Saturday, April 29, 2023

Neighbors, heroes and leaders are helping southeastern Kentucky recover from last summer's record flooding

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

HAZARD, Ky. -- How does one of the nation's poorest rural regions recover from the most disastrous flooding some of its communities have ever seen? "Neighbors, heroes and leaders."

That answer was the three-legged theme sounded repeatedly by Peter Hille, chair of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, at its annual conference in Hazard Thursday and Friday -- exactly nine months after the flash floods left many in southeastern Kentucky wondering about their region's future.

The 35th annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference made clear that the disaster had created a greater sense of community among neighbors, some of whom responded by becoming heroes and leaders. Several were spotlighted in the annual East Kentucky Leadership Awards:
  • Kate Clemons of Hazard, who didn't know anyone in Knott County but organized free-food distribution there immediately after the flood and is still running a food center in Hindman;
  • Whitesburg firefighter Charles "Red" Colwell, who can't swim but rescued 14 people from deep, rushing floodwaters and is now chief of the department in the Letcher County seat;
  • Nathan Day of Knott County, who rescued nine people and told Hazard's WYMT, “I just feel like if everyone would open their doors and open their hearts, this world would be a better place.” 
  • Gwen Johnson of the Hemphill Community Center in Letcher County, a distribution site for supplies and place of refuge and healing space where people could gather to feel a sense of community;
  • Donna Campbell and the Lost Creek Fire Department in Perry County, which rescued people and served as a distribution center for supplies, and is organizing rebuilding of homes;
  • The Rousseau Volunteer Fire Department in Breathitt County, which rescued 15 people, including 12 in an attic, and has helped more than 4,000 families;
  • Scott McReynolds and the Housing Development Alliance, which helped preserve 41 homes, repaired 31 and placed six families in new homes, and has applicaitons for 120 more.
  • Gerry Roll and the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, which has raised more than $7.4 million for flood relief and has written more than 8,000 checks.
For each plaque handed out Thursday night, 10 to 20 more people or organizations deserve the same recognition, McReynolds told the crowd at Hazard Community and Technical College.

Roll, CEO of the foundation, said in accepting its award, "We're here for you. We are you, you are us. That's what community is."

This sign welcomed conferemce attendees.
The foundation and other philanthropies made major differences in the recovery, said Lynn Knight, an economic development consultant in Washington and New Orleans who has done much post-disaster work and attended the conference.

Knight also told the Institute for Rural Journalism that the region is fortunate to have several community development finance institutions, such as Hille's Mountain Association and the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which can play a role in financing the recovery. The combination of CDFIs and philanthropy make the region unique, she said.

The disaster has helped some local governments and officials overcome political and geographic rivalries that have often impeded progress in the region

"The biggest success we've had is tearing down the walls" between local governments, said Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander, quoting Hazard Mayor Donald "Happy" Mobelini as saying that "If something's good for the city, it's good for the county, and if something's good for the county, it's good for the city."

Alexander said Friday morning that should also apply to competition between counties for jobs. "There's nothing wrong with somebody living in Perry County and working in Knott County," he said. "So let's look at Appalachia as a whole. Let's tear those barriers down."

Much of the conference was devoted to the experiences, opinions and hopes of high-school students in the region, which will be the topic of future reports from the Institute for Rural Journalism.

The reporting is being done by Ivy Brashear in her role as the Institute's first David Hawpe Fellow in Appalachian Reporting, named for the late Louisville Courier Journal editor who was born in Pike County and was the newspaper's East Kentucky Bureau chief in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fellowship is for students at the University of Kentucky, Hawpe's alma mater. Brashear, a native of Perry County, is a Ph.D. student in the UK College of Communication and Information. If you have story ideas for her, you may email her here.

N.C. reporters and a freelancer for a nonprofit win this year's Thomas Stokes Award for energy and environment reporting

Reporters who investigated rural environmental issues share this year's Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy and Environment Writing from the National Press Foundation.

The winners are Eli Cahan, a freelance writer for California-based nonprofit Capital & Main and the USA Today Network; and Gavin Off and Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer and Adam Wagner the Raleigh News & Observer, newspapers owned by The McClatchy Co.

In “We’re Losing Our People,” Cahan drew attention to Native Americans in Arizona, Utah and Colorado who face lung disease from regular exposure to toxic metals from mines and analyzed the disproportionate toll Covid-19 took on indigenous people with pre-existing lung problems. Judges praised the piece for its “poignancy and impact” and called it “beautiful storytelling providing a sense of place, historical context and giving a voice to people who have not been heard.”

The first installment of the three-part series was published Dec. 4.
“Big Poultry” was a threepart deep dive into an industry that in North Carolina anually raises over 1 billion birds and generates 2.5 billion pounds of manure, which can leach into nearby water sources and affect human health. The reporters found that the state does not oversee the industry’s environmental impact and that ammonia from chicken-farm waste spreads to Maryland through the Chesapeake Bay.

Judges said the two newspapers “teamed up on a true public service mission to give a literal scorecard on how the poultry industry is operating in North Carolina … [and] exposing how little neighbors have in terms of recourse.” They said the investigation features “impressive” animation and visualization of the densely built chicken farms in North Carolina for an “exemplary” package.

The Stokes Award was created in 1959 to honor the late Thomas L. Stokes, a national-affairs columnist interested in energy, natural resources and the environment.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Rural Newswire is launched; it's a 'new platform for finding and sharing rural stories that can be republished for free'

Image via Rural Newswire
To strengthen the national voice of rural journalism, Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies have launched the Rural Newswire, a clearinghouse for rural stories. The website, which opened today, was "created to help newsrooms that serve rural communities by providing a platform to both find and share stories that can be republished for free," reports Rachel Glickhouse of Grist. "Editors can use the Rural Newswire to source stories to syndicate and upload links to their own coverage. As part of this project, the Center for Rural Strategies and Grist are providing $100,000 in grants to report on rural America. The grants are open to both newsrooms and freelancers."

Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis, told Glickhouse, "As we saw rural reporting across the U.S. declining because of media consolidation, we organized a team of journalists and started The Daily Yonder, an online newsroom to fill the gaps. . . . But there is still plenty to do. We are committed to the sustained work of building new civic infrastructure and lasting relationships with rural publishers and audiences." Grist CEO Nikhil Swaminathan noted that climate change is first hitting rural areas and professions. She told Glickhouse, "Many times, they're also people who can be on the front line of the changes we need to take hold, from how rural electric cooperatives generate electricity for their members to regenerative agriculture practices that can cut down on carbon."

The Center for Rural Strategies and Grist are working with the Institute for Nonprofit News, home of the Rural News Network. Jonathan Kealing, INN's chief network officer, told Glickhouse, "Rural Newswire is yet another valuable investment in newsrooms serving remote populations across the country. It's an awesome resource for editors to share quality coverage with their audiences."

