting at a cabinet meeting that the cause is unimportant because the Forest Service has to address the increased risk either way."

The Forest Service will begin enacting the plan by meeting with state and local stakeholders nationwide to see what their needs are and get feedback on the plan, Queram reports.

Rural Georgia faces doctor shortage; state legislature considers ideas but won't increase Medicaid reimbursement

Counties in black have no doctors; dark gray means no
pediatrician and no obstetrician/gynecologist; light gray
means no pediatrician or no ob/gyn. (AJC map)
As in many other states, rural Georgia is facing a doctor shortage: nine of its 159 counties have no doctor, 64 have no pediatricians, and 79 have no obstetrician-gynecologists. Georgia has more counties than any state but Texas, but is "worse than the national average for needy areas short of primary health-care providers, according to federal data assembled by the Kaiser Family Foundation," Ariel Hart reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Health outcomes for Georgia patients lag accordingly, with the state ranked among the worst 10 states for most measures." Lack of a nearby doctor means some of Georgia's 2.4 million rural residents don't have the time, money, or transportation to access medical care in a neighboring county. 

Though state legislators have formed health-care study committees and passed some laws, the shortage is still a problem. Rural medical providers often struggle because Medicare and Medicaid (with disporoportionately rural rolls) reimburse at lower rates than private insurance. The state's Republican-led legislature did not expand Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, saying the state couldn't afford it long-term. Some GOP legislators have said they would consider Medicaid expansion with a work requirement, Hart reports. 

Daniel Singleton, a rural doctor from Buena Vista in southwestern Georgia, told Hart that there would be more rural doctors if they were decently paid. But state Rep. Terry England, a Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and leads a two-year task force on rural development, said the state doesn't have the money to raise the Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates so that doctors don't lose money when they take such patients.

The money isn't the only problem, according to Singleton. Working in a rural area may not appeal to doctors who didn't grow up in rural areas. "Medicine is an elite profession," he told Hart. "Unless you’re a country boy from South Georgia, it’s very very difficult to motivate someone to come back and live in a place like this."

Monday, August 20, 2018

Farm Belt states squeezed by Trump policies may spell trouble for Republican candidates in November

Though President Trump is more popular in Farm Belt states than in the nation overall, his approval rating has fallen there as well because of the trade war with China and the administration's failure to adequately boost corn-based ethanol. That may hurt Republican party candidates in November, Jarrett Renshaw reports for Reuters.

In Iowa, the first state to vote in the primaries, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds told Renshaw, "The anxiety is starting to escalate. They are willing to give him some more time, but the window is closing and they have to see some movement somewhere to alleviate the pressure."

Farmers are getting squeezed several ways by Trump policies: tariffs on metal and aluminum have increased the price of equipment, and the tariffs China slapped on products such as hogs, corn and soybeans have caused farm export prices to drop. Iowa is the nation's top exporter of corn and pork, and the second-highest exporter of soybeans; it's also the top producer of corn-based ethanol.

Also, "Refiners are required by law to blend 15 billion gallons of biofuels yearly into the fuel supply, but the government has not increased that level for several years, causing domestic ethanol demand to flatline. To increase demand, farmers have asked Washington to rescind a ban on selling E15, a gasoline with higher levels of ethanol, in the summer, Renshaw reports. "That has not happened yet. Instead, over the last year, the industry has become embroiled in a related dispute with Washington. The White House has become more aggressive than the Obama administration in granting numerous requests from refiners seeking relief from having to blend, or pay for, the cost of adding biofuels to the nation's fuel supply. That undercuts demand for ethanol, farmers say."

Hospital management companies sued for Medicare billing schemes at five rural Oklahoma hospitals

Two hospital-management companies have been sued for allegedly fraudulent billing schemes run through five rural Oklahoma hospitals. Small rural hospitals are tempting targets for health-care companies looking to make extra money. It works like this: Medicare and some insurers reimburse hospitals for laboratory services at higher rates to help them stay open, so a company might buy a struggling rural hospital or sign up to manage it for a fee, and issue bills for laboratory services through that hospital, even if the lab services were done elsewhere.

