Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Judge strikes down 'guidance' that EPA used to block many mountaintop coal mining permits

The Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by setting a standard for water quality downstream from surface coal mines in Appalachia, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled today in a lawsuit filed by coal interests and states.

Walton said EPA has "only a limited role" in setting specific standards for states that have the authority to enforce federal water-pollution and strip-mining laws. EPA had used electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salty minerals in water, to block permits for dozens of mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. It did not go through the usual process of writing a regulation, instead issuing a "guidance" to state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, which also enforces the Clean Water Act.

The ruling was "another blow to the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal" coal mining, writes Ken Ward Jr. in The Charleston Gazette. "In January, Walton threw out EPA's plans to work with other agencies to more closely scrutinize certain mining-related water pollution permits for valley fill waste piles. And in March, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, also in the District of Columbia, overturned EPA's veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. EPA is appealing Jackson's ruling." It is likely to appeal Walton's too, reports Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy News.

Ward says Walton "noted the obvious: that it was unlikely his decision would end the growing debate over mountaintop removal's impact on the environment and public health, or on the future of coal in the region. Walton said it was not for him to decide "how to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region." (Read more)

One story of health insurance and health reform, doable in any American community

Here's a story for every news outlet in the United States, no matter how small or large: Randall Patrick of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown shows how the federal health-care reform law is having an effect at the individual level by telling the story of Bonnie Varnell, right, a local resident who was uninsured and is more than $65,000 in debt due to her fight against cancer.

For 18 years, Varnell worked at a daycare that didn't offer health insurance. She wasn't able to buy individual coverage because she had pre-exisiting conditions as a result of surgeries. She is only 59, so does not qualify for Medicare, and she didn't qualify for the federal law known as COBRA, which "allows workers to keep their company group health insurance benefits for up to 18 months after leaving their jobs, as long as they pay the entire premium," Patrick explains.

As a result, the bills kept mounting, despite hospitals giving the Varnells reduced rates through charity care. "I've been trying to pay something on every one," Varnell's husband Ed said of the bills he receives and has to delay paying in full. "It's really frustrating. We had never been late a day in our lives."

Now, Varnell has health insurance through a program created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "It costs her $315 a month and covers most of her costs after the deductible is met, but the law stipulates that a person with a pre-existing condition must be uninsured for at least six months before she or he can be eligible," Patrick explains.

Varnell's fear now is the program will be taken away if the Affordable Care Act is repealed after the November election. Patrick gives opponents of the law their say. (Read more)

Varnell is among the estimated 15 percent of people in her county who didn't have health insurance in 2009, the last year for which estimates are available. For the Census Bureau website with estimates for every county, go here

'Green ranchers' could redefine their trade

"A new breed of cowboy ... is changing how ranching is being done in the American West and might -- just might -- alter the dynamic in the 'range wars' that have engulfed the region for more than half a century," Todd Wilkinson of The Christian Science Monitor reports. The "green cowboys" are not "new arrivals carrying out green techniques for the feel-good sake of being green," though. They are real ranchers managing their land in "benevolent and environmentally sensitive ways because they think it will help them survive -- and make money," Wilkinson reports.

Rural Landscape Institute director Bill Bryan told Wilkinson that the old way of ranching is "giving way to a new paradigm," one that says raising animals to eat doesn't have to be at odds with protecting the environment. Wilkinson reports some of the biggest landowners in the West, including Ted Turner and John Malone, who own a combined 4.3 million acres, are embracing aspects of this paradigm. The "sustainable ranching movement" now has members in every Western state, Wilkinson reports.

Zachary Jones, right, manager and rancher of Twodot Land and Livestock Co., gave one example of his departure from the old ways of ranching: Rather than allowing cattle to graze on pastures unattended until vegetation is nearly gone, which can lead to greater dependence on expensive hay, antibiotics and pesticides, Jones fences his cattle into smaller areas with portable electric fences and only allows the cows to chews grass to a certain height, then shifts them to another areas.

While it may seem like just a fad connected to the overall "green movement," Wilkinson reports sustainable ranching "has been practiced in the region since the conquistadors." As Jones told Wilkinson: "Being a smart rancher – one who's still going to be here in another 50 years ... comes down to how you treat the land and build resilience over time that matters. In particular, it's about how well you manage grass and water." (Read more)

State and tribal courts report success in joint effort to help Native Americans get sober

A collaboration of state and trial courts in northern Minnesota to combat drug and alcohol addiction among Native Americans is reporting success, according to The Crime Report. Judges Korey Wahwassuck of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court and John Smith of Cass County Court addressed the National Criminal Justice Association National Forum about the partnership, known as Wellness Court, last week.

The Leech Lake court is working with courts in Cass and Itasca counties on the program, a variation on drug courts that exist in many counties across the U.S. in which participants are helped through a series of programs to curb their addiction. (Minnesota Indian Affairs Council map: Leech Lake Reservation and emblem)

The judges presented two success stories. One involved a mother of four who said she is now "an inspiration to her kids," and a father who had previously been through a dozen treatment programs, none of which worked except Wellness Court, which has kept him sober for 18 months. Wahwassuck said there's been a major "climate change" in his tribe. Members now talk about sobriety and recovery more than about heavy drinking. (Read more)

Women outnumber men in ag-related programs

Women enrolled in agriculture-related programs at the 67 U.S. land-grant universities outnumber the men, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Agricultural Education Information System.

Men outnumbered women in 2008-09, but the number of women enrolled in agriculture programs has increased almost 20 percent since then. Male enrollment is still higher in ag economics, ag engineering and plant sciences, but women outnumber men in animal sciences, food science and technology and agricultural public services.

Farm Progress reports the increasing number of women in agricultural programs "draws comparisons to the number of female farm operators, which has risen 19 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture," the most recent available. It found that 14 percent of farm operators are women. For the full report, go here.

Index of rural bankers lowers economic forecast for Plains states because of drought

This month's Rural Mainstreet Index from Creighton University in Omaha fell to its lowest level since September 2010, breaking a 10-month streak of being above growth-neutral, Marc Schober of Farmland Forecast reports. The RMI is now 47.9, down from 56.7, and persistent drought is believed to be the main culprit. The index comes from a survey of community bank presidents in rural areas of a 10-state region including from Missouri to Wyoming. it focuses on about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300.

Creighton Economist Ernie Goss told Schober, "The drought is putting a dent into the economies of the agriculturally dependent areas of the 10-state area ... We are now detecting warning signals of a significant economic reversal for rural areas." Goss added that weaker economic conditions are slowing farmland-price growth, and that farmers are reducing the amount of equipment they are buying.

The farmland price index decreased slightly in June, but remained above growth-neutral. The farm equipment sales index decreased "significantly," Schober reports. It's down to 46.1 from 54.7 since June, its lowest level since 2009. Bankers weighed in on the impact on ethanol and biodiesel production and of those with plants in their areas, 64 percent reported negative impacts, 21 percent indicated plant closures and 42 percent reported operations cutbacks. To read the full RMI report for this month, click here.

