Friday, June 02, 2023

Kentucky will 'explore the possibility' of funding research to make psychedelic drug ibogaine legal for drug treatment

Hubbard announced his plan as his boss, Attorney General
Daniel Cameron, sat behind him.(Photo by Melissa Patrick, KHN)
The head of Kentucky's Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission announced that the panel is considering using "no less than $42 million" to develop a treatment of opioid-use disorder with the psychedelic drug ibogaine, which is not legal in the United States, reports Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News. Bryan Hubbard told reporters, "It is our hope that we can achieve approval within six years" from the Food and Drug Administration for ibogaine. . . . This is the first time an effort like this has ever been undertaken by an individual state in history. . . . So we are in uncharted territory by even discussing the possibility of executing this project."

"Ibogaine is a powerful psychedelic that comes from a plant mainly found in Africa. It is anecdotally reported to stop the withdrawal symptoms of opioid dependence," Patrick explains. Hubbard told Patrick: "Anecdotal evidence that is a mountain high and decades wide suggests that ibogaine, within 48 to 72 hours of administration in safe, clinically controlled conditions, resolves opioid withdrawal syndrome. . . . It appears to do so by clearing and resetting the brain's opioid receptors while also restoring the brain's organic dopamine and serotonin production to pre-opioid exposure levels. If this anecdotal evidence can be clinically validated, ibogaine would represent a transformative therapeutic for the treatment of opioid-use disorder."

Shredded bark containing ibogaine (Wikipedia photo)
"Representatives from several organizations were on hand to support the initiative, including the Veteran Mental Health Leadership Coalition, Reason for Hope, Heroic Hearts Project, Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky," Patrick reports. Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Martin Steele, CEO of Reason for Hope, told the group, "I am so excited to support Kentucky in this innovative ibogaine research initiative; it's second to none. The existing clinical research and the growing body of personal anecdotes suggest that ibogaine, when used with careful medical screening, treatment protocols, and oversight, has incredible promise for treating veterans and all others struggling with opioid addiction."

"The money would come from the $842 million the state is getting from settlements with drug manufacturers and distributors," Patrick reports. Hubbard said, "I want to emphasize that this is preliminary and we are going to explore that possibility. Given the expense – and it is a significant expense of developing any therapeutic to go through the FDA process – we want to make sure that the money we put up to be matched by clinical research teams will be an adequate sum to get us across the finish line."

Kentucky is among the national leaders in overdose deaths. Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and a former Democratic attorney general and congressman, "applauded the effort, saying the foundation is hopeful for the health benefits this new initiative could bring to Kentucky." Hubbard works for Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the Republican nominee against Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who questioned the "psychedelic research" and complained that his appointees on the commission hadn't been informed of the plan, Patrick reports. Hubbard said the commission would discuss the plan June 12.

Worsening drug crisis may take extreme interventions to curb, including more law enforcement, Sam Quiñones writes

Using law enforcement to push addicts into treatment was dismissed some years ago as ineffective, unsupportive and "not policing's role." In his idea piece for The Atlantic, Sam Quiñones, perhaps the leading journalist covering America's drug problem, suggests the extreme availability and potency of today's drugs have changed the game: "In a time of fentanyl and meth, we need to use law enforcement differently—and more often." Here's a condensation:

In Louisville, Kentucky, not long ago, I heard the story of a woman named Mary. She grew up middle-class, cheerful at times, though she struggled with depression. She took antidepressants. After her marriage broke up in 2006, Mary switched to pain pills. . . . She had a son in 2016. A couple of years later, methamphetamine from Mexico flooded Louisville, and she began using meth too. . . . Mary would show up on rare occasions, then head back to the street. . . . She was living in a tent encampment and refused to leave [Mary's mother called the police] . . . . But the police could do nothing. . . . Early one morning in 2022, she froze to death in a tent.

The drugs that are prevalent now are different from what they were even a decade ago: more potent, easier to find, cheaper, and deadlier. Most people seem to have some inkling of this. Still, having spent more than a decade reporting on illicit drug distribution and use, I believe that few people truly understand the extent of the change, or its implications. . . . If we’re serious about curbing use of these most damaging illicit drugs, I believe we need to move to an approach that both the left and the right may find uncomfortable. We need to use arrests and the threat of confinement to break the hold of addiction. We also need to transform jail, and change what it means for people with a drug addiction to be in jail.

Over the past 40 years, the prevailing views on drug policy have slowly gone from one extreme to the other. In the decades following President Ronald Reagan’s 'War on Drugs.' . . . The old Reagan-era approach was displaced by a new convention, that of 'harm reduction.' Decriminalization of drug possession and use followed, at least partially, in some jurisdictions. . . . Compassionate intentions may have fueled this progression, and many of the early steps made sense. Yet as this philosophical shift was happening, so too were seismic changes in the supply of illegal street drugs.

Two synthetic drugs—fentanyl and methamphetamine, both made in Mexico—have flooded the United States. They are produced year-round by sophisticated traffickers who have access through Mexican ports to global chemical markets. No plants or growing seasons are necessary; the supply is massive, cheap, continual, and difficult to suppress. . . . Users could live for decades on heroin. But as one Kentucky addict in recovery told me a few years ago, when fentanyl settled into his region, 'There’s no such thing as a long-term fentanyl user.' He recently relapsed and died of what is believed to be a fentanyl overdose.

Methamphetamine has achieved alarming potency over the past decade, and the way it’s made has changed. Ingredients now include an ever-evolving lineup of toxic industrial chemicals. Meth use is now often accompanied by rapid-onset symptoms of mental illness—paranoia, hallucinations—symptoms that in many cases seem to far outlast the high itself.

Meth and fentanyl upend many of the prevailing beliefs about drug policy. Perhaps the most important is that people must be 'ready' to leave the street for treatment. . . . But when you zoom out, harm reduction alone looks perverse. . . . Take Narcan: It keeps people alive and is necessary in the moment of overdose. But the harm-reduction model holds that we should keep reviving people who overdose and then do nothing more than hope they come to their senses and opt into treatment."

