Friday, March 14, 2014

Georgia mulls plan that would let struggling or closed rural hospitals shrink in order to survive

Georgia may try to stave off its rural hospital crisis by allowing "a rural hospital that has recently closed — or one that’s currently struggling to survive — to downsize to a facility that includes an emergency room, surgery and childbirth services," Andy Miller reports for Georgia Health News.

Community Health Commissioner Clyde Reese told GHN that he would ask the agency's board to issue rules for such "step-down" facilities, and Gov. Nathan Deal "would make an announcement on rural health care next week," Miller writes.

Georgia has seen four rural hospitals close in the last two years, even as the Republican-controlled state government refused hospitals' pleas to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, which is gradually reducing the bonuses that critical-access hospitals, most of them rural, get for treating a high number of Medicaid and Medicare patients.

South Carolina had taken the same tack, but "recently raised the Medicaid reimbursements that it pays struggling rural hospitals," Miller reports. "Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration called it a way to improve the health of the Palmetto State’s most vulnerable residents." (Read more)

Rural newspapers honored by Association of Health Care Journalists

The Association of Health Care Journalists recognized several rural newspapers during this week's announcement of winners in this year’s Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. Awards will be presented on March 29 in Denver during the organization's annual conference.

In the Consumer division for small newspapers, Cindy Uken of the Billings Gazette won the top prize for her series on suicide called "State of Despair." Gazette Publisher Mike Gulledge said, “This series continues to be recognized for approaching what has normally been a taboo. We are so proud of Cindy and The Gazette staff’s hard work, but we’re even more pleased that her reporting has helped create a substantial change for the better in Montana.” (Read more) To read Uken's series click here, here, here, and here.

Second-place went to Todd Bookman of New Hampshire Public Radio for his series on planning for the end, which can be read here, here, and here. Third-place went to Karen Stassi, of the Healthcare Journal of New Orleans, for her story on organ donation and transplantation.

In the Health Policy small division Jonathan Cohn of The Atlantic won first-place for his story about technology in medicine and how it could displace the need to see an actual person in a story called "The robot will see you now." Second-place went to John Ramsey of the the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer for his series on prescription pills. The series can be read here, here, and here. Third-place went to Laurence Hammack and David Ress of The Roanoke Times for its series on understanding Obamacare.

Report finds that 26.7 percent of rural children live in poverty, 12.2 percent in deep poverty

The rural poverty rate is the highest since the mid 1980s, according to a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report points to the recent recession for the high poverty rate, stating "as with the early 1980s recession, rural children have been disproportionately affected by the recent economic downturn. Child poverty is more sensitive to labor market conditions than overall poverty, as children depend on the earnings of their parents."

In 2012 the rural poverty rate was 17.8 percent, and the rural child poverty rate was 26.7 percent, numbers similar to peak numbers from 1986, the report found. Meanwhile, urban poverty rates are down. Deep poverty, defined as having cash income below half of one’s poverty threshold, is higher in rural areas, with 12.2 percent of rural children living in deep poverty, compared to 9.2 percent in urban areas. Deep poverty has also spread. While it was mostly concentrated in the South in the 1980s, it is now also more common throughout the country. To read the full report click here. (ERS graphic)

Sunshine Week is a good time to remind readers how and why certain information is reported as news

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

One of the things that surprised me when I began working at newspapers was how little the public knew about newspaper operations. I started in sports, and parents were often surprised when I told them I had to go back to the office after the game to write the story, even though they knew the story would appear in the next morning's paper. It's not ignorance. They just didn't think about the newspaper process, probably because they were at the game for entertainment, and would go home, or go out to eat afterwards, while I was at the game because it was my job, and I had to finish my shift by writing the story and helping put out the paper.

But in covering community sports we rarely had to invoke the principle of freedom of information. There are times, such as when the combination of coaches and missing funds come up, but most complaints in community sports are that someone's kid didn't get mentioned enough, or at all, or that the story wasn't positive enough, which is another issue altogether, with some parents, coaches and players believing the local paper should serve as a glorified school paper.

Most complaints, in my experience, come from what's in the police blotter, crime stories and public records. No one wants to see their name, or the name of a friend or family member, associated with a crime, or something personal like a divorce or bankruptcy. Agitated readers often call, or visit papers, to complain about these stories, always asking the same questions, which all basically amount to the same thing: Why did you print this in your paper?

With Sunshine Week beginning Sunday, Bob Davis (right), editor of The Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala., addresses this challenge in a column explaining to readers why and how such stories appear in print, and what readers can do in response.

"In recent weeks, reporters and editors from The Star have heard from readers who were distressed that news involving a relative or friend made its way into our print and/or online editions. In their view, the reporters and editors were acting in an insensitive and sensationalistic manner, preying upon ordinary people in an attempt to sell newspapers," Davis writes. "That, of course, is not our intent. The Star follows established ethical guidelines for journalists that promote reporting that is fair, accurate and accountable. Part of that is making ample room for dissent, something apparent on our Facebook wall or Speakout column. Perhaps during their next trip to a mega retail outlet, shoppers can ask management where they put customer complaints. We publish ours prominently.

"The recent complaints about our coverage point to something else, however: We’ve not done a good enough job explaining our values. This need has grown more acute as newspaper readership has declined. So, when a newspaper reports on criminal proceedings and other sad stories of the human condition, it stands to reason that the un-newspapered will be shocked and hurt by the appearance of details regarding someone they knew and cared for, especially when it lands on our Facebook page out of the context of a printed newspaper. They might have no idea that such reporting has long been a staple of journalism.

