Friday, August 31, 2018

Education Department says school officials have always been able to use federal money to buy teachers guns

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Friday that she has "no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff," a step that may allow state and local officials buy guns with funds from a grant program her department manages.

"Congress did not authorize me or the department to make those decisions," DeVos wrote, replying to a letter from Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia "and dozens of other Democratic lawmakers" concerned about the idea, Education Week reports.

In the school-safety package it passed in March, Congress said the money couldn't be used to buy guns, but that doesn't apply to Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, a program "that makes no mention of prohibiting weapons purchases," The New York Times reported last week.

The Times said DeVos could "use her discretion to approve any state or district plans to use grant funding for firearms and firearm training," but one of her top deputies told Maria Danilova of The Associated Press that states have always had the power to decide how to use the money.

Frank Brogan, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said arming educators “is a good example of a profoundly personal decision on the part of a school or a school district or even a state,” Danilova reports, adding, "President Donald Trump and DeVos have said that schools may benefit from having armed teachers and should have that option. . . . Democrats and education groups have argued, however, that the funds are intended for academics, not guns."

"Democrats said they were outraged" by the statements fo Brogan and DeVos, Kimberly Hefling and Michael Stratford report for Politico.

Fifth annual summit to improve Eastern Ky. economy convenes; region has improved, but progress is slow

While officials agree that Eastern Kentucky's economy has improved since the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit was held in 2013, "some of the summit’s most notable endeavors include factories not yet built, a state-led broadband project facing long delays, and efforts to curb a drug epidemic that continues to plague the region," Will Wright and Bill Estep report for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The fifth annual SOAR summit is being held today in Pikeville.

In response to plummeting coal employment and other woes in Eastern Kentucky, SOAR came up with a blueprint for the region's future that included "goals and strategies for transitioning to a more diverse and stable economy," Wright and Estep report.

Though regional unemployment fell from 11.5 percent in 2011 to 8.8 percent in 2016, the labor force has decreased from 216,000 to about 187,000 in that time, according to the East Kentucky Works Survey. Poverty rates in some counties have increased in recent years as well, according to data from the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.

SOAR officials acknowledge that progress has been slow, but Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, said that "that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep going, it means we should redouble our efforts."

There's a vaccine for a virus that causes sex-related cancer, but rural teens are less likely to get it or know about it

Cancers associated with the human papilloma virus are increasing, but rural teens are less likely to receive vaccinations that prevent HPV and other diseases, according to studies from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

HPV is a known cause of several cancers, including oropharyngeal (upper throat, the most common type associated with HPV), cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal. In an analysis of cancer registries that cover almost 98 percent of the U.S. population, the CDC found that 30,115 new cases of such cancers were reported in 1999 and 43,371 in 2015.

From 1999 through 2015, cancers of the upper-throat cancer increased among 2.7 percent among mena and 0.8 percent among women; anal cancer rates rose 2.1 percent among men and women 2.9 percent among women; and vulvar rates increased 1.3 percent, according to one study.

The other study found that HPV vaccination rates increased from 60.4 percent to 65.5 percent from 2016 to 2017, but rural teens remain less likely to know about HPV or the HPV vaccine, or to understand its role in cancer prevention. "Overall, 67.2 percent and 65.8 percent of urban residents were aware of HPV and HPV vaccine, respectively, compared to only 55.8 percent and 58.6 percent of rural residents," the researchers wrote.

Though newsprint tariffs are gone, printing and delivery costs are still heavy burdens for newspapers

Though the Trump administration's newsprint tariffs have been reversed by the International Trade Commission, "It’s essential to understand that they represent only a small part of the problem that daily newspaper publishers now face," Ken Doctor writes for NiemanLab. Doctor is a news industry analyst and former vice president of Knight Ridder Digital.

For one thing, newsprint is still pricey; the tariffs were responsible for only 30 percent of the recent price increase. Newsprint producers were responsible for the other two-thirds of it, hiking the price "because they could," Doctor writes.

It's unclear whether the price hikes will stick, especially since the face of the industry has changed in recent years: "Publishers use maybe a third of the newsprint they used in the year 2000, according to industry analysts," Doctor writes. "That means the mills themselves, as suppliers to a receding industry, have consolidated. There are fewer owners, fewer mills, and less supply. Consequently, publishers who might have tried to play three suppliers off against each other in days gone by no longer can."

The tariffs, which caused many papers to cut pages and sections, made the problem worse: "As publishers cut back on newsprint, cutting sections and pages, they worsened their value proposition with their best and most loyal, high-paying customers: their print subscribers. Even subscribers who were loyal for decades are cancelling," Doctor writes.

Publishers are trying to shift away from print revenues but still depend on them. "And so we have expense cuts, which will only deepen in 2019," Doctor writes. "Newspaper companies have been cutting expenses literally for a decade, and it’s not clear how much more there is to cut."

