Friday, April 15, 2022

News nonprofits with statewide missions can provide local news in places where philanthropy is less likely to play

Mountain State Spotlight looked at the future of St. Mary's, W.Va. (Photo by Doug Soule) 
By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

While we worry that philanthropy for journalism won't find its way into rural news outlets as extensively as it is in metropolitan areas, at least two nonprofit news organizations with statewide missions are showing that they can provide more local reporting.

This week's big news on that front was the announcement by the Texas Tribune that it would station its first news bureaus outside the megastate's major metropolitan areas and far-flung El Paso: in the Panhandle-South Plains, East Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Permian Basin of West Texas, with a regional editor to oversee coverage.

“There’s a whole debate right now about the Washington-centric nature of political news in America, Editor-in-Chief Sewell Chan told Nieman Lab. “When everything is refracted through the one powerful capital, what distortions does that produce? I think in Texas, we have a similar challenge on a different scale. If all news is refracted through the perspective of Austin’s lawmakers, regulators, lobbyists — all of whom have immense power — does that mean that we’re not getting the diversity of perspective from the various parts of the state?”

Of course it does, when Austin and the major metros are politically progressive and culturally liberal and the rest of the state is opposite. In our tribalized political era, it will be important for the reporters in places like Lubbock to become part of the community so they can accurately reflect and represent their coverage region to the Tribune's audience, which is metro-centric but likes to think it has an appreciation for all things Texas. They might take some cues from editor-publishers like Laurie Ezzell Brown in the Panhandle town of Canadian; she take progressive stances in The Canadian Record but has the support of conservative readers because they know she respects their views and values.

And they should be careful about viewing too much through a political lens. In his Breaking the News letter on Substack, James Fallows notes a Twitter post from The Washington Post seeking a "reporter to document life in red-state America and develop a new beat mapping the culture, public policies and politics in a region shaped by conservative ideology." Fallows, who once lived in Texas, questions "the assumption that an assemblage of nearly 30 million people, in the fastest-growing and second-most populous state, can usefully be classified as 'red-state America.' And that for journalistic purposes, the area can be understood as 'a region shaped by conservative ideology.' These views are connected to the larger flattening impulse of thinking that the real 'news' in most developments is their political impact. That is something many people in journalism and government naturally think, and that most other people do not." 

The news from Texas also made me think of another friend, Ken Ward Jr. and his Mountain State Spotlight, which covers West Virginia. I'll bet Ken visited every one of the state's 55 counties when he worked for the Charleston Gazette (now the Gazette-Mail), and he knows where to send reporters for good local stories that have statewide resonance but aren't being done by local papers.

The latest example of that is Douglas Soule's story and photos from Pleasants County, one of the state's smallest, about what the closure of the local coal-fired power plant will mean for the Ohio River county. "It’s not just plant employees and their families that would be affected by a closure," Soule writes. "When such an economic engine sputters out, it has a domino effect, and the whole community loses."

Soule reports a specific example: "Next fiscal year, the Pleasants County school system is projected to collect around $6.7 million in taxes. Superintendent Michael Wells said if the plant closes, the system could lose $1.3 million of that tax revenue annually, only some of which could be made up." We don't know if that information has been in the weekly Pleasants County Leader; it's not online.

Statewide nonprofits can't provide regular coverage of local governments and institutions; that's up to local news media. But many of those news outlets are unwilling or unable to provide journalism that provides accountability and context, and that's where nonprofits can help from time to time.

Lee Enterprises fought off Alden Global Capital, but now faces pressure from another hedge fund, Cannell Capital

"Newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises is facing renewed pressure from a hedge fund to speed up its transition to digital publishing and consider adding new digital-savvy leaders to its board after successfully fighting off a hostile takeover from a different hedge fund," Josh Funk reports for The Associated Press. "Lee’s largest shareholder, Cannell Capital, this week disclosed buying nearly 20,000 more of the company’s shares, giving it a 9.1 percent stake. The fund’s head, Carlo Cannell, said he thinks Lee needs new board members and executives with experience running a digital publishing business."

Carlo Cannell said he had some, but "not a lot" of confidence in Lee's management. "His company and another hedge fund that owns a large stake in Lee, Praetorian Capital, also questioned the amount Lee spent on advisers as it was fending off a $24-per-share takeover offer from another fund, Alden Global Capital. But the investor who leads Praetorian, Harris Kupperman, has indicated that he is more comfortable with the company’s current direction," Funk reports. "Cannell Capital has been prodding Lee to make changes for several years. That includes running a 2019 campaign encouraging shareholders to vote against three board members, including Lee Chairman Mary Junck, and announcing last September that it planned to vote against all incumbent Lee board members."

Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and former president of The Poynter Institute, said Lee's troubles with hedge funds won't likely be over any time soon. "He noted hedge funds aren’t known for their patience in waiting for companies to grow their stock prices or profit margins," Funk reports. But many news organizations will see market turbulence as they make the transition from print to digital, Franklin told Funk.

Arkansas weekly, started in 2018 after GateHouse Media shut down paper in Hope, is still thriving after pandemic

Mark Keith
In September 2018, GateHouse Media shut down The Hope Star, an 89-year-old twice-weekly paper in Hempstead County, Arkansas, the birthplace of Bill Clinton. Local furniture store owner and radio host/ad salesman Mark Keith and his friend, local businessman Wendell Hoover, wanted to keep local news alive in their town, and founded the weekly Hope-Prescott News. The paper is thriving these days, according to the Arkansas Press Association's Arkansas Publisher Weekly, and the duo has even opened up a sister weekly, the Little River Journal in nearby Ashdown.

Their success is no small feat. The News is a free-circulation paper entirely supported by advertisers, a task made far more difficult as ad sales tanked nationwide during the pandemic. But Keith said they never lost advertisers, and perhaps even gained ad money because there were so many employment ads.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has still been difficult for the papers' staff, from the logistical challenges of printing and reporting while some were sick or quarantined, to the pain of writing obituaries for beloved friends. Read more here.

New project seeks journalists to help test drive newsroom strategies to increase reader trust; apply by April 25

A project that seeks to increase trust between newsrooms and readers is inviting journalists to help test strategies for the enterprise.

Trusting News
, a collaboration of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, will explore five questions through its new Pluralism Network. Stipends for three of the projects are funded by George Mason University's Mercatus Center and cross-disciplinary, cross-idealogical collaborative the New Pluralists. From the project's website:
  • What strategies or tools could help editors assess whether individual stories are contributing to complexity and curiosity rather than overgeneralizations and polarization? Read more about our anti-polarization checklist, which comes with a $2,000 stipend for participating newsrooms.
  • How can newsrooms adopt practices around national wire-service content that help audiences differentiate it from local news? And what resources would be helpful for journalists writing headlines on those stories to avoid triggering polarized reactions and feedback? Read more about our wire news project, which comes with a $2,000 stipend for participating newsrooms.
  • How can newsrooms incorporate outreach efforts with maximum impact and efficiency to learn about the needs and perceptions of people with low trust in news? Read more about our outreach and listening project, which comes with a $500 stipend for individual participating journalists.
  • How can hiring editors and human-resources teams update interview practices to learn more about the "dimensions of difference" that job candidates could add to their staffs? Read more about our hiring project.
  • How can newsrooms talk to their audiences about their election coverage in a way that highlights shared goals and taps into a collective desire for understanding and curiosity? Read more about our election coverage messaging project.
Trusting News will publish what it's learned this summer, just in time for the midterm elections. In the meantime, participating journalists can share what they're learning with each other via a Slack channel. Apply here for priority consideration by April 25.

Quick hits: U.S. gets 2nd dark-sky reserve; USDA names more state chiefs; Google can show your town since 1985

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 us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Medical coding can have an oddly large impact on rural health-care inequalities. Read more here.

A musicology professor reflects on the sage songwriting of fellow West Virginian Bill Withers. Read more here.

Rural Texans who met Putin almost 21 years ago reflect. Read more here.

Just days after The Post and Courier in South Carolina reported that a Greenwood judge Curtis Clark's family improperly profited from real estate auctions that he ran, the state's chief justice stripped Clark of his job overseeing foreclosures. Read more here.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Census data show an exodus from big cities in 2020-21; pandemic, living cost, remote work, politics all played roles

Net domestic migration per 1,000 residents from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021
Business Insider map using Census Bureau data; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Newly released Census Bureau data show a mass exodus from the largest U.S. cities in the year that ended June 30, 2021. "At the same time, smaller metro areas, as a group, experienced higher population growth than in each of the previous two years, while non-metropolitan America showed the greatest annual population gain in more than a decade," William H. Frey reports for Brookings Institution. "The demographic shifts revealed by the latest census population estimates are not just a continuation of past trends. The sharp domestic out-migration from the nation’s major metro areas and urban core counties in the 2020-21 pandemic year was unusually large, even when compared with the previous year and the modest growth declines in the last half of the 2010s. As a result of out-migration from these areas, many smaller metro areas and rural counties experienced higher growth than in previous years."

