Friday, January 16, 2015

More than half of U.S. public school students are low-income; South, West have highest rates

More than 50 percent of U.S. public school students are from low-income families, and some of the highest concentrations of poverty are located in states with large rural populations, says a report by the Southern Education Foundation, Lyndsey Layton reports for The Washington Post. It's the first time in at least 50 years that the majority of public school students are from low-income families.

Overall, 51 percent of public school students were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program during the 2012-2013 school year. Mississippi led the way at 71 percent, Layton writes. New Mexico was second at 68 percent, followed by Louisiana, 65 percent; Oklahoma and Arkansas, 61 percent; Georgia and Texas, 60 percent; Utah and Florida, 59 percent and Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina, 58 percent. (To view the interactive post map click here)

Carey Wright, Mississippi’s state superintendent, said providing quality preschool is the key to help poor children, Layton writes. Wright told Layton, “That's huge. These children can learn at the highest levels, but you have to provide for them. You can’t assume they have books at home or they visit the library or go on vacations. You have to think about what you’re doing across the state and ensuring they’re getting what other children get."

The Obama administration "wants Congress to add $1 billion to the $14.4 billion it spends annually to help states educate poor students," Layton writes. "It also wants Congress to fund preschool for low-income children. Collectively, the states and federal governments spend about $500 billion annually on primary and secondary schools, with about $79 million coming from Washington." But many Republicans in Congress have criticized funding preschools. (Read more)

There is no doctor shortage in U.S., but there is one in rural and underserved areas, report says

Rural America may be experiencing a doctor shortage, but the U.S. is not, says a report by the Institute of Medicine, Adrianna McIntyre reports for Vox. The Association of American Medical Colleges has said that by 2020 the U.S. will have a shortage of 91,000 doctors, 45,000 in primary care and 46,000 surgeons and specialists, McIntyre writes. (AAMC graphic: Some groups claim graphics like this are used to try to lobby the government to fund doctor training programs)

But the Institute for Medicine said they find 'no credible evidence' that a doctor shortage actually exists because "shortage projections use questionable doctor-patient ratios, don't consider geographic differences in physician supply and ignore the role of new technology and alternate providers like nurse practitioners."

Amitabh Chandra, a Harvard University economist, told McIntyre, "Maybe it looks like there's a doctor shortage, but that's because the system is inefficient. Inefficient cars require more gas. Inefficient health care systems require more doctors."

The report said there are plenty of doctors to go around, but they aren't going where they're needed, such as rural areas, McIntyre writes. Chandra told McIntyre, "Right now Medicare pays more to providers who work in more expensive areas—providers who work in Manhattan get more than providers who work in Milwaukee. Maybe what you want to do is offer additional payments to physicians working in underserved areas."

Another problem, the report said, is that primary care doctors are paid less than specialists, which is leading more young doctors to gravitate towards careers as specialists, McIntyre writes. But even when young doctors go into primary care, they are more inclined to look in urban areas. Atul Grover, a physician and spokesman for the AAMC, said that "physicians weigh other factors when deciding where to practice, like prestige and quality of living. No salary bump can turn rural Idaho into Boston." (Read more)

Once critics of net neutrality, Republicans now favor it; Democrats wary of GOP motives

Republican lawmakers in Congress, who were once some of the most vocal critics of net-neutrality, are now some of its biggest supporters, Brendan Sasso reports for the National Journal. "For years, members of the party have decried net-neutrality regulation as a 'government takeover of the Internet' that would 'restrict our Internet freedom.' But now, top GOP lawmakers are frantically working on net-neutrality legislation that's even stronger than what many Democrats supported in previous years."

Why the change of heart? "At this point, pushing strong net-neutrality legislation is the only hope that Republicans have to keep the Federal Communications Commission from classifying Internet providers as public utilities like phone companies," Sasso writes. "They fear that move would strangle the Internet with even more onerous regulations."

But some Democrats in Congress fear Republicans are only supporting net-neutrality to get a "watered-down bill that's exactly . . . what the opposition and their lobbyists want," Sen. Al Franken, (D-Minn.), said, Sasso writes. Craig Aaron, the president of activist group Free Press, wrote in an op-ed piece for The Huffington Post that net-neutrality supporters shouldn't be fooled by Republicans. He wrote: "This proposed legislation should be exposed for what it is: a cynical effort by the cable lobby to prevent the FCC from enforcing the law to keep the Internet open. Why would we trust the fiercest opponents of Net Neutrality to protect our Internet freedom?"

At issue is Title II of the Communications Act, Sasso writes. "The FCC could use Title II to not only oversee how the providers manage traffic, but also set retail prices, impose new government fees and determine which customers they have to serve."

