Sunday, February 18, 2018

Anthem makes exceptions, including distance to care, of policy denying claims for ER visits it deems non-emergency

Responding to complaints from legislators and health-care providers, insurer Anthem has added several exceptions to its recently established policy of not paying for emergency-room visits if it determines there was no emergency. The policy first took effect in Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia; "Ohio, Indiana and New Hampshire were added to the program in January, after the new exceptions were already in place," Leslie Small reports for FierceHealthcare.

The exceptions include patients who:
  • are sent to the ER by another provider, including an ambulance
  • visit an ER between 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. Monday, or on a major holiday
  • are younger than 15
  • live more than 15 miles from an urgent care center
  • are traveling out of state
  • receive any kind of surgery
  • get intravenous fluids or IV medications, or an MRI or CT scan
  • have an ER visit associated with an outpatient or inpatient admission
"Anthem said the changes went into effect Jan. 1," Shelby Livingston reports for Modern Healthcare. "It will apply the exceptions to any previously denied claims."

The company said in a prepared statement, “Anthem stands by our belief that emergency rooms are an expensive place to receive routine care. The costs of treating non-emergency ailments in the ER has an impact on the cost of healthcare for consumers, employers and the health care system as a whole.”

The changes did not satisfy the American College of Emergency Physicians. "This is still a fundamentally flawed policy,” Laura Wooster, the group's associate executive director of public affairs for the American College of Emergency Physicians, told Small. “Making fixes around the edges doesn’t end this dangerous policy that’s really going to scare patients away from going to the ER or even considering going to the ER.”

Small reports, "Anthem’s program was meant to deter members from using the emergency room for illnesses or injuries that aren’t life-threatening. But critics say patients shouldn’t be forced to self-diagnose, warning that the new policies will encourage people to avoid seeking care for serious medical conditions out of fear that their claim will be denied."

Shannon Muchmore reports for HealthcareDive, "Anthem has said its program denies a small percentage of claims, but the change in policy signals the payer may be worried about the backlash, including from patients who have gone public with denied claims."

Friday, February 16, 2018

New TPP pact called a disaster for U.S. farmers; Trump signal to re-enter talks may have come too late

The Trump administration has signaled that it might be willing to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it may be too late -- and American farmers could lose out as a result. David Malpass, undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs, said at a lecture Wednesday that the U.S. would consider re-entering the pact if it could be renegotiated more favorably. His comment echoes President Trump's remark at the World Economic Forum on Jan. 25 that he would be willing to come back to the table. That came two days after the 11 remaining TPP nations reached an accord that they plan to sign in March, and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said it would be difficult to renegotiate, Taisei Hoyama reports for Nikkei Asian Review.

Trump's first official act was to withdraw from the TPP, saying that it wasn't a good deal for Americans and that he prefers bilateral trade agreements. His comment at Davos didn't get much press because he didn't follow up, and "There's another reason to wonder how serious Trump is," Urban Lehner writes for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Interest groups, including the farm lobby, have been complaining about the administration's failure to replace TPP with a Japan bilateral. A cynic might wonder if having failed to convince the Japanese to negotiate bilaterally, the president dangles the possibility of re-entering TPP to keep the interest groups at bay."

Whether that's true or not, it's clear American farm groups are getting more nervous. The day the new TPP accord was announced, the Asia-Pacific Working Group, which represents more than 95 percent of the American farming, ranching and food processing sector, sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in support of the U.S. rejoining the TPP, Lehner reports. The Asia-Pacific Working Group is a part of the U.S. Food and Agriculture Dialogue for Trade.

The new pact would be a "disaster for farmers" in the U.S., says Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, costing American wheat farmers $3 billion over the next 10 years. Japan is the biggest international customer for U.S. wheat, but wheat from Australia and Canada would be much cheaper under the new pact. U.S. Wheat Associates estimates that Japanese imports of U.S. wheat would fall by 2.5 million bushels annually, KREM-TV reports.

Penney's contributions to agriculture highlighted in new book

Though J.C. Penney stores were popular with small-town and rural farmers in the early 1900's, few knew about the retail mogul's passion for improving the lives of animal agriculturists. David Delbert Kruger's new biography, published by University of Oklahoma Press, focuses on just that.

In J.C. Penney: The Man, The Store, and American Agriculture, Kruger brings readers back to Penney's roots as a Missouri boy whose Baptist-preacher father eked out a living on the family farm. Penney wanted to attend college but needed to support his family. So he took a job in retail, and eventually took a job at a Colorado dry-goods store, The Golden Rule. His work ethic impressed the owners so much that they allowed him to open his own store in Wyoming. When the owners dissolved their partnership in 1907, he bought all three stores and launched the J.C. Penney Co.

Penney established his corporate headquarters in New York City, and bought some acreage north of the city where he could enjoy a hobby farm. But his interest in agriculture didn't end there. "Penney recognized that his store customers made a living off the land. The productivity of dairy cattle in rural America, for instance, was much lower than dairy cows in Europe," Bill Spiegel writes for The High Plains Journal. "In 1921, he began buying the best Guernsey sires and dams from around the world, bringing them to his Emmadine Farm in New York. From 1927 to the farm’s dispersal in 1953, Penney eagerly shared his knowledge with other dairy farmers, and sold progeny from his Foremost Guernsey herd in an effort to boost profits of the people who were his primary store customers."

Though his forays into agriculture weren't always successful, Kruger paints a picture of a man who worked hard to improve farm animals' genetics and American agriculture overall.

'The Real Mayberry' uses Mount Airy's pop-culture image to tell the promise and problems of small-town living

Bill Hayes in Mount Airy, with Blue Ridge outcrop Pilot Mountain (inspiration for TV's Mount Pilate) in distance. (Daily Yonder)
Mount Airy, N.C., population about 10,000, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Mayberry in "The Andy Griffith Show," starring its most famous native. On the show, neighbors were neighborly, and the town's problems could be solved in a half hour, but the reality is different. With his new documentary "The Real Mayberry," Mount Airy native Bill Hayes takes us beyond the pat answers of a TV show and digs into the problems and promise of living in a small town.

"But like any honest look at small-town America, the engaging film has no pat answers. What it does have are the right questions: What is special about our place? What is here that we can build on? How do we create opportunity while preserving what we love? And how do we pass on our town to a new generation that has new ideas?" Tim Marema writes for The Daily Yonder. "Your hometown may not have inspired Andy Griffith, but we bet it has more than a little in common with this former mill town on the North Carolina Piedmont." Mount Airy and Surry County have struggled with the decline of three major industries: furniture, textiles and tobacco, and have in recent years embraced the Mayberry identity to attract tourists.