Americans' reasons for moving during the pandemic varied, and it was often a combination of factors; some wanted to take advantage of remote work opportunities and get out of crowded, expensive cities they perceived as more vulnerable to the coronavirus, and some felt the pandemic was a wake-up call to pursue a slower, more meaningful life, Madison Hoff reports for Business Insider.

Politics may have motivated some to move. "America is growing more geographically polarized — red ZIP codes are getting redder and blue ZIP codes are becoming bluer. People appear to be sorting," John Burnett reports for NPR. "Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas." Bill Bishop first spotlighted this trend in his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

Pricey egg prices leading into Easter may be more because of market worries, pandemic stock shortages than bird flu

We're paying more for Easter eggs this year, but it's not because of the highly pathogenic bird flu that's taken out nearly 25 million commercial and backyard birds in the U.S. (most of them egg layers), according to a new American Farm Bureau Federation analysis.

In fact, egg inventory is 38 percent higher now than it was during the last major bird flu outbreak in 2014-2015. But inflation-adjusted egg prices are still almost 15% higher now than they were then, according to the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Consumer and trader worries about the bird flu may be partly responsible for the higher egg prices. "Today's pricing suggests that the market doesn't necessarily believe the industry has HPAI contained quite yet," AFBF noted in the report. Another issue, a recent CoBank report found: egg producers have had a hard time keeping up with consumer demand during the pandemic. "Typically, the industry increases demand ahead of Easter and scales back in the summer when demand wanes, CoBank stated. But the number of egg layers was already down about 7 million hens compared to 2020 and prior years before the pandemic hit," Clayton reports.

Weekly editor in Iowa laments that 'nothing has changed' with his Pulitzer-winning topic, water pollution from farming

Weekly newspaper editor Art Cullen won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his campaign supporting the Des Moines Water Works' lawsuit to clean up the Raccoon River, overloaded with nitrates from over-fertilization and other poor conservation practices by farmers in his area. When he and his brother John bought the Cherokee Chronicle-Times in an adjoining county, he asked Editor Paul Struck if their Storm Lake Times Pilot could republish his sports column. "He countered that the Cherokee paper should publish samples of our 2016 editorials," Cullen writes. "I wasn’t certain at first that they should be dredged up. We already spoke our piece. Then I went back and reread them. It struck me that nothing has changed in seven years but talk."

Editor Art Cullen
Nitrate levels are not declining in the Raccoon or other rivers, and the reservoir that supplies Des Moines' drinking water "is routinely threatened by toxic algae blooms fed by phosphorous runoff," Cullen writes. "More than a decade after voters approved a fractional increase in the state sales tax for water quality improvement, among other conservation enhancements, the legislature has refused to abide by the amended state constitution by enacting the sales tax increase." He cites other failures at the state level, and moves up the totem pole:

"We hoped, and still hope, that something could be done at the federal level to clean up Iowa’s surface water. There are promising small steps: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack authorized a pilot project to expand cover crops in Buena Vista County. Even with that, about 1% of our county’s acreage will be covered over winter. Vilsack says he wants to double the amount of Iowa cover crops in the next decade. So that might get BV County to 2%? Cover crops, along with buffers and grass strips, can almost wipe out surface water pollution. It can pay off if the government would take swift and bold action. But it doesn’t. Doubling nothing doesn’t get you something."

Des Moines' water boss, the late Bill Stowe, "started a conversation in Iowa about how we approach our gentle land," Cullen writes. "It helped steer people’s attention toward more sustainable ag practices that help farmers. The Practical Farmers of Iowa are showing us a different way forward to growing legions of land stewards. Yet it’s not nearly enough. . . . Industrial ag interests have a grip on our politics and minds. . . . The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is fine with 11,000 steers laid in next to one of Iowa’s rare trout streams. Meanwhile, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico persists, killing the fishing industry at the mouth of the Mississippi. It’s hard to say that farmers or rural communities have benefitted much from this chemical paradigm over the past half-century. Nitrogen and methane from agriculture are feeding extreme weather that lead to epic drought and winter tornadoes. Those editorials reminded me how much work we have to do in Iowa, if we actually intend to 'feed the world'."

