Friday, October 19, 2012

Overcrowding and staff shortages at prisons, many of them rural, raise safety concerns

Overcrowding in federal prisons threatens the safety of staff and inmates, according to a new Government Accountability Office report on the Bureau of Prisons. Many prisons are in rural areas, employing many local residents. The report says BOP officials report an increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios. Those factors lead to increased inmate misconduct, and increased safety risks.

Inmate population is growing faster than the BOP's capacity, Joe Davidson of The Washington Post reports. Prison population grew by 9.5 percent from 2006 to 2011, but the BOP's capacity only grew by 7 percent. "Nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff on board than needed," GAO said in the report. BOP staff shortages were in excess of 3,200. The inmate-to-staff ratio has decreased. "Fewer officers is not a strategy for success," Davidson writes. "The consequences can be real and bloody." Understaffing leads to an increased in inmate-on-worker assaults, with almost 1,700 assault on staff happening in 2010, according to GAO. (Read more)

Rural voters oppose 'Obamacare', except when label is dropped and law is called by its real name

Party labels affect what rural voters think about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to the latest National Rural Assembly and Center for Rural Strategies poll of rural voters in nine swing states, reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder, which the center publishes.

When asked if they approved or disapproved of the "Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare," 60 percent of rural voters said they opposed the law, and 34 percent said they favored it. Without reference to "Obamacare," voters were asked if they approved or disapproved of the law, which "would give states the opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to cover more low income families with health insurance, with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the costs," and 45 percent said they approved, while 42 percent disapproved.

Bishop concludes that partisanship is the culprit for such results. "Partisanship overwhelms issues in today's politics," he writes. "Voters are willing to change their beliefs -- even their religious affiliation ... in order to stay with their political tribe." (Read more)

Farm Bill includes conservation provisions important to hunters and the economy

Many Americans probably don't realize that the Farm Bill contains provisions for wildlife conservation programs, and that this has caused more than just farmers to press Congress for a vote on the bill. Hunters, anglers and conservationists have also been petitioning for passage of the stalled legislation. In a Politico opinion piece this week, Dale Hall, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and current CEO of Ducks Unlimited, writes about why conservation programs are so important.

"The Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program not only have a positive impact on wildlife populations but also help conserve soil and keep our streams, rivers and lakes clean," Hall writes. The incentive-based programs allow conservation groups to work with farmers  to create benefits for all stakeholders: wildlife, farmers, ranchers, the environment and hunters and fishers, "which generates significant financial support for out nation's economy," Hall says. Hunters, fishers and wildlife watchers spent $145 billion on wildlife-related recreation last year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Three aspects of the Farm Bill are of particular concern to conservation groups, Hall writes: maintaining and strengthening effective wetland protections, a national "sodsaver" provision to protect native prairies, and preserving conservation programs. (Read more)

Laid-off Appalachian miner blames politicians, but not those you might think, for region's woes

Thousands of Central Appalachian coal miners have been laid off since January as coal companies decrease operations in the region and move to more lucrative mining areas, including the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. There are several reasons for this, the biggest of which is cheap natural gas. Mimi Pickering and Sylvia Ryerson of radio station WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky. recently interviewed Letcher County miner Gary Bentley, to collect his thoughts.

Bentley, 29, lost his job with Arch Coal Inc. in June, and after months of searching, was hired at a mine in Owewnsboro, Ky., five and a half hours from Whitesburg in the western part of the state. He worked for Arch for 10 years, and is a Letcher County native. The layoffs are unlike anything he's seen, he told Ryerson and Pickering, and he doesn't think it's fair.

"People come in here and they make billions of dollars, and they've been doing it for hundreds of years here, and now when they're leaving, they're just leaving us with nothing," Bentley said. He was lucky to find work in Kentucky, he said, because many other miners he worked with had to get jobs in Alabama, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Australia. It's also been slightly easier for him because he has a high school diploma. Some older miners he knows have no more than a sixth-grade education, and were hired before mining companies began requiring at least a high school education.

Bentley said local politicians want to blame Central Appalachian coal's decline on the federal government because of increased Environmental Protection Agency regulations, but what he saw at EPA hearings in Pikeville, Ky., showed him a different story. "I was real disappointed with our local, state and regional politicians because I felt like they all wanted to get up there and point fingers and say 'It's this person's fault, it's this person's fault. They're trying to destroy our industry; they're destroying Eastern Kentucky,'" Bentley said. "But at the same time, they're in the position. Why weren't they doing more to stand up for the region? Why weren't they doing more to try and bring in other industry?"

Bentley continued: "Anybody with any sort of intelligence that keeps up on the coal industry saw the declines coming. ... So, I feel that the political leaders really failed us by not having a back up plan for this area and for these communities. ... We need real answers and real solutions, not just a bunch of hot wind." To listen to Bentley's full interview, click here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

In southwest Oregon, as subsidy cuts hit policing, citizens form a general posse and do it themselves

An old police car has been parked on the
highway through O'Brien since the
sheriff's budget has been cut. (AP)
"There's no room in the county jail for burglars and thieves. And the sheriff's department in a vast, rural corner of southwest Oregon has been reduced by budget cuts to three deputies on patrol eight hours a day, five days a week," reports Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press. "People in this traditionally self-reliant section of timber country aren't about to raise taxes to put more officers on the road." Instead, folks are "mounting flashing lights on their trucks and strapping pistols to their hips to guard communities themselves. Others have put together a virtual neighborhood watch, using Facebook to share tips and information. 'I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me,' said Sam Nichols, who organized a posse of about a dozen fed-up residents who have started patrolling the rural community of O'Brien, which has about 750 residents.'" They call themselves Citizens Against Crime -- CAC, for short.

O'Brien sits in Josephine County, a county which recently lost $12 million in federal timber subsidies. The jail, sheriff's patrols, prosecutors, probation officers and juvenile programs have all been drastically cut. The jail can house 69 inmates -- so few that recently small-time offenders have been let loose only to be repeatedly picked up for new crimes. In O'Brien, "We all know each other, and we're all related," said Carol Dickson, who helped to start the CAC about three months ago and posts regularly. "People know who's doing this," she said of recent spate of property crime in the area. "They are getting tired of it. They are speaking up, and they are saying, 'Enough.'"

The local police think the citizens involved are smart about this venture, that it's not vigilantism and that everyone understand the dangers. But policing expert Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at New York University, says neighborhood watch efforts can turn into problems when volunteers "decide that instead of supplementing law enforcement, they are going to replace law enforcement." He told AP that "people drawn to this sort of thing are the kinds of personalities more likely to take it too far." However, Nichols says what his group is doing is "not vigilantism at all. If it was, we would have taken care of a couple of problems a long time ago. Because we knew who they were, and where they lived."

The group is earning its keep. Members have reported a wildfire and a break-in since their watch began. The police log in the Grants Pass Daily Courier shows five thefts or burglaries in O'Brien from January through July, but none since August. (Read more)

NRA using Obama's remark about possible renewal of assault weapon ban as rallying point in swing states

The National Rifle Association is using President Obama's Tuesday-night debate reference to a possible reintroduction of an assault weapons ban as a pro-Mitt Romney rallying cry to gun owners in swing states. Dan Freeman of the Houston Chronicle reports, "The NRA has fielded 25 paid organizers deployed to 13 states including battlegrounds that may determine the election's outcome such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia and Nevada. In addition, an army of 4,300 volunteers is making hundreds of thousands of phone calls, distributing thousands of fliers and visiting events and places where gun owners congregate, Andrew Arulanandam, NRA director of public affairs said."