Net U.S. farm income is expected to drop 13 percent this year, marking sixth straight year of decline

Money in billions. (USDA chart; click on itto enlarge it.)
U.S. farmers are expected to earn $65.7 billion in net income in 2018, which is $9.8 billion less than the $75.5 billion they earned in 2017, according to new figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. Net farm income includes depreciation, rental income, and changes in inventory.

"In comparison to better days, net farm income in 2013 was $123.8 billion before the numbers began trending downward. 2018 is higher the recent floor, which was $61.6 billion in 2016," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "A narrower figure, "net cash farm income," is projected to fall $12.4 billion to $91.5 billion for the year. Net cash farm income takes into account cash receipts from farming as well as government payments, minus cash expenses."

Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 9-15; with rates rising, it shouldn't be a taboo topic for rural news media, editor says

Sept. 9-15 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and it's more important than it used to be because suicide rates are increasing. For people under 35, only unintentional injury is a greater cause of death.

Rural communities are stepping up their efforts around suicide prevention and awareness.

Photo provided to West Kentucky Star by
Four Rivers Behavioral Health
The West Kentucky Star reported in April that local officials concerned about the number of people attempting suicide by jumping off bridges put up bright red signs at the foot of several area bridges that say: "You Are Not Alone" and give the number and website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Samantha Powell, a certified prevention specialist at Four Rivers Behavioral Health’s Regional Prevention Center, told the Star, “It’s amazing how just a little thing like a sign can mean all the difference to someone contemplating suicide. To know there is a call they can make and someone will listen is a very effective prevention tool. I have read research about the success of signs like this from the QPR Institute and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and we decided that we could take a similar approach.”

Help is available for anyone who is thinking about suicide or knows someone who is considering it. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential support and answers calls throughout the day and night at 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line is also available 24/7 by texting HOME to 741741.

Jim Pumarlo, a former newspaper editor who writes a column for community journalists, writes in his most recent piece that they should consider approaching families of suicide victims for stories about the phenomenon.

"The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore," Pumarlo writes. "Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information."

Studies show stories about suicide may influence others to attempt it, so it's important to follow some simple guidelines when writing about it.

In its "Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals" guide, the World Health Organization notes that suicide imitation behavior resulting from media coverage is often related to how long the suicide is covered, the intensity and repetition of the coverage, and the amount of detail given about the suicide and the individual involved.

The guide offers great detail on the best ways for reporters to write about suicide, but offers these suggestions as a quick reference:

• Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide
• Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems • Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
• Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
• Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
• Word headlines carefully
• Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
• Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
• Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
• Provide information about where to seek help
• Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide

Other resources for reporting on suicide can be found on the Reporting on Suicide website and the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. The Association of Health Care Journalists has also put together a tip sheet to help journalist responsibly write about suicide.

Here are American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggestions on how to write about suicide (click on the image for a larger version):

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Growing shortage of rural law enforcement in California endangers public and officers; what about your state?

Number of rural deputies per 100 square miles
(McClatchy map, click here to view the interactive version.)
A McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that California's rural counties face a growing shortage of law-enforcement officers that endangers the public -- and the officers. "Similar results would likely be found in many other states," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

 Four McClatchy reporters compared crime rates and law-enforcement staffing in 25 rural counties (as defined by the California Communities Program) and compared them with the state's urban counties. They interviewed residents, sheriffs and deputies in 20 counties.

"Departments in multiple jurisdictions are operating with skeleton staffs . . . pushing response times into hours, or sometimes leaving residents without a response at all," Anita Chabria, Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese report. "When law enforcement does arrive in many outlying places, it’s often a single officer cut off from backup and, in some cases, communication with her or his department."

These rural counties account for 41 percent of the state's land but only 4 percent of the population, meaning a dwindling number of deputies have to cover hundreds of miles alone. "Data analysis showed the number of sworn deputies in these rural California counties has dropped by 8 percent in the last decade, when sheriff’s department staffing in urban counties declined by only 2 percent," McClatchy reports. "In 2008, 1,758 sworn deputies worked in rural counties, according to the California Department of Justice. By 2017, that number had dropped to 1,610. The decrease may not sound drastic, but the loss of those deputies has pushed some already overworked departments to a tipping point in service, sheriffs and others said."

The summary offered by Sheriff Mike Poindexter of Modoc County, in the state's northeastern corner, exemplified more than a dozen rural sheriffs McClatchy interviewed: "We have no money. We have no people . . . We don't have near enough people. We just don't."

Gun ownership most significant factor in higher rural suicide rates; Bend Bulletin looks at Oregon's situation

The suicide rate is 50 percent higher in Oregon's rural counties than in their urban counterparts. Researchers have tried to figure out the reasons for the discrepancy for years, and though some of the reasons they posited, such as despair, poverty, and lack of mental-health services play a role, the most significant factor seems to be the far higher number of guns in rural areas, reports Markian Hawryluk of The Bulletin in Bend, just east of the Cascade Mountains, the state's urban-rural divide.

