Friday, October 27, 2023

Uvalde Leader-News publisher honored with Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in community journalism

Uvalde Leader-News Publisher Craig Garnett (OPA photo)
Craig Garnett, publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News in southwest Texas, was recognized Thursday as the winner of the 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award for extraordinary courage, integrity and tenacity in community journalism.

The award is presented annually by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Garnett was recognized during an awards dinner hosted by the Institute in Lexington, KY. He was unable to attend in person but provided remarks by video, and he will receive the award at an event in Texas in February.

Garnett owns the twice-weekly newspaper that continues to cover the aftermath of the May 2022 school shooting in which 19 children and two teachers died.

“What happened in Uvalde was crushing,” Garnett said. “It continues to be an enormous weight on many of our shoulders, especially the families of the victims, and we have endeavored to cover every aspect of that shooting.”

Garnett said he was honored to receive an award that’s based on courage, integrity and tenacity. “I don’t know three words that inspire publishers more than those,” he said. “And I can tell you right now that we have courage and we have integrity, and it’s that tenacity that makes the difference between success and failure.”

The award is named for the couple who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, for more than 50 years. The newspaper was known for its unwavering coverage of corrupt public officials, coal-company abuses, misdeeds of the local police and anti-poverty programs that often missed the mark. As a result, they suffered advertising boycotts, loss of friendships and the even the burning of their newspaper office.

“Tom and Pat Gish set the benchmark for this award,” Garnett said. “I wish I had known them. I think they must have been remarkable people to have created this kind of legacy.”

In nominating Garnett for the award, Managing Editor Meghann Garcia said that he has made a “dogged pursuit to learn how so many things went wrong that day, how every single fail-safe failed.”

Uvalde County (Wikipedia map)
In one of his editorial columns about the shooting, Garnett wrote: “It pains to write these words of criticism about law enforcement, but parents and the community have the right to know. They must be told why police, whom parents at the scene begged to go in and save their children, failed to act. They have to know, to ever begin to heal."

He concluded, "There is a final question that no one will ever adequately answer. It came on Thursday in the form of a text message from our reporter, Kimberly Rubio, whose fourth-grader Lexi did not come home that day: 'Why would someone hurt my baby, Craig?'"

In an editorial, Garnett wrote, “No mass school shooting in the United States has ended with such glaring failures in both the law enforcement response and school district security” and called the police response “a rudderless ship cast into a hurricane.”

Garnett also endorsed more gun control, and that stand and his criticism of police didn’t sit well in the town of 15,000 and the county of 25,000.

In the nomination letter, Garcia wrote, “It wasn't the first time our coverage, or Craig's politics, went against the grain. . . . Craig has never been afraid of taking a stand or telling the news, despite how unpopular it might be with subscribers and advertisers, who are also often his friends.”

Garnett’s wife, Melissa, told the award selection committee, “One of his best columns was about our son’s process of recovery from drugs and alcohol. That took courage. He must have hit all the right notes, as the response was great – he had taken the bold step of using his pain of an addicted child to remove the stigma of talking about addiction.”

In addition to the Gish Award, the Institute for Rural Journalism and the Society of Professional Journalists Bluegrass Chapter also presented Ben Gish, son of Pat and Tom Gish, and Mountain Eagle reporter Sam Adams the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

The sting of high interest rates is hurting farmers, home buyers, consumers and small businesses

Graph by Karl Russell, NYT, from Federal Reserve data

Painful interest rates are not going away anytime soon, and when borrowing money costs more, business sectors, agriculture and consumers all take a hit. "Home buyers, entrepreneurs and public officials are confronting a new reality: If they want to hold off on big purchases or investments until borrowing is less expensive, it’s probably going to be a long wait," reports Lydia DePillis of The New York Times. The sting of rate hikes may be nearing an end, but "market-based measures of long-term borrowing costs have continued rising . . . Governments are paying more to borrow money for new schools and parks. . . . .Companies, forced to refinance debts at sharply higher interest rates, are more likely to lay off employees — especially if they were already operating with little or no profits."

Because borrowing money costs more, smaller banks have chosen to limit the amount of money they borrow from the Federal Reserve and lend more selectively. DePillis writes, "Small banks are at the epicenter of America’s credit crunch for small businesses." Mary Kay Bates, the chief executive of Bank Midwest in Spirit Lake, Iowa, told DePillis, "It’s a trickle-down effect for everyone. . . . We’re not looking at rates coming down any time soon. I really see us taking a close watch and an internal focus, not so much on innovating and getting into new markets but taking care of the bank we have."

For smaller businesses, the increasing costs of credit may mean downsizing. For entrepreneurs, survival becomes the focus. Even farmers are facing some of the fallout. DePillis reports, "Commodity prices have been dropping, helping to bring down overall inflation, but that has depressed farm income. At the same time, high interest rates have made buying new equipment more expensive."

The problem could eventually spread to affordable housing developments and auto manufacturers. "The real problem may arrive in a couple of years, when a new generation of renters begins searching for properties that never got built because of high borrowing costs," DePillis adds. "Car dealers may feel that shift soon. In recent years, dealers made up for low inventory by raising prices. Carmakers have been offering promotional interest deals, but the average interest rate on new four-year auto loans has climbed to 8.3 percent, the highest level since the early 2000s."

Mass shooting survivors face physicial and mental trauma, but perhaps worst of all, their sense of security is 'shattered'

The plaques are part of a memorial to the seven victims in
Highland Park, Illinois. (Photo by Roger Schneider, AP)
Mass shootings have stripped away much of what Americans always felt were public safety zones. Shooting survivors say the loss, fear and trauma never leave them, reports Claire Savage of The Associated Press. "Since 2016, thousands of Americans have been wounded in mass shootings, and tens of thousands by gun violence, with that number continuing to grow, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Beyond the colossal medical bills and the weight of trauma and grief, mass shooting survivors and family members contend with scores of other changes that upend their lives."

