Friday, September 14, 2018

New TV series explores history of rural Georgia churches

Stinchcomb Methodist Church in Elbert County, Georgia. (Photo by Randy Clegg)
Rural churches were once central to their communities, but many have been abandoned as people move to cities. Georgia Public Broadcasting has started a six-part series called Saving Grace, which explores Southern history through the lens of rural churches with interviews, first-person accounts, old maps, photos and engravings, and roots music. The full episode of the first part is available here.

The GPB series is based on the work of Sonny Seals and George Hart. In 2012 they made it their mission to chronicle and preserve historic rural churches across the state. Their website, Historical Rural Churches of Georgia, documents more than two hundred churches with gorgeous photography and carefully researched histories. It's worth a read.

Daily webinars on farm safety scheduled next week, which is National Farm Safety and Health Week

Next week is National Farm Safety and Health Week, and the AgriSafe Network is observing the occasion with free webinars each day on topics related to farm safety:
  • Monday: New Immigrants in the Midwest and Agricultural Health Implications
  • Tuesday: Respiratory Health and Personal Protective Equipment for Ag Producers
  • Wednesday: Children and Tractors: Myths, Facts, or “Other”
  • Wednesday: Train the Trainer: Hazard Mapping in the Ag Classroom
  • Thursday: Safe and Healthy Recovery After a Farm Flood
  • Thursday: Confined Space - Grain Bin Entry
  • Friday: Optimizing the Health of the Female Agricultural Producer
Click here for more information about the webinars, including how to register. Click here for more resources on National Farm Safety and Health Week.

Committee increases education spending for 2019 budget, doesn't ban schools from using grant money for guns

A committee of House and Senate members struck a deal Sept. 13 that would increase funding to the U.S. Department of Education by $581 million and give more funding to programs for vocational education, special education, Head Start and charter schools. The committee agreed to set total spending for education at almost $71.5 billion in fiscal 2019. It did not ban schools from using Every Student Succeeds Act grants to pay for firearms or firearms training, as Democrats wanted.

"In general, the spending deal rejects the Trump administration's fiscal 2019 proposal that calls for slashing the department's overall budget, the elimination of several programs, and the creation of school choice initiatives," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. "The budget deal does rescind $600 million in previously appropriated reserve funding for Pell grants. If you include that figure in the calculations about decline or growth in spending, then the deal would keep Education Department funding virtually flat compared to current levels. The agreement must now be approved by both the full House and Senate" before going to President Trump.

GateHouse Media's closure of twice-weekly newspapers in two Arkansas county seats runs contrary to industry trend

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

For all the ink and electrons used to lament the shrinking of the newspaper business, most newspaper closures in the United States in the last 15 years have been among small weeklies in towns that are not the largest town in their county or its seat. That's why GateHouse Media's closure of twice-weekly papers in county seats in southwest Arkansas stand out among the company's recently announced cuts.

Today will see the final editions of The Hope Star, a twice-weekly in Hempstead County, and The Daily Siftings-Herald of Arkadelphia, in adjoining Clark County. GateHouse also closed the weekly Nevada County Picayune Times. Earlier, the news-media giant closed papers near Little Rock, the state capital.

The Star's circulation was down to 930, in a town of nearly 10,000, but it was the only paper in the county of 22,000. GateHouse's regional vice president, Matt Guthrie, wrote this week that the Star had fewer than 500 subscribers, in a county with 9,000 homes. (He didn't mention single-copy sales, which often constitute a majority of a rural paper's circulation.) He said Clark County had about the same number of homes, and the Siftings-Herald had about 900 subscribers.

Shifting blame from his company, which is owned by venture capitalists, Guthrie wrote, "In order for a local newspaper to survive it must have the support of the community. . . . The loss of revenue and subscribers was just too much to surmount." He said a new management team brought in a year ago was "saddled with a long history of unprofitability."

Guthrie added, "We have received inquiries from individuals interested in purchasing the papers we are closing and we will explore options there. We have also received calls and comments from disappointed customers expressing concerns for the loss of community coverage; unfortunately, some have included inexcusable hate speech directed to our staff."

In Hope, the news "caused our community to be flooded with emotions," Beckie Moore, executive director of the Hope-Hempstead County Chamber of Commerce, told Jim Williamson of the daily Texarkana Times, in adjoining Miller County. "Those who grew up in Hope remember the newspaper as their lifeline to the community. . .. The Hope Star, as with any local paper, was the community welcome mat. You could read the paper and sense that our town mattered."

Moore told Williamson, "The loss of a news source is a great loss, no matter how you look at it. Not everyone has a phone or Internet service readily available in order to 'view' online news. . . . We are fortunate to have radio stations in Hope for those who are not receiving online news. Our stations will continue providing the 'hometown connection,' and for that we should be grateful. That being said, there is something to be said about holding print and reading articles while viewing pictures." (Read more)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Bristol paper, Montana Public Radio, V.I. paper among small-newsroom winners in AP Managing Editors awards

This year's small-newsroom winners in the Associated Press Managing Editors Awards for Journalism Excellence and Innovation included the Bristol Herald Courier, serving Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, Montana Public Radio and the Virgin Islands Daily News.

