Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chain pulls out of small towns, says it's 'no longer a non-urban – or, for some of you all, a rural – hospital company'

In politics, if you want to know where things are coming from and where they are headed, one maxim is to "follow the money." That could apply to the evolution of what used to be a rural hospital chain, Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn.

"The company has been selling off or closing poorly performing rural hospitals for the last several years," reports Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio. "The selling spree is primarily meant to pay down the company's outsized debt load left over from when Community Health was growing as fast as it could. But the hospital chain was also strategically pulling out of small towns." It has 111 hospitals in 20 states.

Farmer adds, "CEO Wayne Smith told investors gathered at this week's annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco that it's almost entirely left communities with fewer than 50,000 people — once its calling card compared to competing hospital chains." Smith said during a presentation, "We're no longer a non-urban – or, for some of you all, a rural – hospital company."

Parkway Regional Hospital before it closed in 2015
Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid, but in 2015, when the company had a choice of closing a hospital in its home state and one just across the state line in Kentucky, which had expanded the program, it chose the latter: Parkway Memorial Hospital in Fulton. Much of the now-closed hospital's service area was in Tennessee.

"Public officials from Fulton County wanted to take over the hospital and find other providers who might continue services in the area, but CHS rejected this offer, likely, to pre-empt competition for patients in the county," said a study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured and the Urban Institute. "Further, CHS placed restrictions on the use of the hospital – namely, it permitted no acute-care facility to operate there, an action that one respondent said 'strangled' the community’s access to local health care services."

Friday, January 11, 2019

Anti-journalism feeling felt at local level; journalists need to explain their work, build good faith and find common ground

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

The Rural Blog has reported several times that the anti-journalism sentiment generated by President Trump and his followers is filtering down to local news outlets. Today Columbia Journalism Review takes note of "a number of instances . . . in which local reporters with longstanding community ties were shunned, spurned, harassed, and otherwise treated with disdain by elected officials," suggesting that Trump’s "example is being taken up at the local level."

“Local journalists seem to be vilified now,” American Society of News Editors attorney Kevin Goldberg told CJR's Matthew Kassel. “Whether it’s federal officials outside of D.C. or it’s actually state or local officials, I feel like people are more emboldened to act against journalists.”

Several of Kassel's examples are from Iowa: "Gov. Kim Reynolds snubbed the Gazette, a daily paper in Cedar Rapids, when it requested a meeting, as did a number of Iowa House incumbents. Likewise, [U.S.] Rep. Steve King, along with his fellow Republican incumbents, refused to meet with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register during the midterms. King also barred the Register from his election night event."

Doug Burns interviewed then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
Campaign events, including Trump rallies, seem to be the most problematic. Our friend Doug Burns, co-owner of the Carroll Times Herald, told Kassel he went to a rally in Council Bluffs to cover an ethanol announcement by Trump and "was treated as if he had ulterior motives. Along with other reporters, he was locked in a media pen at the back of the arena and forbidden to speak to members of the crowd, many of whom he knew," Kassel writes. "Burns couldn’t use the bathroom without an invigilator from Trump’s team following along to make sure he didn’t interact with anyone." Burns told Kassel, “It was like visiting hours in a prison.”

In Connecticut, the campaign of a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate "tried to ban a Hearst reporter and a photographer from covering a GOP election-night event," Kassel reports, quoting Matt DeRienzo, vice president of news and digital content at Hearst Connecticut: “Everyone should be worried about the tactic of saying There’s no objective truth and we reject the role of the press. Everyone should be afraid of that filtering down to the local level, and I think you’re starting to see signs of it.”

Democrats are using the same tactics, and Kassel gives several examples, including Oregonian reporter Hillary Borrud's difficulty getting access to Gov. Kate Brown's campaign, and then-state Sen. Daphne Campbell's calls to Miami-area police when reporters twice tried to question her.

Burns, 49, "worries about his younger colleagues, who, he says, have never experienced the sense of collegiality that once existed, in one way or another, between journalists and elected officials." He told Kassel, “For a lot of younger people, this is all they’ve known.”

All the examples Kassel cites involve federal or state officials, not local ones, who deal with journalists on a more personal basis. But those officials are gradually being replaced by those who have entered public life in a more partisan, polarized atmosphere. It's important for journalists at all levels to help officials understand the work of journalism, build a feeling of good faith, and agree on at least one thing: journalists and public officials are public servants who need to keep the larger public interest at top of mind.