Teen suicide statistics show deaths increased in tandem with social-media launches; rates higher in rural areas

Teen suicide can be a "tip-toe around it" discussion topic, but dire statistics are overcoming the stigma.

The CDC's latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that "The number of male students who said they had considered, planned or attempted suicide was stable between 2019 and 2021 [but] female students reported a sharp increase in all three, with 30 percent having seriously considered suicide in the last year, 24 percent having made a suicide plan, and 13.3 percent having attempted suicide," Politico reports.

Other new statistics tell a loud story about increased deaths combined with social media's influence -- and the loss of rural young men, related to firearm access. "In the United States, suicide has become the second leading cause of premature death among those ages 10 to 24; it is the leading cause of death among teens ages 13 to 14," Florida Atlantic University reports on recent research. "In the U.S. suicide has become the second leading cause of premature death among those ages 10 to 24; it is the leading cause of death among teens ages 13 to 14."

Researchers looked at U.S. suicide trends in 13- and 14 year-olds from 1999 to 2018 as well as isolating sex, race, level of urbanization, census region, month of the year and day of the week. The rural results were startling. Dr. Charles H. Hennekens, a study co-author, said, "Our data show that non-metropolitan areas have higher rates of teen suicide, regardless of method, and rural areas have higher rates due to firearms. . . . During the years immediately preceding the onset of increases in rates of suicide among 13 and 14 year olds, several prominent social media platforms used by teens, including Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and Tumblr were launched."

Study results showed that suicide rates among 13- and 14-year-olds "more than doubled from 2008 to 2018, following a rise in social media and despite significant declines in suicide mortality in this age group previously from 1999 to 2007. These trends were similar in urban and rural areas but were more common in boys in rural areas where firearms are more prevalent," the university reports. "In rural areas, firearms were used in 46.7 percent of suicides in boys and 34.7 percent in metropolitan areas. Suicides occurred significantly more often between September and May and were highest on Monday followed by the rest of the weekdays, suggesting school stress as a contributor. These statistically significant increasing trends were similar by sex, race, urbanization and census regions."

Dr. Sarah K. Wood, the study's senior author, said the data show correlations "with social media, school stress, and firearms, which require further research. In the meanwhile, there are clinical and public health initiatives for those at highest risks." The study results were released online, ahead of print in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Pediatrics and Child Health.

Kids are crawling under stopped railcars, and aren't the only ones with train problems; railways ignore requests for help

One child helps another cross over a parked freight train blocking their route
to school in Hammond, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Kelter Davis, ProPublica)
Watching a train go by used to be a relaxing pastime. But now they take longer to go by because they have gotten longer, and their stops block more streets, roads and pathways, no matter who or what needs to get through -- be it ambulances or students trying to walk to school, report Topher Sanders and Dan Schwartz of ProPublica and Joce Sterman of Gray Television. "Recent spectacular derailments have focused attention on train safety and whether the nation's powerful rail companies are doing enough to protect the public — and whether federal regulators are doing enough to make them, especially as the companies build longer and longer trains. . . . In Hammond, Indiana, reporters sat by a train blocking a school path and "witnessed dozens of students. . . . climbing over, squeezing between and crawling under train cars. . . An eighth-grade girl waited 10 minutes before she made her move, nervously scrutinizing the gap between two cars. She'd seen plenty of trains start without warning. 'I don't want to get crushed,' she said."

Multiple reports tell an ugly story: "Ambulances can't reach patients before they die or get them to the hospital in time. Fire trucks can't get through, and house fires blaze out of control. Pedestrians trying to cut through trains have been disfigured," ProPublica and Gray report. "An Iowa woman was dragged underneath until it stripped almost all of the skin from the back of her body. . . . In Hammond, the hulking trains of Norfolk Southern regularly force parents, kids and caretakers into an exhausting gamble: How much should they risk to get to school?"

Hammond's school district has "asked Norfolk Southern for its schedule so that the schools can plan for blockages and students can adjust their routines. The company has disregarded the requests, school officials said. . . . In written responses to questions, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said children climbing through their trains concerns the company," they write. The journalists showed footage of kids making the crossing, including an elementary student crawling under a train, to representatives of Norfolk Southern, lawmakers and Transportation Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg; "He was shocked" and said, "Nobody can look at a video with a child having to climb over or under a railroad car to get to school and think that everything is OK."

States and local authorities can issue citations to trains for blocking intersections longer than state laws or local ordinances allow, but after rail companies found a way to negotiate those fines, the practice was largely abandoned. "State and local officials grew hopeful when the Supreme Court invited the federal government to comment on a petition from Ohio seeking the authority to regulate how long a train can block a crossing. The high court will likely hear the case if the solicitor general recommends it, said Tom Goldstein, publisher of SCOTUSblog, which is widely seen as an authority on the court," ProPublica and Gray report. "Nineteen other states have signaled their support for a Supreme Court case. Goldstein expects the solicitor general to respond in November or early December. A favorable court opinion could allow other states to finally enforce their laws on blocked crossings. . . .[In the meantime] the problem has become so endemic in Hammond that getting 'trained,' or stalled at crossings, has become a verb."

Applications due May 5 for program to help family-owned and independent local media firms achieve sustainability

The Local Media Association is launching a program to help family-owned and independent local news-media organizations find paths to sustainability, with funding from the Google News Initiative.

"Directors of the LMA Family and Independent Media Sustainability Lab — FIMS Lab for short — and a team of expert consultants will work for one year with key leaders of 12 family-owned and independent local media companies, immersing in strategic business transformation work intended to advance them toward long-term sustainability and financial independence," LMA reports.

Any local news company in the U.S. or Canada with at least $1 million annual revenue that can demonstrate it is family-owned or independently owned is welcome to apply. Qualified organizations may include single-location/single-outlet organizations as well as family or independent media groups serving multiple locations. 

The program will be run by Dorrine Mendoza, formerly in news partnerships and strategic program development at Meta, with the help of LMA chief operating officer Jay Small and LMA chief business transformation officer Julia Campbell. They will consult with participants "on product, process, operations, technology, revenue opportunities and general strategy," LMA says. "Industry-leading subject-matter experts will also serve as lab coaches and consultants."

“We are adapting some of the lessons from the Knight x LMA BloomLab, while recognizing the constituency for the FIMS Lab will have different business characteristics and challenges,” Small said. “Revenue diversification and improved application of technology remain universal needs, and with 21% overall revenue growth in Year 1, BloomLab taught us we can make a big difference with programs like this.”