In speaking with individuals and families, Savage explores the aftermath of mass shootings. She writes, "Survivors talked about the mental and physical wounds that endure in the aftermath of shootings in Uvalde; Las Vegas; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, during a July Fourth parade last year."

The Zamora family, whose 11-year-old daughter Maya was airlifted out of Uvalde, Texas, after being critically injured in the Robb Elementary school shooting, shared a glimpse of how much the shooting changed their lives forever. Savage reports, "Mayah suffered wounds to her chest, back, both hands, face and ear, and needed so many surgeries her parents said they stopped counting. The family relocated to San Antonio, where Mayah spent 66 days in the hospital and still needs care. A year later, Christina and Mayah's father, Ruben, said they didn't know what bills would be covered by insurance. When Mayah was discharged, they realized one parent needed to stay home to care for her." Mayah's mother, Christina, told Savage: "Her hospital bill is insane. It reaches close to $1,000,000, maybe over." 

Leah Sundheim, 29, was a night manager at a hotel in Las Vegas when "she got 'the worst phone call you can ever receive," Savage writes."Her mother, Jacquelyn Sundheim, had been killed at a shooting during Highland Park's 2022 Fourth of July parade, along with six other people. . . . Mass shootings cause a variety of trauma, she said. Her experience is different from that of her aunt and cousins, who were sitting next to Jacquelyn Sundheim when she died." Sundheim told Savage: "That flight home broke me. . . . [trauma] shatters the sense of security that you have in the world."

From Las Vegas to Highland Park, shooting survivors impart unique losses and a common fear that nowhere is safe. "So far in 2023, nearly 400 people in the U.S. have been wounded in mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive," Savage reports. "And 140 people have died in mass killings this year, which is on track to surpass 2019, the deadliest year on record for mass killings since 2006," according to a database maintained by The Associated Press and USA Today in a partnership with Northeastern University.

Doggedly investigating and reporting on coal, this reporter and his team are finally getting results

Howard Berkes' investigations have helped change coal
mining. (Photo by Wanda Gayle, Mt. State Spotlight)
Why and when federal officials pay attention to a problem may hinge on one thing -- who reports on it and how they do their job. In Appalachia, Howard Berkes has been covering coal for 38 years, bringing awareness, attention, and government action to miners' health issues. "The coal-producing regions of central Appalachia are at the center of an epidemic of advanced black lung cases among coal miners," reports Mason Adams of Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia. "New reporting by a retired NPR reporter [Howard Berkes] has shown how federal officials underestimated the sheer number of cases across West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, and now regulators seem to be responding."

At issue is silica dust produced from coal and quartz mining, causing exposed miners to develop an advanced version of black lung disease known as progressive massive fibrosis. Responding to the increase and severity of black lung cases in Appalachia, Berkes' coal beat has uncovered data and propelled change. "He worked with NPR and the PBS series "Frontline" and spent more than a year investigating fears that federal regulators and mining companies were failing to protect coal miners from toxic dust," May explains. "He and his team obtained documents and data showing federal mine safety officials had evidence of the danger dating back more than 20 years, but never addressed it.

"Lately, the metallurgical coal industry has been ramping up production to meet global demand, and experts predict even more advanced black lung cases will appear. After years of inaction, though, federal officials are addressing the issue," May reports. "Over the summer, the Mine Safety and Health Administration proposed a rule intended to protect coal miners from exposure to silica dust. By the time the comment period closed in September, the draft rule had attracted 157 comments."

Berkes is part of a new investigation into advanced black lung cases co-published by Public Health Watch, Louisville Public Media and Mountain State Spotlight. Click here to read Berkes' Q&A with "Inside Appalachia" host Mason Adams on what that investigation has found.

A rural Indiana county gets creative: Their skilled worker training begins at the courthouse

A student welds during one of Lawrence County’s courses.
(Courtesy photo, Joe Timbrook via The Daily Yonder)
Need skilled workers? It might be time to train them. "Indiana's Lawrence County — an area known for its limestone quarries and being the birthplace of three astronauts — has had to get creative to close the education gaps and labor shortages afflicting much of rural America," reports Nick Fouriezos of The Daily Yonder. "About seven years ago, a local mayor aired out his frustrations to Joe Timbrook, director of career development for the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council. His message, Timbrook recalled recently, was simple: All the area's employers were complaining that they couldn't find any skilled workers."

That 2018 exchange got Timbrook thinking -- where could he find these elusive workers? He started discussing the problem with other Lawrence County leaders "who together realized that the county had about 2,500 adults aged 18 to 65 that didn't have even their high school diploma, much less postsecondary training. Handwritten signs on telephone poles were the only way most people were learning how to get their high school certification," Fouriezos writes. "With the help of an Indiana state grant, the Lawrence County Economic Growth Council came together in 2018 to start addressing its workforce gaps. Perhaps the county's most innovative re-education effort began in its courthouse."

While starting re-education in a courthouse is unusual, the innovative approach paid off. "The council persuaded local judges and prosecutors to include in all plea agreements a 3-week training course for in-demand fields such as machining, welding, and construction. From there, the students can continue pursuing 8-week and 10-week certification courses paid for by the state, Fouriezos reports. "Once the growth council saw the success of the program, it started opening the program to other adults as well." Timbrook told him: "I have judges texting me on the weekends about how the class is doing. . . . We're just trying to figure out what this community needs and fill the gaps."