New laws make telehealth easier, will likely increase need and demand for high-speed internet in rural areas

New rules that allow Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for treatment via telehealth are a boon for rural residents, and are likely to increase rural need and demand for broadband internet.

"One of the major telehealth benefits is that it enables people to stay at work or home and have electronic doctor 'house calls,'" Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder. "Medicaid and Medicare, as a guard against fraud, required patients to get telehealth treatments at a healthcare provider’s facility. Many private-sector insurers take their cues from Medicaid and Medicare as to what healthcare services they reimburse. Altogether, this has stifled telehealth adoption."

Since the new laws make telehealth a more viable option for rural residents, community internet providers will see rising demand for reliable, affordable broadband, Eric Wicklund, editor of mHealth Intelligence, told Settles. 

Better telehealth availability can work two ways: not only can urban doctors reach rural patients, but rural doctors could also reach urban patients. Specifically, easier telehealth capability could lure mental health doctors like psychiatrists to rural areas who are tired of living in the city and want to work remotely, Settles writes.

Two-hour Journalists' Guide to Energy and Environment panel to be held and livestreamed Jan. 25 in Washington

The Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and the Society of Environmental Journalists are co-sponsoring a two-hour seminar Jan. 25 to inform journalists on the latest issues in environment and energy policy. The seventh annual edition of the 2019 Journalists' Guide to Energy and Environment seminar will feature panels with top SEJ reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Politico, E&E News, and more. A reception will follow.

The seminar will be held from 3-5 p.m. Jan. 25 on the sixth floor of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. If you can't attend, it will be streamed live online and a recording made available afterward. Click here to register or for more information.

Register for free Jan. 22 webinar on rural hospital closures

The Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg will host a free webinar on to discuss why so many rural hospitals are closing and what the trend means for communities' health and overall wellbeing.

The 1-hour webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 22. and will last about an hour. Two panelists will lead the discussion: Dr. Katy Kozhimannil and Betsy McKay. Kozhimannil is the director of research at the Rural Health Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and her research focuses on how health policy can improve health care delivery, quality and outcomes during critical times. McKay is a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal and writes about U.S. and global public health.

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Funding for the webinar was provided by The Commonwealth Fund and the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

Federal judge strikes down Iowa 'ag-gag' law, one of many

Status of state "ag-gag" laws
A federal judge in Iowa struck down a state law that banned undercover investigations at factory farms and other agriculture operations, saying it violated the First Amendment.

The law was passed in 2012 just after several such investigations by animal-rights organizations brought unflattering attention to some of Iowa's large-scale farms, recording workers throwing pigs against the floor or burning hens' beaks off without painkillers. Because many undercover investigators gained access to facilities by getting jobs there, the law made it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural production facility "by false pretenses," Matthew Schwartz reports for NPR.

Such statutes, commonly called ag-gag laws, have been considered or attempted by legislatures in at least 25 states, and passed in 11 states. After Utah and Wyoming, Iowa is the third state where federal courts have struck them down, Emily Moon reports for Pacific Standard.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Fact check: Trump can't withhold wildfire relief

Though President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop helping victims of last year's wildfires in California, a law applying to disaster and emergency declarations says that once a declaration has been made, the president “shall not ... delay or impede the rapid deployment, use and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency,” Sharon Bernstein reports for Reuters.

"In his tweet, Trump returned to his oft-repeated -- and disputed -- theme that California had mismanaged its forests, over-regulating logging and other measures that would thin them out to make wildfires less intense," though the fire likely began in a federally owned forest, Reuters reports. "It is not clear whether Trump was referring to money already approved, which FEMA is distributing, or to future funds."

The tweet came the day after the governors of Oregon and Washington published an open letter asking Trump to allocate more money for managing federally owned forests in the Western U.S., Bernstein reports.

"FEMA has so far made available about $50 million to help victims of the wildfires in Paradise as well as in other parts of [California] with housing needs, according to the agency’s website. There was no indication the funds had been cut off," Bernstein reports. "Last year, the state asked Congress to appropriate an additional $9 billion in assistance, about half of it from FEMA. That request has been delayed as Congress deals with the funding disputes that have led to a partial shutdown of the federal government."

USDA announces plan to fund SNAP through February

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a plan Tuesday to ensure that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients will still get their benefits for February even if the government shutdown continues through next month. "White House officials told reporters last week that SNAP benefits couldn’t be paid out for February because the program wasn’t funded past January, and that a $3 billion reserve fund wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the entire month," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

Perdue's plan won't require tapping into reserve funding. Instead, he will take advantage of a provision in the last continuing resolution that allows the Department of Agriculture to make already-obligated payments within 30 days after the funding expired. Since the continuing resolution expired Dec. 21, February's SNAP benefits will be funded Jan. 20 instead of in early February.