In southern W.Va., 5% of land has been mountaintop mined, but 22% of streams show harm from mining

About 5 percent of southern West Virginia has been excavated by mountaintop-removal coal mining, but 22 percent of the region's streams show significant harm to aquatic life, according to a study by Duke University researchers. The study could have implications in other areas with high rates of surface mining. (NASA satellite image: mine in Boone County)

Researchers say large amounts of minerals leach into streams from valley fills that have been filled with rock blasted from the mountaintops and ridges above. Sara Peach of Chemical and Engineering News reports that researchers have previously documented water pollution near individual mines, but have not been able to detect how far the pollution traveled, study author Emily Bernhardt said. Her study found harm to aquatic life in more than 1,700 miles of streams in southern West Virginia.

Bernhardt and her co-authors mapped chemical and biological data from 223 streams sampled by the state Department of Environmental Protection between 1997 and 2007, and found that salinity and mineral levels in the region's streams increased with the total area of mountaintop mines. They also discovered that as the number of mines increased, fewer sensitive insect species were found downstream. Substantial declines in insect populations were seen with just 1 percent of upstream land mined. In areas where 5 percent of upstream land has been mined, so many species have disappeared that the streams would qualify as biologically impaired, a designation that would place the streams on a list of waterways that states have to rehabilitate. (Read more)

Physician group wants milk out of school lunches

A nonprofit group that promotes a vegan diet is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recommend that Congress remove milk from school lunches because it is contributing to childhood obesity. (Photo by Kathleen Flynn, Tampa Bay Times)

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine calls milk an "ineffective placebo" and says a large body of research shows that drinking dairy milk doesn't improve bone health or prevent fractures in children. The group also says milk is "the number one source of saturated fat in children's diets," Feedstuffs reports. "We are asking Congress and the USDA to put children's interests above the interests of the dairy industry," said Susan Levin, PCRM's nutrition education director. She said focusing on milk as the most important source of calcium in children's diets "distracts schools and parents from foods that can actually build bones, like beans and leafy greens."

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak said in a statement, "Milk is the single largest contributor of nutrients in kids' diets," including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein and vitamins A, D and B12. (Read more)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Farm Bill extension would get most cuts from conservation programs, drawing much opposition

UPDATE, July 31: David Rogers of Politico reports "signs that House Republicans may pull back from a one-year extension of farm programs and focus instead on the immediate needs of drought-stricken livestock producers," partly because of Democratic and commodity-group opposition. Rogers calls the extension "highly divisive." (That's true of the Farm Bill itself, which is why GOP leaders are not taking it to the full House.) As for the extension measure, Rogers reports, "Fiscal conservatives and taxpayer groups are upset that the bill walks away from earlier promises to end costly direct cash payments to farmers. Environmentalists are agitated by the fact that the greatest share of the cuts to pay for the disaster aid would come from conservation programs."

Bob Meyer reports for Brownfield, "There are growing indications there are not enough votes in the House and Republican leadership may pull the bill before it is scheduled to come to the floor Wednesday." Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, wants the extension only as a path to a conference on a five-year bill, but tea-party Republicans oppose that strategy. (Read more)

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says one-year Farm Bill extension that House Republican leaders will try to pass this week, probably Wednesday, would reduce direct spending next year by $400 million, mainly by cutting conservation programs, "while disaster assistance programs to help livestock producers with the drought would receive increases in the short term," Amanda Peterka reports for Environment & Energy News, a subscription-only service.

Extending the cuts for 10 years, as is done in most federal budget estimates these days, would take $759 million from conservation programs. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be cut $350 million, with most of the cuts front-loaded to the near-term; the Conservation Stewardship Program would be reduced by $289 million, $31 million in most years.

Direct subsidy payments to farmers, which would be eliminated under farm bills approved by the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate, would be cut "$29 million a year starting in fiscal 2014, for a total reduction of $261 million over the next decade," Peterka reports. "Disaster assistance would increase by $365 million in fiscal 2013, $235 million in fiscal 2014 and $21 billion in 2015 to help farmers and ranchers devastated by the drought." For the CBO report, click here.

Lists of post offices being 'optimized' and those with expiring leases bear watching

Worried about the future of your post office? The Save The Post Office blog is doing some recon for you. It reports that you need to be concerned your post office is closing if the U.S. Postal Service is moving carriers to another facility — that’s called Delivery Unit Optimization (DUO) — or if its lease will expire in the next year. If both are happening, the blog suggests, you don't hold your breath for great postal service in the future. About 58 post offices are being DUOed this summer and also have leases expiring in the next 12 months, Save the Post Office reports. The list is here.

The blog also notes "that 38 of the 58 post offices being DUOed and with a lease expiring soon are also on the POStPlan list. It’s very likely that in many of these cases, the Postal Service is moving the carriers not in preparation for closing the post office, but because under POStPlan there won’t be a full-time postmaster to supervise the carriers."

The USPS website explains, “Delivery Unit Optimization involves relocating letter carriers out of local post offices, stations and branches and consolidating them into centralized delivery offices that will continue to be served by the same processing and distribution center. The existing retail operation will require less space and the office could then be downsized to a smaller space nearby."

Save The Post Office suggests that those interested should keep an eye on the list of those being DUOed with a lease expiring soon, and to see how many of them "end up being suspended, closed, or relocated. It will be a good indication of whether the Postal Service really plans to preserve post offices under POStPlan, or if it's just a distraction while the Postal Service continues to close them." (Read more)

Analysts blame market, not feds, for coal layoffs; say mid-Appalachia at start of long production drop

Coal train at Cumberland, Ky.
(Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram)

The prevailing opinion in Central Appalachia seems to be that federal anti-pollution rules are to blame for the loss of coal jobs — the "war on coal" that officials in the region decry — but independent analysts of the industry say market factors have been more responsible for recent, large layoffs.

Most notably, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader, they "pointed to historically low prices for natural gas and the unseasonably warm winter, which left power plants with stockpiles of coal. Other factors, such as the slow recovery in manufacturing and the broader economy, also have played parts in the drop in demand for coal." And while that is bad enough news for the region, analysts now say that Central Appalachia is at the front end of a steep, long-lasting drop in coal production. "Some of these mines are not going to come back," said Michael Dudas, a managing director at investment firm Sterne, Agee & Leach, Inc. who follows the coal industry. 

Changes in drilling technology allow companies to unlock vast new sources of natural gas, sending supplies up and prices sharply down. The May price for gas was 43 percent lower than just a year earlier, said Manoj Shanker, one of Kentucky's Education and Workforce Development Cabinet economists. Many U.S. utilities have switched from coal to natural gas for electricity generation as a result.