"Like Mount Airy itself, Hayes’ documentary uses the pop-culture notoriety of Mayberry to create a connection," Marema reports. "Once you’re inside the city limits, the viewer is prepared to have a much deeper conversation about the future of small-town America." Hayes told Marema that he made the documentary because "Our country is built on small towns in rural America and I feel like they're misunderstood and don't get the proper nurturing."

W.Va. Medicaid to cover treatment for addicted babies

Lily's Place (Huntington Quarterly photo by Katherine Pyles)
West Virginia has decided that its Medicaid program will cover treatment for babies born dependent on drugs. The state, which has the nation's highest rate of infants born addicted and the highest rate of drug-overdose deaths, is the first to grant such coverage.

That was welcome news at Lily's Place, a recovery center for infants in Huntington. The 12-bed facility, opened in 2014, is the first of its kind in the U.S. and provides care for about 100 babies each year. The lack of coverage "has been a source of uncertainty for Lily's Place, so we welcome this announcement," Executive Director Rebecca Crowder said in a statement. "This designation will allow us to continue to offer compassionate care to newborns in need."

"Crowder said the hope is to enable more infant drug rehab centers to open nationwide. A bill introduced in Congress last year is aimed at helping such facilities overcome regulatory hurdles and receive Medicaid-service reimbursement," John Raby reports for The Associated Press.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nation's largest maker of 'glider' trucks wins EPA exemption; in defense, cites its hundreds of rural manufacturing jobs

When the Environmental Protection Agency restored an exemption for big trucks made from old engines and new chassis called "gliders," it helped a fast-growing manufacturer in rural Tennessee that had pulled political and academic strings to make its case. But it was bad news "for an array of businesses and environmentalists," because the old engines "spew 40 to 55 times the air pollution of other new trucks, according to federal estimates," Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times.

Fitzgerald's locations; the firm plans to build a research facility in
Sparta for Cookeville-based Tennessee Tech. (Google map, adapted)
Under the Obama administration, EPA tried to close the loophole, but before that move could take effect, Tommy Fitzgerald of tiny Byrdstown, Tenn., hosted President Trump and lobbied EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and got help from U.S. Rep. Diane Black (whom he helped by rounding up $225,000 in contributions to her campaign for governor) and Tennessee Technological University, which took Fitzgerald's money to do a study that minimized the loophole (and is doing a “misconduct in research” investigation at the demand of faculty) and may build a research center with Fitzgerald money.

In their defense, Fitzgerald and Black wave the rural flag. “I don’t know why anyone would want to kill all these jobs,” he told Lipton, who notes "the several hundred people he said he employs at his dealerships, many of them in rural areas." A Black spokesman told Lipton, “There are very few companies willing to try and keep manufacturing jobs in rural Tennessee today, and Diane fights hard to support the few that do.” An EPA spokeswoman said Pruitt accepted Fitzgerald and Black's argument that EPA lacked authority to regulate the trucks and his decision was unrelated to politics.

Fitzgerald is the nation's largest glider maker, Lipton reports: "The trucks, originally intended as a way to reuse a relatively new engine and other parts after an accident, became attractive for their ability to evade modern emissions standards and other regulations. . . . The trucks, which Fitzgerald claims burn less fuel per mile and are cheaper to repair, have been on the market since at least the 1970s. But after the federal government moved to force improvements in truck emissions, with standards that were first enacted during the Clinton administration and took full effect by 2010, gliders became a way for trucking companies to legally skirt the rules."

Lipton adds, "The glider trucks take advantage of other regulatory loopholes. Since most of the engines were manufactured before 1999, the trucks are exempt from a federal law that went into effect in December intended to prevent accidents caused by fatigued drivers. The law requires commercial truck drivers to use an electronic logging system to track how many hours they spend behind the wheel, and to take mandatory breaks. The law covers truck engines manufactured after 1999." Some gliders "are not subject to a 12 percent federal excise tax imposed on truck sales, because they are not considered new trucks. Ms. Black intervened with the Internal Revenue Service last year, along with three other members of Congress, to protect that tax break."

Chet France, former director of assessment and standards at EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told Lipton that U.S. salvage yards have enough truck engines to supply the glider market for decades. "Truck manufacturers, as well as shipping companies like UPS, fear that a permanent loophole would encourage other truck dealers to enter the glider business, further undermining efforts to reduce health hazards associated with diesel exhaust and creating unfair competition for them," Lipton reports. "The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, representing state regulators, and the attorneys general from 12 states have joined in protesting the rollback." Terry Dotson, owner of Kentucky-based Worldwide Equipment, which makes trucks that comply with current emissions rules, told Lipton, “I want Mr. Fitzgerald to make a fortune and be a happy man. But everybody ought to play by the same set of rules.”

Eastern Ky., region hardest hit by coal's decline, had 6 percent more coal jobs at end of 2017 than a year earlier

Eastern Kentucky, the region that has suffered the greatest job losses during the coal industry's recent slide, had 6 percent more coal jobs at the end of 2017 than a year earlier, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The estimated number of coal-industry jobs in the state's eastern coalfield was 4,055, far below historical levels. The region had 13,671 coal jobs in 2011.

"Martha Davis, who with her husband Deanie runs a trucking business based in Floyd County that primarily hauls coal, said they’ve seen improvement," Estep reports, identifying her as a supporter of President Trump: "Davis said since Trump took office, she’s bought three tractor-trailers, replacing three she sold earlier because there was no work for them." She told him, “There’s been more mines open up. At the end of 2015, we couldn’t buy a load of coal to haul.”

Coal production in Eastern Kentucky rose 9.4 percent in 2017, but statewide production was down 1.6 percent, to 42 million tons, due to a decline in the western coalfield, part of the Illinois Basin. The state. Officials and experts do not expect Appalachian Basin production to increase much if any.
Lexington Herald-Leader chart

Wetter summer weather expected; would help grain, cattle

"Drought conditions have been widespread across the United States due to the La Niña weather pattern seen in the area for the past few years, but relief could be seen soon," Jennifer Carrico reports for the High Plains Journal. She cites CattleFax meteorologist Art Douglas, who says that in about three months the La Niña weather system will transition to a weaker El Niño pattern, which likely bring relief from the drought in the Western states.

According to Douglas, "If weaker El Niño conditions develop this summer, conditions at that time could be milder through the Midwest, but drier soils in the Plains and Southwest could create feedback mechanisms that increase heat in these areas. The Northwest and northern Rockies may have the only reliable grazing into late spring and summer," Carrico reports.