LMA says specific curriculum for the lab will be developed through identification of participating media companies' needs, but focus areas will include:
  • General strategic planning and business transformation
  • Building sustainable advertising, branded content and marketing services portfolios, especially focused on digital
  • Consumer (reader) revenue and first-party data strategies
  • Rethinking local media as both product and service
  • Making the most of journalism funded by philanthropy
  • Optimizing technology application to strengthen revenue opportunities, make processes more efficient and better control expenses
  • Developing opportunities for participants to collaborate on topic-focused journalism projects with philanthropic funding
Also, the lab will cover costs for each participant to send its main stakeholder to an in-person meeting in Chicago coinciding with LMA Fest the week of July 31.

Applications are open through 11:59 p.m. PT Friday, May 5. The lab team will respond to questions from prospective participants and interested parties; send them to

Microsoft quietly moves on right to repair in its home state; bill didn't pass but suggests a shift in the issue landscape

So far, New York and Colorado have passed solid legislation to support the right to repair equipment. Now, tech giant Microsoft has moved toward a middle ground that could make a lot of difference in future legislation, reports Maddie Stone of Grist.

"In March, Irene Plenefisch, a senior director of government affairs at Microsoft, sent an email to the eight members of the Washington state Senate's Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee, which was about to hold a hearing to discuss a bill intended to facilitate the repair of consumer electronics," Stone writes. "Typically, when consumer-tech companies reach out to lawmakers concerning right-to-repair bills — which seek to make it easier for people to fix their devices, thus saving money and reducing electronic waste — it's because they want them killed. Plenefisch, however, wanted the committee to know that Microsoft, which is headquartered in Redmond, Wash., was on board with this one, which had already passed the Washington House. . . . Plenefisch wrote to the committee. 'This bill fairly balances the interests of manufacturers, customers, and independent repair shops and in doing so will provide more options for consumer device repair.'"

Nathan Proctor, who heads the U.S. Public Research Interest Group's right-to-repair campaign, told Stone, "We are in the middle of more conversations with manufacturers being way more cooperative than before. And I think Microsoft's leadership and willingness to be first created that opportunity." Stone reports, "Like other consumer tech giants, Microsoft has historically fought right-to-repair bills while restricting access and repair documentation to its network of 'authorized' repair partners. But in recent years the company has started changing. . . . In 2021, following pressure from shareholders, Microsoft agreed to take steps to facilitate the repair of its devices — a first for a U.S. company. . . . Microsoft followed through on the agreement by expanding access to spare parts and service tools, including through a partnership with the repair guide site iFixit."

Stone writes, "Microsoft's engagement appears to have shifted the tone . . . . other manufacturers became aware that the company was sitting down with lawmakers and repair advocates, 'they realized they couldn't just ignore us,' Proctor said. His organization has since held meetings about proposed right-to-repair legislation in Minnesota with the Consumer Technology Association and TechNet, two large trade associations that frequently lobby against right-to-repair bills and rarely sit down with advocates. . . . 'A lot of conversations have been quite productive' around a Minnesota right-to-repair bill, Proctor said."

Despite Microsoft's quiet support, the bill did not pass. "Senator Drew MacEwen, one of the Republicans on the Energy, Environment, and Technology Committee who opposed the bill, said that Microsoft called his office to tell him the company supported the Fair Repair Act," Stone reports. MacEwen told her, "I asked why after years of opposition, and they said it was based on customer feedback." Stone adds, "But that wasn't enough to convince MacEwen. He said, "Ultimately, I do believe there is a compromise path that can be reached but will take a lot more work."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mia Gregerson, "wonders if Microsoft could have had a greater impact by testifying publicly in support of the bill," Stone writes. "While Gregerson credits the company with helping right-to-repair get further than ever in her state this year, Microsoft's support was entirely behind the scenes. Gregerson told Stone, "They did a lot of meetings, but if you're going to be first in the nation on this, you've got to do more."

Opinion: Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin seems to have picked the lock on split-ticket voters

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Photo by Elizabeth Frantz, The Washington Post)
Democrats have longed for a way to recapture rural voters. Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post looks at how U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is winning over some of the state's swing voters and setting an example for fellow party members.

"One of the most progressive members in the Senate, has figured out how to turn her narrowly divided state into a place where, with the right message, Democrats can notch a big win," Rubin writes, relaying an anecdote shared by Baldwin: "At a roundtable at a dairy farm, she met with a crowd that doesn't frequently vote for Democrats. One voter needled her a bit. 'Is that your truck out there?' she asked. 'Well, I have one just like it.' Touting her support for rural development and infrastructure, she said, 'Potholes aren't red or blue.' Asked after the event if he would vote Republican, the voter said no. 'Did you listen to her? She's working on my issues.'"

That is the point: Baldwin goes where too few Democrats go, engages with persuadable voters, and her responses are relatable. "On a given issue, she shows an issue can 'break through.' And for her, those issues mean keeping the interests of the dairy industry and, more generally, rural America front and center," Rubin writes. "She pointed out that there are about 170,000 lead water lines in Wisconsin. To eliminate 'that grave danger for children whose brains are developing' would cost a rural community tens of millions of dollars, sending utility prices skyrocketing. Instead, the bipartisan infrastructure bill will help fund those repairs — and bring broadband to rural areas and repair roads and bridges."

On social issues, which have turned many Democrats into Republicans, "Baldwin is unapologetic," Rubin reports. Baldwin cited Wisconsin's recent state Supreme Court race, an example of how "freedom of choice is an issue that unites people across party lines," Rubin writes. "On guns, she pointed out that in a very gerrymandered state, you 'see a difference between the state legislature and the average voter.' Republicans are trying to make gun access even easier. 'I don't think the Wisconsin public or even gun-owning public is in line with that,' she said."

Baldwin's approach combines standing firm on issues but always listening to, and sometimes educating, Wisconsin voters. One example: court decisions on redistricting should influence voters' choices in "selecting presidents and senators," Rubin writes. "Her success is proof of some basic political nostrums. If you work incredibly hard, pay close attention to your state and solve people's daily problems, partisan labels mean less. . . . Moreover, framing social issues as matters of 'rights and freedoms' allows her to reach voters who don't normally consider themselves to be 'progressive.'. . . Baldwin's reelection prospects will be greatly affected by the presidential race. However, don't be surprised if she runs far ahead of the top of the ticket. She's done it before and knows precisely how to extend her winning streak."

Weekend poetry selections for rest, joy and meditation; we'll start with Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things"

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
By Wendell Berry

Hills Brothers Coffee
My uncle is a small man.
In Navajo, we call him, "shidá'í," my mother's brother. He doesn't know English, but his name in the white way is Tom Jim.
He lives about a mile or so
down the road from our house. One morning he sat in the kitchen,
drinking coffee. I just came over, he said,
The store is where I'm going to. He tells me about how my mother seems to be gone
every time he comes over. Maybe she sees me coming
then runs and jumps in her car
and speeds away!
he says smiling. We both laugh - just to think of my mother
jumping in her car and speeding.