The Herald Courier won the small-newsroom public service prize for “Addicted at Birth,” which the judges called "a smart, deeply reported and accessibly presented examination of a little-noticed angle of the opioid problem: babies affected by their mother's use while pregnant. The presentation – from the writing to the headlines to all the visual elements – commanded attention. It was packaged in a very reader-friendly format, offering numerous podcasts, glances, graphics, lists and other chunky bits to both convey key points and pull readers in. Exceptional work." The series also won the Scripps Howard Award for community journalism.

MPR, based in Missoula, won the small-market storytelling award for Nicky Ouellet's “SubSurface: Resisting Montana's Underwater Invaders,” which the judges called "an intelligent and compelling examination of how invasive species threaten Montana’s fisheries, and how various agencies and interest groups are not always on the same page in fighting them."

The Daily News won the small-newsroom award for news reporting for its coverage of hurricanes. The judges called it "amazing, brave journalism by a newsroom working through back-to-back Category 5 storms that literally destroyed the island. In the midst of it all, the Virgin Islands Daily News produced compelling stories, incredible photography and strongly designed work."

In most categories, the contest considers a newsroom to be small if it has 25 or fewer people. For a full list of the awards, go here.

In the First Amendment Awards, there was no small-newsroom winner. The grand prize went to The Kansas City Star for "Why So Secret, Kansas?", which the judges lauded for "exposing the pervasiveness of secrecy in Kansas state government and how that culture subverts the democratic process. The impact of the Star’s work was swift: In a 12-week span, 32 transparency measures were proposed, and the speaker of the House ended the practice of allowing bills to be introduced anonymously."

Meanwhile, APME and the American Society of News Editors (originally Newspaper Editors) are merging into the News Leaders Association, which "is expected to be in place by the 2019 News Leadership Conference Sept. 9-10 in New Orleans," they said in a news release.

Sept. 17 deadline to apply for expense-paid fellowships to attend juvenile-justice reporting conference in NYC

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City has extended to Sept. 17 the deadline to apply for its juvenile justice reporting fellowships.  Details, applications forms are available here. On Oct 4-5, fellows will attend "a special conference to help journalists cover the latest developments in juvenile justice, and engage with some of the leading players and experts in the field," Center Director Stephen Handelman says.

The conference, called “Unfinished Business: Juveniles and Justice,” will provide useful background and story ideas for journalists. Fellows will be chosen on a competitive basis, based on their interests, proposed projects, and editors’ support. The fellowship includes travel to NYC and accommodations.

For more information email Handel or Joe Domanick, journalism coordinator (phone 310-435-4007) or Ricardo Martinez, project administrator (phone 646-557-4690).

Study: Rural childhood makes future success more likely, but rural and urban areas need different strategies for kids

Impact of county residence on children's future earnings
Daily Yonder map by Dave Mistich of with data from Equality of Opportunity Project
Last year a Stanford University study found that children who grow up in America's most rural areas are more likely to earn more money as adults. A recent Penn State study corroborates the Stanford findings, reports Kristen Devlin of Penn State News: "The farther away from a city a person is raised, the more likely they are to climb the economic ladder."

The study also found that five "community characteristics associated with upward mobility have different effects in rural and urban locations." Kids are more likely to succeed if they live in a community with fewer single-mother households, a lower high-school dropout rate, lower income inequality, a greater share of jobs with commutes of 15 minutes or less, and more social capital (loosely defined as the networks of relationships in a community).

The researchers found that short commutes helped rural counties much more than they helped urban counties, while higher dropout rates hurt urban areas more than rural ones. But "the researchers found that there are different factors at work in the metro counties, such as better public services, including child care and transportation, that are helping to buffer the negative effects of single-mother households and income inequality," Devlin reports. Only social capital helps rural and urban counties at about the same rate.

Stephan Goetz, a Penn State professor of agricultural and regional economics, director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, and study co-author, told Devlin the study proves that different approaches are needed to help children succeed: "There are different factors at work in rural and urban places . . . If we want to enhance the upward income mobility of low-income youth, we need place-based policies that specifically address these differences."

The study used data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. Bill Bishop reported on the Stanford study for The Daily Yonder, which highlights the Penn State study today.

Schools in Washington state get creative to help homeless students find a ride to school

With class back in session, school districts across the nation struggle to make sure homeless students -- many of them rural -- can get to class. In suburban and rural Washington state, the number of homeless students doubled between 2012 and 2017, and school districts are tackling the problem.

Rural districts worry they don't have enough resources to ensure all students have a ride. They have cause to worry: "Last year, barely more than half the state’s homeless students graduated from high school on time, compared to 81 percent of their peers," Neal Morton and Scott Greenstone report for The Seattle Times.