Taking away a person’s freedom is never something to be done lightly. But once addicted to fentanyl or the new meth, many users are not 'free' to choose treatment—or any path out of addiction—in any meaningful way. Time away from these drugs, I believe, can help them regain their agency. Robert Neri, of WestCare, told me, '“Fentanyl is so powerful. Where somebody might have been able to pull their lives together on heroin' many fentanyl addicts need structure, and time 'away from access to the drug.'

News-media roundup: Unionized Gannett staffers walk out to protest CEO; company gets competition in New Mexico

Employes at 24 of the 50 unionized newsrooms of Gannett Co. will walk out Monday (and maybe also Tuesday in some cases) to protest how the company is handling its business, The Washington Post reports.

In a northwest New Mexico market where Gannett has cut back its Farmington Daily Times, the owners of the Durango Herald in southwest Colorado have started the Tri-City Record, a five-day-a-week free publication, Editor & Publisher reports

Writing for E&P, veteran marketer Bob Sillick lays out "membership models that create value for readers" of newspapers.

Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project, discussses with the Observer how to generate philanthropic support for local journalism. John Palfrey, presiddnet of the MacArthur Foundation, says "there are hundreds of promising new and re-energized philanthropic investment opportunities in the field of journalism."

The school committee in Amherst, Mass., is looking for a new superintendent after the student newspaper at Amherst Regional High School, The Graphic, reported accusations that counselors at the school had mistreated LGBTQ+ students, WBUR reports.

Gordon Wolf, longtime editor of the Denison Bulletin-Review in western Iowa, lost his job in a Lee Enterprises cutback. Now he's with the recioal Hispanic paper, the Carroll Times Herald reports

"Strengthening rural journalism will save small towns, and our democracy," writes Willliam McKenzie, senior editorial adviser at the George W. Bush Institute, and contributing columnist and former staffer at the Dallas Morning News. He says "These public and private sector efforts would help:
  • Congress should consider tax laws that make it easier for struggling newspapers to become nonprofit publications.
  • Lawmakers could allow subscribers to deduct their subscriptions from their taxes, just as taxpayers can do for contributions to public broadcasting operations.
  • Rural papers could share back-office operations, perhaps with a larger news outlet, thereby allowing the smaller community papers to focus more of their resources on reporting.
  • Nonprofit funders could help create more collaboratives like the Nebraska Journalism Trust that allow news to be shared across local communities."

All creatures quick hits: Salmon in the sky; a terrifyingly huge spider; bird songs are good for you; survive the wild

The Salmon Thirty Salmon (Simply Flying photo)

Was that a salmon in the sky? "Alaska Airlines' 'Salmon Thirty Salmon' Boeing 737 is destined to be repainted, but first, "To celebrate one of the iconic livery's last flights, the carrier deployed the aircraft on a ceremonial milk-run service from Seattle to Anchorage," reports Steven Walker for Simply Flying. Susan Orlean of The New Yorker looks deeper at the plane's design: "At a glance, the jet didn't look like a plane at all but like a huge flying fish. The surreality continued when you boarded because the overhead bins were decorated with large pictures of Alaskan seafood as if you were entering the digestive tract of the salmon."

A group of flamingos is called a "flamboyance."
(Photo by Joe Sartore, National Geographic)
National Geographic's photo ark will leave you awestruck, amazed, and amused—fur, feather, fin and much more.

Birds can be good company, but their songs can also be good for our mental health, reports Richard Sima of The Washington Post. "Birds are a way to connect with nature, which is associated with better body and brain health, research shows. . . . And even if they are hidden in trees or in the underbrush, we can still revel in their songs."

Mosquitoes are a summer menace. They are also unfair--they munch away on some people while leaving other people completely un-bitten. Why? Read here to discover why mosquitos might find you delicious, while your neighbor gets a jolly flyby.

How do you survive a rattlesnake meeting or other encounters in the wild? Read here.

The Jorō spider, Trichonephila clavata
(Photo by Tony Wu, Nature Picture Library)
"It freaks people out. . . . It's a scary-looking spider that makes giant webs on your back porch," Andy Davis, a research scientist at the University of Georgia, told Jason Bittel of National Geographic. Bittel reports, "The invasive Jorō spider has made headlines for its gigantic size; striking colors; and plentiful webs, which can stretch six feet long and are strong enough to support a bird's weight. . . . It is also incredibly shy."

Medicaid purge begins dropping thousands of enrollees; many are dropped because of paperwork issues

Chart by Hannah Recht, Kaiser Health News

As Medicaid "unwinds" from pandemic levels, millions of Americans have lost health care coverage primarily because of paperwork issues, not a lack of eligibility, reports Hannah Recht of KFF Health News. "Four out of every five people dropped so far either never returned the paperwork or omitted required documents, according to a KHN analysis of data from 11 states that provided details on recent cancellations. . . . Before the unwinding, more than 1 in 4 Americans — 93 million — were covered by Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, according to KFF Health News' analysis of the latest enrollment data."

Each state has its own review process schedule, which creates vast differences in who and when people lose coverage. "Nearly 56% of people included in early reviews were dropped in Utah. In New Hampshire, 44% received cancellation letters within the first two months — almost all for procedural reasons, like not returning paperwork," Rechet reports. "Because of the three-year pause in renewals, many people on Medicaid have never been through the process or aren't aware they may need to fill out long verification forms, as a recent KFF poll found. Some people moved and didn't update their contact information."

Half of U.S. children are insured by Medicaid or CHIP. "Tens of thousands of children are losing coverage, as researchers have warned, even though some may still qualify," Recht reports. "In its first month of reviews, South Dakota ended coverage for 10% of all Medicaid and CHIP enrollees in the state. More than half of them were children. In Arkansas, about 40% were kids. . . . Many parents don't know that limits on household income are significantly higher for children than adults. Parents should fill out renewal forms even if they don't qualify themselves, said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families."

