Friday, November 17, 2023

To bolster rural emergency response, fire departments are deploying drones as a helpful 'eye in the sky'

Kale Geiswite of New Berlin Fire Company flies a
drone. (Photo by Matt Jones, The Standard-Journal)
While some drones have been known to start fires -- intentionally and unintentionally -- they also are being used by rural volunteer fire departments, such as in Pennslyvania, to help emergency responders have "an eye in the sky," reports Matt Jones of The Standard-Journal, which covers central Pennsylvania. Paul Vavra, a chief pilot of the drone program at the Duboistown Fire Department, told Jones: "We started our program about six years ago here at Duboistown. . . At that point, we were the only ones in Lycoming, Tioga and Sullivan County doing drone work for fire, rescue, EMS and law enforcement, other than the state police."

Since then, more counties have purchased or received donated drones to bolster emergency responder support. "In 2022, Kale Geiswite of the New Berlin Fire Company in Union County put in a request to the National Public Safety Drone Donation Program. He said the department was looking for a drone with thermal capabilities that could be used to respond to residential structure fires, wildfires and search and rescues throughout the tri-county area of Union, Snyder and Northumberland counties," Jones reports. Geiswite told Jones: "We made a video about how we were trying to start a drone program and what we were looking to do with it. Within four months, Duboistown reached out. .  .They donated our first drone."

The National Fire Protection Association, under code 2400, "provides standards for small unmanned aircraft systems that establishes 'minimum requirements for the safe operation, deployment, and implementation of sUAS including organization program criteria and considerations, professional qualifications for safety personnel, and elements of a maintenance program, per the organization's website," Jones writes. However, local departments have to develop their own protocols for volunteer training and drone dispatch requirements.

Selling solar in coal country begins with local trust and an understanding of the history of those communities

Overcoming solar opposition begins with understanding
coal's history. (Photo by Gabriel Fibz, Unsplash)
Selling solar in coal country might sound like a tall order; however, solar advocates in southwestern Virginia have built a cooperative system of local support for solar. "In 2016, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, colleges, local governments, and citizens launched the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, which collaborates with Secure Solar Futures," reports Hannah Wilson-Black for Grist. "It includes experts in every aspect of the green transition, from community organizers who tell neighbors about the benefits of solar to legal experts who propose legislation."

The group's plan began with an understanding of the history and outlook of coal communities and why they might not welcome solar. Emma Kelly, who grew up in eastern Kentucky and now leads the Solar Workgroup's community outreach, told Wilson-Black: "I’m from the coalfields. And you have to understand. Coal mining is not just a job. The coal industry is not just an employer. It’s not like Walmart. [Coal companies] built towns, they built schools, they built churches, they made their own money. You cannot really overestimate the amount of domination they had over these social and economic systems.”

"Because residents of southwest Virginia may see solar as helping accelerate the loss of coal jobs, she and Matt McFadden from Secure Solar Futures consider their being locals an important component of building confidence in, and support for, the technology," Wilson-Black reports. "More important, though, is the fact that local solar advocates and companies like Secure Solar Futures make it clear that their mission goes beyond profit. 'I don’t get anything out of this except a sense of fulfillment,' said Kelly, who became involved in solar advocacy in 2022 after learning, to her surprise, of solar’s potential in the coalfields."

Considering the region’s history, and overall distrust of energy companies, Kelly and other solar advocates in southwestern Virginia "said being local, proving solar’s benefits, and building a coalition have been key to ensuring the technology’s success in the face of cultural and political opposition," Wilson-Black writes. The group has made progess, which is on display in the coalfield community of Whitesburg, Kentucky, where "a solar pavilion and rooftop at the arts education center Appalshop has attracted curious neighbors, said Kathleen Byrne, the center’s development director."

Local focus and trust building continue to help solar succeed in the region. "McFadden said demonstrating the technology’s feasibility through community-focused projects like the 12 school installations his company is handling has changed perceptions in the area," Wilson-Black writes. "Hiring locals to install and maintain the photovoltaic panels is key, too. In 2022, Secure Solar Futures started an annual apprenticeship program that trains local high schoolers to do everything from wiring arrays to the physical heavywork of carrying and arranging panels, and pays them $17 an hour. This tangible example of a solar operation employing community members has been part of 'the proof in the pudding,' McFadden said."

Kids who grew up poor in rural areas fair better later in life than urban kids, a study shows. Researchers look at why.

Two-parent households may give rural kids an
advantage. (Photo by Arseny Togulev, Unsplash)
Researchers looked at income outcomes for children who grew up poor in rural areas compared to their urban counterparts and found a surprising difference: rural children tended to earn more later in life, reports Sarah Melotte of The Daily Yonder. "Authors of a new study on social mobility found rural children born in poverty gain higher incomes as adults compared to low-income urban children. . . . Factors like community trust, social capital, and the rate of two-parent households help explain more upward social mobility, or positive change in one's economic status, among rural children born into poverty, according to a 2023 study." 

The study's lead researcher, Dylan Connor, an associate professor at Arizona State University, told Melotte, "People have noticed this rural advantage but haven't really been able to explain it. The conventional thing that people have said is that conditions are so bad in these rural places that kids grow up and leave. . . . Rural places actually seem quite favorable compared to urban places." Melotte adds, "In response to this trend, Connor and other researchers think it's important to look at places that are still delivering opportunity and to try to determine what characteristics of those places make them favorable."

A defining advantage that rural children have is more two-parent families. "Connor and his colleagues found that rural children in poverty achieved higher incomes as adults than urban children in poverty did. One explanation is that a greater share of rural children are born into two-parent households," Melotte explains. "The rural advantage doesn't just apply to the people who grew up in a rural community but moved to a city as adults. The study demonstrated that both low-income children who remained in a rural community through adulthood and those who left experienced an income advantage compared to their urban-born peers."