The lack of skilled workers is a nationwide problem. "Key industries lost scores of workers in recent years and have struggled to get them back. Manufacturing lost 1.4 million jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and hasn't replaced them, with nearly 700,000 open jobs as of March 2023," Fouriezos explains. "Even if every unemployed person with experience were employed, manufacturers would fill only around 75% of their vacant jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which notes similar deficits in education, health services, and wholesale and retail trade."

Fouriezo reports, "Using local data to assess what already works and expand it is especially critical in areas with few educational institutions, says Dakota Pawlicki, director of "Talent Hubs" at Civic Lab, an education nonprofit that partnered with Lawrence County to systemize their outreach strategy. 'With a lot of national organizations, there is this perception that rural areas are at a deficit,' Pawlicki says, but that perspective can lead to many hidden strengths of rural areas being overlooked. 'In Lawrence County, their unique asset just happened to be something that was happening inside of jail.'"

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Many deaths at Wisconsin small dairy farms could be prevented; OSHA could use its authority to dig deeper

Cows, equipment and weather all contribute to dairy
farm dangers. (Photo via ProPublica)
Deaths on small dairy farms in Wisconsin often don't lead to safety inspections, perhaps leaving farm workers unprotected from preventable dangers. In the case of many deaths over the last decade, the Office of Safety and Health Administration never opens a case, citing a lack of authority; however, had the agency probed further, it could have done more," report Maryam Jameel and Melissa Sanchez of ProPublica. "How OSHA interprets and applies its definition of a "temporary labor camp" — and whether it should consider dairy workers temporary when farms produce milk year-round — has significant implications for the safety of thousands of workers in one of America's most dangerous industries."

ProPublica reports on three specific deaths of immigrant dairy workers that may have resulted from a lack of safety or training, but in each case, OSHA inspectors "went to the farms [and] left within an hour — without conducting investigations into the deaths. . . .The inspectors concluded they couldn't investigate because OSHA is banned from enforcing safety laws on farms with fewer than 11 workers unless they have employer-provided housing known as a 'temporary labor camp.'"

A broader look at dairy farm deaths raises more questions. "Since 2009, at least 17 workers, most of them immigrants, have died on Wisconsin dairy farms. Twelve of the deaths happened on farms with fewer than 11 workers. OSHA did not inspect eight of those 12, each time citing the small farms' exemption," Jameel and Sanchez write. "Records reviewed by ProPublica and interviews show that the agency may have more power to open an investigation into these farms than even its own leaders seem to be aware of."

In all three deaths ProPublica examined, how the inspectors so quickly came to their conclusions seems unclear. ProPublica reports, "Had the inspectors taken a slightly closer look, they might have learned that the farmers had readily talked with law enforcement officials about providing housing for their immigrant workers. . . . And if the inspectors had read OSHA's own files, they would have known that the agency has repeatedly, though inconsistently, inspected small farms after concluding a housing arrangement was a temporary labor camp."

Lola Loustaunau, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School for Workers, told ProPublica that 'it would really open the door for a lot of protections for workers' if OSHA consistently inspected small dairy farms that provide housing to immigrant workers."

For more about the history on the small-farm exemption as a budget rider, Christina Cooke of Civil Eats discusses it here.

Newspaper publisher sounds off on threats and harassment by neo-Nazis after reporting facts about a mayoral candidate

In the case of a newspaper and its adversaries, sometimes "enough is enough," reports Derby Jones, publisher of the Williamson Herald, in Franklin, Tennessee. The Williamson County paper has faced an onslaught of vandalism and harassment, including threats leading up to a Franklin election. "The group or groups seems to take issue with our factual reporting of Franklin's mayoral candidate, Gabrielle Hanson."
Wikipedia map

Jones calls out the perpetrators in his Oct. 24 column: "The Williamson Herald's offices were vandalized over the weekend. . . . Someone took the time to bring printouts of so-called 'leftist journalist' propaganda and glued them to the side of our building here in Franklin, on our painted pillars at our front door and on the front of our building. They stapled them to the utility poles at the entrance of our office, too. . . . This is textbook vandalism and intimidation tactics. It is certainly not the Franklin I love and that I have worked hard to serve the past 17 years. . . .This is also after a weekend where these same organizations threatened one of our reporters, threatened our advertisers and threatened me and my wife amongst others."

Jones has been the Herald's publisher
for 17 years.(Williamson Herald photo)
Jones points out the paper's truthful reporting as the puzzling "reason" for the crimes. He adds, "Hanson herself admitted to being arrested for a prostitution charge in the 1990s, we reported on this. We reported on a neo-Nazi/white supremacist group that attended a candidate forum on Oct. 3 in support of Hanson. . . . Since then, this group has gone after local journalists using threats of violence and neo-Nazi doxing, especially against our reporter."

A group called "nomoorewokefranklin" added to the intimidating tactics through social media posts "targeting our journalists, myself and our advertisers," Jones writes. "We won't stand for our reporter being threatened for doing his job, and we won't tolerate threats of violence. . . . Hanson's followers are harassing journalists and others in the community when they don't like what we say or write. The Williamson Herald stands by every story we report on. We are being called leftist and biased, but there is not one report that we posted that was not the truth."

Jones makes his point clear and asks his readers a question, saying, "Neo-Nazis don't have a place in our town. I say enough is enough. We have never seen this level of hate and divisiveness in Franklin. And to be so blatantly targeted and threatened is uncalled for. . . . If you have not voted yet, I strongly urge you to do so TODAY. And I would ask yourself what kind of Franklin you want to live in as this vote could change our way of life now and for future generations."