"The press-freedom portion of the First Amendment is a compact between the Founders and future generations. A strong democracy depends on journalism to keep government honest. This applies from the top all the way to the bottom — from details about the federal government’s expansive domestic-spying program all the way down to the goings and comings of a county’s criminal justice system," Davis writes. "That’s why The Star, like so many other newspapers, aims to be the paper of record for our community. We publish a long list of public records — arrests, health inspections, bankruptcies, divorces, marriages, deaths and other official documents.

"This doesn’t make us a sensationalist tabloid, despite what our critics might say. It means we are following the traditions of community newspapering. We are keeping an eye on government, especially local and state functions. I can assure everyone that The Star’s newsroom realizes this work can cause very real pain for families and friends involved in this reporting. We regret that and do our best to inform the public without crossing the line into sensationalism. We do this work because we know a well-informed citizenry is essential to a strong democracy. The opposite model exists in totalitarian states where asking the wrong question can put a reporter behind bars." (Read more)

Feds want career colleges to better prepare graduates for workforce, or risk losing funds

The Obama Administration said Friday that career colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for the workforce, "or risk losing access to taxpayer-funded federal student aid," says a press release from the U.S. Department of Education. The abuses appear to have been especially bad in rural areas, where colleges have been shown to do a poor job of training students for the workforce, with Alaska, Nevada, Idaho and Louisiana receiving the worst grades from a study by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce.  

"Students at for-profit colleges represent only about 13 percent of the total higher education population, but about 31 percent of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults," with 22 percent of borrowers defaulting within three years, compared to 13 percent at public schools, the Education Department says. Students who graduated with an associate degree from for-profit schools with gainful employment programs have an average loan debt of $23,590, and 72 percent were hired at jobs where they made less than high school dropouts, while most students that attended community colleges didn't need to borrow money.

Proposed regulations would require career programs "to meet key requirements to establish that they sufficiently prepare students for gainful employment," the department says. As part of the proposal "institutions must certify that all gainful employment programs meet applicable accreditation requirements and state or federal licensure standards, all gainful employment programs must pass metrics to continue eligibility in the student financial aid program, including: the estimated annual loan payment of typical graduates does not exceed 20 percent of their discretionary earnings or 8 percent of their total earnings and the default rate for former students does exceed 30 percent, and institutions must publicly disclose information about the program costs, debt, and performance of their gainful employment programs so that students can make informed decisions." (Read more)

UPDATE, March 20: Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway is proceeding with his 2011 lawsuit against Daymar College Group "after a yearlong attempt to settle the dispute failed," reports James Mayse of The Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro. The suit accused Daymar of using "unfair, false, misleading or deceptive acts or practices" to enroll students who didn't meet its own admission standards; alleges Daymar "used similar practices to control students' access to their federal student loan funds and to prevent students from being able to purchase textbooks anywhere other than Daymar College," Mayse wrotes. "The suit also alleges Daymar officials gave 'false and misleading' statements to students that Daymar credits would transfer to other colleges and universities." (Read more)

Crude oil delivered on U.S. railways increased 74 percent in 2013, should keep rising in 2014

The amount of crude oil delivered on U.S. railways in 2013 increased 74 percent from 2012, with U.S. railroads delivering 407,642 carloads of crude oil in 2013, up from 233,819 in 2012, according to a report from the Association of American Railroads. The increase in shipments has led to safety concerns, especially since more oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined, and 47 people were killed in a crash in July in Quebec.

In 2013 U.S. railways delivered 285 million barrels of crude oil, reports United Press International. "The U.S. Energy Information Administration said in its short-term market report, published earlier this week, U.S. crude oil production should reach 8.4 million barrels per day by the end of 2014, a 12 percent increase from the previous year." (Read more)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Website offers good resources and materials for Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday, March 16

Sunshine Week, which begins Sunday, March 16, promotes the value of government transparency. Editors who still aren't sure how to approach it can find plenty of resources from the American Society of News Editors or the Sunshine Week website, where a list of participants and events are posted.

The Sunshine Week site also features a toolkit that offers, free: a series of editorial cartoons, opinion columns, logos and icons, videos, state-specific resources and a sample proclamation, along with a schools and colleges page which links to a page on, run by ASNE's Youth Journalism Initiative. It provides lesson plans and resources to help high school students and teachers bring Sunshine Week 2014 into their journalism classrooms," reports ASNE. (Read more) (Videp: Former ASNE FOI co-chairs Andrew Alexander and Tim Franklin discuss Sunshine Week)

Average farmer's age creeps up; bequeathing a farm, not selling it, reduces the tax bite

In 2012, the average age of principal farm operators was 58.3, up 1.2 years since 2007, with 257,697 farmers 75 or older in 2012, compared to 243,472 in 2007, according to a preliminary report from the Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture, taken every five years. The number of principal farm operators 65 to 74 rose from 412,182 to 443,558, and from 55 to 64 from 596,306 to 608,060, while numbers of those 45-54 dropped by nearly 100,000, and those 35-44 by more than 50,000, continuing a 30-year trend of aging farmers.

While not all principal farm operators are also the landowners, the average age of farm owners remains high. But, in a strange twist of fate, that might not be a bad thing for the future of America's farming industry, because it actually saves money to leave a farm as part of an estate than to pass it down to the next generation while still alive.