Other food programs appear secure for now; the Women, Infants and Children program has enough funding for February, and school nutrition programs have enough funding for February and March, McCrimmon reports.

Increasing numbers of rural telephone and electric cooperatives provide affordable, reliable broadband

Rural areas are desperate for affordable, reliable broadband access, but many nationwide for-profit internet service providers have said they can only make it happen with state or federal subsidies. Some rural communities "are following the example of farmers who wanted electricity in the 1930s and joined forces to form cooperatives to electrify rural America. This time, they have the benefit of established electric and telephone cooperatives that already deliver services and have infrastructure in place," Lisa Gonzales reports for Broadband Communities Magazine.

One example is Taylor Electric Cooperative Lights near Abilene, Texas. It began a four-phase plan in December 2017 to build out fiber connections to local residences, increasing its coverage area slowly so the business can continue learning techniques to better connect different kinds of residences like single-dweller homes and apartment buildings. Taylor and other co-ops can operate more efficiently, quickly and inexpensively because they already have equipment, knowledgeable personnel, and some pre-existing fiber infrastructure in place, Gonzales reports.

Some cooperatives face barriers to building out broadband: they may not know how, or may be stymied by state laws, or may feel it's too financially risky, Gonzales writes. Some try to reduce that risk by partnering with nearby, like-minded co-ops to share knowledge, costs and labor.

In another article for the same magazine, Gonzales reports that California, Indiana, and Washington state recently enacted legislation to make it easier for rural co-ops to offer broadband. Some state laws pose obstacles to electric co-ops' getting into the broadband business, April Simpson reports for Stateline. Mississippi limits them to electric service, but that law is getting another look.

Founder of local reporter directory Shoeleather wins Knight Visiting Nieman fellowship at Harvard

Sarah Baird
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has named Sarah Baird, the founder of local reporter directory Shoeleather, as one of its 2019 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellows.

The nine fellows, who come from as far away as Istanbul and South Africa, will work at Harvard on projects designed to advance journalism in an innovative way. Baird's project "will explore how to build community and resource-sharing among independent journalists as a means of combating the negative impacts—both local and national—of parachute journalism across the United States," the announcement says. "Her goal is to create a toolkit that will serve the community of freelance journalists working outside of traditional media centers."

Baird, a Kentucky-based freelance journalist, told The Rural Blog that Shoeleather has received an overwhelming response since its launch in November 2018, and that she is "thrilled to have the opportunity to explore new ways of community-building and resource-sharing among independent journalists as a means of combating the negative impacts of parachute journalism, and in turn, provide even more resources for the Shoeleather community."

The fellowship is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Report: Dust from steel manufacturing byproduct mixed with road gravel poses risks to rural children's health

In addition to the dust issue, residents say slag causes more
"washboarding" of roads. (Photo by Jean Forbes via DMR)
Dust from a waste product often mixed with gravel on roads in Iowa—and many other rural areas—could harm children's health, according to a newly published report by an Iowa Department of Public Health state toxicologist. "Dust from the slag, a byproduct from steel manufacturing, contains metals at levels that are harmful to infants and toddlers but also for kids up to 18 years old," Donnelle Eller reports for the Des Moines Register

In the report, author Stuart Schmitz wrote that children ages three and under who live and play near slag gravel roads only a few days out of the year are exposed to 124 times more manganese than is considered safe. Children from ages 4 to 18 who are around slag gravel roads about once every five days are exposed to about 5 times what's considered safe. Adults face a little risk from slag dust too: those who work near such gravel all day, almost every day of the year, would be exposed to levels almost twice as much as is considered safe. The report also says slag dust could also hurt the health of nearby cattle and contaminate the soil, Eller reports.

Children exposed to too much manganese could experience learning disabilities and behavior problems, and people in general could experience mild neurological issues like confusion and coordination problems that end after exposure to manganese is halted, Eller reports. Schmitz wrote, "I would say that any child playing or living very close to areas where slag is deposited could reasonably be expected to experience adverse health impacts."

States, counties, homeowners and businesses supplement gravel with slag since it is much cheaper. Not all slag has hazardous levels of manganese; Schmitz determined in 2008 that slag used in Washington County, Iowa, was safe to use, but said Muscatine County uses different processes with different levels of metals, Eller reports.