Fauna Thursday: Sheep are lawn care experts; learn more about this invasive bug; beavers get their own conference

Sheep on the White House lawn in 1919. (Photo by Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress via The Washington Post)

Tired of mowing your grass? Consider this: Sheep are lawn care experts. They are gentler grazers than goats or horses, clipping grass tops and nibbling weeds homeowners would like removed. They leave about four inches of the blade: just the right height, says Michigan State University Extension, to maximize root growth and shade out weeds. Any lower, as some lawn companies mow, and the grass will grow even faster to reach the sun, necessitating more mowing.

Michael J. Coren of The Washington Post reports: "'Sheep love the sweet tips of grass, and biodiverse diets like the weeds in your yard' including bittercress, chickweed and onion grass, says Cory Suter, owner of Lamb Mowers, who grew up farming on a Mennonite homestead in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. 'That’s a perfect buffet for our sheep.'”

Scientists working to prevent another devasting global avian flu outbreak have found a possible solution. They "used gene editing to identify and change parts of chicken DNA that could limit the spread of the bird flu virus in the animals," reports Norrie Russell of Lancaster Farming. "Researchers were able to restrict — but not completely block — the virus from infecting chickens by altering a small section of their DNA. The birds showed no signs that the change in their DNA had any impact on their health or well-being."
A spotted lanternfly egg mass and
an adult. (USDA photo)

The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, has indeed been spotted in multiple states. The invasive pest is a rapacious feeder that can severely affect crops. The insect "feeds on a wide range of fruit, ornamental and woody trees, with tree-of-heaven being one of the preferred hosts," according to the Department of Agriculture. To learn how to spot, report, and prevent infestations, click here.

Photo by Braedon McLeod, Unsplash
Busy beavers will be the focus of an upcoming global conservation effort in Oregon, a.k.a, "The Beaver State." Robert Leo Heilman of The Daily Yonder reports: "So, it is appropriate that Canyonville, Oregon, a small town with a population of 1,660 located in the Klamath Mountains of Southern Oregon, is the global locus of efforts to restore beavers throughout their traditional range in the wild. The 2023 State of the Beaver conference (November 13-15, 2023) will draw up to 300 beaver restoration advocates and re-wilding movement activists from all over North America and Europe."

Gerkin-colored sea cucumber
(Nautilus Minerals photo via Hakai)
Just how many undiscovered creatures live in our oceans? Countless as the stars? Maybe. "Nautilus Minerals, a seabed mining company, is tight-lipped about whether Neptune’s expedition across nearly 15 square kilometers of remote seabed revealed the bounty of desirable metals it sought," reports Chris Baraniuk of Hakai magazine. "But the 4,000 photographs, likely the first ever taken in the region, did uncover something else: an array of colorful sea life including a big gray octopus with Dumbo-like ears, pale white anemones, bright orange prawns, and sea cucumbers an appropriate gherkin-shade."

Opinion: To become Mississippi's next governor, Brandon Presley must bridge the rural-urban divide

Presley grew up down the road from Elvis's
Tupelo home. (Brandon Presley photo)
Mississippi gubernatorial nominee Brandon Presley is looking to be the state's first Democratic governor in nearly 20 years, but to do so he'll have to win over rural voters. In his playbook, he's got an "unassailable working-class background and strong stances on popular issues," writes Jeffery H. Bloodworth in his opinion for The Daily Yonder. Plus, he's Elvis Presley's second cousin, which can't hurt. Still, the 46-year-old hopeful faces an uphill climb that begins and ends with bridging the rural-urban divide.

Winning over rural voters is key to Presley's success, but getting enough Mississippi voters to believe that today's Democrat could be a rural advocate while swaying the white-Republican vote may require herculean efforts. Currently, the state is a Republican stronghold. And the "race will be decided by rural voters, a Republican-leaning demographic. Sixty-five of Mississippi's 82 counties are designated as rural (using the nonmetropolitan definition), and more than half of the state population, 54%, qualify as the same." 

Presley is challenging GOP incumbent Tate Reeves, whose run as governor has been rocky. "Gov. Tate Reeves has faced a litany of unprecedented problems in his first term as Mississippi governor: a bitter fight for power with legislative leaders, turmoil and scandal within multiple state agencies, consistent staff turnover, costly natural disasters, and a life-disrupting pandemic," reports Adam Ganucheau of Mississippi Today, a nonprofit Mississippi news service. Bloodworth adds, "Presley’s prospects go beyond an unpopular incumbent. Every observer of any political stripe agrees that he is a one-of-a-kind political talent. Brannon Miller, a longtime state political hand, calls him Mississippi’s 'best retail politician.”

Presley is also equipped with a biography straight from a Hollywood script. Second cousins with Elvis, "Presley was born dirt poor," Bloodworth writes. ". . .  .At age 8, his alcoholic father was murdered. Thereafter, his single mom struggled to provide for him and his two siblings, Greta and Greg. The family regularly lived without electricity, running water, or a phone."

Despite Reeves' outsized problems and unpopularity, as a Republican, he's been able to hold onto many white voters. "From the 1960s through the late 1990s, Mississippi Democrats maintained control through a tenuous bi-racial coalition," Bloodworth explains. "This coalition fell apart in the early 2000s. Today, 90% of white Mississippians vote Republican. Black Mississippians vote Democratic at the same rate. To win, Presley must win a quarter of the white vote, which is overwhelmingly rural, and elicit a strong black turnout."

October is National Cooperative Month. It's a good time to myth-bust on what a co-op is and is not.