Higher rental prices are part of the problem; in Washington, they're fueled by people priced out of Seattle and moving to ever-smaller cities and towns. As a consequence, the cheapest rents have gone up the most. That can push people into homelessness if their finances are dealt a sudden shock, Morton and Greenstone report.

Serving homeless students starts with identifying which families qualify for limited quantities of state and federal support. Some parents don't want to identify children as homeless, which is required to get the aid, some "as a matter of personal pride. Others fear their tenuous living situation might risk their children being taken away. And, more common now, immigrant families with mixed legal status hesitate to submit any official government forms," Morton and Greenstone report.

Some Washington schools have gotten creative to address the problem, offering funds to help pay for homeless parents' car repairs, or credit repair to help families qualify for an apartment rental. One county offers to send students to a host family to house the student. Jim Theofelis, who has worked with homeless Washington youth for more than 40 years, told the Times, "It's not schools' problem . . . It's all of our problem. But schools, given the resources, can be part of the solution."

Beige Book examines the agricultural economy by Federal Reserve Bank districts; tariffs and trade having impacts

Federal Reserve districts (Federal Reserve Board map)
On Sept. 12 the Federal Reserve Board released its August 2018 Beige Book update, which summarizes commentary on current economic conditions by Federal Reserve district, Keith Good reports for Farm Policy News at the University of Illinois. A few notable entries:
  • Most of the Sixth District, which is based in Atlanta and covers much of the Deep South, remains drought-free, but most of Louisiana and parts of Mississippi and Alabama are abnormally dry. Production for rice, soybeans and cotton is up from last year, but peanut production is down. Year-to-year rices paid to farmers in June were down for beef but up for corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, broilers and eggs. 
  • Overall crop yields for the Seventh District, centered on Chicago, are set to hit a record high because of good weather. Wheat prices were higher because of lower world supplies, and hog prices were lower because tariffs led to a drop in exports. Dairy farmers were still struggling as milk prices remained low. 
  • In the Tenth District, which includes the heart of the Great Plains, farm income and credit conditions weakened and crop prices remained fairly steady after sharp declines in June and July. Corn and soybean prices increased a little in late July but went down again in August. "Uncertainty surrounding trade was a primary concern, and the prolonged weaknesses in the agricultural economy were increasingly impacting farm borrower finances. Although interest rates on farm loans continued to increase along- side weakening agricultural credit conditions, farmland values declined only modestly," Good reports.

Hurricane Florence threatens rural towns still ravaged by 2016 storm; may also spread toxic coal ash from pits

Map shows coal ash sites and projected rainfall from Florence.
(InsideClimate News map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
As Hurricane Florence barrels toward the Carolinas and Virginia, rural residents worry that it could be just as damaging as Hurricane Matthew two years ago, which produced "catastrophic levels of flooding throughout low-lying eastern North Carolina and causing billions of dollars in damages," Patrick Rucker reports for Reuters. Rural, low-income towns were among the hardest hit and are most at risk from Florence.

The downtown district in Fair Bluff, for example, has been a "virtual ghost town" since Matthew. About 1,000 people had lived there, but the town's part-time administrator estimates more than a quarter have left and not returned. Reconstruction efforts are still underway, but  "Residents and business owners have often found it challenging to navigate state and federal bureaucracies in search of recovery and repair funds," Rucker reports.

North Carolina may be more vulnerable to high flooding because state lawmakers passed a law in 2012 making it illegal for policymakers and developers to make decisions based on a report that predicted rising sea levels. "A panel of scientists on the state Coastal Resources Commission issued a dire warning in March 2010, estimating that the sea levels along the state’s coast would rise 39 inches over the next century," Jenavieve Hatch reports for HuffPost. Conservative lawmakers and business interest groups feared the report would hurt lucrative real estate development on the state’s coast and sought to undermine it. A lobbying group committed to economic development on the coast accused the panel of 'pulling data out of their hip pocket'."

Two other major sources of concern: what will happen if Florence floods out hog-manure pits and toxic coal-ash pits. Both could spill hazardous contaminants into groundwater and waterways. "The Environmental Protection Agency is assessing the vulnerability of at least 40 toxic-waste sites that could be damaged," Stuart Leavenworth reports for McClatchy. "But that review does not include dozens of inland Superfund sites that potentially could be flooded by the storm’s fluctuating path."

The review includes 29 sites in Virginia, six in North Carolina and five in South Carolina. But there are 35 Superfund sites in North Carolina and 31 in South Carolina, many of which could flood, Leavenworth reports.

Fracking makes U.S. top oil producer; last was in 1973

Because of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the United States may be the world's biggest oil producer for the first time since 1973. The U.S. likely passed Saudi Arabia in February and Russia in June, according to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S produced an estimated average of 10.9 million barrels a day in August, more than Russia's 10.8 million or Saudi Arabia's 10.4 million. The agency expects the U.S. to keep out-producing those countries through 2019, David Koenig reports for The Associated Press.

