Friday, February 26, 2021

Patchwork government oversight makes it difficult to investigate, assess the impact of CAFO pollution

Factory farms produce prodigious amounts of animal waste that, when improperly managed, can contribute to air and water pollution, but inadequate or confusing government oversight makes it difficult to estimate the impact of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, on the environment and rural communities. 

"For decades, scientists have studied the effects that livestock farms with large animal concentrations in Iowa and other states have on regional water quality, as increasing amounts of waste flow into rivers and groundwater. Now activists and some lawmakers say emergency measures are needed to stop toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, and threats to drinking water in rural communities. In some states, lawmakers worry about the future of smaller family farms," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "Since last year, legislators in at least four states—Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon—have proposed moratoriums on new or expanding farms that have more than a certain amount of livestock. None of the proposed bans is expected to become law this year, but the lawmakers say they aim to build momentum."

Efforts to regulate CAFOs face strong opposition from the livestock industry, "which notes that Americans rely on the operations for meat, dairy and eggs," Brown reports.

"CAFOs have been a point of contention between the livestock industry and environmental activists since they began to proliferate in the 1990s, overtaking small, pasture-feeding operations as the dominant form of animal agriculture in the U.S.," Madison McVan reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "As the number of livestock producers has declined, the number of animals — hogs, cattle and poultry — has skyrocketed over the past several decades, in part due to rapid consolidation in the industry."

But in feeding that many animals, well, what goes in must come out. "One large CAFO can easily produce more than one million tons of manure per year — more than the yearly waste of a large city. ... The animal waste — usually stored in a lagoon or large tank before being spread as fertilizer in crop fields — contains nitrogen, phosphorus and sometimes growth hormones, antibiotics or pathogens such as E. coli. Rainwater can cause lagoons to spill over or wash the manure out of fields and into waterways," McVan reports. "But the full extent of the damage is hard to estimate because the federal government doesn’t keep track of where CAFOs are located. Instead, it’s up to states, researchers and activists to build their own databases." The task is even more difficult because each state has different rules for issuing CAFO permits, in addition to mandatory federal rules. 

In general, any animal feeding operation that discharges waste into federal waterways must get a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency or an EPA-designated state agency, McVan reports. CAFOs that get a permit are added to a database with basic information. The databases, which are considered public records and can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, allow agencies to quickly pinpoint the source of a pollution event, schedule inspections, and track problem areas.

"The federal government doesn’t require permits for facilities that claim they pose no risk to water quality, however, meaning thousands of CAFOs aren’t included in these databases. When the EPA tried to expand its reach to cover unpermitted facilities, judges ruled the agency cannot require all CAFOs to apply for a permit, effectively barring the federal government from creating a complete register," McVan reports. "Even before lawsuits blocked the EPA from collecting more data on CAFOs, the agency wasn’t adequately studying the environmental impact of their waste, according to the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan organization that audits federal agencies. The work of cataloguing these facilities and their environmental impact is left to states, academic researchers and activists, whose combined work has created a patchwork of maps and databases that shed light on the prevalence of CAFOs in the US."

Some local Republican politicians fire up base with social-media posts promoting conspiracies, supporting Capitol riots

"A faction of local, county and state Republican officials is pushing lies, misinformation and conspiracy theories that echo those that helped inspire the violent U.S. Capitol siege, online messaging that is spreading quickly through GOP ranks fueled by algorithms that boost extreme content," The Associated Press reports. "The bitter, combative rhetoric is helping the officials grow their constituencies on social media and gain outsized influence in their communities, city councils, county boards and state assemblies. And it exposes the GOP’s internal struggle over whether the party can include traditional conservative politicians, conspiracy theorists and militias as it builds its base for 2022."

AP reviewed social media accounts for nearly 1,000 Republican officials at the local, state and federal level. Many posts, some deleted, have voiced support for the Jan. 6 Capitol riots or said the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and should be overturned. "Some Republican officials are posting theories related to QAnon, which the FBI has called a domestic terrorism threat. And the Department of Homeland Security has warned of the potential for lingering violence from extremists enraged by Biden’s election and emboldened by the Capitol attack," AP reports. "Although some Democrats also have used incendiary and aggressive language online, AP focused its research on the GOP because court documents show the overwhelming number of people arrested in association with the Capitol insurrection are longtime supporters of Trump, who has a huge Republican fan base after leaving office."

When AP asked Republican National Committee spokeperson Mandi Merritt about the incendiary rhetoric, she declined to answer specific questions and instead referred AP reporters to a Jan. 13 statement by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel that said "Violence has no place in our politics, period."