In April, the national share of electricity generated using natural gas matched coal's share, at 32 percent, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Agency began keeping such records in 1973. "The Central Appalachian coalfield, made up primarily of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, faces other challenges as well, including competition from cheaper Wyoming coal and relatively high production costs," Estep writes. "It also costs more to produce coal in Eastern Kentucky, in part because the area has been mined for a century. Companies naturally went after the best seams first; those that are left are harder to get at, meaning higher mining costs and lower productivity." (Read more)

Health reform's expansion of insurance means doctor shortages are about to get worse

Doctor shortages are most chronic in rural America, but now even places with growing populations like Southern California's Inland Empire are feeling the considerable pinch of not having enough doctors to provide care for a growing number of patients. Thus, some medical crises that face California's Riverside County or suburban Phoenix mirror those found in places like the Mississippi Delta, where there are too few specialists, too few doctors willing to take Medicaid and all are overworked because 9 percent of the nation's doctors take care of 20 percent of the country's population, report Annie Lowrey and Robert Pear of The New York Times. (NYT chart)

The problem is expected to spread under federal health reform, they write. With the expansion of insurance coverage and aging baby boomers driving up demand, "The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that in 2015 the country will have 62,900 fewer doctors than needed. That number will more than double by 2025," Lowrey and Pear report. "Even without the health-care law, the shortfall of doctors in 2025 would still exceed 100,000." In addition, Medicare officials predict their enrollment will surge to 73.2 million in 2025, up 44 percent from 50.7 million this year because of the baby boomer demographic hitting their golden years. “Older Americans require significantly more health care,” said Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, the president of the medical-college association. “Older individuals are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions, requiring more intensive, coordinated care.”

Medical-school enrollment is increasing, but not as fast as the population. The number of training positions for medical-school graduates is lagging. Younger doctors are on average working fewer hours than their predecessors. And about a third of the country’s doctors are 55 or older, and nearing retirement. (Read more)

A leading climate-change denier switches, says earth is warming and humans are the main cause

In what is being described as both "a bombshell" and "a man-bites-dog" story, a leading skeptic of climate change has dramatically reversed his position after a study he conducted with money from an even larger critic of climate science, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. On the opinion pages of The New York Times, Richard Muller, left, is unequivocal about his new position: "Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

He continues: "The careful analysis by our team is laid out in five scientific papers now online at BerkeleyEarth.org. That site also shows our chart of temperature from 1753 to the present, with its clear fingerprint of volcanoes and carbon dioxide, but containing no component that matches solar activity. Four of our papers have undergone extensive scrutiny by the scientific community, and the newest, a paper with the analysis of the human component, is now posted, along with the data and computer programs used. Such transparency is the heart of the scientific method; if you find our conclusions implausible, tell us of any errors of data or analysis." Muller's opinion page piece is here.

Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, said Muller’s conversion might help shape the thinking of the "reasonable middle" of the population "who are genuinely confused and have been honestly taken in" by attacks on climate science. The Los Angeles Times's Neela Banerjee writes that Koch Foundation spokeswoman Tonya Mullins said the support her foundation provided, along with others, had no bearing on results of the research. "Our grants are designed to promote independent research; as such, recipients hold full control over their findings," Mullins said in an email. "In this support, we strive to benefit society by promoting discovery and informing public policy."

Regional network suggests Appalachian coal states put some severance tax dollars into endowments

A coalition of citizens' groups in Central Appalachia is recommending that Eastern coal states follow the example of their Western counterparts and put part of their severance-tax revenue into endowments that would permanently provide earnings to help their regional economies. Seven states in the West "use severance taxes to create permanent trust funds that can help state economies in the future," reports Paul J. Nyden for the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va. "Many of those funds add up to billions of dollars."

A study by the Central Appalachia Regional Network notes that severance taxes represent a significant portion of state government income in two Central Appalachian states: nearly 9 percent of state revenues in West Virginia and 3.3 percent in Kentucky. In four other states covered by the group -- Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia -- severance taxes generate less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the states' total revenues.

CARN, a diverse group of regional organizations assembled and funded by the W.K Kellogg Foundation, proposed that a minimum of 1 percent of all severance taxes be placed into permanent endowments in each state. "This would not only help these states meet many of their economic challenges but ensure that future generations benefit from the mineral wealth that is in their communities," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The CARN study is available here.

The Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which is not part of CARN, earlier this year suggested a similar plan financed by an increase in the severance tax. If Kentucky raised the tax to 5.5 percent from 4.5 percent, it could create more than $700 million in a fund by 2035, MACED said.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mayor's courts of Ohio are a relic unlikely to change, since they fatten small-town coffers

They've been called "Boss Hogg backwood justice," and the more specific "rap sheet" against local mayor’s courts in rural Ohio says some judges spend public funds on holiday parties and flower arrangements, fail to properly account for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and use speed-trap traffic fines to prop up village budgets, Justin Conley and Rebecca McKinsey report for the Columbus Dispatch. Despite longstanding criticism, they write, "No one seems willing or able to make changes" to fix what's wrong with the courts, which dispense justice to tens of thousands of Ohioans and demand fines totaling millions of dollars every year.

The state doesn’t require the mayors or magistrates in the courts to have law degrees, and is hardly paying attention to them, write Conley and McKinsey, fellows in Ohio University’s Statehouse News Bureau. The state Supreme Court doesn't go after the officials when they violate the law by failing to provide information to the high court, and "The state auditor’s office, which has found repeated instances of misspending and other problems, says it doesn’t have enforcement power to take corrective action." Former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin, a Cuyahoga Falls Republican, said he thinks mayor's courts "have no place in a modern society where you have to have complete integrity in your judicial system.”

The senior justice of the Supreme Court, Paul E. Pfeifer, is the most vocal critic of mayor's courts. “People . . . come out of there feeling like they just participated in a bad spaghetti western,” he said, “where the cabinet maker or coffin maker takes off his apron, sits on a bench with a gavel and metes out justice.” Like many critics, Pfeifer said mayor’s courts are often more about fattening a community’s bottom line than protecting its residents. Some collect far more from mayor’s courts than from all local taxes combined.

There were 318 mayor’s courts in Ohio in 2011, and 76 percent of them were in villages with fewer than 5,000 residents. Supporters, many with ties to small communities, say mayor’s courts are convenient, easy to navigate and inexpensive. “For every one that may not be up to snuff, there are a hundred that do an excellent job,” Magistrate Charles "Kip" Kelsey told the Dispatch. “The fact that Louisiana and Ohio are the only two states that have these mayor’s courts — are we then backward? Or maybe we’re forward. I like to think that maybe we’re progressive." New York and West Virginia have similar courts. (Read more)

Rural areas have higher home ownership than national average, much of it free and clear of debt

Amid all the talk about home ownership being harder and harder to obtain -- and it is -- reporter Lance George has uncovered some revealing statistics about who has done the best job of settling in and paying on a mortgage, and of paying it off. George, writing in the Daily Yonder, cites census and federal housing data showing that in 2010, 65.1 percent of U.S. homes were occupied by their owners. In rural communities, the number was 71.6 percent.

