Thursday, October 19, 2017

Report: private wells may be contaminated with arsenic

Millions of Americans who get their water from private wells may be exposed to unsafe levels of arsenic, according to research published Oct. 18 in Environmental Science & Technology.

"Based on a detailed assessment of where US geology is likely to create high levels of naturally-occurring arsenic, and where private wells are located, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and Centers for Disease Control estimated that around 2 million people are probably drinking it at levels higher than the legal limit of 10 parts per billion," Zoe Schlanger reports for Route Fifty.

Around 15 percent of Americans--about 43 million people--use private wells, but they're mostly unregulated. Private wells aren't covered by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, so government officials don't test them for contamination as they do public water systems. "Arsenic can’t be removed from water with chlorine, or by boiling," Schlanger reports. "The CDC recommends private well owners distill their water or treat it with a reverse-osmosis filter. Public water utilities have a range of options for treating their water for arsenic—from reverse osmosis to a process called 'coagulation and filtration.'"

Arsenic is naturally occurring in the earth's crust, but can also seep into water from presticide run-off or coal-fired power plants. In May, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt halted an Obama-era rule meant to lower the amount of arsenic that power plants are allowed to dump in waterways, saying it was too costly, Schlanger reports.

Hepatitis C outbreaks related to opioid crisis

Christine Teague screens a patient for hepatitis C in Spencer, W.Va.
(Washington Post photo by Philip Andrews)
Health providers all over the country are seeing a rise in health problems triggered by the opioid epidemic, including increases in hepatitis B, sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, an infection of the heart called endocarditis, more emergency room visits for abcesses, hospitalizations for soft-tissue infections, and small increases in HIV. Some of those are direct consequences of needle injection, and some are "consequences of impaired judgment," says West Virginia Public Health Commissioner Rahul Gupta

But perhaps most troubling of all is an outbreak of hepatitis C, spread by heroin users sharing needles. Though hepatitis C is spiking in urban drug users, many of the newly infected live in rural and suburban areas. Diagnosed new cases of the liver disease have almost tripled in the past few years, from 853 in 2010 to 2,436 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C can be asymptomatic, so tens of thousands more probably have it and don't know it, Katie Zezima reports for The Washington Post.

West Virginia has been particularly hard-hit. It has the country's highest rate of opioid overdose deaths, and new hepatitis B and C infections. The state's numbers are so high, Gupta believes, because health officials are aggressive in identifying new cases, expanding testing at the states' syringe exchanges, jails and prisons.

"Because a treatment that cures the disease costs tens of thousands of dollars, is limited by insurance and Medicaid, and is mostly unavailable to people who are still using illicit drugs, there probably will be financial and public health ramifications for decades to come," Zezima reports.

Judith Feinberg, a professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, told Zezima: "If we don’t cure a significant number of the people who are injecting, in 20 years from now, the hospitals in this part of the world will be flooded with these people with end-stage liver disease, which has no cure."

Officials are also worried that infected pregnant women may be unknowingly spreading the disease to their babies, since hepatitis C is not a routine test administered to pregnant women. "The prevalence of hepatitis C among women who gave birth from 2009 to 2014 increased 89 percent, according to a study by Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Department of Health. West Virginia has the highest rate of births to infected mothers, with 22.6 per 1,000 live births. The disease can be passed to an infant during birth, and about 6 percent of babies born to infected mothers contract the disease," Zezima reports. There is no treatment for the disease during pregnancy, and children can't be tested for hepatitis C until they're 18 months old.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Climate change costs billions in extra road repairs

Photo by Jesse Collins, Unsplash
A recent paper in Nature Climate Change says climate change is costing the U.S. billions of dollars in unnecessary road repairs each year. Most road miles in the U.S. are in rural areas, meaning states, counties and small towns are making repairs that some of them can ill afford.

The problem is old data. Engineers consult weather models to see what kind of pavement can best withstand the local climate. But the temperature data for those models runs from 1964 to 1995, and local weather is often different now.

"Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Shane Underwood of Arizona State University and his colleagues show that road engineers have selected materials inappropriate for current temperatures 35 percent of the time over the past two decades," David Trilling reports for Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Other findings from the study:
  • Failing to adapt to warmer temperatures is adding 3 to 9 percent to the cost of building and maintaining a road over 30 years.
  • The authors use two models of predicted warmer temperatures, which suggest between $13.6 and $35.8 billion in extra or earlier-than-normal repairs will be required for roads being built under the current models. In the lower-temperature warming model, this translates to an annual extra cost of between $0.8 billion and $1.3 billion; in the higher-temperature warming model, it is an annual extra cost of between $0.8 billion and $2.1 billion.
  • A road built to last 20 years will require repairs after 14 to 17 years under these models.
  • In some cases, government transportation agencies are paying too much for materials to withstand cold temperatures that do not currently (and perhaps no longer) exist.
  • Because municipal governments in the United States work on tighter road-maintenance budgets than state and federal transportation departments, the extra financial strain will largely impact cities and towns.

Trump gives mixed signals on ACA subsidy deal

"Yet another last-ditch effort to tackle the nation’s health-care system stalled within hours of its release by a bipartisan pair of senators Tuesday, with President Trump sending mixed signals and Republicans either declining to endorse the proposal or outright opposing it," The Washington Post reports.

Senators Lamar Alexander  (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reached a compromise yesterday that would authorize federal cost-sharing subsidies for the next two years while granting states more flexibility in regulating health coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The subsidies help offset the cost to insurers of low-cost plans for lower- and moderate-income Americans. Because insurance companies are still required to offer those discounts even without the subsidies, critics say insurers will likely withdraw from poorer and rural areas where more people purchase low-cost plans with higher out-of-pocket costs. That could leave some counties, especially in rural areas, without any ACA insurers.

President Trump appeared to support the compromise yesterday, but in a tweet today said "I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins. co's who have made a fortune w/ O'care." Actually, the payments reimburse insurers for the cost of the discounts.

"But that message may have been more of a caveat than a rejection," Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan report for The New York Times. Alexander told the Times that the president called him today and wanted to be "encouraging" about the agreement. Trump, Alexander said, "intends to review it carefully to see if he wants to add anything to it" and "wants to reserve his options."

The deal did not get a rousing reception in the Senate or the House, but Sam Baker of Axios Vitals reports that both Democrats and Republicans interested in it "are claiming victory. That ultimately bodes well for the future of the package, which experts on both sides say is likely to help stabilize the individual market." For a more detailed roundup of the coverage, see this story on Kentucky Health News.