Obama, asked about about limits on AK-47 assault rifles, replied, "What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally." Then he mentioned the possibility of reinstating the assault-weapon ban that was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1994 but expired in 2004 when the Republicans were in control. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to the NRA challenge: "The president has a lot more to gain by voicing the concerns of the public on this issue than he had to lose. This is a conversation the American public wants to have." (Read more)

Crop insurance payouts likely to hit $15 billion; drought news gets only slightly better

The long, dry, hot summer will cost U.S. taxpayers big -- a record $15 billion. That is the amount that the Farm Bill's privately run crop-insurance program will pay to farmers affected by this year's losses. The program's runaway costs are in focus as Congress looks for ways to cut government spending, making crop insurance an even bigger target for reforms than it already might have been. Lawmakers return to Washington next month. (Read more)

As for the drought itself, there was some relief, at last, from one coast to another as storm systems pushed through some very dry parts of the nation this week. Still, 62.4 percent of the nation is still experiencing "moderate" drought, down from 63.5 percent a week earlier, according to Thursday's Drought Monitor, a weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic scientists. Reuters is reporting that "the portion of the United States under 'exceptional' drought' -- the direst classification -- fell to 5.8 percent, from 6.2 percent a week earlier." The worst news is still reserved for the High Plains -- some parts of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas -- where drought classified as "severe" or worse covered more than 87 percent of the region. (Read more)

North Dakota oil boom overloading rural hospital emergency rooms and leaving them with unpaid bills

The Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota -- with its massive equipment and its young, transient oil workers -- is puting tremendous strain on the region’s small hospitals that are finding it hard to shoulder the increasing emergency trauma load and the unpaid bills left behind it. John McChesney reports in the Daily Yonder that if that weren't enough, "Nurse and staff recruitments have become much more difficult due to high housing prices and high competitive wages in the oil patch. And attracting physicians, always a problem for rural areas, has gotten tougher, even as needs soar."

Randall Pederson of Tioga Medical holds
piles of unpaid bills returned from
addresses for people long gone.
(Photo by John McChesney)
Randall Pederson, president and CEO of the 25-bed Tioga Medical Center and a regular ambulance volunteer, says his town has seen a dramatic leap in ambulance runs and emergency room patients this year. “In 2007 we would see 600 patients in ER per year,” Pederson told McChesney. “In 2012, we anticipate seeing over 2,000.” That means in a five-year period, Tioga’s emergency room visits have more than tripled. “We are seeing a lot more industrial accidents, major trauma, many of those involving car accidents, because there’s a lot more vehicles on the roads these days,” Pederson explains. Many accidents involve 40-ton tank trucks colliding with 5,000-pound passenger cars, writes McChesney, "incidents that can bring several patients with horrible injuries into the small ER at the same time. The one doctor on call has to scramble for help."

According to Darrold Bertsch, president of North Dakota’s Rural Health Association, private insurers pay less in North Dakota than in most other states. And many of these ER patients -- many who come from out-of-state for piecemeal work -- don’t pay their bills. Tioga's Pederson in Tioga says his hospital had to write off $270,000 in bad debt. Other area hospitals report similar collection problems. McChesney reports that North Dakota's McKenzie County Hospital will lose more than half a million dollars this year because of patients' unpaid bills. Likewise, Montrail County Medical Center in Stanley, has 25 to 30 percent of revenue written off to bad debt. In Williston, Mercy Hospital’s bad debt has sky rocketed from a pre-oil-boom $2 million a year to $7 million this year, hardly something rural hospitals can endure for long. Mercy's CEO Matt Grimshaw says most of those charges have been billed to people who have jobs and could afford to pay, but he just can’t find them. Could Obamacare help here, with its mandate that everyone have insurance? In this red state, no one wanted to answer that question, McChesney reports. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Consultant: Central Appalachian coal outlook poor

Alan Stagg, one of the most respected consultants in the coal industry, told a major industry gathering last month that Central Appalachian coal mining would last at least 10 to 20 more years, but will continue to decline because the job-hungry region's coal is getting more difficult to mine, mainly because of geological limitations but also because of regulations.

"It's going to run out some day — there's a finite amount of coal — but I don't see that happening in 10 or 20 years," Stagg told Pam Kasey of The State Journal, a business-oriented weekly in West Virginia. Stagg, the president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants Inc., has been pessimstic about the industry's long-term prospects for several years, as we reported here, but this is his gloomiest forecast yet.

"This is the elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge that reserve depletion is profound," Stagg, of Cross Lanes, W.Va., said at Platt's Coal Marketing Days in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, according to SNL Financial. "Mining conditions are difficult, and the cost to produce is high. That is a physical fact. It's not pleasant. Nobody wants to acknowledge it. That is a fact, and companies that ignore that fact will not do so well. . . . And by nature, regulations will always increase."

"Stagg cast such a pall on the Central Appalachia coal industry that West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, speaking later in the day, said he felt like a 'funeral director'," Darren Epps wrote for SNL. "Stagg expressed optimism, however, for the Powder River Basin" in Wyoming, which overtook West Virginia as the leading coal-producing state many years ago.

An earlier version of this story was based on a report from SNL Financial that Stagg says misquoted him as saying that he expects coal mining in Central Appalachia to end in the next 10 to 20 years. He did not dispute the rest of the report.

New feature at Tenn. weekly answers question newcomers get: Why did you come here?

"I'm just so proud to be here" was
the opening line of Hickman County
native Minnie Pearl, whose statue will
soon be placed at the 
They packed everything they had into a U-Haul, threw the dogs and cats into the truck and came to Hickman County, Tennessee, without jobs, friends, family or, frankly, anything but a deed to a piece of pretty property. Mark and Nicole Lewis came to the county seat of Centerville because they'd seen Nashville, 50 miles east, and were tired of New Hampshire winters. Six years later, the Lewises are so delighted by their decision they decided to tell the local weekly newspaper about it. Thus began the feature, "Why Did You Come Here?," a once-a-month installment that is now part of the Hickman County Times. 

Nicole Lewis' piece supports a recent trend "because that's the focus: newcomers who are creative types," Editor Brad Martin wrote. " Lewis fits that bill, having come to town and finding herself the founder of the county's Arts and Ag Tour straight-away. But why wouldn't she? In her 10-point list of things she loves about her county, she includes, along with a long growing season, Goo-Goo clusters, okra, strangers who wave and beautiful vistas, "I have met some of the most interesting, friendly, genuine, funny, smart, talented and caring people here in Tennessee." The Times is not online, but you can read Lewis's essay here.

A second "Why Did You Come Here" piece, offered up by the long-time member service adviser for the local electric cooperative, Jim Griffin, isn't as poetic, but it rings with heartfelt love of a town he came to in 1958 and has never seen reason to leave. We look forward to more.

Rural-urban broadband access gap grows; telcos rely on wireless, maybe not the answer in the hills

The U.S. faces a growing broadband gap between rural and urban markets, and narrowing that gap could improve the overall economic health of the country, according to a new Hudson Institute report. Very few rural areas have access to high-speed Internet, and things could get worse if large telecommunications companies like Verizon back out of expanding digital subscriber line services, reports Karl Bode of Broadband DSL Reports.

The report says improved broadband infrastructure in rural areas would lead to improved medical care, increased opportunities, stronger businesses and a healthier economy. It concludes by saying the broadband gap means "a loss of opportunities for those who live where technology is used less and a loss of economic potential for those who make the products and service that would close the gap." It continues: "Because communication technology continues to advance, the gap can only grow unless investment continues in the places where the capabilities are furthest behind."