The Republicans' net-neutrality bill "would bar the FCC from classifying Internet service under Title II. Instead, it would grant the FCC new authority only to deal with net neutrality," Sasso writes. "The FCC's 2010 net-neutrality rules relied on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, a nebulous provision that says the agency can 'promote the deployment' of broadband. The Republican principles state that new legislation should clarify that Section 706 doesn't actually give the FCC any power."

"Without Title II, it's the only other real tool the FCC has to regulate Internet providers," Sasso writes. "Killing Section 706 would undercut the FCC's plan to preempt state laws that limit cities from building their own broadband networks. Just this week, Obama urged the FCC to overturn the state restrictions to ensure that local governments can deliver high-speed Internet to their residents if they choose. The FCC plans to vote in February on petitions from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to invoke Section 706 to preempt their states' laws against city-owned broadband." (Read more)

UPDATE: For a report on the bill from The Washington Post, click here.

Republican governor who once sued to overturn ACA is now an advocate for Medicaid expansion

Since Republicans gained control of Congress in November, Republican governors from Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming who previously refused Medicaid expansion in their states as part of federal health reform have come out in support of the Affordable Care Act, maybe none as adamant as Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who hails from the state with the nation's smallest population but has quickly become a national voice in favor of expansion. Expansion in Wyoming would extend benefits to 17,600 low-income residents.

During his State of the State address on Wednesday Mead told lawmakers that Wyoming can no longer afford to wait to pass a Medicaid expansion bill, Trevor Brown reports for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Mead said, "We have fought the fight against the (Affordable Care Act). We've done our best to find a fit for Wyoming. We are out of timeouts, and we need to address Medicaid expansion this session."

Mead, who was once part of a lawsuit to overturn Obamacare, said in November that he would "support an expansion plan that was developed out of negotiations between the Wyoming Department of Health and the federal government," Brown writes. Mead said during his address, "The fact is many of us don't like the ACA, including me. But here's another fact: Our federal tax dollars help pay for the ACA, and Wyoming tax dollars pay for the ACA. Do we choose to have that Wyoming money be returned to Colorado, California or Wyoming? I say Wyoming." (Read more)

Type 2 diabetes medication found in Lake Michigan altering hormonal systems of male fish

The type 2 diabetes medication Metformin found in Lake Michigan is changing the hormonal systems of fish exposed to it, says a study by the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, Keith Matheny reports for the Detroit Free Press. The long-term effects of the drug on fish and their ability to reproduce are unknown.

Researchers found that male fathead minnows exposed to Metformin at the levels found in Lake Michigan for four weeks "showed disruption of their endocrine systems, producing a chemical messenger usually associated with females' egg production," Matheny writes.

"The drugs [that] are not completely broken down by people's bodies after ingestion are excreted and then are not fully removed by wastewater treatment processes," Matheny writes. Reseacher Rebecca Klaper told Matheny that even though the levels of the drug in Lake Michigan are low, "It's enough to raise an alarm bell that this might be something that causes changes in reproduction of fish. It's something that definitely warrants further study." (Read more) (Free Press graphic: Pharmaceuticals and personal-care byproducts persist at low levels miles from sewage discharge pipes in Lake Michigan)

Physicist on 'CBS This Morning' misstates the process of hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes

Michio Kaku, Ph.D.
Dr. Michio Kaku, who often discusses science on CBS News programs, is a brilliant physicist. But today on "CBS This Morning" he wandered off base as he discussed earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing.

Kaku, a professor at City University of New York, said there is evidence that a swarm of small earthquakes in Oklahoma is being caused by "hydraulic fracking," specifically the injection of wastewater to free gas and oil from dense, deep shales.

Whoa, Professor. Yes, fracking does involve the injection of wastewater, but not to produce oil and gas. The process injects a mixture of water, chemicals and sand, and results in wastewater that must be disposed of -- in separate injection wells, the type of wells that have been associated with quakes.

Perhaps Kaku was condensing information into the time CBS gave him, but he was also off base on a bit of geography. He said the largest quake ever in the U.S. was near New Madrid, on the border of Missouri and Tennessee. Actually, New Madrid, Mo., sits across the Mississippi River from a bit of Kentucky that is separated from the rest of the state by the bending river.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Getting by on nothing in America, in the words of some who wrote about it on Reddit

Many of America's poor are fighting a losing battle to improve their station, mainly because it costs more to be poor, Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post, drawing from a discussion thread on Reddit: "an extraordinary thread full of devastating stories about what it's like to get by with nothing in the United States of 2015."