The U.S. was once the world's top oil producer until Russia and then Saudi Arabia gained the top spot in the 1970s. "The energy information administration and the International Energy Agency, a global group of oil-consuming nations, had predicted that the U.S. would eventually pass Russia and Saudi Arabia but possibly not until 2019," Koenig reports.

It once seemed unlikely that the U.S. would regain the top spot, but fracking wells in the Permian Basin under Texas and New Mexico, as well as in North Dakota and the Gulf of Mexico, have fueled an American oil boom since 2011. Meanwhile, "Production has been relatively steady in Russia and Saudi Arabia, both of which took part in an OPEC agreement to limit output beginning in 2016 to drive up prices," Koenig reports. The IEA also "expects the U.S. will continue to top Russia and Saudi Arabia for the rest of this year and through 2019."

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

TV and movies painting poorer picture of rural America

Hollywood used to think of rural America as a source for comedy: funny but savvy hayseeds from "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres," for example. But these days the narrative has shifted, and rural characters are more likely to be more sinister.

"A review of many current and recent popular television shows and films seems to show that their network sponsors and city-born-and-raised creators frequently see small towns and rural people as racist, ignorant, pathetic, corrupt, or maybe just viciously murderous and criminal," Joe Belden writes for The Daily Yonder. "Examples include critically acclaimed and award-winning TV shows such as 'Ozark', 'Rectify', 'Sharp Objects', and 'Sons of Anarchy' – as well as the Oscar-winning films No Country for Old Men and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In some of these shows, the sensible non-criminals are urban folks temporarily working or stranded in rural places. Or they may have grown up in the small town, are back for a visit, and can’t wait to head back to the big city. A disturbing theme is that 'Rectify', 'Sharp Objects' and Three Billboards all include as a major part of the plot the murder, or rape and murder, of teenaged girls, apparently by local folks in each story." Read more.

Leaders of union at Casper Star-Tribune express worry about owner Lee Enterprises' commitment to journalism

As union leaders at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming's largest daily, gear up for a new round of contract negotiations, they say they're skeptical of the owner's "commitment to journalism," reports WyoFile, an independent news organization that does in-depth, public-interest reporting.

"Casper News Guild leaders Heather Richards and Seth Klamann said they believe the company is negotiating in good faith," Andrew Graham reports. "But they worry that Lee Enterprises, which owns papers in 20 states and carries hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, doesn’t share their dedication to journalism or to Wyoming. Corporate executives and stockholders are lucratively rewarded, even as communities lose reporters to layoffs."

Lee, which is based in Davenport, Iowa, and owns The Missoulian in Montana, purchased competing paper the Missoula Independent last year and abruptly shuttered the paper yesterday, The Missoulian reports.

Star-Tribune union leaders told Graham they're seeking support from public figures in Casper in hopes of securing a stronger position in negotiations. “We’re just letting them know, this is your paper. This isn’t our paper, this is your paper, and it’s owned by an out-of-state company that’s taking money out your community by laying off reporters … You lose money and simultaneously you lose the institutional knowledge” of the departed journalists.

Publisher Dale Bohren "declined to comment on union negotiations in detail," Graham reports, quoting him: “We are negotiating in good faith. I really don’t have any comment about the union, other than that I have tremendous respect for the work that the newsroom does.”

Hurricane Florence could make North Carolina pig-manure pools a health hazard, as previous hurricanes have

Neighbors already complain about the stink of hog farms in North Carolina, but when Hurricane Florence hits the state tomorrow or Friday, thousands of open pig-manure pools could become a public-health hazard. North Carolina is a top hog-farming state, with about 9 million pigs on 2,300 farms producing about 10 billion pounds of wet animal waste a year, Zoe Schlanger reports for Quartz.

Previous hurricanes give has reason for concern: "2016’s Hurricane Matthew inundated 14 hog-manure lagoons. In the days leading up to the hurricane’s landfall, some farmers pumped waste out of their lagoons and hauled it away in an effort to limit the damage," Schlanger reports. "Hurricane Floyd in 1999 did much worse, flooding dozens of hog lagoons and causing six lagoons’ containment walls to fail. The waste that escaped eventually wound up in estuaries, and was blamed for algae blooms and fish kills." Floodwaters that include hog feces "make for a toxic soup, and raise fears about the potential for bacteria from the pig feces to contaminate North Carolina’s groundwater."

Andy Curliss, the CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, told Bloomberg that manure lagoons can take 25 inches of rain without failing. Florence is expected to bring up to 40 inches of rain to some parts of North Carolina, Schlanger reports.

Over 2/3 of Trump statements at Montana rallies were false, misleading or lacked evidence, The Fact Checker says

More than two-thirds of the claims President Trump made at his two rallies in Montana, one in July of 2018 and the other last week, were false, misleading, or unsupported by evidence, according to The Washington Post's fact-checkers. "We didn’t double-count statements when the president repeated himself, or else the number of false claims would be higher," Glenn Kessler writes for the Post in his column, The Fact Checker. "We avoided trivialities or opinions. (Two comments he made on Sept. 6 about Democratic candidates in other states might be fairly viewed as opinions, so they were not included.)"