I pour him more coffee
and he spoons in sugar and cream
until it looks almost like a chocolate shake.
Then he sees the coffee can. Oh, that's that coffee with the man in a dress,
like a church man.
Ah-h, that's the one that does it for me.
Very good coffee. I sit down again and he tells me, Some coffee has no kick.
But this one is the one.
It does it good for me. I pour us both a cup
and while we wait for my mother,
his eyes crinkle with the smile and he says, Yes, ah yes. This is the very one
(putting in more sugar and cream). So I usually buy Hills Brothers Coffee.
Once or sometimes twice a day,
I drink a hot coffee and it sure does it for me.
By Luci Tapahonso 

The One Deep Inside Your Chest
Step back and watch your body, being a body.
Watch an arm move through space, watch an ankle turn.
Watch your body, as it likes things or doesn’t,
as it gets scrapes and bruises
as the skin darkens and falls into folds.

Step back to the perimeter of the theater
and watch your body on the stage.
Recede to that quiet knowing:
For now, I am associated with this body —
not inside it, or one with it —
just associated, for a time.

Casing. Only casing.
Be kind to the casing if you like — put oils
on it and nourish it and move it to keep it stronger, for a time.
Never become it. There, only suffering.

Can you feel the one deep inside your chest, who has existed forever?
Who has made a thousand journeys?
Who feels like a comet in the dark? The inner filament?

I know, no one ever told you.
I know. It wasn’t the name you learned to write at school,
but that one is you.
That one is the real you.
By Tara Mohr

Thursday, April 27, 2023

More than 14 small airports have lost commercial service; rural places face travel costs, job loss and more isolation

Boarding at a small airport (Photo by Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News)
Airlines don't have enough pilots to fly all their planes, so, in response, service to rural areas has been facing cuts at an "almost unheard of pace," reports Liz Crampton of Politico. "Since January 2020, at least 324 airports have seen service cuts, losing an average of 30 percent of their flights, according to the Regional Airline Association. More than 14 airports have lost commercial service completely, including places such as Mobile, Ala.; Ogden, Utah; Stowe, Vt., and Williamsport, Pa. . . . Drew Jacoby Lemos, vice president of government affairs for the RAA, said that his membership has more than 400 planes grounded because airlines can’t find enough pilots to fly them."

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, "National airlines have rapidly pulled out of rural airports. . . . It's fostering a sense of isolation that's frustrated small-town Americans fed up with big business and Washington," Crampton writes. "American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airlines say they are constrained by a pilot shortage that has forced them to scale back service or stop flying entirely from certain airports. In the face of a financial squeeze, routes from regional airports are often the first to be eliminated. . . . American alone said its lack of pilots has been the equivalent of taking more than 150 regional planes out of service."

Carriers' desertion of Iowa's Dubuque airport is an example of what the loss costs a region. "Now, locals and visitors need to drive approximately 80 miles to Moline or Cedar Rapids, or, to get to bigger destinations, three hours to Chicago, mostly using a two-lane road," Crampton writes. "Losing air service cost the Dubuque airport nearly 200 jobs and reduced its economic output by more than $26 million, according to an economic impact analysis the city paid for comparing data from 2019 to 2022. . . . Repercussions may extend beyond financial losses. Dubuque Mayor Brad Cavanagh believes that nothing else will have a greater impact on politics in the decade ahead than further isolating cities like his." Cavanagh told Crampton, "In rural communities like ours, there's no way we're going to survive long-term without air service. We're going to die a slow, agonizing death."

Crampton reports, "States can try to expand the pool of pilots by expanding flight education programs and recruitment of high school students. But the airline industry believes the most effective solution to resolving the shortage needs to come at the federal level. . . . As Congress gears up for Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, cities grappling with reduced service are lobbying lawmakers to grow the size of a grant program designed to help small communities address air service issues. . . . .There's also an effort to increase student loan caps for accredited pilot training programs to ease education costs."

Meanwhile, airlines have raised pilots' hourly wages. "To attract more people to the profession," Crampton adds. "First-year captains working at the regional carriers under American Airlines will earn $146 an hour and entry-level pilots $90 an hour, up from $78 and $51 an hour, the company announced last year." Across the board, airlines such as Delta Air have increased pilot salaries and negotiated contracts that address work/life balance; those changes could help pilots servicing smaller regions tap into additional benefits.

Quick hits: Tobacco farmer turns artist; Native American skateboarder designs stamp; rainbows are circles . . .

Reunion Table, by Eldridge Bagley, oil on linen (Morris Museum of Art, via Cardinal News)

North Carolina tobacco farmer Eldridge Bagley was "going through a chest when he came across an old Reader’s Digest. . . . He flipped through and found an article about famed folk artist Grandma Moses. He sat down to read it and was inspired to take up his own hand at painting," reports Lindley Estes of Cardinal News in southwest Virginia. Like Moses, the Lunenburg County artist takes inspiration from daily life. . . "His canvases — colorful, layered and real to life — are instantly recognizable to his legions of devotees who appreciate his ability to capture a unique Southern way of life without being given over to the rose tint of nostalgia."
Farmers can share their acreage and add to their income by hosting campers. "John Boere, owner of Diamond Gulch cattle ranch in Groveland, Calif., started welcoming campers onto his 824 acres in the spring of 2021," reports Cassidy Walter of Successful Farming. "His property is listed on multiple booking sites, including The Dyrt and Hipcamp." Boere told Walter, "It's a beautiful spot, and I just thought it would be good to share it with people."

Shannon Hummel returns to childhood memories and brings "big city vibes" and "pay-what-you-can-afford dance lessons" to the rural Virginia town of Clifton Forge, reports Brianna Hatch of Cardinal News. The town hugs the Allegheny Mountains. Hummel told Hatch,  "The mountains are a big part of my soul. You see it in my work; you hear it in my music choices. I think there's a space of longing to these mountains that have been a ribbon through the fabric of my work for a long time. . . .There’s a long history in rural communities of being forgotten or mislabeled by urban communities." Hatch adds, "She hopes their new Clifton Forge office can support a rich dance community."

Stamp featuring artwork by Di'Orr Greenwood
(Image from United States Postal Service)
She knows how to skateboard like nobody's business and is a designer who will soon have her own stamp. "Native American artist Di'Orr Greenwood (Diné) was born and raised on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona," reports Lynn Trimble for Southwest Contemporary. "Greenwood is one of four artists featured in a new USPS postage stamp series called Art of the Skateboard.

The humble soybean, which is also known as "the amazing bean," "the incredible bean," and "the versatile oil bean," could become the "incredible rural road sealing bean," reports Noah Rohlfing of Successful Farming. "To address deteriorating rural road conditions, the Soy Transportation Coalition partnered with Knox County, Illinois, and PoreShield, a soy-based concrete enhancer. The pilot project sought to determine the effectiveness of the product in stabilizing roads and preventing further damage. . . . PoreShield is 93% bio-based material, and soybean oil is a prominent component."