The study also revealed a rural bias that favored male income and opportunities. "On some measures of income attainment, girls born in low-income households don’t benefit from the same rural advantage as boys," Melotte reports. "With personal income – which refers to the incomes of each adult member of the household, not their combined incomes – women earned significantly less than their male peers. . . . Disparities in personal income between men and women are greater in rural areas than they are in urban ones." Connor told Melotte: "Women actually seem to benefit from growing up in a city in terms of pursuing their own careers and so on.”

Gathering statehouse information challenges reporters; tips from other journalists can help

Getting all the facts can be frustrating for journalists.
(Library of Congress photo via SEJ)
Journalists often have to work hard to track down the facts for their stories. Even in statehouses where information ought to be accessible, sleuthing skills are needed to "pry open" doors, reports Erin Jordan of The Society of Environmental Journalists. "No matter the politics of your state, more legislative decisions — including those that affect the environment — seem to be happening behind closed doors. What's a good statehouse reporter to do? Here are some suggestions from a group of environment reporters who have grappled with this challenge."

Tracking big projects: Jeniffer Solis, energy and environment reporter for the Nevada Current/States Newsroom, has recent experience reporting on the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Humboldt County, Nevada. "The project, which sits on the largest-known lithium deposit in the United States and the third largest in the world, could be very lucrative for the state but still must clear regulatory hurdles that generate public records," Jordan reports. 'These projects do have to go through a lot of layers,' Solis says. 'So you can catch them before they get to the federal approval process if you are checking in on your local governments.'

"She recommends looking for water and air quality permits. Projects like these also might require a change in zoning, which often means you can get your hands on an application that includes a description of the project and contact information for the developer, among other details.

When states don't collect data: "Sometimes you need data that states don't track," Jordan writes. "If so, says Julie Cart, environment reporter for CalMatters, it might be because 'they don't want to know things.'. . . Whatever the reason for their lack of data tracking, Cart recommends looking at who has an economic interest in the project.

Pushing for authoritative information: "One of the most iron-clad sources for authoritative, nonbiased information at the state level is what's known in my state, Iowa, as the Legislative Services Agency," Jordan adds. "Your state may have a different name for this group, but it often has a requirement to put aside political beliefs to provide objective information to lawmakers. This frequently includes financial analyses of bills showing how much they would cost if implemented.

"In July 2020, I was so frustrated by a months-long wait to get information about a $50 million cloud computing contract the state had signed that I asked the governor about it at a state park centennial celebration. She apparently wasn't expecting any press at the event and started to walk away from me, saying 'No, no, no!' and waving her hand. It caused more of a stir than if she had just taken time to talk with me. . . . Within 30 minutes, though, her communications director called my cell and asked me exactly what records I needed. He sent them that afternoon. . . . Moral of the story? Sometimes, it helps to show up in person.

Finding comparison states: "We all know how helpful a good case study can be in helping readers understand the effects of new legislation. But don't limit yourself to examples from your state," Jones writes. "Environmental newsletters or digests — I like Midwest Energy News — can point you to related news stories from other states that include potential sources.

Who's behind this bill? "I recommend getting a list of lobbyists and all their clients. Iowa provides this online, but in other states, you may need to ask," Jones reports. "Solis suggests examining campaign donations. 'You can look at whether they got a donation from the company or entity connected to the bill they are trying to pass, she says. . . . I picked up another great idea I plan to use. If it's hard to tell who is driving a new bill in her statehouse, she Googles snippets of language from the bill to see if it pops up in bills from other states."

Finally Friday flora and fauna: Traffic-stopping turkey; wonderful olives; meet a hero; the glory of monarchs

This turkey crosses the road when he wants to.
(Photo by Jill Weiss, The Washington Post)
Why did the turkey cross the road? And keep crossing the road? "This was just another rush hour in West Orange, N.J., where the apparently fearless turkey has claimed a hillside along Pleasant Valley Way, tormenting drivers and pedestrians ceaselessly on one of the community's busiest thoroughfares," reports Ronda Kaysen of The Washington Post. "Efforts to capture and move it (including the attempt with a tranquilizer dart) have so far failed."

Johnny Carson famously said, "Happiness is. . . finding two olives in your martini when you're hungry." Carson was onto something. "No food or medicine can do what olive oil can do," reports Meryl Davids Landau of National Geographic. "Scientists say adding more olive oil to your diet can positively impact your health in many ways, from alleviating high blood pressure to helping with weight loss."

Maverick visits students and inspires learning.
(K. Brownfield, American Humane photo via WP)

The world can sometimes feel like a topsy-turvy, sad mess. In dark times, it's good to have a hero. Meet Maverick, a 6-year-old European Blue Great Dane who won the 2023 American Humane Hero Dog Award. "Maverick's job as a therapy dog is to comfort military members and their families from across the country. His go-to move is placing his paw on the person he's seeking to soothe," reports Sydney Page of The Washington Post. "When service members die, Maverick escorts their children to their funerals, and he also visits with service members after unexpected deaths in their units. Each week, he spends time with students at schools and focuses mostly on children struggling with their classes."

Amelia, the Bluefin tuna, began life in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. "Sometime between her birth and 2004, she accomplished her first feat of long-distance swimming, crossing the Atlantic Ocean's entire breadth before arriving off the coast of western Rhode Island," reports Karen Pinchin of Hakai magazine. Read about Amelia's exceptional "catch" by an unusual fishing charter business and its owner, Al Anderson.