Sen. Grassley says he and other Corn Belt senators could hold up Trump nominees over biofuels issue

We reported last week that Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was outraged over President Trump's proposed rollback of the Renewable Fuel Standard. Now it appears as though he and other Corn Belt senators may be prepared to play hardball over it. At issue is the reduced requirements for ethanol in the fuel mix; Grassley and other legislators from corn-producing states say Trump is breaking a campaign promise to support ethanol.

Before an Oct. 17 meeting with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Grassley told reporters that he thinks "plenty" of Midwestern senators would consider holding up Trump's EPA nominees over the issue. Grassley said in a statement afterward that he "impressed upon Pruitt that supporting biofuels is 'good policy'" during the meeting, and that the message was "well-received," Ed Tibbetts reports for the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa.

But after the meeting, "Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, postponed the confirmation votes of four EPA nominees scheduled for today. That suggests that senators may have not gotten the commitment they were seeking from Pruitt, and that one or both of the Midwestern Republicans on the committee, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), were willing to buck the Trump administration on the nominees," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

Grassley may have other leverage in the fight: he's the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in last year's election.

Foundering NAFTA talks get an extension

Canada, the U.S. and Mexico have agreed to take a break from contentious talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. "Negotiators, struggling to find agreement on some of the thorniest provisions of the trade deal, will take an extended break to consult with politicians and interest groups before convening again in Mexico City for the fifth round of talks in mid-November. The trade talks, which were supposed to wrap up by year-end, have now been extended into the first quarter of 2018, the parties said," Ana Swanson reports for The New York Times.

That's not necessarily good news for pro-NAFTA parties. Upcoming elections in all three countries could influence candidates to take hard-line stances on the trade deal, making an agreement even less likely. The Mexican presidential election will take place July 1, Canada will hold provincial elections through the fall and early winter of 2018, and the U.S. will hold midterm elections Nov. 6.

Another possible wrench in the works: "In the United States, legislation will expire in July that gives the Trump administration more extensive authority to negotiate trade deals and then submit them to Congress for a simple up or down vote, without amendments," Swanson reports. If that legislation, called Trade Promotion Authority, is not renewed, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told a conference last week that he doesn't think a NAFTA deal will be possible.

"The demise of NAFTA, a deal that has knit together the North American economy over the last quarter century, would be a heavy blow to all three economies. A new study by Impactecon, an American consulting firm, found that the United States would lose 256,000 net jobs if it withdrew from NAFTA, with the most severe impact on low-wage employment. Mexico would lose 951,000 net jobs, and Canada 125,000, the report projected," Swanson reports. "The outcome could also damage the North American security relationship, straining cooperation to combat money-laundering, terrorism, the drug trade and undocumented migrants coming through Central America, the report said."

Farm Foundation Forum on Nov. 1 to explore collaborations for conservation in agriculture

A Farm Foundation Forum will discuss possible collaborations between the forces that drive conservation efforts on farms at 9 a.m. Nov. 1 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"Conservation work is not lacking in rural America today," says Farm Foundation President Constance Cullman. "Farmers and landowners use conservation practices to protect soil and water, which they consider high-value operational assets. Federal and state programs exist to help finance some of that conservation work. We also have private ventures seeking to initiate conservation or protect farm and ranch land from development for non-agricultural uses."

The forum will explore whether collaborations of those public and private efforts would yield better results for conservation goals. "We want to identify the challenges and opportunities of public-private collaboration. Who benefits? What hurdles exist? What goals could be met? What are the policy challenges?" Cullman says. "As Congress begins work on the next Farm Bill, it is a great time to examine this issue." Participating forum panelists will be:
  • Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agricultural Policy Program at the University of Illinois
  • John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust
  • Josette Lewis, associate vice president of ecosystems/sustainable agriculture, Environmental Defense Fund
  • Laura Peterson, manager of federal government relations at Syngenta.
Cullman will moderate the discussion. After comments from the panelists, the floor will be opened for questions and discussion.

The forum is free to attend, but you must pre-register. Click here to register to attend the forum in person. Click here to participate in the live audiocast. After the session, audio from the session will be available to download from the Farm Foundation website.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rural Mass. retailer under fire after posing with Trump and order undermining Affordable Care Act

Dave Ratner is second from left; Sen. Rand Paul is at right. (AP photo by Mandel Ngan)
When the owner of some rural Massachusetts pet-and-beverage stores was invited to the White House for a photo opportunity with President Trump, he thought it was a reward for his years of lobbying to get more flexibility for small businesses like his in the health-insurance market. It was, but that's not all it turned out to be. Now it is a public-relations nightmare, due to social media and the strong opinions about Trump.

Dave Ratner has owned Dave's Soda and Pet City for 42 years, a small chain with locations around small-town New England (Stafford Springs, Conn., and Agawam, Ware, Northampton, Ludlow, and Hadley, Mass.) "Ratner attended President Trump’s signing Thursday of an executive order authorizing changes to the Affordable Care Act designed to create cheaper — and less comprehensive — health insurance plans. An Associated Press photograph of the event, with Ratner smiling broadly behind Trump, has come back to haunt him," Laurie Loisel reports for The Boston Globe.

The photo brought Ratner criticism on social media, a wave of angry callers to his shops, long-time customers swearing off shopping at his stores, and some circulating petitions calling for boycotts. Ratner called it the "worst two days of my life."

Ratner, who says he is not a Trump supporter, said he was invited because he's actively lobbied Washington as member of the National Retail Federation. "For years through this federation, his company and others negotiated for cheaper group-insurance rates, giving them some of the advantages large companies have," Loisel reports. "With the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, this negotiating power vanished. Since then, he has trekked to Washington, D.C., annually, talking to anyone who will listen about how unfair that is."

Two weeks ago, the federation called Ratner and invited him to a ceremony where, they said, Trump would sign an order restoring that negotiating power back to small businesses. Ratner says he was happy to hear it, but didn't realize exactly what the signing meant, and didn't dig further into it. "I absolutely abhor what he did, and I would not have been there had I known what was happening," Ratner told the Globe. He has hired a Boston public-relations firm to rebuild his company's image. "It was 42 years of building a wonderful brand, and having it destroyed in one day," he said.

Quick hits: white nose still decimating bats; the language people use to talk about rural Americans; how the end of coal will hurt the Navajo; how Puerto Rico and Appalachia are alike

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

White-nose fungus is still decimating bat populations, Dave Levitan reports for Earther. The population decline in Pennyslvania's bat population is over 99 percent. Experts say some bat species may go extinct because of it, and other species will be scarce for a long time to come.

The rural-urban divide is more pronounced now than it has been in generations, and the slang people use to talk about rural Americans is a symbol of that, Nora Mabie reports for In These Times. But what's behind that slang? Mabie digs into the history of derogatory terms such as "hillbilly" and "redneck" and discusses also the more positive idealized images of rural America--and how marketers have exploited them.

