Broadband is Critical for Rural Education. $1 Billion Won’t Be Enough To Reach Everyone in Washington State

Broadband is Critical for Rural Education.  Billion Won’t Be Enough To Reach Everyone in Washington State

This story was originally published by the Spokesman-Review.

Last year, Brandi Jo Desautel installed a SpaceX-powered Starlink dish in front of her trailer outside Inchelium, Washington, on the Colville Reservation. At $700 for the equipment and $120 a month for service, it wasn’t cheap. But for her, it was the only option.

Some folks in town have basic internet through their cable provider, but the network doesn’t reach the 32-year-old’s address. A paraprofessional for Inchelium High School, Desautel is out of range of wireless towers, and cellphone coverage is spotty.

Satellite internet allows her to take online classes at night from Spokane Community College, where she is working on a special education degree. It also helps her twin daughters, grade six, do their schoolwork from home.

“Between my school and theirs, we don’t have a choice,” Desautel said.

Even though classes are back in person after the Covid-19 pandemic, access to reliable home internet remains critical both for a well-rounded education and for participation in modern life. Yet some 236,000 Washington households still don’t have broadband-level speeds or internet access at all – many of them in rural areas like where the Desautels live where it is not as profitable for internet providers, according to Federal Communications Commission data.

Over the past few years, Congress has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand broadband infrastructure in Washington. Another $1.2 billion will begin rolling out as soon as next year. All of this federal funding will do a lot to bridge the digital divide, but it probably won’t be enough to meet the state’s ambitious goal of universal high-speed internet for every address by 2028.

Accessible by ferry across the Columbia River on the east side of the Colville Reservation, Desautel’s hometown of Inchelium has some of the worst internet coverage in Eastern Washington.

The Starlink Satellite dish at Brandi Jo Desautel’s home is in the front yard as her dog, Rocky, barks at visitors in Inchelium, Washington. (Photo by Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

That should change soon, as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are expanding their network with the help of a $48.4 million federal grant to bring fiber and wireless internet to 2,867 unserved Native American households and several hundred businesses and institutions in Inchelium and nearby Keller. The grant is part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, a $3 billion fund from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Spokane Tribe was awarded $16 million for a similar project.

“In the modern world, internet access is critical,” Colville Business Council Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson said. “It is especially vital for our youth and their education.”

Although she is not an enrolled member, Desautel is a direct descendant of the Colville Tribes. She lives near extended family several miles down a dirt road in an area northwest of town called Seylor Valley, or simply “The Valley” to locals.

Her satellite service cuts out sometimes. Other times, she loses internet because of power outages.

“The hardest part is convincing teachers to let me turn in late work,” Desautel said.

Starlink is becoming more popular among Desautel’s neighbors, but many cannot afford it. It could be a few more years before residents like Desautel get connected.

Growing Up in a Digital ‘Desert’

Nearly every public school building in Washington has broadband ethernet through the state’s K20 Education Network overseen by the Office of Financial Management. The network includes K-12 school districts, public libraries and colleges.

The challenge is to bring that same level of access to students’ homes.

During the pandemic, many school districts used Covid-19 relief money to provide hotspots for students, but much of that funding has run out.

School districts with less internet access tend to adjust homework requirements accordingly.

John Farley, superintendent of Republic School District in Ferry County, said his district accommodates students by not demanding work that would require internet at home.

“We want to make sure they are getting everything they need at school,” he said.

Farley noted the growing importance of technology in education and teaching online literacy and safety. The internet becomes more important as students apply for college or jobs, he said.

Rob Clark, superintendent of Washtucna School District in Adams County, said most of his students live in town, where they have internet access. Washtucna was awarded a Washington state Public Works Board grant in 2021 to build fiber to the homes in town.

“I can’t say it is a real big issue here,” Clark said. “It is a problem, but it is a minor problem.”

Washtucna is a tiny district with about 70 students where everyone can take home a Chromebook. The district is capable of going fully remote again in case of bad weather or another outbreak, Clark said.

Internet levels vary from district to district. Most incorporated towns in Eastern Washington have basic broadband options, and ongoing grant projects will make those options better. The larger challenge will be to reach those in unincorporated areas, especially those who don’t live near major highways.