A "roost" of migrating monarchs in Mexico.
(Photo by Jaime Rojo, National Geographic)
In many parts of the country, glorious orange, soft red, and brown hues still abound in trees and brush foliage. But perhaps an even greater delight is the migration of monarch butterflies and their fanfare of fall colors once they reach their winter resting grounds.

When considering a hobby farm for goats, cows or sheep, a lot of planning is needed to get started on the right hoof. Chelsea Hill, an adult livestock and 4-H animal science educator, started by "outlining equipment needs, types of shelters, livestock handling systems, health care and water quality," reports Lisa Z. Leighton for Lancaster Farming. "She said having a health-care kit ready is important for day-to-day use, to assist with births, and in the case of parasite issues." Leighton outlines the basic needs and toolboxes for an excellent start here.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Rail employees who flag safety concerns are often penalized or even fired, according to a new report

Train cars at a Denver facility.
(Photo by Eli Imadali, special to ProPublica)
Rail workers who report problems such as load defects, faulty brakes, malfunctioning valves or other dangers often face retaliation, including furloughs and terminations, report Topher Sanders, Jessica Lussenhop, Dan Schwartz, Danelle Morton and Gabriel Sandoval of ProPublica. "Railroad companies have penalized workers for taking the time to make needed repairs and created a culture in which supervisors threaten and fire the very people hired to keep trains running safely," according to the report. "Regulators say they can't stop this intimidation."

While train derailment may be the most dramatic breach of train safety, other dangerous close calls, including escaped train cars carrying flammable materials, are on a long list of problems train corporations don't report. "The government trusts the rail companies to fix the underlying problems on their own, to heed workers' warnings," according to the report. "But as railroads strive to move their cargo faster, that honor system, ProPublica found, is being exploited. To squeeze the most money out of every minute, the companies are going to dangerous lengths to avoid disruptions — even those for safety repairs."

To substantiate its story, ProPublica "examined 15 years’ worth of federal lawsuits against rail companies, interviewed hundreds of workers including managers, listened to hours of audio recorded by workers and pored over decades of regulatory, judicial, legislative and industry records," according to the report. "We identified 111 court cases where workers alleged they had been disciplined or fired after reporting safety concerns; nearly 60% ended in settlements with the companies. Three in recent years resulted in jury verdicts of over $1 million for fired workers."

Rail inspectors who flag safety concerns are dubbed "complainers" who slow everything down and decrease profits. Supervisors that let issues slide are rewarded, ProPublica reports. "[Rail companies] use performance-pay systems that effectively penalize supervisors for taking the time to fix hazards and that pressure them to quash dissent," according to the report. "As a result, trains with known problems are rolling from yard to yard like ticking time bombs, getting passed down the line for the next crew to defuse — or defer."

Rail employees punished or fired for reporting safety problems can turn to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for whistleblower protection, but the agency takes "so long to conclude investigations that many workers, tired of waiting months for rulings, remove their complaints and sue the companies instead," ProPublica reports. "Once that happens, OSHA has no legal authority to continue its investigation, barring the agency from exposing repeat bad actors or patterns in the industry’s abuse of whistleblowers."

Read the full investigation, including the lengths many rail employees have gone to keep trains safe and how the rail companies have responded.

A little bit of good news: The cost of this year's Thanksgiving dinner has declined slightly from 2022

Something most Americans can be grateful for: Serving up this year's Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings for 10 will be slighty less expensive than last year's painful prices. The average price of this year's meal rings in at $61.17, down 4.5%, compared to 2022's, $64.05, but it's still 25% more than the 2019's cost of $53.31, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation's 38th annual survey.

The dramatic decrease in turkey prices is the main reason the overall meal cost decreased, and waiting to purchase your turkey until closer to the big day could bring the cost down further. "The average price for a 16-pound turkey is $27.35. That is $1.71 per pound, down 5.6% from last year," AFBF reports. "Farm Bureau' volunteer shoppers' checked prices Nov. 1-6, before most grocery store chains began featuring whole frozen turkeys at sharply lower prices. According to USDA Agricultural Marketing Service data, the average per-pound feature price for whole frozen turkeys declined further during the second week of November. . . . Consumers who have not purchased a turkey may find additional savings in the days leading up to Thanksgiving."

With a few exceptions, most Thanksgiving dinner prices decreased:
  • 16-pound turkey: $27.35 or $1.71 per pound (down 5.6%)
  • 14 ounces of cubed stuffing mix: $3.77 (down 2.8%)
  • 2 frozen pie crusts: $3.50 (down 4.9%)
  • Half pint of whipping cream: $1.73 (down 22.8%)
  • 1 pound of frozen peas: $1.88 (down 1.1%)
  • 1 dozen dinner rolls: $3.84 (up 2.9%)
  • Misc. ingredients to prepare the meal: $3.95 (down 4.4%)
  • 30-ounce can of pumpkin pie mix: $4.44 (up 3.7%)
  • 1 gallon of whole milk: $3.74 (down 2.6%)
  • 3 pounds of sweet potatoes: $3.97 (up .3%)
  • 1-pound veggie tray (carrots & celery): $.90 (up 2.3%)
  • 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries: $2.10 (down 18.3%)
AFBF analysis revealed regional differences in the cost of the meal. The price for the classic meal was the most affordable in the Midwest - $58.66, followed by the South - $59.10, the West - $63.89, and the Northeast - $64.38. The expanded meal (classic meal plus boneless ham, Russet potatoes and green beans) was the most affordable in the Midwest - $81.83, followed by the South - $82.61, the West - $87.75, and the Northeast - $88.43.

