Friday, February 22, 2019

How a journalist's murder by Saudis may have doomed a big new manufacturing plant in the heart of Appalachia

The October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi may have dashed hopes for a high-tech plant in depressed Eastern Kentucky.

Battery manufacturer EnerBlu cited "unexpected geopolitical factors" on Feb. 5 when it suspended plans for a $372 million plant in Pikeville that would have brought as many as 875 jobs to a region that has lost thousands of coal jobs in recent years, Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource. Though the project ran into problems with the land quality on the plant's site, which was located on a reclaimed surface mine, EnerBlu CEO Daniel Elliott told OVR it would have been able to work through those issues.

Jamal Khashoggi (Photo by April Brady, Project on Middle East Democracy)
The main problem was financial: EnerBlu representatives said the plant was suspended because a primary potential investor had withdrawn. They didn't identify the investor, but Elliott said it was Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group. SoftBank operates the Vision Fund, an investment fund meant to support renewable energy projects, Boles reports.

"The Vision Fund’s largest investor, contributing a reported $45 billion, was the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, a government-associated entity chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," Boles reports. "The Saudis and SoftBank planned to build in Saudi Arabia the world’s largest solar project, a 200-gigawatt array. The project would require a massive amount of energy storage capacity, Elliott said, storage capacity that EnerBlu would provide."

EnerBlu accepted a reported $30 million in tax incentives from Kentucky to relocate its headquarters to Lexington in anticipation of opening the Pike County facility, though EnerBlu had not signed a contract with SoftBank to produce batteries for the Saudi project.

After Khashoggi was murdered, U.S. intelligence said it was at the behest of the crown prince, and many in the international community began to reconsider whether to partner with the Saudis. "Business leaders faced a decision point when the Saudi government hosted a Future Investment Initiative conference in late October. According to Bloomberg, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son skipped the investment summit and the Saudis withdrew their substantial contribution to the bank’s investment fund," Boles reports. "There would be no massive solar development in Saudi Arabia, and no need for EnerBlu’s batteries to support it."

Appalachian Studies Assn. seeks donations for scholarships for students to attend its meeting in Asheville March 14-17

The annual conference of the Appalachian Studies Association is a yeasty brew of academics and activists, perhaps not to the taste of the new leadership at the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is no longer providing scholarships for students to attend the conference.

"This is the first year we find ourselves without ARC scholarship support since 2001," the organizers wrote in an email to ASA members and supporters. "Consequently, we have more scholarship requests than we do funding. We only have $9,482.01 to distribute among $18,950 in requests." Last year, ASA provided scholarships to 136 students.

ARC spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman told The Rural Blog in an email, "ARC funding to ASA has always been made at the federal co-chair’s discretion. We regularly evaluate our longstanding granting relationships, especially those made with limited discretionary funds. Our folks discussed the situation with ASA back in the fall." The federal co-chair, Tim Thomas, took the job in April.

In addition to the ARC's cut, college Appalachian centers and other higher-education units "have not been able to donate as much" since the Great Recession, the organizers said. They said checks can be sent to ASA at 1 John Marshall Dr. ,Marshall University, Huntington, WV 25755, and credit-card donations can be made by calling Executive Director Mary Thomas at 304-696-2904.

Farmers are forced to hire more legal immigrants through farm-work visas as illegal immigration drops

U.S. farmers have employed undocumented farmworkers for years, but because of dwindling numbers of illegal immigrants from Central America, farmers are increasingly hiring legal immigrants with H2-A (agricultural work only) visas. "Since 2016, the number of U.S. agricultural visas has grown from 165,000 to 242,000, a record high, according to the Labor Department," Kevin Sieff and Annie Gowen report for The Washington Post. "Amid an intractable debate over immigration and border security, America’s labor force is quietly being transformed, as many employers see no choice but to shift from illegal to legal labor."

Norberto Labrador and brothers apply for temporary work visas
in Durango, Mexico. (By Luis Antonio Rojas, Washington Post)
Until recent years, more than half of farmworkers were undocumented immigrants, according to Labor Department figures. "But now — thanks to border enforcement, the surging cost of smugglers and changes in migration patterns — the number of people crossing into the United States illegally is nearing the lowest level in decades," Sieff and Gowen report. "There are more Mexicans leaving the United States than arriving there."

That has forced farmers to start hiring legal workers, something they have been reluctant to do. "Temporary work visa programs are heavily regulated, requiring employers to provide standard housing for workers and compensation for those injured on the job, for example. Some farmers say the system is too difficult and expensive to navigate." Don Hartman, a vegetable farmer in Deming, N.M., advised: "They need to make [the program] less cumbersome, less regulated, less political. Those people want to come and work and go back home and we need the help. Why can’t they make a single program that will work for both of us?"

