Friday, April 26, 2024

Opioid settlement funds won't be enough for some of the country's hardest-hit regions to rebuild and recover

For many counties, the opioid settlement funds won't be
enough to address the losses. (Adobe Stock photo)
As the first $50 billion in opioid-related settlement funds gets distributed to states, counties and municipalities, a painful reality is setting in: It won't be enough for these places to rebuild or recover what has been lost, report Arian Campo-Flores and Jon Kamp of The Wall Street Journal

Community leaders are finding that "the funds only cover a fraction of their wish list. Some of their projects likely aren't even eligible because of confusion over restrictions on how the money can be used."

Whitley County, Kentucky, is an example of a region that received settlement funds, but county leaders quickly recognized that the money would only scratch the surface of what is needed to spur recovery, the Journal reports. Whitney Wynn, a Horizon Health outpatient facility director, "wants to establish the area's first detox facility. Ideally, she said, such a center could send patients to a residential treatment site. But the settlement money wouldn't cover both projects."

Other regions are using the settlement money paired other funding to create facilities and programs to support change. "In Dickenson County, Va., officials are allocating $250,000 of roughly $330,000 in settlement funds received thus far for the rural area's first residential treatment facility," Campo-Flores and Kamp write. "The project's price tag is $7.7 million, so the remainder is coming from sources including a loan from a regional economic development authority."

Kentucky is expected to receive about $900 million in settlement funds, with "half administered by the state and half going to local governments," the Journal reports. While that sounds like big money, it isn't when compared with what the crisis has cost. "In 2017, Kentucky's estimated cost from deaths and lives undermined by addiction exceeded $24 billion. Per-capita costs there were among the nation's highest."

Robbie Williams, a judge-executive in Floyd, Kentucky, told the Journal the $1 million the country has received so far is just "a drop in the bucket" compared with what the opioid crisis has cost the community. He added, "We have so many unmet needs; we really don't know where to start."

The Journal reports, "Meanwhile, the opioid crisis — which started with pain pills and is now fueled by fentanyl — continues killing at a record pace. "

As industries try to move away from using products with 'forever chemicals,' here's one possible replacement

Soy oil has multiple uses in food and
industry. (Wikipedia photo)
PFAS, also known as forever chemicals, have been linked to human illnesses and diseases but are still being used in commercial products because there isn't a functional substitute.

One of those products is firefighting foam, but Wisconsin farmers think they may have a solution, which was recently tested in Dalton, Georgia, reports Courtney Everett of Wisconsin Public Radio. "Farmers and volunteer firefighters were using a new soybean-based product called SoyFoam, which holds the potential to significantly reduce the health risks associated with PFAS exposure."

Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board President Pat Mullolly, who was present at the demo, told Everett, "It looked like the consistency of paint. It was a brown-type substance, maybe a little bit thicker than salt. They inject that into the water stream, and it creates foam." Everett added, "According to Mullolly, the biodegradable foam could eliminate the use of PFAS in firefighting foam. The chemicals have been linked by the U.S. Fire Administration to health risks and groundwater pollution."

Although SoyFoam technology is in the testing phase, "Mullolly is hopeful the product and other ongoing state projects can grow Wisconsin's agricultural economy," Everett reports. "Economic opportunities for soybean farmers across the United States are growing, Mullolly added." He told Everett, "There's some soy oil in Goodyear tires and Sketchers shoes. Dalton, Georgia, is the world headquarters for Astroturf, and they're using soy oil in their polyurethane."

Add to your energy information reporting toolbox with this data source; many of its charts are free to use

An IEA chart showing the world’s total energy supply from 1990 to 2020
by source. Many of IEA's charts are free to use. (IEA Chart via SEJ)
The International Energy Agency offers some of the best information for reporters wanting to develop a broader understanding of global energy with trustworthy data, reports Joseph A. Davis of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "What IEA offers is data about the global energy situation. But it's solid data, probably the best available."