Chemist Edward Askew, a Muscatine chemist who leads a group lobbying the county to stop using slag, obtained a report from SSAB Americas, which operates a nearby steel mill and sells slag, that lists the amount of metals in the slag. But Askew worries that the report didn't include tests for some of the most hazardous metals such as cadmium, arsenic or mercury, Eller reports.

In addition to the potential health issues from slag, some Iowa residents complain that slag in gravel roads wears down their tires more quickly, puncture their tires, bounce up and break vehicle windows, and can make driving unsafe in other ways, Eller reports: "Residents say slag quickly leads to gravel roads 'wash-boarding,' or bumps across the road that can send vehicles skidding."

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Biologists 'hack' photosynthesis to create bigger and faster-growing plants; now working on food crops

University of Illinois scientists say they've figured out how to genetically engineer some plants' photosynthesis process to make them grow dramatically bigger and faster, and they're now working on making the hack work in plants people grow for food.

Their work, published this month in Science, centers on rubisco, an enzyme found in most plants' leaves that uses solar power to convert carbon dioxide in the air into sugar molecules the plant can use for energy, Dan Charles reports for NPR. The problem with rubisco is that it also scoops oxygen from the air along with the carbon, and must detoxify it via an energy-intensive process. That leaves less energy available for making leaves or fruit.

The researchers have spent the past five years trying to make rubisco more efficient, with funding for their project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more. The team was able to create tobacco plants that grew faster and up to 40 percent bigger than normal in both greenhouse and open-air conditions, Charles reports.

The team is now working on food crops like tomatoes, soybeans, and black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas were selected because they're a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa, where funders want to make a big impact. But it will be years before such genetically engineered crops are available for purchase, if at all. "Researchers will have to find out whether it means that a food crop like soybeans actually produces more beans — or just more stalks and leaves," Charles reports. 'Then they'll need to convince government regulators and consumers that the crops are safe to grow and eat."

Rural Texas hospital reopens a year after closing

Rural America is facing a health care crisis as more and more hospitals shutter, but one hospital in Crockett, Texas (pop. 6,500), bucked the odds and reopened after its closure, Charlotte Huff reports for Kaiser Health News.

Timberlands Healthcare faced the same problems as many other struggling rural hospitals: It was overstaffed, located in a state that didn't expand Medicaid, Houston County residents didn't want to raise property taxes to help fund the hospital, it was too small to have any leverage when negotiating reimbursement rates with insurers, and its board members had little background in health-care management but were in charge of financial decisions.

The hospital closed with only a few weeks' notice in the summer of 2017. its now-bankrupt management company, Little River Healthcare, was one of many that engage in the questionable practice of funneling laboratory billing through rural hospitals to get bigger federal reimbursements.

"The late-July reopening of the newly named Crockett Medical Center makes it a bit of a unicorn in a state that has led nationally in rural hospital closures," Huff reports. "Since January 2010, 17 of the 94 shuttered hospitals [in the U.S.] have been in Texas, including two that closed in December, according to data from the University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research."

The new hospital has many of the same services it did before, albeit on a smaller scale: a primary care clinic, a 24-hour emergency room, and 25 beds. But unlike Timberlands, Crockett doesn't deliver babies. Closing obstetrical services is a common tactic for struggling rural hospitals, since it's one of the most expensive units, Huff reports.

Crockett supporters hope they can convince locals to approve a property tax to keep the new hospital open. That's what happened with the struggling hospital in Clifton, Texas, northwest of Waco. Adam Willman, CEO of Goodall-Witcher Hospital Authority, told Huff that he and other hospital supporters convinced locals that a property tax was worth it, to preserve emergency services.

Rural leaders are lobbying the state legislature to help rural hospitals stay open with measures such as increasing hospital reimbursements for Medicaid patients. Rural leaders "also support a congressional bill, HR 5678, that would make it easier for rural hospitals to close their inpatient beds but retain some services, such as an emergency room and primary care clinic," Huff reports. "Under current federal regulations, facilities that make such a move are no longer considered a hospital and can’t be reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid at hospital rates, which are often higher than payments to clinics or individual doctors. Those lower rates make it harder for stripped-down facilities to keep up their operations."

U.S. soybean exports to EU quadruple, could keep rising

The European Union nearly quadrupled soybean imports from the United States in the latter half of 2018, according to a Jan. 7 announcement from the European Commission, saying that imports totaled 5.2 million metric tons from July through December, up 112 percent from the same period a year before, Eric Schroeder reports for World Grain. An EC spokesperson said American soybean imports will probably increase since U.S. soybeans may soon be approved for use in biofuels.