Other employers who have traditionally relied on undocumented immigrants, like shrimpers, meatpackers, and construction companies, are feeling the strain. Unlike H-2A visas, which have no cap, H-2B visas, which cover other unskilled labor, are capped at 66,000 annually. "This year, employers applied for 97,800 nonagricultural visas in the first five minutes of the visa lottery, far more than ever before, crashing the Labor Department’s website," Sieff and Gowen report.

Some rural sheriffs in Washington state refuse to enforce new gun laws passed mostly by urban voters

About a dozen mostly rural sheriffs in Washington state say they won't enforce a new set of firearms laws that voters approved in a referendum last fall. The new laws raise the minimum age to buy a gun to 21, beef up background checks, and impose penalties on those who fail to store guns safely if one of the guns is used in a crime. Some of the sheriffs "say they will apply certain measures — for instance, the background checks — but will ignore others. One sheriff said he is not going to arrest a 20-year-old farmer who happens to have a semi-automatic rifle with him on his tractor," Martin Kaste reports for NPR.

Robert Wadman, criminal justice professor emeritus at Weber State University in Utah and a former police chief, told Kaste that law-enforcement officers must often use professional discretion, and may sometimes choose not to enforce a law for a good reason, but said he doesn't think publicly refusing to enforce a law, for likely political reasons, is defensible. "For me, questions of this nature should be answered by the courts — not the court of public opinion."

Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack thinks the Washington sheriffs are within their rights. In the 1990s Mack successfully challenged a federal law that required state officers to do background checks on gun purchases, and now runs an organization called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association that encourages sheriffs to take a more active role in deciding which laws to enforce. "Sheriffs standing for freedom have the responsibility to interpose — it's the 'doctrine of interposition' — whenever anybody is trying to diminish or violate the individual rights of our counties," Mack told Kaste. It is unclear whether any of the Washington sheriffs are members of the organization.

Mirya Holman, an associate political science professor at Tulane University, said the "constitutional sheriff" notion is a product of political polarization between rural and urban areas, and noted that the Washington gun law was passed mostly because of liberal voters in Seattle. "Sheriffs are seeing laws being made potentially by voters in urban areas and feeling like they need to protect their population from these people who have very different attitudes about the way the world should be," Holman told Kaste.

50 million gallons of polluted water flows from mines daily

U.S. mining sites discharging polluted water
(Associated Press map; click in image for a larger version)
Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding streams and ponds without being treated," Matthew Brown reports for The Associated Press. "That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting water supplies in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states."

For more than a century, companies that mine hardrock minerals such as silver or lead routinely failed to properly clean up mines once they closed, or forced taxpayers to pay for the cleanup. An AP examination of 34 federally regulated mining sites, which include hundreds of individual mines, shows that, on average, more than 50 million gallons of polluted wastewater flows daily from the sites. About 20 million gallons of that streams daily into groundwater, rivers and ponds and threatens communities' drinking water. "The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement," Brown reports.

Pollution at many of the mines has continued for decades after they were given federal funding to clean up; the Superfund program that allocates such funds faces steep budget cuts from President Trump, Brown reports.

Some federal officials fear that at least six of the sites AP examined could unleash disasters like the one at Colorado's Gold King Mine. In 2015, "A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of mustard-colored mine sludge, fouling rivers in three states," Brown reports.

There are as many as 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide, and the Government Accountability Office estimates at least 33,000 have polluted the environment. But thousands of abandoned mines are discovered every year, and federal officials haven't been able to keep up with the backlog. "Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands," Brown reports. "Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million."

Rural Arizona town marshal disciplined after threatening 12-year-old reporter

Google map
UPDATE, March 1: The town apologized.

Officials in Patagonia, Arizona, say they have disciplined Town Marshal Joseph Patterson after he a 12-year-old journalist said he threatened her, Jonathan Clark and Nick Phillips report for the Nogales International.

Hilde Lysiak, who writes and publishes the Orange Street News in her rural hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., was in the border town of about 900 for a few weeks with her dad Matt Lysiak, also a journalist. Not content to sit idle, Hilde chased and published news from Patagonia for her website, including a possible mountain lion sighting.

On Monday afternoon, according to an Orange Street story, Patterson accosted Lysiak while she was riding her bike and chasing a news tip, and when she identified herself as a journalist, he told her, "I don't want to hear about any of that freedom of the press stuff" and threatened to arrest her and put her in juvenile detention. Lysiak then began filming the interaction and asked Patterson to confirm that he had threatened to throw her in juvie, then asked him what she was doing that was illegal.

When Patterson discovered she was taping him, he said: "You can tape me, OK. But what I’m going to tell you is if you put my face on the internet, it’s against the law in Arizona, OK? So I’m not giving you permission to use my picture or my face on the internet. Do you understand all that?" It is not illegal to shoot video of the police in public, the Nogales newspaper notes.

Thousands saw the video, on Orange Street's YouTube channel and other media, and calls began flooding in to town officials. A message on the Town of Patagonia's website on Wednesday said that officials had received many comments about the video, and said that, although they don't publicly comment on personnel discipline, they "carefully reviewed" the matter and took what they believe to be appropriate action, the International reports.