Companies aren't investing in rural broadband because the rate of return is slower there, Bode writes, and the report offers no possible solutions to remedy that problem. Meanwhile, he writes, AT&T and Verizon "are letting unwanted DSL users flee to cable, empowering a new, bolder cable monopoly," and regulators are placing "all their hopes on wireless broadband -- which may be an egregious error," because there are wireless coverage gaps across the country, which are harder to fill in rural areas. (Read more)

'Cost of Coal' explores life cycle of the rock and its effects on human health in W.Va., Mich. and Nev.

The Sierra Club has partnered with award-winning photojournalist Ami Vitale to produce a photographic essay for its magazine about the life cycle of coal and its effects on the lives of residents living close to mine sites, power plants and coal-waste disposal areas, most of which are in rural areas.

"Cost of Coal" includes an 18-page photo spread in the November/December issue of Sierra, and an interactive website with more than 100 photos and videos of individuals living near four sites impacted by coal: Blair, W.Va., Lindytown, W.Va., River Rouge, Mich., and near the Moapa Band of Paiutes Reservation in Moapa, Nev. Slide shows and videos are organized by location and story on the website, where readers can donate to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, Living Green Magazine reports.

Here's a video overview of the project:

Climate change is moving U.S. corn production north

The Corn Belt is moving north, proving to food producers across the country that this summer's drought was not a fluke. The most corn since 1937 was planted this year, but growers in Kansas planted the fewest in three years, turning instead to crops that are less water-intensive, including wheat and sorghum. But in Manitoba, corn acreage has almost doubled over the past decade.
(Click on map for larger version)
This shift is "a glimpse of a future altered by climate change that will affect worldwide production," the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia reports. Changes are happening faster than plants can adapt, said Axel Schmidt, a former International Center for Tropical Agriculture scientist.

Agriculture businesses are adapting. Agribusiness Cargill Inc. is investing more in northern facilities in anticipation of increased production there. DuPont Co. is developing genetically modified corn seed that could withstand drought, and boosting research in sorghum and other crops.

U.S. corn was worth $76.5 billion last year, more than twice the value of soybeans and five times that of wheat. Most ethanol comes from corn, most livestock eats it, and high-fructose corn syrup is used in a mass array of products. While climate change will likely move its production north, the Midwest will probably remain the corn belt just because of its good soil and generally favorable weather, Illinois' Heritage Grain Cooperative manager Jerry Rowe told the Herald. (Read more)

Belief in climate change soars among conservatives but most still don't think it is caused by humans

Belief in climate change has climbed recently, making a rebound from a sharp drop in 2009, according to a Pew Research Center poll. About 67 percent of Americans now believe temperatures are rising, with acceptance stretching across all age groups and political party affiliations, including more skeptical senior citizens and Republicans, Evan Lehmann of Energy and Environment News reports.

Forty-eight percent of Republicans agree that there is "solid evidence" that Earth's temperature has increased over several decades. That's a 5-percentage-point climb among Republicans since last year, and a 13-point rise since 2009. The biggest jump among Republicans came from conservatives, 43 percent of whom now believe in climate change, an increase of 12 points since last year. Fifty-eight percent of Republican moderates believe in it.

However, far fewer Republicans believe that climate change is man-made. About 38 percent of GOP moderates say human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, causes climate change, and only 16 percent of conservatives agree with that. (Read more)

Swing-state rural voters prefer Republican Farm Bill

Since the failure of the Republican-led House to pass a Farm Bill before the September 30 deadline, Democrats running for office in rural districts have been using it as ammunition. Whether that makes rural voters pick Democrats on election day is yet to be seen, but in the latest National Rural Assembly and Center for Rural Strategies poll of rural voters in nine swing states, voters preferred the Republican approach over the Democratic one, 61 to 27 percent.

The poll described the Democratic position this way: "Democrats have said allowing the Farm Bill to expire is devastating for rural America. The Farm Bill supports rural development programs, invests in renewable energy industry, and provides an important safety net for farmers and producers. It would especially help those suffering for record drought. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps, not only helps feed people, but 14 cents per dollar of the money from this program goes into the pockets of farmers."

It described the Republican position like this: "Republicans have said they want to pass a Farm Bill that is helpful to farmers and rural communities. Eighty percent of the current Farm Bill goes to fund the food stamp program, which is in dire need of reform. The number of people on food stamps has increased by 59 percent under President Obama, and the program is filled with waste and fraud. Many other provisions of the Farm Bill are badly outdated. We need a modern Farm Bill focused on helping farmers."

Voters polled said the Republican approach was closer to their view by a 34-point margin. "We should point out that not many rural voters actually have anything to do with farming," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder, which is published by the center. Only 7 percent of those polled said they or someone in their family made more than half their income from farming, and 12 percent said they received less than half of it from farming. Eight of 10 said no one in their families made any income from agriculture. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Swing-state rural voters prefer Romney by 22 pts.

Mitt Romney is now leading President Obama in rural swing states by a 22-point margin, according to a National Rural Assembly poll released today. Rural voters polled last week said they preferred Romney to Obama by 59 to 37 percent. In a similar poll from September, Romney led by 14 points. The poll questioned voters in rural counties in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. (Daily Yonder photo: Romney speaks in Lebanon, Ohio)

"The poll documents a continuing -- in fact, accelerating -- collapse of support for President Obama among rural voters," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. Rural voters were "staunchly Republican" in 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush won the rural vote by almost 20 points. Obama lost the rural vote in 13 swing states in 2008 by just a little more than 2 percentage points, Bishop writes. North Star Opinion Research's Dan Judy told Bishop the September poll showed Romney was "under-performing" among rural voters, but now that he's surged ahead, Judy said he thinks "it's fair to say his lead among these rural voters is what's helping him in swing states overall."

The poll asked which candidate would do a better job handling a range of issues, from the economy to medicare. "Voters thought Romney would do a better job than Obama in addressing every issue -- often by enormous margins," Bishop reports. Judy told Bishop he expects these margins to stand through the election because rural voters have "innate conservatism" that will push them to vote Republican. (Read more)

Farmers hiring legal migrant workers often deal with visa application delays, report says

Farmers who expect to face a shortage of agricultural workers during a season can apply for federal H-2A visas, which allow migrant workers from other countries to live and work legally in the U.S. Recently released Government Accountability Office data shows there are major flaws with the application process. While 90 percent of applications were approved in 2011, 37 percent were processed after the deadline, including 7 percent that were approved less than 15 days before workers were needed. (Good Fruit Grower photo: H-2A worker picks apples)

Delays in processing gives employers little time to complete the second phase of application and for workers to get visas. They can apply for visas online, but most of the H-2A process requires paper handling, which contributes to delays, the GAO said. Employers who need workers at different times during the season must repeat the entire application process for each set of workers. Farm employers say new rules implemented last year are causing the delay, even though the agencies in charge of it say they can't pinpoint why delays happen.

The GAO was asked to examine the program by the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State for aspects that create problems for employers, and how federal agencies have addressed those challenges. GAO found that federal agencies are trying to improve the application process through electronic systems, but those improvements have been delayed. It recommends the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security implement their electronic application systems and use them to collect data about the delays. It says the agencies should use that information to streamline the process. (Read more)

Restaurants hit with higher food prices caused by drought; small, local eateries struggle most

This summer's oppressive drought scorched Midwestern crops, raising the cost of feed, dairy and meat. Those high prices are impacting the size of restaurant menus across the U.S., with small, local eateries feeling the pinch the most. The cost of food now rivals labor as the top expense for most restaurants, Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times reports. Owners are reducing menu offerings, shrinking portion sizes and considering staff cuts. (L.A. Times photo by Francine Orr: patrons eat at Smokin' Jonny's BBQ in Gardena, Calif.)