Much has been made of the impact of coal's decline on Appalachia, but the Navajo in Arizona are in the same boat, Ian Frisch reports for Climate Changed. The story explores coal's complicated stature in a rural reservation where people revere living in harmony with the earth, but coal is the biggest employer.

An editorial from The Roanoke Times talks about how Puerto Rico and Appalachia can help each other. Both regions are rural, and both need a "Marshall Plan" level of intervention. Proposed federal budget cuts would hurt both areas, so perhaps they should join forces in Washington D.C. to lobby for help.

Web briefing for journalists will examine landscape of Obamacare following recent announcements

A web briefing at noon ET Wednesday will examine the landscape around Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act marketplaces and the open enrollment period beginning Nov. 1, which continues to shift with the Trump administration’s announcements last week.

"Though the 2010 health law remains intact for now, consumers will see fundamental differences this year when it comes to signing up for 2018 marketplace plans. Premiums are increasing significantly in some states, though not all consumers will feel the impact," says the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is sponsoring the webinar.

"The enrollment period is shorter. will experience regular planned outages. And understanding plans and their true costs could be more challenging, due to steps insurers and regulators took to mitigate political uncertainty about the ACA. Additionally, fewer navigators will be available to help consumers with their questions, following deep funding cuts from the federal government."

The web briefing, which is only for news media, will examine these issues:
What are implications of a shortened open enrollment period? (Nov. 1-Dec. 15, half as long as last year)
What are trends in premium changes for 2018, and how does this compare to prior years?
Who is subject to premium increases, and which plans do the increases apply to?
Who is eligible for financial assistance, and how does this assistance affect affordability of coverage?
What can consumers expect when it comes to choice of insurers in marketplaces?
When and how can consumers renew their coverage or shop for a new plan?
Where can consumers get help signing up for coverage, and how does this differ from prior years?
What is the penalty for not having health insurance in 2018, and who is exempt?
What is the potential impact on marketplace premiums of President Trump’s decision to end cost-sharing subsidy payments to insurers?
How have other actions by the Trump administration affected marketplaces, and what is the outlook going forward?

Panelists will include Larry Levitt, senior vice president for special initiatives and co-executive director of the foundation’s Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance; Karen Pollitz, senior fellow at the foundation; and Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform and associate director of the foundation’s Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured. To RSVP for the briefing, click here.

Expensive wildfire season triggers proposed budget cuts that would hurt rural Montana

Proposed cuts to Montana's budget would cripple safety net services in rural Montana, Oscar Peña writes in an opinion column for the Montana Standard. Peña is the public policy coordinator of the Montana Food Bank Network.

After an expensive wildfire season, state legislators now have two choices: "accept nearly 10% cuts to every state agency, or have a special session and attempt to pass revenue-generating legislation to defray some of the cuts," Peña writes. Some rural areas are already reeling after the fires caused a reduction in recreation and tourism spending.

One proposal is to close 19 of the state's 37 Offices of Public Assistance, which provide in-person help for people applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Medicaid. All 19 affected offices serve rural Montana, where resources are already scarce. "Despite being rural communities, these offices serve a significant number of Montanans with nearly 19,500 SNAP participants in these counties alone," Peña writes.

If the offices are closed, seniors, the poor, and rural residents would lose a critical resource, and remaining offices would be overwhelmed, he says.

Experts doubt dicamba limits will stop crop damage

Some U.S. weed experts say they don't think new federal restrictions on the controversial herbicide dicamba will keep it from damaging crops next year. That's because the Environmental Protection Agency's limits focus on application, not volatilization -- the chemical's propensity to turn into a powder after application and drift elsewhere.

"Under EPA’s guidelines, only certified pesticide applicators, or people under their supervision, will be allowed to spray dicamba formulations manufactured by Monsanto and BASF next year," Emily Flitter and Tom Polansek report for Reuters. "That restriction may not do much to reduce crop damage related to sprayings, though, because many farmers and commercial applicators are already certified, experts said."

Aaron Hager, a weed scientist and professor at the University of Illinois, told Reuters that "nothing in these new restrictions addresses volatility, and that’s still an issue." The new guidelines also limit the times and wind speeds for dicamba application, and require farmers to keep records proving they're spraying the herbicide according to instructions on the label.

The changes were proposed by Monsanto, which blamed most of the crop damage on improper application. The EPA will monitor the impact of the restrictions next year to see if further restrictions or a ban are needed later. Dicamba has recently been blamed for causing damage to oak trees and older strains of corn and soybeans.

"Jonas Oxgaard, an analyst for the investment management firm Bernstein, said the rules could slow the adoption of Monsanto’s Xtend soybean seeds by making it harder for farmers to find times when they are permitted to spray dicamba," Reuters reports.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Hardline American demands put NAFTA and Korea trade negotiations on the ropes

Negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement are on the ropes because President Trump's top negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, "is playing such extreme hardball with the Canadians and Mexicans . . . that sources close to the process say there's no chance of a compromise solution unless he changes tactics," Jonathan Swan reports for Axios. Withdrawing from NAFTA could cause big problems for farmers, many of whom voted for Trump. A host of lawmakers are begging Trump to stick with it for the sake of the farmers who depend on it.

Trump also wants a sunset clause that would cause NAFTA to dissolve five years from now unless all parties agree to extend it at that time, and has threatened to withdraw from it summarily unless he gets his way in the negotiations.

The automotive industry could lose out too, which could hurt Republicans since most of the top 10 states for auto manufacturing voted for Trump. A new study says up to 50,000 auto-parts jobs could be lost if the U.S. ditches NAFTA completely, and up to 24,000 jobs could be lost if the U.S. keeps NAFTA but pushes through stringent "Made in America" auto manufacturing requirements.

Trump wants tariff-free cars crossing the U.S. border for manufacturing to be made of at least 50 percent American parts. "That's viewed as a non-starter by virtually every party involved in automobile manufacture," according to The Canadian Press.

Renegotiation of the U.S. trade deal with South Korea, which also helps U.S. agriculture, aren't going so well either, and for much the same reason: hardball negotiation. But a poison pill to torpedo the deal may be the point: "Trump believes to his core that the deal is a scam," Swan writes. The negotiations matter, he says, because "Between NAFTA and KORUS you're talking more than $1 trillion in annual trade in goods and services. Withdrawal would do far more than simply roil the U.S. markets; it would profoundly alter U.S. alliances, test a crucial national security partnership in Asia, and could result in the election of a hard core leftist (and no friend to the USA) in Mexico."