Insurance giant Aetna has filed suit against People's Choice Hospitals, a management company that in May 2016 bought Newman Memorial Hospital in Shattuck, Okla. The hospital believed it had been tricked into an illegal billing scheme and sued People's Choice; the case was settled out of court. Aetna's lawsuit alleges fraud that it says cost it millions, Meg Wingerter reports for The Oklahoman.

Health Acquisition Co. is involved in several different lawsuits stemming from its billing practices at four hospitals it had a controlling interest in: Drumright Regional Hospital, Fairfax Community Hospital, Prague Community Hospital, and Haskell County Community Hospital. All four left Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma's provider network in February after the insurance company objected to their billing practices, Wingerter reports in a different article for The Oklahoman. 

One lawsuit names Empower HMS, a management company that shares ownership with HAC; lawsuits in other Florida and Missouri accuse Empower HMS owner Jorge Perez of fraud and other illegal conduct because of billing schemes. Perez has a stake in HAC and was once an executive in People's Choice, Wingerter reports.

West Virginia newspapers look for new owners to keep them going; WVU College of Media trying to help

Many aging editors of small rural newspapers, in West Virginia at least, are holding off retirement because they have no successor and don't want the paper to fold. In the Mountain State, which has 19 dailies and 54 weeklies, West Virginia Press Association Executive Director Don Smith said he'd received many phone calls from long-time owners looking for someone to take over, Mark Jurkowitz writes for Nieman Lab.

Smith and others didn't want to see these papers go out of business for lack of an editor. "So with some help from the state and a partnership with Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, the WVPA is launching an effort to replenish the shrinking pool of independent community publishers at a time when newspapers aren’t exactly flourishing family businesses to be passed through generations," Jurkowitz reports. "The plan has two basic components. One is to prepare veteran newspaper operators to effectively market and sell their properties. The flip side is to create a pipeline of younger, committed buyers who would become the next wave of community publishers. Most notably, that effort involves the creation of a college curriculum at WVU that might be the first 'publisher’s track' program offered in an academic setting."

WVU is also creating a master's degree program in Media Innovation and Solutions with a year-long fellowship in an effort to lure and train prospective editors. Smith said the problem isn't limited to West Virginia, but as far as he knows no one else has tried such an approach to help solve it, Jurkowitz reports.

Rural journalism institute director promoted to full professor

Al Cross
Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, has been promoted to full professor at the University of Kentucky. He had been a tenured associate professor in the college's School of Journalism and Media since 2011 and has directed the institute since its pilot phase ended with his hiring 15 years ago.

The former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and winner of its Wells Key, Cross has won numerous awards for his journalism and is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He is frequently quoted in national news stories about political issues, rural issues, and journalism, the Kentucky Press Association reports. He writes a fortnightly political column for the Louisville Courier Journal, where he was politicial writer before coming to the institute.

Cross is a professor in the university's Extension Title series, meaning most of his work is directed off campus, like College of Agriculture, Food and Environment specialists who help extension agents. He is the university's only full extension professor outside that college; he is in the College of Communication and Information. He says his short job description is "extension agent for rural journalists."

In addition to The Rural Blog, Cross edits and publishes Kentucky Health News, funded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and the Midway Messenger, with stories and photography by students in his community-journalism classes.

Dr. Mike Farrell, interim director of the journalism school, said the rural institute has been "a boon to journalism throughout Kentucky and rural communities everywhere, including Africa and Asia," referring to Cross's trips to Zambia, Botswana, India and China.

Cross is the author of several book chapters, most recently "Trump and non-metropolitan America: An urbanite saw a rural base where pollsters and journalists didn’t," in The Trump Presidency, Journalism and Democracy, a book published by Routledge in February. He is a graduate of Western Kentucky University and lives with his wife Patti in Frankfort.