Kessler assess all 88 claims the president made at the rallies. Here's a sample:

"In the election, we won this state by a lot. That was not close."
Accurate, Kessler says. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Montana by 20 percentage points.

"We have the best economy in history."
False, Kessler concludes: The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he repeatedly makes a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton — and Ulysses S. Grant.

"More Americans are working today than ever, ever, ever before."
Misleading, Kessler finds: Of course there are more Americans working. That’s because there are more Americans today than ever before. More meaningful measures of the overall health of the job market take population into consideration. The unemployment rate, or the share of people who don't have jobs, was at 3.9 percent in August and that wasn't a record low.

Coalition aims to bring more broadband to rural America

"Eighteen rural, consumer, community media, tech rights, academic, and civil rights organizations have announced the launch of Broadband Connects America, a coalition dedicated to ensuring that all Americans have access to high-speed broadband," Philanthropy Digest reports. The coalition says it wants to guide policymakers on ways to best fund rural broadband.

About 39 percent of rural Americans lack high-speed internet, putting them at a disadvantage in everything from school and business to medical care. The coalition has outlined five core principles for closing the rural digital gap: 
  • Funding should be simple and allocated directly to infrastructure needs, not directly to last-mile carriers.
  • Closing the rural digital divide will require a combination approach that reflects the complexity of the challenges of deploying broadband to rural America.
  • Deployment should be focused on achieving tangible universal service to all rural Americans rather than allocated based on profit per population density.
  • Restoring net neutrality is essential to closing the rural digital divide.
  • Rural broadband should meet the same adequacy standards as its urban counterpart.
As the principles hint, the coalition essentially seeks to make an end-run around the huge telecoms that have thus far dominated rural broadband deployment, often providing slower service with outdated technology, Kieren McCarthy writes for internet-technology publication The Register.

The BCA coalition's members are: Public Knowledge, Access Humboldt, Akaku Maui Community Media, Axiom, Benton Foundation, Oklahoma State University Professor Brian Whitacre, California Center For Rural Policy, Center for Rural Strategies, Citizens Connectivity Committee, Full Color Future, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, National Consumer Law Center, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, National Hispanic Media Coalition, Next Century Cities, Rural Community Alliance- Arkansas, Tribal Digital Village Network, and X-Lab. The coalition encourages new members to join, especially local rural broadband organizations and advocates.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

GateHouse closes 5 Arkansas weeklies and Missouri daily; terminates one-fifth of news staff at Peoria Journal Star

UPDATE, Sept. 12: GateHouse cut five of the 25-person news staff at the Peoria Journal Star, and two others took a buyout, Tanya Koonce reports for Peoria Public Radio. Guild President Phil Luciano said Gatehouse wants to move copyediting to the chain's to Austin, Texas, headquarters. "Luciano calls it a dark day for the Journal Star and anyone who cares about communities, public discourse, and justice."

Bill Clinton's hometown of Hope, Ark., is losing its newspaper after GateHouse Media announced it's shuttering the Hope Star along with four other Arkansas weeklies and one in Missouri.

"Sept. 14 will be the last day of operations for the Siftings-Herald in Arkadelphia, the Hope Star and the Nevada County Picayune Times in Prescott, Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, confirmed Wednesday," the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Hope, Arkadelphia, and Prescott are in the adjoining counties of Hempstead, Clark, and Nevada, respectively. The APA's 2018 Arkansas Media Directory lists no other papers in Hempstead and Nevada counties, and a weekly in Clark. The Arkadelphia paper is listed as a twice-weekly.

GateHouse shuttered the North Little Rock Times and the nearby Lonoke County Democrat last week. Its The Waynesville Daily Guide in Missouri printed its last issue Sept. 7, reports its sister paper, The Rolla Daily News.

UPDATE, Sept. 14: GateHouse closed the twice-weekly Gridley Herald in California's Buttle County on Aug. 31, citing rising newsprint costs and "the bottom line." The paper's sports editor says on Facebook that he will continue his work there, offering southern Butte County readers "the same high-quality coverage readers came to expect from the Gridley Herald before its greedy, sleazy, shady, unprofessional corporate owners decided to pull the plug last week."

Poll: 58% of rural Americans say lack of access to high-speed internet is a problem; 24% say it's a major problem

Pew Research Center chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
It's been long known that lack of access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet hurts rural areas, but a Pew Researcher Center survey quantifies it: 24 percent of rural adults surveyed say access to broadband is a major problem in their local community, and 34 percent say it's a minor problem. Altogether, that means 58 percent of rural Americans see lack of access to broadband as a problem, according to the Feb. 26-March 11 survey.