Margaret Kidwell, supervisor of Spokane Community College’s center in Republic, said some students don’t have internet at all, and a few don’t even have electricity.

With mountainous terrain, many places in Ferry County don’t have cell service, so hotspots don’t work. Kidwell said she knows one person who uses a solar panel just to power their hotspot.

“We live a lot differently up here,” Kidwell said.

Students without internet will do their homework at the college office or the local library. Running start students – high schoolers who take classes for both high school and college credit – do their homework at the high school.

Teri Ford-Dwyer, a business instructor at Spokane Community College in Newport, Washington, teaches students across the state’s three northeastern counties.

She teaches “flex” classes, which are more flexible than hybrid classes by giving students a choice to attend each class in person, live on Zoom or to watch the recorded lectures later. This option is helpful for working parents, like Desautel, and those who live far away with spotty internet.

Bandwidth is a constant struggle for her live video classes. Many students turn off her video feed and just listen. Most students keep their cameras off. If they can’t even use audio, they will type in the chat. Students will often lose connection in the middle of class, then rejoin.

Students miss out when they don’t have fast enough internet to fully participate, Ford-Dwyer said.

They don’t get the same level of interaction with their fellow students during discussions. Peer relationships are an important part of the college experience because students learn from each other.

With the help of the internet and branch centers, SCC is able to reach rural students in a way it couldn’t before. Universal broadband would make it even easier.

“The course offerings are there, but the infrastructure hasn’t caught up,” Ford-Dwyer said.

Michael Gaffney, assistant director of Washington State University Extension, said internet access is not only important for college students, but for adult education and workforce development.

WSU Extension offers a 30-hour remote work certificate. As a prerequisite, some students have had to figure out how to get a high-speed internet connection, Gaffney said.

During the pandemic, WSU introduced 24-hour Wi-Fi at more than 30 extension offices. With the state broadband office, WSU Extension maintains a map of hundreds of free drive-up Wi-Fi locations across Washington.

For some, this remains the only way to access the internet.

Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, said reliable internet is essential for K-12 students, too.

Although they might get by, growing up without the internet could leave these children behind their urban and suburban counterparts. Faster internet means more capabilities and educational opportunities.

And if a student has to ride a bus for an hour or more and they come home to slow internet, it will take them longer to get their work done.

“This is an equity issue,” Pratt said. “If we don’t have communities with the same access, it’s not equitable. We’ve got to do something as a country to make that equal for all.”

While many school districts lend devices and hot spots, one Whitman County school district has taken an extraordinary step of providing broadband infrastructure directly to its students.

Pullman Public Schools’ technology director, Garren Shannon, spearheaded a $1 million grant from the state broadband office to build four wireless internet radio towers in Pullman, Albion and Tekoa.

The stark divide during the pandemic between students who had quality internet and those who didn’t inspired him to do something about it. The district will distribute 60 specialized Chromebooks in the coming months for students to connect to the closed network.

West Plains companies New J and Peak Industries designed the retractable telescoping towers, which range from 65 to 120 feet tall and can be relocated if needed.

Some questioned why Pullman, home of Washington State University, needs such a program.

“If you drive 2 miles out of town, it is a desert, digitally speaking,” Shannon said.

Albion, just northwest of Pullman, is a part of the school district with cheaper housing and many low-income residents. Town clerk Starr Cathey said students sit outside the library in the winter using the Wi-Fi to do their homework, since the small branch is only open a few hours a week.

Stories like that make Shannon want to expand the pilot program to more districts. That’s why the program also includes Tekoa, a small town with its own school district in the northeast corner of the county with a similar profile to others across the Palouse, whose rolling hills make long-range wireless difficult.

“If we can make it work there, we can make it work anywhere,” Shannon said.

What $1 Billion Can Do

Scott Hutsell, a hands-on Lincoln County commissioner, used a forklift on a recent Monday morning to unload 20,000-foot spools of fiber-optic cable from a delivery truck into a semi-cylindrical warehouse. The spools, along with dozens of pallets of related hardware, are temporarily stored at the fairgrounds in Davenport until contractors pick them up and string the fiber, mostly along telephone poles, across the county.

It’s part of a series of projects from more than $20 million of federal and state grants to connect the county’s eight incorporated communities with fiber. The projects, overseen by the county’s recently created broadband office, also will build redundancy into the network by creating more connections between towns.