Cost-sharing subsidies more prevalent in Trump states; his end of them could have big rural impact

On Oct. 12, President Trump made good on threats to pull the cost-sharing subsidies that reimburse insurers for reducing out-of-pocket costs of lower- and moderate-income people with Obamacare insurance policies. Here's an update on what that means and what could happen because of it.

About 7 million people, 58 percent of all marketplace enrollees, got cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies in 2017, which cost the government about $7 billion. Nearly 70 percent of these enrollees live in pro-Trump states and many have no other current insurance options. Insurers are still required by law to offer these plans in the markets they serve, but without CSRs, insurers will likely either hike rates or withdraw from some markets entirely, Hannah Recht reports for Bloomberg. Most of the counties that have only one Obamacare insurer are rural.
In some places, nearly all policyholders get subsidies. (Bloomberg map; click to enlarge)
Most insurers feared Trump would end the subsidies and based their rates accordingly, Recht reports. Now his move may give them an exit clause. "Medica Health Plans recently exited North Dakota after state insurance officials there would not accept Medica’s high-rate, no-CSR request, she writes. "With less than three weeks until open enrollment, we’ll be watching closely to see if other companies choose to leave."

The attorneys general for 17 states and the District of Columbia filed suit against Trump's administration in an effort to block the subsidy cut-off.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have been working for months on a bill to give states more flexibility in implementing Obamacare and fund the subsidies, which are authorized by the law but have not received appropriations form Congress. President Obama used other means to pay them, but a court has ruled against that, and the case is on appeal.

Stephanie Armour reports for The Wall Street Journal, "Trump has privately told at least one lawmaker that the payments may continue if a bipartisan deal is reached on health care, according to people familiar with the matter on Capitol Hill and in the health-care industry." The next distribution of the subsidies was set for around Oct. 20, and the Department for Health and Human Services said they "will be discontinued immediately." Armour notes, "The administration is scheduled to update the court on the status of the case on Oct. 30."

Permits approved for two controversial pipelines

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted important permits for two controversial gas pipelines on Oct. 13. Getting a "Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity" means, effectively, that both pipelines can now claim private land for easements through eminent domain.

For the $3.7 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline, "securing FERC’s blessing moved the venture a giant step forward toward launching construction of the 42-inch diameter, 303-mile buried pipeline. The project would transport about 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas that has been extracted by fracking in the Appalachian Basin," Duncan Adams reports for The Roanoke Times.

Some private land owners were upset about the MVP. The late Clarence Givens of Giles County, Virginia, was so upset about it that he talked about halting pipeline construction in his obituary.

Other stakeholders support the pipeline, saying it's an important step in growing the region's economy.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which secured the same type of permit on Oct. 13, would run 600 miles from West Virginia through eight counties of rural North Carolina, Lauren Ohnesorge reports for the Triangle Business Journal

Free webinar on rural HIV and AIDS set for Nov. 7

The Rural Health Information Hub and the the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis, part of the research organization Norc at the University of Chicago, will host a free webinar, "Rural HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment," Thursday, Nov. 7.

The one-hour webinar will begin at 1 p.m. EDT, and will present a toolkit designed to help rural communities plan, implement and sustain HIV/AIDS programs. The toolkit was developed by Norc for the federal Office of Rural Health Policy. The speakers will discuss examples of successful programs and lessons learned. Featured speakers will be:
  • Alycia Bayne, senior research scientist at the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis;

  • Daniel Wakefield, interim director of the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry in Youngstown, Ohio; and 

  • Lisa McKeithan, director of Positive Life and the North Carolina Rurally Engaging and Assisting Clients who are HIV positive and Homeless (NC REACH) project at CommWell Health
 A recording will be available on the Rural Hub website afterward. Click here to register or for more information.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Congress helped drug manufacturers loosen federal oversight of opioid shipments last year, quietly

After years of being lobbied by drug manufacturers, Congress last year stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most effective tool to police drug distributors, “even as the opioid epidemic raged and thousands of Americans were dying of overdoses.” So says The Washington Post, introducing its report of a joint investigation with CBS's “60 Minutes” found.

"A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills," the Post reports. "The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns."

The story notes that millions of pills were sent to Mingo County, West Virginia by Miami-Luken Inc. of Springboro, Ohio. "Many went to one pharmacy in Williamson, the county seat, population 2,924," the Post reports. "In one month alone, Miami-Luken shipped 258,000 hydrocodone pills to the pharmacy, more than 10 times the typical amount for a West Virginia pharmacy. The mayor of Williamson has since filed a lawsuit against Miami-Luken and other drug distributors, accusing them of flooding the city with pain pills and permitting them to saturate the black market."

The bill requires the DEA to show that a “substantial likelihood of an immediate threat” of death, serious bodily harm or drug abuse before it can freeze drug shipments. It passed the House and Senate by unanimous consent, a non-debating procedure usually "reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial," the Post reports.

"The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials." However, the Post and CBS report that Attorney General Eric Holder warned that an earlier version of the bill would undermine DEA's ability to block suspicious drug shipments. Obama and Loretta Lynch, attorney general at the time, declined to be interviewed.

Joe Rannazzisi, former DEA official (CBS News photo)
Near the start of the process, Joe Rannazzisi, who ran DEA's program to keep drugs from being diverted for illegal purposes, told congressional staffers, "You'll be protecting criminals." DEA's already poor relationship with Congress went downhill, the bill passed the House, the DEA administrator resigned for unrelated reasons, Rannazzisi lost his job, and the agency "was forced to accept a deal it did not want" in the Senate, CBS reports. "The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies."

Republicans Tom Marino of Pennsylvania and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee sponsored the bill, drafted by a former DEA lawyer who went to work for drug companies and now works for Cardinal Health, the distributor that pushed back earliest and hardest on DEA enforcement efforts. on It was steered through the Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. President Trump has nominated Marino to be head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Marino’s staff called the U.S. Capitol Police when the Post and '60 Minutes' tried to interview the congressman at his office on Sept. 12," the Post reports.

UPDATE, Oct. 16: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked Trump to withdraw Marino's nomination; on Oct. 17, Trump tweeted that Marino had withdrawn.

DEA had fined Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. millions for filling suspicious orders. AmerisourceBergen is the other major drug distributor in the U.S. CBS's Bill Whitaker asked Rannazzisi, "These big companies knew they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people?" Rannazzisi replied, "That's a fact. . . . This is an industry that's out of control."

The Post reports, "The DEA and Justice Department have denied or delayed more than a dozen requests filed by the Post and '60 Minutes' under the Freedom of Information Act for public records that might shed additional light on the matter. Some of those requests have been pending for nearly 18 months. The Post is now suing the Justice Department in federal court for some of those records."