Among IEA's 31 member countries, almost all are Western and European. "What nearly all of these countries have in common is that they are the major world players in energy markets, mostly as consumers but also as producers. Its members represent 75% of world energy demand," Davis writes. "It does not include China, India, Saudi Arabia or Russia."

While the Energy Information Administration is more of a "just-the-facts data supplier," Davis explains, "the IEA is not averse to taking positions. If it has a bias, it is pro-energy. . . . It is an enthusiastic chronicler of the energy transition (from fossil fuels to renewables), but it also cheers on nuclear energy. It supports gender equality in the energy industry (currently in an awful state, with IEA statistics to prove it)."

A lot of IEA's data is free, but more premium reports and data may require registration/payment. Some best practices for using IEA data:
  • Remember that the data represents a subset of the global market. While some nonmember data is included, its not comprehensive.
  • To get your feet wet, start with Energy Statistics Data Browser. Davis adds, "It also has browsers and trackers for energy efficiency, carbon capture, oil stocks (inventory), end-uses, hydrogen, climate pledges, critical minerals, electric vehicles and more."
  • IEA's chart library contains many high-quality options that can be used under a Creative Commons license (but do check).
  • While good data can bring new depth and understanding to stories, "We remind you that shoe-leather and in-person reporting is needed to round out the human side of the data," Davis writes. "Groundtruth everything you can."

Learning practices and knowledge from Native Americans can help support nature, farming and more

Native Americans have worked with nature to support themselves and the land for centuries. "These time-honored practices work with the natural world’s rhythms," reports Samuel Gilbert of The Washington Post. "Some might even hold the key to a more resilient future." Below are five of Gilbert's indigenous practices that can help humans tend to Mother Nature while caring for their communities.
Zuni waffle gardens look like an 'earthen waffle.'
(Photo by Curtis Quam via Civil Eats)
Zuni waffle gardens
are made with rows of sunken squares "surrounded by adobe walls that catch and hold water like pools of syrup in a massive earthen waffle," Gilbert writes. "The sustainable design protects crops from wind, reduces erosion and conserves water."

Controlled or "cultural burns" were used by Indigenous people "to improve soil quality, spur the growth of particular plants," Gilbert adds. "Prescribed burning has returned as state and federal agencies recognize the importance of fire in managing forests."

The use of acequias, which are ancient irrigation systems dating back to the 1600s. "The name can refer to both the gravity-fed ditches filled with water and the farmers who collectively manage water," Gilbert explains. "The earthen ditches mimic seasonal streams and expand riparian habitats for numerous native species."

Learn from dryland farmers. "The Hopi nation in Arizona receives an average of 10 inches of rain per year — a third of what crop scientists say is necessary to grow corn successfully," Gilbert adds. "Yet Hopi farmers have been cultivating corn and other traditional crops without irrigation for millennia, relying on traditional ecological knowledge rooted in life in the high desert."

Some seeds are 'arid-adapted.'
(Adobe Stock photo)

Find and cherish diverse, resilient seeds
. Gilbert writes, "Aaron Lowden, a seed keeper and traditional farmer from the Acoma Pueblo, a village west of Albuquerque, has successfully returned dozens of varieties of traditional arid-adapted seeds such as Acoma blue corn, Acoma pumpkin, Acoma melon and other crops to his pueblo."

To read Gilbert's additional suggestions, which include clam gardens and jaw-dropping indigenous architecture, click here.

Friday's quick hits: This bot cleans up; sculpture park honors enslaved people; trying weird veggies; camping trip plan

(The Searial Cleaners photo via Route Fifty)
Almost everyone knows what a litterbug is, but what about a litterbot? In Detroit, a litterbot named BeBot "will sift through the sand and suck out trash like cigarette butts, bottles, food wrappers and other small pieces of plastic to help prevent trash from making its way from the Detroit River, which flows between the U.S. and Canada, into Lake Erie," reports Kaitlyn Levinson of Route Fifty. "The robot is roughly the size of a riding lawn mower and weighs more than 1,300 pounds. It uses a metal grate to sift through the sand and pick up trash as it rolls along beachfronts at about two miles per hour. "