Some internet providers are expanding their networks, but the free market falls short in low-density places like Lincoln County.

“No one else was going to come here,” Hutsell said. “They would have been here already if they could make money.”

The model is a little different from other counties, which mostly operate their broadband projects through a port or public utility district. Instead, Lincoln County owns and oversees the project directly. The goal is to run it as a self-sustaining business where internet service providers will be allowed to use the network for a fee, then the county will reinvest the profit to maintain and expand the network.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband speed as at least 25 megabits per second for downloading and 3 megabits per second for uploading. This is abbreviated as 25/3 Mbps.

Some say that is too slow.

A household’s bandwidth needs depend on the type of use and the number of people using different devices at the same time. Email and web browsing require minimal bandwidth, video streaming requires a little more, and video conferencing and gaming require a lot.

Washington’s stated goal is for all businesses and residences to have 25/3 Mbps by 2024 and 150/150 Mbps by 2028.

To date, the federal government has invested $705 million for broadband projects in Washington, while the state has invested $68 million. Another $1.23 billion will soon be coming from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which was funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

That will almost certainly fall short of the state’s goal.

The Washington State Broadband Office estimates it will cost at least another $2.02 billion to serve every remaining location with fiber. Even with BEAD’s 25% match requirement, there is still a gap of nearly $500 million.

Fiber is the preferable broadband technology because it is most reliable and has the most bandwidth. But fiber is harder to deploy over large, low-density areas.

Broken down per household, the average cost across the state for a fiber connection is estimated at $8,825. That average is much higher in rural counties, where it can exceed $20,000.

Hutsell said the state’s goal is ambitious, if not overly optimistic, at least for Lincoln County.

“Getting fiber to every home is going to be tough – not that it isn’t a long-term goal,” Hutsell said. “A certain amount of that is going to have to be fixed wireless.”

The broadband office has drafted a Five-Year Action Plan and Digital Equity Plan to help inform how the BEAD money will be allocated. The office is accepting public comments on these plans through October 15 and 31, respectively.

While the countryside takes much of the focus, urban areas aren’t completely connected either. Urban counties with some of the highest rates of subscription, including King and Spokane, also have the highest number of households without broadband, the Five-Year Action Plan points out. These households are often in lower-income or marginalized neighborhoods.

Spokane County last year formed a regional broadband public development authority called Broadlinc to improve access in rural and urban parts of the county.

There are other barriers for people adopting broadband besides infrastructure. It also needs to be affordable, users need devices, and users need to want to and know how to use the internet.

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program subsidizes $30 a month for low-income families and $75 for households on tribal lands. The program’s future is uncertain, as its funding is set to run out sometime next year, unless Congress renews it.

Some 307,000 Washington households are enrolled in the program, according to the Universal Service Administrative Co. ACP Enrollment and Claims Tracker.

Advocates say broadband should be a universal utility, comparing it to New Deal-era investments in the electric grid, telephone lines and the public road system. Some go so far as to call it a human right.

Michael Gaffney said broadband for everyone is a worthy a goal, even if it isn’t 100% achievable.

“As technology advances, we’ve got to recognize broadband is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” Gaffney said. “It’s like water or electricity.”

Reporting conducted for this article was completed with funding from a Center for Rural Strategies and Grist grant program.

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EPA posts databases of pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife for first time in agency history

​The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posted searchable databases of pesticide harm for the first time in agency history on Thursday.

The databases, which include reports of harm to people, pets, wildlife and the environment, include information from pesticide companies, state regulators, direct complaints to the EPA and reports to the National Pesticide Information Center and the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The EPA regulates pesticides through the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. After a pesticide is registered, manufacturers are required to report incidents of harm to the agency. The EPA is supposed to use that information in its safety assessments, though previous Investigate Midwest reporting shows the agency had no system for reviewing incidents.

“People have the right to know when accidental pesticide exposures or other incidents are reported to the agency,” said Michal Freedhoff, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a press release. “It is particularly critical to share how pesticides may have impacted our most vulnerable populations, including children and farmworkers.”