Some states have opted to review families with children at the "end of the review process," giving parents more time to fulfill eligibility requirements. Recht reports: "Advocacy coalitions in both Florida and Arkansas also have called for investigations into the review process and a pause on cancellations. . . . Federal law requires states to tell people why they're losing Medicaid coverage and how to appeal the decision. . . . . Indiana State Rep. Ed Clere (R) pushed his state's Medicaid officials to immediately make changes to avoid people unnecessarily becoming uninsured. One official responded that they'd learn and improve over time. Clere replied he'd rather not 'learn. . . at their expense.'"

Thursday, June 01, 2023

Churches in Georgia become telehealth hubs to help rural residents expand their limited access to health care

Church leaders discuss health and wellness outreach in rural Georgia. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith, UGA)
Churches often serve as a rural area's central hub. Some in rural Georgia are adding a telehealth partnership to their community outreach, reports Leigh Beeson of the University of Georgia. The program "Fishers of Men" was developed to address lack of access to health care; its mission "is to create telehealth hubs at participating churches, with support from the UGA Archway Partnership. These hubs have widescreen TVs, computers, internet capabilities, and various other devices, such as scales, to facilitate medical appointments and educational seminars on health and managing chronic conditions."

The program's began with a pharmacist, Henry Young, and an IT professional, Sarah Jones, who wanted to address lack of access to health care. "With a Department of Agriculture grant of just under $1 million in 2020, the Fishers of Men project—a partnership encompassing more than 20 different churches from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Georgia Union Missionary Baptist Association—was born." The program faces the challenges of limited broadband access and adoption, but churches are using hotspots while Young's team continues to chisel out workarounds.

An additional grant "is helping the Fishers implement a new branch of the program: the Centers for Disease Control's Diabetes Prevention Program." Caleb Snead, who works on the Fishers project, told Beeson, "We study how people can't get to the resources they need, but that's not an excuse for us. We have to bring ourselves, that education, those preventive measures to the community."

"Young is thinking of advertising the new diabetes prevention program in local papers," Beeson adds. "And he and the pastors and deacons of an ever-growing list of churches are setting up workshops to train diabetes program facilitators who will help guide people on their health journey." Young told Beeson, "It's a true community-academic partnership. We're aligning what the community wants and needs with our strengths. We're reducing the barriers that prevent people from getting the health care and resources they need when they need it."

Georgia is one of the 10 states, mostly in the South, that have not expanded Medicaid under the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which advocates say would be the best way to expand rural health care.

Debate over prayer in public schools has resurfaced; some are worried protections for the non-religious will be eroded

(Photo by Camilla Forte,
The Hechinger Report)
Should adults be allowed to promote prayer in U.S. public schools? The hotly debated question has resurfaced as Christian legal campaigns seek to legalize the practice; schools in one Louisiana county may point to what other schools might expect, reports Linda K. Wertheimer for The Hechinger Report, which covers education.

"In 2018, four parents sued Bossier Parish schools for promoting religion and coercing students to participate in prayer. They argued that the prayer was a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause, which calls for a separation of church and state. The lawsuit listed more than 100 church/state violations, including teacher-led prayer in classrooms, prayer at sporting events and faculty- and administrator-led prayer at graduations. "It was all flatly unconstitutional," Richard Katskee, former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represented the Bossier Parish plaintiffs, told Wertheimer.

The plaintiffs won, and a federal judge "ordered the nearly-23,000-student school district to stop promoting religion," but "A different lawsuit was winding its way through the courts, backed by organizations that had long supported school prayer, over the right of a high school football coach to pray on the field after games," Werthheimer notes. "Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6–3 in favor of the coach, Joe Kennedy, who sued the Bremerton, Washington, school district after it disciplined him when he refused to end the practice of praying at the 50-yard line following games. . . . The decision described Kennedy's prayer as a quiet, personal act," but Wertheimer reports, "Katskee told me that students who declined to participate 'got harassed and harangued'."

Since previous court decisions separate church and state, based on the First Amendment, how can adults legally promote prayer in public schools? The amendment guarantees "free exercise" of religion, so they campaign in the name of religious freedom. Wertheimer writes, "The way they define that freedom could lead to prayer becoming commonplace at public schools."

With the Kennedy decision, “The other side is emboldened, and the other side is not individuals,” said Andrew Seidel, spokesman for Americans United. “It is a group of well-funded Christian nationalist legal outfits looking for these cases and seizing upon them so they can take them to court.” Wertheimer adds that First Liberty, which helped win the Kennedy case, "rejects the 'Christian nationalist' label," saying it also represent non-Christian religious groups.

"Attorneys from First Liberty and Liberty Counsel, another prominent conservative legal organization, told me the door has opened to bring prayer back to schools across the nation, at least when it comes to school-sponsored events," Wertheimer reports. Keisha Russell and Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, note that the Kennedy decision "overruled the so-called Lemon test, a three-pronged standard set out in a 1971 ruling that delineated criteria the government must meet in order to comply with the clause defining the separation of church and state. One prong states that the government can assist religion only if there is no 'excessive entanglement' between church and state. Justices later generally interpreted this to mean that a public entity cannot endorse religion. Liberty Counsel’s lawyers recently analyzed court rulings since 1971 and found at least 7,000 citations of the Lemon test. Staver said all of those cases must be reexamined. His firm hopes to reverse the 1992 ruling Lee v. Weisman, for example, which prohibited clergy-led prayer at public school graduations partly on the grounds that the graduates in attendance were coerced to participate because they had to be at the event. Staver said that argument no longer holds."

International group of scientists says Earth is in danger zone for 7 of 8 ecological measures, almost there on air pollution

"Earth has pushed past seven out of eight scientifically established safety limits and into “the danger zone,” not just for an overheating planet that’s losing its natural areas, but for the well-being of people living on it, according to a new study," reports Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press.