Cooperatives have a rich history rooted in democracy.
(University of Wisconsin photo via USDA)
Cooperatives are corporations; however, they are different than investor-owned firms in that the members that use the cooperative are the owners and benefit from their operations. Cooperatives allow individuals to operate together as a business and tackle economic issues they cannot solve individually. Here are some common myths about cooperatives from the Department of Agriculture.

Myth: Cooperatives are only in agriculture. False. Cooperatives exist in many industries. For example, home health, housing, grocery, rural electric distribution, finance, restaurant supply, outdoor gear, floral delivery, and news reporting.

Myth: Cooperative groceries are hippy throwbacks, only members can shop there. While many may have started in the '60s and '70s with a focus on organic and natural foods, today, cooperative groceries look much like any other grocery. The main difference is they operate for the benefit of the member-owners instead of outside investors. Thus keeping investment in the community and developing local wealth. . . . Many cooperatives are open to non-member business. Non-members can use the services however will not share in the surplus at the end of the year.

Myth: Co-ops are charities. False. Cooperatives, like any business, can choose a variety of legal structures depending on where the members choose to incorporate. The difference between non-profit (charitable) and the co-op is how revenue is generated and what is done with the surplus (profit).

The Ocean Spray co-op includes over 700 grower families
across North and South America. (Ocean Spray photo)
Myth: It's impossible for a co-op to be innovative.
Cooperatives have been formed specifically to develop an innovative approach to market failures. One such example would be Ocean Spray. Read their history here.

Myth: Co-ops can't scale. There is a wide range of sizes for cooperatives. While many start out small, if the need is being met and the business is managed well the co-op will grow. Successful cooperatives are active members of their communities throughout the U.S. and the world. Some recognizable names are: Ace Hardware Corp., Blue Diamond Growers, Sunkist Growers, Independent Pharmacy Coop., and HealthPartners Inc.

For additional information on cooperatives visit:
CIR 7 How to Start a Cooperative; CIR 7 Cómo Empezar Una Cooperativa
SR 58 Feasibility Study Guide

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Rural residents rely on private wells, but many are contaminated; experts recommend yearly testing

Midwestern wells can be contaminated with bacteria and
nitrates. (Photo via the Iowa Environmental Council)

While millions of rural Americans depend on private wells, many residents do not test their water regularly, even though a lot of the wells can be contaminated. "More than 43 million Americans rely on private wells, which are subject to a patchwork of state and local regulations, including standards for new construction," reports Tony Leys of KFF Health News. "But in most cases, residents are free to use outdated wells without having them tested or inspected. The practice is common despite concern about runoff from farms and industrial sites, plus cancer-causing minerals that can taint groundwater. . . . Federal experts estimate more than a fifth of private wells have concentrations of contaminants above levels considered safe."

"Experts urge all users of private wells to have them tested at least annually," Leys reports. "The main [contaminate] concerns vary, depending on an area's geology and industries. . . In Midwestern farming regions, primary contaminants include bacteria and nitrates, which can be present in agricultural runoff. . . . In rural Nevada and Maine, arsenic and uranium often taint water." PFAS chemicals, also called "forever chemicals," can also contaminate wells.

Allison Roderick, an environmental health officer for Webster County in rural north-central Iowa, where many residents rely on well water for everything from cooking to showering, uses her position to educate people on the danger of contaminated water and the resources to fix it. "Like many states, Iowa offers aid to homeowners who use well water. The state provides about $50,000 a year to each of its 99 counties to cover testing and help finance well repairs or treatment," Leys explains. "The money comes from fees paid on agricultural chemical purchases, but about half goes unused every year, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. . . . Last spring, Roderick snared an extra $40,000 that other counties hadn't used. . . . When she finds contamination, she can offer up to $1,000 of state grant money to help with repairs or up to $500 to cap an abandoned well."

Sydney Evans, a senior science analyst for the Environmental Working Group, a national advocacy organization that studies water pollution, told Leys, "[People think] as long as the water is coming out of the tap and it doesn't smell funny," everything must be OK. Leys reports, "Some longtime rural residents live in homes that have been in their families for generations. They often know little about their water source. . . . David Cwiertny, director of the University of Iowa's Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, said they might not realize impure water can harm health over time."

How can the local supermarket be saved? This rural Kansas town of 1,000 has some tips for Chicago.

The Erie Market sets an example of how local grocers
 might survive. (Photo by Joe Barrett, The Wall Street Journal)

Facing lower profits and increased crime, many Chicago supermarkets are closing their doors. But some local governments are not giving up, and they've found a unique partner to help them learn how to open and run a municipally-owned grocery store -- the Erie Market in rural Erie, Kansas, pop. 1000, reports Joe Barrett of The Wall Street Journal.

"At the moment, things aren't going especially well. Erie Market, which the city took over in 2021, is losing money almost every month amid stiff competition from a Walmart 15 miles away and a Dollar General across the street. The store has slashed prices, cleared the shelves of expired items and put in a salad bar to try to bring more people through the door. But leaders aren't giving up." Erie City Council member Jason Thompson, a Republican who owns a trash-hauling business, told Barrett, "Without a grocery store, what are we going to do? It would kill this small town and it's hard enough to keep it alive as it is."

While Erie is one of few small towns to move to town-owned supermarkets, larger, more metro areas are also considering the idea. "Last month, Chicago, population 2.7 million, launched a study on the feasibility of opening a municipally-owned grocer to get more fresh foods and spur economic development in a number of mostly low-income neighborhoods," Barrett explains. "Chicago, which has lost six groceries on its South and West sides in the past two years alone, aims to take advantage of a new $20 million state fund designed to address what are known as food deserts across Illinois. Studies show that lack of access to fresh foods can have big impacts on health outcomes and rob neighborhoods and entire towns of economic vitality."