If the La Niña conditions continue to keep Argentina and Brazil dry for most of the summer, demand for U.S. exports of grain and beef could increase. Corn prices could move higher in the summer, according to CattleFax market analyst Mike Murphy, who predicts an average yield of 172 bushels per acre. And if cattle exports are up, more grain will likely be needed for feed.

And if cattle exports are in demand, CattleFax analyst Kevin Good told Carrico that beef will likely stay profitable, especially if foreign demand for beef exports continues to grow.

Rural residents face more barriers in finding long-term care

Rural residents tend to be poorer, older, and have more health issues, such as obesity, dementia, substance-abuse, and other behavioral and mental health problems. On top of that, they have less access to long-term care for those conditions, a phenomenon explored by Carrie Henning-Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

"Not being able to secure timely, appropriate nursing home care can lead to patients languishing in hospital settings for much longer than is necessary or appropriate," Henning-Smith told Charlie Plain of the university's public-relations office. "This can come at a high cost to individual patients, state and federal programs, and individual hospitals. The lack of choices can also lead to people being placed in settings far from their homes, which can make it difficult for loved ones to visit."

Henning-Smith's first study, published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, looked at the barriers rural hospital discharge planners reported in finding nursing home care for non-elderly adults. A second study, published in the Journal of Aging & Social Policy, examined non-medical barriers that rural hospital discharge planners reported in finding nursing home care for rural residents.

Henning-Smith found that planners had trouble placing patients in long-term care mainly because of finances, lack of transportation, infrastructure, the availability of nursing homes, and timeliness in responding to referral requests. Some patients couldn't afford a nursing home because they made too much money to qualify for public assistance but too little money to pay for treatment. Also, some younger patients felt they wouldn't fit in well at a nursing home full of seniors. Some patients had to be placed in a long-term care facility because they didn't have a family member able to act as a caregiver. And discharge planners had a hard time finding rural placements for patients with complex medical problems that required specialized care.

"There are a variety of ways to improve access to appropriate long-term care for rural residents, including addressing long-term care workforce shortages — especially for people without loved ones to care for them," Henning-Smith said. "They also need to look at addressing infrastructure in rural areas — including the availability of non-emergency transportation — and support ways to provide long-term services and assistance in settings other than nursing homes if a patients’ medical and psychosocial needs can more appropriately be met at home."

Study aims to find which opioid addiction treatments work

On Monday the White House gave the green light to a national research effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to see which treatments are the most effective for the more than 2 million Americans addicted to opioids. Drug treatment is less available in rural areas.

Experts agree that medication-assisted therapy is the most effective way to treat opioid addiction, but the CDC says the study is needed because little data exists about the risks and benefits associated with each form of MAT. Each drug used in MAT has different characteristics and administration methods that can affect how well patients respond to the treatment.

"The study will target 60 treatment facilities and four primary-care facilities in 11 regions across the country that cover some of the states hit hardest by the epidemic. That list includes Alabama, California, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, among others." Virgil Dickson reports for Modern Healthcare. "The study will follow patients at these facilities over two years to better understand the factors of when medication-assisted treatment does or does not work. Individuals pursuing counseling without medication will also be followed.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Editorial contest for weeklies extends deadline to March 1; offers scholarships for newbies to attend conference

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, citing a shortage of entries, has extended the entry deadline for its Golden Quill editorial-writing contest to March 1.

The winner will get a scholarship and travel expenses up to $500 to ISWNE's annual conference in Portland, Ore., July 11-15. Any of the 11 runners-up who have not attended an ISWNE conference will also get a scholarship.

All newspapers that publish fewer than five days per week are eligible. Entries must have been published during 2017 and should identify local issues that are, or should be, of concern to the community; offer an opinion; and support a cause of action.

You can nominate someone else's editorial(s) or send your own, and you can enter two editorials per person. The cost is $20 per person for ISWNE members or $25 for non-members. If two people are entering from the same newsroom, the cost is $40 for ISWNE members and $50 for non-members.

Click here for more information about the contest, and click here for a printable entry form with more specifics about how to enter. Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal, will republish the 12 best editorials in the Summer 2018 issue.

States expand authority of nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to increase health care in rural areas

The shortage of doctors and drug treatment in rural areas hamstrings efforts to fight the opioid epidemic. Medication-assisted therapy, which requires a prescription, is the most effective treatment. The Drug Enforcement Administration announced in late January that nurse practitioners and physician assistants can get a waiver that allows them to prescribe and dispense opioid maintenance drugs. But lawmakers in several states have gone a step further, seeking to expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants in rural areas where there is often no doctor.

In Georgia, Republican Sen. Renee Unterman, chair of the Senate health committee, has introduced a bill that would give rural nurse practitioners more latitude to treat patients. Nine of the state's 159 counties have no physician, and dozens more have no pediatricians or obstetrician/gynecologists. "Proponents argue expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners could help fill in the health-care gaps in a growing state with increasing needs, especially with primary care. Nurse practitioners can also specialize in certain areas, such as pediatric care or mental health treatment," Jill Nolan reports for the Valdosta Daily Times.

In April 2017 the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill to let nurse practitioners to practice on their own after fulfilling a three-year, 3,600-hour formal agreement with a physician, Jan Murphy reports for Penn Live. "There are not enough doctors willing to practice in smaller communities and as older doctors retire, fewer new doctors are coming in to replace them," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Camera Bartolotta. "Thankfully, there is a solution that holds the promise of easing this looming health care catastrophe."

Texas passed two related bills in 2017: one that allows nurse practitioners in under-served areas to see Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Plan patients without a doctor's supervision, and one that allows APRNs and physician's assistants to sign death certificates. Nurse practitioners had protested having to pay up to six-figure contracts with doctors that would allow the nurse practitioners to treat patients and write prescriptions, Mariana Alfaro reports for The Texas Tribune.

Sinclair asks its stations' news directors to give to its PAC; journalism ethics experts object

Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the nation's largest owner of TV stations, is asking some of its newsroom managers to contribute to its conservative-oriented political action committee, which some journalism ethics experts say is highly unusual and opens the door to an ethical breach.

Rebecca Hanson, Sinclair's senior vice president of strategy and policy, said the request for PAC funding wasn't unethical because it was only sent to newsroom managers, not reporters or anchors. The news directors "were solicited as a result of being part of our managerial level, not because of their role in editorial," Hanson told Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, and added that "participation is completely voluntary. There is no corporate pressure to participate and no consequence for not participating. It doesn’t put them in any ethical bind whatsoever."