The study was done by by the Sweden-based international scientist group Earth Commission and published in Wednesday’s peer-reviewed journal Nature. "It looks at climate, air pollution, phosphorus and nitrogen contamination of water from fertilizer overuse, groundwater supplies, fresh surface water, the unbuilt natural environment and the overall natural and human-built environment," AP reports. "Only air pollution wasn’t quite at the danger point globally."

The study concluded that climate was beyond harmful levels for humans in certain groups, "but not quite past the safety guideline for the planet as a system," Borenstein reports. "The planet can recover if it changes, including its use of coal, oil and natural gas and the way it treats the land and water, the scientists said.

If the globe got an annual checkup, similar to a physical examination, “Our doctor would say that the Earth is really quite sick right now and it is sick in terms of many different areas or systems and this sickness is also affecting the people living on Earth,” Earth Commission co-chair Joyeeta Gupta, a University of Amsterdam environment professor, said at a press conference.

Indy Burke, dean of Yale University's School of the Environment, waan't involved in the study, but endorsed it: “This is a compelling and provocative paper – scientifically sound in methodology and important for identifying the dimensions in which the planet is nearing the edge of boundaries that would launch us into irreversible states,” she told AP.

Finding love in rural places can be hard; 'Farmer Wants A Wife' show helps four of them, and there are other options

Landon Heaton on his Oklahoma farm
(Photo by Xcaret Nuñez, Harvest Radio)
Bacon and eggs, high socks and baseball, or narwhals and unicorns; the world abounds with delightful twosomes. But for humans, finding a fantastic partner can be tricky, and if you're a rancher like Landon Heaton, making things OK at the corral can take up most of your time, and dating doesn't make the chore list.

"Heaton lives alone on his 700-acre ranch near a small town called Coyle, about an hour outside of Oklahoma City," reports Xcaret Nuñez of Harvest Public Media. "The 35-year-old said he loves caring for his animals, watching his dogs roam free and cattle thrive. But his devotion to working on the ranch took priority in his life, and he lost sight of finding a girlfriend." Heaton told Nuñez, "Why am I gonna go out to the bars when I gotta wake up at six in the morning and go check calves? That's kind of the pattern I found myself in. Relationships went away, and I was here to take care of animals and farm."

"Out of the blue, Heaton got an Instagram message from a Fox producer asking him to be a part of a reality dating show, "Farmer Wants A Wife," Nuñez reports. "At first, he thought it was a spam message — he had never even watched reality TV before and was hesitant to join. But after saying no '150 times,' Heaton finally agreed. . . . Heaton is one of four farmers ... set up with a group of single women, then shows them live on the farm. For Heaton, who loves his life ranching and farming, the show made him realize the value of finding someone special."

Farming is pretty solitary work, so most marriage-eligible farmers won't meet a potential spouse on the job. And younger people leaving rural areas, which "naturally shrinks the dating pool," Nuñez notes. "Rural farming-dependent counties, like those across the Midwest and Great Plains region, have lost about 40% of young adults between 20-29 years old each decade since the 1950s, said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer and sociologist at the University of New Hampshire."

Although farmers can't count on Fox productions to find them possible matches, other options exist. "Dating sites like FarmersOnly aim to make finding love a little easier for people living in rural areas. The niche online dating site connects farmers, ranchers and rural people, has attracted over 10 million members since it launched in 2005," Nuñez reports. "Despite the site's name, Michael Gober, the company's marketing manager, said FarmersOnly is meant to help people with similar small-town backgrounds and values find each other more easily. . . . Other dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble can also help broaden the dating scene for small-town folks, but driving long distances might be necessary." Gober told her, "They want somebody who is accepting of their lifestyle, who's accepting of their work ethic, and their work-life balance and wants to make a life together in rural America."

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Appeals court OKs plan that shields owners of Purdue Pharma from future lawsuits; they must give it up, donate

Purdue Pharma's headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut
(Photo by Drew Angerer, Getty Images, via The New York Times)
A federal appeals court has approved a settlement by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, that protects its billionaire owners, the Sackler family, from future lawsuits. The Sacklers would give up the company, which would take the new name Knoa, "with its profits being sent to a fund to prevent and treat addiction," reports Geoff Mulvihill of The Associated Press.

"Family members would also contribute $5.5 billion to $6 billion in cash over time, or about half of what the court found to be their collective fortune, much of it held offshore. At least $750 million of that money is to go to individual victims of the opioid crisis and their survivors. Payments are expected to range from about $3,500 to $48,000."

Tuesday’s decision by The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York also protects the family from lawsuits "over the toll of opioids, even though they did not file for bankruptcy," AP notes. "The court’s ruling reversed a 2021 ruling that found bankruptcy court judges did not have the authority to approve a settlement that would offer bankruptcy protections for those who have not filed for bankruptcy."

The deal "would end claims filed by thousands of state, local and Native American tribal governments and other entities," AP reports. "Sackler family members have been clear that without the protections, they won’t hold up their part of the deal. . . . Several states had withheld support for the plan, but after a new round of negotiations last year, all of them came on board."

The sole remaining objector was the Office of the Bankruptcy Trustee in the Justice Department, which "did not immediately say whether it would appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, ask the Circuit Court to review its decision or accept the ruling as is," AP reports. "Even without an appeal, it could be months before the bankruptcy plan takes effect."

Justice sues Justice, again: Feds try to collect $5 million in mining penalties from West Virginia governor's businesses

Gov. Jim Justice (Official photo)
For more than a decade, Jim Justice, now West Virginia's governor, has been behind in paying fines for violations at his coal mines. Wednesday the Department of Justice sued 13 of his businesses to collect $5 million in penalties the Department of the Interior levied on them for strip-mine violations.