Lysiak first grabbed headlines in 2016 when, at age 9, she scooped other local news outlets and broke the story of a local murder in Selinsgrove.


Quick hits: Pope urges lawmakers to consult rural people; town starts 'Goat Fund Me'; how to catch the super bloom

"Pope Francis is urging global decision-makers in both the public and private sectors to help address poverty and hunger in rural areas by engaging the local population as 'responsible architects' of progress," The Associated Press reports. "Francis was addressing an annual session Thursday of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a U.N. agency based in Rome dedicated to eradicating poverty and hunger in rural areas of the developing world."

A rural California town has launched a "Goat Fund Me" to raise money for a grazing goat herd. The goats, they hope, will eat flammable plants on city-owned land and reduce the town's wildfire risk, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

Huge rains mean California is ripe for a wildflower super bloom. Here's how to catch it, Jill Cowan reports for The New York Times.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Appalachian Regional Commission announces $22.8 million in grants to diversify economy of depressed coalfield

The Appalachian Regional Commission today announced $22.8 million in grants meant to help the economies of 33 Appalachian communities in nine states hurt by the coal industry's decline. The awards come from the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization Initiative; here's a list of the biggest awards:

Regional workforce council West Alabama Works in Tuscaloosa, Ala., will receive $1.45 million for the Power2 Expand Initiative. In partnership with the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, WAW will help coal-impacted residents in 10 counties with education, training and reemployment.

The Fletcher Group, chaired by former Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his wife Glenna, will receive $1.67 million for the Recovery, Hope, Opportunity and Resiliency program to establish addiction recovery programs in Eastern Kentucky and help recovering addicts find employment.

The East Kentucky Advanced Manufacturing Institute in Paintsville, Ky., will receive $1.5 million for the eKAMI Workforce Development Program, which will train adults to operate equipment in the machining industry and support training programs for young adults, high school students, and prisoners who want to go into machining as a career.

Fahe Inc. in Berea, Ky., will receive $1 million for the Second Chance Employment project, which will help recovering drug addicts in Eastern Kentucky find jobs.

Clarion University will receive $1.1 million for the Northwest Pennsylvania Diversifying the Regional Economy project, which trains teens and adults to work in the petrochemical industry.

The Youngsville Television Corp. will receive $1.01 million for the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Broadband Deployment Initiative, which will partner with volunteer fire departments to provide broadband services to unserved and under-served areas in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Duck River Electric Membership Corp., a rural electric cooperative based in Shelbyville, Tenn., will receive $2.14 million for the Angel Investing in Coal Communities program, which will provide funding for area businesses that benefit the region.

Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, Va., will receive $1.25 million to expand the impact and scale of the Seed-to-Sale: Strengthening the Central Appalachian Food Corridor project, which helps farmers in a four-state, 91-county area sell their produce on a larger scale.

The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition will receive $1.02 million for the Geographic Food and Agriculture Systems Development project, which helps farmers, food businesses and community members boost agribusiness priorities.

Click here for a complete list of awards.

Nine rural communities selected to create digital job hubs; will receive tech and professional support to help

Nine rural communities across the country have been recognized for their efforts to bring broadband and digital-based jobs to their areas, and will receive extra staff and professional support over the first quarter of 2019 through the Rural Innovation Initiative to develop an "innovation hub" of digital jobs spanning many communities.

The program is a collaboration between the Center on Rural Innovation, its sister organization Rural Innovation Strategies Inc., and the federal Economic Development Administration, which offered to help identify and serve rural economic development organizations, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

The nine communities were selected from 130 applicants in 40 states, and were chosen because they had existing high-speed broadband; available real estate or significant portions of the community located in New Market Tax Credit census tracts and/or Opportunity Zones; a partnership with a selective, endowed, 4-year college or university; and a non-profit organization willing and prepared to lead the initiative, according to the Rural Innovation website. Selected communities have to be willing to secure a workspace for the innovation hub, raise up to $500,000 for operation expenses, and apply for matching funds at the end of the first quarter of 2019.

Matt Dunne, the founder of CORI and executive director of RISI, said the initiative should make a meaningful impact on the selected small towns through strength in numbers. One entrepreneurship center in one town wouldn't interest national investors, he told Oates, "but, if you create a consortium of communities, and with that a virtual pool of 100 startups, then you can actually get the attention from the folks who are interested in investing in early stage companies."

The participants selected for the 2019 Rural Innovation Initiative are:
  • Codefi and the Marquette Tech District Foundation, Cape Girardeau, Missouri
  • Emporia, Kansas
  • Grinnell, Iowa
  • Independence, Oregon
  • Go Forward, Pine Bluff, Arkansas
  • Block22, Pittsburg, Kansas
  • Red Wing Ignite, Red Wing, Minnesota
  • 20Fathoms, Traverse City, Michigan
  • City of Wilson, North Carolina

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

USDA, partners seek rural applicants for technical help to implement economic-development planning projects

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and four partners are accepting applications from rural communities and regions for free technical assistance to implement economic development planning projects.