Restaurant prices have been rising for more than a year, with wholesale food costs increasing by 8.1 percent in 2011, Hsu reports. The increases will continue, but at a quicker pace, because the price of corn, which is a key component in livestock feed, powdered sugar, salad dressing, and more, jumped by 60 percent this summer. Chicken and turkey prices rose by 5.3 and 6.9 percent, respectively, and eggs now cost 18 percent more. Analysts expect overall food prices to rise from between 5 to 20 percent by year's end.

Big chains are able to weather drought price hikes well, but small restaurants will suffer, Hsu reports. "The smaller mom-and-pop restaurants are going to get hit with the drought very shortly," Motley Fool analyst Don Krueger told Hsu. It's forcing small restaurant owners to make tough decisions. Restaurant consultant Kian Abedini told Hsu more restaurants are using small plates and tapas dishes to save money. He's also noticed cheaper cuts of meat on menus, along with more curry and rice dishes. Pickled items are showing up as well because they're less expensive than fresh foods, Abedini said.(Read more)

Federal criminal justice spending 'steadily declining;' How dependent is your local agency?

The U.S. Department of Justice has reduced funding for state and local criminal justice agencies by 43 percent over the last two years, according to a National Criminal Justice Association and Vera Institute of Justice report. Failure to resolve the national budget crisis could make things worse, the report says. This likely has a disproportionate impact on rural agencies who have less resources and oftentimes depend on federal money to operate.

Agencies "on the front lines of the justice system, including police," fear that cuts in spending would practically end federal criminal justice funding by 2021, reports Ted Gest of The Crime Report. Federal funding for state and local anti-crime efforts is "at a historically low level," the report said, with more than three-fourths of agencies surveyed saying their federal aid has been steadily declining. Fourteen percent of survey respondents said their federal grants have been cut by more than half. (Read more)



Monday, October 15, 2012

Health reform said to hurt rural doctor recruitment

Recruiting doctors to rural hospitals will get harder in the next few years as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act reaches full implementation and the demand for healthcare services increases, a new report suggests. An Association of Staff Physician Recruiters report, "In-House Physician Recruitment Benchmarking," says interview-to-hire ratios in rural areas are much higher than in urban, and rural recruiting officers are often responsible for several things, not just hiring new doctors, making them overworked. Both factors make it harder for rural hospitals to recruit, the authors concluded. (University of Chicago photo)

ASPR Benchmarking Committee Chair Shelly Tudor told John Commins of HealthLeaders Media that the cost of recruitment is rising, making it hard for rural hospitals to compete with their urban counterparts. "In lots of respects, the process favors urban providers. Physicians are coming to urban areas and they are looking for jobs, whereas rural providers have to go out and target physicians that are likely to come to their area," Tudor said. Rural recruiters have to "filter through a lot of people to find the right one who is willing to come in and even look at the opportunity," she said. (Read more)

Rural areas are more dependent on public radio, TV

In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney said he would cut federal funding for public broadcasting. Public television and radio outlets, including PBS and National Public Radio, received just $445 million of the 2012 budget, about .014 percent. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer reflected on the importance of public broadcasting, and argued that if the budget is cut, rural areas would suffer the most.

"The usual arguments in favor of public broadcasting focus on the facts that a) public television and radio are highly educational and b) that this government spending mainly benefits rural areas with few other media options," Plumer writes. The government doesn't actually give money to PBS or NPR, he notes; it gives it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which parcels out the money based on a formula. A lot of it goes to TV programming, the rest goes to 581 local TV and radio stations across the U.S.

PBS would lose just 15 percent of its budget, and NPR just 2 percent if Congress eliminated the public broadcasting budget. But local stations in many rural areas might be forced to close or drastically cut back their programming because more than 50 percent of their funding comes from the government. Plumer says that would be bad for children in rural areas who have only three options for educational programming: Nick Jr., Disney Jr. and PBS. "For families that can't afford cable, PBS is the only option," Plumer wrote. "The big worry is that an end to government funding would leave pockets of the country without public radio and TV, replaced by commercial stations that are less affordable, more saturated with advertising, and less educational." (Read more)

Coal ash regulation will depend on who gets elected

Despite much controversy coal ash, Congress isn't likely to move on new regulations until after the election, and then action will depend on the priorities of the party controlling the White House, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The U.S.'s 431 coal-fired power plants produce 140 million tons of ash a year. About 60 percent is stored in landfills, ponds and mines, and evidence suggesting leaks are a problem had been growing. The issue is rural because that's where plants and disposal areas are located. (Photo by Nancy Pierce of The Clog: coal ash pond near Mountain Island Lake, N.C.)

The Environmental Protection Agency gave 45 ponds at 27 locations a "high hazard potential" rating, meaning that if they break or leak, it would likely result in loss of life. Environmental groups in the last month have sued operators of 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal-ash contamination, and ash-contaminated water at 197 sites in 37 states, according to Earthjustice.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have touted their love of the coal industry, and the idea of coal ash as a hazardous waste creates controversy. Obama's EPA moved toward regulating more strictly, then backed off. If it is officially labeled hazardous, EPA will have direct control over it and new handling procedures on utilities will be implemented, something that would increase utilities' costs. The EPA and environmentalists say new regulations will encourage more utilities to recycle coal ash into concrete and other products, but recycling companies and mining industry officials say this will be less likely if it's labeled as hazardous. (Read more)

Delta political leaders thrash three Ark. politicians for expressing racial and religious prejudice

A group of political leaders in the eight-state federal Delta region, stretching from southern Illinois to the mouth of the Mississippi, has condemned three Arkansas politicians for derogatory statements they made about Muslims and African Americans. The Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus, which supports and works with the federal Delta Regional Authority, said the statements "are the prejudiced views of a tiny minority and do not reflect the point of view of the vast majority of people in Arkansas." About 30 to 40 percent of the MDGC is African American, and the group says it has strong ties to the Muslim community.

The statements in question came from three state Republicans: Rep. Jon Hubbard, who said African Americans benefitted from slavery and criticized those who chastised him by saying "this reeks of Nazi-style political intimidation;" state House candidate Charlie Fuqua, who wrote in the book God's Law that all Muslims should be expelled from the U.S.; and state Rep. Loy Mauch, who said in a 2001 editorial that Abraham Lincoln was a terrorist. (Read more)

Farmers more likely to be depressed amid harvest

There is an increased risk of depression among farmers during harvest season, and one doctor who treats a lot of them says it's important for them to take breaks to reduce stress, Julie Harker of Brownfield Agriculture News reports. Weather and other harvest-time pressures can increase farmers' stress, which can lead to increased risk of accidents and more, Harker heard from Dr. David Schwarts of Waukon, Iowa.

Schwartz said there is an increased risk of depression during this time of year, but many farmers don't seek help because they tend to think they are "tougher than that," he told Harker. Schwartz said he's seen an increase in cases of depression at his clinic this year because of the drought. He said family physicians can treat depression, but often farmers can reduce stress by "taking time out for enjoyable activities," Harker reports. (Read more) To listen to Harker's interview with Schwartz, click here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

4 states have Census count inmates of rural prisons where they lived when convicted; to what effect?

For a myriad of reasons, prisons are more often based in rural areas than in urban settings. And for another set of reasons, those inmates in those prisons have typically been counted by the Census Bureau at their incarceration addresses rather than their last known home addresses. Maybe that shouldn't matter much in elections, because most prisoners can't vote, but some urban lawmakers say it "gives rural areas with prisons more representation than they deserve," Maggie Clark reports for Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center on the States.