It's not the first time Justice has sued Justice, but it's the first time the former Democrat has been a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “The Biden administration is aware of the fact that, with a win for the U.S. Senate and everything, we could very well flip the Senate,” Justice said. “Government agencies sometimes can surely react, and this could be something in regard to that.” U.S. Attorney Christopher Kavanaugh of Virginia's Western District "said in a news release the violations posed health and safety risks to the public and the environment," the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports.

In 2020 ProPublica reported that creditors of Justice's businesses had often sued to collect what they were owed, and often had to fight to get paid, even after being ordered to do so by courts. That story was written by Ken Ward Jr., who reported for Mountain State Spotlight May 5 that "by late 2020, the total in judgments and settlements for Justice family businesses had reached $140 million. . . . Since then, his family business empire has faced more turmoil. Lenders are trying to hold him personally responsible for hundreds of millions in debt. Courts are ordering payment of long-standing environmental penalties. . . . For years, Justice had been considered West Virginia’s richest man and listed by Forbes as a billionaire. But in 2021, Forbes removed that listing. The magazine cited a dispute over $850 million in debt to the now-defunct firm Greensill Capital. The Justice companies settled that dispute with a payment plan. But last week a longtime banking partner of Justice’s, Carter Bank & Trust, filed documents seeking to collect on a separate $300 million debt. Justice’s son, Jay Justice, said in a statement that the bank had refused a reasonable repayment plan."

Flash droughts are becoming more common; they can put crops and herds at risk; experts working on predicting them

A flash drought developed in a few weeks in 2019. (NASA Earth Observatory image)
As Earth warms, flash droughts they are becoming more common and can have a devastating ripple effect; understanding where and when they might occur could help farmers and ranchers plan, Jeff Basara and Jordan Christian report for The Conversation, a platform for journalism by academics: "In a new study, we found that the risk of flash droughts, which can develop in the span of a few weeks, is on pace to rise in every major agriculture region around the world in the coming decades. . . . In North America and Europe, cropland that had a 32% annual chance of a flash drought a few years ago could have as much as a 53% annual chance of a flash drought by the final decades of this century. The result would put food production, energy and water supplies under increasing pressure. . . . A flash drought in the Dakotas and Montana in 2017 caused $2.6 billion in agricultural damage in the U.S. alone."

What is a flash drought? "All droughts begin when precipitation stops. What's interesting about flash droughts is how fast they reinforce themselves, with some help from the warming climate," Basara and Christian explain. "When the weather is hot and dry, soil loses moisture rapidly. Dry air extracts moisture from the land, and rising temperatures can increase this 'evaporative demand.' The lack of rain during a flash drought can further contribute to the feedback processes. Under these conditions, crops and vegetation begin to die much more quickly than they do during typical long-term droughts."

Timing is crucial for agriculture. "In 2022, a [harvest-time] flash drought slowed barge traffic on the Mississippi River, which carries more than 90% of U.S. agriculture exports. . . . If a flash drought occurs at a critical point in the growing season, it could devastate an entire crop," Basara and Christian explain. "During the huge flash drought in 2012 in the central U.S., cattle ran out of forage and water became scarcer. If rain doesn't fall during the growing season for natural grasses, cattle don't have food, and ranchers may have little choice but to sell off part of their herds."

Improving weather predictions can help sectors better plan and prepare for flash droughts. "When we talk with farmers and ranchers, they want to know what the weather will look like over the next one to six months," the study's authors add. "We're tackling the challenge of monitoring and improving the lead time and accuracy of forecasts for flash droughts, as are other scientists. For example, the U.S. Drought Monitor has developed an experimental short-term map that can display developing flash droughts. As scientists learn more about the conditions that cause flash droughts and about their frequency and intensity, forecasts and monitoring tools will improve. . . . Nothing is getting easier for farmers and ranchers as global temperatures rise. Understanding the risk from flash droughts will help them."

E. Ky. was in a housing crisis before last year's record flood; slow recovery shows how disasters hit poor areas hardest

Shirley Howard's household is one of more than 100
still in temporary housing. (Associated Press photo)
More than 10 months after the most devastating flood many Eastern Kentucky communities have seen, many families "still haven't returned home," reports Dylan Lovan of The Associated Press. At least 100 families "are living in trailers and hundreds more remain displaced, living with relatives or in damaged homes while they rebuild."

Nearly 9,000 homes in 13 Eastern Kentucky counties "were severely damaged or destroyed by the intense four-day storm that dumped up to 16 inches of rain" last July, "ravaging one of the poorest places in the country. Homeowners in the mountainous region . . . live in flood-prone valleys that offer the only flat land for building homes, an area already suffering a housing crisis before the flood hit. . . . One study estimates it could cost nearly $1 billion to recover the region's housing losses."

Lovan points out, "The challenges in Kentucky are replicated in disasters that strike poor areas nationwide. Low-income families can't qualify for disaster loans, and conflicting rules and separate thresholds for an array of federal aid can slow and complicate recovery, according to national experts." Sally Ray, director of domestic funds for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, told him, “There’s food insecurity, there's lack of affordable housing, there's lack of access to resources ... and those things are just exacerbated after a disaster.”

"Only about 5% of affected homeowners carried flood insurance, according to a report by the Ohio River Valley Institute and the Appalachian Citizens Law Center," Lovan reports. "Traditional homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by flooding. The report said 60% of the households damaged had annual incomes of $30,000 or less. . . . A single inch of water inside a house can cause more than $26,000 in damage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . . . FEMA has doled out about $106 million to victims of the Kentucky flood for repairs, cleanup, storage, moving costs and other short-term needs. The maximum FEMA payout is $39,700, but the average grant was closer to $20,000, said Scott McReynolds, executive director of the Housing Development Alliance, a nonprofit that provides housing and repairs for needy residents in southeastern Kentucky. The group was working with 400 families even before the flood."

A $298 million grant is coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for long-term infrastructure and housing needs in the region, but it "could be slow to arrive, and it is unclear how much of it will go to housing, said Rebecca Shelton with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, who co-authored the Kentucky flooding study." She told Lovan, “The big concern is really the timeline. It will be many months before these (federal) funds are implemented and I don’t know how much longer folks who are still inadequately housed can hang on.”