Inequality-research organization says rural public transit needs more investment during pandemic

"With the pandemic taking a devastating toll on local budgets, the U.S. public transit system is battling to survive. For much of the country, this funding crisis jeopardizes an already withering lifeline," Kayla Soren writes for the Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit that studies structural inequalities. "For many Americans, public transit is the only option to get to work, school, the grocery store, or doctor’s appointments. But nearly half of us have no access to public transit. And those that do are now confronting limited routes, slashed service times, and limited disability accommodations."

More than a million rural households lack a vehicle and must depend on informal arrangements, ride-hailing services such as Uber, and/or public transit services to get around. The need is especially acute for rural residents who can't drive because they have a disability. "Over 80 percent of young adults with disabilities are prevented from doing daily activities due to a lack of transportation. And there aren’t enough resources to properly train transit workers for accommodating people with disabilities."

Rural public transit services are also critical for essential workers, the elderly and those who serve them, and survivors of domestic abuse. Dozens of transit riders and workers, many rural, testified at a recent two-day national community hearing about their needs for public transit. It's "unacceptable" that millions of rural Americans must get by with inadequate or no public transit, Soren writes.

"Congress can help. Public transit needs at least $39 billion in emergency relief to avoid service cuts and layoffs through 2023. But more broadly, we need to revise the '80-20' split that’s plagued federal transit funding since the Reagan era — with 80% going to highways and less than 20% to public transit," Soren writes. "Part of the justification for this disparity is that only people in dense, urban areas use transit. This is upside-down logic. The hearings reveal that when people don’t use transit, it’s because it is nonexistent, unreliable, or inaccessible."

Some inequalities go even farther than rural vs. urban: A new fact sheet published by the Appalachian Regional Commission illustrates disparities in public transit between not just rural and urban counties, but between rural counties outside of Appalachia vs. within Appalachia. As the report notes, only 7% of rural Appalachian counties served by fixed-route transit services have evening service, compared to 50% of non-Appalachian rural counties in Appalachian states.

Quick hits: Drought forecast for Western U.S.; which seven senators voted against Tom Vilsack?

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email

A rural liberal in New Hampshire set out to talk to his many pro-Trump neighbors. Read more here.

The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack for his second stint as agriculture secretary, 92-7. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont voted no, with Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking farmers and ranchers to respond to the 2020 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey to get a more accurate picture of local and regional food systems. USDA will continue to accept responses through April. Read more here.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association called on the federal government to establish more rural-friendly rules for broadband grants. Read more here.

James Fallows, who crisscrossed the U.S. writing about rural America and its newspapers for The Atlantic, writes now about how we can apply the lessons from FDR's New Deal to rebuild the economy from the pandemic. Read more here.

President Biden reverses his predecessor's freeze on certain green cards and temporary work visas for farmworkers and other skilled workers. Read more here.

At the Agricultural Outlook Forum this week, USDA leadership committed to helping control the pandemic as well as tackling deep-seated farming issues. Read more here.

Scientists are forecasting a drought for much of the Western U.S. this spring. Read more here.

Twenty percent of Wisconsin wolves are to be killed after a court sided with hunters. Read more here.

Extreme winter weather has caused shipping nightmares for grain barges. Read more here.

The internet has played a critical role in farmer networking during the pandemic. Read more here.

An explainer shows the ins and outs of how the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund broadband auction works. Read more here.

Frozen pipes in Texas are the latest warning of what will happen to water systems across the U.S. if policies and aging infrastructure are not updated to account for the increase in extreme weather climate change brings. Read more here.

Opinion: both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong

"Both sides of the school reopening debate have it wrong," Leana S. Wen writes for The Washington Post. "We shouldn’t be debating whether schools are safe to reopen. Instead, we should ask whether in-person schooling is essential. If it is — as many Americans, including President Biden, insist — then we should treat schools as we do hospitals. That means doing everything possible to them make safer, starting with vaccinating teachers." Read more here.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Pew report on how Americans got news about 2020 election and pandemic illustrates a deepening partisan divide

A newly published report from Pew Research Center showing how Americans navigated news about the presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 shows a deepening partisan divide. 

The American News Pathways project "finds there have consistently been dramatic divides between different groups of Americans based on where people get their information about what is going on in the world," Pew reports. "For example, Republicans who looked to former President Donald Trump for their news about the 2020 election or the coronavirus pandemic were more likely to believe false or unproven claims about these events. And while Americans widely agree that misinformation is a major problem, they do not see eye to eye about what actually constitutes misinformation. In many cases, one person’s truth is another’s fiction."