But University of Wisconsin journalism professor and former TV news producer Lewis Friedland told Farhi that the request "violates every standard of conduct that has existed in newsrooms for the past 40 or 50 years" and said that news directors who donate are tacitly supporting the company's political agenda. "It would cause people to ask whether they’re being fair and balanced in their coverage," Friedland said. And news directors might feel pressured to contribute, and worry that refusal would be seen be company superiors as disloyal, Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland, told Farhi.

Sinclair owns 173 stations, and would grow with its pending $3.9 billion purchase of 42 owned or operated by Tribune Media. "The company is fighting to preserve an arcane rule adopted by the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission last year that effectively enabled it and other big media companies to buy more stations. If Congress were to restore the old limits, or if a pending court challenge succeeds, it could complicate Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune," Farhi reports.

Sinclair has been criticized for partisan news coverage. In 2004 it wanted to air a documentary critical of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry the night before Election Day, but backed off after complaints. In 2012 it aired a half-hour news special critical of President Obama. In 2016 it reportedly ordered its stations to air news stories favorable to Donald Trump. In 2017 a Sinclair station in Montana refused to cover the story of U.S. Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte attacking a reporter, saying that he worked for a biased publication. And today, stations are told to air conservative commentaries from Sinclair executive Mark Hyman and former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn.

'Calls from Home' radio show connects inmates in Central Appalachian prisons with their faraway loved ones

Prisoners often get messages from loved ones in letters, but how about by radio? WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., has a unique show, "Calls From Home," that for 20 years has broadcast loved ones' recorded messages to inmates in nearby prisons. More than 5,000 men are incarcerated in six federal and state prisons in the range of WMMT, in Kentucky and Virginia.

Map shows primary signal coverage of WMMT-FM
It's no coincidence that so many prisons are located near Whitesburg. "Pitched as a new source of economic development amid coal power’s decline, prisons began sprouting up around Appalachia in the 1970s," Henry Gass reports for The Christian Science Monitor. "Most people in the community don’t have a problem with new prisons being built in the area . . . though they have grown skeptical of the promises of thousands of jobs."

However, "When prisons started coming in to the region . . . the inmate population and the local population were very much pitched against each other by the department of corrections and state officials," Rose Hackman of The Guardian reported in 2016, after interviewing Amelia Kirby, who started the program when she worked at WMMY, a service of the Appalshop arts-and-culture cooperative.

“We were told that the prisoners coming in were going to be the worst of the worst criminals. Then they were telling inmates they were coming to the last place on earth where violent and racist hillbillies lived,” Kirby told Hackman. “They really worked hard to create this kind of demonizing language. . . . We wanted to counter that narrative. The show is humanizing on both sides. It shows that we are not violent racists, and that people in prison are humans with families that love them. It’s difficult to hate someone when you hear their grandchild tell them they love them on the radio.”

Gass reports, "WMMT bills itself as 'a 24-hour voice of mountain people,' and as far as the station is concerned, if the inmates can tune in, then they are mountain people too." Elizabeth Sanders, WMMT's co-general manager and a producer of "Calls From Home," told him, "Anything we can do to help make the barriers between them and their families a little bit less, then we’re fulfilling part of our mission as the radio station here."

The radio messages are the only way some people can connect with their incarcerated loved ones because of difficulties finding transportation to the prison and the expense of calling a prison. It sometimes cost more than $10 per minute to call someone in prison until the Federal Communications Commission announced a rule in 2015 capping how much telecommunications companies can charge for such calls.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Iconic section of Blue Ridge Parkway shuts March 1-May 24

Linn Cove Viaduct in spring (Photo via Merritt McKinney)
If you're planning to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to see spring blooms, you may have to take a detour or two. A signature stretch of the federal road, the Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, will be closed from March 1 until May 24, just before Memorial Day.

"A seven-mile section of the parkway will be completely closed to traffic. The section of the Tanawha hiking trail below the bridge will also be closed," Karen Chavez reports for the Asheville Citizen-Times. "A traffic detour will be put in place from Milepost 298.6 at Holloway Mountain Road to Milepost 305.1 at U.S. 221."

Chavez explains, "Road work at high elevations must take place in a small window between weather conditions suitable for paving projects, and to cause as little impact to the visitor season as possible, said parkway spokeswoman Leesa Brandon." Other parkway sections are closed or will be; for a real-time map, click here.

The repaving will be the first since the viaduct opened in 1987, completing construction of the 469-mile parkway from Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "The views along the winding viaduct are a huge tourist draw to the parkway, which is the most visited site in the National Park Service. More than 16 million people visited the parkway last year," Chavez reports.

Trump budget for next fiscal year would cut some rural programs, subsidies to higher-income farmers

President Trump's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 calls for a 16 percent decrease in Department of Agriculture spending. Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder, "While the document is vague about some proposed changes, the budget cuts appear to be targeted primarily at Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and eligibility, changes to farm subsidies and crop insurance, decreases in conservation spending, and cuts to some Rural Development programs." SNAP, better known as food stamps, accounts for 80 percent of spending in the five-year Farm Bill.

Some of the proposed changes include:
  • Some SNAP recipients would be required to work to keep benefits. The budget also proposes delivering non-perishable foods such as "shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, canned fruits and meats, and cereal" in a box to SNAP recipients, rather than allowing them to choose what foods fit their family at the grocery store, reports Helena B. Evitch of Politico. "The proposal was so out of left field that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke."
  • Subsidies would be eliminated for higher-income farmers and "overly generous" crop insurance premiums to farmers and payments made to private sector insurance companies would be reduced. Underwriting gains for insurance companies would be capped at 12 percent.
  • Community Connect, the rural broadband grants program, would maintain $30 million in funding, but broadband development loans would be cut 15 percent to $23 million and the distance learning program would be cut by 10 percent to $24 million.
  • The Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service would be combined into a Farm Production and Conservation office. 
  • Funds are included for the Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs division to help increase agricultural exports.
  • Funds would be reduced for the Economic Research Service by eliminating what the plan calls low-priority research already being conducted in the private sector or nonprofits.
  • Wildfires would be treated like other natural disasters like hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. The rationale: The cost of fighting wildfires last year hit a record $2.4 billion, which meant money had to be taken away from wildfire prevention programs to pay for it. 
  • The Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program would be eliminated.
  • Conservation programs would see reduced funding, though the details weren't included in the proposed budget.
  • Interest payments to electric and telecommunications utilities would be eliminated. 
"The Trump administration’s budget proposal appears to be significantly different than what could emerge from the Congressional budget process," Oates reports. "Just last week, the House and Senate agreed to guidelines on a two-year funding package for federal spending that includes increases in both military and domestic spending programs. The size and scope of those budget details will be negotiated by House and Senate appropriators over the next several weeks."