"The combination of state and federal taxes in effect on 2013 returns varies by state but can easily approach 30 percent or more in many locales, with California, New York, Oregon and Minnesota collecting the largest shares," Marcia Zarley Taylor reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "California's combined 33 percent top rate would be the third highest among industrialized countries," according to the Tax Foundation. (State-by-state tax rates on capital gains)

David Brown, a Des Moines attorney who specializes in certain tax-free exchanges, said that means in a state such as Iowa "taxes can easily whittle a $1 million farm gain down to $660,000," Taylor writes. "That's because there's a potential tax of 34 percent for income over $450,000."

"New capital gains rates apply for those with high adjusted gross incomes, but not necessarily high taxable incomes, others point out," Taylor writes. "For taxpayers who hit the new 39.6 percent marginal rate, the maximum capital gains rate is 20 percent (plus the new 3.8 percent Medicare surtax, if applicable), for a maximum 23.8 percent federal capital gains rate or almost 25 percent if the taxpayer has a large amount of itemized deductions. California's top rate adds another 13.3 percent to that burden." The result is that seniors are holding onto their land, knowing they can pass it on to their heirs with all past capital gains forgiven at death. (Read more)

Cold temperatures, supply problems mean average propane users are paying a lot more for heat

A federal report found that people living in rural areas and in the Midwestern U.S. who depend on propane for heat will end up spending 54 percent more for it this winter than last winter, Clifford Krauss reports for The New York Times: "Those who rely on heating oil, largely in the Northeast, will be paying 7 percent more. Natural gas consumers will pay 10 percent more and electricity consumers will pay 5 percent more."

The report by the U.S. Department of Energy found that the average cost of heating with propane in the Midwest could be $2,212 per household, $759 more than the agency projected in October, while homes using heating oil would spend $2,243, which is $197 higher than projections, Krauss writes. The problem has been colder temperatures for a sustained period, which has led to problems transporting fuels, leading to higher costs.

Temperatures this winter were 19 percent colder in the Midwest and South than last year, and 13 percent colder in the Northeast, Krauss writes. "The cold caused complications across the energy supply chain. A sudden jump in natural-gas prices raised costs for refineries that use the gas as a fuel but also as a feedstock for petrochemical products. Snow slowed railroads, which have become increasingly important for the delivery of crude from North Dakota. Unloading of fuel vessels was delayed in New York Harbor. In the Midwest, ethanol pipelines froze. Winter storms and fog even temporarily delayed shipments on the Houston Ship Channel between shipping terminals and refineries."

Krauss adds, "The harsh winter strained inventories of energy suppliers and forced utilities to switch fuels for their generators to meet demand. Limited natural-gas supplies and insufficient gas pipeline networks, for example, forced utilities to use other heavier, more polluting petroleum fuels like heating oil. After years of declines, consumption of such fuels more than doubled, to 471,000 barrels a day in the week that ended Jan. 17, from the 220,000-barrel-a-day average consumed in December and early January." (Read more)

Apply by April 15 for free fellowships to workshop on covering shale oil and gas, hydraulic fracturing

Journalists looking to get a better understanding of how to report on the booming shale gas and oil business, and the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or just looking to increase their knowledge on the subject, are invited to apply for a fellowship to the McCormick Specialized Reporting Institute on Shale Gas and Oil Development, scheduled from June 22-24 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"This workshop will help journalists understand the legal, scientific, health and economic issues surrounding shale gas and oil development, and give them the context needed so that they can better inform their communities about these important topics," says the Society of Environmental Journalists, which is hosting the event.

Workshop participants will "gain an overview of shale gas and oil development, discuss the policy issues involved with shale development, hear from top legal experts about the laws surrounding development, find out the latest on pipeline safety, learn from leading experts what is and isn’t known regarding the health and environmental effects of shale development, discuss with other journalists and editors best practices for such coverage, and hear from those journalists who have been on the front lines of shale development coverage, and tour a fracking facility."

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation will cover all transportation, housing, food and tuition costs for fellowships. The deadline to apply is April 15. For more information or to apply click here.

Studies find that national parks, even less popular ones, are a big boost to local and state economies

National parks—even the less popular ones—boost local, state and national economies, according to a pair of reports released last week by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service. One report looks at a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012 compared to the previous year, and the other examines the financial impact last year's government shutdown had on parks. (Salt Lake Tribune photo by Trent Nelson: Utah spent state money to re-open Zion National Park during the shutdown)

The first report found that in 2012 national parks had 3.9 million more visitors than in 2011, with a total of 282.8 million visitors in 2012, Krista Langlois reports for High Country News. In 2012, park visitors spent $14.7 billion and supported 243,000 jobs, mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.

During the 16-day shutdown in October, 401 parks were closed, resulting in a loss of $414 million in tourism dollars when 7.88 million people were turned away, Langlois writes. States that spent their own money to keep their parks open benefited from doing so. Utah, for instance, spent $999,000 to keep its parks open for six days and got $9.95 million in return. (Read more)

Farm data issue includes argument about whether compatibility or privacy is more important

Monsanto, the world's biggest seed producer and a leading chemical manufacturer has been spending billions to buy up companies that gather data on farmers. Other companies have followed suit. The agricultural industry has also become technologically savvy, with ranchers and farmers using cell phones and computers for trade, to control pest populations, or to keep up to date with important information related to their business operations. 

But these advances pose problems of compatibility and data security, and a new organization, the Open Ag Data Alliance, hopes to solve them with a plan to develop technical standards for formatting and sharing data collected, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Greg Smirin, chief operating officer for Climate Corp., one of the allies, told Agri-Pulse, “We keep hearing from farmers that they are overwhelmed with incompatible data. They need the hardware and software to talk to one another. (OADA's) goal is to create data interoperability between systems. The mission is to create the technical underpinnings and mechanisms for safe date exchange."