Some of the findings from the study, conducted from November 2019 through December 2020:
  • About a quarter of Democrats and Republicans consistently got their news from "partisan news media bubbles" with audiences of like-minded people.
  • Those who got their news only from such echo chambers were generally more ideological than others in their parties, and more likely to hear about and believe false or unproven claims.
  • Just under half of Republicans who got their news from echo-chamber sources are 65 and older.
  • Trump was a major source of election and/or pandemic news for 32% of Republicans and conservative independents. People who relied on Trump for information were more likely than other Republicans to think the pandemic was overblown, more likely to believe voter fraud was a significant threat to election integrity, and more likely to believe the news media had covered both issues poorly.
  • In November 2019, the vast majority of Americans surveyed said they were "very" (48%) or "somewhat" (34%) worried about the impact of fake news on the election. Liberals and conservatives were equally concerned about this. A year later, 60% of respondents said they felt fake news had had a major impact on the election.
  • Overall, older Americans, people who paid more attention to the news, and people with greater knowledge of politics were more worried than average about the impact of fake news.
  • People who relied mostly on social media for political news were less likely to worry about the impact of fake news.
  • What people deemed "fake news" varied widely; many identified factual news as fake because it didn't fit with their perceptions of reality.
  • News diets within parties played a big role in commonly held partisan beliefs. That phenomenon was more pronounced among Republicans because they tended to rely on a smaller mix of news outlets (especially Fox News and talk radio).
  • About 18% of people surveyed said in November 2019 that they relied mainly on social media for political news. Such respondents were the youngest group overall by far, with nearly half under age 30 (compared to 21% of respondents who get their news from news websites or apps, for example). People who relied primarily on social media for news were also less likely to be white.
  • Social media was a major source of news for many Americans, but it was not widely trusted by Republicans or Democrats.
  • Those who got their news mostly from social media were less likely to pay attention to other news sources such as print or cable TV, less likely than most others to be knowledgeable about current events, and more likely to have heard unproven claims and theories.
  • Similar percentages of liberals and conservatives paid attention to pandemic news coverage in March 2020. In late November, liberals reported about the same numbers, but far fewer conservatives were paying attention to the news.
  • Over 2020, Republicans perceptions shifted on pandemic-related issues. They generally paid less attention to news coverage, became more critical of the news media, and grew more likely to say the pandemic was being exaggerated. They also appeared to have less favorable views about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public-health officials. Democrats responses on those issues remained largely unchanged over 2020.

Toolkit aims to help rural communities plan, create and fund early childhood health promotion programs

The Rural Health Information Hub has launched a toolkit to help rural communities learn how to plan, create and fund early-childhood health promotions.

The toolkit has seven detailed modules that break down how to create, develop and implement a program, evaluate its effectiveness, plan for long-term sustainability, and best practices. 

From the website: "For more information about rural community health programs, including how to develop and implement a program, please visit the Rural Community Health Toolkit. Visit the Rural Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Toolkit for information about implementing a health promotion program for people of all ages."

Time to start planning your promotion of Sunshine Week, coming March 14-20; here are some resources

It's almost that time of year again. Sunshine Week is coming up on March 14-20, so it's time to start planning your coverage. The observance, launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) is a celebration of open government and freedom of the press. 

Click here to learn more or access a content toolkit with a special reporting package free for republishing. The Sunshine Week site will provide other tools, including op-eds, editorial cartoons, logos and a list of open-government questions that journalists can ask federal candidates. The site also features freedom-of-information story ideas and work from past Sunshine Weeks, a list of participants and a calendar of events.

Sunshine Week 2021 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by generous donations from the Gridiron Club and Foundation. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit Follow Sunshine Week on Twitter and Facebook. You can find or create social-media posts by using the hashtag #SunshineWeek.

Pandemic roundup: Health-care workers delivering vaccines to seniors; clergy risk death to minister to the sick...

Health-care workers administering the coronavirus vaccine are some of the happiest people in medicine right now, overjoyed to be doing something concrete to fight the pandemic. Read more here.

Biden administration to send 25 million cloth masks to community health centers and food pantries in low-income areas beginning in March. Read more here.

Clergy risk illness and death to minister to the sick and their loved ones. Read more here.

Fact checkers debunk a claim by conservative radio host Buck Sexton, who says that scientific research indicates that life should go back to "normal" now and that schools should reopen and people should stop wearing masks outside. But that's false, say scientists. Read more here.

As vaccine supplies increase, some states and localities are now struggling to find enough people to administer the vaccines. Read more here.

As American health-care workers begged for more N95 masks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a waiver in the final moments of Trump's presidency to allow a Texas company to export 5 million masks overseas. Read more here.

Health-care workers are delivering vaccines to homebound seniors. Read more here.