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ky. leads in development of commercial hemp, but crop's potential in needy Eastern Ky. is limited

In 2014, the University of Kentucky grew the state's first
legal hemp since World War II. (Photo by Chase Milner)
Hemp offers limited hope for Eastern Kentuckians looking for an economic alternative to the region's shrunken coal industry, Rachel Cramer reports in the "Crossing the Divide" series produced by the Ground Truth Project and Boston's WGBH. Her story aired on West Virginia Public Broadcasting's "Inside Appalachia."

Kentucky is a leader in the development of commercial hemp, under special provisions that its representatives put the 2014 Farm Bill. In the state this year, 200 approved growers planted 3,000 acres, Cramer reports. Most crops are in Central and Western Kentucky; hilly Eastern Kentucky has much less land for farming, and a limited history of commercial agriculture.

"We can't expect Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia to become major contributors to hemp as a commodity crop," University of Kentucky agronomist David Williams told Kramer. He is among researchers who are trying to determine what varieties and growing methods produce the greatest yields at Kentucky's latitude and climate, under a program overseen by the state Department of Agriculture.

Hemp has a reputation of growing anywhere, but that doesn't mean it can grow productively anywhere. Nathan Hall told Kramer that he tried it on strip-mined land and failed, but Williams said there is potential in Appalachia's narrow valleys for growing seeds and seedlings that could be sold to hemp farmers elsewhere.

Kramer reports that some of Kentucky's hemp was planted for for fiber, but most was for cannabidiol, an oil with medicinal properties. "The hemp strains with the highest CBD levels also have higher levels of THC," the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, another product of the cannabis plant. "If the THC content is higher than 0.3 percent, the grower is required to burn the crop."

Friday, October 13, 2017

Innovative program brings attorneys to rural S.D.

After five years, an innovative program to attract attorneys to rural South Dakota is not only thriving, it's growing. More than 60 percent of attorneys in the state live and work in four cities: Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, and the tiny state capital of Pierre, so rural residents often have to travel great distances to access legal representation.

Project Rural Practice was launched in 2013 by the state's Unified Judicial System and the South Dakota Bar Association to address the disparity. They and the legislature pay 35 percent of incentives to help keep attorneys in rural areas. Each attorney receives about $60,000 over five years. After the fifth year, the attorney can choose to stay in the community or move elsewhere. The program's creators hope that, by the fifth year, the attorneys will choose to stay because they've put down roots.

By all accounts, the program is doing well. Two years ago the state expanded it to include an internship program and to let most counties to qualify for the program. "The pilot 16 attorneys of Project Rural Practice have only seen one dropout, and the program has funding to expand to 32 attorneys by 2022," Libby Leyden reports for The Daily Republic in Mitchell. Another group of 16 attorneys is in the process of being accepted and placed in communities, said Suzanne Starr, director of the Division of Policy and Legal Services.

But, "The true measure of real success will be who from the program stays after their fifth year," Starr told Leyden. "We have a lot of kids in law school that want to go home, back to these rural areas and practice law. We are probably going to fill up the next round pretty quickly."

EPA plan to scale back renewable fuels puts Trump at odds with Grassley, rest of Iowa delegation

The Environmental Protection Agency's plan to scale back the amount of renewable fuels that have to be blended with gasoline and diesel fuel could cause problems for President Trump, Dino Grandoni writes in today's "The Energy 202" for The Washington Post.

Sen. Chuck Grassley
In his campaign and in June rally in Iowa, Trump promised to support biofuels, and that helped him with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, who "began embracing Trump long before the rest of the GOP establishment did," Grandoni notes. But EPA's plans for the Renewable Fuel Standard have brought the two into conflict, and put the administration and the Iowa congressional delegation "on a collision course over an issue central to the economic viability of biofuels — and to the farmers in Iowa growing the corn and other agricultural products that go into them," Grandoni writes.

Trump's promises to support ethanol helped him place second in the Iowa caucus and go on to win that and other Midwestern states in the general election, said Grant Kimberley, a corn and soybean farmer in Iowa and executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board. "Rural America elected President Trump, and that was one of the key factors in the Midwest," he told Grandoni. Then, as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry were confirmed, they "promised, unprompted, to support ethanol," Grandoni reports. "Yet in none of Grassley's conversations — with Pruitt, with Perry or with Trump — did the administration make specific assurances about RFS levels going forward, the senator said." Grassley is to meet with Pruitt next week.

Other issues of more interest to the president may be in play. Grassley is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in last year's election, and this "is in a better position than most other Republicans in Congress to tighten the screws on the Trump administration."

Craft breweries can revitalize small-town economies, attract millennial residents

Chris Hernstrom at the Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine, Neb. (NPR photo by Kirk Siegler)
Small-town revitalization can come from many sources; why not beer? Small-town economies all over the Midwest are getting a lift from microbreweries, and maybe helping attract millennials to live there. One of those towns is Valentine, Nebraska, a town of 2,700 in Cherry County, the state's largest in land area. Chris Hernstrom was once a brewer in Bend, Oregon, but decided to open up the Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine. "It just seemed like an interesting challenge to come out to basically the exact opposite of Bend, some place where the brewing industry is still in its fledgling stages," Hernstrom told NPR's Kirk Siegler. Many of his customers are Millennials who love living in a small town but crave city amenities. Some are completely new to town, but many moved back after college or living in a city.

Cherry County, Nebraska
(Wikipedia map)
"While it's probably too early to call it a trend, what is happening in Valentine is part of a broader cultural phenomenon in rural America," Siegler reports. "Young people who grew up in small towns and have been watching them struggle from afar are feeling this calling to come home."

Valentine's 35-year-old mayor, Kyle Arganbright, is himself a recently repatriated resident. Valentine was already doing fairly well, with a thriving agricultural economy and plenty of tourists drawn to the nearby Sand Hills. But Arganbright says he sees a lot of opportunity in Valentine, and sees the brewery as a springboard for that--in fact, he and a friend are two of Bolo's main investors, Siegler reports. "If you're not growing, you're dying," he told Siegler. "You can't sit there stagnant, particularly when all these urban populations are exploding."

Simmering conflict between mining and clean water come to a head in northern Minnesota

Ely, Minnesota, is "a focus of a national debate about the proper use of public lands," Reid Forgrave writes in a long but interesting story for The New York Times Magazine. "The place also distills the political fault lines in today’s America, pitting an angry working class against progressive activists."