"Concerns about access to high-speed internet are shared by rural residents from various economic backgrounds. For example, 20 percent of rural adults whose household income is less than $30,000 a year say access to high-speed internet is a major problem, but so do 23 percent of rural residents living in households earning $75,000 or more annually," Monica Anderson reports for Pew. "These sentiments are also similar between rural adults who have a bachelor’s or advanced degree and those with lower levels of educational attainment."

Rural adults aged 50 to 64 were more likely than other age groups to see lack of access top broadband as a problem. There is a racial angle, perhaps driven by income: 31 percent of non-white rural respondents believed lack of access is a problem compared to 21 percent of whites.

"Beyond lower home broadband adoption rates, adults in rural areas also are less likely to own mobile devices or to use the internet," anderson reports. "While around two-thirds of rural Americans have a smartphone, those shares rise to around eight in 10  among those living in cities (83 percent) or the suburbs (78 percent), according to Center data. At the same time, some rural Americans do not use the internet in any capacity: 22 percent of adults living in a rural area say they never go online, a share that is more than double that among urban or suburban residents."

How long are people in your local area likely to live? A huge new database has the details, by census tract

How long is someone expected to live who was born in your neighborhood between 2010 and 2015? A huge new database has the answer, unless you live in Maine or Wisconsin (the data is not yet available for those states). The United States Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project, released today, is a joint effort of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, and the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems.

USALEEP shows data by census tracts, which average about 4,000 people, and shows that life expectancy can vary widely across short distances. View the methodology and raw data files here, and view the interactive tool here

Firefighting bills hit some rural counties, who say programs to compensate them for national forests are inadequate

Cathedral Peaks,Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne County (Photo by Charlie Pankey)
As wildfires ravage the western U.S., officials in some rural counties with lots of federal land say that fighting those fires has stretched their resources too thin, and that programs meant to compensate them for having so much land off their tax rolls aren't helping enough.

That's the case in Tuolumne County, California: 77 percent of it is federal land, part of Yosemite National Park,. That blocks development, limits tax revenue and means less money for the county's firefighters and, because of the forests, a greater risk of fires, Randy Hanvelt writes for Route Fifty. Hanvelt serves on the county Board of Supervisors, and traveled to Washington, D.C., last week with several dozen other county officials to discuss the problem.

Congress attempted to compensate for this loss of potential revenue with the 1976 Payments in Lieu of Taxes Act, which provides funds to counties with federal land. Tuolumne received just over $2.7 million this year in PILOT funds, but Hanvelt writes that the county has been struggling financially because of the wildfires. "This summer, Tuolumne County sent our own county fire units to assist with structure protection during this summer’s Donnell Fire when it was clear that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the resources," Hanvelt writes. "The demands on our law-enforcement resources were significantly increased as well."

PILOT funds are critical to ensuring that counties can pitch in to fight fires, Hanvelt writes, but the program hasn't been funded sufficiently. He wants "mandatory, long-term funding" to insulate it from "the annual congressional appropriations process," and likewise for the Secure Rural Schools program, which Congress reauthorized this year for another two years. The SRS program compensates counties containing national forests for limits on timber harvests.

New EPA rules will let energy companies check for methane leaks less often and allow more time to repair them

"The Trump administration, taking its third major step this year to roll back federal efforts to fight climate change, is preparing to make it significantly easier for energy companies to release methane into the atmosphere," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "Methane, which is among the most powerful greenhouse gases, routinely leaks from oil and gas wells, and energy companies have long said that the rules requiring them to test for emissions were costly and burdensome."

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose a rule weakening an Obama-era rule requiring companies to monitor and repair methane leaks. Under Obama-era rules, drillers had to check for leaks as often as every six months and repair them within 30 days. The new rule would require inspections every one or two years, allow 60 days to repair a leak, and let companies observe state rules, which are often weaker, in states that have them.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of oil and gas lobbying group the Western Energy Alliance, praised the new rules, telling Davenport that the old methane rule was "the definition of red tape" and a "record-keeping nightmare." Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it breaks down in the atmosphere much faster than CO2 Meanwhile, the Interior Department will soon repealing a restriction on deliberate venting and burning of methane.

Davenport writes, "The new rules follow two regulatory rollbacks this year that, taken together, represent the foundation of the United States’ effort to rein in global warming. In July, the EPA proposed weakening a rule on carbon dioxide pollution from vehicle tailpipes. And in August, the agency proposed replacing the rule on carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants with a weaker one that would allow far more global-warming emissions to flow unchecked from the nation’s smokestacks."

Ohio, Ky. and W.Va. struggle with clean-up of abandoned oil and gas wells; new laws in Ohio and W.Va. may help

An orphan well in Kentucky leaks
decades after being abandoned.
(OVR photo by Brittany Patterson)
State regulators are struggling with the costs of cleaning up an increasing number of abandoned oil and gas wells, especially in states with weak regulations. Such wells can leak oil and other pollutants into water supplies or emit methane, a strong greenhouse gas. A single well can cost from a few thousand dollars to $200,000 to plug, and an Ohio Valley ReSource analysis of state data found more than 8,000 orphan wells in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Brittany Patterson reports for OVR.