In Minnesota, rural seniors are more likely than their urban counterparts to receive a vaccination. Read more here.

States rush to catch up on delayed vaccines and expand access after bad weather caused clinic closures and shipment backlogs. Read more here.

Bills that would bar employers from requiring employee vaccination have been proposed in at least 23 states. Read more here.

The Food and Drug Administration has deemed the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine safe and effective in a clinical trial and completely protective against hospitalizations and deaths. Read more here.

Opinion: in-person visitation for dying loved ones must be part of the national Covid-19 response. Read more here.

Panel of rural experts say Biden administration needs more rural voices

"Rural perspectives should be present in every office in the Biden administration, said a panel of rural policy experts convened by students at Kenyon College. When decision-makers don’t understand rural communities, bad policy can be the result," Olivia Weeks reports for The Daily Yonder. "The biggest takeaway from the panel, said Daniel Napsha—founder of The Rural Cause initiative at Kenyon, is the need for rural voices in policy discussions. A non-representative body of policymakers has resulted in major structural problems, he said." The Rural Cause, which sponsored the panel, is a student-led advocacy group seeking to strengthen ties between Kenyon College and its rural Ohio surroundings.

The Feb. 18 panel, called "The Future of Rural America Under President Biden," also discussed the need for direct rural-development funding, the importance of data collection, the dangers of stereotyping rural America, and the policy implications of misunderstanding rural America.

Another common problem in discussing rural needs is that too many lawmakers conflate "rural" with "white" or "agricultural," which often means racial and ethnic minorities, including Native Americans, get left out of the discussion. "One way to help policymakers differentiate between rural America and farmers, said Zoe Willingham, research associate at the Center for American Progress, is to decouple rural policy from the Department of Agriculture, which houses non-agricultural rural-development programs in housing, broadband and utilities infrastructure, and a range of other community-development activities.

Increased broadband access would help overall rural resiliency, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health, Libraries Broadband Coalition. Direct funding is needed to make that happen, he said, noting that it will cost an estimated $80 billion to bring broadband to all rural Americans. However, he also said it's difficult to assess rural broadband reach because of faulty Federal Communications Commission data maps.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Chuck Abbott of FERN covers Vilsack's to-do list, climate-change farm subsidies, and minority farmer debt relief

Chuck Abbott of the Food & Environment Reporting Network has a trio of articles this week about agricultural issues. Here's a short summary of each:

Tom Vilsack, confirmed in a landslide Senate vote Tuesday for his second stint as agriculture secretary, is coming out of the gate with a "blockbuster" to-do list, Abbott writes in the first article.

Vilsack, who will be the Biden administration's chief link to rural America, "has a panoramic approach to farm prosperity and rural economic development as a cabinet secretary with initiatives that include biofuels and broadband access," Abbott writes. "He also argues that Democrats, for lasting political success, need to be more active in rural areas and find areas of agreement with rural voters, who are heavily Republican. The rural vote was instrumental in Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016."

Under Vilsack, he Agriculture Department aims to further President Biden's goal to make the U.S. the first country to achieve net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions from farming through initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve land and plant cover crops. Vilsack said in his Feb. 2 confirmation hearing that he believes farmers are "prepared" and "anxious" to adopt greener practices as long as they're voluntary, market-based, and incentive-based, Abbott reports.

Abbott's second piece explores farmers' views on eco-friendly farming practices, as reported by farm leaders at the USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum last week. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture group, said farmers expect to be paid for climate-change initiatives but not if they take money from traditional crop subsidies.

Chuck Connor, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former USDA deputy secretary, agreed: "You cannot do climate on the backs of the American farmer . . . They just simply don’t have the resources for that." Abbott notes, "Farm country opposition was a prominent factor in the defeat a decade ago of a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change."

The USDA "spends from $10 billion to $15 billion a year on farm supports, including $7 billion to $8 billion on crop and dairy subsidies and around $6 billion for land stewardship," Abbott reports. "Climate mitigation on the farm could require a federal contribution, possibly creating a squeeze on existing programs unless new funding is provided."

Abbott's third article explores controversy over $4 billion of debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers that the House Budget Committee approved Monday as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The USDA definition of socially disadvantaged farmers includes racial minorities and sometimes women.  Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee objected to the proposal, saying in comments submitted to the CBO that the plan was too hasty and that it needed more study to ensure there were no unintended impacts." They also questioned whether disadvantaged farmers' financial woes were pandemic-related. Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi called it reverse discrimination.

"The relief plan also allots $1 billion for land access, 'heirs property' issues and legal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers," Abbott reports.