Boundary Waters Canoe Area; blue dots mark entry points
(Map from Boundary Waters Outfitters, Ely, Minnesota)
Since its founding in 1888, people have come to Ely mostly "to make a living off the rocks. The ore supported abundant mining jobs for generations," Forgrave reports. "For almost as long, however, people have been coming to this area for another reason, too: to visit America’s most popular national wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which encompasses roughly a million protected acres and thousands of lakes and welcomes 150,000 visitors annually. "

The simmering conflict between the two interests has come to a head because "An international mining conglomerate has invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade toward potential copper-nickel mines a few miles outside the Boundary Waters," Forgrave writes. "Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta  . . . hopes to process 20,000 tons of mineralized ore a day. The company believes the area’s valuable metals — copper, nickel, platinum, palladium, gold and silver — can be extracted in an environmentally responsible way and can provide hundreds of jobs to the job-starved economy of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, along the northwestern coast of Lake Superior." The mining would be underground, just southeast of Ely.

The Obama administration refused in December to renew Twin Metals’ leases and imposed a moratorium pending a study on mining near the Boundary Waters. "Depending on its findings, the stoppage could be a prelude to what conservationist groups here hope for most: a 20-year prohibition on mining in a 230,000-acre portion of the Rainy River Watershed that includes land surrounding the Boundary Waters," Forgreve writes. "That could lead to a permanent end to mining around the Boundary Waters."

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents the area, and others are trying to abolish the moratorium. "The battle is being fought on both moral and economic grounds," Forgrave reports. "Mining advocates stress the hundreds of tangible construction and mining jobs this copper-nickel operation could create in the coming decades. Boundary Waters activists argue that the very presence of mining — its disruption of this area’s natural character, not to mention the specter of pollution — could hamper the region’s “amenity-based” development in a multitude of tangible and intangible ways, from destroying property values to stripping away jobs that feed off this area’s natural beauty."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Childhood trauma can cause long-lasting harm to rural adults; help less available in rural areas

People living in rural areas are more likely to deal with poor physical and mental health; the reasons are a complicated web of interconnected factors such as smoking or drug use, workplace hazards, lack of access to physical or mental health care, poverty, and despair. But another reason for poor health is adverse childhood experiences, which are "significant disturbances in a child’s life that affect their security and ability to function in healthy ways. ACEs include all forms of child abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), or household dysfunction (divorce, violence, incarceration, substance abuse, or mental illness)," Jenn Lukens reports for the Rural Health Information Hub. ACEs can cause a self-perpetuating cycle of poor life outcomes that in turn create more ACEs for the next generation.

ACE exposure in rural adults. (Source)
According to a 1998 study by insurer Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to experience chronic health conditions, anxiety disorders, a lack of accomplishment in life (career, etc.) and even early death. Subsequent studies confirmed that research and found that "because the central nervous system closely interacts with the body’s immune, hormone, and clotting systems, adverse experiences in a child’s life, especially repeated ones, can change how the organ systems function later on. This process is known as 'biological embedding' and could take years or even decades before symptoms start to show," Lukens reports. And rural children are more likely to experience certain ACEs such as poverty, living with a mentally ill person, and living with a person who abuses drugs or alcohol.

Dr. Jean Talbot of the Maine Rural Health Research Center led research for a 2016 study that looked at how ACEs affect adults in both rural and urban areas. "ACEs cluster together. People who report having an ACE are more likely to have more than one," Talbot told Lukens. "It’s easy to think of ways that this could happen. For example, if a parent experiences incarceration or mental illness, this in itself is an ACE for the children in the family, but it can also impair the adult’s ability to care for kids. So it may open up the fault line exposing children to other types of adversity."

Helping kids deal with ACEs could have a big impact on rural health. "We know that ACEs are linked to high-risk health behaviors like smoking and alcohol abuse," Talbot said. "These, in turn, contribute to health outcomes like heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes – some of the major causes of the widening rural-urban mortality gap. So, if we want to close this gap, we may need to address rural ACEs as part of that effort."

Some rural community clinics and school districts are trying to address ACEs with programs that train teachers to watch for kids facing adverse conditions, and other programs that help children process trauma. Pediatricians are often the first professionals to see that a rural child has had an adverse experience, so the CDC and some nonprofit groups are raising awareness with doctors about the importance of keeping an eye out for them.

Farmers looking to space to limit crop damage

Instead of looking out to their fields to keep an eye on their crops, farmers are increasingly looking upward: to space.

Farmers can't see what's happening in the middle of their fields once the crops start growing, so they've turned to alternative measures like drones in recent years. But drones "just weren't logically feasible," said Wade Barnes, president Farmer's Edge, a Winnipeg-based agriculture analytics company.

Satellite imagery is a promising avenue, though. On Oct. 11, Farmer's Edge and San Francisco-based Planet announced a partnership to "combine precision agriculture programs with what they say is the world’s largest fleet of earth-imaging satellites to better monitor the health of crops," Ian Bickis reports for The Canadian Press. "The snapshots of the field, taken almost daily by Planet’s current 190 earth imaging satellites, provide what they say is a clear and regularly updated picture of the growing conditions in the field, possibly alerting a farmer to something like a growing infestation of army worms eating at their wheat field."

Though farmers have used government and private satellites for some years to get a bird's-eye view of their fields, the new Farmer's Edge-Planet collaboration will provide more frequently-updated data than government satellites. That can help farmers find out about crop damage and stop it before it destroys the whole field, Bill Spiegel reports for The High Plains Journal.

Report: National energy mix forecast bright for renewables and gas, not for coal

Renewable energy makes an increasing part of our national energy mix, and a data and chart-laden report from Standard & Poor's Global says the trend is likely to continue. "Although Washington is sending mixed messages on renewables, states are likely to continue encouraging their use, especially as the price of renewable power decreases," says the report, which contains data for each state and serves as an excellent resource for any reporter writing about energy trends. Because of a pro-coal administration, renewable energy use may not expand as sharply in the near future, but it will still likely rise.

One reason is market forces. Many utilities are buying power from wind farms (or buying the wind farms outright) because it's cheaper. Solar is on the rise too: in 2016, 79 percent of added renewable energy capacity was for solar, though it makes up only 34 percent of the overall renewable energy mix. 

Another reason for the increasingly popularity of renewable energy is state laws. In 32 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia (but not the federal government) utilities are required to sell some electricity generated by renewable power. And federal tax credits have helped wind power-generated electricity to quadruple in the U.S. between 2001 and 2014.
What's on the horizon? Despite the Trump administration's ambivalence about renewable energy, "as long as the marginal cost of renewable generation remains negligible, federal efforts to revive languishing coal and nuclear assets may prove fruitless," the report says. But the report has a little good news for coal, whose main competitor is gas: "According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) annual energy outlook (Jan. 5, 2017) a modest recovery of natural gas prices from 2016-2020 will create favorable economics for electricity generation from coal vis-à-vis electricity generation from gas."
The make-up of the national energy mix. (S&P graphic; click on it to enlarge)
Gas will probably overtake coal permanently, but because of the administration's withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan, it'll likely happen by 2035 instead of 2030. "Similarly, renewable generation starts to converge with, but does not overtake, coal generation by 2040. This, of course is a consequence of the gradual retirement of coal assets, which we expect to occur as a result of shifting economics," the report says.