More than 80 percent of gun deaths in Oregon are suicides, exceeding the nationwide rate of about 66 percent. In 2017, more than 400 Oregonians died from firearm suicides, about half in rural areas, Hawryluk reports. Guns are the weapon of choice; Oregon had 762 total suicides in 2017, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide-rate disparities between urban and rural areas all but vanish when firearm suicides are removed from the picture, according to several studies. "The fact is, even more than depression or substance abuse, the strongest predictor of how likely a person is to die from suicide is a gun in the home," Don Gross, former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, wrote in a recent report.

Hawryluk notes that gun owners are not more likely to attempt suicide, but if they do attempt suicide with a gun they're much more likely to die; only 10 percent of people survive such an attempt, compared to a 97 percent survival rate for those who swallow pills or cut themselves.

Trying to restrict guns has only led to a greater political divide. "That’s spawned a new approach to preventing firearm suicides. Public health proponents are now reaching out to gun enthusiasts to try to find common ground," Hawryluk reports. "They are seeking to penetrate one of the most widespread subcultures in the United States, to gain their trust and to learn how bitter rivals can work together towards a common goal: keeping gun owners alive."

Last year the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Shooting Sports Foundation tried just that, developing suicide prevention materials to be distributed across the nation to gun shops, shooting ranges and other places guns are likely to be present, Hawryluk reports.

"Guns are such an integral part of the social fabric, particularly in rural America, that many have come to believe reducing access to lethal means will not be accomplished through decree or legislative mandate," Hawryluk reports. "Instead, they are appealing to at-risk individuals and their families to temporarily store their guns outside of their homes or otherwise make those firearms inaccessible until a person at risk for suicide has recovered."

Algae problem plaguing Great Lakes in recent summers shows up in Lake Superior; warming, fertilizer blamed

An unusually large algae bloom in Lake Superior has locals worried about its impact on recreation revenue. In early August scientists began hearing reports of a thick carpet of algae along a 50-mile stretch of the lake's southern shore popular with tourists, between Duluth and the Apostle Islands. Robert Sterner, director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said he and his team think it's the largest, most intense bloom yet," and that, while the algae in Lake Superior can become toxic, tests haven't found any toxins in dangerous concentrations, Christine Hunter reports for The New York Times.

Lake Erie has faced the same summertime problem for several years. Last week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that parts of th lake aren't suitable for recreation because of algae. In 2014 the bloom got so bad that Toledo had to shut down its water plant after toxic algae formed over the water-intake pipe in the lake, Hunter reports.

Algae blooms have been getting worse and more widespread in recent years, fed by climate change and fertilizer runoff from farms. Recent high-profile examples include blooms off the Louisiana coast, in the Finger Lakes in New York, in Utah Lake south of Salt Lake City, off the West Coast in 2015 and off the southwest coast of Florida this summer. Some blooms turn toxic, stinking up the beaches and killing wildlife.

Donald Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, told Hunter that algae blooms in fresh water have "exploded" and salt-water blooms are increasing. He told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this week that algae blooms are a "national problem" and that "their increasing frequency and intensity are impacting the economics and environmental health of communities, states, tribes and regions around the nation."

Here's a map of current temperatures in the Great Lakes, with Duluth and the Apostle Islands labeled:

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Newspaper group ad quotes McCain supporting a free press

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association created an advertisement featuring the late U.S. Sen. John McCain strongly endorsing freedom of the press. Here's a version distributed by the Missouri Press Association to its member newspapers. Papers in other states can likewise replace the logo with their own, say officials of the Pennsylvania and Missouri associations. Download a PNG here.

Attempted Vatican 'coup' rooted in accuser's setup of pope's meeting with clerk who refused to issue same-sex licenses

Pope Francis and County Clerk Kim Davis (Images from CNN)
For an archbishop whose accusations are splitting the Roman Catholic Church, his unhealable breach with Pope Francis began when he arranged for the pope to meet the rural county clerk who had gone to jail for contempt of court after she refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, reports Jason Horowitz of The New York Times.

"An abuse survivor with whom Francis has spoken at length said the pope recently told him" that Archbishop Carlo Viganò, then the papal nuncio (ambassador) to the U.S. "nearly sabotaged the visit" of the pope in 2015 by arranging a meet-and-greet with Kim Davis, the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, the Times reports. Davis said Francis told her, "Thank you for your courage." But the Vatican said later that the meeting shouldn't be considered an expression of support for her stand. Davis, a former Democrat, is running for re-election this fall as a Republican.

Abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz quoted Pope Francis as saying of Davis and Viganò, “I didn’t know who that woman was, and he snuck her in to say hello to me — and of course they made a whole publicity out of it. And I was horrified, and I fired that nuncio.” Actually, as CNN reports, "Two years later, Francis quietly accepted Viganò's resignation. . . . During his trip to the United States, the pope had tried to stay above the country's culture wars. Viganò foisted Francis right into the fray."