More than 160 Confederate symbols removed or renamed after racial justice protests, more than in previous 4 years

"More than 160 Confederate symbols were removed from public spaces or renamed last year after the death of George Floyd, more than in the previous four years combined, a watchdog group said on Tuesday," Neil Vigdor and Daniel Victor report for The New York Times. "The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has campaigned for the removal of Confederate statues and monuments, released the findings as part of a report on the status of the symbols."

Widespread racial-justice protests spurred a renewed push to remove Confederate statues from public spaces, redesign flags that incorporated the Confederate battle flag, ban its display, and rename schools or other public buildings named after Confederate figures.

That push stalled in many rural areas of the South due to local sentiment and state historic-preservation laws that make it difficult. But Virginia, which had the highest share of remaining Confederate statues last summer, "led the way in the number of symbols that were removed last year with 71, followed by North Carolina with 24 and then Alabama and Texas with 12 each, the report said," Vigdor and Victor report.

"Still, many remain standing. An NPR investigation found that while some 60 Confederate monuments came down across the U.S. between May and October, localities moved to protect 28 of them during that same period, from Delaware to Florida to Arizona," Rachel Treisman reports for NPR.

Rural Covid-19 death rate last week a third lower than the week before; new rural infections down 75% from January

Daily Yonder map of new-case rates; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Covid-19 deaths in rural counties last week fell by a third from the week before, marking "the first significant decline in the rural death rate in more than a month," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Rural counties had 2,404 deaths from Covid-19 from Sunday, February 14, through Saturday, February 20. Previously, the weekly number of rural deaths hovered around 3,600 for four consecutive weeks." Metropolitan deaths fell by about a third as well, and the rural death rate remained higher than the metro death rate.

The number of new coronavirus infections in rural America also has fallen dramatically. "Since a peak of more than 230,000 new infections in first full week of January, the number of weekly new cases in rural counties has dropped by 75%," Murphy and Marema report. "Last week the number of new Covid-19 cases in rural counties was 56,296, a third less than the previous week. The last time the rural new-infection count was this low was the third week of September."

Murphy and Marema note that weather-related reporting interruptions out of Texas may be responsible for some of the decrease in infections and deaths. Many areas of  "Texas reported 60% fewer cases and 56% fewer deaths last week than the week before," the Yonder reports.

Click here for more information and analysis from the Yonder, including regional analysis, charts, an interactive map with the latest county-level data, and a slider map that lets you compare last week's map with the the week before.

U.S. life expectancy fell by a year during first half of 2020

"Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak, according to government data released Thursday," Lenny Bernstein reports for The Washington Post. The provisional data was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

Though white Americans overall fared better than Black or Hispanic Americans, rural areas (which have a higher share of white residents) tended to have a higher death rate. "Overall, the NCHS data shows, life expectancy at birth for the entire U.S. population in the first half of 2020 was 77.8 years," Bernstein reports. "For Black Americans, it was 72, for Latinos 79.9, and for whites 78. As has long been the case, women could expect to live longer — 80.5 years, compared with 75.1 for men. The NCHS did not include figures for Asian Americans or other racial groups."

While the data wasn't unexpected, the size of the reduction in life expectancy was more than expected. Elizabeth Arias, lead author of the paper, told the Post that the drop was a "big departure. We haven’t seen anything this large since the first half of the 20th century, when infectious disease was much more common." Since the data comes from the first six months of 2020, when the virus was hitting urban areas harder, Arias said data from the rest of 2020 will likely show a greater proportion of white deaths.

Health-care workers promote positive messaging about vaccines through social-media campaign

A new social-media campaign aims to fight misinformation and promote positive messaging about the coronavirus vaccine through a network of more than 25,000 health-care workers nationwide. Founded by Atul Nakhasi, a 33-year-old doctor in Los Angeles, #ThisIsOurShot hopes to influence the public conversation through "collective impact," Allyson Chiu reports for The Washington Post.

Like many other health-care workers, Nakhasi spends a considerable amount of time on social media fighting misinformation. "You wrap up your day, and you’re hoping the fight ends," Nakhasi told Chiu. "You’re fighting for lives that whole day … keeping people here to the next morning. And then you get home and you feel like the fight never stopped. It just changed turf. The landscape just changed."

Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a county health officer and family medicine doctor in Fredonia, Kansas (pop. 2,500), "responds to a daily flood of pandemic-related texts and social media messages while running her clinic and taking emergency room shifts," Chiu reports.

McKenney told Chiu that the misinformation is "one of our worst enemies" and said it was "almost worse than the virus itself . . . We have strategies to deal with the virus. There’s not a great strategy to deal with the random memes, or the stuff that’s presented as data that’s not actual data, or the bogus YouTube videos or whatever that look like they’re scientific and there’s no basis. It’s amazing the people that believe it and share it, and there’s not a strategy against that."