However, the spokesperson said the increase was due to market forces, and wasn't a political decision stemming from trade talks with the U.S. "Market analysts said the surge was caused by plunging prices in June, as China largely stopped buying U.S. soybeans in retaliation for trade measures" aimed at China, Robert-Jan Bartunek reports for Reuters. The EU gets most of its soybeans from Brazil and about a third from the U.S., annually about 14 million metric tons (15.4 million tons).

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said today that agriculture will not be discussed in upcoming trade talks between the U.S. and the EU, Chris Prentice reports for Reuters.

Rural recycling programs in U.S. are squeezed by China's tougher standards for imports of paper and other waste

"Big cities have shielded their residents from the impact of China’s decision last year to curtail the solid waste it will accept from other countries. But rural and small-town residents are starting to get squeezed by a change that is wreaking havoc on the global recycling market," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline.

China was the world's largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal for decades, but last year stopped accepting some kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for the purity of what it accepts. It wants less non-recyclable waste, hazardous waste, or incorrectly sorted recyclables mixed in with recyclables) The recycling industry generally tolerates between 1 percent to 5 percent impurity in recyclables, but China's new standard is 0.5 percent.

Normally, communities or their contractors can recoup some or all of the cost of their recycling programs by selling the scrap, but China's policy shift has rendered some types of recyclables worthless. While some cities have been able to absorb the financial hit, many small towns can't.

"Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities," Beitsch reports. "Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive. Rural communities spend more to transport their recyclables to centers that can find markets. And they cannot produce the volume of material that buyers want." That's why many use private contractors.

As a result of the policy shift, many small towns and rural areas have had to curtail or end recycling programs or pay more to dump scrap at nearby recycling centers. 

Brittany Prischak, the environmental sustainability coordinator for Erie County, Pennsylvania, told Beitsch that the squeeze will make it harder to keep the county recycling program going, though state law mandates such programs in communities with more than 10,000 residents. China's decision is highlighting and widening a rural-urban divide in terms of recycling opportunities, Prischak told Beitsch: "Before the changes even started to happen you could see the difference of where recycling was most convenient in urban areas versus where it’s difficult like rural areas to recycle even if they want to recycle."

Paradise Post to publish profiles of 86 killed in Camp Fire

Steve Boese looks for the name of his neighbor among the 86 crosses of Camp Fire victims erected in Paradise.
(Bay Area News Group photo by Karl Mondon)
Almost two months after the small town of Paradise, California, was destroyed in the deadly Camp Fire, the Paradise Post has announced a touching tribute to the 86 lives lost: the staff will run three profiles each day of those killed in the fire until all 86 have been published.

The work was more difficult, not just because some of the lost were friends and neighbors of Post staff, but also because sometimes it was difficult to reach the people who knew them best.

"Normally in that case we would try to reach out to neighbors or, if the person belonged to a club or organization, fellow members," the Post staff write. "That’s almost impossible to do when neighborhoods are wiped out, clubs and organizations are displaced and land lines no longer work. In some cases we can piece together stories based on social media profiles and messages, or internet research, but we are still searching for information on some people. If you have memories to share about someone who died in the fire, email us at"

The profiles will be published on a dedicated website; click here to visit it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Supreme Court rejects fast-track challenges to livestock-confinement laws in California and Massachusetts

"Two groups of state attorneys general were blocked Monday from bringing a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court against California and Massachusetts laws that set standards for the treatment of farm animals raised to produce eggs and some meats sold in those states," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "The attorneys general were asking the Supreme Court to allow their lawsuits to proceed directly to high court, without going through lower federal courts first."

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill led a group of other attorneys general opposing the Massachusetts law and Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley led mostly the same group of AGs to oppose California's laws: those of Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. "Those involved in the effort against the Massachusetts law were from mostly the same states. But South Carolina and West Virginia’s attorneys general also took part and Nevada and Iowa’s attorneys general did not," Lucia reports.

The Massachusetts and California laws are meant to improve confined farm animals' welfare by giving them more room to move. The California law, which went into effect in 2015, protects egg-laying hens. The Massachusetts law, passed more than two years ago and scheduled to go fully into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, centers on egg-layers, veal calves and pigs. Sales of such animal products will be prohibited if they come from operations the state considers excessively confined, Lucia reports.