A fundamental problem in the region is the lack of land suitable for housing. Coal companies still haven't provided any from former surafce-mine sites, but some other private owners have given 125 acres for two sites, and the state has hired engineering firms to design and manage developments.

Average cost of renting farmland in Iowa is at all-time high

Getting ready for planting (Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes, Des Moines Register)
The cost to rent Iowa farmland has continued to increase over the past few years and "this year reached a 10-year high, driven by rising land values and recent strong farm income," reports Donnelle Eller of the Des Moines Register, citing an Iowa State University survey. "This year's average farmland rent climbed 9% to $279 an acre, according to the survey. That beat the record set in 2013, when the average reached $270 an acre. . . . At the time, Iowa and other states struggled with an extended drought that drove corn and soybean prices to new highs."

ISU Extension economist Alejandro Plastina, "expects farmland rents to decline," Eller reports. "While farm income has climbed over the past two years, the Department of Agriculture said in February that farmers will likely see it decline 16% this year with lower prices for most crops and livestock." Plastina told Eller, "Lower projected crop prices, along with sustained input inflation in 2024, would result in lower net farm income and put downward pressure on cash rents."
Rental costs "vary depending on the land's ability to produce corn and soybeans, ISU said. The rent for low-quality land climbed 6% to $230 an acre; medium-quality land jumped 8.6% to $277 an acre; and high-quality land spiked 11.1% to $330 an acre," Eller writes. "Experts said farmers will likely get squeezed this year, with the cost to raise a crop rising while prices for corn and soybeans, Iowa's dominant crops, decline. Production costs are expected to rise 20%, driven by rising interest rates and higher seed, fertilizer, chemical and land costs."

A rural teen's death was a talking point in national politics for 10 days last fall, but then the facts told a non-political story

Buck’s n Doe’s Bar, site of the killing.
(Photo by Lewis Ableidinger, The New York Times)
In the wee hours of a September night in 2022, Shannon Brandt and 18-year-old Cayler Ellingson, both of McHenry, N.D., population 64, were alone in a bar's parking lot, drunk and arguing. Brandt decided to leave the conflict, got into his Ford Explorer, and ran over Ellingson, who later died, report Charles Homans and Ken Bensinger of The New York Times. Brandt's motivation for killing Ellingson was not immediately clear beyond "a state highway patrol officer's report, which suggested Brandt killed Ellingson because he believed he was a 'Republican extremist.'" Like many initial investigation reports, this idea changed within a few days.

Despite sparse facts from a few initial reports, right-wing supporters looking at mid-term elections took the story and began a narrative of a deranged, white Democrat who ran over and killed a teenager because he was Republican. "Former President Donald J. Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia were among a chorus of Republican politicians — including several members of Congress and the attorney general of North Dakota — who rushed to condemn Brandt. . . . The episode quickly became an example of another media phenomenon: the distortion of complex, painful events to fit an opportune political narrative."

The facts supporting Brandt as politically active or a Democrat do not seem to exist, but the narrative persisted. "Although evidence in the case suggests the two men argued about politics that night, law-enforcement officials concluded quickly that the killing was not politically motivated," Homans and Bensinger write. "Gateway Pundit, a right-wing site that regularly seeds stories in the conservative media, wrote its own version under the headline 'Crazed North Dakota man runs over and kills teen for "extremist" Republican views'."

For 10 days, "The case was discussed on at least seven Fox News shows. The coverage continued well after law-enforcement officials had said the killing was not politically motivated, a point that was only occasionally mentioned on air," the Times reports. "Eleven days after Ellingson's death, the county prosecutor, Kara Brinster, dropped the initial charge of vehicular homicide. . . for a new one: intentional homicide, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. . . . Then, as quickly as it swelled, the media frenzy receded. . . . Fox News's hosts did not mention the case on-air again after Sept. 30."

It seemed the midterms talking point had lost its steam. "Earlier this month, after Brinster dismissed the intentional homicide charge, the decision merited little more attention than a front-page story in The Foster County Independent and an article by The Associated Press," the Times reports. "As Brandt agreed to plead guilty, Jack Posobiec, a right-wing podcaster, took up the story again. . . . He singled out the prosecutor, claiming she had gone soft on Brandt. . . . . He posted her photograph and phone number online and told listeners to call her to complain. Posobiec told his listeners, "Maybe Kara Brinster should be prosecuted. Maybe we should look into her."

Are police being dangerously exposed to fentanyl? Some think they've been affected, but no cases have been proven

Illegal drugs outside the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building in
Los Angeles. (Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, The Associated Press)

Police officers who report symptoms such as heart palpitations or lightheadedness during or after stops are not reacting to fentanyl exposure, reports Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio in the Adirondacks. "Reports of police suffering severe medical symptoms after touching or inhaling powdered fentanyl are common, occurring 'every few weeks' around the U.S., according to experts. . . . Seizures of fentanyl have escalated in recent years and the synthetic opioid is common . . . Many police feel their health is threatened by contact with trace amounts of the drug. . . . But medical experts say it's difficult to get fentanyl into the body. That's why people . . . smoke it or inject it using needles."

Finding proof of a police 'overdose' from brief contact has not materialized. Mann notes, "We contacted numerous law-enforcement and government agencies, as well as researchers around the U.S. . . . We couldn't find a single case of a police officer who reported being poisoned by fentanyl or overdosing after encountering the street drug that was confirmed by toxicology reports." Brandon Del Pozo, a former police chief who studies addiction and drug policy at Brown University, told Mann, "There's never been a toxicologically confirmed case. The idea of it hanging in the air and getting breathed in is highly, highly implausible."