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Haaland poised to become first Native American cabinet official, at Interior; Vilsack USDA nomination also proceeding

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., during today's hearing.
(Photo by Jim Watson, The Associated Press)
U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M, is poised to become the first Native American secretary in a presidential cabinet with the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing her nomination as interior secretary today.

Meanwhile, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack is expected to be easily confirmed for his second stint as agriculture secretary today too, the Des Moines Register reports.

"The Interior Department manages one-fifth of the land in the U.S., including national parks, wildlife refuges and tribal lands held in trust," Nathan Rott notes for NPR. "Those lands generate billions of dollars of revenue not only in energy production but from recreation. They are also the source of roughly one-quarter of the country's total greenhouse-gas emissions."  

Haaland is a controversial pick, with many conservatives concerned about her views on energy development. During the hearing, "numerous Republican Senators focused their questioning on Biden's oil and gas leasing 'ban' on federal lands, citing projected economic and job losses from the executive action," Rott reports. "Haaland repeatedly pointed out that the president has not banned new oil and gas leasing, but paused it while his administration reviews the federal leasing program."

Her nomination is historic on several levels. "Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, along with U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas. And if confirmed, she will be the first Native American to head the agency that administers the nation’s trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives," Traci Morris writes for The Conversation. Morris, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is the executive director of Arizona State University's American Indian Policy Institute.

Many Native Americans say they're excited to see Haaland's nomination, and said she has worked hard to represent their interests, The Associated Press reports. The story includes interviews with Native Americans reflecting on how she has helped them or how they believe she will help them.

EPA sides with corn and ethanol producers on small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard

The Environmental Protection Agency "is changing course on small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard, announcing Monday it agrees with a Court of Appeals decision last year that the agency had mismanaged the program under the Trump administration," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. The marked increase in such exemptions over the past four years hurt rural America and the biofuels industry, EPA said. 

"The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Denver, had ruled in January 2020 that EPA mishandled the exemptions program when it came to three small-refinery exemptions in particular. The Trump administration delayed action on the Renewable Fuel Standard to reflect the court's decision," Neeley reports. The Biden administration said it agrees with the ruling, which said the exemptions were meant to be temporary and that the agency can only extend pre-existing exemptions.

With the appeals court ruling "before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, the EPA statement Monday means the Biden administration will not be defending the Trump administration's stance on the small-refinery exemptions to the RFS," Neeley reports.

The announcement was welcomed by corn growers and the ethanol industry, as well as the states where they have a large footprint, Neeley reports: "Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said although the Biden administration's decision is welcomed, she wants to see the Supreme Court uphold the RFS."

Climate change, and deforestation from surface mining or wildfires, put mountainous areas at risk of expensive floods

Counties ranked in ranges of percentages of property at risk for flood damage
First Street Foundation map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Climate change and deforestation are putting hundreds of small communities at risk of expensive flood damage they can ill afford, according to new data from the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches flood risk and housing. Climate change has driven rising sea levels and heavier rainstorms. Areas at the highest risk of flooding are on the coasts and in mountainous areas where surface mining or wildfires have removed the trees that can mitigate flooding.

"More than 4 million houses and small apartment buildings across the contiguous U.S. have substantial risk of expensive flood damage," Rebecca Hersher, Huo Jingnan and Sophia Schmidt report for NPR. "The cost of flood damage to homes nationwide will increase by more than 50% in the next 30 years, the First Street Foundation estimates."

The poor, who often have inadequate or no flood insurance, are the most vulnerable to flood damage, "and the federal government is ill-prepared to address the problem through the current federal flood insurance program," NPR reports. Central Appalachia, which shows significant risk of flooding on the First Street map above, has particularly high poverty rates.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency warns that the foundation's analysis is only an estimate and notes that First Street did not conduct their analysis about financial impacts of flooding with input about the agency's new flood insurance pricing plan. "For homeowners who are currently underpaying for flood insurance, FEMA says it plans to raise rates by up to 18 percent each year until the price is accurate, according to a January report by the Congressional Research Service. The agency will begin rolling out the new pricing in October," NPR reports. "As the cost of insurance goes up, many people who need flood insurance will likely be unable to afford it, leaving them to face lasting damage."