Kansas' likely oldest working journalist dies at 102

Brown, writing a column (Wichita Eagle photo by Beccy Tanner)
When Protection Press community columnist Bonnie Brown gathered news for "Bonnie's Blog" in the weekly paper, she went on foot; she gave up driving when she was 98. And in her eight years of writing for the Press, she only missed two deadlines — one last year when Protection was evacuated for wildfires, and a few weeks ago when she caught a cold. But the upbeat woman who many think was Kansas' oldest working columnist was found dead in her apartment Saturday morning, just 11 days before her 103rd birthday. Her son, Rodney Brown, said her cold had turned into pneumonia. "In her last column, published this past week, Mrs. Brown wrote that she wasn’t feeling 'up to par yet but hope I am on the last mile … If all goes well, I may make it for my next birthday. One never knows what’s in store for any of us,'" Beccy Tanner reports for The Wichita Eagle.

Town of Protection, in Comanche County, Kansas (Wikipedia map)
It's not just Brown's passing that's worthy of mourning, but her increasingly rare style of gathering news: the 4-foot, 5-inch columnist gathered news "the old-fashioned way — with shoe leather and an inquiring mind" as she beat the pavement every day gathering local news in the town of 500, Tanner reports in a different story for The Eagle. "Her column style — of reporting on who was in Protection, who went to visit who, what so-and-so is doing now – is a style of journalism that began to disappear in daily, and then weekly newspapers, in the 1970s and 1980s." But it remains in many weeklies.

Protection Press Editor Susan Edmonston told Tanner, "People are going to miss her but she was such a positive, upbeat person, we think she is up there, walking around, talking to everybody and still getting the news."

Read more here:

Interior aims to improve big-game management and conservation, expand hunting opportunities in West

Pronghorn antelope (Photo via Wikipedia)
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order Feb. 9 "aimed at improving wildlife management and conservation while expanding opportunities for big-game hunting across the West," Gary Harmon reports for The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colo.

The Interior Department will work with state and local agencies to study migration habits of elk, mule deer and pronghorn and find ways to improve their habitat in priority states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The order calls on Interior agencies to appoint a department coordinator to work with states, federal agencies and conservation organizations to identify and map the migration corridors and winter range of big game animals; those planning to use land in migratory paths must develop site-specific management activities to conserve and restore big game habitats, Harmon reports.

Glossary enables accurate reporting on energy, climate

In her latest Axios column, Amy Harder provides us with a glossary of common terms seen in stories about energy and climate change. "Words matter! Especially sloppy ones in an amped-up media landscape where many don’t look past headlines," she writes. "It’s important to get this stuff right when extreme voices are louder than ever and the president openly doubts mainstream science."

On "clean energy" and "green energy", for example, she writes: "Is it just renewables, like wind, solar and hydropower? Is it energy that doesn’t emit carbon emissions? Is it everything but coal, like this Washington lobbying coalition described it? The term is ambiguous and politically expedient. A better way: Specify the energy type." Read here for more.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Trump infrastructure plan is 25% rural, but states and localities would bear most financial burden for projects

Working on a water line near Torrey, Utah (Photo from National Rural Water Association)
President Trump announced his long-awaited infrastructure plan today, calling for federal investment of $200 billion, $50 billion of it designated for rural areas. But most of the money would have to come from state and local governments. UPDATE, Feb. 14: "Hardly anyone believes that $200 billion federal dollars will produce an additional $1.3 trillion investment from non-federal sources, especially when state and local budgets are being squeezed by rising costs for education and health care," writes William Galston of the Brookings Institution.

"The bulk of the dollars in the Rural Infrastructure Program will be allocated to state governors, giving states the flexibility to prioritize their communities’ needs," the plan says. "The remaining funds will be distributed through rural performance grants to encourage the best use of taxpayer dollars." The plan calls for "reducing regulatory barriers" to infrastructure projects, including faster permitting, with a “one agency, one decision” structure for environmental reviews, which could last no longer than two years.

The plan says it is designed to spur investment of $1.5 billion in infrastructure, the great majority of it from state and local governments and private sources. "Critics say that will lead to higher state and local taxes, and an increased reliance on user fees, such as tolls, water and sewer fees, transit fares and airline ticket taxes," David Schaper reports for NPR. "Half of the funding, $100 billion, will be used as incentives to entice cities, counties and states to raise at least 80 percent of the infrastructure costs themselves. . . .That's a radical departure from the way many projects are funded now. Funding for federal-aid highways, including interstates, is usually allocated in an 80-20 federal-state split."

Schaper reports, "Critics worry that would lead to only projects that could generate revenue, such as toll roads or bridges, getting funded." Revenue-generating projects are usually in urban areas; rural areas tend to rely more on direct government support. The plan also has a subsidy for the Rural Utilities Service, a Department of Agriculture agency that funds broadband, electric, water and wastewater projects, and new mineral-lease revenues to fund projects in national parks and on other public lands infrastructure. It also opens the door to sales of assets by government-owned utilities: the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Southwestern Power Administration, and the Bonneville Power Administration in the Northwest, The Daily Yonder reports.

Schaper adds, "Senior White House officials who briefed reporters over the weekend say the plan is aimed at fixing the current system of funding infrastructure that they say is broken in two ways. The first is that the country has been under-investing in infrastructure, leading a state of growing disrepair. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation a grade of D+ for the condition of transit, highway, bridge, rail, water and other infrastructure, and says the country is in need of an investment of $2 trillion more than is currently budgeted. The second way the White House says the system is broken is in the lengthy federal permitting process, which officials say can take five to 10 years or longer, driving up costs."

The more rural a place, the higher its suicide rate is likely to be; interactive map gives county-by-county data

This is a screenshot of an interactive map, available by clicking here.
Suicide is more common in the U.S. today than at any time in decades, and "It's rural America that is sustaining the largest increases," Mike Maciag reports for Governing magazine. "The aggregate suicide rate for counties outside of metropolitan areas climbed about 14 percent over the five-year period ending in 2016. By comparison, the rate within metro areas also increased, but only by 8 percent." The more rural a place, the higher its suicide rate tends to be; the rate in the most rural places is 18.9 per 100,000; in big cities it's 10.6 per 100,000.

The rate is highest in the West, but "Regional differences are largely a function of demographics," Maciag writes. "White men die at the highest rates, roughly 10 times that of Hispanic women and black women, because they tend to have greater access to firearms. Women, on the other hand, carry out more suicide attempts but generally do so using less lethal means. Gun ownership, which is more prevalent in rural areas, also explains why certain regions have higher suicide rates. Firearms account for about half of all suicide deaths. Research has found that mandating waiting periods, gun locks and other gun control laws are associated with fewer deaths."