Today is Rural Health Day -- a focus on the many people and organizations addressing unique healthcare needs

Today is the 13th annual National Rural Health Day, an opportunity to bring an increased awareness of rural health-related issues and to recognize "the incredible efforts of rural healthcare providers, communities, organizations, State Offices of Rural Health, and other stakeholders dedicated to addressing the unique healthcare needs of rural America," according to the Power of Rural website

Since 2011, Rural Health Day has been set aside as a special focus for the country to observe. In his Presidential Proclamation, President Joe Biden said, "America’s rural communities are indispensable to who we are as a nation, where over 60 million people who live in rural America fuel our economy and help forge our future.  On National Rural Health Day, we recommit to investing in rural communities and delivering affordable, quality health care so that generations of rural Americans can thrive."

The day's celebration includes the unveiling of the "2023 Community of Stars," a recognition program designed to honor extraordinary efforts by individuals and organizations who exemplify the "Power of Rural." A navigational map includes 39 stars chosen by their respective State Office of Rural Health that all have an inspirational story and ideas to share. 

The Power of Rural website is chockablock full of free resources and ideas to support rural health communities including promotional kits and ways to celebrate

Campbell's is grappling with how to be 'environmental sustainable' with its soups and agricultural purchases

Chief Agricultural Expert Harry Hall inspects tomatoes at Campbell's
research farm in the 1920s. (Photo via Lancaster Farming)
MMM MMM GOOD. Most Americans know that only means one thing -- Campbell's soup. What most of us may not know is where all those MMM MMM-ingredients came from, or what the agricultural practices of a company as dominating as Campbell's means. "But the Camden, New Jersey-based company is grappling with what it means to be environmentally sustainable as a major purchaser of agricultural products," reports Dan Sullivan of Lancaster Farming. "Supplier Ronnie Abrams grows 130 acres of potatoes and 130 acres of carrots in Burlington, New Jersey. . . . But Campbell's long ago shifted its tomato production to California, which grows 90% of the nation's and about a third of the world's processing tomatoes."

Campbell's soups are filled with tomatoes, wheat and potatoes, and the "company contracts with local produce growers, too. Some of the company's relationships with family farmers date back more than 70 years," Sullivan writes. "The company has sustainable agriculture programs for each of its key ingredients, part of a goal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of its supply chain 25% by 2030."

The company used to breed "its own tomato varieties and send armies of agronomists to work with farmers," Sullivan reports. "Today, field staff visit the company's growers, helping them plan the season, monitoring the crop, and making sure Campbell's gets the tomatoes it needs in August and September." Ryan Vroegindewey, Campbell's associate director for sustainable agriculture, told Sullivan: "The crops represent important opportunities for us as a company to steward the environment and to partner farmers to steward the land that these crops are grown on."

When questioned on the company's "wisdom of the company putting all its tomatoes in one basket by growing in one small region of the country — and in an area with such a scarcity of water — rather than diversifying production geographically," Sullivan writes. "Vroegindewey said Campbell's continues to contract with some producers in other parts of the country for other agricultural products, and 80% of its contract tomato growers now use subsurface drip irrigation."

When asked if "Campbell's would consider shifting more production to the East to support sustainability principles, Vroegindewey said, 'I think people are thinking about it. . . . We're in California. We're there to stay.'. . . . Campbell's products are in 95% of U.S. homes, the company employs 14,500 workers across North America, and it has annual net sales of $9.4 billion."

The Ozarks 'convey a feeling of seclusion' but have a fascinating history and culture

The church in Rader, Missouri, still operates.
(Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell via The Daily Yonder)
No matter what state or region you call home, there's a name for you. If you're from Connecticut, you're a Connecticuter or a Nutmegger. If you herald from the West, you might be labeled a Westerner or a Cowboy. But what if you're from the Ozarks? They're called Ozarkers, and if you haven't rubbed elbows with an Ozarker, today's your lucky day.

The Daily Yonder has launched a new monthly column of featuring the life and culture of the "largely rural uplands region located predominantly in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri." Writer Kaitlyn McConnell, who was raised on her family's farm in rural Missouri, is a guide to the region she has spent years sharing on her website, Ozarks Alive. A condensed version is shared here.

"With the twist of an old metal doorknob, let me show you the Ozarks. . . . It's found in the basement of a country church built of stone, one of few remnants left of a little town called Rader in rural southwest Missouri. Founded in the 1870s by brothers with dozens of kids who begat thousands of descendants, it was once a bustling little place.

"Things have changed in the 150 years since. . . . Today, so few people are in town that the community doesn't even show up in the 2020 U.S. Census records.

"Yet, as it does in rural areas, the community still bubbles up. And in Rader, it's at that stone church, which was built with local rocks – a common Ozarkian style of construction – in 1936 after the previous wooden building was destroyed in a tornado. Ever since generations of local women have regularly taken needles in hand and simultaneously created quilts and community.

"The region can be described by geographical lines (which encompass parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma) and cultural confines, which focus on northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri, and a sliver of Oklahoma.

"If we’re going with the cultural boundaries – the definition I use – significant numbers of white U.S. citizens began arriving in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Small communities, some tied to shared heritage, sprang up and brought people together in the largely undeveloped expanse.

"At some points, their movement was alongside the presence of Native Americans. The tribe indigenous to the Ozarks was the Osage, but a long list of others — including Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo — inhabited the region at various times. They were ultimately forced to leave by the 1830s due to pressure from white settlers. . . . Signs marking the Trail of Tears crossings are another visual reminder of the forced, and often deadly, journey made by thousands of Native Americans from the eastern United States to Indian Territory.