Having a municipally-owned grocery stores means an area can keep its local market even if it operates at a loss -- especially in the beginning. Ameya Pawar is a former Chicago City Council member and now a senior adviser at Economic Security Project, which will be working with the city on the economic feasibility study, including a planned trip to places like Erie to see how things work. Pawar told Barrett, "Communities and people in those communities deserve to survive and thrive. And, you know, that might mean accepting an operating loss for a grocery store."

Grocery stores have low margins, so earning a profit can be hard, but it can be done. "Less than 10 miles away [from Erie], the even smaller city of St. Paul, pop. 600, has run a successful city-owned grocery for about 16 years," Barrett reports. "Rick Giefer, who was mayor when the grocery store opened in 2007, said the town hadn't had a grocery store for 20 years and was facing the threat of losing its high school. City leaders thought a grocery would help keep the population in town. They reasoned that if they could sell water through a municipal entity, they could also sell food. . . . James Voorhies, who has run St. Paul Supermarket with his wife, Kelly, for about 10 years, says the business supports itself, including paying for new equipment. The city, he says, 'really doesn't have to do anything — they just oversee it.'"

The return of the mighty grizzly has Westerners seeking guardians and defense strategies

A stuffed cub and female grizzly bear at a Montana Fish and
Wildlife station. (Photo by John Stember, The New York Times)
In states where the grizzly bear population is increasing, residents are finding strategies to cope with the fierce predator's return. "Grizzly bears are a daily concern for residents in the northern Rockies. The bears no longer live only in the remote high country, in parks, wilderness and surrounding areas," reports Jim Robbins of The New York Times. "Instead, they have increasingly moved into the valleys and prairies to reclaim portions of their old realm."

Known as rugged livestock protectors, Anatolian shepherds
have been adopted by many Westerners. (AKC photo)
One option Westerners have turned to is owning Anatolian shepherds, a breed known for its watchful, protective nature paired with a muscular, agile body, which makes it a formidable match for any predator -- even grizzlies. Natalie Thurman, owner of Apex Anatolians, "markets the dogs primarily to people who raise livestock, [but] she also sells them to people with children," Robbins writes. Thurman told him: "We have gray wolves, grizzly and black bears here. . . . We just had a grizzly bear in the creek a hundred yards from here. . . .[Anatolian owners] take them on hikes, they take them camping. . . .They tell you when a bear is coming. I can replace livestock, but you can't replace a human child."

Active grizzly populations can be deadly and destructive. "They wander onto golf courses, break into homes, stalk chicken coops and raid cornfields," Robbins explains. "Montana and Wyoming are home to about 2,100 grizzlies, by far the most in the lower 48 states, with a much smaller population in Idaho."

In general, black bears avoid people. Grizzlies are
another story. (Photo by Roadsendnaturalist)
Black bears are also common in the West, but their response to humans is different than grizzlies. "They are generally bigger and more defensive, especially when surprised or when their cubs seem threatened," Robbins adds. "A black bear will usually scramble off, but a grizzly will more often stand its ground."

In response to the added threat of grizzly encounters, "Sales of bear spray, which contains capsaicin, the chemical that gives peppers their spicy heat, are booming," Robbins reports. "Many hikers, picnickers, ranchers and hunters — just about anyone who spends time outdoors in bear habitats — pack bear spray these days." Awareness of bear activity is also a defense. "Fall is when the possibility of conflicts peaks. Bears become especially ravenous — a period called hyperphagia — when they are driven to eat far more than they do the rest of the year, to bulk up fat reserves to live on during several months of hibernation."

"And so a grand experiment is underway to manage the human world in such a way that an apex predator and people in a large urban and suburban complex surrounded by large swaths of public land can coexist with few conflicts," Robbins writes. "The future of the bear is at stake, experts say. Although there is a lot of support for bears in the region, attacks on livestock and people can undermine it."

Opinion: What does Martin Scorses's new film give back to the Osage Nation?

Filming on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon
(Photo courtesy of Shannon Shaw Duty, Osage News via ICJ)

The story of Oklahoma's Osage Nation is one of prosperity, greed, conspiracy, murder and loss. Its retelling in Martin Scorsese's new film Killers of the Flower Moon gives voice to that past. But even as audiences flock to the theaters, what does the Osage Nation have to show for their willingness to share their story of a people murdered for their land? 

Dennis McAuliffe Jr., an Osage tribal member and Washington Post Opinions copy editor, shares his answer to that question in his Opinion essay condensed here. His thoughts are penned from Fairfax, Oklahoma.

"Joe Conner, my cousin and closest friend, created a memorial to victims of the 'Osage Reign of Terror' about two years ago. In 10 panels illustrated with archival and family pictures, he described what came before and after the murders of possibly hundreds of Osages after one of the largest oil deposits in the United States was found on their land. Because each tribal member, including children, received an equal share of royalties, the Osage had become the richest people per capita in the world.

"Joe installed the posters in the storefront of the long-abandoned Tall Chief Theater in Fairfax, the reservation town where most of the murders took place. The potential viewers he had in mind included Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and a crew of hundreds who were there to film scenes for 'Killers of the Flower Moon' — an Apple Original movie about the killings based on David Grann’s book of the same name.

"Joe, a PhD psychologist, health researcher, local newspaper publisher and co-director of the Fairfax Community Foundation, hoped his posters would engage visitors in his mission to 'rebuild Fairfax and restore hope to our left-behind community … [which] today languishes in neglect and dereliction. . . . The restored theater would become a performing arts and event center; an adjoining former bank building would house a museum, restaurant, gift shop, art gallery, studio and, as Joe put it, a memorial 'that not only would honor what happened but serve as a venue for healing.'

