Friday, October 04, 2013

Kansas' top court throws out permit for long-stalled power plant that would serve mainly Colo. co-ops

Existing plant in Holcomb (AP photo)
"The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled today to scrap a key permit issued to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. for a coal-fired power project in western Kansas," Manuel Quinones reports for Environment & Energy News. The decision delivered "a victory to environmental groups that accused the state of cutting corners for political reasons," writes John Milburn of The Associated Press.

The court ruled in a lawsuit by the Sierra Club and other groups that state officials misapplied air-pollution rules in issuing the permit for a second Sunflower plant near Holcomb, which was planned mainly to serve rural electric cooperatives in Colorado that need power to serve suburban expansion. The plant could be dead, because the court said any new permit must follow new federal rules on mercury and other hazardous pollutants, and earlier this year, a federal court in Washington ruled that the plant was subject to the National Environmental Policy Act because it would be built with Rural Utilities Service loans. Sunflower comprises rural electric cooperatives.

Sunflower has been fighting to build the plant for the better part of a decade. For past coverage, click here.

Read more here:

Shutdown costing government $32 million a day in lost fees at national parks, hurting local economies

Peak season has arrived at many national parks, with tourists flocking to the sites to enjoy the fall weather and colors. But with the government shutdown, visitors from all around the world are being turned away, costing the National Park Service an estimated $32 million a day in entrance fees and other revenue, Hugo Martin reports for the Los Angeles Times. Local tourism bureaus are doing their best to try to keep tourists in the area by suggesting they visit other sites. Julie Hadzega, a spokeswoman for the Yosemite-Mariposa County Tourism Bureau in California, told Martin, "We are really trying to convince visitors not to turn around and go home. There's a lot of stuff to do here." (Billings Gazette photo by Larry Mayer: Tourists outside Yellowstone National Park found it closed at the Roosevelt Arch on Tuesday)

Fall is traditionally a booming tourist time at many national parks. During the first week of October Yellowstone usually has 54,000 visits, and more than 138,000 visits for the month, Jan Falstad reports for the Billings Gazette. With the shutdown, surrounding communities stand to lose $5.5 million in revenue this week, and $13.5 if the shutdown last through the month, said park spokesman Al Nash. The National Park Service could lose camping, fishing and entrance fees worth $440,000 for October, and Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the Denver company that runs the concessions in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, loses nearly $1 million per day while the parks are closed, not including overhead. (Read more)

Another area hit hard by the shutdown is Gatlinburg, Tenn., home of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which each day has around 35,000 visitors, more than any other national park. Like Yellowstone, October is one of the park's peak months. "With the shutdown, 279 employees are on furlough, along with 60 concessions employees and 45 Great Smoky Mountains Association employees," Jeff Farrell reports for the Mountain Press in Sevierville. "Forty-seven employees remain on duty, providing security and emergency services." (Read more) (Press photo by Curt Habraken: Sign at the Sugarlands Visitors Center)

For travelers who planned to visit certain national parks, some alternative options within driving distance are suggested by the The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times.

Computer use at libraries is rising in rural areas, declining in urban areas

With the Internet such an important part of every day life, and some rural residents still struggling to get connected, if all else fails, the one solution that keeps popping up in stories -- applying for jobs, students preparing for standardized tests, enrolling in the Affordable Care Act -- is to visit your local library for Internet access. That has led the Institute for Museum and Library Services to conduct what is believed to be the first of its kind report on computer use at rural libraries. This seems like a report that could be replicated in every community.

The report found that from 2008 to 2011, the number of publicly accessible computers in rural libraries increased about 20 percent to 49,000, and computer use increased 6.7 percent, to 41.3 million uses, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. During the same period, use of publicly accessible computers in urban areas decreased 9.5 percent. The report states: "Rural areas have less access to broadband services than urban areas. In order to mitigate this disparity in access, rural libraries have made additional efforts to increase their electronic resources."

The report also found that more people visit rural libraries than urban ones. The average visitation per capita at rural libraries was 6.7 visits per year, while in urban areas it was 5.7 visits per capita. "The raw number of visits to urban libraries was about three times the number of visits to rural libraries, a reflection of the size of the population the libraries serve," Marema reports. To view the entire report click here. (Institute for Museum and Library Services map)

Rural advocate to be on radio show today discussing impact of shutdown on rural communities

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, will be a guest today on the KCRW and Public Radio International show "To the Point" to discuss how the government shutdown is affecting rural communities. The one-hour show, which originates in Santa Monica, Calif., and is hosted by Warren Olney, is not available in all areas. It airs live at 2 p.m. EST but may not air fopr several hours in many markets. For a list of stations that carry the show, and showtimes, click here.