Another factor is probably the shortage of behavioral-health care in rural areas; "the vast majority" of people who kill themselves "suffer from a diagnosable mental-health issue,": Maciag notes. "The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is pushing an approach known as 'Zero Suicide' that aims to improve care and outcomes for individuals at risk of suicide in health-care systems. The group is also focusing its efforts on emergency rooms and correctional facilities, two other places where people are at higher risk."

The foundation's Jill Harkavy-Friedman told Maciag, “It’s not the economics itself but the associated stress that leads to physical or mental effects on health,” such as loss of health insurance form unemployment. Maciag notes research by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University that has focused on what they call “deaths by despair,” drug overdoses and alcohol-related fatalities as well as suicides. "They found mortality among non-Hispanic whites to be rising for those without college degrees, and improving for more educated whites, blacks and Hispanics," Maciag writes. "The cumulative effects of few labor market opportunities and weakening social structures have largely contributed to worsening mortality for less-educated whites, although the authors note that economics alone don’t fully explain increasing suicide rates."

After decades of addiction and legal action, OxyContin's maker says sales staff won't visit doctors' offices to sell it

Photo by The Associated Press
Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, says it will no longer market its opioid drugs with visits to doctors' offices and it's halving its sales force. The move comes "after years of criticism and mounting lawsuits . . . claiming its sales practices are partly responsible for the opioid epidemic," reports Ben Poston of the Los Angeles Times.

"It's pretty late in the game to have a major impact," Brandeis University researcher Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a longtime critic of the pharmaceutical industry's role in the opioid epidemic, told Poston. "The genie is already out of the bottle. Millions of Americans are now opioid-addicted because the campaign that Purdue and other opioid manufacturers used to increase prescribing worked well. And as the prescribing went up, it led to a severe epidemic of opioid addiction." The drug went on sale in 1996; in 2007, in federal court in southwest Virginia, Purdue paid $635 million in fines to end an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Poston writes, "One remaining question is whether other opioid makers will follow suit and cease marketing the drugs to doctors, said Kolodny, executive director and co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing."

"In an attempt to stem the abuse of OxyContin, Purdue spent a decade and several hundred million dollars developing a version of the painkiller that was more difficult to snort, smoke or inject," Poston notes. "Since those 'abuse-deterrent'  pills debuted seven years ago, misuse of OxyContin has fallen and the company has touted them as proof of its efforts to end the opioid epidemic. But a study released in January 2017 found that rather than curtail deaths, the change in OxyContin contributed heavily to a surge in heroin overdoses across the country and that, as a result, there was 'no net reduction in overall overdose deaths'." States with the most OxyContin abuse rates had the largest increases in heroin deaths.

Appalshop arts-and-culture co-op is spotlighted in first installment of new PBS NewsHour series on U.S. artists

Ada Smith of Appalshop (PBS image)
PBS NewsHour began its new "American Creators" series, "taking us to all corners of the country to see artists at work," Friday night with a long profile of Appalshop, the arts-and-culture cooperative based in Whitesburg, Ky., near the Virginia border, in the depressed Central Appalachian coalfield. Jeffrey Brown's eight-and-a-half minute report is hard to reduce to a blog post, but the essential quotes probably came from Ada Smith, who raises money and acts as a spokeswoman: "There’s been a long history of only seeing rural communities and economies as places to take from, and not places to invest in." Brown asks, "And Appalshop says otherwise, huh?" Smith laughs and replies, "Yes. We feel like there’s a lot of wealth and talent and ideas that need to be given a chance."

Herb E. Smith, Ada's father and an Appalshop filmmaker (PBS)
That's a sharp summation of Appalshop, now in its 50th year. Started with a War on Poverty grant as the Appalachian Film Workshop, it soon expanded into other arts and cultural pursuits, started a radio station, a Roadside Theater and film-making workshops for young people, and recently expanded into economic development.

Smith's father, Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith, recalls, his voice breaking, how fewer than 50 of Whitesburg High School's 1970 graduating class remained in Letcher County by that fall "with no hopes of ever returning. Generations of people, thousands and millions of people leave mining areas, and the people who remain miss them. Miss them bad." Appalshop "was a way to be a part of the solution, and to kind of understand the place that we were a part of."

Appalshop has helped build a regional support network to encourage economic development, "with more than a dozen businesses and organizations in the area," Brown reports. When Gwen Johnson's Hemphill Community Center was in danger of closing because of a decline in coal taxes, "with encouragement and support from Appalshop, including $5,000 in seed money, Johnson was able to start a catering company to help pay the bills," and it hires inmates from the local drug court. Johnson said of Appalshop, "They’re friends who kind of stepped up to the plate and began to think outside the box, and sometimes they think bigger than some of us have ever been allowed to think."

Friday, February 09, 2018

Spending bill has help for opioid crisis, health centers, rural broadband, cotton and dairy farms, carbon-capture projects

President Trump signed a two-year budget package today, ending the second government shutdown of 2018, albeit a short one of about eight hours. Congress passed the measure after a delay forced by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who protested that it was fiscally irresponsible. "When Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party," Paul said during the debate. He called the package "a bipartisan looting of the treasury,'" Lisa Mascaro reports for the Los Angeles Times.

USA Today calls the package a "whopping ... basket of goodies," such as $1 billion for dairy and cotton producers, lower prescription-drug costs for seniors, higher premiums for wealthy Medicare patients, and $6 billion for the opioid epidemic. It includes $20 billion for infrastructure initiatives, some of which will go to broadband build-outs, John Eggerton reports for Broadcasting and Cable. The bill also includes almost $90 billion in disaster relief for areas hurt by last year's hurricanes and wildfires, funds community health centers, and extends the Children's Health Insurance Program for an extra four years, beyond the six years recently approved, but "would cut $1.35 billion in funding . . . meant to improve public health and prevention funding for states and municipalities," the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. "The bill continues a special tax rate of 23.8 percent for 2017 for gains from timber sales, a break from the top rate of 35 percent that would have otherwise applied."

Also, the StarTrib reports, "The bill extends a tax credit for 20 percent of an employer’s spending on mine rescue team training costs, up to $10,000" and "allows the immediate deduction of a company’s investment in mine safety equipment." Also on the coal front, "The package included a new tax credit for carbon-capture projects with support from across the ideological spectrum in the Senate," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post. A “diverse group” of senators helped get it through, said Democratic North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, "who has at least three carbon-capture projects in her state." She also "said the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, representing coal-country Kentucky, had been a co-sponsor on the legislation 'absolutely helped'." 