"All it would take, architects told him, was $8 million, and work would begin with replacing the theater roof, four stories above the stage, which had been blown off by a tornado in 2018. . . . Enter Apple, Scorsese and the rest of the crew: Between April and October of 2021, they spent weeks filming around Fairfax, including a location not 50 yards from the Tall Chief. . . . Theater people would certainly take an interest in saving a historic theater — and could afford to. Combined, the cast and crew stood to make tens of millions of dollars. (DiCaprio was reportedly paid $25 million to $30 million.) Surely there was an angel investor in their midst.

"But what do moviemakers owe a community that they use and profit from? Not specific individuals but the community as a whole? Fairfax, which provided the tragic story without which no movie would have been made, was about to find out. . . . As the Hollywood crew finished filming, Joe wrote: 'It seems the movie will be another example of outsiders, even if well-intentioned, taking something from the Osage people for personal gain and leaving the community with nothing but movie images.'

McAuliffe Jr. has a personal connection to this story. Read the entire piece here.

For more on the Osage Nation's story and its broader impact on U.S. law enforcement, read

an independent, nonprofit news enterprise from IndiJ Public Media that honors their ancestors and future generations through stories that make Indigenous peoples come alive.

Smithfield Foods, which has been owned by a Chinese company since 2013, might be listed on stock market again

WH pork plant in China. Sales from U.S. and Mexico made up
56% of its 2022 revenue. (Photo by Dominique Patton, Reuters)

Roughly a decade since its purchase, Smithfield Foods may go public again. Its Chinese parent company, WH Group, is working with banks to "list its shares as early as next year, according to people familiar with the matter. Deliberations are ongoing, and the timing could change," report David Sebastian, Patrick Thomas and Ben Dummett of The Wall Street Journal.

In 2013, WH purchased Smithfield for $4.7 billion, which was "one of the biggest takeovers of an American business by a Chinese company at the time and resulted in the delisting of Smithfield, which used to trade on the New York Stock Exchange," the Journal reports. "The combined company became the world's largest hog farmer and pork producer." WH Group said the Smithfield acquisition was "partly aimed at importing technology and expertise from Smithfield to improve WH's operations, especially in China."

A U.S. listing could help bolster the sector, which has been working to balance an "oversupply of pork from flat demand domestically and an industrywide drop in exports," the Journal reports. WH Group isn't the only company reviving plans for a public offering. "Brazil's JBS said during the summer that it plans to restart its yearslong effort to list its shares publicly in the U.S. JBS is the world's largest meatpacker and has a sizable U.S. pork business that competes with Smithfield."

GH's sales are spread throughout China, the United States, Mexico and some European markets; however, sales in the U.S. and Mexico "contributed 56% of the company's revenue in 2022, while its China business made up 34%," the Journal reports. "It employed about 104,000 employees globally at the end of last year, including roughly 40,000 in the U.S. and Mexico."

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Republicans float $50 billion in cuts to farm programs that Democrats want to preserve; top Democrat's role debated

Republicans have tentatively proposed $50 billion in possible cuts to farm programs, and all the Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee are objecting, while some worry about how the committee's top Democrat is handling negotiations with the Republican majority, Politico reports.

The cuts include money for conservation and climate-change-prevention programs that were included in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act passed by House Democrats when they were in the majority, "to make up budget shortfalls in other sections of the Farm Bill, like the commodity support title," Politico reports. Democrats "contend the money should be kept where it is because demand for the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, two programs boosted by the IRA, far exceeds the available funding."

Rep. Scott (Photo by Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post)
The list of possible cuts "was presented to Democrats by ranking member David Scott at a previously unreported meeting two weeks ago, and it raised new concerns about his ability to negotiate a Farm Bill with Republicans," Politico reported Friday. "Scott didn’t tell panel members where the $50 billion would come from before the meeting, only that the committee had found extra money to be used for bipartisan priorities," according to anonymous sources. "So Democratic members were flummoxed when Scott’s staff presented the list of climate and nutrition programs that would be hit."

The list includes "$15 billion in unspent funds from Democrats’ prized IRA climate-agriculture programs, limits on future updates to the Thrifty Food Plan and the Conservation Reserve Program," as well as "potential clawbacks to the Commodity Credit Corp., USDA’s internal bank," which "has come under intense scrutiny from both sides of the aisle after it was used to bail out farmers injured by former President Donald Trump’s trade war, and to stand up the Biden administration’s flagship Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program."

When Internet service providers merge, rural advocates worry services will decline; ISPs say together is better

Broadband companies need to 'stay rooted' in service
communities. (Photo by Ildefonso Polo, Unsplash)
A merger between two broadband companies has some Southern rural communities concerned that service quality will decline, but the companies say joining will improve funding opportunities for 'the most rural places.'

"Two Internet service providers are merging to cover a larger area of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, but an expert in community broadband networks cautions that consolidation can often hurt customer service," reports Kristi Eaton of The Daily Yonder. "The two former companies – 360 Communications of Durant, Oklahoma, and 903 Broadband of Leonard, Texas – were roughly the same size, which means the combination is a doubling in size for both. The merger formed 360 Broadband, with almost 16,000 subscribers and 88 employees across 10,000 square miles and 30 counties: 20 in Oklahoma, six in Texas, and four in Arkansas."

Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, "is concerned about consolidation and its impact," Eaton writes. "He added, however, that he knows there is a high cost of building and operating compared to many other businesses." Mitchell told Eaton: "And so, if you don't have 5,000 to 10,000 subscribers, it can be hard to be able to grow the network in ways that you would like. And so it's kind of expected, I feel like, for some ISPs to grow through mergers. . . . As they get bigger and bigger, we really worry about their ability to meet all of the local needs."