Plight of Appalachian coal gets attention from international magazine The Economist and CBS News

The coal business has suffered a steady decline in Appalachia, largely due to cheap natural gas, and coal advocates fear it will only get worse with the release of new carbon regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency that limit "emissions from new fossil-fuel-fired power stations to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour—far less than the average coal plant emits," reports The Economist. "To meet this standard new coal plants would have to capture and store much of their carbon emissions. Critics complain that the technology enabling carbon capture and storage (CCS) is too expensive and works far better in theory than in commercial practice."

Economist map shows mines and vote trends
And, according to coal advocates, much of the blame falls on the shoulders of President Obama, who they say doesn't understand Appalachia, where he lost significantly in both elections. The Economist says: "He is urban: Appalachia is rural. He is biracial: Appalachia is white. He is cosmopolitan—well-travelled, well-educated, brought up in Hawaii and Indonesia: Appalachia, thanks to its mountains and patchy road network, is still insular and isolated. During his campaigns he lavished attention on [Virginia,] Pennsylvania and Ohio, battleground states with Appalachian parts, but bypassed Kentucky and West Virginia, which he stood little chance of winning."(Read more)

Kentucky coal jobs in the second quarter of this year reached the lowest number since 1927. Since mid-2011, Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 5,700 coal jobs, or nearly 42 percent of the previous number. In West Virginia, between July 2012 and July 2013, coal mining employment fell 5 percent to 11,829 jobs, reports The Associated Press.

CBS News had a segment Thursday night on the struggles Appalachian coal towns are having with utilities' increased use of gas. The story centered on Harlan County, Kentucky, where "in the past two years, unemployment has risen from 9.8 percent to 17.2 percent. In Eastern Kentucky overall, 42 percent of miners have lost their jobs," Jeff Glor reports for the network. "The only mines still operating in Harlan are run by C.V. Bennett's family. Five years ago, Bennett had 500 employees. Today it's 100." (Read more)

Federal judge says EPA will have to write first federal rules for disposal of coal ash

A federal judge this week said he would order the Environmental Protection Agency to developing what would be the first federal standards for disposal of coal ash, which environmental groups say has been dumped into unlined and unmonitored pits, harming water supplies. But U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton of Washington said he wouldn't meet all the demands of groups that sued EPA, and would issue a memorandum with his views in the next several weeks, Manual Quinones reports for Environment & Energy News. (Brian Stansberry/Creative Commons photo: Damage from the 2008 Tennessee ValleyAuthority coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn.)

Until Walton provides more details, "the implications for the rulemaking remain unclear," Quinones writes. "Walton appears poised to agree but also disagree with different demands from the different interests. For example, Walton signaled that he wouldn't agree to a demand from environmentalists that EPA change the test for determining whether a material is hazardous." (Read more)

In April, 2012, a group of 11 environmental groups sued EPA, challenging the agency's failure to regulate coal ash, Sue Sturgis reports for The Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C. "Spurred to action by the 2008 coal ash spill from the Kingston plant in eastern Tennessee that dumped over 1 billion gallons of coal ash onto a residential community and into two rivers, EPA proposed the first federal regulations for coal ash in May 2010 to replace the uneven patchwork of state laws. But EPA never completed its rulemaking, and the power-generating industry and some members of Congress launched a push for legislation to block EPA from imposing federal regulations." (Read more)

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Kentucky farming conference Oct. 12 to focus on creating a healthy, sustainable future

The 14th annual Healthy Foods, Local Farms Conference, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 12 in Louisville, will focus on food, sustainability, and justice. The conference program says, "Barton Seaver, chef, author, advocate for sustainable oceans and public health, challenges us to see where the true problem lies — with our action or inaction to make changes within the system and within our selves to ensure a food system for all; not just the well-to-do, not just big farmers and corporations, but one that works with nature, looking toward a healthy, sustainable, and just future."

Cost of the conference is $35. Registration includes meals, snacks and conference materials. For more information contact Aloma Dew at 270-316-0334, or by email at to inquire about scholarships. To register, click here.

Michigan town sets referendum on idea of putting its legal notices on web instead of newspaper

A Detroit suburb plans to let its voters decide next month whether it will put official notices on its website instead of the local newspaper, stirring fears among community papers that other governments will do likewise and increase momentum for the state legislature to follow suit. Such battles are being fought in many states.

"You will be receiving emails from us soon asking for financial help to pay for a campaign against this issue in Novi," about 25 miles northwest of Detroit, says The Bulletin of the Michigan Press Association. "Members may recall when three municipalities did this in the 2009 election. Trenton, Wayne and Ann Arbor all attempted to get voters to agree to letting the fox watch the henhouse and only Ann Arbor succeeded." At the time, the Ann Arbor News had gone online-only.