This is more relevant than ever since the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of states "to adjust census data for redistricting purposes, which could encourage more of them to change their count for the 2020 census," Clark notes. Maryland, New York, Delaware and California have passed laws since 2010 to count prisoners at their last known addresses.

Some wonder if the heavy administrative workload of reworking the system is worth the effort. Some insist that prisoner redistricting will have limited political effect. But others believe that the point is that people should be counted accurately. “Even marginal impact is justice to the individuals in question,” says Justin Levitt, a redistricting expert and associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Much like every vote counts even when single votes rarely decide elections, every bit of representation counts even when people don’t feel the change in boundaries.” (Read more)

Starting Monday, oil and gas frackers will have to tell EPA where they are doing it

Oil and gas companies will have to notify the Environmental Protection Agency by email before using hydraulic fracturing on wells, a development that has caught many in the industry by surprise.  "The notification requirement is a little-known aspect of air rules for hydraulic fracturing finalized earlier this year by the agency," Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News reports. "The hard-fought and better-known aspects of the rule don't kick in until January 2015. But the email notice requirement starts Monday."

The agency and the industry it oversees are already suspicious of one another and this new development has only fed the ill will. "I've heard people say it's the federal government trying to get their hooks into hydraulic fracturing any way they can," said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. Briggs said that his group "went through rulemaking, and it was something everybody missed." Briggs said. Soraghan reports that when he inquired at EPA about the requirement, an agency spokeswoman "sent a fact sheet about the air rules that includes details about the notification requirement. But the fact sheet does not include the date the notification requirement goes into effect. It does, though, include the 2015 implementation date for other provisions of the rules. It states that drillers should include geographic coordinates of the well being fracked."

The industry wants to be allowed to go through only state agencies, the procedure to which it is accustomed. (Read more)

Central Kentucky's few remaining small tobacco farmers having difficulty finding harvest labor

The good news for some Kentucky tobacco-growing counties is that this year's crop is one of the better they've seen in a while. The bad news is that the migrant labor that was once abundant in those parts isn't as available as before. Leslie Moore of the Central Kentucky News-Journal reports that in Taylor County, "finding workers to cut and house this season’s predicted 2,500 pounds of tobacco has been a labor in itself."  (Moore photo)

Pat Hardesty, the county extension agent for agriculture, told Moore the number of migrant workers who help with the harvest has dwindled because there are simply not enough small farms now in the area to keep them employed for long. “Some of our smaller producers have been waiting on crews or they’ve been trying to get local help, which is very difficult,” Hardesty said. “That’s why the migrants are here, because we can’t get enough local labor to get the crop in.” He said migrant workers aren't taking jobs away from Americans: “I promise you, if a tobacco producer here in Taylor County could get local, dependable help, there wouldn’t be migrants here.” Local farmer Aaron Newcome agreed that finding steady local help this year has been difficult. On any given day, he told Moore he has no idea how many workers will show up or how long they will stay.

As a killing frost loomed, Hardesty explained to Moore that speed is of the essence. If frost hits tobacco, the crop's quality is reduced and acres of it can be wasted.

News-Journal stories are behind a paywall. To get a 30-day free trial subscription, go here.

Proposed monster wind farm in Wyoming, which could power 1 million homes, gets federal approval

Potentially the largest wind farm in the U.S. was approved this week. Wyoming's Chokeberry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project could eventually provide electricity to 1 million homes, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, when as many as 1,000 turbines are up and running. The project is set to begin groundwork next year. The Associated Press reports that turbines could go up over a three-year period within an area covering 350 square miles south of Rawlins in south-central Wyoming. Most of that area is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo: Site of the future wind farm)

The officials in Carbon County, where the project is based, conditionally approved the wind farm after hearing public comment. The matter now goes to a state board for review, Jeremy Fugleberg of the Casper Star-Tribune reports. Commissioner Leo Chapman credited the developer, a subsidiary of Denver-based Anschutz Corp., for its work to study the birds at risk in the project area and its willingness to answer any questions thrown its way for the unanimous approval by the council and for the community's mostly favorable feeling toward the project. Chapman said such work and openness -- "things sometimes not shown by other wind project developers in the county --  helped the commissioners to approve the project." See also The Wyoming News report, here.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Va. not getting full story about coal's influence on presidential race in the state, media critic writes

Coal is at the center of this year's presidential election, with both camps touting their love of the industry and the central Appalachian region where the Obama administration's co-called "war on coal" seems to rage the fiercest. However, news outlets haven't kept up with coverage of just how big a role coal is playing in the race, Tharon Giddens of the Columbia Journalism Review reports from Virginia, like Ohio a swing state where coal can swing votes.

Both candidates have used messages about coal. Mitt Romney ran two ads criticizing President Obama's alleged over-regulation of the industry the day after Alpha Natural Resources announced mine closures and layoffs. He also made a stop in Abingdon in southwestern Virginia, near the coalfield, last week. Obama continuously touts his advocacy for "clean coal" as part of his energy strategy.

"Coal has recently moved to the center of the message war in this swing state," Giddens reports. "The political story around coal in Virginia is rich -- but most of the coverage to date has been less so, and not only because ... most news outlets here aren't doing enough to fact check the ads on the airwaves." Giddens writes that they have largely failed to recognize that while Obama's didn't do well in coal country in 2008, in a tight race, every vote counts. "Coal miners are an eye-catching stand-in for the white working class," and both campaigns are trying to target that demographic, he writes. There's been very little push-back by reporters against "the narrative about regulations forcing layoffs at Alpha," when industry experts say the industry's layoffs are stem mainly from low demand, caused by cheap natural gas and a warm winter, which left big stockpiles of coal.

"The problem is that the context, perspective and expertise on display in some of the stronger opinion pieces has been mostly lacking in the political reporting on coal, whether it’s being done in southwestern Virginia or the state’s metropolitan centers," Giddens reports. "Even setting aside environmental concerns, as the candidates have mostly done while they present themselves as friends to coal, the news coverage hasn’t done enough to dig into the campaigns’ messages, explore coal’s influence on the race, or use this opportunity to explore the story of a changing industry and region." (Read more)

Ohio Democrats allege Murray and his coal company illegally forced employees to donate to Republicans

The Ohio Democratic Party asked federal and state prosecutors Monday to investigate whether the CEO of the largest privately owned coal company in the U.S. illegally coerced employees to contribute to Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates, Jim Provance of the Toledo Blade reports. ODP Chairman Chris Redfern asked that Murray Energy Corp. and Robert Murray, left, be investigated for extortion, money laundering and racketeering.

The complaint claims Murray contributed $720,000 to Ohio candidates and millions to federal candidates through the company's political action committee, including Romney, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel and Gov. John Kasich. The Blade said it could not reach Murray Energy's attorney for comment. The complaint also alleges Murray and the company forced employees to contribute to the company's political action committee through automatic payroll deductions and required attendance at fundraisers.

Murray hosted a rally for Romney on Aug. 14 at his company's Century Mine in Beallsville in southeast Ohio. Romney was surrounded by miners as he spoke. Some of those miners later told a West Virginia radio talk show host that Murray closed the mine for the day and required miners to attend the rally without pay. The company said there was no requirement. (Read more)

California poultry company files for bankruptcy; will be eighth poultry firm to fold in the last year

Zacky Farms LLC, a California poultry company that dates to the 1920s, filed for bankruptcy this week. High feed costs following this summer's oppressive drought led to the decision, P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters reports. The company employs about 1,500 people in southern California, and listed between $50 and $100 million in assets, with debts in the same range.