Some pain patients and doctors worry the CDC's revised opioid-prescription guidelines won't help patients enough

Opioid prescriptions have fallen more than 40 percent over the past decade in response to the opioid overdose and addiction crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has played a role in that by encouraging doctors to prescribe fewer painkillers, but that has made it more difficult for patients with chronic pain to get the medication they need. The CDC has drafted a new version, on which the public-comment period just ended, "but some worry it doesn't protect patients enough," Will Stone reports for NPR.

New CDC guidelines in 2016 encouraged doctors to be wary of opioid addiction and advised them to start at a low dose and avoid prescribing high doses. Amanda Votta, a Rhode Island graduate student who has rheumatoid arthritis, told Stone that it became much harder for her to get any kind of opioid prescription at all, and that she was often in great pain.

"There's broad agreement now that the 2016 guidelines were misapplied to pain patients like Votta," Stone reports. Dr. Roger Chou, who helped write the 2016 guidelines, told Stone the guidelines were only meant to guide doctors, not stop them from prescribing appropriate medication to patients with chronic pain. But many states used the guidelines as the basis for new laws, some of which limited doctors' ability to prescribe opioids, Stone reports.

The CDC's new prescribing guidelines show promise, some experts say. "The top-line recommendations no longer include specifics about the dose or duration a patient shouldn't exceed when taking opioids. The draft also warns up front that the guidelines should not be used as inflexible standards of care," Stone reports. But the lack of specific guidance could make some doctors uncomfortable and cause them to stop prescribing opioids at all, another expert said.

April 27 webinar from Agri-Pulse will discuss how farming technology and innovation can help thwart climate change

Agri-Pulse will host a free webinar at 2 p.m. ET April 27 to discuss how agricultural technology and innovation can help address climate change. Register here.

Agri-Pulse's Spencer Chase will moderate a panel including the following:

  • Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.
  • Karsten Temme, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder, Pivot Bio.
  • Pipa Elias, deputy director of the Environment Program, Walton Family Foundation.
  • Patty Mann, Mann Farms.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Maine House passes bill banning sewage sludge that can have 'forever chemicals' and is commonly used as fertilizer

Known PFAS contamination sites in 2021. Blue dots denote samples from drinking water, purple from military sites, and orange from other sites. (Environmental Working Group map; click image to enlarge or click here for interactive version.)
Maine's House of Representatives has sent its Senate a bill banning the spread, use or sale of sludge from sewage treatment plants and septic tanks, since the sludge (called septage) is often contaminated with "forever chemicals" linked to numerous health problems. The bill would also ban the sale of crops grown where septage was spread, and the material would go to landfills instead. "It would be one of the most aggressive actions to date in Maine, which has been ramping up its efforts to respond to the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in farmland, water and food after several farms have discovered unsafe levels of the chemicals," Caitlin Andrews reports for the Bangor Daily News.

Map shows sites where septage was spread in southern Maine. (Click to enlarge)
That includes Songbird Farm, 90 miles northeast of Portland. Adam Nordell and Johanna Davis bought the 44-acre farm in 2014 and established a thriving organic farm. But in 2021 state wildlife officials found dangerously high levels of PFAS in deer that hunters had harvested in nearby Fairfield. The state warned people not to eat the deer in that area, Keith O'Brien reports for The Washington Post: "Several farms there had been fertilized in the 1990s with municipal or industrial sludge — essentially, treated sewage — that contained an unknown amount of PFAS. The deer had ingested it over time and should now be avoided, the state announced."

Nordell and Davis suspended sales from their farm after voluntary testing revealed that their soil, water and spinach crops were all contaminated with PFAS. The farm's last owner had died of pancreatic cancer, so they got themselves tested for PFAS too, and discovered their levels were 250 times higher than the average American, O'Brien reports.

"It would be comforting to dismiss the story of Songbird Farm as a one-off calamity — a confined case of PFAS contamination. The reality is far more disturbing. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, more than 2,800 sites nationwide are contaminated by PFAS — and that’s only what’s documented," O'Brien reports. "The real total is unknown, and possibly much higher. In Maine alone, the state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating 700 sites once fertilized with the same sort of sludge that likely contaminated Songbird Farm. Many cases are lurking beneath the surface, undetected and often unregulated by an official watchdog."