Drew Beverage, chief strategy officer for 360 Broadband, told Eaton: "At the federal level, at the state level, it makes sense for the two companies to come together to combine resources to be able to play in that arena. And not only provide better customer service. give us better options to be able to go after some of that federal money to build out more resources to build out more rural space. And we're talking about the most rural of towns."

Beverage also encourages communities to emphasize the Affordable Connectivity Program as a way to improve rural internet access. "The program provides a discount of up to $30 per month toward Internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. 360 Broadband will now cover Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations."

Billions more for the power grid as the U.S. tries to get up to pace and scale for energy transition and climate change

Photo by Matthew Henry, Unsplash
How much money will it take to prepare the U.S. power grid for energy transition and climate change extremes? More -- billions more.

The Department of Energy "announced $3.5 billion in grants to expand capacity for wind and solar power, harden power lines against extreme weather, integrate batteries and electric vehicles, and build out microgrids that can keep the lights on during power outages," reports Jeff St. John of Canary Media. "The announcement named 58 projects across 44 states eligible to receive federal funding. When matched by funds from state and local governments and utility and industry partners, they will represent more than $8 billion in investment."

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a press briefing, "The $3.5 billion is the first major round of funding from the DOE's Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships Program, created by 2021's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $10.5 billion available to expand transmission lines, improve grid resiliency and deploy ​'smart-grid' technologies," St. John writes. "That total is far more than the last major federal investment in grid infrastructure, the $3.4 billion in stimulus grants issued by the Obama administration in 2009."

Enough funding is only one part of infrastructure-building -- project developers are "facing years-long backlogs to connect to transmission grids, which themselves aren’t expanding nearly fast enough to meet the increasing demand," St. John reports. "The selected projects also prioritize communities that are ​'ignored or overlooked for far too often, including rural, Native and low-income communities,' according to Mitch Landrieu, the Biden administration’s senior advisor and infrastructure coordinator. . . . The Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships funding is subject to the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, which pledges to direct 40 percent of federal climate-related funds to historically disadvantaged communities."

Funded grid projects include electric cooperatives in Georgia, which will install "new transmission lines to serve a territory that covers three-quarters of the state’s land mass, as well as deploy battery systems and microgrids to bolster grid reliability," St. John adds. "And rural cooperatives will receive $99.7 million to deploy wildfire assessment and resiliency technology to a consortium of 39 co-ops scattered across the Western U.S."

"Several of these projects also include microgrids to enable communities to keep power up when the grid falters. Some are led by utilities that see a valuable role for microgrids in boosting reliability and integrating more clean energy, but others are led by state and community groups," St. John explains. "Other grants are focused on integrating distributed energy resources — rooftop solar panels, electric vehicles, microgrids and other technologies that utility customers are installing in ever-rising numbers."

Every hurricane gets a number, but what does it mean? Hurricane winds aren't the only extreme danger.

A graphic within the Post's story shows how wind defines each hurricane category.
(Digital art, The Washington Post)

Every hurricane gets a category number designed to guide response efforts, and while most people are used to hurricane weather jargon including the category number, what the number represents is somewhat mysterious. The five categories are based on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, 
report Amudalat Ajasa, Aaron Steckelberg and Julie Vitkovskaya of The Washington Post. "The scale only measures one component of a hurricane: the wind. Each category is divided by a range of wind speeds, estimating potential damage and impacts on properties . . .The numbers categorize hurricanes based on maximum sustained wind speeds ranging from 74 mph to 157 mph and above." Each category is describer here:

Category 1: Wind speeds range from 74-95 mph. Dangerous winds will produce some damage. Metal roof coverings, shingles and gutters will sustain damage. Shallow-rooted trees can be uprooted, and power lines can fall.

Category 2: Wind speeds range from 96-110 mph. Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage. Major roof and siding, commercial signage, fences and canopies will be damaged or destroyed. Shallow-rooted trees will probably be snapped or uprooted, along with close to total power loss.

Category 3: Wind speeds range from 111-129 mph. Devastating damage will occur. Homes may experience roof failure and wall collapse. Windows will be blown out of high-rise buildings. Commercial signage, fences and canopies will face destruction. Trees will be snapped or uprooted. Power and water will be lost.

Category 4: Wind speeds range from 130-156 mph. Catastrophic damage will occur, including the destruction of most homes with the collapse of all walls and roof structure. Commercial signage, fences and canopies will be destroyed. Trees and power poles will be downed or snapped. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Category 5: Wind speeds range from 157 mph or higher. Almost complete destruction of all homes. Many industrial buildings and low-rise buildings will be destroyed. Nearly all the windows from high-rise buildings will be blown out. Near-total destruction of all commercial signage, fences and canopies. Nearly all trees and power poles will be downed or snapped. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.

The scale isn't a perfect measurement, and emergency responders, government officials and the public need to remember that wind isn't the only consideration with hurricanes. Storm surges can be equally deadly. The Post reports, "As a hurricane barrels across the open ocean, strong winds drive the water forward. Once the water reaches the shore, it combines with normal tides and creates the storm surge.

Storm surge is the leading cause of hurricane-related deaths in the United States, according to the National Weather Service."

In 2008, Hurricane Ike was designated a Category 2 hurricane. "But the wind wasn’t what caused the most damage," the Post reports. "The storm had a surge of more than 20 feet, the largest storm surge on record for a Category 2 hurricane. Imagine rushing water the height of two basketball hoops stacked on top of each other barreling toward homes, cars and buildings. . . . The storm claimed 195 lives and resulted in $30 billion in damage. It wasn’t even considered a major hurricane."