Colonial fashions can tell us quite a bit about their wearers. "While Quaker men's distinctive broad-brimmed hats became a thing of the past moving into the 19th century, Quaker women's bonnets replaced them as the sect's most readily identifiable attire," reports Sue Bowman for Lancaster Farming. "Society's judgments of newcomers to America were frequently based on appearances. Things like headwear, shoes, hairstyles, jewelry, tools and implements gave impressions to folks and often determined how they were dealt with."

Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler, LightRocket via Getty Images
"Ever wonder if Kermit the Frog knew how far the "Rainbow Connection" went? Physicist Partha Chowdhury explains, "Most of us go through life seeing rainbows only as arches of color in the sky, but that's only half of what is really a circle of color. . . . To see the full circle, however, you will have to be in an airplane, literally above the clouds." Chowdhury shares how to "create your own rainbow" in his article in The Conversation.

Policy Summit 2023: Communities Thriving in a Changing Economy offers help for Appalachia and adjoining areas

If you're from a community looking for ideas and support for handling big issues, Policy Summit 2023: Communities Thriving in a Changing Economy, online and in Cleveland, Ohio, June 21-23, offers tangible help.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which is convening then event, says it is for community-focused practitioners, policymakers, elected officials, researchers, funders, bankers, and students. Participants will be able to discuss timely topics affecting low- to moderate-income individuals and under-served communities.

Topics include research access and best practices related to workforce and economic development, small businesses, and other issues key to racial and financial inclusion will be discussed. Participants will learn how to design and implement strategies for impact. One focus will be on how to build new and strengthen existing relationships.

The Cleveland Fed, which serves much of Appalachia, says the meeting is an opportunity to engage in outside-the-beltway conversations and broaden and strengthen relationships; the event will take place in Cleveland and offers virtual access to select sessions. Registration for attending in person in Cleveland closes June 13; registration for attending virtually extends through the event (you can register and attend the same day). Register here.

Report for America adds 60 more corps members, at least 16 with rural beats or employers; they will start in July

Sofi Zeman, a graduate of the Missouri
School of Journalism, is going to Uvalde.
The latest class of Report for America corps members includes several with rural beats and employers. Texas got several new reporters; three will be shared by the Longview News-Journal, the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the Marshall News Messenger, and the Uvalde Leader-News, which became known for its coverage of the school shooting there, gets a reporter to cover education, safety and crime. "The People-Sentinel in Barnwell, S.C. ... will open a bureau in a nearby county that no one’s covered in 10 years," Sam Kille of RFA reports. The members will start work in July.

Philanthropically funded, RFA pays "up to half of a corps member’s salary, while its local sustainability team trains newsroom partners to raise the other half from local funders," Kille writes. "Report for America has now matched more than 600 journalists with local newspapers, public radio stations, digital platforms, and television outlets, since its launch in 2017."

The new corps members with rural beats or employers include:
Adrianna Adame, Buffalo's Fire, indigenous democracy in North Dakota
Destini Ambus, Longview News-JournalTyler Morning Telegraph and Marshall News Messenger, health challenges in Northeast Texas
Caleb W. Barber, The Mitchell Republic/Forum News Service, rural issues and the South Dakota legislature
Carly Berlin, Vermont Public and VT Digger, housing and infrastructure
Henry Brannan, VPM News/WMRA, Harrisonburg, Va., rural health care
Elijah de Castro, The People-Sentinel, Barnwell, S.C., rural communities in the Low Country
Jordan Green, Longview News-JournalTyler Morning Telegraph and Marshall News Messenger, under-served communities
Lucille Lannigan, Albany Herald, rural communities in southwest Georgia
Andrew M. Lusk, KUCB, Unalaska, regional reporting in the eastern Aleutian Islands
Stephen Marcantel, The Acadiana Advocate, rural communities in southern Louisiana
Nikolai Mather, WHQR, Presque Isle, Maine, the rural "safety net"
Carlos Nogueras, Texas Tribune, Permian Basin communities
Jordan Rusche, Tioga Tribune, rural communities in northwest North Dakota
Daniel Schmidt, Ouray County Plaindealer, Ridgway, Colo., local government accountability
Samuel Shaw, Longview News-Journal, Tyler Morning Telegraph and Marshall News Messenger, rural to urban transformation
Isabella Weiss, WVIA Public Media, Pittston, Pa., rural governments
Sofi Zeman, Uvalde Leader-News, education, safety and crime

Current corps members who have rural beats include:
Laura Harbert Allen, 100 Days in Appalachia, religion in Appalachia
Macon Atkinson, Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C., presidential primary from a rural perspective
Leo Bertucci, Victoria (Texas) Advocate, the local energy industry
Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile, energy in Wyoming
Riley Board, KDLL, Kenai, effects of state budget policies on rural Alaska communities
Aaron Bonderson, Nebraska Public Media, portraits of Nebraskans, especially rural and of color
Bobby Brier, NJ Spotlight News, mental health issues, especially affecting rural New Jerseyans
Sierra Clark, Traverse City Record-Eagle, indigenous communities in northern Michigan
Monica Cordero Sancho, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, environmental impact of Iowa fertilizer (Mississippi River Basin Project)
Colleen Cronin, ecoRI News, environmental issues in rural areas
Amy Diaz, WFDD, Winston-Salem, education in the Piedmont and mountain North Carolina
Alex Driehaus, Valley News, West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., photography
Connor Giffin, Louisville Courier Journal, pesticide runoff and climate change (MRB project)
Sofia Gratas, Georgia Public Broadcasting, rural health care in the "stroke belt"
Theo Greenly, KUCB, Unalaska, regional reporting in the eastern Aleutian Islands
Lucy Grindon, North Country Public Radio, low-income families in rural northern New York
James Hanlon, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, rural eastern Washington
Ellen Heffernan, Mountain State Spotlight, rural and community reporting in West Virginia
Rachel Hellman, Seven Days, Burlington, challenges and opportunities in Vermont's small towns
Isabel Hicks, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the future of agriculture
Teresa Homsi, WCMU Public Radio, environmental concerns in rural Michigan
Jamie Jiang, North State Public Radio, Chico, Calif., wildfires and their aftermath
Chloe Johnson, Minneapolis Star Tribune, land use, water and wildlife (MRB Project)
Laura Kebede, Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, civil rights cold cases in Tennessee
Emily Kenny, Spectrum News, digital coverage of farming and food production in upstate New York
Tash Kimmell, KCAW, Sitka, Alaska, coverage of Sitka and surrounding communities
Cami Koons, Kansas City PBS, rural issues in Missouri
Sarah Lapidus, The Arizona Republic, rural communities in southern Arizona
Lacey Latch, The Arizona Republic, rural life in northern Arizona
Michael Livingston, Interlochen Public Radio/Traverse City Record-Eagle, rural northern Michigan
Jayme Lozano, Texas Tribune, community reporting in the Panhandle and South Plains
Grant McLaughlin, The Commercial Dispatch, Columbus, Miss., economic and workforce issues in rural Mississippi
Sarah Michels, Bowling Green Daily News, community reporting in southern Kentucky
Xcaret Nuñez, KOSU, Oklahoma agriculture and rural issues
Santiago Ochoa, Yakima Herald-Republic, rural health care in Yakima County
Theo Peck-Suzuki, WOUB Public Media, Athens, Ohio, childhood poverty in southeast Ohio
Michael Symonds, WMUK, Kalamazoo, Mich., rural meets metro
Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo, WSKG , Vestal, N.Y., rural health care in New York state
Graycen Wheeler, KOSU, rural Oklahoma water issues