PFAS, invented in 1938, are nearly impossible to avoid: They're in everything from food packaging and non-stick cookware to baby bibs, and they have a habit of rubbing off on whatever they touch. Once they're in your body, they're around for the long haul. "It can take four to 15 years for levels of PFAS to reduce by half in the human body, and it can take centuries for the substances to disappear from the environment," Isabella Grull√≥n Paz reports for The New York Times, citing a Consumer Reports investigation revealing how prevalent PFAS are (in fast-food packaging, for example).

Maine is taking some of the most aggressive regulatory actions of any state towards PFAS to date. The state government "advanced a first-in-the-nation phaseout of most consumer products containing PFAS last year. They are on track to approve a $100 million fund to aid farmers and address health effects and have also advanced a phaseout of pesticides containing the chemicals," Andrews reports.

Hackers causing crises at rural hospitals, specialty clinics

"The reality of being locked up by ransomware is no longer a concern reserved solely for major health systems, once a primary target," Marion Renault reports for Stat. "Regional hospitals and specialty clinics are now also constantly warding off, and falling prey to, malicious cyberattacks as ransomware groups grow more opportunistic than ever. Federal databases detail a number of small providers — from pediatrics clinics to hearing centers, chiropractors and child abuse prevention non-profits — caught up in the sweep of attacks targeting the health care system. Such attacks "can be devastating for a health system of any size and scary for anyone relying on its care. But for smaller hospitals and practices, the costs — both to patients and to the bottom line — can be especially steep. Experts say that small, rural providers are also less likely to be prepared to defend, resolve and recover from a ransomware attack than their larger, urban counterparts."

An October 2020 ransomware attack on Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, Oregon, for example, hobbled the hospital for nearly a month, left patients with little or no care, and cost the hospital an estimated $10 million in lost services, replaced equipment and more, even though it didn't pay the ransom, Renault reports. Cyberattacks have driven some providers out of business, such as Brookside ENT in Michigan or Wood Ranch Medical in California. Hospitals survive, but the breakdown in care can cause patients to lose trust, and sometimes they sue for damages, Renault reports.

New rural coronavirus infections at lowest level since June; deaths fell 40% last week but still higher than metro rate

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, April 4-10
Map by The Daily Yonder; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The pace of new coronavirus infections "fell for the 11th consecutive week last week, reaching its lowest level since June 2021, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. New cases dropped to 16,700, a decline of 8 percent compared to two weeks ago. Rural infections are down 97% from their peak in mid-January," Yonder Editor Tim Marema reports. "Meanwhile, metropolitan counties saw an increase of 25% in new cases last week, rising to about 219,000 for the week compared to 175,000 two weeks ago. But even with the uptick, metropolitan infections are 95% lower than they were during the height of the Omicron surge."

Deaths related to Covid-19 fell by about 40% last week in both rural and metro counties and hit their lowest numbers since August. "The rural death rate was higher than the metropolitan death rate last week – a trend that goes back nearly a year," Marema reports. "The weekly death rate was 53% higher in rural counties than urban ones."

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Study confirms silica has driven uptick in black-lung disease

A new study has confirmed a widespread belief that the cause of black-lung disease in coal miners has shifted recently from coal dust to silica dust. Silica has likely driven a spike in more severe black-lung cases among younger miners in Central Appalachia, the study found, since no other major variables changed over the decades; regulations have remained mostly in place, in come cases getting more strict, and people haven't suddenly become more vulnerable to coal dust.

The University of Chicago-Illinois study, in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, is the first to examine changes over time in the disease's pathology (how it looks under a microscope, in this case) and its mineralogy (which kind of dust caused it) by comparing miners' lung tissue samples going back more than 100 years. Dr. Robert Cohen, the lead researcher, told NPR that there has been indirect evidence of silica's role, "but his study was the first to examine lung-tissue samples for it.

Coal and silica cause different kinds of lung damage, and though most black-lung disease results from a combination of coal and silica inhalation, modern lung samples showed a greater percentage of silica damage and also a greater amount of silica damage overall.

Silica dust is released when miners drill through rock. It takes more rock drilling and excavation to get a ton of coal today, especially in Central Appalachia, because easy-to-reach coal, in thick seams, is gone.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

News Leaders Assn. winners and finalists include statewide nonprofits and a university project; climate change featured

Nonprofit news organizations with statewide missions, and thus a rural impact, were among the winners and finalists in this year's awards from the News Leaders Association, a recent merger of the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors. A university project also won a major award, reflecting the growing role of journalism schools in providing news coverage. 