OADA, which also consists of CNH Industrial, AgReliant Genetics, Growmark, Purdue University’s Open Ag Technology Group, Valley Irrigation and Wilbur, "wants any existing agriculture organizations, farmers, software engineers, academics, and private companies to join," Agri-Pulse writes.

But some still see privacy problems. "Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, questioned how OADA will establish mechanisms for data transfer before the industry as a whole answers the 'overarching questions' on data privacy issues." She told Agri-Pulse, “There has to be a consensus of industry and farmers on the principles that guide them first regarding data privacy and ownership." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cancer forecast to be No. 1 U.S. killer in 16 years, but rural areas severely lacking in oncologists

Cancer is predicted to be the No. 1 killer in the U.S. in 16 years, but rural communities have extremely limited access to cancer care, with only one of every 33 oncologists practicing in rural areas, according to a study from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, published in the Journal of Oncology Practice. Wyoming has the lowest presence of oncologists, with only 1.6 for every 100,000 people. Massachusetts has the highest, at 8.2 per 100,000. (ASCO graphic) 

By 2025 demand for cancer care is expected to rise by 42 percent, but the number of oncologists is only expected to increase during that time by 28 percent, leaving the country short about 1,500 cancer doctors, the study found. Rural areas have the most need for care, with small and mid-sized practices (six or fewer physicians) mostly in the South and West, serving one-third of new patients, but two-thirds of small community practices may merge, sell or close during the next year. (Read more)

For the study, the Community Oncology Alliance "followed 1338 clinics and oncology practices for six years," Roxanne Nelson reports for Medscape. Researchers found that 43 of these practices had begun sending patients elsewhere for treatment, 288 clinics had closed and 407 practices were struggling financially. More than 70 percent of the counties analyzed had no medical oncologists at all. (Read more)

Use of pesticides, water supplies by California pot growers on public lands raising concerns

California is facing a growing environmental concern in the form of illegal marijuana growers, whose thousands of pounds of herbicides and pesticides, some of them banned in the U.S., are being used in dangerously high doses, Christi Turner reports for High Country News. Add in excessive watering in a state suffering through a drought, and the combination is leading to the destruction of public lands. (Rick Fleming photo: A makeshift reservoir to store illegally diverted water) 

Last year the U.S. Forest Service and law enforcement officials "removed nearly one million marijuana plants across hundreds of sites in California," Turner writes. In 2012, "authorities found 315,000 feet of plastic hose, 19,000 pounds of fertilizer and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations."

The state has struggled through a drought that has been especially hard on rural areas. Illegal pot growers aren't helping the cause, obstructing and diverting "about 6 gallons of water per plant per day over 150 watering days," meaning that "a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season," Turner writes. "Herbicides and pesticides added to irrigation water seep into the ground and back into the local water supply."

Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, which cleans up the pot patches, told Turner, "Sometimes it’s 10,000 plants. Sometimes it’s 50 plants. That doesn’t matter so much for us. What matters is the infrastructure that’s left. They’re killing our animals, trashing our forest and destroying our water supply. It’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands.” (Read more)

'Perfect storm' leading to delays in shipping U.S. wheat by railway

"U.S. wheat farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to find rail transport for their crop, a squeeze brought on by increased competition from oil and coal shipments, a bumper grain crop, an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods being shipped and a freakish run of extended cold weather conditions not seen in years," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The average shipping delay for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., a principal rail carrier of wheat in the Midwest and Northwest, has been 15.4 days. (Heavy snow has been one factor in delays)

Bing Van Bergen, immediate past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers and a Montana grower, told Agri-Pulse, "It’s been a perfect storm. These delays are a real concern for wheat growers.” Van Bergen said the explosion in recent years of oil from the North Dakota Bakken "has produced quantities of oil unthinkable only a few years ago. Concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a meteoric rise in the use of natural gas, has dropped the sale of coal in the U.S., prompting mining companies like the U.S.-based Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal contributed to the delays, which have been compounded by cold weather conditions that reduce the length and speed of transport trains."

That's been coupled by problems from our neighbors to the north, who harvested a crop 50 percent bigger than last year, but a severe winter in Canada has forced them to transport the product to the U.S. instead of across Canada, Agri-Pulse writes. "The country’s transport and agriculture ministers last Friday gave Canadian railroads four weeks to meet minimum weekly volumes of grain they must transport or face fines of up to $100,000 per day."

The solution is to expand, said John Miller, vice president for agricultural operations at BSNF. He also said the company has a plan that "includes $1.6 billion for new locomotives, cars and equipment, and $900 million for the company’s largest expansion ever, including double tracks and new sidings that will be built mostly in the U.S. Northern Corridor, including heavy agriculture areas in wheat-rich North Dakota," Agri-Pulse writes. Miller told Agri-Pulse, “Our service has not been up to our customer’s expectations or our own. We know that. We understand that. We’re working very hard to get back to the level of service all of our customers expect from us.” Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Study: New school-meal rules make for healthier eating, but amount of waste remains high

While students often complain that school lunches don't taste good, nutritionists worry about the fat and nutrition levels in the food. To help curb childhood obesity, the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The act included provisions for free-lunch programs and stipulations for nutrition standards, Leighton Walter Kille writes for the Journalist's Resource, a Harvard Kennedy School publication.

Even though more students could receive free meals through the program, research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office discovered that National School Lunch Program participation went down 3.7 percent. The concern was: "What would the point be of putting more nutritious food on students' plates if they didn't eat it?" Kille notes. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study called "Impact of the new U.S. Department Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption and Waste" that examined the impact of the new regulation on food choice and waste.