Home ownership, the reporter notes, varies across demographic groups, and among regions within rural and small-town America. It is highest in the Midwest, at 74 percent, and lowest in the West, at 68 percent. "Delaware has the highest rural and small-town homeownership rate, at 77.8 percent, followed closely by Minnesota and Michigan, at 77 percent."

The biggest rural-urban disparity in the data was free and clear ownership. "Nearly 42 percent of homeowners in rural and small town America own their homes free and clear of mortgage debt, compared to roughly 27 percent of suburban and urban homeowners with no mortgage," George reports, offering possible reasons: a large number of manufactured homes with shorter loan terms and an older demographic; mortgage debt declines with age. (Read more)

Pa. court narrowly strikes down law limiting localities' rights to limit oil and gas drilling zones

A drilling well pond in Derry, Pa.
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo by Andrew Rush)
A appellate court panel has struck down a new law that barred local governments in Pennsylvania from using zoning to prohibit oil and gas drilling in certain areas. Marc Levy of The Associated Press reports the decision was a defeat for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the booming natural-gas industry, which had long sought the limitations. The governor's office said an appeal to the State Supreme Court is likely.

The Commonwealth Court panel ruled 4-3 that the limitations, in a bill regulating the gas industry, were unconstitutional under state law. The majority opinion found that the provisions upended the municipal zoning rules that had previously been followed by other property owners, unfairly exposing them to harm. Seven municipalities had sued to overturn the five-month-old law. "Among the most objectionable provisions towns cited were requirements that drilling, also known as hydraulic fracking, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in all zoning districts, including residential ones, if certain buffers are observed," Levy reports.

Drought could move Farm Bill, or a 1-year extension

Speaker John  Boehner said yesterday that before the House leaves Washington in a week for its August recess, it "will address the livestock disaster program" that has been made more critical by the worsening drought. That could be done by a one-year extension of the Farm Bill now on the books, which expires Sept. 30, but that course would pose for Boehner the same political problems that have kept a new Farm Bill from getting a House floor vote.

"Two-thirds of the continental United States was under moderate to exceptional drought with 40 percent of U.S. counties declared agricultural disaster areas," notes Charles Abbott of Reuters. "Livestock producers with drought-stunted pastures face skyrocketing feed prices," and "Programs that allowed the Agriculture Department to share the cost of livestock feed or to help fruit, vegetable and tree farmers expired at the end of 2011."
Democrats who have been pleading for passage of the new Farm Bill now say they would be willing to vote for a one-year extension "as a vehicle to negotiate a larger comprehensive deal with the Senate," which has passed its own bill, David Rogers reports for Politico. That tactic would also give Republicans in farm country "some protection" as they head back to their districts, he notes.

Democratic votes would be needed to pass a bill because many conservative Republicans with little agribusiness in their districts object to some of the subsidies, particularly dairy, in the bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee. Perhaps more importantly, they say it would cut too little from the food-stamp program, which is about 80 percent of the bill's cost. "With the severe drought now pounding much of the country, this has become a genuine political problem for farm state Republicans running in November," Rogers writes. "And the House leadership must contend with friendly fire now from fellow Republicans in the Senate." (Read more)

In an editorial titled "Ease up on the drought drama," The Washington Post said, "The flawed bill is irrelevant to the farm belt’s current predicament, and it could perversely magnify losses from future natural disasters" because its shift to crop insurance "encourages farmers to cultivate marginal land and engage in other risky practices." (Read more)

Got marquee? This arts idea is downright poetic

Many a small town worth its salt has a movie theater marquee waiting for some terrific homebred poetry to entertain and enlighten the masses, and an arts alliance in need of a good community involvement idea. Thanks to some bright folks in Stevens Point, Wis., and to the marquee value of having a daily blog as well-read as the Daily Yonder, here it is: The Haiku Marquee Project, in which the state's student body -- from pre-school to high school -- has been asked to submit haikus for display at the town's Fox Theater this fall. (Yonder photo)

Reads the release in the Stevens Point Journal: "This is a cooperative venture between the Arts Alliance of Portage County, the Sanders family, which owns the Fox Theater, and the Woodrow Hall Jumpstart Award. The two haiku will be posted on the marquee each month, and 10 honorable-mention poems will be displayed in the Fox Theater show window. Haiku should consist of three lines and no more than 17 syllables. Poems must be the original work of the poet."

Qualified? Interested? Poets may submit no more than three haiku to: Haiku Marquee, Fox Theater, 1124 Main St., Stevens Point, WI 54481; or email them to jimpollock@charter.net. The deadline for submissions is Sept. 14. Include your name, address, phone number and, if you are a student, grade level.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How many oil and gas inspectors per well does your state have? it may be hard to tell

The protection of property and the environment from damage by oil and gas operations depends greatly on the strength and attitude of state regulatory agencies, but their relative strength in personnel terms can be hard to calculate, Ellen Gilmer of Environment & Energy News reports.

"A recent overview of state shale gas regulations showcases major gaps in data available to compare, state by state, the force of oil and gas agencies," Gillmer writes. "Oklahoma, for one, doesn't know how many producing wells it has. . . . This lack of data comes at a time when understanding the workload of state inspectors has become crucial as states grapple with booming shale development and often shriveling budgets."

The analysis by the environmental think tank Resources for the Future uses maps to illustrate state  regulation. We reported on it here.

Corporate livestock farm takeover making competition disappear in meat marketplace

Over the past 50 years, the number of U.S. has declined by more than a million, but more animals than ever are being raised, slaughtered, and processed. The very largest of the farms on which these animals are raised now account for a huge proportion of production.

Indeed, since 1980, the percentage of the market held by the four largest farm corporations has steadily risen so that today, 85 percent of beef, 65 percent of pork and 51 percent of chicken is in their hands, according to the Pew Environment Group report. That, of course, means that small farmers are responsible for a dwindling percentage of the nation's meat. (Pew photo)

The Pew report concludes that the wholesale corporate farm takeover is resulting is "the disappearance of open and competitive livestock markets." In turn, this transformation in livestock agriculture "has led to concerns about the economic leverage that large corporations hold over independent farmers and ranchers," the reports notes. So much so that "early in 2010, the USDA and the Department of Justice initiated an unprecedented series of joint public workshops around the country to investigate the state of competition in agriculture markets. Hundreds of independent livestock producers attended the workshops, and many testified that it is increasingly difficult to survive economically. They urged the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to better regulate the anti-competitive practices of large agribusiness."