"There was also an attempt by Alpena city government to do this a few years ago but some heavy lifting on the part of the local newspaper prior to a final council vote prevented it from getting on the ballot," The Bulletin reports. "If this effort is successful in Novi, it will provide fuel for our opponents in Lansing to feed the fire to eliminate notice in newspaper altogether. Not many members can afford to see that happen, nor can the public who will suffer from the lack of due process and independence with regard to their property rights, tax dollars and government transparency." (Read more)

Obamacare isn't helping the truly poor in GOP-led, largely rural states that aren't expanding Medicaid

Uninsured African Americans, single mothers and low-wage workers, many of them living in the rural South and other states not expanding Medicaid under federal health reform, are finding out the hard way that they don't qualify for insurance benefits, Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff report for The New York Times. "Because they live in states largely controlled by Republicans that have declined to participate in a vast expansion of Medicaid, they are among the 8 million Americans who are impoverished, uninsured and ineligible for help." (NYT photo by James Patterson: Claretha Briscoe of Hollandale, Miss., earns $11,000 a year, too much to qualify for Medicaid in her state, but too little to get Obamacare subsidies for private insurance)

The law was written to force states to expand Medicaid, to avoid loss of the federal money that largely supports the program, but the Supreme Court ruled that was unconstitutional. In states expanding Medicaid, the Times notes, "The federal government will pay for the expansion through 2016 and no less than 90 percent of costs in later years."

Share of eligible adults not helped, highlighting states not
expanding Medicaid; for NYT's interactive version, click here.
The people left out are "stuck between people with slightly higher incomes who will qualify for federal subsidies on the new health exchanges that went live this week, and those who are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid in its current form, which has income ceilings as low as $11 a day in some states," the Times reports, noting that 60 percent of African Americans live in states not expanding Medicaid, and about 50 percent of Hispanics do. "The 26 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion are home to about half of the country’s population, but about 68 percent of poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers. About 60 percent of the country’s uninsured working poor are in those states. Among those excluded are about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses’ aides."

In Mississippi, 13 percent of residents are among these truly poor, uninsured people, the highest share in the country. The Times reports that 56 percent of all poor and uninsured adults are black, though they account for just 38 percent of the population. And it won't get any easier for those trying to get insurance, especially for people like Willie Charles Carter, "an unemployed 53-year-old whose most recent job was as a maintenance worker at a public school. His income is below Mississippi’s ceiling for Medicaid—which is about $3,000 a year—but he has no dependent children, so he does not qualify. And his income is too low to make him eligible for subsidies on the federal health exchange." Carter told the Times, "You got to be almost dead before you can get Medicaid in Mississippi."

States that "did not expand Medicaid have less generous safety nets: For adults with children, the median income limit for Medicaid is just under half of the federal poverty level—or about $5,600 a year for an individual—while in states that are expanding, it is above the poverty line, or about $12,200, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation," the Times reports.  "There is little or no coverage of childless adults in the states not expanding, Kaiser said." (Kaiser map)

'Wendell Berry's mission, in word and deed, is the defense of the earth,' Bill Moyers says in new show

Farmer-author-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry is the focus of the latest Moyers & Co. program on public television stations, starting tomorrow. Bill Moyers interviewed Berry before an audience (a rare event for Berry) during a sustainabilty conference this spring at St. Catharine College in Kentucky, where Berry and his daughter Mary have started an ecological agrarianism program to address issues of land use, agriculture and food, which Berry has been writing about for decades.

"He is one of, if not the great, writer in American letters right now," writer Bill McKibben tells Moyers. "He understood what was happening on this planet a long time before anybody else. He's, you might say, a prophet of responsibility."

Berry talks about his recent forays into environmental activism, including a sleep-in at the Kentucky governor's office to protest mountaintop-removal coal mining. "We don't have a right to ask whether we're going to succeed or not," he tells Moyers. "The only question we have a right to ask is, 'What's the right thing to do?'" Check local TV listings for stations and broadcast times. Berry's fellow Kentuckians can see the show Sunday at 11 a.m. on KET and 6 p.m. on KET2.

Study: Treatment plant kept releasing radioactive fracking wastewater even after agreeing to stop

A study in Indiana County, Pennsylvania (Wikipedia map) by Duke University found radium in a creek downstream from a wastewater treatment plant, indicating that "the plant continued to treat and release wastewater from Marcellus [Shale] fracking sites" even though the plant and the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Department said it stopped in 2011, David Conti reports for the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh.

The state agency and plant owner Fluid Recovery Services "signed an agreement in May that bars the facility from accepting, treating or discharging wastewater from unconventional drilling operations, such as those used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale through hydraulic fracturing," Conti reports.

Devesh Mittal, vice president of Aquatech, which bought Fluid Recovery Services this year, denied the claim. Study co-author Avner Vengosh said data from the peer-reviewed study, to be published in Environmental Science & Technology, "showed the ratio of fracking wastewater in the creek decreased but never disappeared," Conti writes. Lisa Kasianowitz, spokesperson for the DEP, "said regulators monitor what the plant discharges and have been back to the Josephine plant since May to ensure no more fracking water is treated or discharged." (Read more)

Federal wildlife agency proposes designating 33,000 acres in southwestern N.D. for sage grouse habitat

To help protect the sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has named a candidate for the Endangered Species Act, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed designating 33,000 acres in southwestern North Dakota "as priority habitat that would limit motorized travel to existing roads and place surface occupancy restrictions that could limit oil and gas development, though existing leases would be allowed to develop with additional conservation measures designed to protect the grouse," Scott Streater reports for Environment and Energy News. (Photo from Colorado State University Institute for Livestock and the Environment)

The draft environmental impact statement is one of 15 being conducted as part of the BLM's "ongoing effort to develop a 'National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy' that would stretch across 10 western states and cover the estimated 47 million acres of sage grouse habitat under BLM control," Streater writes.