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Contractors hired to aid E. Kentucky flood victims left some feeling 'violated and vulnerable;' lack of coordination cited

Louisville Public Media graph from Kentucky Transportation Cabinet data; click to enlarge
For victims of Eastern Kentucky's record flash flood last July, surviving the disaster was one thing; now, some of the victims must overcome additional losses, wreckage debris and possible re-flooding from what state-paid cleanup crews did or left behind, report Jared Bennett and Justin Hicks of The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, part of Louisville Public Media.

Bennett and Hicks spoke with Don and Malissa Young of McRoberts, whose trailer was removed from its foundation and flooded. "For weeks [after], the Youngs had been working on packing up what they could from the inside: Baby photos, home videos, memorabilia from Don's time spent as a State Police officer. . . . Without any notice, cleanup crews ripped apart the home they had shared for nearly 30 years. . . . A Kentucky Transportation Cabinet official overseeing the cleanup process called Don personally and afterward told him to file a negligence claim with the state Board of Claims. They filed a claim seeking $400,000 to pay for the house and their belongings." The state denied any liability and a cabinet attorney "argued the couple's house was taken by an unnamed third party," KyCIR reports. "In fact, the response said the Youngs 'may themselves have been negligent in failing to remove or secure their personal property.'"

Don Young sits in rubble after clean up crews
demolished his home. (Courtesy photo)
The crossovers of state, federal and subcontracted employees failed flood victims because groups did not coordinate effectively, Bennett and Hicks report: "In a daily report compiled by several staffers, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adviser wrote that even trying to get an accurate assessment of the amount of debris was hindered by 'too many coaches, not enough players.'. . . USACE advisors regularly expressed concerns about crews taking trees or other materials that did not fit federal criteria for debris removal after a disaster. . . . KyCIR heard from residents on multiple occasions that contractors removed debris such as valuable trees from private property without permission or cut half-mile long access routes through forests. It left them feeling overtaken and ignored by the very people charged with helping them."

A cabinet spokesman "said that cleanup crews were instructed to make attempts to contact property owners before starting the work," KyCIR reports. "Nearly a month later, the same work crew that demolished the Youngs' home was confronted with threats and resistance when they tried to cut down live trees they considered a hazard to future flooding. This time they tried the law-enforcement approach. A young, untrained police officer arrived on the scene to Tase and arrest the homeowner. . . . The homeowners had no prior notice or information about what was happening and the mission debris workers were on. Like the Youngs, they're also investigating legal remedies."

The Army Corps' early estimates "said the July floods created nearly two million cubic yards of debris in the waterways alone," KyCIR reports. "Justin Branham was one of the Corps staffers who wrote those estimate reports. . . . Branham said that most of Eastern Kentucky were in danger of flooding again because of debris piles blocking waterways." Records show that, within a week of the flood, the cabinet signed a contract with Florida-based Ashbritt Inc. to lead the cleanup. "Since August 2022, the state has paid the company $157 million . . . by the ton for debris removed."

As Branham warned, some areas have re-flooded. "Candice Fields, disaster coordinator for the Kentucky River Area Development District, said the help that does come is akin to a 'Band-Aid on a bullet wound,'" KyCIR reports. Letcher County resident Angela Collins told KyCIR that Gov. "Andy Beshear gets on [the TV] and says, 'Oh, things have changed.'. . . Well, get your high horse down here and see how much it changed because they left garbage! Do we deserve garbage all over our land? No, we don't. We're not a bunch of, you know, nutsy hillbillies. We're human beings just like everybody else."

UPDATE, April 29: KCIR reports that it "found around only 59% of the debris initially estimated to be on the ground after the flood had been picked up as of Dec. 22, 2022, when officials said cleanup was 'complete'."

Rural volunteer firefighters in short supply; some states get involved in a usually local matter by offering incentives

Photo by Jen Theodore, Unsplash
Part of your job is to head into buildings that are on fire, billowing smoke, and incredibly HOT. Who wants that job?

"When firefighters show up to a blaze or medical emergency across much of the United States, they most likely are volunteers. It's also likely the department is understaffed, struggling to replace old equipment and facing uncertainty about its next generation of firefighters," reports Alex Brown of Stateline. "More than 80 percent of the nation's fire departments are made up entirely or mostly of volunteers, according to the National Fire Protection Association. . . . But participation has dwindled, from nearly 900,000 volunteers in 1984 to a low of 677,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, fire departments have responded to more than triple the number of calls over that same period."

"While some departments have brought on full-time paid firefighters to fill the gaps, [but] many communities, especially in rural areas, can't afford the cost of a professional fire service," Brown explains. Kimberly Quiros, chief of communications with the National Volunteer Fire Council, told Brown, "A lot of communities don't have the tax base and support to switch to a career staffing model."

Tania Daffron, an assistant chief of administration and planning in Bloomington, Indiana, told The Rural Blog that many communities have historically paid volunteers per "call or run -- the more runs, the greater the pay. . . . The stipends aren't necessarily new, but departments are trying to increase the amount to make it more worthwhile for the personnel to respond."

Brown reports, "Some states have begun their own response" to the firefighter shortage. "Lawmakers from both parties have advanced bills to provide financial benefits or tax breaks for volunteers or funding for new equipment in hopes of incentivizing firefighters to join up or stay in service." Mississippi encourages retention by creating an investment fund for each volunteer and putting in $500 for each year served. "Last year, New York lawmakers unanimously passed a measure enabling local municipalities to enact property tax breaks of up to 10% for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers," Brown reports. Assemblyman Kevin Byrne told Brown. "It's hard to get young members, and it needs to be sustainable so they can justify going to a call at 3 in the morning and leaving their loved ones. . . . That's where the property-tax exemption is meaningful and makes it easier for people to justify the work."