"The states are pretty good at regulating wells that are being explored, are being fracked, are in production, but they kind of lose interest once that happens," Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan environmental think tank Resources For the Future, told Patterson. "There's not enough attention being paid to reducing the risk from these abandoned wells."

The problem is a chronic one in Appalachian oil and gas fields, but experts expect the abandoned well problem to get worse because of the hydraulic fracturing boom, since the lifespan of a fracking well is shorter than that of a conventional well.

Funds for plugging wells in Kentucky and West Virginia come from forfeited bonds, which are generally used to plug the worst wells. Kentucky has about $950,000 in its orphan-well fund and has plugged 33 wells since 2012, but Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesperson Lanny Brannock told Patterson the state is "constantly behind on funding for orphan wells."

"West Virginia’s funding situation is similar. Since 2012, the state has plugged seven wells," Patterson reports. "The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection can use a portion of each $150 well work permit application fee as well as any forfeited bonds to plug orphan wells. Currently, the fund holds approximately $385,000.

New laws in Ohio and West Virginia devote more money toward plugging orphan wells, through different approaches. 

West Virginia's co-tenancy law allows drilling on properties owned by multiple people if at least 75 percent of the owners agree. Royalties for mineral-rights owners who can't be located will be set aside for seven years, and if unclaimed, transferred to the orphan well fund. That could put millions of dollars into the fund, but "experts say the orphan problem will only get worse because West Virginia and other states do not require drillers to pay adequate bonds," Patterson reports.

In 1977, Ohio created an orphan well plugging program. "From the beginning it has been funded with 14 percent of the oil and gas fund, which is supported by a modest severance tax on natural-gas extraction," Patterson reports. "Later this month, a new law will raise the percentage of the fund that must be directed toward orphan wells to 30 percent."

Monday, September 10, 2018

Colorado ballot initiative to keep drilling 5 times farther from neighborhoods polls well, but campaign is far from over

Colorado residents will vote on a ballot initiative in November that would ban oil and gas drilling within 2,500 feet of buildings and some green spaces (up from the current limit of 500 feet), and the battle over it is "NIMBYism at its most stark," Amy Harder writes for Axios.

"Not In My Back Yard" opposition tends to have a negative connotation, but it shouldn't here, Harder writes. "It’s the surprisingly simple result of a growing population and oil drilling encroaching on each other. It's a national symbol of both the economic benefits of drilling and its understandable drawbacks to nearby neighborhoods."

The state's oil sector is spending big to defeat the measure. Industry officials worry it will curtail new development, which could cost 150,000 jobs and risk $1 billion a year in taxes, Harder writes. A state study found the initiative could put as much as 85 percent of the state's non-federal lands off limits to energy development. Backers counter that drilling near homes endangers safety and the environment. 

Polling by the oil industry found that the initiative is getting 60 percent support, but the race isn't run yet. "Conventional wisdom among analysts following the initiative is that it’ll fail, fueled by a well-funded industry campaign and bipartisan political opposition to the measure," Harder writes.

Unstable river bank could collapse, putting more than 600 million gallons of toxic coal ash into Wabash tributary

Structures built to stop erosion of the Middle Fork River in Illinois were damaged in a flood in early 2018.
(Photo by Eco-Justice Collaborative)
Despite efforts to shore it up, an unstable riverbank next to a shuttered coal-fired power plant could collapse, unleashing more than 600 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River in eastern Illinois, according to a 2017 engineering study. What's more, efforts to contain the coal ash ponds could conflict with laws protecting the river as a National Scenic River. The Vermillion flows into the Wabash River in Indiana a few miles downstream.

Chicago Tribune map
Dynegy Inc., which owned the site four miles northeast of Oakwood before Dynegy was acquired by Vistra Energy, paid for the study, a copy of which was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act by non-profit environmental group Eco-Justice Collaborative. "The company has made a least two attempts to harden the riverbank against further erosion, but the banks remain unstable," Jack Brighton reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Vermilion Power Station was built in the 1950s by Illinois Power and was later purchased by Dynegy. "Before Dynegy closed the plant in 2011, the two companies deposited more than 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash into pits next to the river — enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 2½ times," Michael Hawthorne reports for the Chicago Tribune. Dynegy tried to stabilize the riverbank next to one of the coal ash ponds in 2016, but the effort apparently increased pressure on other sections of the river, further destabilizing those areas. And the structures Dynergy built to stop the erosion have been destroyed by the force of the river, Brighton reports.

"The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is expecting Vistra/Dynegy to submit in October a proposal for closing its three ash ponds at the Vermilion Power Station. The proposal will likely include options for capping the ponds in place, and for excavating the coal ash and removing the ponds from the banks of the Middle Fork," Brighton reports. "A report by Stantec Engineering, paid for by Dynegy, revealed that given the rate of erosion near the ash ponds, additional riverbank stabilization is required no matter which closure option is approved by the Illinois EPA."