The proposal has been criticized by conservationists and oil and gas industry officials, Streater writes. "Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council in Bismarck, said most of the area in question has already been drilled and that the industry worked with BLM to restore drilled areas and to protect sage grouse breeding areas, called leks, during production." Ness told Streater, "and all of a sudden, they now come in with what's in essence a blanket roadless area."  (Wild Earth Guardians map shows historic and current ranges of the sage grouse)

Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians in Laramie, Wyo., "said BLM has done a good job in the draft EIS for southwestern North Dakota of identifying priority habitat that warrants protection but has also failed to propose strong measures to keep industrial development out of the priority areas." Molivar told Streater, "It would be irresponsible to designate the most important wildlife habitats for this declining population and then allow industrial interests to destroy it." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Beware of identity thieves exploiting Obamacare to get personal information

As if the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act isn't confusing enough, and perhaps because it is, scam artists are making phone calls to take advantage of it, according to the Better Business Bureau.

The callers claim to be from the federal government and say you've been selected to receive insurance cards through the reform law, but before they can mail the card, they need to collect personal information, such as a credit card, Social Security number or Medicare ID. The callers may seem credible, often possessing personal information such as a bank account number or bank routing number.

The BBB says scam is mostly targeting small business owners, people who are 65 and older (who are covered by Medicare already) and those who have disabilities. If someone gets such a call, they should immediately hang up, the BBB says. Don't press any buttons and don't return voice mails. The government usually communicates through the mail, but if a government representative calls, he or she should already have all the necessary personal information. (Read more)

Rural folks with no Internet access are left clueless about Obamacare, especially if their state's no help

Buying insurance through the state exchanges that opened yesterday under the federal health reform law should be easy, as long as you have access to the Internet and your state site is working. But for many rural residents it isn't that simple. That's a big problem in rural areas such as West Tennessee, where many aren't online or don't even have a computer. So far, the only solution officials can come up with is to advise people to use the Internet at their local library, Justin Hanson reports for WMC-TV in Memphis.

Quincy Barlow of the Delta Human Resource Agency, which serves about 25,000 residents in four counties where 41 percent of people are uninsured, told Hanson, "Really the only recommendation at this time is we just wait and see what happens. We hope by Friday to have an answer for them. I don't think it was fine tuned, that's my answer. I just don't think we have enough knowledge to proceed with it." (Read more)

One reason people in Tennessee don't have more information is that the administration of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam put obstacles in the paths of "navigators," the Obamacare name for workers who are being paid to explain the law and the exchanges to people who are unfamiliar with buying health insurance, and "anyone who might give advice on health insurance - which could include family, clergy, civic organizations or other acquaintances and advisers," reports The Associated Press. "The state insurance department made rules saying those navigators have to be registered with the state, be fingerprinted and have their backgrounds checked. The lawsuit challenged that rule, saying the way it's written, it's way too broad. The rules authorize a fine of $1,000 per violation."

The League of Women Voters, doctors, social workers and pastors have sued to void the regulation, saying it violates free speech. "Haslam said the rules covering people dispensing advice about the new health insurance exchange are not designed to hinder enrollment," AP reports. "Haslam said the background check requirement is meant to protect people from fraud." Several other states in Republican control have passed similar laws.

Advocates divided on impact of health reform in rural areas, where being uninsured is more likely

"While some view the Affordable Care Act as a welcome reprieve for rural communities with limited access to health care providers, others say it’s a hasty overreach that could stifle competition and raise premium rates. And it’s a disparity of opinion that not only exists between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, but also among different rural interests," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. About 20 percent of uninsured Americans live in rural areas, but only 16 percent of the population is rural.

Jon Bailey, research director at the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, "says the new federal insurance marketplace was practically created for people in rural areas," Agri-Pulse reports. Bailey told the newsletter, "Rural people will have more choices, and the marketplace might be more competitive. The affordability of insurance will determine the success of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act – enrollment in health insurance exchanges to increase insurance coverage and reduce the nation’s uninsured."

The Nebraska Farm Bureau, which says most farmers and ranchers purchase insurance on the open market, is conducting a survey that so far indicates premium rates will increase for its members, Agri-Pulse reports. Jordan Dux, who directs national affairs for the bureau, told the newsletter, "We’ve never had this amount and this significant amount of comments on an issue ever before. The majority of those are seeing increases, some are significant increases."