The bankruptcy filing showed that the company's largest unsecured creditors are feed company Western Milling, to whom Zacky Farms owes about $6.6 million, and poultry company Foster Farms LLC, which is owed about $1.2 million. "Zacky Farms will be the eighth poultry firm to be sold, entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy or shut down altogether since 2011, according to data from trade group National Chicken Council," Huffstutter reports. (Read more)

Huffstutter advises in an email that Zacky's is ranks about among poultry companies in revenue, and about 10th among turkey packers.

Lots of money spent on agriculture research, but not very much on rural community development

The amount spent on agricultural biotechnology research has exploded over the past 30 years, but very little is spent on understanding how rural people and communities can survive, according to new research from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

"We spend billions of dollars trying to understand how crops and animals live, but only a smidgen on how humans and their communities can grow and develop," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes. It's understandable, he writes, that private businesses invest money in research and development that will earn high private returns, according to the economists who wrote the report, at least. However, a 2001 survey found that three-quarters of private crop breeding investments went to just three commodities: corn, soybeans and cotton, Bishop reports.

From 1980 to 2010, research spending by seed and biotech companies increased to more than $2 billion from $100 million. There was no increase in spending on social and community development research. "And that may be one reason why we know a heck of a lot about how to grow corn in a drought but not so much about how to develop rural communities that thrive," Bishop writes. "No wonder we have bountiful harvests and troubled towns." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

New school-lunch rules produce complaints, more trash, efforts to repeal them

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Obama administration's effort to mandate more fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains into the diets of school children, has some uphill climbing to do and it's not just the kids who are complaining. Though, admittedly, they were the first. Sarah Gonzales of Agri-Pulse took a look at some rural school districts trying to implement the law in advance of the law's implementation deadline, to see how the new science-based standards were working in real lunchrooms. What she found were complaints from student athletes who thought they needed more calories and more options, and substantial increases of good food thrown in the garbage. They also got this parody of "The Hunger Games" from some ingenious Kansas kids:

Dawn Matthews, director of food service for the rural Camdenton school district in Missouri, serves 3,200 school lunches every school day to kids in every grade level from K-12. The new standards, drawn from recommendations from an independent panel of doctors, nutritionists and other experts, require better nutrition and allow schools to serve between 550-650 calories for students in K-5, 600-700 calories of students for 6th through 8th grades, and 750-850 for high school lunches. Agri-Pulse reporters explain that a daily lunch costs $2.10, but almost 60 percent of the meals are offered for free for a reduced price in this rural district. Matthews notes that participation in the program is dropping with the new menu in place.

Urban kids don't like the lunches, either, reports Vivian Yee of The New York Times. (NYT photo by Librado Romero: A Manhattan school where seventh-graders called vegetables "gross.") Even before the deadline for the act to be put into effect, Gonzales notes, Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kans., and Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced the No Hungry Kids Act last month to repeal the new school guidelines. The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also issued a recent policy statement saying the initial law was "well-intentioned, but falls short of providing a comprehensive policy for educating students in healthy living."

The results of the first few months of trial -- especially the waste -- have been "disheartening," said food director Matthews. It is also early. "I think it's going to evolve over time," said the chairman of Florida's Lake County School Board, Roseanne Brandeburg. "If you're in elementary school, and this is what you're going to be served, you're going to get used to it."

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but free trials are offered on its website.

All journalists should take apart those misleading political ads; here's another tool to help you do it

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

With less than a month until the hugely important Election Day for federal, state and local offices, the airwaves are being clogged with commercials from campaigns, party committees, so-called "super PACs" and other outside players, and most of them are playing fast and loose with the truth.

Pointing out lies and misrepresentations is the duty of journalists, including rural journalists. You may think that you need to stick to local coverage, but you should should remember that many if not most of your audience has no easy access to daily newspapers that pick apart the ads for federal and state office -- and that there and many sources from which to glean facts and analysis about ads that are running on your local airwaves. The voters you serve deserve the best possible information, and you are the only source for many of them to get it. Please do not forsake this responsibility.

Previously, we have noted the services, and The Washington Post's Fact Checker column, which we have found reliable, with only very rare and minor errors. In addition to fact-checking, now there is a service that can help you track the volume and sponsors of ads: Political Ad Sleuth, a searchable database of political ad buys across the nation, as well as a crowd-sourced research tool for journalists. The site has data on where presidential, congressional and issue ads are running and who is paying for them.

The site is based on online ad files from the Federal Communications Commission, which cover the top 50 media markets, plus files uploaded by volunteers in smaller markets. If you are in such a market, you can become one of those volunteers and return the favor. Learn how you can help here.
A tutorial about political ad files and the site itself is here. To contact the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which operates the site, click here.

National Science Foundation funds U. of Montana's rural environmental reporting initiative

University of Montana (Brooke Andrus)
The National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Montana’s School of Journalism $250,000 to improve the quality and quantity of environmental science news as it affects Montana's most rural communities. Martin Kidston of The Missoulian reports that this type of reporting is needed at a time when access to local news has decreased and when "the debates surrounding key environmental issues facing the West often take place in a vacuum, where choices are shaped by one’s political orientation and the opinions generated by the local rumor mill."

Alison Perkins, adjunct journalism instructor at UM, told Kidston that "the grant will help develop a model for reporting environmental science news, using student reporters who are studying environmental science and natural resource journalism at the graduate level as writers. 'I think there’s a climate that’s not really open to environmental stories because there’s the fear that they come from an advocacy position,' said Perkins."

The new program, dubbed Science Source, will be modeled after The Associated Press, working with editors in print, radio, online and television to identify and produce stories that fit the media’s specific needs and that reach the largest audience possible. (Read more)

Farmers, energy firms hike bids to delist endangered species and protect them with voluntary agreements

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeing increased interest in agreements to remove certain species from endangered lists, which would absolves the federal government from protecting them, in the wake of its decision to remove the dunes sagebrush lizard from the list this summer.

If a species is removed, its protection falls to voluntary state-led conservation agreements, and landowners don't have to follow federal protection policies. Voluntary agreements "have been a long time in the making," Allison Winter of Energy and Environment News reports. The Endangered Species Act has been shrouded in controversy since its 1973 enactment, she writes, even though environmentalists say its one of the most effective laws for protecting species. Critics of the act say it's become too cumbersome and restrictive on development. Voluntary agreements began during the Clinton administration, and more than 70 landowners have enrolled 1.1 million acres in conservation agreements, providing habitat for 41 species.

Ranchers, farmers, wind-energy companies and oil and gas companies are increasing requests for such agreements so they can increase development on previously protected land, and the FWS is trying to determine how to streamline the review process, Winter reports. The agency plans to issue final listing decisions for 251 species, and initial findings on hundreds of other species, as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups. Two high-profile candidates are the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken, the status of which could affect development across the West, Winter reports.

The swing state vote based on rural unemployment numbers requires state-by-state analysis

The bundle of swing states -- Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida -- include quite a few rural voters. And if, as they tell us, the presidential election will be decided by those states, it might just be a matter of who has jobs there and who doesn't. But you have to look at each state, notes Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder, because the picture is different every time you cross a state line. "You can see why Obama feels more confident in Iowa, which is doing relatively well. And the President is running behind in North Carolina, in part, no doubt, to the rotten unemployment figures in the state's rural and exurban counties," Bishop writes. "Southern Virginia is doing poorly — and we've seen a lot of attention there from both campaigns. Mitt Romney has been talking about coal and mining jobs, an appeal that must resonate in southern Ohio and southwestern Virginia. Romney has been making similar arguments in rural Colorado, which shows signs of a weak economy. Rural Florida is not doing particularly well, but we haven't seen a response aimed at these rural counties as of yet."