In 2010, the GIPSA proposed rules, as required by the 2008 Farm Bill, intended to protect independent farmers and help reduce the power of consolidated meatpackers. In August 2010, a bipartisan letter from 21 senators to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged speedy adoption of these regulations, but the final rule, released in December 2011, contained only a few of the needed reforms. Some members of Congress are asking for further rescission of some of these intended protections. (Read more)

Postal Service report says it could make post offices into vital business hubs

A new report by the USPS Office of Inspector General titled “21st Century Post Office: Non-Postal Products and Services” presents an excellent summary of some of the things that the Postal Service could do to bring in new revenue and revitalize brick-and-mortar post offices. And the Save the Post Office blog, champion of salvaging every rural postal outpost, is thrilled. (Australian post office photo from Save the Post Office)

"The OIG looked at foreign postal systems, took suggestions from postmasters, and reviewed its own previously published reports on the subject. The new OIG report is packed with interesting possibilities," the blog reads: "Here’s a list of just some of them, in no particular order (and elaborated slightly): Public internet access services (like wi-fi and computer kiosks); government services on behalf of federal agencies; government services on behalf of state and local agencies, like paying traffic fines, acquiring fishing and hunting licenses; banking services, such as savings accounts, check cashing, foreign money orders, electronic money transfers, and prepaid cards; other financial services, like retirement planning and insurance; e-bill paying for utility, medical and credit card; job services; selling packing materials and offer packing services; cell phone products and services; fax and photocopy services; notary services; greeting cards, toys, calendars and stationary; ATMs.

"The OIG also mentions having the Postal Service get into leasing and warehouse services. Rather than "shedding excess capacity," as the Postal Service puts it, why not do something with the space? Many of the post offices being closed and sold are right in the middle of busy downtowns. The space in the back where the carriers used to work (they've been relocated to an annex on the outskirts) could be rented out to all sorts of retail businesses, offices for professionals, and government and social services agencies. Some could be turned into wi-fi equipped cafes, the way bookstores have done — and the way the post offices do it in Uganda!"

So, what, pray tell, is holding things back? "Congress and private corporations, of course," it answers.  "For decades, the private sector has lobbied Congress, complained to the PRC, and done everything it could to make sure the post office didn't cut into its profits." (Read moreYou can read the entire USPS report here.

EPA won't ban pesticide suspected in bee die-offs

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency formally refused to recognize that honey bees face an “imminent hazard” in denying a request by beekeepers to immediately suspend the use of pesticides that pose harm to pollinators. (Shutterstock.com photo)

The Center for Food Safety says the announcement comes in response to a petition filed by 25 beekeepers and environmental organizations, citing significant bee kills linked to neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that has already been banned in several countries. “We’re disappointed. EPA has signaled a willingness to favor pesticide corporations over bees and beekeepers,” said Steve Ellis, a petitioner and owner of Old Mill Honey Co., with operations in California and Minnesota.

CFS says "This spring and summer, beekeepers from New York to Ohio and Minnesota, are reporting extraordinarily large bee die-offs, due, in part, to exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides. The die-offs are similar to what beekeepers have reported in the past few weeks in Canada (where EPA has admitted there are 120 bee kill reports). On average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that beekeepers have been losing more than 30 percent of their honey bee colonies each year since 2006, but some are losing many more times that number." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

As wild hogs invade Northwest, officials start a 'Squeal on Pigs' campaign to track them down

The proliferation of wild hogs has spread to the Northwest, to the point that Washington, Oregon and Idaho have started a "Squeal on Pigs" campaign to get rural residents to report the porcine invaders.

“Early detection and rapid response are key,” Amy Ferriter, Idaho’s invasive species coordinator, told Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman in Boise. “The invasive species councils of the Pacific Northwest consider this a priority.” Wild hogs are estimated to cause $1.4 billion a year in damage to crops, wildlife, pastures and livestock. (Read more)

Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/07/23/157299/northwest-states-declare-war-on.html#storylink=cpy

Little weevils eat pestiferous vine in Eastern states

Tiny beetles have become the most recent state employees in Maryland, devouring invasive Asian weeds that are usually destroyed with chemicals or heavy machinery," Candus Thomsom of The Baltimore Sun reports. The plant is known as the mile-a-minute weed, and its newfound nemesis, the weevil, only feasts on it. The weed grows six inches a day and covers all other vegetation, strangling it. Though the plant first started in Pennsylvania, it's now found in 12 East Coast states, and state officials hope the tiny weevils can help control its spread.

Maryland's State Highway Administration released weevils this summer at seven wetlands, and four more sites are scheduled to receive them. Officials had already released Japanese beetles to eat the weed. They cause immediate damage by eating the leaves, but the weevils "lay waste to the whole plant over time," Thomson reports. Weevil larvae burrow into stems, killing the plant and preventing it from releasing seeds. The federal government approved use of weevils to control mile-a-minute growth in 2004, and they've been released in 10 states since then. (Read more)

Injection wells getting more scrutiny as result of earthquakes and concerns about hydraulic fracturing

The advent of large-scale horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas has focused new attention on injection wells, an old technology that is being used to dispose of drilling fluids after a frack job is completed.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan investigators at ProPublica have produced a four-part series (whichs eems likely to grow) on the subject, available here. Abrahm Lustgarten writes in the mainbar, "Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground."No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia. There are growing signs they were mistaken." (Read more)

Injection wells are increasingly being blamed for earthquakes, usually small but occasionally damaging. Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News writes about a 5.6-magnitude quake that hit central Oklahoma last November. Jerri Loveland, who still can't afford to pay for the damage to her home, doesn't blame fracking. "Coming from an oil-industry family, she sees the connection as having more to do with the millions of gallons of salt-laden water that comes up with the oil and gets reinjected in deep wells nearby. In rare cases, that wastewater can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes." But Oklahoma oil and gas officials have rejected advice against putting injection wells near geologic faults.

House leaders look for ways to help farm-district members after blocking floor vote on Farm Bill

"Having blocked the pending five-year Farm Bill, House Republican leaders now appear to be racing ahead of their own Agriculture Committee to come up with some alternative to protect the party’s farm state candidates during the upcoming August recess," David Rogers reports for Politico. "Disaster aid for livestock producers hard hit by the current drought was one option under discussion Tuesday, as well as a one-year extension of the current law due to expire Sept. 30.

"Farmers are wondering why the stall on that and what the Farm Bill will offer, said House Speaker John Boehner, reflecting the concerns of Republicans from agricultural districts. “We understand the emergency that exists out in rural America and we’re concerned about addressing it as quickly as possible.” Boehner said he was working with Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, but Lucas did not appear to be fully in the loop. “I’d like some clarification of what I’m picking up on the grapevine,” Lucas told Rogers, who writes: "Asked if he was preparing a new package, the Oklahoma Republican answered with some exasperation: 'I’m not writing a package at this moment. I’m just trying to figure out what is going on for sure.'"