Bernie Sanders of Vermont isn't the only one investigating 4-day work weeks. Educators in Pennsylvania now have the option of a 4-day school week. "Legislation signed into law in December amended the Pennsylvania School Code to eliminate the requirement for a minimum 180 school days, providing 900 or more instruction hours each academic year," reports Valerie Myers of The Erie Times. "Districts now can choose between 180 school days and hourly instruction requirements: 900 for elementary students and 990 for secondary students." Despite the option, a lot of school administrators don't feel ready to sign up.
The Legacy Sites photo

How can Americans confront slavery's part in our national history? A park in Alabama is memorializing this past with art. "Montgomery, Alabama -- once a major trafficking port for enslaved people – opened its new Freedom Monument Sculpture Park, which features bronze sculptures and historical artifacts that highlight what life was like for enslaved people," reports Mackenzie McCarty of The Christian Science Monitor. "The park culminates in the four-story National Monument to Freedom, inscribed with 122,000 last names that formerly enslaved people chose for themselves after being emancipated."

Guess who's hitting their Earth-loving metrics? U.S. farmers. Daniel Munch of the American Farm Bureau Federation reported on a new study from the Environmental Protection Agency that showed "'U.S. agriculture represents just under 10% of total U.S. emissions when compared to other economic sectors. Overall, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased from 2021 to 2022 by 1.3%, though agricultural emissions dropped 1.8% – the largest decrease of any economic sector.' . . . 2022 marks the lowest U.S. agricultural greenhouse gas emissions since 2012."

With googly eyes, most veggies look more approachable.
(Adobe Stock photo)
Some vegetables get a bad rap: Okra is slimy. Eggplants look more like purple slugs than food. Rutabagas don't even sound like a food. But what if there was a way to make those strange foods approachable? Even edible. "It's hard to be intimidated by celeriac — or rutabaga, radicchio, eggplant or okra — when it's wiggling googly eyes at you," reports Rebekah Denn of The Washington Post. Chef and food educator Becky Selengut "began pasting eyes on produce while teaching a 'Misunderstood Vegetables' cooking class and writing a related new cookbook."

Don't let raccoons, bugs, lumpy ground or lackluster meals ruin your summer camping trip. A great camping trip starts with solid planning, "so you'll return home with great memories," writes Alex Temblador for National Geographic. "We’ve created a list of all the items you’ll need. . . . From clothes to kitchen supplies and gear to help you sleep." Find the checklist here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hackers who claim to be the 'Cyber Army of Russia Reborn' disrupt a water tower system in rural Texas

The FBI has been investigating the hack in Muleshoe, Tex.
(City of Muleshoe, Texas photo via CNN)
While the number of computer hacks on American businesses by foreign actors has steadily increased, a hack in Muleshoe, Texas, in January might be the "first disruption of U.S. water system by Russia," reports Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post. A Muleshoe citizen drove past the town's water tower, saw it was overflowing and alerted the police. "Authorities soon determined the system that controlled the city's water supply had been hacked. . . . Thousands of gallons of water had flowed into the street and drain pipes."

The hackers, who identified themselves as the Cyber Army of Russia Reborn, "Posted a video online of the town's water-control systems showing how they reset the controls," Nakashima writes. Using the messaging platform Telegram, the hackers posted a caption that read, "We're starting another raid on the USA." The hackers proceeded to explain how they were going to target U.S. infrastructure.

Location of Muleshoe, Tex., pop
5,200 (Wikipedia map)
Experts from the cyber security firm Mandiant believe "that the water tank overflow in a Texas panhandle town may well be linked to one of the most infamous Russian government hacking groups," Nakashima reports. "If confirmed, analysts say it would mark a worrisome escalation by Moscow in its attempts to disrupt critical U.S. infrastructure by targeting one of its weakest sectors: water utilities."