Yet, Mann found an example of police officers convinced that a fentanyl exposure was happening on a call. "Officer Courtney Bannick was on the job for the Tavares, Fla., police department when she came into contact with a powder she believed was street fentanyl. . . . The footage from another officer's body camera shows Bannick appearing to lose consciousness before being lowered to the ground by other cops. . . . Other officers can be heard on the tape describing Bannick's medical condition as an overdose. The Tavares police department blamed the incident on fentanyl. Bannick later told a local television station, "I was light-headed a little bit. . . . I was choking. . . . I couldn't breathe."

Mann explains, "One 2021 case study cited by the CDC of a police department in Ohio found common symptoms described by police included lightheadedness, palpitations, and nausea. Symptoms of stress and fear, not opioid overdose. . . . Del Pozo believes the real risk to police officers from street fentanyl isn't accidental overdose. . . . He said many reported fentanyl overdoses among police involve symptoms that look more like panic attacks than opioid overdoses. . . . [Despite] the risk to police officers from street fentanyl exposure being 'extrememlyl low.' . . . warnings like this one can be found on the Drug Enforcement Administration's website: 'Inhalation of airborne powder is MOST LIKELY to lead to harmful effects, but is less likely to occur than skin contact. . . The Centers for Disease Control website does urge caution, including the wearing of gloves, masks and other protective gear."

When officers read warnings from well-reputed websites, dealing with fentanyl becomes even more stressful. "Speaking on background, some officials suggested to NPR it is safer for warnings to remain in place so police err on the side of caution," Mann reports. "But Ryan Marino, a toxicologist and emergency room physician at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, believes exaggerated fears of fentanyl make it harder for police to do their jobs protecting the public." Marino told Mann, "There has never been an overdose through skin contact or accidentally inhaling fentanyl."

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Longer trains block vehicles for longer waits, costing lives

Washington Post graph from Assn. of American Railroads data
Longer trains are blocking rural vehicular traffic for longer waits, including by emergency responders. There have been extreme delays and, in one case, an infant died. So far, railroads have been slow to respond to complaints, report Andrea Salcedo, Luz Lazo, and Lee Powell of The Washington Post.

Their object example: "For decades, those living along Glover Road in Leggett, Texas — a rural community with fewer than 150 residents  — wrote letters, sent emails and called authorities pleading that trains stop blocking the neighborhood's sole point of entry and exit for hours. Some residents and a county judge sent letters to the railroad company, warning of a 'greater catastrophe,' including a toxic train disaster."

The community's fears were justified: "In 2021, baby K'Twon Franklin died. His mother, Monica Franklin, had found the 3-month-old unresponsive in her bed and called 911," the Post reports. "Paramedics responded, but a Union Pacific train blocked their path on Glover Road, according to Franklin and a local police report. It took more than 30 minutes for them to carry K'Twon into an ambulance. Two days later, the baby died at a hospital in Houston. Franklin told the Post, "Unfortunately, the delay has cost my child's life."

The tragic events in Leggett are not an exception. "In Tennessee, a man died of a medical emergency after an ambulance crew was held up at a train crossing. In Oklahoma, a man perished from a heart attack after first responders were stuck behind a train at the only entrance to their street. . . . So far this year, there have been more than 1,400 reports of first responders blocked by trains," the Post reports. "Trains have mushroomed in length for a simple reason — to save money and generate profits for railway companies and their shareholders. . . . U.S. railroads have paid out $196 billion on stock buybacks and dividends to shareholders since 2010." Congress is working some solutions: "The Railway Safety Act, which would require railroads to maintain a toll-free number where people can report blocked crossings, advanced this month to the Senate floor, where it will probably need 60 votes to pass. The legislation also would set standards. . . . apply new rules to trains transporting hazardous materials and curb efforts by railroads to reduce their workforces."

Will railroads end up building roads to grade separations where vehicles can cross? "In Leggett, there is a solution to the crossing blocks. To build a short connector road to another crossing, giving Glover Road residents a way out. They could then cross the tracks and drive 15 minutes to Livingston, the nearest town. Or if all crossings were blocked in Leggett, they could take the long way to Livingston, about a 45-minute drive," the Post reports. "Union Pacific said it is committed to working with communities — including Leggett — to resolve issues with blocked crossings. But local officials and residents say that, despite the county and state facilitating land acquisition, the railroad has not made it a priority."

UPDATE, June 5: In Hensley, Arkansas, a largely Black village of 139 people south of Little Rock, the Union Pacific Railroad is installing a longer siding to keep trains from dividing the burg, which has only one railroad crossing, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

'After Uvalde: Guns, Grief & Texas Politics' documentary premieres tonight on PBS and streaming platforms

Family members of the victims, and supporters
(Photo by Evan L'Roy of The Texas Tribune)
Just over a year ago, an 18-year-old walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and opened fire with two legally-purchased AR-style weapons, killing 19 children and two adults.

Premiering tonight on PBS and streaming platforms, "After Uvalde: Guns, Grief & Texas Politics" is a profound and powerful look at a grieving community’s efforts to heal and the fight over assault-style rifles in Texas. . . . The documentary will be available to watch in full at and in the PBS App starting tonight at 7/6c, and on  Frontlines’s YouTube channel at 10/9c. Check local listings here.

In the "Frontline" documentary with Futuro Investigates and The Texas Tribune, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa probes lingering questions about why this tragedy happened, scrutinizes the police response, examines gun politics in Texas, and explores how some of the Robb Elementary families have navigated their transformed lives in the year since the shooting.

“For the last year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these families and about Uvalde,” Hinojosa says in the documentary. “I need to know: What does a place like Uvalde do after a horrific tragedy like this?"

The twice-weekly Uvalde Leader-News published a memorial magazine last week, and Publisher Craig Garnett wrote about it.

Researchers develop scoring system to identify long Covid; ongoing study at 85 sites needs more rural participants
Researchers have developed a method to determine whether someone is suffering from long Covid-19, defined as "post-acute sequelae Covid." (Sequelae are conditions resulting from earlier disease or injury.) And they're looking for more rural participants.