Monday, February 22, 2021

What's in the House relief-and-stimulus bill

The House Budget Committee began marking up the $1.9 trillion economic aid bill today at 1 p.m. Markups are expected to be minor, so here's some of what's in the bill as of now:
  • $4 billion for the Agriculture Department to buy and distribute agricultural products to those in need, to extend grants and loans to smaller producers, to improve agricultural supply-chain resiliency, and help pay for necessary expenses related to crop losses (including weather-related losses).
  • $100 million from the overall USDA funding to reduce the amount of overtime inspection costs borne by small and very small federally inspected meat, poultry or egg processors. 
  • $500 million from the overall USDA funding for need-based grants to help rural health-care providers with pandemic-related expenses.
  • $1,400 in direct aid for people earning up to $75,000 per year, with declining amounts on a sliding scale to a hard cut-off at $100,000.
  • An increase of the child tax credit from the current $2,000 per child to $3,000 for each child 6 to 17 and $3,600 for those under age 6. The credit would have the same income thresholds as the stimulus checks, and it would become fully refundable so more low-income parents could take advantage, Payments would be distributed monthly rather than as a lump sum once a year.
  • Continuation of tax credits through Oct. 1 to employers who choose to offer paid family leave and sick leave. The mandatory leave approved in a previous relief package would not be reinstated.
  • A 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly food stamps) would continue through September, instead of expiring at the end of June.
  • $880 million for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
  • States would be allowed to continue the Pandemic-EBT program, which provides families whose children's schools are closed with funding to replace free- and reduced-price meals that the kids would have received, through the summer.
  • $195.3 billion to state governments, including the District of Columbia. 
  • $130.2 billion to local governments, to be divided evenly among cities and counties. 
  • $20 billion to tribal governments and $4.5 billion to territorial governments.
  • $19.1 billion to state and local governments to help low-income households cover back rent, rent assistance, and utility bills.
  • About $10 billion to help struggling homeowners pay their mortgages, utilities and property taxes.
  • $5 billion to help state and local governments help the homeless.
  • $14 billion for coronavirus vaccine research, development, distribution, and compliance outreach efforts. 
  • $46 billion for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and mitigation, including laboratory capacity, community-based testing sites, and mobile testing units, especially in medically underserved areas.
  • $7.6 billion to hire 100,000 public-health workers to support the coronavirus response.
  • $128.5 billion for K-12 schools to make them safer to reopen by reducing class sizes, modifying classrooms to enhance social distancing, installing ventilation systems, buying personal protective equipment, and hiring more nurses and counselors.
  • Nearly $40 billion for colleges and universities to defray pandemic-related expenses and provide emergency aid to students for expenses such as food, housing, and computer equipment. 
  • $39 billion to help child-care providers with operating expenses.
  • $25 billion for a new program benefiting restaurants and bars hurt by the pandemic. The grants would provide up to $10 million per business with a limit of $5 million per physical location.
  • $7.25 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. The bill would also make more non-profit organizations eligible for PPP funds.
  • $175 million for outreach and promotion to help target businesses eligible for PPP funds.
  • Expanded federal unemployment benefits would be extended, with an increase from $300 a week to $400 a week through Aug. 29.
  • The federal minimum wage would gradually rise to $15 per hour by June 2025, and then be adjusted to increase at the same rate as median hourly wages. This provision may violate the parliamentary rules being used to pass the bill.
  • Federal premium subsidies for Affordable Care Act policies would be made more generous, and the maximum income cap would be eliminated for two years. Enrollees would pay no more than 8.5% of their income towards coverage, down from nearly 10% now. And those earning more than the current cap of 400% of the federal poverty level (about $51,000 for an individual and $104,800 for a family of four) would become eligible.
  • Federal subsidies for lower-income ACA enrollees would be eliminated completely, as would those for people collect unemployment benefits in 2021.
  • Laid-off workers who want to remain on their employer's health-insurance plans would have to pay only 15% of the premium through the end of September.
  • Federal matching funds for states that that expand Medicaid to low-income adults would be boosted by 5 percentage points for two years.
  • $15 billion for the Emergency Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides long-term, low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration. Severely impacted businesses with fewer than 10 workers will be given priority for some of the money.

Rural Texans face disproportionate struggles during winter weather crisis, but many say they can count on neighbors

Most Texans are struggling after last week's freak winter weather, but many rural residents may be having a harder time overall. "Like other parts of Texas, rural communities were hammered by the winter storm that left families without the basic necessities of heat and running water,"  Melissa Taboada and Sarah Vasquez report for The Texas Tribune. "But temperatures in the country dipped lower than in cities, plummeting to the low single digits. Fewer resources serve that larger geography, and without city services, mobility can be more limited. Many living in the rural areas are ranchers and farmers who also had to worry about and prioritize livestock and crops."

Russell Boening, a dairy farmer and president of the Texas Farm Bureau, told the Tribune he's never seen winter weather like this in South Texas in his nearly 40 years of farming, and said he's hearing horror stories from across the state from the organizations 500,000 members.