Being denied a checking account means paying a fee to cash a check. Not having disposable money means buying items in smaller quantities or on credit—which costs more in the long run—or having to purchase something at the marked price, without having the ability to wait for a sale.

"It's easy to feel that "when you are poor, the 'system' is set up to keep you that way," in the words of one Reddit user," Ehrenfreund writes, quoting others:

"When you are broke, you can't plan ahead or shop sales or buy in bulk. Poor people wait to buy something until they absolutely need it, so they have to pay whatever the going price is at that moment. If ten-packs of paper towels are on sale for half price, that's great, but you can only afford one roll anyway. In this way, poor people actually pay more than others for common staple goods."

"I buy 'fish' antibiotics online because I can't afford health care. . . . Amoxicillin and such. Mostly for husband who has Lyme's disease. We can't afford our monthly health care rates. We are 30-somethings in the US. Really feel like a 'bottom feeder'."

"I'm making $150-$200 a week, and I need new shoes. So I can buy $60 shoes that will last, or $15 Walmart shoes. So I buy the Walmart shoes and some groceries instead of just the $60 shoes and no groceries. Three months later I'll need new shoes again. But I'll also have to pay rent, and my light bill is due. So I'll pay the light bill and buy some 'shoe glue' for $4 to fix my shoes for another few weeks until I can buy the $15 ones again."

One writer who admitted to regularly raiding dumpsters wrote, "I grew up in a fairly rural area. When that happened? I know that in winter, grey squirrel tastes [expletive] gross. Sure, people from the South can claim that their brown and red squirrels are delicious, but I would rather eat [expletive] out of a pig's ass than eat another bite of goddamn squirrel meat. Or jackrabbit. Or goddamned dandelion greens." (Read more)

New wave of farmers are young, city-raised, college-educated and environmentally conscious

While the average age of farmers rose from 51 to 58 in the last three decades, a new, young breed of environmentally aware, city-bred, college educated farmers is emerging, Fred Gebhart reports for Healthline. Zach Wolf, a 30-something farmer in New York, told him, "Young farmers today are environmentally aware and socially active. Sustainability isn’t an ideal; it is a life they want to live and to help others live.”

Where did this new breed of farmer come from? "Many observers trace this trend back to the 2007 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma," Gebhart writes. "Author Michael Pollan traced the origins of four meals: a McDonald’s lunch, a dinner from Whole Foods market, another using ingredients from a small Virginia farm and a feast of items he foraged and hunted. The book was a wake-up call to the problems associated with Big Agriculture, including reliance on petroleum, environmental and biologic degradation, obesity, poor nutrition and bland, boring food."

The number of farms is down from 6.4 million in 1910 to 2.2 million in 2010, as farmers moved from rural areas to urban ones to seek other jobs, Gebhart writes. In recent years the trend has been reversed, with more people moving from urban to rural areas to become farmers. Nationally, the number of young farmers is up 3 percent, and the number of farmers under 35 in Maine is up 40 percent. (USDA graphic)

More young farmers has led to more organic farming, Gebhart writes. "Organic sales surged 11.5 percent in 2013, hitting a record $35 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Most families—81 percent—choose organic food at least some of the time."

"The new generation of farmers has grown up in an era that values personal integrity and involvement," Gebhart writes. "Environmental issues are key because an unhealthy environment makes for unhealthy people. Climate change isn’t a debate; it’s a global problem that needs local change. Technology can improve almost anything, and collaboration is a way of life."

Wolf told him, “Young farmers bring a whole new mindset to traditional difficulties. Almost all of us are college-educated, which creates a different attitude toward learning and solving problems. Most of us didn’t come from farming families, so we had to learn through apprentice programs or some kind of hands-on training.” (Read more)

Justice Department revises guidelines for issuing subpoenas to journalists in news-leak probes

In a move that affects all journalists, the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday announced that it has "revised guidelines for obtaining records from the news media during criminal leak investigations, removing language that news organizations said was ambiguous and requiring additional levels of review before a journalist can be subpoenaed," Eric Tucker reports for The Associated Press.

The Obama administration has been criticized for being overly aggressive in filing subpoenas for reporters' telephone records and emails, including spending several years trying to compel a New York Times reporter to testify in the trial of a former CIA officer accused of disclosing classified information, Tucker writes. The Justice Department abandoned that case this past week.