The First Amendment Award went to Ed Williams of Searchlight New Mexico for its investigation of turmoil and cover-ups at the state's Children, Youth and Families Department. The judges said, "Ed Williams had a hard job – how do you find messages that are disappearing? – but his cultivation of sources led to a shocking abuse of public records law and the public's right to know." Another statewide nonprofit, Iowa Capital Dispatch, was a finalist for its pursuit of public records.

Two other statewide nonprofits, the Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, were a joint finalist with ProPublica for a "remarkable journalistic effort [that] turned a complicated data set of pollution records from the EPA into an easy-to-access interactive map that allows anyone to input an address and find out the toxic air pollution level and the estimated cancer risk in the area." The news outlets "sent postcards to affected communities and posted fliers in churches, libraries and other gathering spots. It is no wonder that the EPA took notice and responded." The project is the subject of a webinar at noon ET Tuesday, April 13.

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland was named Punch Sulzberger Innovator of the Year for “Printing Hate,” which the judges called "an exceptional exercise in journalistic accountability and a memory project for the ages. Working with students at five historically Black colleges and universities and Black newspaper publishers, put "the racist coverage of horrific lynchings" in a database that "allows users to filter varying types of harmful coverage — including reporting that attempted to justify, and even organize, acts of state-abetted racial terror." It resulted in removal of a rural Maryland publisher from the Hall of Fame of the Maryland-D.C.-Delaware Press Association.

Climate change was in the NLA spotlight. Each year the NLA's Batten Medal recognizes "coverage of an issue that presents an urgent challenge to the United States." This year's issue was climate change. The Los Angeles Times won for an October story showing how California undercounts deaths from extreme heat "even as heat waves become more frequent and more deadly."

Other finalists were The Post and Courier, which explained how the fate of South Carolina's Low Country is connected to rising temperatures and melting glaciers in Greenland, and Bloomberg News, for "Methane Menace," which revealed many sources (including leaky oil and gas wells) of the gas that dissipates much more quickly than carbon dioxide but has a greenhouse effect 80 times as potent. "Judges were stunned that such an obvious problem had been left unfixed for so long," NLA said. "The fact that the reporters had to gather their own data and then analyze it was also unique."

The Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting, named for the publisher of The Seattle Times, the Yakima Herald and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, went to the Tampa Bay Times for "a classic watchdog investigative report" on how toxic dust inside a local lead smelter "poisoned employees and their families for years." For all the winners, go here.

2/3 of U.S. drinking water systems have uranium; search new database to see how your county's water stacks up

Public water systems by uranium, concentration 2000-2011 (Columbia University map; click the image to enlarge it)

Uranium is present in two-thirds of the nation's community water systems, which may put many Americans at a higher risk of health problems such as cancer, heart disease, and kidney problems. That's according to an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data from 2000-2011 published this month in The Lancet Planetary Health. Though only 2.1 percent of water systems had annual uranium levels that exceed EPA maximums, there has been little research about the health effects of chronic uranium exposure.

Semi-urban Hispanic communities had the highest average levels of uranium and other toxic metals such as arsenic, barium, chromium, and selenium, according to the researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Because Hispanic communities tended to have those elevated levels regardless of location or region, the study's authors said a failure of regulatory policy and/or water-treatment infrastructure may be to blame rather than natural occurrence of the heavy metals in the groundwater.

Moreover, an interactive map and searchable database show that counties across the nation — many rural — have contaminated water too. How pure is the water in your county?

N.C. becomes first state to bar state, local governments from paying ransoms to hackers; others may follow suit

North Carolina just passed a law prohibiting state and local governments from paying ransom to hackers who encrypt their computer systems; other states could follow suit. That could put rural governments at a disadvantage, since they are often more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

State and local agencies and governments in North Carolina may not pay or even communicate with hackers, according to the new law. "Rather than communicate with attackers, agencies must consult with the Department of Information Technology as described in this statute, which requires reporting cybersecurity incidents to the DoIT within 24 hours. Private sector entities are encouraged, but not required, to report cybersecurity incidents to the state’s IT department," Susan Miller reports for Route Fifty. Other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, are considering similar laws.

"According to a National Law Review article, lawmakers in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have suggested that hackers will have no financial incentive to attack agencies that are prohibited from paying ransoms and will look for victims in other states," Miller reports. "This strategy would put under-resourced agencies at a disadvantage, the article suggested, as they may be unable to restore or rebuild their systems after an attack."