Rural schools and food banks are having a hard time coping, and some water utilities say their pipes have frozen, leaving families without clean water. Still, "Rural Texans also told stories of joy amid the hardship," Taboada and Vasquez report. "Neighbors helped neighbors, letting them stay at their homes or shoveling ice and snow from their sidewalks. Volunteers worked overnight to cook for warming centers and keep them staffed. While the icy roads kept [Milam County Judge Steve] Young from reaching his 93-year-old father whose pipes froze at his Rockdale house, leaving him without water, local police officers delivered a case of water bottles Friday morning. A Goodall-Witcher emergency room nurse, who volunteers at a local animal shelter, checked on a patient’s dogs."

Jerry Kenney, who invited neighbors to come to his house to shower, told the Tribune the neighbors paid it back by offering to pick up supplies for them all. "I love living in rural communities and East Texas," Kenney told the Tribune. "There’s a sense of belonging and a resilience that is unique. I have no doubt that I can rely on my neighbor in a time of trouble."

In a separate interview with The Daily Yonder, Kenney continued reflecting on the lessons the emergency has brought: "Life without water and electricity gets simple. For the past few days, I haven’t spent much time pondering the things that divide us. It’s hard to hate your neighbor when he’s sharing water with you. Who can indulge social media debates when it’s so cold you can’t feel your fingers?"

An article from the rural Breckenridge Texan reinforces Kenney's sentiment about rural neighbors pulling together, recounting a reporter's all-night ride-along with the county judge (an adminisytrative office in Texas) as he worked to help his community.

Pfizer announces its coronavirus vaccine can be stored in regular freezers, opening up more options to rural areas

Pfizer announced Friday that its coronavirus vaccine can be stored in a regular freezer, not the expensive, ultra-cold freezers they originally indicated were necessary. That could mean more vaccine options for rural providers who were unable to afford the new freezers.

"Pfizer submitted data to the Food and Drug Administration showing the vaccine is stable when stored between minus 13 degrees and 5 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators,"  Jessie Hellmann reports for The Hill. "The company is asking the FDA to update its authorization of the vaccine to allow for vials to be stored at these temperatures for a total of two weeks as an alternative or complement to colder freezers."

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the most prevalent in the U.S., but the Moderna vaccine has been more attractive to rural areas from the start since manufacturers have always indicated it could be stored in a regular freezer. Many rural hospitals, already struggling financially even before the pandemic, said they couldn't afford the $10,000 to $15,000 for one of the ultra-cold freezers.

Pandemic roundup: Some states not prioritizing farmworkers for vaccine; farmers' feelings of isolation have worsened

Here's a roundup of recent stories about the coronavirus pandemic:

Some states still aren't prioritizing farmworkers for the coronavirus vaccine as the federal government has recommended. Read more here.

Some California fire departments are distributing vaccines to rural areas. Read more here.

West Virginia has one of the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the world. Read more here.

Thousands of U.S. service members are refusing to get the vaccine, or delaying. Read more here.

The New Yorker does a deep dive into rural Alaskan towns with high vaccine distribution rates. Read more here.

Some rural counties in Missouri are seeing mixed results in efforts to get vaccines to residents. Read more here. has some new stories vetting popular social media posts about the pandemic, plus a video explainer about why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance on wearing face masks. Read more here.

Some health officials in New York state believe that a few rural counties' location is related to why they're so far behind the rest of the state in vaccination rates. Read more here.

A former U.S. surgeon general is urging the Biden administration to prioritize rural America in vaccine outreach efforts. Read more here.

The pandemic has exacerbated farmers' feelings of isolation. Read more here.

Are your school boards representative of the districts' families and children? Probably not, this research shows

"Most Americans would agree that public education should serve the educational needs of students. But to what extent does our current governance model—more than 13,000 school-district boards primarily elected by local voters—actually help us realize this goal?" Vladimir Kohan, St├ęphane Lavertu, and Zachary Peskowitz, all three policy or political science professors, report for the Brookings Institution

According to their research in four states—California, Illinois, Ohio, and Oklahoma—voters often look very different from local student bodies. For example, most majority-nonwhite student bodies are governed by school boards elected by majority-white electorate. Most people who voted on school board members don't even have children themselves, they found. Though state reform laws might help, local school-board reform might be better, they suggest.

How does your local school board measure up? How might a disparity between the school board's makeup and the local community affect the decision whether to reopen schools during the pandemic? As a recent news story noted, in California (and likely elsewhere) rural schools are more likely to reopen than their suburban and urban counterparts.