In February 2014 the department "issued new rules designed to give news organizations an opportunity to challenge subpoenas or search warrants in federal court," Tucker writes. "But news organizations expressed concern that the protections applied only to journalists involved in 'ordinary newsgathering activities,' language they said was vague and could be exploited by zealous prosecutors. That provision has been deleted in the new guidelines, which also require the attorney general in most instances to authorize subpoenas issued for the media and for the Justice Department's criminal division to also be consulted." (Read more)

Rural residents in Calif. and Texas say bullet trains will hurt property values, environment, wildlife

Rural residents in California and Texas are less than thrilled about the prospect of bullet trains rumbling through their neighborhoods at high speeds. Construction of California's voter-approved bullet train began last week. The first phase is a 142-mile segment north and south of Fresno, The Associated Press reports. The $68 billion project, expected to be completed by 2029, will travel 200 miles per hour over 520 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The system will eventually be extended from Sacramento to San Diego, covering 800 miles, says California High-Speed Rail Authority. Texas officials have proposed a bullet train from Dallas to Houston, cutting the 240-mile trip from about four hours to 90 minutes, Aman Betheja reports for The Texas Tribune. ( map)
More than 1,000 rural residents voiced their opposition to the California bullet train on Wednesday night in Lake View Terrace, saying the train will hurt property values and harm wildlife, Michael Larkin and Beverly White report for KNBC 4 in Los Angeles. Tujunga resident Bridget Riley said the train will have negative impacts economically and environmentally. She told KNBC 4, "It would destroy the property values. It would destroy everything! And needless to say, the Angeles National Forest."

Equestrian riders also fear that the train will hurt the horse industry, Dana Bartholomew reports for the Los Angles Daily News. San Fernando Valley horse owner John Rigney told Bartholomew, "This is the last bastion of equine life in the city of Los Angeles. This recreation space, with thousands who also visit Hansen Dam, would be destroyed.”

Rural officials in Texas have similar fears, having "expressed concern about the noise from trains whizzing past their quiet towns dozens of times a day and about a track dividing farmland and reducing property values," Betheja writes. Byron Ryder, the county judge in Leon County, located about halfway between Dallas and Houston, told Betheja, "I haven’t heard anything positive about it whatsoever. I’ve talked to other judges and commissioners up and down the line, landowners up and down the line. No one wants it.”

While a federally-required environmental study still has to take place, officials have narrowed potential routes down to two "that appear to be least disruptive," Betheja writes. "One runs largely along the rights of way of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and would depend on Texas Central Railway making a deal with that company. The other route is straighter and travels mostly along electricity transmission lines. That route has fewer people living near it, said Shaun McCabe, a Texas Central Railway environmental and engineering vice president." (Read more)

Map shows winemakers and commercial brewers

Nearly 10,000 winemakers and 4,500 commercial brewers work in the U.S., Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. While California, Oregon and Washington are known for an abundance of wineries and the Denver area has blossomed into the country's beer capital, winemakers and commercial brewers are spread out throughout the country, and many of them are located in unsuspecting places. This Post map shows the locations of all the known winemakers and commercial brewers. Click on it for a larger version.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Obama pushes for rural broadband, override of state laws keeping local governments out of it

Today President Obama is in Cedar Falls, Iowa—which has its own cable and high-speed data networks—where he is expected to pitch the need for greater high-speed Internet access in rural and underserved areas, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Jeff Zients, director of the White House's National Economic Council, told Brasher, “Every American should have options for better, faster broadband. In the 1930s, many argued that electricity was a luxury, something too costly to bring to rural communities and every American. … We're at a similar moment today.”

In conjunction with Obama's push for greater broadband access, the U.S. Department of Agriculture "will announce that it's accepting applications to its Community Connect broadband grant program and reopening a restructured loan program authorized under the 2014 farm bill," Brasher writes. "About $40 million to $50 million in loans are to be made available through the program."

Obama is expected to ask the Federal Communications Commission "to pre-empt state laws that restrict communities’ ability to expand high-speed Internet access to underserved areas," Julie Hirschfield Davis reports for The New York Times. "The president’s push to remove the roadblocks to Internet competition is likely to face resistance from large telecommunications companies, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance."

Currently, 19 states have laws that restrict cities’ ability to provide broadband coverage, Davis writes. Mitchell told her, “The telecom companies have spent millions of dollars in state legislatures to promote these limits, and anything that’s pro-competition from the administration is very upsetting to them.” Mitchell said "eliminating the barriers and allowing cities to set up their own networks would be an 'important first step' in generating competition that would widely expand broadband access." (Read more)

Weekly newspaper details rising heroin epidemic in Central Kentucky community

In a good example of taking a national story and localizing it, Ben Carlson, editor and publisher of The Anderson News, a weekly newspaper that serves about 21,000 residents around Anderson County in Central Kentucky, has written a piece about how the growing heroin epidemic has impacted the local community.