Through the Rural Economic Development Innovation (REDI) initiative, USDA is partnering with the National Association of Counties, the  Rural Community Assistance Partnership, McClure Engineering Co., Purdue University Extension, and the Center for Economic Development In Kentucky at the University of Kentucky.

Participation in REDI will enable a rural community, or region, to create economic development plans that include evidence-based assessments; quantifiable goals; plans to improve the local and regional economy; and metrics to track implementation and progress.

Rural communities with 50,000 or fewer people are eligible to join the competitive application process. Learn more or check out the REDI initiative fact sheet.

Apply by March 1 for expenses-paid rural fellowship to attend Association of Health Care Journalists conference

The Association of Health Care Journalists is offering fellowships to attend its May 2-5 conference in Baltimore, including one for reporters and editors working in rural towns and counties or who work for outlets serving a predominantly rural population. "Generally, this includes counties with populations below 100,000," AHCJ says.

March 1 is the deadline to apply. The fellowship covers the conference registration fee, a year's membership in AHCJ (new or extended), up to four nights in the conference hotel (Wed.-Sat.) if you live you live more than 50 miles away; and up to $400 for travel assistance (outside of 50-mile radius from the host hotel) and up to $100 (inside a 50-mile radius).

To apply, click here. If selected for a fellowship, you may be asked to write an AHCJ website blog post, take pictures or shoot video of a conference session. The fellowship is supported by the Leona M. & Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Knight Foundation pledges $300 million over next five years to help local journalism, lists recipients of first $100 million

"As newsrooms across the country face massive staff layoffs and dwindling revenue, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Tuesday that it will spend $300 million in the next five years to help bring life back to a dessicated local-news landscape," Laura Stampler reports for Fortune magazine. "The organization has decided to double its monetary investment in journalism in the coming years—with a particular focus on local reporting."

The foundation said in a release, "Newsrooms across the nation have been decimated by the collapse of traditional business models brought on by the impact of digital technology and social media, which have drawn readers and advertisers to other information sources on the internet. As a result, many communities have turned into news deserts, with little or no local reporting."

Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen said, “Without revenue, you can’t pay reporters. Without reporters, you can’t develop consistently reliable news reports about what’s happening in your town. Without that reliable news report, you can’t figure out how to run local government. It isn’t rocket science. We’re not funding one-offs. We’re helping to rebuild a local news ecosystem, reliable and sustainable, and we’re doing it in a way that anyone who cares can participate.”

Knight announced recipients of the first $100 million:
  • American Journalism Project ($20 million), a new venture-philanthropy initiative that will make grants and provide support to "local, nonprofit civic news organizations to ensure their long-term sustainability."
  • ProPublica ($5 million), to strengthen local investigative reporting, data-driven reporting and audience engagement. The support will also help expand ProPublica's Local Reporting Network, allowing it to hire local reporters.
  • Report for America ($5 million), a national service program that places journalists in understaffed newsrooms across the country and trains the next generation of journalists working in local news.
  • "Frontline" and PBS ($3 million), for high-quality documentaries and multimedia approach to reporting on local issues, creating up to five geographic hubs involving partnerships with local newsrooms.
  • NewsMatch ($1.5 million), a national matching-gift campaign to grow fundraising capacity in nonprofit newsrooms and promote giving to journalism among U.S. donors.
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press ($10 million), to help local newsrooms defend the First Amendment and hold decision-makers accountable. The committee will triple the number of lawyers working on local issues and expand its network of local attorneys providing free legal support.This initiative "recognizes that today’s journalists, and local news organizations in particular, are less able to pursue legal cases around free speech and freedom of the press due to a lack of resources and support."
  • Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund ($10 million), a partnership with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism to fund digital transformation of local news organizations.
  • The News Literacy Project ($5 million), a nonpartisan nonprofit that empowers educators to teach news literacy to middle- and high-school students, especially in communities where the Knight brothers had newspapers and the foundation makes investments.
  • Solutions Journalism Network ($5 million), which advances community engagement and civic dialogue to produce rigorous reporting that highlights solutions, rather than problems. The initiative will help bring the network to more communities, including those where Knight invests, and encourage collaboration with newsrooms in the American Journalism Project.
  • Cortico ($2 million), which has a listening system — the Local Voices Network — that uses machine learning to analyze online and offline community conversations to help journalists build trust by better understanding the communities they serve and the issues people care about.
  • Finally, Knight is investing $35 million in research to support creation and expansion of research centers around the United States. This research will study the changing nature of an informed society in America and will help build an emerging field of study to address pressing questions about the health of an informed society and citizenry in the digital age.

Spending bill has more for bridges, but even less for BUILD grants, most of which went to rural counties in 2018

Rural counties, as a whole, didn't gain much if anything from the federal spending bill signed last week. It included an extra $75 million for bridge repairs compared to 2018, which one policy expert called the "biggest identifiable win for rural counties," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty.