Biden greenlights E15 summer sales, releases funding guide for local governments in rural infrastructure tour

Senior officials with the Biden administration will visit 30 rural communities this month to tout billions of dollars in funding for rural broadband, water, jobs, roads, and more as part of a "rural infrastructure tour" launched Monday. That includes $14.6 billion in rural-specific programs in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which was bipartisan, along with billions more in regional and state funding that will be spent on roads, bridges and waterways in rural areas, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

President Biden is kicking off the tour today with a visit to an ethanol plant in Menlo, Iowa, where he will announce that E15 gasoline will be sold this summer to help drivers save at the pump, Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

Normally E15, which has 15 percent ethanol, can't be sold from June 1 to Sept. 15 because it generates more air pollution in hot weather. And the Supreme Court ruled in January that the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't have the authority to permanently greenlight E15 sales. But EPA is only issuing an emergency waiver here. A White House spokesperson said EPA "is considering other actions to further spur the use of E15 year-round, including continued talks with states that have already sent requests to EPA about year-round E15," Clayton reports.

The administration published a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Rural Playbook to help rural governments identify funding opportunities. "It provides information on the 'what, when, where, and how to apply' for funding under the law, according to the White House, and identifies more than 100 programs funded," Alex Gangitano reports for The Hill. "The playbook builds on the guidebook the administration released in January to help state and local governments access funding from the law."

The administration will announce $2 billion in new rural funding this month as part of the tour, White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu said. That includes $1 billion for an America the Beautiful Challenge "to combine federal and private funding for locally-led land and water conservation work," Abbott reports. "The government committed $440 million over five years for grants administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation." Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the funding in Colorado while touring a wildfire-control site.

Overall tourism in U.S. was down in 2020, but many people wanted to get out and explore rural areas close to home

Though overall U.S. tourism fell in the pandemic-plagued year of 2020, several travel companies and rural communities with tourism economies told a writer for The Daily Yonder that they saw a rise in domestic tourism, especially from locals wanting to get out of and explore nearby areas by car.

"Leigh Barnes, chief customer officer for operator Intrepid Travel, said that during the height of the pandemic they saw people wanting to stay close to home and get to know their own country and the cultures within it better," Kristi Eaton reports for the Yonder. "Although overall numbers were down, Barnes said Intrepid Travel has seen increased interest in outdoor activities" such as cycling trips, canoeing, and hiking. State and national parks were often overwhelmed with tourists.

"That’s fundamentally been a shift, I think, over Covid," Barnes told Eaton. "Everyone was wanting to travel and experience other peoples’ cultures – there has been that shift. What that means for rural travel is that people are going back to different parts of their own country. I think we’re seeing an increase of people traveling to connect to understand themselves, understand their own culture."

Many tourists in rural areas showed an interest in food, including the history of food systems and learning about where their own food comes from, Barnes told Eaton.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Here's a map of poverty in America, 2020; much of it is rural

Screenshot of interactive map by Jared Whalen of Axios, with label added by The Rural Blog

It's a familiar map, but it has fresh data, and is interactive. It's a map of poverty in America, measured by the percentage of people in each county in the 2020 American Community Survey (the continuous poll by the Bureau of the Census) who gave an income figure that was below the federal poverty threshold for that year. Appalachia, the Black Belt, Indian Country and the Rio Grande stand out.

Higher fire risk also raises risk of lawsuits against electric utilities, which seem to be more aggressively cutting trees

UPDATE: "Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will avoid criminal charges for two wildfires started by its equipment under settlements announced Monday by district attorneys in six Northern California counties," reports Alex Wigglesworth of the Los Angeles Times. "Prosecutors said the agreements were a better outcome for fire victims and communities, because limitations in criminal law make it difficult to hold corporations accountable. . . . PG&E has also agreed to hire 160 to 200 employees in the six counties to bolster safety work, and enter into a five-year monitorship of its system inspection and vegetation management work in those counties." The settlements involved the Dixie and Kincade fires. "The utility still faces charges in the 2020 Zogg fire, which killed four people and destroyed more than 200 buildings," the Times reports.

Tim Goforth, left, and Kathy Kreiter lost their Oregon home
to a wildfire in 2020, and he lost vision in one eye. They are
among plaintiffs in a lawsuit. (WSJ photo by Mason Trinca)
The increasing risk of wildfire in the West has put electric utilities at more risk of lawsuits and settlements to avoid criminal prosecution, as malfunctions of utility equipment have caused some of the most devastating blazes, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"Pacific Power, an Oregon utility . . . faces more than $1 billion in potential liability costs from lawsuits related to a spate of fires that swept the state in 2020," Katherine Blunt writes. "Those incidents killed at least nine people, destroyed thousands of homes and burned more than a million acres of land and timber."