"Police are called to a domestic dispute involving a mother and her son arguing over a dirty needle," Carlson writes. "A man in his early 20s shoots heroin, climbs behind the wheel of his car and crashes into a telephone pole in front of the library. Another man shoots heroin in the parking lot of a local store. He overdoses, turns blue and passes out with his foot on his car’s gas pedal, revving the engine. Twenty people overdose in November and December, requiring life-saving actions from first responders."

"All of the above simply scratches the surface of the heroin epidemic in Anderson County, a problem that is damaging not only the addicts and their families, but the people against whom a growing number of crimes are being committed," Carlson writes.

Det. Sgt. Bryan Taylor of the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office told Carlson, “It’s like cancer. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, a male or female, young or old. It touches everyone eventually, and it’s getting worse.”

Taylor said the rise in drug use has led to more crime, Carlson writes. He told Carlson, “In the cases I’m working now involving property crimes, most, almost all, are property crimes from an individual who has a heroin problem. Those are the problems we’re dealing with now . . . crimes associated with heroin use such as burglaries, thefts and domestic violence.” The Anderson News is behind a paywall but can be accessed by clicking here.

Violent crimes are down in the U.S., but no one is sure why; violence peaked in the early 90s

Turn on any local news station or look up news sites online, and there will inevitably be numerous stories about murder, abuse, assaults and general mayhem. It seems that no town—big or small—is safe anymore from violent crime.

But the number of reported violent crimes in the U.S. has actually significantly dropped since peaking in the early '90s, Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. While that's good news, the reason for the drop in crime varies depending on who you ask, and no one seems to know why less violence is occurring in the U.S. (Post graphic)

"It has confounded both those from the right who had predicted that waves of young predators would terrorize communities and those on the left who watched crime fall even through ups and downs in poverty and unemployment," Ehrenfreund writes. Various experts have also linked the fall in violence to the aging of the population, low inflation rates and even the decline in early-childhood lead exposure. But in the end, none of these factors fully explain a drop that occurred, in tandem, in much of the world." (Read more)

Few counties have recovered from the recession; interactive map shows county-by-county levels

Most U.S. counties have not recovered from the recession as well as the national economy has recovered, says a report published Monday by the National Association of Counties, Mike Maciag reports for Governing. The strongest economies are in states that rely on the oil and gas industry, particularly counties in North Dakota and Texas, while most of the economies least affected by the recession are located in Great Plains states.

The report, which analyzed job totals, unemployment rates, economic output (GDP) and median home prices, found that only 65 out of more than 3,000 counties "have seen all four economic measures fully recover from pre-recession peaks," Maciag writes. "Nearly three-quarters of counties remain below their pre-recession employment levels, while economic output hasn’t recovered in 45 percent of counties." (Read more) (National Association of Counties map: To view an interactive county-level map click here)

President Obama to use executive authority to impose regulations on methane emissions

The White House officials on Wednesday announced that President Obama plans to use executive authority to impose new regulations on the oil and gas industry’s emissions of methane, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "The administration’s goal is to cut methane emissions from oil and gas production by up to 45 percent by 2025 from the levels recorded in 2012."

The Environmental Protection Agency said it will issue the proposed regulations later this year and release final regulations in 2016, Davenport writes. "Methane, which leaks from oil and gas wells, accounts for just 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution—but it is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so even small amounts of it can have a big impact on global warming."

David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, told Davenport, “This is the biggest opportunity to curb climate change pollution that they haven’t already seized.

Oil and gas industry officials said current standards are sufficient to prevent methane leaks and new rules would only hurt a booming industry, Davenport writes. Howard Feldman, director of regulatory affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, told her, “We don’t need regulation to capture it because we are incentivized to do it." (Read more)

Animal-care expert says animal welfare should begin on the farm, not at slaughterhouses

Protecting the welfare of animals should begin on farms and ranches, not at slaughterhouses, famed animal welfare activist Temple Grandin told the American Farm Bureau Federation on Sunday in San Diego, Jerry Hagstrom reports for the National Journal. While she said it would be impossible to monitor all farms and ranches, Grandin suggested random audits as a way to enforce rules.

Grandin said "she is concerned with what she calls 'biological system overload'—the use of genetics and weight gain to get the maximum amount of meat, milk or eggs out of an animal," Hagstrom writes. "Breeding to emphasize single genetic traits is at the root of some of the problems, and farmers and ranchers should focus on 'optimal rather than maximum' production, she said."