However, the bill included only $900 million for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grants, down from $1.5 billion last year. Seventy percent of BUILD grants in 2018 went to rural counties for infrastructure projects, Nyczepir reports. The grants, once known as TIGER grants, began as part of the stimulus package in the Great Recession.

Bridges are one of the top priorities this year for the National Association of Counties, according to Jessa Jennings, its associate legislative director for transportation and infrastructure. "I have no doubt that this does not address the backlog," Jennings told Nyczepir. "I’m sure we need more funding, but with the state of the bridges and roads as it is … an increase for the bridge program is definitely a big win for us."

The American Society of Civil Engineers says 9.1 percent of U.S. bridges — about 56,000 — are structurally deficient, and estimates that $123 billion is needed for repairs and maintenance of bridges nationwide.

Study: Over 1/5 of rural hospitals on edge of bankruptcy

Breckinridge Memorial Hospital in Hardinsburg, Ky., usually
has a week's worth of cash on hand. (Photo by Al Cross)
Five percent of rural hospitals in the U.S. have closed since 2010, and more than 20 percent of those still open are at high risk of closure unless their fortunes improve. "The situation would significantly worsen in the case of an economic downturn, something that’s looming given that the country is in its longest period of economic expansion ever," according to a new report by business analysts Navigant Consulting. In some states such as Alabama, Alaska and Mississippi, almost half of rural hospitals are at risk of closure, Navigant says.

The consultancy analyzed Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data from 2,045 rural hospitals and found that 21 percent — about 430, in 43 states — are on the edge of bankruptcy. The closure of a rural hospital can devastate the local economy, since rural hospitals are often the biggest employers nearby. "One study found that when a community loses its hospital, per capita income falls by 4 percent and the unemployment rate rises by 1.6 percent," Navigant Managing Director Dave Mosley reports.

The report says easing reimbursement for telehealth services could help rural hospitals by enabling partnerships with larger regional hospitals, and advises rural hospitals to lobby for legislative changes to make that happen.

Trial of Okla. lawsuit against opioid makers to be televised

Those interested in the many state legal battles against opioid manufacturers may want to pay attention to a case in Oklahoma that will likely be the first such lawsuit to go to trial on television. "Every detail of what promises to be a dramatic trial could be broadcast to the American public, potentially affecting the outcome of any future opioid trials," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline.

A larger case in Ohio that consolidates thousands of lawsuits brought by counties, communities, hospitals and others has been getting most media attention, is scheduled for trial in October. Most state attorneys general have chosen to file suit independently, and trial dates have been set in eight states, Vestal reports. The Oklahoma lawsuit, which targets Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Cephalon, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, is scheduled to go to trial earliest, on May 28.

Earlier state and federal lawsuits against drug companies have been mostly settled out of court and therefore kept out of the public eye. A deposition in Eastern Kentucky is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, has been questioned under oath about the marketing and addictive nature of its product OxyContin. Purdue is appealing the order for its release.

Because the Oklahoma case will use similar legal concepts and evidence as the Ohio case, it "could presage many of the arguments the jury may be presented in the national case in the fall," Vestal reports. "And if the drug companies in Oklahoma offer a settlement, the proposal could precipitate a national settlement, some legal experts said."

The state will argue that drugmakers falsely claimed that opioid painkillers were safe, and that those false claims and "deceptive and misleading" marketing campaigns led to the deaths of thousands of Oklahomans and hurt the finances of the state and many of its businesses, consumers, communities and citizens, according to the original complaint.

"At a minimum," Vestal reports, "the Oklahoma trial would for the first time give the press and the American public full access to evidence and arguments aimed at showing that drug companies flooded local markets with opioid painkillers for more than a decade while knowing that the pills were highly addictive."

Stigma, limited privacy, lack of sex education, shortage of health insurance hamper rural efforts to fight HIV and AIDS

President Trump said in his State of the Union address that he wants to stop the spread of HIV in the U.S. within 10 years. "In addition to sending extra money to 48 mainly urban counties, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Trump's plan targets seven states where rural transmission of HIV is especially high," Jackie Fortier reports for NPR. Health officials in those states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina) welcome the funding, but told Fortier that ending or slowing rural HIV transmission is a big challenge.

In rural areas,there is still a stigma attached to being gay and/or having HIV or AIDS, says Dr. Michelle Salvaggio, medical director of the Infectious Diseases Institute at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, a federally funded HIV clinic. It employed a case manager to serve a nearby rural area, but eliminated the position because no patients went to see her, Salvaggio told Fortier: "They didn't want to be seen walking into the HIV case manager's office in that tiny town — that can only mean one thing."

That lack of anonymity is not just a problem in small towns. When Native Americans, an at-risk population in Oklahoma, "go into an Indian Health Service clinic, it is possible that they will see their cousin behind the desk, and their cousin's brother-in-law working in medical records, and their niece's boyfriend working in the pharmacy," Salvaggio said.