How much Obamacare has to do with those increases is unclear, and it's not beyond insurance companies to give it all the blame. "With as massive as a piece of legislation as this is, I think there’s confusion nationwide," Dux said. "There are so many different pieces to this I don’t think there’s a clear understanding from the folks in Washington or the health insurance companies.”

Enrollment will continue until March 31, but to have insurance that starts Jan. 1, enrollment must be completed by Dec. 15. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but is available for a free trial by clicking here.

FDA bans three arsenic drugs used in animal feed

"The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it will rescind approval for three of the four arsenic drugs that had been used in animal feeds at the request of the companies that market them," Stephanie Strom reports for The New York Times. "The companies, Zoetis and Fleming Labs, already had largely withdrawn the three drugs from the market after recent studies showed levels of arsenic in chicken that exceeded amounts that occur naturally." The fourth drug, Nitarsone, is the only known treatment for blackhead, or histomoniasis, a disease that can kill turkeys. The FDA is still studying its affects.

"The compounds — roxarsone, carbarsone and arsanilic acid — have been used in 101 drugs added to feed for chickens, turkeys and pigs to prevent disease, increase feed efficiency and promote growth, according to the Center for Food Safety, which together with several other advocacy groups filed a petition almost four years ago seeking to ban the drugs in animal feeds," Strom writes. "The issue of arsenic in food has drawn increased public scrutiny since research last year by Consumer Reports found substantial arsenic levels in rice. Arsenic residue in rice often comes from the water used to grow it, and poultry feces are widely used as fertilizer for a variety of crops." (Read more)

Laid-off Kentuckian creates Facebook page to showcase the state's small-town wonders

Since being laid off in 2009, Western Kentucky native Cory Ramsey has gotten back to nature, taking 225 hikes throughout the state. What he has found off-the-beaten path is that rural Kentucky is a world of wonders waiting to be discovered. Ramsey told The Associated Press, "I'm 32 ... and there are still places I've not ever seen because I used to just travel the parkways and four-lane roads. But you get a mile or two off those roads ... and there are a lot of places to see." (Ramsey photo: Bridge across Clover Creek in the Ohio River town of Cloverport)

Ramsey is sharing his discoveries with the rest of the world through a Facebook page called Map Dot, Kentucky, in which he posts photos of his journeys and encourages people to respond to his posts with their own thoughts of small-town life. The site, which was created on Aug. 2, had 2,445 likes as of Wednesday morning. Ramsey has also been featured in Kentucky Living magazine, and contributes blog entries to the Kentucky Tourism Cabinet website. Ramsey also has his own website.

"Ramsey focuses on the places where people don't pay an admission fee; there is no gift shop or a specific attraction. Instead, he visits the places that allow you to imagine the way things might have been or see the way they are now," AP reports. "Ramsey plans to revisit all 120 counties in Kentucky this year. So far he has made it to 75 of them, and next year he will publish a book about his travels." (Read more)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

States and schools still battle over consolidation

The number of independent school districts in the U.S. shrank nearly 90 percent between 1942 and 2012—from 108,579 school districts to 12,880. But almost all the decrease occurred in the first 30 years of that period; in the last 40, there have been many fewer consolidations despite continued state incentives for districts that merge and penalties for those that don't. Maggie Clark reports for Stateline, "For states, consolidating school districts can mean fewer buildings to maintain and lower administrative costs. For communities, consolidation can mean long bus rides for students, losing budgetary control and even a loss of community history." (Heritage Foundation map; for an interactive map of school districts by state, click here)
Two weeks ago, voters in the Seneca Falls school district near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York rejected a move to consolidate with neighboring Waterloo, Clark notes. "New York offers consolidating school districts a 40 percent increase in their state aid, freezing the amount based on their aid for the 2006-2007 school year, plus money for new buildings. Had Seneca Falls and Waterloo merged, they would have seen an additional $43 million in state aid over the next 14 years." Kent Gardner, chief economist at the Center For Governmental Research in Rochester, told Clark, “The actual savings from these plans is usually just a fraction of the property-tax bill, so it’s difficult to vote for doing a radical and risky thing for something that often amounts to $20 or $30 in savings."

"Kansas guarantees that consolidating districts will get the full amount of both individual districts’ state aid for five years after a merger," Clark writes. "Consolidation in rural districts in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains region meant long bus rides and moving middle and high school students onto the same campuses." And Maine, with the highest rural population percentage in the country, has been pushed the hardest to consolidate. In 2007, then Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation ordering Maine’s 290 school districts to consolidate into just 80 districts or face penalties. From 2007-2012, the state lost 58 districts. (Read more)

The Rural School and Community Trust advocates for rural schools. Its website is here.