"The Ozark Mountains convey a feeling of seclusion. More than a century ago, that vibe came through The Shepherd of the Hills, a phenomenally successful novel that told the story of local hill folks and their Arcadian paradise. . . . Visitors still come for the area’s scenic beauty presented in the famed novel’s pages."

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Facebook, Instagram allow ads saying election was stolen; AP allows weeklies to use its story debunking the claim

Meta Platforms is letting ads on Facebook and Instagram question the legitimacy of the 2020 election, The Wall Street Journal reports. "Meta made the change last year, but it hasn’t gained wide attention," the Journal's Salvador Rodriguez writes. "The company decided to allow political advertisers to say past elections were 'rigged' or 'stolen' but prevented them from questioning the legitimacy of ongoing and coming elections."

The change was one of several "the social-media company and other platforms have made to loosen constraints on campaign advertising," Rodriguez reports. "Executives at Meta made the decision based on free-speech considerations after weighing past U.S. elections in which the results might have been contested by a portion of the electorate, according to people familiar with the issue."

"An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump has found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference," AP's Christina Cassidy reported in December 2021. At the request of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, AP agreed in 2021 to allow weekly newspapers that are not AP subscribers to republish the story and its sidebars with details on individual states, if they alos include links to it and the sidebar. (The institute publishes The Rural Blog; if you have republished the AP material, please email

"Some candidates already appear to have questioned elections in ads," Rodriguez reports, noting that Trump ran a Facebook ad in August saying “We had a rigged election.” Rodriguez writes, "Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public-policy director who wasn’t involved in the decision, said it would be challenging for social-media companies to preach free speech yet ban politicians from questioning the results of the 2020 election, which has become such a significant part of the public discourse." Harbath leads the elections program at the Integrity Institute, which studies and addresses the social harms of internet platforms.

Where will all the coal ash go? Billions of dollars are at stake as Alabama waits for the EPA to make its decision

A coal ash lagoon at one of Alabama Power's electrical
plants. (Alabama Power courtesy photo via
Alabama's dynamic waterways support an array of animal life, including a whopping 433 bird species. The state boasts 15 rivers and ranks fifth in the country – and first among states east of the Mississippi – for biodiversity. But alongside its teeming rivers is a giant problem -- approximately 100 million tons of coal ash abandoned by utility companies in "unlined ditches along the rivers across the state," reports Dennis Pillion of "The concerns are huge: Will coal ash continue to seep into and contaminate the groundwater? Will the holding areas one day give way and plug the river with the discarded waste of powerplants as once happened in Tennessee?"

The state is in a "showdown" with the Environmental Protection Agency over how the coal ash will be contained, removed or restored. Pillion asks: "Can Alabama leave its coal ash where the utilities dumped it? Or do they have to dig it up and haul it away to be buried in lined landfills, as is happening in many other states? Or maybe dig it out, line the ponds, and dump it all back in?"

The state's cheapest option, "cover in place," is not cheap and does not include "digging out the ash out and putting a liner underneath it," Pillion reports. "Alabama Power estimated [that] would cost $3.3 billion. . . . The estimate also does not include ash ponds managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth."

"Alabama state officials, utilities, and environmental groups can only wait now as the EPA decides Alabama's fate," Pillion explains. "Utilities were once allowed to choose between covering the ash in place or moving it to a lined landfill. But they could only leave it in place if the federal rules were met. . . .The rules may vary by presidential administration." The Biden administration has a stricter interpretation of the rules and rejected Alabama's cover-in-place plans.

"At a public hearing on EPA's decision on Sept. 20, Alabama Power Vice President of Environmental Affairs Susan Comensky argued that removal of coal ash presents challenges aside from cost." Comensky said that not only would the removal take decades to complete, but "there is not enough available landfill capacity to accept the approximately 100 million cubic yards of ash in our ponds."

"Not everyone buys that argument," Pillion writes. John Kinney, a staff scientist at Black Warrior Riverkeeper, "argued that the power companies could create landfills on-site to hold the ash waste without having to truck it across the state. . . . Utilities in other states have built lined landfills on site."

Proposed new rules for nursing homes have sparked warnings and fear; rural residents are the most vulnerable

National Cancer Institute photo, Unsplash
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid's new staffing mandates were met with alarm and fear, with descriptions including 'a disaster,' 'insanity', and 'catastrophic.' The Biden Administration's "proposed federal staffing mandate will be impossible for the nation's nursing homes to meet, limiting access to care for our seniors," reports The American Health Care Association. "CMS released the one-size-fits-all mandate earlier this year, despite its own study finding no level of staffing guarantees quality of care."

The angry reaction and warnings are particularly problematic for rural Americans. "As nursing home closures continue across the country, 'nursing home deserts' are expanding, and the proposed federal staffing mandate is expected to exacerbate the problem," reports  of Skilled Nursing News. "This is despite attempts to make the potential policy change easier for providers in rural markets, which are especially vulnerable to access issues. Operators in these areas point to the 24-hour RN requirement as being especially devastating."

Finding nurses, let alone 24-hour nurses, is impossible in certain areas. Nate Schema, CEO of the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, "says the organization's facilities located in 'deep rural communities' will struggle the most with the 24-hour RN rule," n communities like Bloomfield, Nebraska, pop. 1,000, or Miller, South Dakota, pop. 1, 300, Schema isn't sure where Good Samaritan will find even six RNs; the Miller facility hasn't had a night nurse for upward of three years."

"The ability to have a nursing home open in a small town is getting more difficult because of the disparity between Medicaid reimbursement and overall costs, says Accura HealthCare CEO Ted LeNeave," reports. "Accura operates 34 communities across Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota." LeNeave told : "The provider relief fund helped to mask how bad those problems were. Once that cash dried up, buildings started closing. This concept of a nursing home desert is an area where residents need nursing home care, but there's no access to them. Then they have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to be somewhere else."