Wildfires hit recreation spending in rural areas

Rangers keep track of a fire in Glacier National Park. (Photo by Lisa Jones)
The 2017 wildfire season is already the most expensive in history due to the cost of fire suppression. Meanwhile, reduced recreation spending is also hurting state and local budgets, and probably the federal budget in a small way. Recreation and adventure tourism accounts for $887 billion in the U.S. economy each year, and some rural communities depend on that money.

"Across the Northwest, businesses that rely on recreation and tourism dollars have faced one of the most disruptive wildfire seasons on record. For Cycle Oregon alone . . . 2,000 cyclists either changed plans or canceled their trips altogether because fire and smoke made conditions hazardous and unhealthy. Disruptions like that can have a big cumulative impact on recreation-dependent communities," Bryce Oates and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

For example, visits at Glacier National Park were down 14 percent in August from last year, while the main attraction, Going-to-the-Sun Road, was closed. The nearby town of Whitefish depends heavily on hotel revenues from park visitors; this summer "was the first time that lodging tax collections decreased during the summer since the economic recession of 2009," said Dylan Boyle, the executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But Whitefish recreation promoter Lisa Jones told the Yonder that it's not all bad news: The park had a record high number of visitors this summer. Part of that is because of social media, she says. Nervous would-be tourists can find out quickly whether conditions are clear at the park and plan accordingly. "In 2015, I sent a letter to all of the local media, and some national media, telling them basically to not scare people away. The wildfires are not going to shut down the whole region. We’ve built a community infrastructure of diverse activities in diverse places," Jones said.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Charter schools reluctant to open in rural N.C.; online-only charters may not help, as Pa. shows

"One of the goals in erasing [North Carolina's] charter-school limit was for the schools to be able to open in rural counties. Yet more than six years after the legislature removed the cap on the number of charter schools, 40 of 100 counties still have no brick-and-mortar charter," Lynn Bonner reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh.

State leaders are promising to fix that. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest says he's trying to bring more charters to rural areas. And Dave Machado, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, told Bonner the same thing. Both acknowledged the difficulty in luring charters to rural, high-poverty areas. Forest told Bonner that rural and poor areas are less attractive because charters would have to spend more to provide student support services. Machado told Bonner that per-pupil spending is lower in rural counties. That matters because charter schools get a share of county education funds.

Some organizations are trying to bring more charters to rural counties. "The Carolina Small Business Development Fund announced in May that it is offering up to $5 million in loans to charter and private schools that want to expand. The fund is a community development financial institution that focuses on rural businesses and those owned by women or minorities. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina will review applicants and pass its recommendations to the lender," Bonner reports.

Some have championed online charter schools as an alternative to brick-and-mortar charters, but that approach is problematic. For one thing, rural areas often lack reliable, inexpensive internet access necessary for online schools. And too, the success rate of such ventures is questionable. "In Pennsylvania, an early adopter where more than 30,000 kids log into virtual charter schools from home most days, the graduation rate is a dismal 48 percent. Not one virtual charter school meets the state’s “passing” benchmark. And the founder of one of the state’s largest virtual schools pleaded guilty to a tax crime last year," Kimberly Hefling reports for Politico.

"The state’s 14 virtual charter schools have flourished in rural communities over the last 15 years — so much so that Pennsylvania, along with Ohio and California, now account for over half the enrollment in the nation’s full-time virtual charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools," Hefling reports. "But as the virtual schools have expanded, so have questions about their effectiveness. Large swaths of Pennsylvania kids leaving a brick-and-mortar school for one of the virtual charter alternatives went to one with lower math and reading performance, according to research based on the 2009-2010 school year compiled by the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania."

Virginia governor's race is a test for Democrats who have trouble appealing to rural voters

Northam (L) and Gillespie afterward (AP photo: Steve Helber)
The race for governor of Virginia is shaping up to be a prime example of Democrats' discomfort with rural issues, and its outcome may serve as a coal-mine canary for the party's efforts to win over rural voters in other states.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who grew up on the rural Eastern Shore, has been reticent to reach out to rural voters. He has spent little time campaigning in rural areas, and was "visibly uncomfortable" addressing coal Monday night in the latest gubernatorial debate, held at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in the Central Appalachian coalfield, James Hohmann reports in "The Daily 202" for The Washington Post.

"Northam struggles to talk about cultural issues like Confederate monuments and economic issues like coal in a way that resonates with these voters but does not alienate progressives who he needs to turn out for him in places like the D.C. suburbs," Hohmann reports. Republican Ed Gillespie, on the other hand, has spent considerable time and money campaigning in rural Virginia, especially in the southwest, where President Trump won 80 percent of the vote last year. The former chairman of the Republican National Committee was eager to go on the offensive about coal, promising to reinstate a coal tax credit if elected. He also celebrated the Trump administration's rescission of the Clean Power Plan and warned viewers that Northam would try to enact a Virginia version of the bill if elected, Hohmann notes.

The debate "brought political and media attention to a part of the state whose residents often feel left out of the discussion," reports Stuart Burrill of The Coalfield Progress in Norton. "This was the first time candidates for governor have debated west of Roanoke." That sounds like it was Gillespie's idea, and the non-rural orientation of Northam's campaign became clearer today with the announcement that Barack Obama will make his first post-presidency campaign appearance for Northam in Richmond Oct. 19, The Associated Press reports.

Northam has posted single-digit leads in polls, but Gillespie remains viable. If Northam loses, "It will set off Democratic alarm bells about the wisdom of their midterm strategy and generate a wave of nasty recriminations in the escalating civil war between the pragmatists and the leftists," Hohmann writes. "For Democrats, figuring out how to get a toehold back into rural territory is imperative. The biggest Senate battlegrounds in 2018 are in states like North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri."

Colorado media get better at exploring issues raised by bigger residential impact of wildfires

To view a larger version of this map, click on it.
The latest round of major wildfires, in Northern California, again raises the question of whether news-media fire reporting goes far enough beyond the events to the issues raised by the increasing fire damage along the "urban-rural interface," often a sharp boundary between near-wilderness and densely populated suburbs and exurbs.

"As wildfire trends worsen, it is increasingly important for communities in fire-prone regions to learn from past blazes and adapt to a more flammable future," Adrianne Kroepsch of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Division of the Colorado School of Mines, writes in The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academic researchers, first excerpted on The Daily Yonder.