Viganò (Pool photo by Rex Arbogast)
Last week Viganò wrote a 7,000-word letter that called for the pope's resignation, "accusing him of covering up sexual abuse and giving comfort to a ' homosexual current' in the Vatican," Horowitz notes. "The letter exposed deep ideological clashes, with conservatives taking up arms against Francis’ inclusive vision of a church that is less focused on divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality. But Archbishop Viganò — who himself has been accused of hindering a sexual misconduct investigation in Minnesota — also seems to be settling old scores. . . . Known for his short temper and ambition, Archbishop Viganò has clashed with superiors who stunted his ascent in the church and has played a key role in some of the most stunning Vatican scandals of recent times."

Francis said, "I will not say a single word about this. I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the sufficient journalistic ability to make your conclusions. It's an act of trust." CNN Religion Editor Burke writes, "While journalists dig for the truth, and the pope keeps silent, Vigano's letter has emerged as a sort of Rorschach test for Catholics: Many conservative Catholics say the pope must go. Liberal Catholics accuse the archbishop of launching a coup d'etat against his boss."

UPDATE, Sept. 2: Viganò is contradicting the pope's account of the Washington meeting, saying "The pope knew very well who Davis was, and he and his close collaborators had approved the private audience." At the meeting, Viganò wrote, Francis "embraced her affectionately, thanked her for her courage and invited her to persevere."

Trade commission completely reverses newsprint tariffs, called 'the greatest existential threat to newspapers, ever'

The International Trade Commission voted unanimously today to nullify the tariffs on Canadian newsprint, after finding that American newsprint producers were not harmed by such imports.

"The ruling is a victory for the U.S. newspaper industry, which complained that the rising cost of newsprint made it harder to operate and required them to trim the size of papers or lay off employees," Kevin Freking reports for The Associated Press.

The tariffs were unpopular with lawmakers from both parties as well as newspapers that were forced to reduce production or lay off staff to cope with the increased costs. The tariffs were announced Jan. 8 in response to a complaint from a paper mill in Washington state that had recently been purchased by New York City hedge fund. 

The Commerce Department gave papers some breathing room earlier this month, ruling that it would proceed with the tariffs at lower rates (for most mills; some got an increase) and on a smaller scale than initially announced. The ITC's reason for completely reversing the tariffs will likely be made clearer when the commission issues a final report on Sept. 17, according to Paul Boyle, senior vice president of the News Media Alliance, large newspapers' main lobbying group.

NMA President David Chavern said, “Today is a great day for American journalism. The I.T.C.’s decision will help to preserve the vitality of local newspapers and prevent additional job losses in the printing and publishing sectors. The end of these unwarranted tariffs means local newspapers can focus once again on playing a vital role in our democracy by keeping citizens informed and connected to the daily life of their communities.”

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, hailed the move, saying "These tariffs had proven to be the greatest existential threat to newspapers, ever."

UPDATE: Newspaper consultant Kevin Slimp writes on his State of Newspapers site, "After an appropriate period of celebration, let me suggest that we step back and take a look at what we’ve learned through this experience. What did we learn about the influence we have as community newspapers. Don’t kid yourself. It wasn’t the editorials in the big dailies that got the attention of decision makers. . . . My question is, 'Now that we realize we still have significant influence, how are we going to use this knowledge?' . . .

"I’m hoping I hear from fewer newspaper owners who feel like they 'have to' sell their newspapers right away. The number one reason I’ve heard from these owners is 'the increased cost of newsprint.' Maybe newspapers run by venture capitalist firms will pull back from the idea of 'pursuing efficiencies' (code words for reducing staff and cutting pages)."

700,000 rural homes to get broadband after FCC auction; 33 rural electric co-ops, now eligible, get part of the package

"More than 700,000 U.S. homes and small businesses in unserved rural America will get broadband internet connectivity as part of a just-completed auction overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. Broadband service to these currently unserved areas in 45 states – the equivalent of as many 1.7 million Americans – will be subsidized in part by about $1.5 billion in federal funds over the next 10 years," Mike Snider reports for USA Today.

The FCC created the reverse auction to encourage providers to build out broadband to underserved areas. In such an auction, bidders that promise to deliver the best service with the least amount of FCC subsidies win the right to build out that region. More than 220 companies put in bids, but since those bids totaled $1.488 billion, far less than the $2 billion the FCC allocated for the program, the remaining $500 million will go to future efforts for rural connectivity, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.

The FCC reports that more than half of the locations to be served by auction winners will get download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, about 20 percent will get 1-gigabit service, and almost all the rest will get at least 25 Mbps, John Eggerton reports for Multichannel News.