Michael Beal, CEO of Care Initiatives, told , "It doesn't matter if it's 5, 10 or 15 years, if there's no additional reimbursement, it's just a timing question on when that will affect [rural operators]; it just kicks the can down the road." reports: "Beal added that the suggested rule of 'adding that an arbitrary number of staff hours per resident day without a reimbursement mechanism, and the ability to actually hire staff puts rural operators in an 'untenable situation.'"

Investigative journalism can be confusing and time-consuming; the pop-up community newsroom can assist

Photo by Christopher Edwin Nuzzaco via UM
Local journalists need to find the time and resources to conduct an investigation more than ever, but working out either can be difficult. Pop-up journalism training can help.

"The pop-up community newsroom is a tool designed to help small newsrooms meet the information needs of a community. For example, it can be used after local climate or public health emergencies when there's a demand for in-depth, original reporting, but where local newsrooms might lack the resources to undertake such projects on their own," reports Stacy Feldman for the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. "This often involves quickly assembling a team of local subject matter experts and community members — often non-journalists — to participate in investigative reporting.

"So how can the editor in charge of the pop-up newsroom efficiently train these new reporters in investigative journalism, covering areas like interviewing, fact-checking, ethics and more?" Feldman shares some tools that her newsroom, Boulder Reporting Lab, has used to onboard pop-up newsroom participants:

Citizens Investigation Guide by the Global Investigative Journalism Network
"Particularly useful in this guide is its accessible primer on investigation planning and execution. While it does not replace the need for an experienced professional journalism editor in the pop-up, GIJN provides a crash course on the importance of selecting a line of inquiry before work begins. It also offers guidance on how to devise a research plan and schedule, interview effectively, and the importance of due diligence — including how to distinguish between primary documents and secondary sources.

Accuracy checklist by NPR
"Most non-journalists in the pop-up newsroom won't be full-time and will have busy schedules outside of the pop-up project. What distinguishes journalists from advocates or researchers is their unwavering commitment to accuracy through fact-checking and other journalistic practices. . . . NPR's suite of training articles is particularly well-suited for those with limited time and reporting experience. For instance, its articles on setting clear expectations with sources before you interview them and how to identify people correctly are part of the pop-up newsroom training toolkit.

A Reporter's Guide to Pre-Publication Review by Reporters Committee For Freedom of Press
"The more investigative a pop-up newsroom project is, the more crucial it becomes to address potential legal liability upfront. This prevents a lengthy pre-publication review process by your attorney, saving time and avoiding issues for both reporters and the newsroom. This guide highlights the importance of hyperlinking to relevant reports or public records to substantiate claims in stories. It also emphasizes allowing sources to respond to any and all allegations and including their responses, and how using precise and unambiguous language reduces the risk of legal disputes.

The Art and Create of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell
"Writing on complex topics can be a challenge, even for seasoned journalists. It can be especially perplexing for those new to in-depth journalistic writing. To make the process smoother, it's helpful to designate one or two experienced writers to the project from the outset. Having multiple writers can lead to confusion and create problems for the editor. The chosen writers should have experience distilling information and have a strong interest in learning journalistic writing.

Wednesday quick hits: Oreo scandal; dead solar panels; photos of the year; the nurse shortage; food inflation dips

Is there less creme filling?
(Wall Street Journal photo)
Sometimes less is more, but sometimes less is just less, especially if you're talking about less filling in your delightfully creamed Oreo. "Oreo fans think there's less filing, but the Snack maker says it hasn't tinkered with creme ratio," reports Jesse Newman of The Wall Street Journal. "But suspicious consumers are on high alert."

Inquiring minds want to know: Where do dead solar panels end up? "The majority end up in landfills," reports Izzy Ross of Grist. "But there are no federal requirements for recycling solar panels, and states have different regulations for what to do with them. Panels can also contain small amounts of heavy metals like lead, which makes getting rid of them more complicated. The vast majority of panels are thrown away in landfills — only about 10 percent are recycled."

Photo by Louie Palu, National Geographic
It's finally time for the National Geographic photos of the year. A diverse and beautiful world awaits. In the photo, left, Finnish and U.S. soldiers train for winter warfare by navigating an obstacle course while on skis. The exercise took place two months before Finland — which shares an 800-mile border with Russia — joined NATO. The training was arranged in response to the war in Ukraine.

Is there a nursing shortage? That depends. "In 2022, the American Hospital Association quoted an estimate that half a million nurses would leave the field by the end of that year, bringing the total shortage to 1.1 million," reports Brittany Trang of STAT. "At the same time, National Nurses United insists there isn't a nurse shortage at all. There are plenty enough nurses for the country, they say — merely a shortage of nurses who want to work under current conditions."

Bill Watterson comic via
Mental Floss

When life gets too heavy, lift yourself up with some comics like Calvin and Hobbes. The wacky duo gets up to all kinds of shenanigans. The cartoon strip's artist was also a bit of a card himself.

After two years of stubborn food inflation, Americans can expect a slow drop in at-home food costs. "According to economists with the Department of Agriculture, while food prices are expected to remain higher in 2024, the rampant inflation rates experienced in 2022 and 2023 are anticipated to return to more 'normal' levels in the upcoming fiscal year, reports Charlsie McKay, RFD-TV News, which covers rural America.