The study was conducted in a low-income district in Massachusetts and focused on the eating habits of 1,030 elementary and middle-school children. The study found:
  • "After the new standards were implemented, the proportion of entrees consumed rose from 72.3 to 87.9 percent, an increase of 15.6 percentage points."
  • "The proportion of students selecting fruit increased from 52.7 to 75.7 percent, a jump of 23 percentage points."
  • "While the percentage of students selecting vegetables didn't change, portion consumption increased from 24.9 to 41.1 percent, a rise of 16.2 percentage points."
  • "Levels of food waste remain high, even if the new nutrition standards did not cause them to increase. Students discarded approximately 60 to 75 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruits they selected."
The researchers who conducted the study—Juliana F. W. Cohen, Scott Richardson, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano and Eric B Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health—concluded that levels of waste were high both before and after the program, but the new standards have improved the quality students' diets. (Read more)

Ohio frack job shut down Monday after earthquakes, but officials say fracking didn't cause tremors

State officials in Ohio ordered a hydraulic-fracturing operation to be shut down after an area with no history of seismic activity before fracking experienced four small earthquakes in a day, Will Drabold reports for the Columbus Dispatch. Officials said Monday's quakes were not caused by fracking, but on the same day the Ohio Department of Natural Resources "ordered Texas-based Hilcorp Energy to shut down an active well at the Carbon Limestone Landfill near Lowellville."

The department said in a statement, “Activity will remain suspended until further notice. The decision was made out of an abundance of caution after analyzing location and magnitude data provided by U.S. Geological Services.” The correct name is the U.S. Geological Survey.

Prior to 2011, the area had never had a recorded quake, but "From January 2011 to February 2012, researchers recorded more than 100 earthquakes in Mahoning County that were linked to the pumping of fracking waste deep underground into an injection well in the Youngstown area," Drabold writes. (Read more)

Supreme Court rules for Wyoming landowner in contest over abandoned railroad right of way

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday could have a major impact on thousands of situations, mostly in the West, about who owns the rights to land where railways have been abandoned. The court voted 8 to 1 in favor of a Wyoming man who was fighting the federal government over a 200-foot-wide trail that crosses his property and was proposed for the ­“rails-to-trails” program that turns abandoned railroad lines into recreational venues for the public, Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post. "During oral argument, it was unclear exactly how many miles of trails might be affected by the case, though the government said there are thousands of claims filed in 30 states." (Environment & Energy News photo by Jeremy Jacobs: Marvin Brandt standing at the former railroad stop in Fox Park, Wyo.)

Landowner Marvin Brandt "argued that the rail line was an easement, which becomes part of his property under an 1875 law," Barnes writes. "The government said the right of way reverts to the public." In siding with Brandt, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote: “Brandt’s land became unburdened of the easement, conferring on him the same full rights over the right of way as he enjoyed over the rest of the Fox Park parcel." Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who voted against the landowner, wrote: “Lawsuits challenging the conversion of former rails to recreational trails alone may well cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. I do not believe the law requires this result.” (Read more)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Health-insurance costs on exchanges still vary by region, despite subsidies designed to equalize

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, health-insurance costs vary from region to region and state to state, and federal subsidies won't remove all of the differences, Christopher Snowbeck and MaryJo Webster write for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. They looked at data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and state-run health insurance exchanges and developed an interactive map showing costs of coverage for different ages and incomes, click here.

In cities such as Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Tucson, where insurance prices are low, fewer tax credits are necessary. A greater number of federal subsidies will be needed in places with high premiums, such as rural areas of the South. "Because there is so much geographic variation in cost, the government does have to pitch in a larger portion of premium in higher-cost areas to make coverage affordable," said Cynthia Cox, a researcher at the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

Though some people feel that the law is unfair and that they don't receive the tax credits as high as in other areas, the ACA exists to ensure that "people at certain income levels pay no more than a set share of income to buy the midlevel 'benchmark' health plan where they live," Snowbeck and Webster write. Some variation in price disappeared, though, because insurance companies can no longer refuse to cover people who have pre-existing health conditions, said Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist who helped craft the reform law.

Coverage prices are different in some areas because of factors such as competition among insurance companies, health status and cost-of-living. However, though the same plan goes for $170 per month in Pittsburgh and $450 in rural areas of Colorado and Georgia, federal subsidies based on income bring the cost under $300. That say to potential purchasers,, "It's now in the achievable range," Tracy Brosius of the Wyoming Institute of Population Health, told the Pioneer Press.

Sometimes the tax-credit system actually allows people in higher-cost cities to pay less than those from lower-cost areas. "Assessing which consumers wind up with the 'better deals' can be complicated, policy experts say, because the lowest-cost silver plans available in different regions likely have different coverage details, such as deductibles and networks of doctors and hospitals," Snowbeck and Webster write. Though some of argued that the new system doesn't offer incentives for regions that more effectively provide health care, Cox said "Insurers still have a financial incentive to keep premiums low to attract enrollees, particularly young enrollees who might not be tax-credit eligible." (Read more)

Farmers bring affordable food to city 'food deserts'

Kentucky farmer Andre Barbour provides cole crops and chickens to people who live in Louisville's "food deserts," which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as "with a substantial share of low-income residents who . . . have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet." People from these areas pay $12 to $50 every month to New Roots Inc., a program designed to help them get the food they need, reports Jere Downs of The Courier-Journal.