McConnell had at least two other goodies for Kentucky. The bill will exempt private Berea College from a provision of last year's tax-reform bill that would have taxed its endowment, Eliza Collins and Maureen Groppe report for USA Today. He also inserted an exemption for the state's Southeast Community and Technical College, which was in danger of being disqualified for federal student loans because of a high default rate. McConnell could also be credited with the bill's preservation of tax breaks for owners of racehorses (primarily bred in Kentucky) and racetracks like Kentucky Speedway.

Help scientists learn more about birds with the Great Backyard Bird Count; also includes a photo contest

Do you like bird watching? Are you a science fan? In just 15 minutes you can combine those two interests and help scientists understand more about our world's birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count from February 16-19. Click here for more information.

A yellow-rumped warbler, from the 2017 photo contest.
(Photo by Alicia Brown of Ozark, Ala.)
Launched in 1998 by the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the GBBC was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and display the results in almost real time. More than 160,000 people from all over the world take part in the four-day count each year.

Participating is simple: for at least 15 minutes during the count, just tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see, from wherever you happen to be. Create a free online account to enter your count.

And if you like photography, enter the photo contest! Click here for the rules, click here for a gallery of the gorgeous entries from 2017, and click here for a list of prizes.

Federally sponsored lenders will increase rural home loans; county-level map shows under-served areas

Though the Federal National Mortgage Association ("Fannie Mae") and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation ("Freddie Mac") have had limited reach into rural America, the government-sponsored mortgage giants have new plans to make it easier for rural homebuyers to get a loan. The two companies own almost half of all U.S. mortgages, but only 12 percent of the rural home loans that were initiated between 2012 and 2015.

Because of this discrepancy, Congress is requiring Fannie and Freddie to increase their business in high-needs rural areas and populations, finance more housing through small banks, and help preserve rental housing. The new requirements will take effect on Jan. 1, 2018. "In many respects, Fannie and Freddie’s current products are not particularly well-suited for many rural markets, as evidenced by their low activity and the congressional mandate itself. New and creative approaches are needed to fully achieve their goals in rural areas," Lance George writes for The Daily Yonder. George is the director of research and information at the Housing Assistance Council, which helps local organizations build homes in rural America and did this map:
"The most effective approach would be for Fannie and Freddie to partner with existing housing providers, nonprofits, and tribes, who already work in these communities," George writes. "These entities have the experience, local trust, and insights to help Fannie and Freddie in these often hard to reach areas. Ultimately, rural America is a big place, with many different housing markets. To make this plan a success, Fannie and Freddie will need to better understand these often-forgotten markets, and commit meaningful efforts and investment."

Anti-solar, pro-coal power bill advances in Kentucky House, despite protests from urban areas

"Kentucky's urban-rural divide surfaced during a legislative committee's final discussion about a controversial solar-energy bill Thursday before it was narrowly passed with three new members added to the panel," James Bruggers reports for the Louisville Courier Journal.

The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, in the West Kentucky Coalfield, would reduce the credits utilities must provide to future solar panel owners for any extra electricity they produce, using the wholesale rate (3 cents per kilowatt hour) rather than the retail rate (9 to 11 cents)

The bill moved out of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee with 14 yes votes, two more than needed, possibly helped because the committee was expanded last week; two of the three new appointees voted for the bill.

Supporters of the coal industry like the bill, but it was unpopular in more Democratic and urban areas like Lexington and Louisville. "Southeast Kentucky Democrat Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, who was also added late to the committee, said the bill looks to him like a way for monopoly utilities 'to get solar for themselves'," Bruggers reports. In an earlier story, he noted that PPL Corp. (formerly Pittsburgh Power and Light), the parent company of Kentucky's two major utilities, LG&E and KU, has announced it will eliminate the bulk of its coal-burning in years to come.

EPA kills funding for Chesapeake Bay Journal after editorials critical of Trump administration policies

The Environmental Protection Agency pulled funding from a monthly newspaper covering the Chesapeake Bay, possibly because of stories and opinion pieces critical of Trump administration policies. The Clean Water Act requires EPA to keep the public informed about its Bay cleanup project, and it chose to do this by funding the Chesapeake Bay Journal with competitive grants.

Though the Journal's $325,000 annual budget is a "tiny fraction" of the project's $73 million appropriation, in August 2017 EPA emailed editor Karl Blankenship to notify him that the funds would not be renewed "due to a shift in priorities," Jacob Fenston reports for WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C. The grant payment had been awarded in July and was already being processed. The future of the paper is uncertain, since 40 percent of its budget came from the EPA grant.

Nick DiPasquale
The Journal filed an appeal and freedom-of-information requests for pertinent records, but wasn't able to figure out why its funding had been yanked. But in January, the head of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis retired, and started talking to reporters. Nick DiPasquale said that he'd heard rumors the previous summer that EPA political appointees were raising questions about the Journal grant. In an August conference call with EPA political appointee John Konkus, who was in charge of reviewing grants, Konkus said the Journal "shouldn't have weighed in" on political matters, and that "everybody knows the American public doesn't believe the press," Fenston reports. One week later, the grant was canceled.

Rich Kuhlman, who worked on EPA grants for 30 years, said though he's never seen a political appointee making decisions about grants, pulling the Journal's funding may not be illegal. "The Journal isn’t alone in losing its funding. The EPA under Trump has cancelled millions of dollars in competitive grants, some for political reasons, according to the Washington Post. But there is something that sets the Journal apart from other grant recipients," Fenston reports. "As a media institution, it’s protected by the First Amendment against government retaliation for stories it has published." An attorney for legal nonprofit Democracy Forward, which is representing the Bay Journal, says the EPA's actions appear to violate the publication's constitutional rights.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

17-year-old from rural southeastern Kentucky has a popular hunting and fishing channel on YouTube

A 17-year-old teen from Knox County, Kentucky, has translated his love for hunting and fishing into a wildly popular video channel. Kendall Gray "started making videos of his outdoor adventures in the summer of 2016 to pass the time, but his YouTube channel has since blossomed into a dedicated online community with nearly 190,000 subscribers and 34.5 million views," Will Wright reports for The Lexington Herald-Leader. "His fans even sport their own hashtag, #GrayGang." And he gets fan mail from people all over the country, mostly from tweens and teens.