Part of addressing the shortage needs to include the danger and emotional toll of rescue work. Daffron said volunteer firefighters experience the same stresses as their urban counterparts: "Burnout is real, along with PTSD from accumulated trauma. . . .We are horrible at asking for help for ourselves, as 'We are the help'." She said hiring and retaining any firefighter is a juggling act to offer enough incentives for people to complete all the training, preparation and mental stress. In sum, is volunteering as a firefighter worth the risk and time involved? When asked "Why would someone want that job?" Daffron replied, "It's an opportunity to serve their communities and is one of the best, most rewarding jobs in the world."

Three trillion dollars in federal green-energy money has some towns digging in; others 'have been burned before'

Map by The Wall Street Journal; for a larger version, click on it.
"Go big or go without." It's a worry some rural communities are grappling with as they consider trusting a "made-in-Washington initiative that demands small communities around the country commit significant local resources to attract businesses, sometimes in unproven industries. Some have been burned before," report Phred Dvorak and Amrith Ramkumar of The Wall Street Journal. Federal offerings include "One trillion in federal tax incentives and loans for green energy. . . [It] is one of the biggest outlays of taxpayer-financed industrial stimulus since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. . . . If successful, it could transform the nation's economy by creating millions of jobs and driving up to $3 trillion in total clean-energy investments during the next decade."

Colleton County, South Carolina, is an example of a town that successfully went big. "It's a quiet rural district best known for hunting, fishing," Dvorak and Ramkumar write. "In December, Colleton snagged a $279 million investment from Kontrolmatik Technologies Energy and Engineering, a Turkish firm that is hoping to get nearly $1 billion in federal tax credits over the next decade by building a battery-making plant in the U.S. . . . Kontrolmatik wants to tap into the renewable-energy sector's need to store electricity for release onto the grid when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. . . . It promises to employ 575 people at some of the highest wages around. In return, the state and county are offering land, grants and local tax breaks."

The Journal reports, "More investments will come after the Treasury Department clarifies the fine print of how the tax credits will work. SolarEdge Technologies Inc., which makes equipment that converts energy from the sun into electricity, will invest between $125 million and $250 million in its first factory in the U.S., depending on how Treasury characterizes its devices, chief financial officer Ronen Faier said. . . . Large swaths of the investment so far are flowing to southern, Republican-leaning states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee that generally have lower labor costs and taxes."

Not everyone agrees that federal incentives are a positive. "Skeptics warn the subsidies could stoke already high inflation and waste money without creating lasting economic benefits. Some of the proposed investments will flop or never materialize. . . . particularly for new technologies such as clean-hydrogen production," The Journal reports. " Some small communities, which have been through booms and busts caused by fickle federal incentives, aren’t betting the farm this time. In 2007, state and local leaders offered millions of dollars to attract TPI Composites, a wind-turbine blade maker, to Newton, Iowa, to make up for the closure of a big Maytag appliances plant. . . . . But by 2021, TPI’s Newton plant was struggling from the high costs of U.S. manufacturing and the looming expiration of a federal tax-credit program. That December, TPI closed the plant."

In the coal industry's bankruptcy game of musical mines, preventing environmental damage takes a back seat

Unreclaimed strip mine on the Kentucky-Virginia border, 2014 (Associated Press photo by David Goldman via ProPublica)
If your industry is declining, bankruptcy can be a business strategy. And if you're in the business of strip-mining coal, bankruptcy can relieve you of many of your environmental obligations. That's the upshot of a deep dive into the surface coal mining industry by Ken Ward Jr. of Mountain State Spotlight and Scott Pham and Alex Mierjeski of ProPublica.

Their object example is Blackjewel Mining, which became the nation's sixth-largest coal producer "partly by accumulating mines ... that had gone bankrupt," they report. "By 2018, it boasted more than 500 mining permits in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. Then, in July 2019, Blackjewel stunned the industry by declaring bankruptcy, with claims against it later estimated at $7.5 billion." Other companies have followed a similar strategy, they report.

Environmental groups and state regulators "warned the bankruptcy judge that, while he was focusing on what they called the company’s 'significant financial mismanagement,' he should also be aware of 'severe environmental mismanagement problems'," including reclamation of mines that were causing damage downstream, the story says. "But, citing longstanding case law, the judge rejected their request. Instead, bankruptcy trustees began divvying up the company’s assets among preferred creditors such as banks and hedge funds. . . . By mid-2020, there were more than 600 outstanding violations of state mining and reclamation standards at the company’s mines in Kentucky, including 450 since the bankruptcy filing."

Bankrupt coal companies have long been bad environmental actors, but ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight say they have documented for the first time "that mines that have gone through multiple bankruptcies also tend to create more environmental damage," based on bankruptcy court filings and state regulatory records. "We found that the median number of environmental violations for surface and underground mines that had been through multiple bankruptcies between 2012 and 2022 in Kentucky was almost twice the median number for mines that had not, and almost 40% higher in West Virginia."

Federal and state laws require coal companies to buy reclamation bonds, insurance that will cover the cost if the government has to clean them up. "But the required bond amounts often aren’t enough to cover all potential costs," Ward, Pham and Mierjeski note. "Cleanup costs have soared, partly due to larger surface mines that blew up or chopped off entire mountaintops, and partly because modern studies have increasingly identified water pollutants requiring lengthy and expensive treatment. According to a 2021 legislative audit, West Virginia’s reclamation bonds have covered only one-tenth of cleanup costs. . . . State officials are reluctant to revoke permits and take on the financial responsibility for cleanup. What often ensues instead is a game of musical mines. Knowing that they won’t end up on the hook for reclamation, other coal companies buy mines out of bankruptcy — and then often go bankrupt themselves."

News-media roundup: Most Maine papers for sale; political coverage at risk; many rely on 'public individuals' for news

The owner of most of the newspapers in the nation's most rural state, Reade Brower of Masthead Maine, says he is considering potential buyers, including the new Maine Journalism Foundation headed by longtime Maine journalist Bill Nemitz, who "said the not-for-profit model would keep Maine's newspaper industry locally owned and committed to news, and not the financial bottom line," The Associated Press reports. Brower, who's been in the business less than 15 years, told AP, “Certainly I am open to the pathway of a nonprofit option. It’s really important to me, the integrity of the process. I'm trying to create a process that is open and fair and gives me the most options.”

For their news, 89 percent of Americans follow at least one "public individual," defined as someone who has "public influence, for example, a celebrity, journalist, academic expert, show host, online influencer or business leader," and 32% say they trust such individuals more for the news than news organizations, according to a poll by Gallup for the Knight Foundation. (Click graph to enlarge)

"The shrinking newsroom crisis will be impossible to ignore in 2024," because the nation's newspapers are no longer equipped to give voters the information they need about candidates, writes Phillip Elliott, political writer for Time. Citing a paper by historian Jon K. Lauck in Middle West Review, about the decline of newspapers in the Midwest, Elloitt writes, "Beyond hollowed-out newsrooms or shuttered papers, the broader threat is one to democracy itself, one that will be more noticeable in 2024 than any previous election cycle. Without independent journalists to cover, analyze, and query candidates and their campaigns, voters are left to rely on the spin and propaganda that the political machines themselves churn out. . . . Without someone standing ready with a notebook, tape recorder (or iPhone app, as the case is nowadays), and just plain clear eyes on a candidate, voters aren’t really getting the full picture."