Photo by M. Zilses, Unsplash
As the the holiday season approaches, it's time to consider how to eat all the treats you love without looking like you ate all the things you love. "What if the best way to curb sugar cravings is just to eat as much as you want? That is the core of an idea gaining traction among dietitians," reports Alina Dizik of The Wall Street Journal. "Who say that letting ourselves graze unfettered on a cache of Halloween fun-size Snickers can reduce our sugar lust in the long run."

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

A 16-year-old in Hutchinson, Kansas, tries to revive town's strong tradition of local journalism as chain newspaper fades

Part of The Hutchinson News' Sept. 5 front page
Hutchinson, Kansas, became known in the newspaper business two months ago for one of the bigger goofs in the era of "ghost newspapers" edited from afar with no staff reporters. Now it's becoming known as the home of the Hutchinson Tribune, started by a 16-year-old high-school debater who is publishing more local news than The Hutchinson News, owned by Gannett Co.

On Sept. 5, the News offered readers a front-page feature about the Hutchinson Senior Center, with a photo of seniors kayaking on a lake with a thickly forested shore. But that’s not the landscape in Hutchinson, pop. 40,000, or the name of its senior center. The story was about the center in Hutchinson, Minn., and was written by a confused freelancer who got the assignment from an editor 140 miles away, because the News had no news reporters on its staff.

Michael Glenn started the Tribune on Substack on July 4 with a city-council story and is publishing about five times as many local-news articles as the News. He told The Rural Blog that he and his partner, local librarian Gina Long (who formed their limited-liability company (she owns 40%, he has 60%), are about to start selling advertising for a growing audience. Today, the Tribune had 36 local-news articles on its website and the News had six.

Screenshot of Michael Glenn's interview with Mike Blinder of Editor & Publisher
Glenn told
Editor & Publisher that he got the idea when he suggested to his debate teacher that they subscribe to the News as well as The New York Times, and she informed them of how the paper had declined from its Pulitzer Prize-winning days. Glenn said he had no journalism training other than the "Earn Your Press Pass" course developed by Lindsey and Joey Young, publishers of Kansas weeklies. Joey Young is a Hutchinsion native and has been a mentor, Glenn said.

The Tribune sells $8 monthly subscriptions and accepts donations, but Glenn told The Rural Blog that he and Long make clear that supporters "have no sway or voice." He told E&P that they tell readers, “The Tribune will become a more quality news source the more subscribers we get.” Asked his motivation, he said “I feel I have a duty to give back to my community . . . Without a quality news source in the community, it allows government to do a lot of things.” The Tribune held three forums for school-board candidates and one for City Council hopefuls.

Rural vote shift helped re-elect Ky.'s Democratic governor

When the Democratic governor of one of the nation's more rural and Donald Trump-voting states was re-elected last week, rural voters were a major piece of it.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear carried few rural counties, but he got 43.3 percent of the rural vote, a big improvement (5.9%) over the 40.9% he got in 2019, says an analysis by The Daily Yonder.

Daily Yonder/Datawrapper graph, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it to enlarge
That added much to his 52.5% of the total vote, because voters in rural counties made up 38% of the total, more than any other category in the Yonder analysis. Beshear's next biggest gain was in midsized metropolitan areas (5.3%), then major metros (2.9%), midsize-metro suburbs (2.6%), major-metro suburbs (1.4%) and small metros (1.1%).

Beshear defeated Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron by 5 percentage points. In 2019, he beat GOP incumbnent Matt Bevin by 0.4 points. In 2020, Trump carried the state by 26 points.

"Beshear won 17 of Kentucky’s 85 rural (nonmetropolitan) counties this year, compared to 13 in 2019," the Yonder's Tim Marema notes. "The governor’s handling of the catastrophic 2022 flood in Eastern Kentucky may have been a factor with some voters. The disaster killed 45 people and destroyed and damaged thousands of homes in East Kentucky. The seven counties that gave Beshear his largest percentage-point increase compared to 2019 were all affected by the flooding. Two of the hardest hit, Letcher and Perry, flipped from Republican to Democratic. Beshear lost those counties by 9 points in 2019. After recovery efforts that included several gubernatorial visits, Beshear won Letcher by 5 points and Perry by 11."

Winter is almost here and many states have power grids unprepared for extreme weather, new report warns

Dusk in rural Maine. The state faced rolling power outages last
December. (Photo by Andrew Dickinson, The Washington Post)

Winter is coming and many states have power grids unprepared to handle the cold. Their possible failure leaves thousands of residents vulnerable to dangerous outages. "The nation's power grid faces a sharp risk of buckling in the event of major storms or prolonged cold snaps this coming winter, according to the regulator that monitors the electricity system," reports Evan Halper of The Washington Post

While the deadly 2021 grid failures in Texas may come to mind, swaths of the country face a similar threat. Halper writes: "A sweeping portion of the country that extends from Texas to the Canadian border is not adequately equipped for tough winter conditions, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation warned. . . . The report is a sobering assessment of a power grid that continues to fray and suffer from underinvestment, despite promises by politicians and regulators to shore it up following deadly blackouts in recent years."

Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents 900 local electricity providers, told the Post, "This forecast again shows that our nation faces looming grid reliability challenges while demand for electricity continues to soar. That's unacceptable and should be cause for concern for all Americans."

During stretches of sustained cold, natural gas generation is a weak link "as power plants and the infrastructure that delivers fuel to them are destabilized by the strain of extreme cold," Halper reports. 

While many states have been working to repair and prepare their systems, Texas has not been able to work fast enough. The reports showed "more power generation is at higher risk of energy shortages this winter than last because it is not bringing enough new power online to meet the state's surging demand, and its existing infrastructure has not been adequately weatherized," Halper adds. "New England meanwhile is struggling with its own natural gas infrastructure issues that create a threat in that region, the report found. And in a number of Mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, the demand for electricity at peak times has increased, while the amount of power available 'has changed little in these areas since Winter Storm Elliott caused energy emergencies across the area,' the report found."