The FCC allowed rural electric cooperatives to bid for funding as broadband service providers for the first time, and 33 co-ops took partnered to win a $220 million bid for the right to bring broadband to rural areas in their states, Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse. The co-ops are in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Here's a list, from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Student's murder, allegedly by undocumented farmworker, draws fresh attention to agriculture's reliance on them

The recent murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts has drawn fresh attention to the common practice of hiring undocumented immigrants as farmworkers, Alan Gomez reports for USA Today. Cristhian Rivera, who has been charged with the jogger's murder, is an undocumented Mexican immigrant who worked at Yarrabee Farms near Brooklyn, Iowa. The Labor Department conservatively estimates that 47 percent of the nation's 1.4 million field workers -- about 685,000 workers -- are undocumented. Mostly because of farm lobbies, lawmakers have treated farmworkers more gingerly than other undocumented immigrants. For instance, a bipartisan immigration bill that failed in 2013 would have given farmworkers and their families legal status and a path to citizenship.

"Many Republicans are citing Tibbetts' death as a reason to pass a bill requiring all U.S. companies to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of all job applicants. But even that bill – the Legal Workforce Act filed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas – gives farmers 2½ years before they must start vetting their field workers, the only such exception," Gomez reports.

But farmers and other business owners that rely on the undocumented say they're already struggling to find enough legal workers, and that requiring them to use E-Verify without any other changes to the immigration system would hurt them. "Farmers across the country saw exactly what would happen if the government took an enforcement-only approach after Arizona passed an anti-immigration bill in 2010, leading a half-dozen states to follow suit," Gomez reports. "The laws, which included the requirement that all businesses use the E-Verify system, sent undocumented immigrants out of those states in droves." 

Finding legal immigrants or native-born Americans to fill the gap has been unsuccessful. Farmers say the solution is a nationwide guest-worker program that eliminates some of the bureaucratic headaches of the current H2A visa program for farmworkers, Gomez reports.

Analysis shows coal workers could be retrained for solar power jobs with 'relatively minor investment'

An analysis by Joshua M. Pearce, professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Technological University, says coal workers could be retrained for solar power jobs with potentially higher salaries for a "relatively minor investment." His article was originally published on The Conversation, and republished on The Daily Yonder.

Census Bureau to host webinar Sept. 6 on release of 2017 American Community Survey's local statistics

The Census Bureau will hold a free webinar from 1 to 2 p.m. ET Sept. 6 to discuss the Sept. 13 release of the 2017 American Community Survey statistics, which provide valuable economic, housing and other demographic information about rural communities. Embargo subscribers will be able to access the statistics at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11.

Webinar participants will learn how to access new data and online resources from the 2017 survey, how to compare statistics over time, and will also learn about changes related to the new release. Click here to sign up for the webinar.

The Census Bureau's press release describes why the survey is important: "The American Community Survey provides a wide range of important statistics about people and housing for every community in the nation. This survey is the only source of local estimates for most of the 40 topics it covers for communities across the nation. For example, it produces statistics for language, education, commuting, employment, mortgage status and rent, as well as income, poverty and health insurance. The one-year statistics will be available for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, every congressional district, and all counties and places with populations of 65,000 or more."

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

EPA to end special focus on pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations, oil and gas production sites

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to stop focusing on enforcing pollution rules for certain industries such as concentrated animal feeding operations and the oil and gas industry, and instead prioritize broader compliance with environmental problems like air pollution. Because the new plan includes expanded opportunities for industries to self-report, some fear it signals weakening enforcement, Mike Soraghan reports for Energy & Environment News.

"This initiative historically focused on one industrial sector, implying that the EPA considers all problems in this sector — large or small — to be a priority," EPA enforcement chief Susan Bodine wrote in a letter this week to the agency's regional administrators. Under the new approach, "an animal feeding operation that contributes to water quality impairment or an oil and gas facility that contributes to non-attainment with air quality standards or that creates exposures to air toxics would be a priority because of those impacts, not because of the industry sector."

Instead of focusing on enforcing rules on certain industries to meet agency goals, the EPA plans to work more with states and tribes to give them options for how to best comply with those goals, Soraghan reports. Those goals are:
  • Keeping industrial pollutants out of the nation's waters
  • Preventing animal waste from contaminating surface and ground water
  • Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of our nation's waters
  • Reducing air pollution from the largest sources
  • Reducing risks of accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities
  • Cutting hazardous air pollutants
  • Ensuring energy extraction activities comply with environmental laws
  • Reducing toxic air emissions from hazardous waste facilities
Bodine said two of those goals, "Reducing air pollution from the largest sources" and "Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of our nation's waters," will end after the coming fiscal year because they are both nearly complete, Soraghan reports.