She said farmers and ranchers "should forget trying to defend gestation crates for sows because consumers will not accept them," Hagstrom writes. "Instead, she said, farmers should concentrate on defending genetic modification of seeds because it makes no-till farming possible and pointing out that ranching helps the land because grazing animals keep certain plants from dominating the landscape, and wildlife drink the water provided for food animals." (Read more)

The wild and weird world of agriculture awards

Many professions honor their best and brightest with annual awards. The Hollywood awards season seems to go on for months—The film "Boyhood" has been nominated for awards by more than 50 different organizations, according to Internet Movie Database—and it seems that with the distribution of so many awards, it has to get to a point when some of them might seem ridiculous to anyone outside of that profession. (Donkey Breed Society photo)

In honor of the weirdness of awards, Modern Farmer has scoured the earth in search of their favorite agricultural awards, "from the silly to the strange, the fun to the fantastic," Panicha Imsomboon writes for the publication.

Here are some of the awards Modern Farmer highlighted:
  • The Best Palm Tree Climber (Delhi, India) 
  • Tomato Inspiration Award (Berlin, Germany) 
  • Active Donkey Award (Kent, U.K.) 
  • The European Bee Award (Brussels, Belgium) 
  • Shellfish Recognition Awards (Prince Edward Island, Canada) 
  • The Best National Plantain Farmer (Volta Region, Ghana) 
  • Cascade Cup for Hops Growers (Oregon)

Horton Beirne, third-generation publisher of family-owned weekly in Covington, Va., dies at 67

Beirne's wife, Mary Ann, is the new publisher.
(File photo from The Virginian Review)
Funeral services will be held Thursday for Horton Beirne, longtime editor and publisher of The Virginian Review in Covington, who died Saturday after a long battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 67, and represented the fourth generation in his family to work at the 7,800-circulation weekly newspaper and the third generation to run it.

“Horton Beirne epitomized the very best in community journalism, John Edwards, a longtime friend and editor-publisher of The Smithfield Times, told the Virginia Press Association. “He loved a good story, and could be a fierce editorialist, but his news coverage and his opinions were always tempered by his concern for what was best for his beloved Covington and Alleghany County.”

Beirne left the staff of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1972 to become production manager of the Covington Virginian, founded in 1914 by his grandfather, Richard Beirne Jr. In 1974, he was named editor, and in 1989 the paper merged with the Clifton Forge Daily Review and was renamed. He became publisher in 1992 after the death of his father, Richard Beirne III. He won many VPA awards and was president of the association in 1987-88, the fourth member of his family to hold the post.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Drilling deaths by fire, explosion remain high; oil and gas industry says there is no safety problem

Oil and gas production employs less than 1 percent of U.S. workers, but over the past five years the industry has accounted for more than 10 percent of all workforce fatalities from fires and explosions, including at least 16 such deaths in 2014, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. The number of deaths was 13 in 2013 and 23 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The 16 deaths last year can't be accurately compared with the bureau figure because the agency uses its own methodology and keeps confidential the names and companies of the fatalities in its annual count," Soraghan writes. "The industry's high death rate shows the need for more regulation, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency charged with investigating industrial accidents."

"CSB has advocated a proposal at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to lift the drilling exemption from 'process safety management' (PSM) rules intended to prevent industrial explosions." Soraghan writes. The agency said that "High rates of worker injuries and fatalities within this sector suggest that PSM requirements are urgently needed."

Industry leaders say that safety is not a concern, Soraghan writes. The American Petroleum Institute, the industry's biggest lobbying group, wrote last year in an OSHA filing opposing the PSM change: "There is little performance data showing there is a safety problem at these facilities." (Read more)

Towns unable to keep up with safety upgrades for rising number of trains carrying crude oil

The increase of train traffic carrying crude oil through small towns in America combined with the inability of those towns to safely keep up maintenance of heavily-trafficked areas is setting the stage for a disaster of epic proportions, Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970, was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act, told Tate, “It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out."

Oil boomed so fast, and demand has been so high, that small towns were not prepared for a sudden increase in train traffic, Tate writes. "Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that includes millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. Tens of thousands of tank cars and a 140,000-mile network of rail lines emerged as a practically way to move these commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job." (ProPublica map)
"Government and industry are playing catch-up with long-overdue safety improvements, like redesigning tank cars and rebuilding tracks and bridges," Tate writes. But 2013 was the worst safety year on record. More oil was spilled in the U.S. in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, and 47 people died from the derailment of a train in Quebec running from North Dakota to Maine.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected this month to issue new rules to govern the transportation of flammable liquids by rail, Tate writes. In July DOT proposed a two-year phase-out of older cars, but the oil and rail industry asked for an extension, saying that wasn't enough time. (Read more)

Senate to use Keystone XL Pipeline bill as an opportunity to debate climate change, oil exports

The House approved a Keystone XL Pipeline bill on Friday. The Senate is expected to pass its bill—and President Obama is expected to veto it—but the bigger picture should unfold during debate about the bill when the new Republican Congress begins its battle against the Obama Administration over other issues, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times.