An HIV-positive Cherokee, Ky Humble, told Fortier that rural Oklahomans with HIV and AIDS need more than medical funding; they also need more access to related services like food pantries, mental health therapy, and transportation assistance.

Another difficulty: Oklahoma, and many other states with large rural populations, don't require comprehensive sex education that could help teens learn about cheap, effective methods of preventing HIV, such as use of condoms. Lack of health insurance will also likely hamper efforts to get rural residents tested and treated, especially in states that did not expand Medicaid, Fortier reports.

Google got millions in tax breaks for new plants, but locals often didn't know until it was too late to do anything about it

Washington Post map by Aaron Steckelberg
Google got millions in tax incentives as it open new offices and data centers across the country — some of them rural — and often without the prior knowledge of communities' residents. That's because Google generally demanded secrecy from developers and city officials when negotiating contracts, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports for The Washington Post.

"Google — which has risen to become one of the world’s most valuable companies by transforming the public’s ability to access information — has vastly expanded its geographic footprint over the past decade, building more than 15 data centers on three continents and 70 offices worldwide," Dwoskin reports. "But that development spree has often been shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible for some communities to know, let alone protest or debate, who is using their land, their resources and their tax dollars until after the fact."

In one example, officials in Midlothian, Tex., a community of about 18,000 near Dallas, approved more than $10 million in tax breaks to Google last May for a new data center. But locals didn't know until it was a done deal. Travis Smith, managing editor of the local paper, the Waxahachie Daily Light, told Dwoskin that "I’m confident that had the community known this project was under the direction of Google, people would have spoken out, but we were never given the chance to speak . . . We didn’t know that it was Google until after it passed."

Many rural residents would likely welcome a big new employer, but others are wary of the potential disruption to the community, increased traffic and home prices, environmental impact. And some don't want to offer such huge subsidies to companies that already have substantial financial clout, Dwoskin reports.

Google isn't the only big corporation to employ such tactics (or receive such a response). Amazon was widely criticized for requiring extremely restrictive confidentiality agreements when seeking a site for its second headquarters. "Some New York lawmakers were so outraged by the secrecy of Amazon’s process that they have introduced bills that would ban nondisclosure agreements for development projects in the city and state," Dwoskin reports.

Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in state and local government law, told Dwoskin that it's important to keep the public informed about such negotiations. "Public transparency laws are designed to keep the public interest at the contract table, and the way you do that is with information."

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rural people may notice climate change more, but they also have the grit to 'keep going' and adapt

Scientists know that the climate is changing, but it doesn't take data for many rural people to see it. Nikki Cooley, who grew up on a rural Diné Nation reservation in Arizona without electricity, said that the piñon pines don't smell like they used to in summer, and the wind sometimes feels like it's blowing the wrong way at the wrong time of year, Dan Zak writes for The Washington Post.

Cooley, who now co-manages a tribal and climate change program in her home state, said she isn't the first to notice. "If you talk to elders, who are some of the most revered people in our tribal communities," Cooley told Zak, "they’re like, 'We told you so, we have been saying this.'"

Yale and George Mason universities' report
Countless scientific reports back up Cooley's tribal elders, but it's hard for people to know what to do about climate change, which means it often gets ignored, Zak writes: "How do we live? Day by day, mostly. Many of those days are spent trying to be stable, happy, prosperous. Americans are increasingly certain that human activity is causing global warming, according to a report published Tuesday by Yale and George Mason universities, but who has the willpower or the luxury to always think generationally, geologically — to the end of this century, to the uncertainties beyond?"

Climate change is something to ignore at our peril, Zak writes, noting the increased wildfires, the wonky weather messing with crops, the increased invasive species and other creeping, subtle symptoms, many of which disproportionately hurt poorer, rural areas, especially in the U.S.

Alice Majors, a poet in Alberta, recently released a book called Welcome to the Anthropocene, referring to the name many scientists have given to the current epoch, in which humans are changing Earth. In one poem, she suggests that rural people, closer to nature, are in a better position to notice the shift: "Immured in cities, we forget we live on a planet that is more inventive than ourselves."

Zak suggests that rural people, especially Native Americans, may be also be particularly up to the challenge of enduring the change and working toward a solution. "The Diné know what it means to be driven from land, to adapt, to survive from one epoch to the next, even though things are not okay," he writes. Cooley puts it more plainly. Though knowing about climate change takes "an emotional toll," she says "I have to remember that these people keep going, and have been going since the colonial settler stepped foot on this land."

Scientists study bats' hibernation to combat white-nose syndrome, which kills them; some spelunkers object

Wildlife Conservation Society scientists collect bats for examination. (New York Times photo by Kim Raff)
Biologists all over western North America are searching mines and caves to try to see how a fungal infection called white-nose syndrome will behave when it spreads to local bat populations, Jim Robbins reports for The New York Times.