"The move comes amid other efforts at the agency to present a friendlier face to industries, including oil and gas," Soraghan reports. "For example, Bodine is expanding to the oil field a program that waives or reduces penalties for companies that self-report air emissions violations. Farmers and rural voters were a key constituency for Trump in his 2016 election bid. Oil companies have become key backers since he took office and began promoting an 'energy dominance' agenda. Both groups complained bitterly about regulatory overreach by the Obama administration."

USDA to pay commodity and hog farmers $4.7 billion to compensate for effects of trade war with China

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced more details Monday of the program meant to help commodity farmers suffering from the effects of the trade war with China. Soybean farmers will receive most of the combined $4.7 billion in funds from "market facilitation payments." Sign-ups to receive the funds will begin Sept. 4, but farmers will have to show how much their farms produced, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Payments are based on 50 percent of a farmer's production this year, multiplied by the payment rates below:
  • Soybeans: $1.65 a bushel; total payments expected, $3.7 billion
  • Sorghum: 86 cents a bushel; total payments expected, $156 million
  • Wheat: 14 cents a bushel; total payments expected, $119 million
  • Corn: 1 cent a bushel; total payments expected, $96 million
  • Cotton: 6 cents a pound; total payments expected, $277 million
Hog farmers will be paid $8 a head for 50 percent of the pigs they owned on Aug. 1, with total pork producer payments expected to reach $290 million, Clayton reports. The money comes from USDA's Commodity Credit Corp., which is authorized by law to borrow up to $30 billion to help adjust agricultural markets.

Opioid crackdown means some can't get needed meds

Because of crackdowns on opioid prescriptions to combat the opioid epidemic, some patients who say they legitimately need those prescriptions say they're unable to get them. "Some said they coped by using medical marijuana or CBD oil, an extract from marijuana or hemp plants; others turned to illicit street drugs despite the fear of buying fentanyl-laced heroin linked to soaring overdose-death numbers," Brianna Ehley reports for Politico.

Jon Fowlkes, a former law enforcement officer who took OxyContin to help with excruciating back pain from a motorcycle crash, said his doctor abruptly refused to renew his prescription. He told Ehley he contemplated suicide because he couldn't live with the pain, but was able to find a doctor willing to prescribe the drug blamed for starting the epidemic of addiction and overdoses. He worries what will happen if that doctor also stops -- not an idle fear, Ehly reports, since President Trump has set a goal of cutting prescriptions by a third over the next three years and has stepped up prosecution of doctors who inappropriately prescribe narcotics, including opioids (synthetic opiates).

Stories like Fowlkes' "illustrate the unintended consequences of efforts to suddenly reverse years of loose prescribing practices that fueled an addiction crisis — and why so many of the estimated 25 million Americans suffering from chronic pain feel angry and forsaken," Ehly reports. "While studies suggest that other therapies are safer and more effective for many chronic conditions, large numbers of these patients are now hooked on the narcotics and on the relief they say they get from constant, grinding pain."

Doctors and pharmacists acknowledged those fears, but told Ehly they're under great pressure to limit such prescriptions and fear losing their licenses or going to prison. Some said they chose to no longer treat patients with chronic pain because of those risks.

"Jianguo Cheng, president of the board for the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said that besides being scared, many doctors are also fed up with time-consuming requirements, including pill counting, where a patient brings her prescribed medication to the clinic so the doctor can make sure they aren’t being misused. Doctors also have to order regular urine tests to detect abuse," Ehly reports. "And few are trained how to safely wean someone off opioids. Some patients told him their doctors failed to treat their withdrawal symptoms, and they were sick for weeks after being tapered off their painkillers."

Rural areas need more higher education centers to serve students too far away from college, writer argues

A college degree can be the key to better paying jobs for rural residents, but as many as 41 million adults in the U.S. live 25 miles or more away from the nearest college or university, or live where one community college is the only source of higher education nearby. And 3 million of those rural residents lack broadband internet too, according to the Urban Institute.

That distance can make the difference in whether or not someone decides to go to college or is able to finish a degree. "The impact goes beyond would-be students themselves. Communities that lack local colleges and universities also often lag in economic development, as they miss out on the spin-off start-up businesses and cultural amenities that institutions of higher education often create and that are increasingly necessary for attracting upscale residents and businesses," Anne Kim writes for Inside Higher Ed. Kim is director of domestic policy at the liberal-leaning Progressive Policy Institute and a contributing editor at Washington Monthly, a nonprofit publication known for its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities. (The latest, just issued, ranked Kentucky's Berea College, which serves Appalachian students, tops among liberal arts schools.)

"Growing up in an 'education desert' thus not only makes it harder to attend college, but also means there are fewer opportunities for upward mobility in your hometown even if you do graduate," Kim writes. "The richest 10 percent of the nation’s zip codes are predominantly college-rich metro areas, urban and suburban, with the best educated residents, while a majority of the poorest zip codes are rural."