Feds pick preliminary route for major power line

A proposed electrical transmission line that would cross 1,100 miles from Wyoming into Idaho and provide improved electricity to the southern parts of those states and beyond has received federal approval for its latest route. The Bureau of Land Management has chosen the route because it largely avoids wildlife habitats, national trails and archeaologically and culturally significant areas. When built, the Gateway West Transmission Line Project will be the first major transmission line constructed in the region decades. (Gateway West map: Preferred route, with alternatives; for interactive version, click here)
Gateway West tried to keep the preferred route on federal land as much as possible to avoid potential right-of-way easements across privately owned land and reduce concerns about obstructed views from residents in nearby areas, Scott Streater of Energy and Environment News reports. If completed in 2018, the joint project of Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power will stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise. It will carry mostly wind-generated electricity to load centers across the West.

Environmentalists, local government leaders and private landowners have voiced concerns about the project since it was proposed five years ago. Concerns have ranged from damage to historic trails, raptor nests and U.S. Air Force safety. BLM spokeswoman Beverly Gorny said the preferred route is partly based on suggestions from more than 2,600 public comments submitted after a draft environmental impact statement was released last year. The BLM continues to study alternate routes for the line's 10 segments. A final route will be chosen after another EIS and public comment period are conducted by the end of the year. A final decision about the project will be made next year, Gorny said. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Romney releases rural platform, criticizes Congress and Obama for lack of new Farm Bill

Mitt Romney released his rural platform today. "Like President Obama, the Republican's rural policy is all about agriculture," says the Daily Yonder. "Of course, most people in rural America have little to do with farming, but in a campaign short on substance, we'll take what we can get." (Des Moines Register photo)

The Yonder notes that the platform criticizes Congress for failing to pass a Farm Bill before recessing for the election season. That has created some heat for Republican members of the House from rural areas. In an appearance in Iowa yesterday, Romney also blamed Obama, saying "The president has to exert the kind of presidential leadership it takes to get the House and Senate together and actually pass a farm bill.”

The four main points of the platform, which is available here, are:

  • Implement effective tax policies to support family farms and strong agribusiness;
  • Pursue trade policies that expand upon the success of the agriculture sector, not limit it;
  • Create a regulatory environment that is commonsense and cost-effective; and
  • Achieve energy independence on this continent by 2020.
  • As dams crumble, states can't keep up with inspections and repairs; look up your local dams

    "The number of deficient dams in the U.S. — those with structural or hydraulic issues that increase the risk of failure — is rising dramatically, outpacing the rate at which they can be fixed. But as austerity continues across governments, funds for inspection and upkeep are static or shrinking in most states," Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. Last year, there were just 422 full-time state employees overseeing more than 87,000 dams in the entire country. Of those dams, 11,388 were listed as "high-hazard," which means they are likely to fail and cause deaths. Many dams exist in rural areas, where rivers have been dammed to create water supplies for urban areas. (Interior Department photo: employees inspect leaking dam)

    There's little help on the way from state legislatures, and dam safety advocates hope federal legislators will pick up the slack. When it returns after the election the U.S. Senate will be asked to reauthorize the 2006 National Dam Safety Act, an annual $14 million program that expired a year ago. That program helped states retain staff, educate dam owners and buy essential equipment.

    Most dams were built before 1970, including more than 2,000 that are more than 100 years old, and are very prone to damage that could cause failure. State dam inspectors have a hard time keeping up. Alabama doesn't have a safety program, leaving its more than 2,000 dams un-inspected. South Carolina employs fewer than two full time-equivalent workers to oversee its 2,380 dams.

    With so many dams to inspect, states classify them by estimated hazard, but changing demographics can lead to faulty classifications. "Suburban development has pushed into rural areas where engineers long ago planned dam construction with only agriculture in mind," Malewitz explains. "Those dams were considered low-hazard; failure meant only flooded land -- not inundated homes or businesses or threatened lives." (Read more)

    To look up dams in your area on the Corps' National Inventory of Dams, click here.

    Good pay, independent culture, dislike of Obama make Appalachian coal miners 'proud to be scabs'

    "As recently as the 1980s, plenty of coalfield residents thought Big Coal was the problem. But these days, in . . . Central Appalachia — southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky and eastern Tennessee — coal mining is overwhelmingly popular, despite well-documented risks to workers’ health and community safety," reports Gabriel Schwartzman of In These Times, a liberal, labor-oriented managzine. (Photo by Schwartzman: Supervisory miner gets coffee before work)

    Schwartzman spent this summer in the region trying to determine why the previous Democratic and union stronghold has turned so sharply to the right, and doesn't mince words in presenting his conclusion: "At $108,000 a year, nothing in Appalachia compares to miners' wages," he writes. Those wage increases are linked to increased mechanization and smaller workforces, and have changed the political and financial nature of that workforce, he reports. One miner in Pike County, Kentucky, told him he would lose everything if "coal was shut down" because no job in the region could pay him as much.

    The union battles for higher wages, better safety and benefits of 30 years ago were largely lost, ultimately ending with the United Mine Workers of America abandoning strikes, Schwartzman writes. Companies raised wages without unions, but cut many jobs with increased mechanization. A major unionized company in the region, Patriot Coal, is now bankrupt and unable to pay miners' pensions.

    Miners with jobs told Schwartzman the non-union life is good. "We are scabs. We're proud to be scabs," one surface miner at Camp Branch mine in West Virginia told him. They are loyal to their companies, and that loyalty extends to families, friends and businesses supported by coal miners, Schwartzman reports. But an Energy Information Administration forecast of a 58 percent decline in Central Appalachian coal production by 2035 is reason for many to worry. Though the current decline is being caused mainly by competition from cheap natural gas and the decreased viability of Appalachian coal, miners tend to believe increased environmental regulation is the cause.

    Schwartzman reports intimidation and threats received by those who advocate for safer mining practices or oppose mountaintop-removal mining. "Social media is used as a mobilizing tool against 'tree huggers,'" Schwartzman reports. "Aside from calling rallies and protests, post like this August 6 one appear regularly on Citizens for Coal's Facebook page: 'Just saw a post saying tree hugger in Gilbert eating at Wallys restaurant.'"

    Many miners expressed to Schwartzman the need to vote out President Obama, even though his administration increased mine safety inspections, probably reducing miner injuries; increased health care for black-lung victims, and increased investments in clean-coal technology. Schwartzman writes that coal companies stir up anti-Obama rhetoric, but the Christian right and the National Rifle Association also play a role. "Those forces play upon values of autonomy and independence that run deep here," Schwartzman writes. "For 150 years, these values have helped Appalachians survive outsiders exploiting their mountain resources. Now those values have become aligned with out-of-state coal companies against environmentalists and liberals." (Read more)

    Neither party has supported policies that will help the coal miner, Betty Dotson-Lewis writes for the Daily Yonder.

    Walmart, American Express to offer yet another option to people without bank accounts

    American Express and Walmart have teamed up to launch a card-based banking system aimed at low-income customers who don't have bank accounts or only limited accounts, many of whom live in rural areas. The system, known as Bluebird, will allow for check deposits and payments by smartphone, has no minimum balance or monthly fees, and is Walmart's latest "foray into financial services," Barney Jopson and Tom Braithwaite of The Financial Times report. Customers will be able to make deposits at Walmart cash registers, and won't have to pay for overdrafts.