In Washington state, where state law doesn't make utilities do much to prevent wildfires, one utility was targeted Friday by a lawsuit "alleging inverse condemnation . . . in connection with a 2020 blaze," Blunt reports. "Attorneys say those cases could lead to similar claims against other utilities throughout the West, where wildfire risk has grown substantially within the past decade."

It's possible that the increased risk in the West is making electric utilities in other regions. Pittsburgh Power & Light and its Kentucky Utilities subsidiary have been taken to task for more aggressive cutting of trees under power lines in the last two years, report the Lexington Herald-Leader and a letter writer to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. 

The Economist asks: Do farm subsidies sustain the decline of rural America, by encouraging larger and larger farms?

Nearly a decade of high crop prices and record farm subsidies from taxpayers isn't necessarily good news for rural America, says The Economist, a London-based global magazine that still calls itself a newspaper.

"Despite all this cash, rural America is in deep decline," says The Economist, which generally doesn't name its reporter/writers. "Two-thirds of rural counties lost population from 2010 to 2020, and the total population of rural America fell for the first time in history. The counties that grew were mostly not farming ones but pretty places where people go to retire, near mountains or the ocean, or those with lots of oil. The Midwestern areas which grow most of America’s food are shrinking fastest."

The population is shrinking, but the farms are not. As they are sold or merged into larger operations driven by mechanization, fewer people are needed to tend them. "Just 6 percent of jobs in rural areas are directly linked to farming, and "Most farms, even small ones, 'are highly capitalized agribusinesses growing one or two commodity crops and employing very few people'," says Anne Schechinger, an agricultural economist for the Environmental Working Group," a research-and-lobbying group that dislikes farm subsidies.

"Subsidies, largely in the form of crop insurance, help to ensure the food supply continues, and protect farmers from going bust during downturns," The Economist notes. " But they also determine what America farms—incentivizing farmers to grow vast amounts of soybeans and corn, as well as wheat, which is mostly exported. . . . Fresh fruit and vegetables, which Americans ought to eat more of, are more expensive to grow, and require more labor, but farmers receive almost no subsidies for them."

As farmers get wealthier, "The communities they live in are not," the Economist says, using as its object example North Dakota wheat farmer Phillip Volk, who "says that when he went to school, there were 40 children on his school bus. Today his youngest son goes on the bus with fewer than 10 classmates. His eldest son is likely to take over the farm, but future children may have to go to a boarding school. It is harder to find people to serve as voluntary officials on the school board and county government. Many young people end up moving to places where the job opportunities are more exciting, if not necessarily more profitable. Over half of the churches that used to serve the community have closed. . . . Helping out farmers is politically popular, not least because rural communities are over-represented in Congress. Yet the subsidies may in fact be sustaining the decline of rural America."

Ukraine war could halve its crop output; that sends prices for food and most-used phosphate fertilizer to record highs

The Ukraine War has sent global food prices to record highs, and reality is beginning to reflect the prices already jacked up in markets driven by fear and speculation.

"Harvests of some of Ukraine’s most important crops could be cut in half this year, threatening its position as a major exporter and exacerbating already tight global supplies," reports Megan Durisin of Bloomberg. "Farmers have just started planting corn and sunflowers, progress of which is being hobbled by field mines and a lack of fuel and fertilizers. For wheat that was sown months before the war, a chunk of the area is occupied by troops." 

Ukraine's agriculture ministry said Tuesday "that six large granaries had been destroyed by Russian shelling," The New York Times reports. Black Sea ports are closed, and there are food shortages in places, so some farmers may "switch to crops more suited to local consumption than for export." But they also fear their supplies of seed, fertilizer, fuel and workers may run short. "The Ukrainian government has temporarily exempted agriculture workers from military duties, but some have chosen to fight," Emma Bubola, Valeriya Safronova and Maria Varenikova report for the Times.

Prices for diammonium phosphate, the world's most widely used phosphorus fertilizer, are higher than ever recorded by DTN/Progressive Farmer, its Russ Quinn reports. That's one reason U.S. spring-wheat farmers might not plant as much additional wheat as expected. One, Philip Volk of Rugby, N.D., told The Economist that he will plant only 5 to 10 percent more, because higher input costs raise risk: “Two weeks of the wrong weather can change the story in a heartbeat.”