It's not feasible to establish a college in every rural area that lacks one, but some states have opened what they call "higher education centers": small brick-and-mortar anchors for colleges to offer online and in-person instruction and sometimes, occupational training that caters to the needs of local businesses. They essentially serve as "pop-up satellite campuses, community colleges and training agencies rolled into one," Kim writes.

Such higher education centers won't cater to every rural student's needs, since they offer a limited array of courses, and are still out of the price range of many students. But the model could be expanded upon and, with state and/or federal help, could go a long way toward eliminating higher education deserts, Kim writes.

Higher rural cancer deaths blamed on lack of access to care

Research has established that rural cancer patients have worse outcomes than their urban counterparts, with 180.4 deaths per 100,000 versus 157.8 cancer deaths in urban areas. Some have posited that the disparity arises from factors such as health literacy, socioeconomic status, or poor lifestyle choices. But a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the biggest problem is lack of access to medical care.

The study looked at nearly 37,000 cancer patients from across the country enrolled in clinical trials over 26 years, and found that the disparity all but vanished when rural and urban patients were enrolled in the same trials. "If rural and urban patients with cancer receiving similar care also have similar outcomes, then a reasonable inference is that the best means by which to improve outcomes for rural patients with cancer may be to improve their access to quality care," the researchers wrote.

The researchers made five recommendations for physician leaders and health-care organizations to help close the mortality gap between rural and urban cancer patients:
  • Improve access to affordable health insurance
  • Expand access to screening and prevention tools
  • Boost access to oncology specialists
  • Increase transportation resources for rural patients who travel long distances to access quality care
  • Adopt innovation care networks to give rural patients access to new treatments and clinical trials
The researchers also said the National Cancer Institute's National Community Oncology Research Program could serve as a helpful model for other organizations trying to increase rural access to clinical trials, Chris Cheney reports for HealthLeaders.

Monday, August 27, 2018

U.S. and Mexico reach preliminary agreement on auto trade; deal doesn't include Canada or address other NAFTA issues

The United States and Mexico have reached a preliminary trade deal on automobiles that will revise key parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement and, for now, excludes Canada. President Trump said today that the deal is called the United States-Mexico Trade Agreement and said he wanted to get rid of the term NAFTA, which he said has a "bad connotation" for the U.S., Ana Swanson and Katie Rogers report for The New York Times.

"The U.S.-Mexico deal would require 75 percent of auto content to be made in the NAFTA region, up from the current level of 62.5 percent, a second U.S. official said. A draft fact sheet specified the content would be made in the United States and Mexico," Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason report for Reuters."The deal also would require 40 percent to 45 percent of auto content to be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour, the second official said."

Outgoing Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said in a series of tweets that he has spoken to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and is working toward a trilateral agreement with the U.S. and Canada by the end of the week, a previously set deadline. President Trump appeared ambivalent about the prospect; he said he would call Trudeau 'very soon' but then complained about Canadian tariffs on American dairy products and threatened to retaliate with tariffs to Canadian car imports.

"While Canada has not been a party to recent discussions, the potential for a two-country deal appears highly unlikely, given opposition by Mexico, American lawmakers and North American industries whose supply chains rely on all three countries," Swanson and Rogers report. "Instead, Mr. Trump’s threats against Canada could prove to be a negotiating tactic. Both Mexican and American officials have said they hope their progress encourages Canada to come back to the negotiations quickly."

The Washington Post reports, "Even if a deal does ultimately make its way to Capitol Hill, Congress is certain to struggle to pass it given divisions over trade in both parties. The difficulties would only increase if the pact is not finalized before the November midterm elections and Democrats retake control of the House. If Canada doesn’t sign off, it is unclear what Trump might do, as he has threatened to try to cancel the entire trade pact."

Officials: Job Corps not helping create job-ready workers

Though it has some notable success stories, a program started in 1964 to train mostly rural and urban high-school students and dropouts to learn trades is "incapable of meeting the demands of a national shortage of job-ready workers" according to those familiar with it, Glenn Thrush reports for The New York Times.

Labor secretaries since the Reagan era have been promising to reform Job Corps, which has a $1.7 billion annual budget. The Labor Department's inspector general said in April that "Job Corps could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes," and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told Thrush the program needs "fundamental reform."

About 50,000 students enroll every year, and each student costs taxpayers $15,000 to $45,000. President Trump attempted to cut funding for the program but was unsuccessful, partially because of the program's broad bipartisan support.

"Progressives see it as an enduring commitment to the poor rooted in a golden age of liberalism. Conservative lawmakers support Job Corps because it encourages low-income young people to work hard," Thrush writes. "The website for the trade association of Job Corps contractors is plastered with pictures of smiling politicians from both parties. The centerpiece is a snapshot of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, hugging a Job Corps student in Morganfield — one of seven centers in his home state. During the Obama administration, budget officials floated the idea of shuttering a handful of the lowest-performing centers, according to former aides. The idea ran into immediate resistance from members of Congress in both parties. In the end, officials succeeded in closing only three, two of them underutilized rural forestry service sites in Arkansas and Oklahoma."