Since 2006, the disease has killed millions of bats in North America, mostly in the East and Midwest, and threatened some of the continent's 47 bat species. But the disease is spreading. "Having ravaged much of the East Coast and infecting an isolated, outlier region near Seattle, white-nose syndrome is heading deep into the West at the rate of about a state per year, and has appeared on the eastern edge of the region, killing bats in South Dakota, Oklahoma and eastern Wyoming, Robbins reports.

The loss of so many bats could have terrible consequences for agriculture and ecosystems overall: "Bats play a critical ecological role, pollinating plants in some places and controlling mosquitoes and other insects," Robbins reports.

So biologists are searching caves in the West to see where the disease will pop up next. They're also trying to better understand the physiology of how bats hibernate, since that could help them find a way to combat the disease.

Not everyone is on board with the scientists' efforts though. "The National Speleological Society, a group of cave explorers who also study and work for the conservation of caves, opposes these kinds of efforts, especially the blanket closing of caves to the public to keep the disease from spreading," Robbins reports. Bat expert Merlin Tuttle told Robbins that the efforts could harm the bats, since disturbing them during hibernation may stress their systems "at a time they can least afford it."

But scientists say the data is invaluable. By gathering information about how the bats hibernate, "in areas like this where it’s not yet arrived, we can form a predictive model based on ecology, physiology, genetics and skin chemistry," said Jonathan Reichard, assistant coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service's program on white-nose syndrome.

Scientists have floated a host of solutions; one that shows promise is exposing infected bats to ultraviolet light. It kills the fungus, Reichard told Robbins, but there isn't a feasible way to deploy it.

Federal agencies announce initiatives in telemedicine, housing to deal with opioid epidemic in rural areas

The federal government has taken several steps recently toward fighting the opioid epidemic in rural areas, including a program to help create transitional housing for recovering opioid addicts.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will partner with the Department of Agriculture on the program, according to a press release. Through it, USDA-owned single-family housing units will be available for sale at a discount to nonprofits that provide housing, treatment, job training and other services for people in addiction recovery.

The USDA recently announced that it would give first consideration to opioid treatment projects that apply for its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program.

"The opioid epidemic is dramatically impacting prosperity in many small towns and rural places across the country," Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said. "With this focused investment, we are targeting our resources to be a strong partner to rural communities to build innovative local responses to this significant challenge."

Hazlett will soon leave her role in Rural Development to serve as the senior advisor for rural affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Rural Alabama publisher calls for KKK to 'night ride' against Democrats who want to raise taxes; outcry ensues

UPDATE, Feb. 20: Directors of the Alabama Press Association have censured Goodloe Sutton and suspended his newspaper's membership. "The members have a right under the bylaws to address the question of expulsion of the newspaper at the next membership meeting," APA said.

Goodloe Sutton in 2015
(Montgomery Advertiser photo by Alvin Benn)
A newspaper publisher in rural Alabama is drawing criticism after he wrote a Feb. 14 editorial calling for "the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again" against "Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats [who] are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama."

Goodloe Sutton has worked at the Democrat-Reporter in Linden since 1964 and inherited the paper from his father in the 1980s, Melissa Brown reports for the Montgomery Advertiser. The paper has lost much of its circulation and struggled financially in recent years, the Advertiser reported in 2015.

When the Advertiser asked Sutton about the editorial, he said, "If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we'd all been better off." Asked to clarify what he meant, Sutton said "We'll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them."

Sutton, who is about 80, told the Advertiser he was calling for the lynchings of socialist-communists, not Americans, and compared the Klan to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Klan, he said, "wasn't violent until they needed to be" and "didn't kill but a few people." Sutton said he welcomed comments, calls or boycotts of the paper, Brown reports.

Red marks Linden in Marengo County;
Demopolis is at north border (Wikipedia)
An outcry against the editorial began after student journalists at Auburn University posted it on Twitter. The Southern Mississippi University School of Mass Communications and Journalism removed Sutton from its Hall of Fame, the Advertiser reports, and the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council revoked a community journalism award it had given him, The Auburn Plainsman reports.

"Sutton and the newspaper received national acclaim in the 1990s for their reporting on a corrupt local sheriff," Brown reports. But in 2015 he landed the paper in the public eye for a different reason, after running a headline titled "Selma black thugs murder Demopolite Saturday night." Demopolis (2010 population 7,483) is home of the daily Demopolis Times and the largest town in Marengo County, which had 21,027 people in 2010. Linden had 2,123.

Democratic officials in the state swiftly denounced the editorial. "Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who prosecuted two members of the Klan for their role in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, called the editorial 'disgusting' and demanded Sutton’s immediate resignation," Antonia Farzan reports for The Washington Post. "Echoing the call for Sutton’s resignation was Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who wrote, 'For the millions of people of color who have been terrorized by white supremacy, this kind of ‘editorializing’ about lynching is not a joke — it is a threat.'"

UPDATE, Feb. 22: Auburn journalism professor John Carvalho writes for the Advertiser that he was warned that Sutton was racist when the school honored him in 2009, but kept quiet about it, and that "allowed racism to fester and even grow. And now, within the current political climate, it is once asserting itself more strongly than ever."