As states move from traditional energy to renewables such as solar and wind, their impact also influences grid integrity. "Some, including Matheson's group, argued the report exposes the risks of tough new emissions rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which they say will further destabilize the system," Halper reports. "But others point to considerable research that finds the proposal does not threaten reliability and could ultimately strengthen the grid by more quickly bringing to market new technologies to store wind and solar power, which can be delivered to the grid when traditional power plants fail."

Renewable energy companies and unions working together might be the answer for some displaced coal workers

Renewable energy companies look to coal country
for workers. (Sparkz graphic)
Hard work for decent pay and good benefits once defined U.S. coal mining jobs, but over the past decade, those jobs have disappeared, leaving displaced workers with few job options. For some coal workers, finding employment in renewable energy might be an answer, reports Benjy Sachs of Capital and Main. "Since 2012, employed coal miners have dwindled from about 90,000 to less than 42,000. Environmental and labor advocates often speak of a 'just transition,' an economy-wide replacement of fossil fuel usage with renewable energy that offers new jobs and support for current fossil fuel workers."

Providing good-paying jobs in depressed coal regions is no simple task, but with the help of tax incentives, some renewable companies are finding locations primarily in Rustbelt and Southwestern communities to build factories and create jobs. Sparkz, a manufacturing startup, is one example. Sachs reports, "The company has signed an agreement with the United Mine Workers of America that prioritizes displaced miners for jobs at an upcoming West Virginia battery plant. . . . For the mineworkers union, a chief concern is whether a new job for a former mineworker comes with the same level of pay, job security and right to organize as they had when working in a mine."

Thom Kay, program manager for energy transition at the BlueGreen Alliance, a nonprofit that connects environmental organizations with labor unions, "thinks Sparkz's partnership with the mineworkers union is a step in the right direction," Sach writes. Kay told him, "I'm really excited to see it happening. I think it shows that it's a good example for other companies." Sachs reports, "Sparkz said it intends to apply for the Inflation Reduction Act's Advanced Energy Project Credit to invest in repurposing a defunct glass factory into an operational battery plant. The credit covers 6% of the upfront investment and increases to 30% if the company pays its employees at the prevailing wage level and uses apprentice labor."

Other renewable energy locations are also choosing union representation. "Workers at Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors Co. and South Korea's LG Energy Solution Ltd., recently voted to be represented by the UAW, marking the first union organized at an electric vehicle battery manufacturing plant," Sachs reports. "Workers at Ultium and other joint venture EV plants are not yet covered by the UAW's master contract — something the UAW hopes to change in its negotiations. Ultium recently received a $2.5 billion loan from the Department of Energy."

Opinion: An agriculture columnist reviews reader reactions to his four most controversial stances

The value of Covid-19 vaccines is still controversial topic
for journalists to discuss. (The Forum News Service photo)

Public distrust, newsroom layoffs, 24/7 work cycles and frequent online updates are just a few of the daunting challenges journalists face. In the case of controversial stories, public responses can double the pressure. Farm Journal columnist Jonathan Knutson writes, "I dislike the handful of profanity-laden emails and phone calls from readers who disagree with my column. To be clear, the vast majority of emails and phone calls from disagreeing readers are polite and use appropriate language, and I welcome their feedback." Knutson revisited his four most "difference-filled" stories.

Knutson covered GMOs and "The column noted the strong consensus of U.S. experts that GMOs are safe for humans to eat. That's good enough for me. . . Especially since GMOs increase food production in a world in which far too many people are hungry. . . . A few readers thanked me, but most respondents disagreed. They correctly pointed out that the majority of GMO-knowledgeable scientists in some parts of the world say GMOs aren't safe for humans. . . . My response then and now: I don't have a good answer for the foreign scientists' stance."

Knutson wrote on free trade's relationship to agriculture. "Most U.S. ag groups support freer trade. They say — and statistics and obvious real-world observations agree — that freer trade increases U.S. ag exports, which in turn increases grain prices and farmers' profit. . . . But my column criticizing former President Trump's trade-distorting, ag-harming trade policies drew angry responses from a number of his supporters, as well as a few officials from U.S. economic sectors hurt by freer trade. . . . My response then and now: Freer trade isn't perfect; the column noted that some U.S. workers are hurt by it. But freer trade helps American farmers, farm communities, ag-heavy states and the national economy overall."

What about human activities and their relationship to climate change? Knutson had been a skeptic for years, but around 2002, his opinion shifted. "I learned that 97% of climate scientists believe climate change is real and human activity contributes to it. I talked at length with a climate scientist who patiently answered my many questions.

"My column, which said that climate change is real and human activity contributes to it, drew angry responses from a number of readers. Their main argument was that climate scientists must support the climate-change-is-real position or lose their federal funding. . . . However, I also received positive responses from several respondents. One wrote: 'It's ironic that so many in ag praise the courage of GMO experts who tell them what they want to hear while they rip climate scientists who tell them what they don't want to hear.' . . . My take then and now: 97% of climate scientists say climate change is real, and I respect their overall professionalism and integrity."

Knudson tackled the Covid-19 vaccination debate and received angry and supportive responses. "Again, I'll stick with the vast majority of experts who say vaccinations are both safe and needed. . . . The takeaway: It's easy to praise experts who say what we want to hear and vilify experts who don't. And it's altogether too easy to accept dubious, dangerous internet 'facts' that lead to muddled minds and fanatical faith in bizarro-world conspiracy theories. Established science isn't perfect, but it's still the best bet available."