Ky. attorney general says Purdue Pharma faces nine-figure settlement for Oxycontin marketing

Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway says he wants Purdue Pharma to settle for $100 million or more after it missed a deadline to respond to his arguments in his lawsuit over the marketing of Oxycontin, Nick Strom reports for cn|2, a news service of Time Warner Cable in Kentucky. After Purdue Pharma failed to respond to a court motion, "all the admissions the commonwealth sought in the case were deemed admitted" by the circuit judge hearing the case in Pike County, at the state's eastern tip.

"Judge Steven Combs ruled Monday that Purdue could not withdraw those admissions which include that the drug maker: misrepresented and/or concealed the addictive nature of OxyContin, knew OxyContin was being abused and wasn’t being used for its stated purpose, continued to market and promote OxyContin despite knowing that, and encouraged physicians to overprescribe the drug," Storm reports. Conway told him, "I expect that a jury would be very very harsh on Purdue Pharma. I’m not going to be really negotiating much less or below nine figures. I want to see something well into nine figures.” (Read more)

Purdue Pharma has been blamed for starting, in Central Appalachia, the national epidemic of prescription-painkiller abuse and deaths. More than 1,000 Kentuckians die each year from prescription overdoses, the sixth highest rate in the country. Forbes ranked the Kentucky as the fourth most medicated state, according to Conway's office. More Kentuckians die from overdoses than in traffic accidents. (Read more) Map by Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet:

SPJ's foundation makes grant to train journalists and police on rights to take pictures in public

Journalism groups are collaborating on national training program for police and journalists, "to foster greater understanding and awareness of the right to take photographs and video in public without being interfered with, harassed or arrested," the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation announced today. The foundation, affiliated with the Society of Professional Journalists, is making a $12,500 grant to help SPJ work with the National Press Photographers Association on the project.

The foundation sees a need for better relations between police and journalists in the field. "Since 9/11, there has been a heightened awareness of anyone taking pictures or recording events in public, and the increase of cell phone cameras has exacerbated tensions," the release said. "As a result, many in law enforcement have the false belief they can order people to stop taking pictures or recording in public. Interference and in some cases arrests have led to a number of court cases, some six-figure settlements, new policies and procedures, and serious disciplinary actions against the officers involved."

Next year, NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher will conduct the training in five "geographically diverse cities," the release says. A photojournalist for 40 years, he deals with such issues daily, has trained police in several cities and helped develop guidelines and policies for several police departments.

Farm Bill expires; government shutdown leads to furloughs for agriculture workers

While most news attention today was focused on the federal government shutdown, it seemed few people noticed that the Farm Bill expired at midnight. With the shutdown, and without a modern farm law, furloughs immediately went into effect throughout the country. "The future of farm legislation, then, is murky," with members of a House conference committee still not appointed and a House-Senate "conference timeline little-discussed in a crowded and tense political climate," Aarian Marshall reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to furlough employees responsible for some daily and weekly statistical reports on agriculture that are closely watched by traders and investors," David Kesmodel reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Any delays of such reports – which include everything from daily wholesale pork prices to weekly figures on chicken-egg supplies – could affect commodity and equity investors who rely on the information. The lack of a budget deal in Congress also would bring to a halt the payment of some farm subsidies and would slow the flow of loans to farmers, industry experts said."

Dale Moore, executive director for public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the Journal that direct payments to farmers probably would be suspended in the short term. "Farmland owners receive such payments regardless of crop yields, market prices or economic circumstances," Kesmodel writes. Citing Moore, he reports, "The USDA also won’t be able to process applications for loans to farmers for operating expenses, which are part of the agency’s support programs." (Read more) For a guide to how the shutdown affects the USDA click here.

"Dozens of programs that create jobs, invest in the next generation of farmers, and protect the environment are without funding," says a news release from the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. The programs are the Farmers' Market Promotion Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, the Organic Production Market and Data Initiative, and Value Added Producer grants.

Other programs that will expire immediately, according to Aviva Shen, of Think Progress, include dairy safety-net programs, disaster relief, conservation programs, fresh produce for low-income seniors, trade and export programs, and international food aid. (Read more)

Teachers increasingly carry guns to schools, as officials find ways around firearm restrictions

Leaders of rural schools have found ways around legal restrictions on guns in order to arm their teachers and administrators to defend against school shooters. One example is Supt. David Hopkins, who equipped 16 employees with guns to protect the 2,500 students who attend his school in Clarksville, Ark. Hopkins managed this through concealed-weapons laws, special law-enforcement regulations and local school board policies to arm teachers, Kim Severson reports in The New York Times.
The five Clarksville schools lack funds to bring in security guards, so offering more than 60 hours of training to his current employees seemed like the best course of action. "Realistically, when you look at a person coming to your door right there with a firearm, you've got to have a plan," Hopkins said. "If you have a better one, tell me." Others see it differently.

Following the Newtown, Conn., massacre, most states considered allowing teachers and administrators to carry guns, but only five passed such laws. In the nation's 99,000 public schools, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of teachers bring guns to school. However, "It's been creeping up on us without a lot of fanfare," Bill Bond, a school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, told Severson.