"The attorneys general behind the current cases suggest the California and Massachusetts laws run afoul of federal law and are in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which prohibits state laws that discriminate against, or significantly impede interstate commerce," Lucia reports.

Roundup: how the partial shutdown of the federal government affects, or could affect, rural Americans

As the partial shutdown of the federal government stretches to Day 18, here's another update of how it's affecting, or could affect, rural Americans:

Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed indefinitely since some stretches are blocked by debris from a November ice storm. The scenic parkway, which is maintained by the National Park Service, can't be cleared until there's paid staff to do it. Hiking is open to the public, but the Park Service "left a notice at the Rockfish Gap entrance that said the area is open to the public, but no personnel will be available to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response. The federal agency urges extreme caution for anyone who does go in," Brianna Hamblin reports for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.

In what NPR calls "an irony", "the government shutdown began with the president's demand for border security money. But it has also halted E-Verify, a federal program that's supposed to prevent immigrants from working here illegally," Joel Rose reports. In addition, "much of the nation's immigration court system is closed, adding to a backlog of more than 800,000 cases and counting."

Federal prison employees are working without pay. After one such prison in rural Marianna, Fla., was damaged in Hurricane Michael in October, prisoners were transferred to a facility in Yazoo City, Miss., more than 400 miles away. Marianna corrections officers have been obliged since then to make the seven-hour drive for two-week stints. Since the shutdown, the guards are not only working without pay, but without reimbursement for gas, meals or laundry, expenses which can add up to hundreds of dollars per trip, Patricia Mazzei reports for The New York Times.

That's a financial burden few of the guards can afford, since more than two-thirds of the prison staff members sustained hurricane damage to their homes and about 10 percent of them completely lost their homes. And if those expenses cause staff to go into debt, that could endanger their employment: "The Bureau of Prisons as a general condition of employment requires that its workers pay their debts in a timely fashion. Failure to do so can result in discipline," Mazzei reports.

The shutdown "may hurt farmers by delaying the administration's ability to steer through the approval for year-round sales of a 15 percent ethanol blend for gasoline before the summer begins. That's up from 10 percent allowed now," Mario Parker and Jennifer Dlouhy report for the Chicago Tribune. President Trump had promised in October to allow year-round E15 sales, which would expand the market for corn-based ethanol and help corn farmers hurt by the trade war with China.

Reversing past legal precedent, the White House directed the Internal Revenue Service to pay tax refunds to Americans during the shutdown, and is trying to find a way to prevent federal food assistance programs from running out of money next month. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women with Infants and Children program, and school lunch programs, Damian Paletta, Jeff Stein and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. Though the Trump administration has been trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown on voters, 800,000 federal workers will miss their first paycheck within the next few days.

The shutdown is jeopardizing parts of Trump's agenda generally backed by the agriculture industry, Eric Wolff and Brianna Ehley report for Politico. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will delay publishing the proposed replacement for the Waters of the U.S. rule in the Federal Register until EPA funding is restored. That means the 60-day public comment period on the proposed WOTUS rule won't begin until it's published, and a hearing on the proposal scheduled for Jan. 23 has been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, an EPA proposal to ease limits on mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants hasn't been published in the Federal Register and can't be until the agency gets more funds.

Also, "The shutdown has also complicated the Agriculture Department’s efforts to assist farmers and ranchers burned by Trump’s retaliatory tariffs. Agricultural producers who haven’t yet certified their 2018 production must wait until local Farm Service Agency offices reopen before moving ahead with their applications for trade aid," Wolff and Ehley report.

Efforts to fight the nation's opioid epidemic have also been slowed or even stalled because of employee furloughs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If the government remains shuttered until the end of the month, funding for critical grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention activities could also be in jeopardy, some people involved in the effort worry. The drug policy office is expected to announce awards of money at the end of January for prevention programs and efforts to help law enforcement catch traffickers," Wolff and Ehley report.

The shutdown is affecting the fallout of the trade war too: the Commerce Department has stopped processing companies' requests to be excluded from U.S. aluminum and steel tariffs, and has no staff for ongoing investigations into whether trade penalties should be imposed on foreign companies selling their products in the U.S. at unfairly low or subsidized prices, Wolff and Ehley report.

Rural telecoms, groups oppose T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Rural internet carriers and several lobbying groups, including competing telecommunications firms, have joined forces as the 4Competition Coalition to try to stop T-Mobile's efforts to purchase Sprint, David McCabe reports for Axios. The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice are reviewing the deal, partly because of security concerns that the Chinese technology used by the two companies could make the U.S. more vulnerable to espionage.