Screenshot of the new EPA database showing pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife. Credit: EPA website

The EPA said that it is releasing the information in alignment with its Equity Action Plan and President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14096, Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All

“This is the most significant step the EPA has taken in years to increase transparency about pesticides’ harms,” said Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit working to protect endangered species. “Making this database publicly available will help the public hold regulators accountable for overseeing and reducing pesticides’ harms and, when necessary, revoking their use.”

The EPA is releasing only the 10 most recent years of data. The agency said in a press release that they only previously released this information via Freedom of Information Act requests and in registration reviews.

Investigate Midwest obtained the databases in 2021 and has used them in reporting on incident reports of harm to pets and people from pesticide products. At the time, the EPA’s Freedom of Information Act officers said they had never released the databases before. 

This includes stories about the popular Seresto flea and tick collar, which has been the subject of more complaints about pet harm and deaths than any other product in EPA history. The EPA recently announced additional reporting requirements on Seresto.

The agency published two data sets: a main incident data set and an aggregate data set. The main data set involves more severe incidents and contains “a description of the incident (e.g., who was involved, how it happened, and where the incident occurred).” The aggregate database includes bulk numbers of incident data.

“EPA is publishing these data sets to increase transparency to the public, but the agency does not currently have the resources to answer individual questions about its content,” the EPA said in a press release.

The agency stressed that incident reports are not reviewed for accuracy and that the existence of an incident report does not mean that the pesticide involved caused that incident.

The post EPA posts databases of pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife for first time in agency history appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

The EPA wants to broaden a ban on a deadly chemical on store shelves

Paint strippers are displayed on a shelf in a hardware store.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many toxic substances harm people slowly, causing serious illnesses years after repeated exposure.

But methylene chloride’s fumes are so dangerous, the chemical can kill you in a matter of minutes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned consumer sales of paint strippers with this ingredient in 2019 after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity into a decades-long string of methylene chloride deaths — and a sustained campaign by relatives of its victims and safety advocates to press the EPA to act.

The coalition pushed for more: Workers weren’t protected by the narrow restrictions, they said. The vast majority of deaths Public Integrity traced to methylene chloride exposure happened on the job. And paint strippers were far from the only product you could find it in.

Now the EPA is proposing to ban most uses of methylene chloride — still with some on-the-job exceptions, but far fewer.

“I’m sort of stunned, you know?” said Brian Wynne, whose 31-year-old brother, Drew, died in 2017 while removing paint from his business’ walk-in freezer. Wynne had thought the EPA’s 2019 action on paint stripper “would be as far as we possibly could get — that we ran into a brick wall of funded lobbyists and councils that are paid to keep people like us away and ensure that their bottom line is prioritized ahead of safety.”

The proposed rule would prohibit methylene chloride in all consumer products and “most industrial and commercial uses,” the agency said in its announcement last week. 

The EPA said it hopes the rule will take effect in August 2024. Federal rules must go through a set process to give the public a chance to influence the final outcome. 

The chemical, also known as dichloromethane, can be found in products on retail shelves such as aerosol degreasers and brush cleaners for paints and coatings. Adhesives and sealants sold for commercial purposes use it. Manufacturers tap it to make other chemicals.

At least 85 people have died from methylene chloride’s quick-acting harms since 1980, including workers who had safety training and protective equipment, the agency said. 

That figure comes from a 2021 study by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the University of California, San Francisco, that quantified the ongoing fatalities, building on Public Integrity’s earlier tally. The number is almost certainly an undercount because one of the ways methylene chloride kills is by triggering a heart attack, which can look to observers like death from natural causes unless someone thinks to do a toxicology test.

The chemical has also caused “severe and long-lasting health impacts” such as cancer in people whose exposure didn’t rise to immediately lethal levels, the EPA said.

“Methylene chloride’s hazards,” the agency wrote in its proposed rule, “are well established.”

So well established, in fact, that experts say the federal government should have acted long before.

Public Integrity’s 2015 investigation turned up multiple missed opportunities for intervention since the 1970s that could have saved lives. Yet more deaths occurred amid delays after the EPA first proposed a rule at the end of the Obama administration in January 2017 — the Trump administration shelved the proposal until pressured to act.

‘Protect as many people as possible’

Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future, is among the people working for years to stop methylene chloride’s killing spree. She hailed the proposed-ban announcement as “a big day.” 