"The floor debate, which is scheduled to play out in the next two to three weeks, will serve as a showcase for various energy and environmental issues and is expected to involve votes on the science of climate change and humanity’s role in causing it, as well as on a proposal to lift a 42-year-old ban on exporting crude oil," Davenport writes. "The debate will also provide potential presidential candidates with a platform for promoting their own energy policies. Senators are expected to debate amendments on dozens of other energy issues like subsidizing heating bills for poor people, increasing taxes on oil production and promoting renewable energy."

"It has been eight years since the Senate held a similar debate before passage of an energy bill," Davenport writes. Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Davenport, “I know senators from both sides are hungry for a real Senate debate. We’ll have an open floor debate on jobs, the middle class, infrastructure and energy.”

Lawmakers from both parties say the Keystone fight "is likely to be a Senate referendum on climate change," Davenport writes. "Democrats have criticized those Republicans who question that humans are causing global warming, which almost all scientists believe. The issue has divided Republicans, with conservatives openly questioning the science behind that conclusion and moderates trying to avoid it."

Sen. Bernard Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) "will introduce a resolution declaring that climate change caused by humans is a major threat," Davenport writes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) "is expected to offer amendments of his own that would lift the oil export ban and speed approval of export permits for liquid natural gas," and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) "will counter with an amendment requiring that any oil shipped through the Keystone pipeline remain in the United States." (Read more)

The goat factor: Map shows number of goats in every U.S. county as of 2012 USDA census

Schleicher County, Texas, had 21,935 goats in 2012; Coconino County, Arizona, had 12,264; Wilson County, Tennessee, had 3,837; Polk County, Florida, had 2,237 and Bottineau County, North Dakota, didn't have a single goat, according to a The Washington Post county-by-county interactive map of where all 2,621,514 goats in the U.S. in 2012, the year of the most recent USDA Agricultural Census, were located.

"America's goat population is heavily concentrated in the Southwest, Texas in particular," Christopher Ingraham reports for the Post. Almost 80 percent of America's goats are raised for meat, and 16 percent are raised for milk. The other six percent—comprised of Angora goats—are raised for mohair, Ingraham writes.

"You'll find commercial goat farms operating in 2,996 of the country's 3,143 counties," Ingraham writes. "Of the top ten goat-producing counties, eight are in Texas, and two are in Arizona. In Sutton County, Texas, goats outnumber people 14-to-1. In Edwards County, also in Texas, the ratio is 22-to-1. All in all, goats outnumber people in 21 U.S. counties, all but one of which are in Texas." (Post map of goat populations by county in 2012. To view an interactive version click here)

Freedom Industries chemical spill traveled 390 miles from West Virginia to Louisville, study says

The Freedom Industries January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities traveled farther than previously thought, according to a study by U.S. Geological Survey researchers, Emily Atkin reports for ThinkProgress. Researchers say the spill traveled at least 390 miles to the Ohio River in Louisville.

"Though prominent spill researchers have long speculated that the chemical traveled across state lines, the study’s leader author Bill Foreman told ThinkProgress that his represented, 'as far as I know of, the first, reported, published-in-a-journal documentation of (crude MCHM) found there in the Louisville area,'" Atkin writes.

Last month Freedom and six of its owners, managers and employees were charged with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to the spill. This week a report ordered by West Virginia Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says that the Mountain State has inadequate environmental regulations to prevent incidents such as the Freedom Industries spill.

Monday, January 12, 2015

South's population gain from June 2013 to June 2014 was one-fourth larger than in previous year

From June 2013 to June of last year, 44 states grew in overall population, but 38 had smaller increases than the year before, according to recently released census figures, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. The biggest increases were in the mostly rural South. The South and West added an average of 5,600 people per day from 2013 to 2014, and the Northeast and Midwest added fewer than 900 people per day.

"About 365,000 people moved to the South from other parts of the U.S. between 2013 and 2014, up 25 percent from the previous year," Henderson writes. "More people moved to the South than to any other region. Still, the overall number was far less than it was a decade ago, when the South attracted more than a million movers a year between 2004 and 2007. Moves to the West doubled to 103,000, the largest number since 2008, which helped increase the population of the West by more than 800,000."