"Given the serious drought, there’s little question that the pressure from farm state lawmakers is growing," Rogers reports. "And Boehner, who spent his early years on the House Agriculture Committee, seems eager to respond. Livestock producers are most vulnerable because of the loss of good grazing lands as well as higher prices for feed. The House and Senate farm bills promise disaster aid for the current year, but without action, these producers are left without the protection enjoyed by field crops, for example, covered by crop insurance. Two leadership aides said a full-year extension of the current farm program was being discussed. But this was news to the Senate Democratic leadership and could be a perilous path given the fact that it would mean extending the current system of direct cash payments to producers at a cost of close to $5 billion a year."(Read more)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

House leaders likely to delay Farm Bill until after election, to keep political messaging consistent

The last time Republicans took over the House, they couldn't produce a Farm Bill on schedule. This time, they are bottling up one the House Agriculture Committee has approved rather than have a floor fight between their traditionalists and their new Tea Party faction, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, at left with Speaker John Boehner. (Getty Images photo by Mark Wilson)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says nothing is more important to rural America than passage of the bill, partly because "the government’s capacity to respond to the drought is somewhat limited due to the lack of disaster programs," Julie Harker of Brownfield reports. But it seems that even the worst drought in decades won't get the Farm Bill to the floor for a vote anytime soon, David Rogers reports for Politico.

The bill would cut $35 billion from mandatory spending over 10 years, exactly the kind of cuts Congress promised to make last year, Rogers notes, but that's not enough for Tea Party types. He writes that the Republican leadership would rather delay a vote until a "lame duck" session after the November elections than "disrupt its political messaging."

Delaying the Farm Bill is "new ground for any Congress," Rogers writes. "Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked." He says there has never been a situation like this in 50 years of farm bills. "There have been long debates, often torturous negotiations with the Senate and a famous meltdown in 1995 when the House Agriculture Committee couldn’t produce a bill" in the wake of the last Republican takeover. "But no House farm bill, once out of committee, has been kept off the floor while its deadline passes."

Rogers writes, "There's some logic to letting voters reshuffle the deck before tackling tough issues," but that's not what's happening in this situation. "The Senate has already approved its farm bill; even if Republicans were to win [Senate] control in November, the GOP’s majority will be so narrow that Democrats will be able to block wholesale changes. In the House, the only certainty about a lame duck is there will be even more unhappy people hanging around," he writes. The real reason for Speaker John Boehner to delay the farm bill is that "He doesn’t like the answers he sees," Rogers says, "not because there will be better answers after the election."

Rogers writes that Boehner would rather "run out the clock with symbolic anti-red tape, anti-tax votes on which the GOP is more united" than "wrestle with this problem" of passing the Farm Bill before Sept. 30, when the current farm law expires and Congress will be panting to go home and campaign. The August recess means there are few days left to legislate before the election. (Read more)

Coalfield politicians more likely than coal operators to blame feds for Appalachian coal's decline

Massive layoffs and falling production make it hard to ignore the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia. As Debra McCown of the Bristol Herald Courier reports, the story of Southwest Virginia families struggling with shrinking paychecks and diminishing job security "is increasingly common these days." McCown reports miners and the companies they work for fear increased regulation "will hasten the decline" of their industry. (Herald Courier photo by Earl Neikirk)

Appalachian coal production was down 7.7 percent in the first half of 2012, according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration. McCown noting that four years ago, the boom-and-bust industry was enjoying a boom. Since then, coal-company share prices have plummeted. Shares of Alpha Natural Resources, Virginia's largest coal firm and one of the largest in the country, are now selling for just $8; they sold for more than $40 at the same time last year. Alpha spokesman Ted Pile told McCown cheap natural gas, a mild winter and "burdensome regulations" from the Environmental Protection Agency have caused the coal bust.

Though company representatives almost always say the regulations are hurting production, coalfield politicians in McCown's story were more likely to blame Washington than were company representatives or miners. "The negative impact of growing regulation by the EPA has become the battle cry among Republicans campaigning in coal country this year," McCown reports. Sierra Club Virginia Chapter President Glen Besa told McCown that blaming the EPA for mining job losses is "merely political," adding that the lack of a diversified economy in Appalachia is the "underlying cause" of the economic downturn in the coalfields. (Read more)

USDA modifying conservation programs to help farmers struggling with drought

The Department of Agriculture is allowing flexibility in its conservation programs to help livestock producers affected by the persistent drought. Secretary Tom Vilsack also intends to encourage crop insurance companies to "provide a short grace period" for farmers unable to pay their premiums because of crop losses, a USDA release said..

The flexibility will allow conditions of the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program to be modified to allow haying and grazing on lands enrolled in those programs. The USDA will also encourage crop insurance companies to forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums for an extra 30 days for spring crops, which are being devastated by drought. (Read more)

Fracking debate challenges objectivity and integrity of scientists, government regulators and journalists

The debate about environmental ramifications of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas continues to rage. Today's news digest from the Society of Environmental Journalists was dominated by a long list of fracking stories, some of which may help you sort out the facts.

New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin wrote on the paper's Dot.Earth blog, "Transparency and peer review matter in considering the merits of the science" cited by both sides of the debate. He had complimented a University of Texas Energy Institute report that downplayed fracking consequences, then discovered the lead researcher's ties to the gas industry weren't mentioned in the report, "leaving it up to journalists and watchdogs to reveal."

Photo: America's Natural Gas Alliance
Terrence Henry of State Impact reports Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit watchdog group, discovered Groat's financial ties to the gas industry, something he failed to mention in his fracking report. The PAI also investigated the University of Buffalo's fracking report stating the practice was becoming safer, and "identified a number of problems that undermine its conclusion." The executive summary of that investigation can be found here; the full analysis is here.

A recent Duke University study on fracking said some Pennsylvania aquifers might be at risk of contamination, but Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York geologist Tom Johnson told David Bertola of Buffalo Business First that the study raises many questions. “To me, the story here is not even so much about what is said in the paper, it’s a matter of some researchers here that put out an article is full of innuendo,” Johnson said. “They admit in several places that there’s more study that needs to be done.”

Some research is conducted by university professors, but is funded by the gas industry to help prove its claims about the safety of fracking, Jim Efstathiou of Bloomberg reports. A 2009 study predicted that drillers would avoid Pennsylvania gas fields if the state taxed their industry (as every other state does), and lawmakers voted against the tax. But Efstathiou notes the study was commissioned by drillers and led by an industry-friendly economist. Gas drillers "are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities" that will counter critics' concerns, he writes.

Inside Higher Ed's Kaustuv Basu delved further into how the fracking battle is increasingly being fought at universities. A forthcoming study in New York says newborn babies' health is adversely affected by fracking, and Laura Olsen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that officials in Washington County, Pennsylvania, are beginning a one-year air quality study near several gas-drilling sites. Meanwhile, the Obama administration refused to take a side in the debate, as the government continues its review of fracking risks, Peter Behr of Energy and Environment News reports(Subscription may be required).

Monday, July 23, 2012

ProPublica publishes a guide to voter-ID laws; booklet shows possible difficulty of getting IDs

The nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news service ProPublica has published a guide to voter-identification laws, which have been passed in more than 30 states and could have an impact on this year's elections for offices from president to school board. To read it, click here.