    The announcement caused a 20 percent drop in shares of Green Dot, a card-based banking company that has already partnered with Walmart. American Express would not comment to The Financial Times about its investment in the program or how it would make a profit from it. Walmart previously tried to enter the banking world by acquiring a banking license in 2007, but failed. Its efforts have "triggered fierce opposition from some U.S. lawmakers and community banks wary of its power," Jopson and Braithwaite report. (Read more)

    Drought lowers Great Lakes levels, stifles shipping

    The severe drought in the Midwest has lowered levels in the Mississippi River and in Lakes Michigan and Huron, stifling the shipping industry that depends on them. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the lakes are down almost a foot from last year, and in the next few months could break a record low set in 1964. (Associated Press photo: Freighter passes port re-opened after dredging)

    Water levels near ports on the lakes determine how much coal, iron, grain and other cargo can be shipped, Joe Barrett and Caroline Porter of The Wall Street Journal report. "This is very much an industry where inches count," Lake Carriers' Association Vice President Glen Nekvasil said. He told Barrett and Porter that lower lake levels means ships are carrying about 1,200 to 1,500 fewer tons per load, a loss that is very hard to recover.

    Low water also highlights the need for more dredging of ports to keep them clear of sediment, the reporters write. The Corps of Engineers has identified at least $200 million worth of dredging needs in the lakes' channels and harbors. (Read more)

    Bees develop proteins that fight colony collapse

    Bees have evolved proteins that help them fight an insect known to contribute to colony collapse disorder, concludes research published in Genome Biology. The Varroa mite sucks the blood of bees, weakening their immune systems and contributing to deaths of entire hives. (Science Daily photo by Queenie Chan)

    The proteins prompt removal of diseased bee larvae and reproductive mites, Science Daily reports. After researchers scanned 1,200 proteins, they found several associated with this behavior. A protein involved in blood clotting was unused in damaged larvae, and this appeared to spur the adult bees' removal of them.

    "Bee keepers have previously focused on selecting bees with traits such as enhanced honey production, gentleness and winter survival," University of British Columbia lead researcher Leonard Foster said. "We have found a set of proteins which could be used to select colonies on their ability to resist Varroa mite infestation and can be used to find individuals with increased hygienic behavior. Given the increasing resistance of Varroa to available drugs this would provide a natural way of ensuring honey farming and potentially survival of the species." (Read more)

    Monday, October 8, 2012

    Did a pastor in your area endorse a candidate from the pulpit Sunday? It's a national story

    In a move that could put their tax-exempt status at risk and result in fines, an estimated 1,500 pastors nationwide endorsed presidential candidates Sunday. The move was a challenge to the law prohibiting political endorsements by religious and other tax-exempt organizations, policed by the Internal Revenue Service. (Bloomberg News photo)

    The goal of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" was "to defy this rule and prompt the IRS to take action against a church that could become the basis for a court case to test whether the amendment infringes on constitutional rights to free religious and political speech," reported Jennifer Hawes of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. The event was first organized four years ago by the Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom. All participants pledged to film their sermons and send them to the IRS.

    Rev. Steven Baines, religious outreach director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Hawes the political action "opens the door to politicizing our pulpits." The risk is that churches and pastors could become political fronts, he said. "They have freedom of speech. They can preach about their values, and we encourage pastors to preach about their values. But they cannot relate those to a particular candidate or party."

    Participating pastors said they were taking part because their messages shouldn't be filtered through the IRS. But the average voter doesn't want pastors politicizing their sermons, according to a decade's worth of Pew Research Center polls, Hawes reported. In a July survey, 66 percent of people polled said churches and other places of worship should not endorse candidates. Even 90 percent of Protestant pastors polled in a May LifeWay survey said they shouldn't endorse from the pulpit. (Read more)

    Presidential candidates don't focus on rural issues

    "As they campaign, presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney pretty much ignore rural-specific issues," even though they have plenty of opportunity to focus on those issues, Don Davis of the Grand Forks Herald reports, noting that some major swing states that are frequent stops on campaign trails are "heavy on agriculture."

    The House Agriculture Committee ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, told Davis that the gist of each candidate's stance on agriculture is this: Mitt Romney favors fewer regulations, as do many rural residents; Obama is better at supporting the Farm Bill, which includes disaster relief for farmers and funding for rural development projects. University of North Dakota economics professor David Flynn told Davis rural people are "'forced' to back the candidate of their favorite parties ... because neither delivers enough information for them to make good decisions."

    "Neither candidate is laying out any specifics regarding rural-specific policies, even the consequences of other policy ideas such as energy on rural economies," Flynn said. "There is no attention being paid to it. At some level, it is a disservice." Ed Schafer, former agriculture secretary and a member of Romney's Agriculture Advisory Team, said the candidates miss an opportunity to talk about the strength of U.S. farming when they don't focus on rural issues. Obama focuses on renewable energy when talking farm issues, but other parts of the farm-sector "can't get an ear anywhere," Schafer said.

    "Rural America is not on the front burner for one main reason: votes," Davis writes. Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis said the issues facing rural America are complex and not easy to solve, and candidates know they get most of their votes from urban areas. (Read more)

    Wind farm in Eastern Washington could revitalize rural community, be example to others

    The small farming town of Oakesdale, Wash., just south of Spokane, population 420, looks much like other small towns and rural communities across the country: boarded-up storefronts, empty restaurants, few opportunities. Now city officials hope a $200 million wind farm just west of town will provide a boost to the local economy, Kaitlin Gillespie of The Spokesman-Review reports. (S-R photo by Derek Harrison)

    First Wind, a Boston-based energy company, owns the Palouse Wind Project, a 58-turbine facility that will supply power to about 30,000 people. The four-year project is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving, though 37 turbines will be producing power by the end of next week. The project is "blowing in more than renewable energy," Gillespie writes. It's bringing business and tax revenue to Whitman County. The wind farm will generate $790,000 a year in property taxes, for a total of $13.8 million over its 30-year lifespan. The project created more than 100 jobs during construction and will provide 10 permanent positions. (Read more)

    Feds pencil another non-Appalachian county into their efforts to fight drug traffic in the region

    When the Appalachian Regional Commission was created in 1965, it included for political and other reasons many counties that were not part of the poor, mountainous region but resembled it economically. Since then, Congress has added several such counties to the officially recognized region to make them eligible for ARC help. Some truly Appalachian counties grumbled that the pool of money was being diluted, and they are doing likewise now that the Obama administration has placed Kentucky's central crossroads town in the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, "a jurisdiction set up to fight the drug trade in the mountains," reports Roger Alford of The Associated Press, who once reported for the wire service from Eastern Kentucky.

    "This is a place of rolling countryside, cattle farms and cropland," Alford writes."That's why some eyebrows arched when the Obama administration penciled Hardin County into Appalachia." (Wikipedia map locates Elizabethtown in Hardin County; map below shows the ARC territory, which is not affected by the anti-drug jurisdiction's boundaries.)
    The Office of National Drug Control Policy said it added Hardin County at the request of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader. McConnell told the AP, "The argument I made is that, even though this is not technically an Appalachian county, it's not too far away from Appalachia and it's right here with two interstates going north and south and east and west, and clearly is a transit point" for drugs. Louisville and Bowling Green, metropolitanm areas north and south of Elizabethtown on Interstate 65, had already been added to the area. At the same time it added Hardin County, the drug office also added Brooke, Hancock, Marshall and Ohio counties in northern West Virginia.

    Some Central Appalachian political leaders say adding western counties to the list will make it harder for federal money to reach eastern counties that need it more. "Bringing on more counties only makes our situation less hopeful," Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop told Alford. (Read more)