Study says a much more comprehensive approach is needed to fight the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths

A study just published in the American Journal of Public Health says U.S. policies are not doing enough to curb the opioid epidemic, and predicts that 510,000 Americans will die from opioid-related causes over the next decade. Using mathematical models and expert opinions, the researchers assessed the likely impact of different policy initiatives on the epidemic. Though some policies will help more than others, the researchers say no single policy will end the epidemic on its own, so a much more comprehensive approach is needed.

“The model, for example, estimated that wider availability of naloxone could reduce opioid-related deaths by 21,200 over 10 years; that medication-based treatments for opioid addiction like buprenorphine and methadone would reduce deaths by 12,500; and that reductions in painkiller prescribing for acute pain would reduce deaths by 8,000,” German Lopez reports for Vox. “On the harm-reduction and treatment front, the model suggested that several interventions — more naloxone, more needle exchanges, more medication-based treatment, and more psychosocial treatment — would have unambiguously good effects, reducing both heroin and painkiller deaths over the next 10 years. But none of them would have giant effects on their own.”

Some interventions could trigger an increase in overdoses of other drugs even as they reduce painkiller deaths. When addicts lose access to prescription opioids, some begin using illegal opioids like heroin or fentanyl and may overdose on them, Lopez reports.

Corp. for Public Broadcasting board member: U.S. money should be steered to public radio and TV for local journalism

Increasing layoffs in the news business, and the news deserts than are resulting, are a plausible threat to democracy, Howard Husock writes for The Wall Street Journal. Husock is the vice president of free-market think tank the Manhattan Institute and a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board.

New Jersey is trying to preserve community news coverage by providing $5 million in grant funding for local journalism, but Husock doesn't think the plan to disburse those funds through a board of political appointees and university representatives is exactly independent journalism. There’s a better way, he writes: Change the federal Public Broadcasting Act so that the $445 million subsidy for “public media” can be diverted to local public radio and TV stations, which now have to spend 23 percent of their grant money to buy Public Broadcasting Service programs.

“A shift toward local journalism would be in line with the path many of the best public broadcasters have already blazed," Husock writes. "New York’s WNYC, Boston’s WBUR, Dallas’s KERA and San Francisco’s KQED have all transformed themselves into local news powerhouses thanks to local financial support. WBUR alone has a newsroom staff of more than 100, and WNYC’s ratings exceed those of its commercial competitors. These are serious, independent newsrooms.”

He adds, “Any station that wants to survive will have no choice but to develop local content. National programs will increasingly be delivered directly to your smartphone or tablet, bypassing the cable box or FM dial. PBS Kids is already an app. So is NPR programming. Why would local stations want to send their federal funds to NPR and PBS, given this new distribution technology? Letting local stations keep their federal funds would help local citizens understand local issues. It would lead to more culturally and politically diverse offerings, some of which would make their way on to national outlets such as NPR and PBS.”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Group of weeklies in Northern California county are selling stock to their readers; apparently a first in the U.S.

The Healdsburg Tribune is Sonoma West's
flagship paper. (NYT photo by Cayce Clifford)
A weekly newspaper company in Sonoma County, California, has apparently become the first in the country to sell stock to its readers in an effort to stay afloat. The effort is having success, but the publisher thinks it would work mainly in places like Sonoma: wealthy, liberal and fearful that President Trump's attacks on the news media are undermining democracy. Maybe, maybe not.

Rollie Atkinson, whose Sonoma West Publishers owns four papers with a total circulation of about 10,000 in a county that is also served by The Press Democrat, a daily in Santa Rosa. He got the idea from an online news site in Berkeley and has collected a fourth of his $400,000 goal, Tim Arnago reports for The New York Times. The offering ends in March.

Rick Theis, retired from the local wine industry, put up $5,000. He told Arango that he opens his notifications from the Times “with dread. What did our infamous president do now? . . . I really depend on the small community newspaper. They at least have trained journalists reporting the news, which social media does not.” Retired Press Democrat reporter Mary Fricker "said the national mood had not been behind her decision to invest," Arango reports, quoting her: “I grieve every day over what’s happened to journalism, especially newspapers. I need to put my money where my mouth is.”

Poynter Institute media-business analyst Rick Edmonds said he knew of no other paper with such a stock offering, and "Atkinson was quick to stress that he did not believe a stock offering would work for many other local newspapers, especially those that are not in wealthy areas like Sonoma County, or have the same kind of older readership with liberal leanings," Arango writes. "Now that he has an influx of money, however, one of the first things he plans to do is raise salaries for his staff, which has eight newsroom employees. Reporters have been making $15 an hour, a rate that California has decided will be its minimum wage in a few years." Atkinson said, “That’s not because I’m stingy. That’s because it’s all we could afford.”