While T-Mobile and Sprint say the merger will help them roll out 5G technology, the coalition believes that going from four national wireless carriers to three will hurt consumers and won't deliver the benefits that T-Mobile and Sprint promise, McCabe reports.

Members of the coalition include Kansas carrier United Wireless Communications, Pennsylvania carrier Indigo Wireless, the Rural Wireless Association, The Rural Broadband Association, the American Antitrust Institute, the Demand Progress Education Fund, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, DISH Networks, and the AFL-CIO.

T-Mobile and Sprint tried to merge in 2014 but the Obama-era FCC denied the deal, saying the wireless market wouldn't be competitive enough.

New app connects beekeepers and farmers

With bee populations declining and some farmers pursuing more intensive methods of farming, there aren't enough naturally occurring bees to pollinate many farmers' crops. A new smartphone app connects beekeepers with farmers who need their crops pollinated.

Pollination Network allows farmers to post public listings searching for bees; beekeepers can filter those listings based on location, price rate and quality of bees needed. Beekeepers now make more money by renting colonies for pollination than through honey sales.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Climate change poses outsized risk to rural America, much of which has 'limited capacity to respond'

Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Climate change poses an outsized risk to rural America, according to the recently released National Climate Assessment by climate scientists from 13 federal agencies. That's because rural economies depend more on the outdoors, with industries such as timber, agriculture, ranching, hunting, fishing and other recreation activities dominating. The report has a separate chapter on rural impact, predicting reduced agricultural productivity, degradation of soil and water and increased health challenges to rural people and livestock, and noting that "Residents in rural communities often have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts, due to poverty and limitations in community resources.

"For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications," Bryce Oates writes for The Daily Yonder. "Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report."

The report's authors predict that likely changes in climate patterns will make agricultural commodity markets more volatile, "shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape," Oates reports. Coastal erosion and rising sea levels could flood low-lying areas and disrupt wildlife-centered activities like hunting and fishing. Decreasing snowpack would hurt areas that rely on winter sports like skiing. Increasing forest pests and diseases could decrease timber harvests. And wildfires are predicted to become more frequent, intense and expensive.

The report predicts that adapting to these changes will be more difficult for rural populations, which tend to be older, poorer, and less educated, Oates reports.

National parks authorized to use entrance fees to pay for upkeep during shutdown; Democrats question legality

"The National Park Service will take the unprecedented step of tapping entrance fees to pay for expanded operations at its most popular sites, officials said Sunday, as the partial federal government shutdown threatens to degrade some of the nation’s iconic landmarks," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt authorized the move Saturday, in a memo obtained by the Post. Bernhardt said park managers can hire more staff to clean up and patrol highly visited sites such as Yosemite National Park. Since the bathrooms have been closed but the parks left open, visitors have left human waste and trash in open areas to such an extent that park managers at Yosemite had to close several campgrounds for public safety reasons. The problem is unprecedented, since in earlier government shutdowns, national parks were closed to the public, Eilperin reports. At least seven people have died at national parks since the shutdown. 

"Congressional Democrats and some park advocates question whether the park-fee move is legal because the fees that parks collect under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act are expressly designated to support visitor services instead of operations and basic maintenance," Eilperin reports. "The secretarial order authorizes parks that have 'available balances' of these fee funds to spend them on operations that include trash collection and sanitation, road maintenance, campground operations, law enforcement and emergency operations, and entrance staff 'as necessary to provide critical safety operations'."

Incoming phone calls are often dropped, rural residents say

Rural residents are complaining that some phone calls don't reach their landlines, but the reasons are murky.

"Landline customers have logged hundreds of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission in recent years about calls that don’t reach them. When a call is dropped, the caller hears a phone ringing endlessly or gets dead air," Drew FitzGerald reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Telecom experts say the failed calls are most often bound for landlines served by small rural phone companies, though the calls’ origin can be a cellphone, office line or automated system."
In at least one complaint, a failed call interfered with a medical transport for a hospital patient.

A possible culprit: low-cost "middlemen" carriers that telecoms use to route long-distance calls to local exchanges. "Critics say some calls are dropped by the middlemen carriers to avoid connection fees that local phone companies charge for accessing numbers in their network, though proving that is difficult. The fees are higher in less-densely populated rural areas than in urban centers," FitzGerald reports. T-Mobile was fined $40 million last year after it was found to have inserted fake ringtones to make callers feel they were reaching the rural number they had called, FitzGerald reports.