In some states, such as Hawaii and New Hampshire, teachers with concealed-carry permits could bring guns to school under current legislation. Although plenty of states have changed or considered formally changing these laws, not many of them have proceeded. For example, in Kansas, a law passed July allowing employees possessing concealed-carry permits to bring their guns to school, but Kansas State Department of Education spokeswoman Denise Kahler told the Times she didn't know of any districts pursuing it.

Some states, however, have taken the idea and run with it. In Texas, teachers willing to be armed school marshals are required to possess a concealed-carry license, pass a mental health evaluation, and go through training to teach them what to do if a school shooting were to occur. These changes are bringing about fierce opposition, Severson reports. Director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns Mark Glaze told her, "The idea that a single relatively untrained teacher is going to bring this person who is heavily armed down is a stretch." (Read more)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sample of states shows more children die from accidental shootings than reported

Accidental shooting deaths of children happen much more often than reported because some states don't record the deaths as accidents, Michael Luo and Mike McIntire report for The New York Times. The Times did a study of 259 gun accidents that killed children 14 and under in five states that make the data public — California, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Minnesota — and in all but Minnesota, there were twice as many accidental killings as reported by federal data. Minnesota had 50 percent more deaths than reported in federal data. (NYT graphics)
"The undercount stems from the peculiarities by which medical examiners and coroners make their 'manner of death' rulings," the Times reports. "These pronouncements, along with other information entered on death certificates, are the basis for the nation’s mortality statistics, which are assembled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choosing among five options — homicide, accidental, suicide, natural or undetermined — most medical examiners and coroners simply call any death in which one person shoots another a homicide."

"The National Rifle Association cited the lower official numbers this year in a fact sheet opposing 'safe storage' laws, saying children were more likely to be killed by falls, poisoning or environmental factors — an incorrect assertion if the actual number of accidental firearm deaths is significantly higher," the Times reports. "In all, fewer than 20 states have enacted laws to hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely, enabling children to access them." According to the CDC figures, gun accidents were the ninth leading cause of unintentional deaths among children ages 1 to 14 in 2010, with 62 deaths that year. "If the actual numbers are, in fact, roughly double, however, gun accidents would rise into the top five or six." (Read more)

Employee says 'Fire me,' eliminate regional development agency for Alaska

With lawmakers debating how to cut the federal budget, one federal employee has part of the solution, saying he should be fired and his agency shut down

In a letter to Congress and The Washington Post, Mike Marsh, the inspector general for the Denali Commission, wrote: “I have concluded that (my agency) is a congressional experiment that hasn’t worked out in practice. I recommend that Congress put its money elsewhere.” Last year, its base appropriation from Congress was about $10.6 million, reports David Fahrenthold for the Post.

The agency is designed to help rural Alaskans by building power plants, offering job training and improving health care. It is modeled after the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority. One wonders if those rural-oriented agencies and their beneficiaries might not be a bit nervous about calls for Denali's abolition.

Marsh said the agency often builds projects — power plants or medical clinics — in tiny towns that won’t have the resources to keep them running, and he calls his agency an unnecessary middle man, saying the money should be sent directly to state or to tribal governments, Fahrenthold writes. The agency, though, "still funnels federal grants to projects in the state, with a staff of about 12. It still enjoys strong support from Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation, which fought presidential efforts to cut its funding. And the Alaska lawmakers have proposed a reauthorization measure designed to give the commission a lasting stream of funding."

It's not the first time a federal employee has openly tried to get fired and have his agency closed, Fahrenthold writes. "Old Washington hands could remember only two other federal workers who had lobbied publicly to have themselves defunded. One was a high-level Ronald Reagan appointee. One was a lowly weather observer. Both failed. Meaning they weren’t fired. Marsh seems likely to fail, too — even though his requests arrived in Washington in the middle of a battle to cut the budget. His agency seems protected by one of Washington’s most enduring customs: the defense of home-state giveaways, even in times of national austerity." (Read more) To read Marsh's letter, click here.

Here are the basics of buying health insurance on the state exchanges that open Tuesday

On Tuesday, Americans can begin buying health insurance through state exchanges created by federal health reform. Journalists have spent months trying to understand the reform law in an attempt to explain it to their readers, but unraveling the act can be a confusing and tiresome process. With open enrollment knocking at the door, Trudy Lieberman of Columbia Journalism Review asked for advice from Elisabeth Benjamin, a vice president at the Community Service Society in New York, which runs an insurance counseling program. She suggests looking at enrollment as a four-step process that she hopes will make the process easier for people. 