It's helping him learn more about business: Gray says he spends up to 35 hours a week shooting and editing his videos as well as managing merchandise. He's sold more than 3,000 pieces of branded merchandise to fans all over the country; his mother Brenda helps him manage the orders. He shows no signs of stopping any time soon. "I’ll take it as far as it wants to go. I’m going to have fun and let other people have fun through my videos," he told Wright, who also works as a journalist for the Ground Truth Project in Central Appalachia

One of Gray's most popular videos, with more than 1.5 million views, shows his efforts to catch a red fox that escaped from one of his snares. Check it out:

Coal-ash pits post threats to groundwater; states say order in Tenn. case to clean up coal ash violates their rights

Toxic waste such as arsenic may be leaking from unlined pits and contaminating groundwater at hundreds of coal-ash storage facilities around the country, says an analysis by environmental law organization Earthjustice. Electric utilities have until March 2 to publish their initial groundwater monitoring results.

"The analysis, an initial review of recently released data from 14 power plants in eight states, comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to revise recently enacted groundwater monitoring rules at coal ash storage facilities," Phil McKenna reports for Inside Climate News. "Nine of the 14 power plants noted 'statistically significant increases"'of toxic substances in groundwater near coal ash containment ponds, Earthjustice found."

James Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, a trade association representing more than 100 power companies, said drinking water wasn't necessarily polluted by the waste, and said that utilities finding elevated levels of contaminants will conduct extra monitoring as required by a 2015 rule. In May 2017 USWAG petitioned EPA to weaken the monitoring and remediation requirements, saying they were too burdensome, inflexible and often impractical. EPA said it would reconsider some of the provisions.

Meanwhile, 15 states filed an amicus brief arguing that a federal judge's order to excavate a coal-ash pond in Tennessee "'usurps  states' authority to regulate groundwaters,' and will place a financial burden on the Tennessee Valley Authority that could cause rate increases to its customers," Dennis Pillion reports for

The case centers on an unlined coal ash pond in Gallatin, Tenn. TVA had planned a cover-in-place strategy, but after a citizen lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, a judge ruled that Gallatin's unlined ponds didn't meet the requirements of the CWA, since pollution from the pond was reaching groundwater and the Cumberland River. The TVA argued that it would be time-consuming and expensive to dig out the coal ash and relocate it to a lined landfill as ordered.

EPA boss asks whether global warming is 'necessarily a bad thing.' The best answer seems to be 'Probably.'

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has long questioned the scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of human activity. But in recent months he seems to be trying a different approach, saying that even if climate change is happening, it might not be so bad for humans, Dino Grandoni, Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney report for The Washington Post.

Last month Pruitt said in a Reuters interview that "The climate is changing. That's not the debate. The debate is how do we know what the ideal surface temperature is in 2100?" He repeated the line about the ideal surface temperature in 2100 in a Capitol Hill hearing later in January, and last Tuesday said in an interview with KSNV-TV in Las Vegas: "We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends . . . So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100, in the year 2018? That’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100."

The recent changes have been more rapid than any ever recorded, giving nature less time to adapt, and the Post notes that rising temperatures could boost agricultural yields in some places while causing extreme drought in others. Record-high temperatures and a drought have depleted about two-thirds of the snowpack in California; farmers rely on snowmelt to water their crops, Ellen Knickmeyer and Rich Pedroncelli report for The Associated Press. And droughts increase the likelihood of wildfires, as we saw this past year, Anthony LeRoy Westerling reports for The Conversation.

Lawsuits allege Monsanto forced farmers to buy dicamba-resistant seeds, and that dicamba damaged crops

A North Dakota farm filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against Monsanto Co., alleging that farmers are forced to buy its expensive patented dicamba-resistant seed if they don't want their crops to be damaged by dicamba powder drifting from nearby farms.

Forest River Farms' complaint, filed Feb. 1 in Missouri, says "Monsanto’s monopolization and attempted monopolization of the seeds market stymies competition, hurts producers, and harms the public at large," and alleges a class of "all individuals and entities who directly purchased seeds containing Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant trait," Eleanor Tyler reports for Bloomberg Law.

University of Missouri map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Dicamba is a herbicide notoriously prone to vaporizing into a powder and drifting to other fields. A study indicated that it damaged an estimated 3.6 million acres of soybeans in 2017 — about 4 percent of all soybeans planted in the U.S. Several states have banned its sale and use or limited when it can be sprayed. Monsanto responded to widespread complaints by introducing a new version of dicamba it says is less likely to drift. But scientists, who weren't allowed to fully vet the new product before its launch, say it's still too volatile. The new product will be available in 33 states in 2018, and on Feb. 1 Monsanto announced it will provide free mandatory training sessions for farmers on the use of dicamba in 26 of those states.

Also on Feb. 1 a federal judicial panel consolidated nine lawsuits against Monsanto filed in four states, all alleging crop damage from dicamba, into the same eastern Missouri court where the Forest River Farms suit was filed. "Those cases allege that Monsanto marketed dicamba-resistant seeds knowing that would tempt farmers to use dicamba — which has proven destructive to neighboring crops — before Monsanto had regulatory approval to market its low-drift version of the pesticide," Tyler reports.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Agriculture secretary says rural economy is 'fragile'; Tenn. farmer says opioids may be as big a threat as anything

In a hearing on the "State of the Rural Economy" before the House Agriculture Committee yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue acknowledged that farmers are having a tough time these days. "I wish there were better news but there is a lot of stress and a lot of duress on the farms today," Perdue said. He went on to praise the resiliency of American farmers, but said that "the state of the rural economy is fragile," Andy Eubank reports for Hoosier Ag Today.

"I’m very concerned that if prices continue to fall and we have any kind of an average year or below average year that we could be in some real trouble," said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the committee's ranking Democrat and former chair. "This is one of the reasons if I had my way I’d like to see a Farm Bill that had an improved safety net going into this situation. But, with no new money, I don’t know how we’re going to do that."

Perdue said part of the stress was because of the "trade environment," and noted that U.S. sorghum prices fell after news surfaced that China is investigating U.S. sorghum exports. The investigation is a warning shot after President Trump imposed high tariffs on solar panel imports, which mostly come from China. The Chinese may also investigate U.S. soybean imports.

While Perdue was talking, the American Farm Bureau Federation was publishing a warning from a farmer about another big issue facing rural America: the opioid epidemic. "Our focus on national regulations and global trade are real issues that need to be addressed, but the future of farming and ranching may be just as dependent on our awareness of curbing the opioid dependency in our grassroots communities where individuals influence national changes," Matt Niswander of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., writes.

"We need rural America’s farmers and ranchers to unite and remove the stigma and veil of shame surrounding opioid use and addiction, and we need additional training for rural healthcare providers to be empowered as strong advocates for non-opioid treatment options," Niswander writes. If we choose to ignore the problem, this epidemic will continue to spread, leaving a devastating impact that will undermine the current state of agriculture in rural America. Rural America’s opioid crisis is here right now."