But Vistra/Dynegy's plans for stopping the erosion could clash with regulations protecting the Vermilion as a National Scenic River. The federal law prohibits "any water resources project that would have a direct and adverse effect on the values for which such river was established." And locals complain that the additional 1,900 feet of riverbank reinforcement will be an eyesore, Brighton reports.

Judge rules that West Virginia county can't block gas pipeline compressor station through local zoning laws

"A West Virginia county, whose elected leaders have vocally resisted natural gas industry operations, has again been told by a federal judge that it must allow the work to proceed," the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

Fayette County, West Virginia (Wikipedia)
U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver ruled that Fayette County commissioners can't block a proposed compressor station for the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline using the county's local zoning ordinance, since the federal Natural Gas Act trumps local zoning rules. "It’s the second time in two years that Copenhaver has overruled efforts by Fayette leaders to protect their county from what they view as negative effects of the ongoing boom in West Virginia’s natural gas industry," Ward reports.

The county has been trying to make itself into a tourism destination after the coal industry could no longer carry the local economy. Though pipeline officials said the compressor station was designed to "limit surface disturbance and minimize the overall environmental footprint," according to documents filed in court, its proposed location isn't in an industrial area, and county leaders worried it would be dirty and loud, Ward reports.

"In November 2017, the commission turned down a request for a zoning change needed because the compressor station was proposed for an area where industrial activity isn’t allowed. The pipeline developers sued, and Copenhaver agreed with their argument that natural gas pipelines are governed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not by county ordinances," Ward reports.

Rural water group lobbies for rural-friendly Senate language to stay in reconciled water-funding bill

As House and Senate committees reconcile their versions of a water infrastructure legislation, rural and urban water utilities are jockeying to come out on top in the finished bill. The National Rural Water Association, a lobbying group for rural water utilities, is pressuring lawmakers to keep rural-friendly provisions for water and wastewater financing programs included in the Senate version of the Water Resources Development Act. Larger and more urban utilities are opposed.

The Senate version includes provisions from a bipartisan bill, the Securing Required Funding for Water Infrastructure Now (SRF-WIN) Act, that blends two federally backed lending programs: grants from revolving federal funds, and loans from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

Under the revolving-loan program, the Environmental Protection Agency awards grants to states, which contribute a 20 percent match. The funds are used for low-cost loans and other project assistance to water and sewer systems. Under WIFIA, the other program, EPA provides low-interest direct loans for projects of at least $5 million in communities of 25,000 or fewer people, and at least $20 million in larger communities.

The rural-water lobby argues that WIFIA doesn't help rural areas enough because rural projects tend to cost less than $5 million and the program doesn't put enough emphasis on "need" in choosing which projects to fund. The SRF-WIN bill, they say, would give rural areas more access to WIFIA's benefits. "But groups like the American Water Works Association, which says that it represents almost 4,000 utilities that supply 80 percent of the nation's drinking water, have opposed the SRF-WIN Act, saying that it would undermine WIFIA and its ability to support large projects," Lucia reports.

The NRWA sent an advisory this week alerting its members to the committee discussions and inviting them to send a form letter to House lawmakers urging them to keep the provisions in the final bill. The Senate is friendlier to rural areas because every state has two senators regardless of population.

OxyContin makers own a second opioid company, and have patented an antidote for withdrawal symptoms

Three pieces of news about the billionaire Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the makers of controversial painkiller OxyContin:
  • Turns out that the family also owns a little-known pharmaceutical company based in Rhode Island. Janice Williams reports for Newsweek: "Rhodes Pharma is of one of the largest creators of off-patent generic opioids. The company produces several opioid-based painkillers that contain addictive drugs including oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine. Rhodes Pharma was started in 2007, according to company registration documents obtained by the Financial Times." Purdue and Rhodes supply 14.4 million prescriptions in the U.S. More than 66 percent of the 63,000 overdose deaths in 2016 were related to opioid use, Williams reports. 
  • Earlier this year the Sackler family patented a form of buprenorphine, which is used to ease withdrawal symptoms in medication-assisted drug treatment. "Some are expressing outrage that the Sacklers, who have in essence profited from opioid addictions, may soon be profiting from the antidote," Lindsey Bever reports for The Washington Post.
  • Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has filed suit against Purdue Pharma for helping cause the opioid epidemic by "misleading doctors and patients in Colorado about the high risk of addiction from their medications and claimed the company 'downplayed the risk of addiction associated with opioids,'" Williams reports. "The lawsuit also said Purdue Pharma’s marketing not only 'exaggerated the benefits' of the medication but the company also told medical practitioners that they were in jeopardy of violating the Hippocratic Oath if they didn’t treat patients suffering from certain conditions with opioids." Other states have made similar claims.