Step 1 is looking at the health insurance buying cycle, Lieberman writes. Initial enrollment is from Oct. 1 through March 31, and can be done at Those eligible include anyone who doesn't have employer coverage, Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, also known as children's Medicaid.
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Step 2 is the mechanics of enrolling, which includes having an email account and information about your household, residency, immigration status and income, which will let people know what insurance they qualify for, Lieberman writes. "People with employer-provided insurance may still need to visit the exchange to see if they’re eligible for exchange coverage. Employers with more than $500,000 in annual sales that offer group coverage must give all workers a document that tells them about the existence of the exchanges, and the premium that a worker would pay for the lowest-priced plan the employer offers for single coverage. This form lets workers know if their employer coverage is affordable according to the government. If it isn’t, they can shop in the exchange and receive a subsidy. Their families, however, cannot receive a subsidy."

Once a person has entered the information, he or she will find out how much of a subsidy they can get, Lieberman writes. Subsidies can either be applied to each insurance payment, which means lower monthly costs for coverage, or the purchaser can wait and collect it at the end of the year like a tax refund.
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Step 3 is choosing a policy from options given the names of precious metals. "The platinum policies not offered on some exchanges cover about 90 percent of someone’s medical costs; the gold plans 80 percent; the silver 70 percent; and the bronze 60 percent," Lieberman writes. "As a point of reference, the gold plan is basically the old Blue Cross model that most Americans had for the last four decades and was considered good coverage." From there, people have to decide, "Do they want to pay a high premium up front in return for lower co-pays; a set amount for a service; lower coinsurance; a percentage of the bill; or, a lower deductible?"

The premium is calculated on four factors: age, where you live, how many people are on your policy and whether you use tobacco. Depending on the state, tobacco users can face a surcharge of up to 50 percent.

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The final step is finding and reading the disclosures, which is something consumers have to take the initiative to find on their own, Lieberman writes. "Shoppers can find out about the policy elements, deductibles (and what they apply to), coinsurance and co-pays for different services (especially common ones like diagnostic tests and outpatient surgery), amounts for different services, and fees. It also spells out some services that are not covered and provides sample charges for common conditions." (Read more)

People who don't sign up for insurance will face a fine of 1 percent of their annual income, or $95, whichever is higher, Mary Meehan writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The fee increases every year. There also is a penalty for not providing coverage for children. (Read more)

GateHouse Media files bankruptcy, plans merger with chain recently bought by its owner

One of the larger owners of rural newspapers, GateHouse Media, is filing bankruptcy and planning merger with a chain of newspapers News Corp. recently sold to GateHouse's owner.

GateHouse announced Friday it has filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and “requested confirmation of a joint prepackaged plan of reorganization.” It listed assets of $433.7 million and debt of $1.3 billion, Sophia Pearson and Tiffany Kary of Bloomberg BusinessWeek report.

When it leaves bankruptcy, GateHouse plans to pair with Local Media Group, the group that News Corp. sold earlier this month to Fortress Investment Group, which owns GateHouse.

Nebraska tries to bring lawyers to rural areas

Rural communities have struggled to attract lawyers to small towns. Law-school graduates in Georgia have had a hard time finding work, even though most of the state's rural counties lack lawyers, and states such as South Dakota and Kansas, where many counties are losing population, have tried to draw lawyers through incentives for recent graduates. That problem is occurring in Nebraska, where a shortage of attorneys in some communities "means long drives for clients, but a job market for law school graduates that is as expansive as the open prairie," Caitlin Sievers reports for the Sidney Sun-Telegraph in a town of 6,700 near the Colorado border. The county, which has nearly 10,000 residents, only has 18 lawyers; 12 rural counties in the state don't have a lawyer.

The Nebraska incentive program "is geared toward second-and third-year law students, and stresses the benefits of practicing law in rural areas in the state," Sievers writes. "The initiative featured a pair of two-day tours through Albion, a town of about 1,600 northwest of Columbus, and Ord, a town of about 2,000 north of Kearney. At least a couple of people found jobs because of the initiative, [state] bar association President Marsha Fangmeyer said." She told Sievers, "The hope is to continue this effort in other areas of the state. It is essential that we provide access to justice all across the state, including the rural areas." (Read more)

Energy Department gives Univ. of Ky. $3 million to research ways to reduce carbon emissions

The U.S. Department of Energy has given the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research a $3 million grant to advance technology to capture carbon dioxide coal-burning power plants. "The announcement comes on the heels of regulations proposed Sept. 20 by the Environmental Protection Agency to sharply reduce carbon emissions from new power plants," the university notes in a news release. "This development presents serious challenges to the coal industry, which currently lacks cost-effective technology that would enable it to comply with the proposed lower limits."

The project "will advance the DOE's goal of having technology available by 2020 that can achieve a 90-percent carbon dioxide capture rate, at a cost of $40 per metric ton of carbon dioxide captured," states the release. "A major cost associated with commercial carbon dioxide capture is the size of the 'scrubber' needed to handle the volume of flue gas produced by a power plant. UK has developed a catalyst to speed up the absorption rate of the solvent used, so the scrubber can be much smaller. Overall, the UK technology could reduce the cost of carbon dioxide capture by 56 percent, compared to the current DOE reference case." To visit the Center for Applied Energy Research, click here.