“Again, people have died using these chemicals,” she said. “People have gotten sick being nearby when people are using these chemicals, people have gotten chronic illnesses from the use of these chemicals. We want to make sure we protect as many people as possible.”

But she wasn’t happy to hear that the EPA believes the rule won’t be finalized for 15 more months. 

And Lauren Atkins, whose 31-year-old son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper to refinish his BMX bike, worries about the impact of the uses that won’t be banned. Seeing those loopholes in the announcement hit her hard.

Joshua Atkins, on the left, smiles with his mother, Lauren, on the right. Joshua is wearing a blue shirt and glasses and Lauren is wearing sunglasses and a green sweater.
Joshua Atkins and his mother, Lauren, at a park in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011. Joshua Atkins died in 2018 at 31 while refinishing his BMX bike with a product containing methylene chloride. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Atkins)

“I about jumped out of my shoes until I actually read the whole thing, and then I was pretty sad,” said Atkins, whose driving goal since her son’s death has been to get methylene chloride off the market so it can’t kill anyone else. “I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”

The chemical’s use in pharmaceutical manufacturing isn’t covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act, so that isn’t prohibited in the proposed rule, the EPA said. Workers who continue to use methylene chloride in other activities the proposal would allow, the agency said, would be covered by a new “workplace chemical protection program with strict exposure limits.” Methylene chloride kills when its fumes build up in enclosed spaces.

Some higher-volume uses would remain in those exceptions, which include “mission-critical” or “safety-critical” work by the military, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and their contractors; use in laboratories; and companies using it as a reactant or manufacturing it for the allowed purposes, the EPA said. 

But some of those exceptions would end after 10 years.

And most uses would be prohibited. 

There would be no more methylene chloride in paint strippers beyond the federal-agency exceptions. The product was a common cause of reported deaths, frequently among workers refinishing old bathtubs in homes and apartments. 

“I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”

Lauren Atkins, whose son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper on his bike

And methylene chloride would no longer be allowed in commercial and industrial vapor degreasing, adhesive removal, finishing products for textiles, liquid lubricants, hobby glue and a long list of other applications. 

“Currently, an estimated 845,000 individuals are exposed to methylene chloride in the workplace,” the EPA said in a statement. “Under EPA’s proposal, less than 10,000 workers, protected from unreasonable risk via a required workplace chemical protection program, are expected to continue to use methylene chloride.”

Dr. Robert Harrison, a clinical professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has focused on methylene chloride for roughly a decade. He said the EPA is walking a line with the proposal, trying to balance safety with economic and national-security considerations, and he finds the extent of the ban heartening.

“I think that this is a win. It’s a win for workers,” said Harrison, who worked on the 2021 study about fatalities caused by the chemical. “This sets a really great precedent for making decisions based on clear-cut science and establishing the principle … that we should move away from these toxic chemicals to safer substitutes where the harm clearly outweighs the benefits.”

62,000 chemicals

You might think a chemical can’t be sold on the market unless it’s deemed safe. But that’s not how the U.S. system works.

Concerns about chemical safety prompted Congress to pass the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, setting some requirements for chemicals. But those were widely seen as weak, giving the EPA no authority to broadly assess safety. A federal inventory published in 1982 counted roughly 62,000 chemicals, a number that’s continued to grow

In 2016, Congress amended TSCA and mandated chemical risk evaluations by the EPA. Methylene chloride was the very first that the agency tackled.

“This is what we worked so hard to reform TSCA to do,” said Hitchcock, who shared the Public Integrity investigation with congressional offices during that period as a potent example of deadly inaction.

The next step for the proposed methylene chloride ban is a 60-day public comment period. People will be able to weigh in on the EPA’s docket — and safety advocates are organizing around that.

“This is a big step forward for public health, but it’s not without its flaws,” Hitchcock said. She’s hoping to see comments that “urge EPA to enact the strongest rule possible.”

Harrison used to say that chemical regulation in the U.S. moved at a glacial speed — until glaciers started outpacing it. But he does see improvement since the 2016 TSCA amendments. The new regulatory action on methylene chloride makes him hopeful.

“There are many other chemicals that can follow the decision that the USA has made about methylene chloride,” he said.

The post The EPA wants to broaden a ban on a deadly chemical on store shelves appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.