UPDATE, July 24: The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school has just published a booklet, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, which has maps illustrating how difficult it might be for many rural residents without a government-issued photo ID to obtain one.
This map of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia (click on image for larger version) shows that in most areas with the greatest concentrations of rural black voters, no state driver’s license offices are open more than two days per week. The figure also shows that many of these states’ part-time offices are located in the areas with the highest concentrations of black voters. The crosshatched areas outline the 13 contiguous Black Belt counties in Mississippi, the 11 contiguous counties in Alabama, and the 21 in Georgia where all state driver’s license offices are open two days per week or less.

Faced with high grain prices from drought, meat producers are importing cheaper, foreign corn

Oppressive drought is inflicting much hardship on farmers across the U.S., forcing ranchers to shrink cattle herds and corn and fresh meat prices to soar. With all new estimates predicting no quick end to the dry weather, some livestock producers are beginning to import cheaper corn from overseas. (Photo: Corn & Soybean Digest)

Meat companies, including top pork producer Smithfield Foods, are importing Brazilian corn, something that "is an unusual thing," U.S. Grains Council Global Strategies Director Erick Erickson told Gregory Meyer and Samantha Pearson of the Financial Times. Bulk corn hasn't been imported to the U.S. since 2008, according to ports database Piers, and then it was in seed form, not for animal feed. Experts say meat companies can buy Brazilian corn at a $12 per ton less than U.S. corn, Meyer and Pearson report. 

This doesn't mean the U.S. is being forced to stop corn exports; the Department of Agriculture estimates 40 percent of globally traded corn will come from the U.S. But international merchants still selling last year's U.S. corn crop are "growing nervous" about slowing exports, Meyer and Pearson report. (Read more)

Some fracking foes mislead public with false claims

Some critics of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas say it contaminates groundwater with carcinogens, impacts human health and causes widespread air pollution. But some scientists say they are misleading the public just as much drilling companies who may twist the facts about fracking.

Many of the claims made by critics "have little or nothing to back them," reports Kevin Begos of The Associated Press. Reports that breast cancer rates rose in a heavy gas drilling area in Texas are false, he reports. Fears that natural radioactivity in drilling waste could contaminate drinking water aren't being confirmed either, he writes, and concerns about air pollution aren't typically paired with information about how burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal. Duke University professor Avner Vengosh, who studies groundwater contamination, told Begos, "The debate is becoming very emotional, and basically not using science" on either side. (Read more)

Extension agents were first hired to 'see both sides of the question, give wise counsel and leadership'

County extension agents have been helping rural communities across the U.S. with a everything from farming to food preservation to finances to 4-H, for a century or more, and as land-grant institutions mark the 150th anniversary of the law that led to their creation, some are marking the 100th anniversary of extension programs in their states.

Charles Mahan, right, was hired as the University of Kentucky's first full-time county agent in 1912, two years before Congress established the Cooperative Extension Service, Katie Pratt of UK Ag News reports. By the spring of 1913, UK had hired six more agents, and the first home demonstration agents, now known as family and consumer sciences agents, were hired the following year. County 4-H agents have existed since at least 1917, though under a different title and on a part-time basis until the 1960s.

Mahan wrote that one of his top jobs was to "develop sane, safe, local leaders who can be trusted to think things through, see both sides of the question, give wise counsel and leadership." He "helped determine that extension agents' function should be primarily education, offering unbiased, research-based information to their clients," Pratt reports. That continues to be the philosophy of Cooperative Extension, she writes. Though extension's role has evolved since 1912, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service Director Jimmy Henning told Pratt that the agency is still "seeking to find and serve people where they are and in ways they want to receive information." (Read more)

Report: Women in four of five rural counties live shorter lives

Rural women live shorter lives than urban women, according to a data analysis by the Daily Yonder and the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. In four out of five rural and exurban counties, women have shorter lives, report the Yonder's Bill Bishop and CRA's Roberto Gallardo. (Yonder map; click on it for larger version)
The average age of death for women was 81.3 years in 2009, the most recent year with available data. Out of 2,500 rural and exurban counties, women in only 540 of those reached the national average age of death, Bishop and Gallardo report. Women in the upper Midwest live "considerably longer lives" than those in the Southeast. The pair report that this pattern is similar for rural men. (Read more)

Feds have guide to help rural areas with economy

Rural communities now have access to a guide outlining federal funding that's a available to help with economic development. The Federal Resources for Sustainable Rural Communities guide contains information about how rural places can protect healthy environments, improve infrastructure and provide useful services to residents.

The guide also includes information about funding and technical assistance available to rural communities from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Rural Development Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager said during a speech in Lincoln, Neb., "Creating great places to live, raise families, provide recreational opportunities and infrastructure for high paying jobs in rural America is very important ... This publication will provide easy, one-stop access to federal funding sources." To see the guide, click here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Award winner says failing to do good rural journalism tells rural people that they are 'not that important'

All that is, can or should be great about community journalism was on display July 20 as two rural newspaper journalists with very different but equally distinctive careers received the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism.

Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired vice president and executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. received the award from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Last year Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.

In her remarks to the awards dinner crowd at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts, Brown, left, gave a clear picture of the fortitude and high goals often required be a good community journalist.

"You have to be careful with friendships, and you have to tell the truth. And then you see the subjects of your stories in the toilet paper aisle at Kroger," she said. "Often, I learn that we don’t expect enough from people. I mean we don’t expect enough from our own journalists and from the people we cover. Setting the bar high usually works. I hate to see people at smaller papers accepting crumbs. If you don’t do good journalism at small papers —and doing good journalism includes filing open records requests and complaining when the open meetings law is violated —then you are telling people who live in rural areas that their place in life, in the world, is not that important."

Heath established the editorial principles that have earned Landmark national recognition. He told the crowd that his work on journalism ethics and freedom of information was guided by the values of SPJ.

For more from Brown and Heath, and more about the award, click here.

Obama making rural radio pitch in Ohio, Pa. areas

President Obama did poorly among rural voters in 2008, but he is still chasing their votes, because they could make a difference in some big swing states in this year's election. The latest evidence of that is a 60-second radio ad that his campaign started Friday on stations serving rural areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The campaign is spending at least $35,000 in markets such as Pittsburgh; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Huntington, Charleston and Parkersburg, W. Va.," Alexander Burns of Politico reported. In a later post, he writes that Obama is "making the case that his policies help people in smaller towns sustain their way of life" and notes, "Rural radio is a fairly low-cost way to try and peel away voters who may be less drawn to Mitt Romney than to a generic Republican candidate."

In the ad, which is part of Burns's latest post, Obama says he wants rural young people to be able to say, "We can succeed here just like we can in the big city." He starts the ad by noting, "My grandparents came from the Midwest." His maternal grandparents were from Kansas.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Time to check your local hospital's credit rating

What is your local hospital's credit rating? Did you even know it had a credit rating? It might be a good time to check it, since many hospitals are getting lower ratings these days.