"This symptom-based PASC definition represents a first step for identifying PASC cases and serves as a launching point for further investigations," the reserachers report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Future analyses must consider the relationships among age, sex, race and ethnicity, social determinants of health, vaccination status after index date, co-morbidities, and pregnancy status during infection."

"Researchers identified symptoms that are the most distinctive to long Covid, including: fatigue, especially after exercise; brain fog; dizziness; gastrointestinal symptoms; heart palpitations; issues with sexual desire or capacity; loss of smell or taste; thirst; chronic cough; chest pain; and abnormal movements," reports Karen Weintraub of USA Today. "Each self-reported symptom is given a score and someone with a score of 12 or more 'is a person who very likely has long Covid,' said Dr. Leora Horwitz, who helped lead the research from the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. "It doesn't mean these symptoms are the most common, or the most severe, or the most burdensome, or the most important to people. It just means that these are the ones that help us identify people who have long-term consequences."

The researchers studied 9,764 adults at 85 hospitals, health centers, and community organizations in 33 states. "More than 20% of people who've had Covid score high enough six months after their infection to meet this working definition of long COVID, although one-third of them no longer meet the criteria at nine months," Weinraub reports.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research, which is continuing. "The study is still looking for participants who are Hispanic or who live in rural areas," Weintraub notes.

Problems with charging stations threaten adoption of EVs

EV charging stations (Photo by Andrew Hawkins, The Verge)
The effort to shift Americans to electric vehicles has a big obstacle: unreliable charging stations. In rural areas, that's a bigger problem, because rural stations are in short supply. More than one in five EV users report that they have been unable to find a station at one time or another, and the number is rising as EVs become more common, according to surveys by J.D. Power.

"Parts break, information screens freeze, payment systems malfunction. Copper thieves steal the cords. Vandals damage charging plugs or, in one infamous instance, stuff them with ground meat," reports David Baker of Bloomberg News. "Nascent networks mean that if the machines at one station aren’t working, there may not be another nearby."

"A decade ago, early EV adopters were willing to put up with unreliable public chargers," Baker writes. "Now, however, the problem threatens President Joe Biden’s EV ambitions. Biden has made electric cars a cornerstone of his climate and economic policies, devoting $5 billion to the buildout of a charging network along major roads and $2.5 billion to charging within communities. The goal is convincing every American driver to go electric. But it’s a leap of faith for many — one they may not be willing to make if they don’t trust that public chargers will work."

“We have to address these issues before we get further along in EV adoption,” Brent Gruber, who oversees automotive research for J.D. Power, told Baker. “The mindset is changing, from the early adopters who expected some bumps in the road, to the mainstream consumer who is not willing to overlook those problems.”

To complicate things, Baker reports, "The precise scope of the problem isn’t known. EV drivers face a complex landscape of competing charging companies, each with its own stations and app, and there is no central repository of data on station performance." Charging companies "acknowledge that the first few waves of public chargers installed over the past 10 years weren’t as dependable as they needed to be" but now "insist they are getting more reliable, not less. Property owners who buy chargers from companies like Blink Charging and ChargePoint often sign service contracts for those companies to maintain or replace the chargers as needed. Gruber said some site owners let those agreements lapse over time, allowing the machines to fall into disrepair."

Debt deal leans on environmental concessions to gain support

Appalachians at midday (Photo by Sean Foster, Unsplash)
After five years of legal finagling, the Mountain Valley Pipeline could be plucked from the mire and "fast-tracked to completion as part of the new debt ceiling deal," reports Timothy Puko of The Washington Post. "Text of a bipartisan bill intended to avoid the first-ever government default includes language that would expedite completion of the deeply divisive natural-gas pipeline. As currently phrased, the bill states that 'Congress hereby finds and declares that the timely completion of construction and operation of the MVP is required in the national interest.' Litigation over the $6.6 billion project — pertaining mostly to its heavy environmental footprint — has long delayed its completion. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, has been trying since last summer to find a legislative way out of the legal logjam."

"It is another White House concession to Manchin, who has long championed the 303-mile pipeline, which would carry West Virginia shale gas to the East Coast but has been tripped up by dozens of environmental violations and a slew of court fights," Puko writes. "Environmentalists have fought the project since its inception, and the new provisions aim to block them from challenging almost all government approvals for the line to cut across federal forests and dozens of waterways in Appalachia's hilly, wet terrain."

The pipeline may not be the only project to get green-lighted through the debt-ceiling compromise. Puko writes, "The pipeline language is just one of a few energy and climate provisions in the deal, drawing ire from pipeline opponents and climate activists. The bill also proposes streamlining the landmark National Environmental Policy Act to limit its requirements on some projects. . . . Republican leaders say they will work with the White House later on how to speed up major electric transmission projects — crucial to Biden's goal of transitioning away from fossil fuels — but excluded such provisions from this deal."

Environmental groups are not satisfied with the deal. "The Sierra Club on Monday called for Congress to reject it, as did Sen. Tim Kaine (D) from Virginia, where both U.S. senators have opposed the pipeline project," Puko adds. "Several climate advocates criticized Biden for supporting the pipeline by noting the administration also approved a giant oil project in Alaska called Willow earlier this year and has been reluctant to help stop other pipeline projects. Climate activists have tried to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline as a way of limiting the supply of cheap natural gas, and locals have been frustrated by frequent construction mishaps."

Biden needs Manchin to meet many of his administration's climate goals. "Manchin, who had demanded legislation to help the [MVP] project as part of his support for the larger climate package last year," Puko reports. "Manchin may be needed again to pass the new deal to raise the country's debt ceiling, and Democrats have been looking to help his tough reelection trying to defend a Democratic senate seat in his heavily Republican state. . . . . Jason Grumet, chief executive of the American Clean Power Association, a renewable energy industry group, called the measures just a 'down payment.' It will introduce shorter review timelines and empower a single lead agency on decisions, among other moves."