Barbour delivers food about once a week to schools and churches in Louisville, 70 miles north of his farm near Canmer. He is not only providing healthy, affordable food for people who need it but also saving the family farm. Marry and James Cross, who joined the program last year, say people in their area have nearby fast-food and liquor stores, but not grocery stores. "I am into the whole sustainable community thing. I want to eat healthy," said Marry Cross, who pays $25 every other week for between 13 and 14 pounds of food. "I like the idea that you meet the people who grow the food."

According to The Louisville Health Equity Report, Western Louisville has only one full-service grocery store for every 25,000 citizens. "Scarcity of supermarkets directly impacts health," the report said. "The neighborhood in which one lives can serve as a predictor of life expectancy."

After struggling to find reliable customers for his products, Barbour began working with New Roots last fall. The program's founder and executive director, Karyn Moskowitz, said "We are putting our eggs in the basket with him and his consortium because we believe in small farms and minority farmers in particular. We want to grow with them."

Barbour said, "All we are doing is keeping the middleman out and keeping the money. . . . As long as I can feed people on this side of Louisville, I am good to go." University of Kentucky agricultural economics professor Will Snell said the Barbours are wise to use a niche strategy. "That sounds phenomenal," he said. "The local food movement is a niche market that is providing some opportunities for small farms. Anymore in farming, you've got to find a small niche or get big." (Read more)

Minority farmers, especially Hispanics, on the rise

While recent studies have shown that the overall number of farmers in America is on the decline, the number of minority farmers, especially Hispanics, is on the rise, growing by 15 percent between 2007 to 2012, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture, taken every five years. The number of minority farmers "is defined as principal operators who are Hispanic, American Indian, black and Asian," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. One of the pressing issues of immigration reform is the high number of undocumented workers in agriculture jobs.

Minority farmers increased by 21,000 from 2007 to 2012, the census found. Hispanic farmers increased by 11,000, or 22 percent, with a total of 67,000 Hispanic principal farm operators in 2012. Asian farmers increased by 2,485 to 13,699, an increase of 22 percent, African American farmers increased by 9 percent to 13,700, and American Indian farmers increased by 9 percent to 37,857. "Overall, people of color were the principal operators of about 7.3 percent of the nation’s farms in 2012," Marema writes. "That’s up about 1.2 points from the 2007 survey." (Read more) The full report is scheduled to be released in May. To read the preliminary report click here.

Studies confirm North Dakota Bakken Shale crude oil is more flammable than most; rides the rails

Crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale could be more flammable than most, according to a pair of studies in response to Bakken Shale derailments last year that resulted in explosions, reports EnergyWire. The crude oil hauled by a train that crashed in July in Quebec, killing 47 people, reacted like gasoline, according to a lab report released last week by Canada's Transportation Safety Board. "The large quantities of spilled crude oil, the rapid rate of release, and the oil's high volatility and low viscosity were likely the major contributors to the large post-derailment fireball and pool fire," the study found.

The study concluded that "light, 'sweet' crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale play might be more hazardous than other types," EnergyWire reports. The U.S. Department of Transportation came to a similar conclusion about an explosion from a derailment last year in North Dakota, sending out "a safety alert warning that Bakken crude 'may be more flammable' than its conventional counterparts." (Read more)

More crude oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined. That led the Transportation Department to recommend tougher standards for shipping crude oil by rail, and also led the agency to issue an emergency order last month requiring oil-train shippers to check their crude for volatility. A more alarming report also came out that the agency often gives out small fines against the railroads it regulates.

Last week the agency released an order on new testing requirements, saying "that within the 'reasonable, recent past' companies must have tested the flash point and boiling point of crude. Such tests help determine how likely the fuel is to ignite and dictates what type of rail car can be used for shipments," reports The Associated Press. "Officials also warned companies not to re-label crude as a more generic category of flammable liquid in an attempt to get around the testing." Companies could face civil penalties of $175,000 per day for each violation.  (Read more)

Those rules might not be strict enough for some, with transportation regulators telling members of a Senate hearing last week that "they may push for standards that go above and beyond crude shippers' expectations," Blaze Sobczak reports for EnergyWire. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration chief Cynthia Quarterman "indicated that the agency in its rulemaking may not spare cars that are compliant with those standards," and said standards suggested by an advisory group of  by the Association of American Railroads weren't adequate enough, and may require updates for cars made after 2011. (Read more)

Mass corruption, lost records, big traffic fines may prompt Florida legislators to dissolve rural town

Rampant corruption could lead to the elimination of a rural town in Florida. An audit of Hampton, which has fewer than 500 residents, found "unreliable accounting, a lack of oversight, duplicated paychecks, missing deposits, lost records, a failure to correct errors, an absence of written policies, lost revenue and other irregularities," Lizette Alvarez reports for The New York Times. State legislators have advocated dissolving Hampton and making it part of unincorporated Bradford County, but are giving the town a chance to fix its problems before making a decision.

Hampton "was supposed to maintain its public records and keep track of the ordinances the City Council passed. It did not," Berman writes. "Officials said some records were 'lost in a swamp' due to a traffic accident, but no accident was ever reported, the audit said. The city had more than $27,000 in expenditures that were ostensibly public, but lacked the necessary explanation for what purpose they served." (Read more)

The audit, which also found that the "city’s elder-care center did not receive a water bill for seven years" and three city commissioners didn't receive a bill for 17 months, was issued after the town became known as a speed trap, with 12,698 speeding tickets issued in 2011 and 2012, Lizette Alvarez reports for The New York Times. The police force grew from one officer to 17, and the town took in $151,000 in traffic fines in 2012, $268,624 in 2011, and $197,247 in 2010, but still operated at a deficit. The mayor is also in prison awaiting trial for possession of Oxycodone with intent to sell. (Read more)

Agriculture secretary announces new measures to help small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers

In an effort to help more small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers build their businesses, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Monday at the National Farmers Union convention "a series of initiatives that include more local and regional market information, new learning guides, improved access to capital, more cost-effective risk management and other tools," Sara Wyant reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Vilsack said resources will be listed on the USDA website.