Nick Tabor, senior staff writer for the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, found that Jennie Stuart Medical Center's rating dropped, meaning that "The hospital may have to pay a higher interest rate if it needs to borrow money in the near future." Tabor wrote.

Fitch Ratings, one of the global agencies whose ratings guide investors, said uncertainty about the expansion of Kentucky's Medicaid system and how federal health reform will affect the hospital's finances were other reasons for the downgrade. The hospital has lost money in two of the last four years. Last year, it had a 1.9 percent loss.

Tabor explains there are eight ratings above the BBB level. If the facility's rating "were to slip two levels lower, to BB+, it would be on the level of 'junk bonds,' no longer considered investment grade," he reports.

There are three major rating companies in the U.S.: Fitch, Moody's and Standard and Poor's. Moody's expects downgrades of nonprofit hospitals to outnumber upgrades by the end of 2012, reports Jeffrey Young for The Huffington Post. Fitch expects the same will happen, said Senior Director Emily Wong. Smaller hospitals will especially feel the pinch since they "don't have as much ability to offset expense, inflation or reimbursement reductions," Wong said.

AA- and A-rated facilities are reviewed every two years. BBB and BBs are reviewed once a year, and B- and below-rated facilities are reviewed every six months. The easiest way to check ratings for hospitals is to get an account at each of the three major rating companies. "These accounts are free and easy to set up," Tabor tells us. (Read more)

Drought prompts some representatives to press House leaders to vote on Farm Bill

Lawmakers in both parties are pressing House Republican leaders to bring the stalled 2012 Farm Bill to a vote, some citing the oppressive drought that continues to worsen, devastating crops and increasing corn and meat prices. The Senate passed its version of the bill, and the House Agriculture Committee passed its own version, but sources say House leaders won't bring the bill to the full House, at least before the Nov. 6 election.

Led by South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem and Vermont Democrat Peter Welch, 38 Republicans and 24 Democratic House members sent Speaker John Boehner, right, and other House leaders a letter asking them to "make this legislation a priority." The letter does not specifically mention the drought, but does say the bill should be discussed by the House to ensure that "we have strong policies in place so that producers can continue to provide an abundant, affordable and safe food supply." Both the Senate version of the bill and the one stalled in the House would provide increased crop insurance to farmers to help protect against losses like those being caused by the drought.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow told Kim Geiger of the Los Angeles Times that Boehner needs to bring the bill to the floor, and "We need to add some additional disaster assistance for 2012 as part of that." Boehner said last week that no decisions about the bill will be discussed at this point, Geiger reports. Aleta Botts of the University of Kentucky's Cooperative Extension Service created a set of flow charts outlining the different courses of action lawmakers could now take to get the bill passed. Find the chart here.

Friday, July 20, 2012

For-profit colleges targeted for pitches to veterans; press call set for 3:30 Mon. on cost transparency

UPDATE: Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray will hold an embargoed press call with reporters at 3:30 p.m. ET today to make an announcement on college cost transparency. The call and all related materials will be embargoed for publication online until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and in print Tuesday morning. To receive the dial-in information, send an email to press@ed.gov agreeing to the embargo terms.

For-profit colleges have been paid hundreds of millions of dollars in GI Bill benefits, and veterans' groups, the White House and some in Congress say it's beginning to look suspicious. "They say the schools prey on veterans with misleading ads while selling expensive and woefully inadequate educations," David Zucchino and Carla Rivera of the Los Angeles Times report. This is a rural story because military members come disproportionately from rural areas, and there are indications that abuse by for-profit colleges may also be disproportionately rural.

Eight of the 10 colleges that have collected the most GI Bill benefits since 2009 were for-profit institutions, and they got 86 percent of their revenue from the program, Zucchino and Rivera report. It generally costs twice as much to attend a for-profit school as a public one, and congressional investigators say dropout rates, interest rates and default rates at for-profit schools are higher than at public institutions. Also, credits veterans earn at for-profits don't always transfer.

In April, President Obama issued an executive order requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to trademark "GI Bill" so it couldn't be used by for-profits to deceive veterans. The order also required the 6,000 colleges that receive GI Bill funds to offer "Know Before You Owe" information packets to veterans. (Read more)

Obama silent on guns, but NRA still calls him foe; here's a handy guide to guns and gun control

UPDATE: Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, who has owned guns since he was 13 and growing up in Kentucky, tells us "What journalists need to know about guns and gun control."

Gun enthusiasts across the country seem to fear what President Obama might do to their Second Amendment rights if re-elected, despite the fact that he's done very little to inhibit their right to bear arms, Darren Samuelsohn of Politico reports in a story published before this morning's movie-theater shooting just outside Denver in which 12 people were killed.

Obama hasn't pushed an assault-weapons ban or tried to force background checks on people who buy guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows. He's barely mentioned anything about restricting gun use, even after then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last year in Arizona and has made no such suggestion in the wake of the killings in Aurora, Colo., today.

Still, the National Rifle Association distrusts the president, Samuelsohn reports. The group has allotted $40 million to help defeat him in the November election, continues to claim he would "gut the Second Amendment" in his second term and rallies its members to keep believing that. Samuelsohn also reports that gun and ammunition sales are again on the rise, as they were immediately after Obama took office. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun-industry trade group, has said sales are rising because gun owners are afraid weapons won't be available if Obama is reelected.

The NRA seems to be exploiting the sensibilities of rural people in its attack ads, as Samuelsohn reports: "In 2008, the NRA went after Obama with a $15 million ad campaign aimed at gun enthusiasts in a dozen swing states, plus $25 million more for member communications about the election. A similar plan for the next four months is expected to revive Obama’s 2008 comment at a supposedly private fund-raiser that when Americans in rural and poor parts of the country "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion." (Read more)

Safety-net hospitals could get hit hardest when Medicare reimbursement changes in October

When hospitals start getting paid based on the quality of care they provide to their Medicare patients, so-called "safety net" hospitals, a last resort for the poor, could be the losers in the equation. That's because a main way of measuring quality will be patient experience ratings, and safety-net hospitals tend to get poorer marks from patients, according ta new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Since hospitals have had to publicly report their patient experience ratings, the gap between how patients rated these facilities and the scores that other hospitals got widened. "We found that [safety-net hospitals] performed more poorly than other hospitals on nearly every measure of patient experience and that gaps in performance were sizeable and persistent over time," the authors write.

When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services agency starts using the scores to hand out bonuses and penalties, safety-net hospitals could be at a disadvantage, especially since penalties could mean a 2 percent cut on regular Medicare payments. Starting in October, patient experience scores will determine 30 percent of a facility's bonus. "The hospitals that perform best will gain money, while those that lag in scores and improvement over time will end up with less," reports Jordan Rau for Kaiser Health News. (Read more)