The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., has given its climate-and-environment newsletter, Tipping Point, a new name: Rising Waters: Climate Stories of the South, with a broader purview, "the entire Southeast region," the newspaper announced. It carries the same name as the paper's 2020 series, Rising Waters, on the threat of climate change and sea-level rise to South Carolina, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The newsletter will be emailed on Fridays at 8 a.m. Sign up for it here.

This is Ethics Week of the Society of Professional Journalists, known for its Code of Ethics.

The little truck that could: The Honda Acty is imported, 'dirt cheap' and fits in hard-to-get-to places, including barns

Alamy photo via The Economist
In their searches for the best farming vehicle, some farmers have found a novel solution: a Honda Acty, also known as a "Kei" truck, reports The Economist. "A couple of years ago, Jake Morgan, a farmer, realized he needed a new vehicle to get around. . . . He was looking at 'side-by-sides'—an off-road utility vehicle. But that costs around $30,000. . . . [Then] he saw a YouTube comment that said something like, 'Why don’t you just get a minitruck instead?' That is a tiny four-wheel drive pickup truck, mostly made in Japan to take advantage of laws there that tax smaller vehicles less.. . . . Within a few months, he picked up a 1997 Honda Acty, having spent a total of just $2,000 on importing it."

How does that work? "Kei trucks were never intended for sale in America. Most are right-hand drive, and they do not always have airbags or other safety features required in new cars," The Economist reports. The bulk is imported under a rule that allows non-compliant vehicles that are older than 25 years to be brought into America, a carve-out intended originally for collectible vintage cars. . . . They fill a niche American manufacturers are failing to. Todd Gatto, one of the owners of Any Imports in New York, says that he has sold over 300 to local businesses in the past few years." Gatto told The Economist, “We bought five of them to start, and we sold them all within seven days. . . . Buyers include farmers, but also building contractors, a deli and Legoland, the theme park. . . . A lot of commercial businesses see the use of these over an $85,000 F250."

Part of a Kei's appeal is their simple design. "The trucks are easy to modify and repair," The Economist reports. "In northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, people fit them out with tracks to drive on ice in winter. . . . As the demand grows, some worry that the loopholes that allow their import and use might be closed. Dealers increasingly report trouble getting the vehicles registered for road use. . . . Safety concerns are part of the reason."

Meanwhile, many farmers like Morgan remain "delighted" with their Kei purchases. The Economist repoirts, "Not only is it 'dirt cheap,' but the Acty is less than five feet wide, and so can get into tight spaces a normal pickup cannot, like Morgan’s barn. And unlike a side-by-side, it can also be driven legally on local roads. . . . Not long after importing his first, he sold it and bought another. The new one is even better—it has air conditioning and a button which activates a dumper." Morgan said, “They’re amazingly useful."

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Opinion: Biden’s ‘Buy American’ policy could put risk goal of high-speed internet for all Americans; we 'cannot do both'

Photo via Brookings Institution
By Blair Levin
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution 

In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden highlighted the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program for connecting unserved and underserved locations to broadband. Part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Biden boasted that the program would connect everyone: “We’re making sure that every community has access to affordable, high-speed internet.”

In the same address, Biden went on to declare, “When we do these projects, we’re going to buy American. … I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America.” The problem is that the country can close the rural digital divide in the next few years, or it can enforce a strict Buy American mandate. It cannot do both—requiring the administration to decide which principle it wants to prioritize over the other.

Biden’s declaration kicked off an administrative process designed to address how the Buy American policy applies to government-funded broadband networks. The day after the State of the Union, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the agency charged with distributing broadband deployment dollars — said, “The president made clear that while Buy America has been the law of the land since 1933, too many administrations have found ways to skirt its requirements. We will not.” The Office of Management and Budget also began a process “to clarify existing requirements” and “provide further guidance on implementing these statutory requirements.”

The question the Biden administration must address is whether the Buy American requirements apply to 100% of the materials used in the construction of a BEAD-funded broadband network or whether it can be waived for specific components not currently produced in the U.S. In examining that issue, the administration should consider three fundamental realities.

First, no matter what it decides, more than 90% of the total cost of broadband construction will go to American labor and materials. Seventy percent will go to labor, and of the remaining 30% of construction costs, 70% will be spent on the fiber conduit, for which there is an existing American supply.

Second, there are many critical elements of broadband networks that, while representing less than 10% of the budget, are essential and cannot, in the near term, be sourced from American manufacturers. As the NTIA already discovered in analyzing the Buy American implications for its Middle Mile Grant Program, certain critical components (including “broadband switching equipment, broadband routing equipment, dense wave division multiplexing transport equipment, and broadband access equipment”) are “sourced exclusively from Asia.” 

Third, if the Buy American requirements are enforced for all the components necessary to deploy and operate the networks, it will cause significant delays in deploying broadband networks everywhere. Those deploying the networks would have to halt their current plans until they convince enterprises capable of manufacturing those components to do so in the United States. . . . This would mean further delays until new facilities are constructed and produce a sufficient supply of components (which go through a rigorous testing process). 

In its OMB filing, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation summarized the situation this way: Requiring all components to be manufactured in the U.S. “would be gambling BEAD funds on successful negotiations with foreign manufacturers, the successful construction of sufficient manufacturing capacity, and successful sustaining of that capacity throughout the construction of BEAD projects. All three gambles are highly uncertain and unnecessary.”

Over the past year, internet service providers and all 50 states have spent significant capital setting up the functions necessary to award BEAD funding and start constructing networks in the next 12 months. If the process is delayed by several years, we don’t know if states will still have the personnel devoted to the effort. Further, greater inroads in rural markets by fixed wireless broadband and satellite ISPs will make those markets less attractive to fiber-based service providers, therefore increasing the capital funding caps that BEAD needs to cover.

This is not a new problem. As an industry coalition noted in a letter to the NTIA, “Although the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act imposed identical requirements, NTIA and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service determined that a waiver for broadband equipment was necessary to effectively implement the legislation.”

There are solutions that would honor the aspirations of both the Buy American policy and the infrastructure law’s broadband provisions. The simplest way would be for the OMB or NTIA to issue a waiver for all BEAD project components except fiber optic and copper cable. . . . There is a need for speed. The NTIA will finalize funding allocations to states by June 30, and states will finalize their plans by the year’s end. . . . President Biden is on solid ground in contending that bringing broadband to all communities would constitute a historic achievement for his administration and America. But inflexibility on Buy American provisions could put this once-in-a-generation opportunity at risk of failure.