Tom Vilsack
"Efforts include improved access to USDA resources, revised risk management tools that better fit the needs of smaller producers, additional support for hoop houses, and expanded collection of valuable market news information," Vilsack said. "USDA is also introducing a series of education tools focusing on opportunities for farmers engaged in local and regional food systems. In addition, USDA field staff will be boosting their outreach efforts to small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers."

USDA notes that its proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 includes "$2.5 million to provide food safety training to owners and operators of small farms, small food processors, and small fruit and vegetable vendors affected by Food Safety Modernization Act," and "$3 million for Small, Socially Disadvantaged Producers Grants Program to ensure historically underprivileged rural Americans have opportunities for cooperative development." The recently signed Farm Bill also includes $100 million over five years to the Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program, $63 million over five years to the Value-Added Producer Grant Program and $30 million annually to the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program. (Read more)

Monday, March 10, 2014

More than 56 percent of rural counties have disability rates above the national average

The average rate of self-reported disability in rural (non-metropolitan) counties is 16.5 percent, which is above the national average of 15.3 percent and well above the metro rate of 13.4 percent, according to data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2008 to 2012. The highest rate is 32.4 percent in Warren County, N.C., while the rural South had an average rate of 18.7 percent, compared to 14.62 percent in the Midwest, reports the University of Montana Rural Institute. More than 56 percent of rural counties have rates higher than the national average, and 159 of the 169 counties with rates 22.9 percent or greater are in rural areas. (Institute map of county-by-county data on disability rates; click on image for larger version) 

The survey was based on responses to questions on impairment of hearing and vision and "concentrating, remembering or making decisions because of a physical, mental or emotional problem, and serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs," reports Montana's Rural Institute. "These functional limitation questions are supplemented by questions about selected difficulties with activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living," which are commonly defined. "One item is on self-care and asks if a respondent has difficulty bathing or dressing. The last item is on independent living and asks whether a household member has difficulty doing errands on one’s own because of a physical, mental or emotional problem." (Read more)

Suicide rates are high among Native American teens, many of whom suffer abuse, live in poverty

Suicide rates among young Native Americans are more than three times the national average and as high as 10 times the national average on some reservations, Sari Horwitz reports for The Washington Post. "A toxic collection of pathologies—poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assault, alcoholism and drug addiction—has seeped into the lives of young people among the nation’s 566 tribes. Reversing their crushing hopelessness, Indian experts say, is one of the biggest challenges for these communities." (Post photo by Linda Davidson: Native American teens Richard Stone and Tyler Owens stand near a tree where a teen, then her father, hung themselves) 

But it isn't easy. “One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty, versus 13 percent in the United States. They graduate high school at a rate 17 percent lower than the national average," Theresa M. Pouley, the chief judge of the Tulalip Tribal Court in Washington state and a member of the Indian Law and Order Commission, told Horwitz. "Their substance-abuse rates are higher. They’re twice as likely as any other race to die before the age of 24. They have a 2.3 percent higher rate of exposure to trauma. They have two times the rate of abuse and neglect. Their experience with post-traumatic stress disorder rivals the rates of returning veterans from Afghanistan.”

The high suicide rates have led the Department of Justice to create a national task force "to examine the violence and its impact on American Indian and Alaska Native children, part of an effort to reduce the number of Native American youth in the criminal justice system," Horwitz writes. The task force is expected to offer its final recommendations to Attorney General Eric Holder in the fall. (Read more)

Iowa and many of its small towns are examples of a rural America hungry for high-speed Internet

Fifteen million Americans live in areas without fixed broadband networks, according to the Federal Communications Commission, and as more people and companies become reliant upon technology for communication and expansion, the lack of high-speed Internet service will become more of an issue, Christopher Doering writes for the Des Moines Register. 

"There is some work that needs to be done in rural America," said Doug O'Brien, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture 's Rural Development agency. "There is no doubt that for people in rural America to participate in the 21st-century economy, whether it's a national or international market, they need broadband."

Vinton, Iowa, is one of many small towns facing the realization that adequate broadband is necessary to be competitive.  It has workers, available buildings and small town-charm, but slow Internet. "Vinton has made three attempts to get broadband into every home since 1996, but voters viewed the proposals as too expensive and defeated the efforts," Doering reports. Nathan Hesson, director of Vinton Unlimited, the town's chamber of commerce, said, "The reason it didn't pass was because we didn't have the data to back it up." The town is working on informing citizens about the problem and how the town would benefit from true broadband sevice. (Read more)

The new Farm Bill provides $10 million each year through 2018 to fund the Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program, which could could give excellent broadband to rural cities and towns. The FCC said it will offer $4 billion over the next two years to give 15,000 schools internet access. "The USDA, the Department of Education, and the FCC have set a goal to connect 99 percent of the nation's schools and libraries to broadband by the end of 2018," Doering writes. USDA's Rural Utilities Service will offer $690 million per year to telecom companies wishing to expand broadband infrastructure. "Connect America, part of the larger $8 billion program known as the Universal Service Fund, will receive $4.5 billion annually through 2017," Doering writes. The program's goal is to give every rural resident broadband access by 2020. (Read more)