The notorious Russian hacking group, nicknamed "Sandworm, has achieved notoriety for briefly turning out the lights in parts of Ukraine at least three different times; hacking the Olympics Opening Games in South Korea in 2018; and launching NotPetya, one of the most damaging cyberattacks ever that cost businesses worldwide tens of billions of dollars," Nakashima explains.

Muleshoe's city manager, Ramon Sanchez, told Nakashima, "You don't think that's going to happen to you. It's always going to happen to the other guy." Nakashima reports, "Sanchez said the hackers brute-forced the password for the system's control system interface, which was run by a vendor. That password hadn't been changed in more than a decade."

Could sleeping in a public park be a crime? A decision about the nation's homelessness crisis goes to the Supreme Court

The Grants Pass decision could change how homelessness
is handled by communities. (Adobe Stock photo)
As the number of homeless people in the U.S. continues to climb, many communities face conflicts over homeless campers and encampments. The rural town of Grants Pass, Oregon, "has become the unlikely face of the nation's homelessness crisis," reports Claire Rush of The Associated Press. The fate of the town's anti-camping laws is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case on April 22. 

Grants Pass, like many communities, has "struggled for years with a burgeoning homeless population. A decade ago, City Council members discussed how to make it 'uncomfortable enough. . . in our city so they will want to move on down the road,'" Rush explains. "From 2013 to 2018, the city issued 500 citations for camping or sleeping in public, including in vehicles, with fines that could reach hundreds of dollars."

The Supreme Court's decision hinges on their review of a 2018 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked anti-camping laws for individuals as violations of the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment." Rush reports, "Officials across the political spectrum — from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, which has nearly 30% of the nation's homeless population, to a group of 22 conservative-led states — have filed briefs in the case, saying lower court rulings have hamstrung their ability to deal with encampments."

Homeless people and advocates insist that more housing is the answer to homelessness, not citations and punitive actions. "Civil rights groups and attorneys for the homeless residents who challenged the restrictions in 2018 insist people shouldn't be punished for lacking housing," Rush explains. "Grants Pass has just one overnight shelter for adults, the Gospel Rescue Mission. It has 138 beds, but rules including attendance at daily Christian services, no alcohol, drugs or smoking and no pets mean many won't stay there."

At the heart of the problem in Grants Pass is the encampments found along the town's scenic public parks that frame the Rogue River. "They host everything from annual boat-racing festivals to Easter egg hunts and summer concerts," Rush reports. "They're also the sites of encampments blighted by illegal drug use and crime, including a shooting at a park last year that left one person dead."

For details on the case's oral arguments, click here and here. The Supreme Court's decision is expected by the end of June.

A new EPA rule means polluters, not taxpayers, will have to pay for some 'forever chemicals' cleanup

PFAS have been used in the U.S. since 1938.
(Adobe Stock photo)
The presence of PFAS, or "forever chemicals," in U.S. drinking water led the Environmental Protection Agency to issue its first drinking water standards earlier this month. Tagging onto that action, "The Biden administration is designating two 'forever chemicals,' as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, shifting responsibility for their cleanup to polluters from taxpayers," reports Coral Davenport of The New York Times. "The new rule empowers the government to force the many companies that manufacture or use perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) to monitor any releases into the environment and be responsible for cleaning them up."

Davenport explains, "PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States but can be imported in the form of consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging as well as in coatings, rubber and plastics; the agency said. . . . Industries that use the chemicals have said that the designation is too expensive and would lead to litigation that could impose new costs on businesses and communities and slow the cleanup of chemicals."

The fact remains that all PFAS are harmful to humans. The compounds "degrade very slowly and can accumulate in the body and the environment. Exposure to PFAS has been associated with metabolic disorders, decreased fertility in women, developmental delays in children and increased risk of some prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, according to the EPA," Davenport writes. "Under the new rule, companies are required to immediately report releases of PFOA and PFOS that meet or exceed one pound within a 24-hour period to the National Response Center, and also to state, tribal, and local emergency responders."