Rural communities must face thse and other questions, Kroepsch writes: "How much more development should local governments allow in landscapes that have evolved to burn? How should federal agencies manage the overgrown forests generated by wildfire suppression in the past? And as climate change further amplifies wildfire hazards, how can residents of the wildland-urban interface adjust?"

News coverage can be important in such discussions, but "Past research has argued that the press is more interested in fanning the flames than digging down to root causes and finding a smarter way forward," Kroepsch writes. "But in a newly published study of wildfire coverage in Colorado, my co-authors and I found a more complicated story. When communities face multiple wildfires in a row, local media do in fact raise the tough policy questions that need to be asked in communities at the wildland-urban interface – at least for a little while."

Kroepsch and her colleagues studied Colorado news coverage of the state's worst fire season, in 2012. "An unexpected trend appeared: Articles published on wildfires’ anniversaries were more likely to bring up tough policy questions than stories published at other times of year," she reports. However. "On later anniversaries, local media backtracked on this dialogue. As time passed, reporters took to comparing Colorado’s three major burn zones against each other with a focus on which was rebuilding faster and bigger, framing these later commemorations as a race back to the status quo instead of asking what communities should be doing differently."

As NAFTA negotiations get to farm products, agricultural leaders speak up

As the North American Free Trade Agreement is renegotiated at President Trump's behest, American farmers want to make sure the administration knows how much the treaty has helped them. "U.S. farm leaders turned up the volume in the debate over the new NAFTA, worried that the success story of food and ag exports isn't being heard among the clamor for tougher U.S. trade rules," Chuck Abbott reports for Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said during a recent teleconference, "We have to be a player in the trade arena so we can move our product out of the country and feed the world." This round of negotiations is expected to be the first to focus on trade in agricultural commodities.

Those who favor NAFTA as it is have reason to worry. Trump said in an interview with Forbes that the U.S. would need to withdraw from NAFTA in order to negotiate better trade deals. And U.S Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue said in a speech in Mexico yesterday that "There are several poison-pill proposals … that could doom the entire deal." Phil Levy of Forbes writes, "These include measures such as a 'sunset clause' that would terminate NAFTA after five years unless there was unanimous agreement that it should continue. Or new restrictive rules of origin, dictating which cars would qualify as ‘North American’ for tariff preferences."

Two groups representing wheat farmers, U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, are bucking the trend, favoring withdrawal from NAFTA so the U.S. can negotiate better deals. "The head of U.S. Wheat said there have been no new trade agreements for a decade 'and zero additional market access for wheat farmers,'" Abbott reports.

Documentary shows sharp turn in environmental policy from Obama to Trump, mainly via Pruitt

Fossil-fuel industries have quickly turned from losers to winners with the change in the White House, and the big change is documented in "War on the EPA," a PBS "Frontline" documentary to be broadcast and posted online tonight. "The entire Obama environmental legacy is at stake," producer James Jacoby said this morning on MSNBC.

The show is essentially a profile of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who fought Obama's EPA as attorney general of Oklahoma and is trying to dismantle much of its major work, reports James Warren of The Poynter Institute, who saw an early version of the show. He writes, "Its strength is on-the-record interviews with key players on both sides, ranging from bombastic Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray and Southern Co. lobbyist Andrew Miller, on one side, to former top Obama aides and officials, as well as reporters [Jane] Mayer of The New Yorker and The New York Times' Eric Lipton on the other."

Warren adds, "Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize for astonishing disclosures about the relationship between the attorneys general, led by Pruitt, and the industry that supported them. It's as vivid a demonstration as one can find about the nexus of money and power. But, lest one get too cheery about the positive impact of great journalism, watch one Republican strategist on 'Frontline' declare that Lipton's revelations not only didn't hurt Pruitt in Oklahoma, they may have helped a man whose acts included copying energy company-crafted letters, and putting his letterhead on them, in filing protests with the EPA."

Meanwhile, today the Senate "will weigh whether to confirm as the chemical industry’s top regulator a scientist who over the past two decades has helped companies argue against stricter government regulation of potentially harmful compounds in everyday products," writes Brady Dennis of The Washington Post. "Critics say Michael Dourson, a University of Cincinnati professor and longtime toxicologist, is too closely tied to the chemical industry, and has too many conflicts of interest, to be considered for such a post. They point specifically to the nonprofit consulting group he founded in 1995, which over the years has produced research for chemical companies that showed little or no human health risks for their products." Other EPA nominations are also before the Senate today.

Pruitt and President Trump are playing to their partisan base, Dino Grandoni writes for the Post: "Although only 32 percent of U.S. adults approve of the Trump administration's handling of environmental issues, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June, a large majority — 69 percent — of Republicans favor it. . . . A few swing states crucial to Trump's margin of victory in the electoral college — Pennsylvania and Ohio — have a disproportionate number of voters working in fossil-fuel industries, while a few others — Iowa and Indiana — are full of farmers. Many of them were worried about how the Obama administration's water-pollution regulation . . . would hamstring the agriculture business." But “Even for those who don’t live in areas that are dependent upon energy-industry jobs, the energy issues became a line in the sand: If you can’t stand with us on energy, you can’t stand with us, period,” Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based Republican consultant, told the Post.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Readers save a small-town Michigan newspaper

Longmoore covers a public meeting in Saline. (Bridge photo by Jack Nissen)
And now for some heart-warming news from Michigan, where readers stepped up to save the local paper. The Saline Post is an online-only publication that has been the only source of news coverage for the town of 9,000 for the past five years. Bills were piling up for the one-man operation, so Tran Longmoore announced Aug. 5 that he was ceasing publication.

Within 20 minutes, Longmoore said that messages and calls began flooding in from readers, all offering support and asking what they could do to keep the Post alive, Jack Nissen reports for Bridge magazine, published by The Center for Michigan. Words weren't the only thing he got: the community started sending checks, too. "In 24 hours, Longmoore had enough money to keep publishing. Saline’s community newspaper had been saved by, of all things, the community itself," Nissen reports.

Sperling's Best Places map
At at time when some small newspapers are closing, Nissen wonders if the key to saving them isn't from "industry focus groups and page-view algorithms, but from readers themselves."

Longmoore said sometimes it's difficult to tell whether his work has an impact on the community, but locals say his presence is important. "When he was close to going out of business, I suddenly thought, 'How else would we know what’s going at city council meetings or the school district?'" said Lori Hall, who donates money monthly to the newspaper.

"By covering all these meetings and the field hockey team and the school board, you’re showing the community you are standing by them," Longmoore told Nissen. "You’re not just there to make money off of clicks. You’re providing a community service."