Farm Bill shifts toward healthy eating, offering more for organic farmers, fruit and vegetable growers

Perhaps overlooked in discussions of the recently passed Farm Bill is how it has changed from past bills to reflect the cultural shift toward healthier eating. The new Farm Bill offers more incentives to organic farmers, fruit growers and hemp producers, Jennifer Steinhauer reports for The New York Times. "While traditional commodities subsidies were cut by more than 30 percent to $23 billion over 10 years, funding for fruits and vegetables and organic programs increased by more than 50 percent over the same period to about $3 billion." (NYT photo by Jim Wilson)

The bill gives fruit and vegetable farmers greater access to crop insurance, which Steinhauer calls "a major victory" for them and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) "who negotiated, prodded, cajoled and finally shepherded the bill through Congress over two and a half years." She told Steinhauer, “Past farm bills pit regions against regions. I said that we were going to support all of agriculture.” 

The bill has huge incentives to make the switch to organic farming, with money to make the transition rising from $22 million to $57.5 million, and "Money for oversight of the nation’s organic food program nearly doubled to $75 million over five years," Steinhauer notes And while cuts in food stamps were a major issue in debate about the bill, "Programs that help food stamp recipients pay for fruits and vegetables—to get healthy food into neighborhoods that have few grocery stores and to get schools to grow their own food—all received large bumps." (Read more)

Do antibiotics have the same growth effect on humans as they do on livestock, making us obese?

Are antibiotics, which are used in feed to increase the size of livestock, also partly responsible for increasing the size of humans? In The New York Times, contributing writer Pagan Kennedy takes a look at the history of antibiotics used in feed and looks at a study that examines whether or not ingesting antibiotics in pill form is responsible for involuntarily weight gain.

"In 2002 Americans were about an inch taller and 24 pounds heavier than they were in the 1960s, and more than a third are now classified as obese," Kennedy writes. "Of course, diet and lifestyle are prime culprits. But some scientists wonder whether there could be other reasons for this staggering transformation of the American body. Antibiotics might be the X factor—or one of them."

"Of course, while farm animals often eat a significant dose of antibiotics in food, the situation is different for human beings," Kennedy writes. "By the time most meat reaches our table, it contains little or no antibiotics. So we receive our greatest exposure in the pills we take, rather than the food we eat. American kids are prescribed on average about one course of antibiotics every year, often for ear and chest infections. Could these intermittent high doses affect our metabolism?"

Martin J. Blaser, the director of the Human Microbiome Program and a professor of medicine and microbiology at New York University, is studying the effects of antibiotics on the growth patterns of baby mice. Mixing high-calorie diets with antibiotics has resulted in huge weight gains, particularly among the female mice, Kennedy writes. Blazer wrote: "The observations are consistent with the idea that the modern high-calorie diet alone is insufficient to explain the obesity epidemic and that antibiotics could be contributing.” (Read more)

Duke Energy expects its customers to pay for moving coal-ash ponds away from drinking-water supplies

Duke Energy said it will honor a request to move its ash ponds away from drinking-water supplies but at the expense of its 3.2 million customers, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. Duke has said the company and its stockholders will pay the costs of cleaning up the Dan River from a Feb. 2 coal ash spill. But in response to a request from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, to move its ponds away from drinking water, "Duke is making it just as clear that closing its ponds will be an expense—likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars—that customers should pay."

The North Carolina Utilities Commission "lets utilities recover 'prudent' capital costs such as for new power plants, through customer rates. Duke has also been allowed to recover the costs of state-imposed environmental measures. Those include the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which ordered strict emission limits on coal-fired power plants. Duke and the former Progress Energy [with which it merged] spent $2.8 billion to comply with the law," Henderson writes. "Now the state’s Environmental Review Commission is hashing out legislation on ash ponds. If lawmakers order Duke to close or move ponds, the company would have good reason to expect it would recover those costs. Duke’s chances would dim, however, if its ponds are shown to violate state standards. State environmental regulators have already charged Duke with violations at Dan River and five other power plants. A federal grand jury is also investigating." (Read more) (Observer video: Duke CEO Lynn Good speaking on Friday)

Kentuckian who travels state to showcase rural towns for Facebook page to speak at symposium

Cory Ramsey
The film "Cars" had a serious rural resonance because it focused on a small town that relied on highway traffic for survival but had been dying a slow death since the advent of high-speed interstates that allowed travelers to bypass quaint little towns. In the end the town realizes a revitalization that draws visitors from near and far. In reality, many small towns are not experiencing the same revitalization as the fictional town of Radiator Springs. But one Kentucky man has been trying to change that in his home state and will connect the dots between the fictional world of "Cars" to the real world of rural America during the Southeast Tourism Society Spring Symposium, which will be held from March 23-26 in Lexington, Ky.

After being laid-off from his job in 2009, Cory Ramsey has been traveling the rural roads of Kentucky snapping photographs of small towns and posting them to his Facebook page Map Dot, Kentucky. The page, which has more than 5,000 likes, tries to get people involved in sharing their stories about the interesting places off the beaten paths in Kentucky. Ramsey will further his cause during a speech at the symposium at 9 a.m. Tuesday, March 25 focusing on rural/small communities and surrounding destinations around an anchor destination. Ramsey wrote on Facebook that his speech "will consist of illustrations from the movie "Cars" and the comparison between a Big Dot and a Little Dot. Thus, towns as Hickman and Jordan and Cayce and Four Points will have a voice on the national stage for a brief moment with Radiator Springs, Arizona." (Read more)