As far as cleaning up PFAS -- it isn't simple or cheap. Even after PFAS are removed from water, there is no easy way to dispose of the products produced by the removal process. "Studies have shown that PFAS can be broken down with energy-intensive technologies," reports Fast Company. "But this comes with steep costs. Incinerators must reach over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 Celsius) to destroy PFAS, and the possibility of creating potentially harmful byproducts is not yet well understood."

Click here to review a study and map of PFAS in U.S. tap water.

Problem of shrinking places, mostly rural, is a tougher issue in the U.S. than in other nations, The Economist reports

Chart by The Economist magazine, adapted by The Rural Blog

The 2020 U.S. census was the first in which fewer people were counted in rural counties than in the previous census. "Over half of the country’s counties, home to a quarter of Americans, lost population," The Economist notes. "Over the coming decades still more will, because America’s population is     growing more slowly. The change will be wrenching, because of America’s demographic and administrative peculiarities." And that has special significance for rural areas.

Many other wealthy countries "are growing even more slowly or shrinking," The Economist notes. "America’s demographic problems are much smaller than those of its peers. Yet there are reasons to worry that America will adapt to slow growth even less readily than other countries. America’s population is growing at about the same rate as those of Britain and France. But America is different from Britain or France in that its population is much more prone to move around the country."

When many people leave a place, the magazine says, "It can set in motion reinforcing cycles that accelerate the decline. For example, when there is far more housing available than people to fill it, the result tends to be a collapse in the value of homes. If it is severe enough, landlords and even homeowners stop maintaining their properties, because the cost of repairs is higher than the return they will generate. As the resulting blight spreads and neighbourhoods begin to feel hollowed out, the incentive to stay is reduced even further. This is what is called a death spiral.

"Death spirals tend to be worse in America because of the remarkable level to which the government is decentralised. Just 8% of spending on primary and secondary education comes from the federal government, for example, and less than a quarter of the spending on law enforcement. Local and regional authorities levy 48% of all tax collected in America, compared with just 20% in France and 6% in Britain. And even America’s federal spending typically comes in the form of grants linked to population levels. So when local tax revenues shrink, services must be cut or taxes must rise."

The Economist asks and answers: "Does it matter if places die? Some would argue no. People are better off if they can move to opportunity, instead of becoming trapped in dying cities or jobless rural areas. Indeed, competition between cities helps explain America’s economic dynamism . . . Shrinking is hugely politically unpopular because, inevitably, many people are left behind, and the lives of those unwilling or unable to move worsen as their neighbors depart. Federal, state and local officials know this. And so they will do almost anything to avoid shrinking. All manner of big government facilities, from air-force bases to prisons, can be located in rural areas, ensuring there are jobs that in turn sustain the rest of the economy."

Looking ahead, The Economist says: "If America’s population does not grow faster, far more places will begin to die. The politics of that will be ugly. Of the counties that lost population in the decade to 2020, 90% voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Presumably, his fulminations about American decline resonate. Yet much of the recent slowdown in America’s population growth dates to Mr. Trump’s presidency when, even before the pandemic, net migration fell by a quarter as his administration deliberately gummed up the immigration services."

The Economist's report was centered on Cairo and Alexander County, Illinois, which had the greatest population decline (33 percent) of any county in the last decade. Here's the story's final paragraph: "Driving your correspondent around Cairo, Phillip Matthews, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Alexander County, lists services that have been cut over the years: public housing closed, government offices moved, schools shut down. He points out the public hospital in which he was born—now a derelict concrete hulk. 'A lot of this is done by design,' he declares, of his town’s decline. What he means is that politicians took many of the decisions that have contributed to the decay. Mr. Matthews is pinning his hopes on a stalled plan to spend $40 million on a new river port in Cairo, which has been backed by J.B. Pritzker, the state’s Democratic governor. If the port is ever built, perhaps Cairo will recover somewhat. But in the meantime, Mr. Matthews, a black pastor, says he understands why more and more people in his region support Mr. Trump. 'The Democratic Party is failing its constituents,' he says. 'People are scared to say it, but truth is truth.' The worse things get, the more votes Mr. Trump will win."