The biggest population increase was in North Dakota, where the oil boom has helped the state grow by 2 percent, or 16,000 people, Henderson writes. "But that number was almost 30 percent less than last year’s 22,000 figure and was the state’s smallest population jump since 2011." Texas, which had led the nation in population growth since 2005, had the highest overall numbers, adding 400,000 people.  Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, Vermont and West Virginia were the only states to see population losses. (To view an interactive version click here)

Rural town using crowdfunding to raise money to replace old, unreliable ambulance

In another example of a rural town turning to the ever-growing world of crowdfunding when local and state funds won't cover costs, the Alexander Volunteer Fire Department in northwestern New York is using a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to replace an unreliable 15-year-old ambulance that serves 200 households, Emma Sapong reports for The Buffalo News.

The ambulance recently spent one and a half days in the shop, leaving the town without an ambulance, Sapong writes. Kelly O’Neil, a basic EMT with the department’s ambulance service, told her, “Our fear is if we don’t replace the ambulance soon, we won’t be able to meet all the needs of the community." (Best Places map)

The Fire Department receives funding from fire protection taxes, but the ambulance service relies solely on donations and fundraisers, Sapong writes. Ambulances are supposed to be replaced every 10 years, but a lack of funding delayed the purchase of a new vehicle. The department also failed to qualify for a FEMA grant. Officials can respond to calls in fire trucks if the ambulance is unavailable or ask for assistance from Mercy EMS in Batavia, but Mercy is a paid service, O’Neil said. (Read more)

Rural towns in Kansas and Kentucky are using crowdfunding to raise money for a grocery store and to re-open a theatre.

About 59 percent of nation's dairy farms have signed up for Farm Bill subsidy program

More than 23,000 farms—59 percent of the nation's dairy farms—have enrolled in the Dairy Margin Protection Program created through the 2014 Farm Bill "to protect producer incomes from spikes in feed costs and collapses in milk prices, the Agriculture Department says," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The program "triggers payments to producers when the difference between the price of milk and feed costs falls below the coverage level selected by the farmer," Brasher writes. "Basic coverage is available for a fee of $100. Higher levels require the payment of premiums. More than half of the enrollees opted for the higher levels of coverage, USDA said."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said enrollment exceeded expectations, Brasher writes. Vilsack said, “When you compare the initial enrollment rate for the Margin Protection Program to the longstanding federal crop insurance program, where participation ranges from 30 percent to 80 percent depending on the crop, it's clear that these outreach efforts made a difference." Signup for 2016 coverage is from July 1 to Sept. 30. (Read more)

House approves Keystone XL Pipeline; Nebraska Supreme Court rules to let pipeline through state

The House passed the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline bill on Friday by a vote of 266 to 153, with only 28 Democrats voting in favor of the bill that President Obama has said he will veto if it passes the Senate, which it is expected to do, Sean Cockerham reports for McClatchy Newspapers. Senate Republicans said last week that they are four votes shy of overcoming a veto.

The House's passage of the bill was aided by a Nebraska Supreme Court decision on Friday to decline "to support challenges to a state law that allows the governor to bypass the state Public Service Commission and approve the pipeline’s route through Nebraska," Cockerham writes. In 2013, Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman endorsed legislation to allow the pipeline to cross part of the state, but a district judge ruled in February 2014 that that was violation of the state constitution.

"The White House said the president is waiting for a final State Department ruling on whether Keystone is in the national interest before deciding whether it should go forward," Cockerham writes.

State ordered report exposes West Virginia's environmental regulations shortcomings

A report ordered by West Virginia Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says that the Mountain State has inadequate environmental regulations to prevent incidents such as the Freedom Industries January 2014 chemical leak that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people in Charleston and surrounding communities, David Gutman and Ken Ward report for the Charleston Gazette. Last month Freedom and six of its owners, managers and employees were charged with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to the spill.

"State officials bungled their efforts to explain the crisis to the public, government agency websites were 'embarrassingly out of date at the time of the incident' and even top staffers for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin were not properly prepared to manage the response to the loss of clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents, the administration said in an 'After Action Review,'" Gutman and Ward write. The report said, “The Freedom Industries chemical leak incident . . . was unique and unprecedented. There was no roadmap for handling the intricacies of this particular crisis.”

"The report asserts that, while the state had established a 'comprehensive statutory framework' in 1984 to regulate underground chemical storage tanks, aboveground tanks were not regulated 'under an applicable federal or state permit' and tanks like the MCHM tanks at Freedom Industries 'escaped government oversight,'” Gutman and Ward write. "The report said that the new storage tank law 'will help address these shortcomings, will increase public safety significantly and will help protect the environment.'” (Read more)