The problem may be difficult to solve. Long-distance companies say the problem is too infrequent to figure out a pattern that can be addressed. And the middlemen operate with little oversight, FitzGerald reports.

"Congress passed legislation in February 2018 that would help the FCC address the problem by requiring intermediary phone companies to register with the agency," FitzGerald reports. "In October, the FCC implemented part of that law by ordering telephone companies with more than 100,000 phone lines to keep up-to-date contact information about themselves. Starting as soon as next month, the FCC will launch the registry of middlemen that handle calls for other companies."

Emails show Florida officials delayed informing rural residents about potentially contaminated well water

Marion County, Florida (Wikipedia map)
State officials waited four months to notify some rural Florida residents near Ocala that their private wells could be contaminated with potentially harmful chemicals, according to emails obtained by the Miami Herald, Samantha Gross and Elizabeth Koh report for the newspaper.

Preliminary tests from the state Department of Environmental Protection indicated that wells in three clusters had elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), chemicals used in fire retardants, which studies suggest could cause cancer and other health problems, Gross and Koh report. One site was near the Florida State Fire College in Ocala, the second was near a Marion County fire station, and the third was near a mining operation owned by Lhoist North America.

In August, the DEP confirmed that flame retardants containing PFOS and PFOA had been used at the Fire College in the past, and in early September they told those at college to drink only bottled water. It wasn't until late October, though, that the DEP discussed notifying the rest of the community. The mining company was notified on Nov. 6. Linda Lawson, who lives half a mile from the Fire College, said she was not notified about the problem until Nov. 5. That evening, a Marion County Department of Health official came to her door with a few cases of bottled water and told her not to drink from her decades-old well anymore because of unsafe chemical levels, Gross and Koh report.

State workers have continued to bring the Lawsons jugs of drinking water and on Nov. 28 installed a filter on their well, though the family was instructed to keep drinking bottled water for two more months until more tests could be conducted. But their next-door neighbor, Miriam Flores, says she wasn't informed about the problem, and that when she and other neighbors called the local health department, someone there told her the issue was "nothing." A script sent to health department employees, which the Herald obtained, instructed employees to tell concerned residents that short-term exposure to PFOS and PFOA are unlikely to be harmful and that residents need not change their daily routines or find an alternate water supply, Gross and Koh report. After the Herald began asking officials about the testing, they finally tested Flores' water on Dec. 11 and informed her on Dec. 28 that her water had more than 20 times the acceptable level of chemical contamination. The state has still not installed a filter on her well.

"Les Beitsch, a former deputy secretary in the Florida Department of Health, speculates that health officials delayed notifying Lawson and the two other well users because of the impending election," Gross and Koh report. Beitsch "was effectively fired in November, he said, because he pushed back against the idea of any delay in notifying well-water users of the problem." Beitsch is a physician who is a department chair at Florida State University's College of Medicine.

A Florida DOH spokesperson told the Herald that they had "immediately notified well owners of results" and have "worked diligently to obtain the necessary permissions to conduct additional private well sampling." The DOH scheduled an Oct. 16 open house to inform the public and the Fire College about what was happening with the water supply, but was rescheduled for Dec. 4 because of Hurricane Michael, Gross and Koh report.

Increasingly popular practice of pasturing livestock in woodlots could reduce producers' carbon footprint

Photo by Lela Nargi, Civil Eats
The ancient practice of silvopasture, or pasturing animals among trees, is becoming more popular in the U.S. If more farmers and ranchers start doing it, it could help shrink our carbon footprint.

"If you have an overgrown woodlot, a strong back, a chainsaw, a small tractor with a mower, a pile of grass and clover seed, and a rake, then you can start establishing a small silvopasture on your land," Carl Fraccarolli of Cornell University writes for the land-grant school's Small Farms Program.
Here's how it works: trees absorb and keep a lot of carbon over time, and they're even better at it when planted among grazing animals on land that isn't suitable for growing crops, Lela Nargi reports for Civil Eats. Worldwide, silvopasture accounts for about 15 percent of all grazing land; though researchers know the number is low, it's unknown exactly how much land is dedicated to silvopasture in the U.S.

"Project Drawdown, a group of international scientists and policymakers that modeled the 80 most effective ways to battle climate change, ranks silvopasture number nine on its list, reporting that it could reduce CO2 emissions by over 31 gigatons by 2050 if it were ramped up from its current 351 million acres to 554 million acres worldwide," Nargi reports.