Monday, February 18, 2019

5G will widen tech gap between rural and urban U.S., and U.S. and China, says Progressive Farmer editor emeritus

Urban Lehner
Though 5G wireless networks are up to 20 times faster than 4G, the new tech is unlikely to benefit rural America anytime soon, writes Urban Lehner, editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. He observes that China has been preparing for 5G for years, which puts the U.S. at a disadvantage. China has 5.3 5G relay stations per 10 miles; the U.S. has 0.4, according to The Washington Post.

"Trailing China matters because 5G will ultimately transform manufacturing and warfare, among many other things," writes Lehner, who was also once the executive editor at The Asian Wall Street Journal. "Trailing the cities matters because 5G could play a critical role in enabling farmers to make the most of precision agriculture. It could also improve rural health care by enabling telemedicine and slow rural depopulation by allowing more country folk to telecommute."

The Trump administration recently unveiled the American Broadband Initiative to try to beef up rural broadband, but Lehner writes that it will be a tall order, and notes that rural broadband coverage is even worse than Federal Communications Commission maps show; those maps are based on data provided by telecom companies that have an incentive to overstate rural coverage to get subsidies. 

Cutting red tape will help some, but in many rural areas, it's just plain population density that makes broadband buildout expensive, not regulations. "That said, the American Broadband Initiative includes some useful measures that will help narrow the urban-rural internet gap," Lehner writes. "Some 25 agencies are participating and the report lays out specific action items for many of them. These range from developing a common cross-agency permit application form (General Services Administration) to evaluating the economic benefits of high-speed internet for precision agriculture (USDA). It's good to see the government acknowledging the gap and proposing to do something about it, even if its proposal doesn't go far enough."

Some states consider limiting or banning tax incentives designed to lure big corporations to relocate

Legislatures in New York, Arizona, and Illinois are considering bills to end or limit the practice of offering tax incentives to lure big corporations to relocate; similar bills may be introduced soon in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey, Liz Farmer reports for Governing.

That's particularly apropos after Amazon recently abandoned plans to open a second headquarters in New York City following mounting public objection to the $3 billion in subsidies offered to the business, one of the world's wealthiest.

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, who co-sponsored New York's version of the bill, said tax incentives often aren't worth what they cost governments and called the competition to snag big corporations a "race to the bottom" in an opinion piece for Buzzfeed.

"An Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study noted that most giveaways simply move pieces on a chessboard, rather than create actual growth," Farmer reports.

"In the case of retail, as much as 90 percent of the apparent direct benefits of tax incentives are offset by losses among the subsidized retailer's local competitors," according to the study. "While this figure is likely to be lower for industries serving a more national market, states constantly run the risk of harming existing businesses within their borders when they attempt to give some companies a competitive edge through the use of tax incentives."

Corporate tax breaks are tempting for more rural states, but Kim points out that the lower taxes and cost of living are already natural selling points for such places, and says states can better help their economies by beefing up infrastructure and focusing on programs that grow talent locally, Farmer reports. 

Bill would make online access to federal court records free

A bipartisan House bill has been introduced that would make accessing federal court records free to the public, and would also improve document accessibility. It would also be a boon to most journalists and news organizations, who aren't based in cities with federal courts.

"PACER, as the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system is otherwise known, currently charges between 10 cents and $3 for most searches, page views and PDF document downloads," Kayla Goggin reports for Courthouse News Service. "That would change under the [proposed] Electronic Court Records Reform Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill."

Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Quigley, the co-founder and co-chair of the Transparency Caucus, said in statements last week that the bill would increase transparency and accountability, Goggin reports.

"Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in September but failed to get a hearing," Goggin reports. "The renewed proposal comes after a federal judge ruled last year that PACER fees have been unlawfully set above the amount authorized by Congress."

Could new strawberry harvester replace human workers?

One of three side-by-side photos by the Post's Zack Wittman: robotic claws that pick berries, and a hand that just did.
Engineers have been trying without success for decades to create a harvesting machine that can pick easily-bruised crops like strawberries, but a new model from agricultural automation company Harvest CROO Robotics shows promise, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post.

Big ag companies like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms are among funders who have helped raise $9 million to make the machine, nicknamed "Harv." Mechanical harvesting is a longstanding goal, but the incentive is greater now because the labor pool of farm workers is shrinking. Tighter immigration policies mean fewer Central Americans are coming to pick crops, and most Americans refuse to do the work even when offered higher pay, free housing and recruitment bonuses, Paquette reports.

"If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person," third-generation Florida strawberry farmer Gary Wishnatzki told Paquette.

One "Harv" is meant to do the work of 30 people, but it has a ways to go before it can pick as well as humans. "During a test run last year, Harv gathered just 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition," Paquette reports. But Harv has a big advantage over humans: it "doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days."

Paquette starts her story with this description of picking: "Both human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils."