Friday, June 19, 2020

Stay-at-home orders force writer to pay closer attention to changing climate around her farm, and she worries

Living in an isolated rural area can make the pandemic feel far away, sometimes, but one freelance writer who lives on a western Pennsylvania farm writes that the stay-at-home orders have made her pay closer attention to the changing climate around her.

Here's the conclusion of Daryln Brewer Hoffstot's essay for The New York Times:
"Nature is not just carrying on. Chimney swifts, which roost every summer in our 19th-century chimney, have declined by 72 percent. The emerald ash borer kills hundreds of our ash trees. Our summers are hotter and wetter. The '100-year flood' has come about five times in the last 12 years. Nearby, water is contaminated by fracking. Nary a bat can be seen in the night sky, lost to white-nose syndrome. My maple sugaring friends can’t decide when to tap trees because of climate change. 
In my small slice of the world, I see a neon sign, flashing red, and I wonder how long can we go on without seeing, and without listening — to the bats, the bugs, the bees, the birds, the trees, the land? 
My hope is that when the pandemic releases its grip, when the world speeds up again and we return to work and school, when there’s less time to watch birds and weed a victory garden, that we remember what covid-19 has taught us: that our health and our planet’s health have never been more intertwined — and to take care of the planet is to take care of ourselves."

USDA expands food-box program as some states and Democrats say rural hungry and farmers aren’t benefiting

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending contracts for some high-performing vendors for its $3 billion food-box program that buys surplus meat, dairy and produce from farmers to distribute to food banks and similar programs.

USDA says vendors with have been awarded contracts for “another $1.16 billion worth of food boxes through Aug. 30, based on their performance so far in supplying the first $2.2 billion through the end of June. The department is also considering contracts for several vendors whose initial applications were rejected because of technical errors,” Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico’s Morning Agriculture. USDA said it chose not to extend some contracts because of concerns raised during audits or difficulties delivering the food boxes. While the program is broadly popular, the launch was hampered by delays, logistical gaps and concerns about several of the contractors with little experience in food distribution or less capacity than needed to handle multimillion-dollar contracts.”

Some states have complained that the program isn’t working well to meet its goal of helping farmers and the hungry. House Democrats wrote an open letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week saying they have “‘grave concerns’ that Virginia food banks are having difficulty receiving aid, especially in rural areas,” McCrimmon reports. “Similarly, Wisconsin lawmakers have questioned why experienced milk processors and distributors based in the dairy state received less than 1 percent of the funding to source dairy products and fluid milk.

USDA said Wednesday that it’s in the “final stages” of evaluating how and where to expand the program in under-served areas, McCrimmon reports.

Emails from meatpackers show how quickly rural public-health agencies were overwhelmed by covid-19

Thousands of emails and other documents obtained by ProPublica show how patchwork regulations and underfunded public-health agencies in rural areas often left local and state governments unequipped to handle covid-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants.

"The candid, often emotional messages provide a real-time reckoning of how the companies responsible for a critical part of the food supply chain were hazardously unprepared and how a system that relied on tiny local public health agencies was quickly overwhelmed by the consequences," Michael Grabell, Claire Perlman and Bernice Yeung report for ProPublica. "The coronavirus response was complicated by a lack of clarity over which agency had the authority to order meatpacking plants to make changes or shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could only offer guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dealt with animals and food. The Labor Department had few rules that applied to a virus. And the power of local and state health officials varied from state to state."

Plans created by meatpackers and government officials to deal with infectious diseases mostly focused on animals instead of the workers, most of whom are immigrants, refugees and African Americans. "The failure to have a coordinated plan for workers left small, often rural communities vulnerable. More than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants," ProPublica reports. "Though many haven’t suffered severe symptoms, at least 87 workers have died. More than 25 of the dead worked for Tyson," one of the nation's largest poultry processors. 

Tyson formed a coronavirus task force in January to assess the risk to its plants, but emails and other records show that social distancing protocols to protect workers weren't implemented until after outbreaks began occurring, and that Tyson and other companies seemingly spent more energy in the early weeks urging state and local officials to allow them to keep their plants open. A little less than half of Tyson's major plants have reported outbreaks, and many have been forced to close temporarily, ProPublica reports.

However, Tyson may have attempted to delay notifying some public health officials about outbreaks. After the county health department began seeing a spike in positive cases at the Wilkesboro, N.C. plant, Tyson hired a private company to take over testing, then turned over very few results until threatened with legal action, ProPublica reports.

Confederate monuments are coming down, but more than 700 remain, and removing them may be legally tricky

Map and legend by The Washington Post, enhanced by The Rural Blog; for a larger version, click on it.
More than 70 of the nation’s Confederate monuments have been removed since the 2015 shooting in Charleston, S.C.—some by local governments and some by protesters—and almost a third of them have come down in the weeks since George Floyd’s death. But around 700 monuments remain, “along with hundreds of names on roads, schools, parks and the like,” Bonnie Berkowitz and Adrian Blanco report for The Washington Post.

Georgia and Virginia have the largest share of remaining monuments, with more than 100 each. Many were built decades after the Civil War, even outside Confederate states, as a show of support for Jim Crow laws, and at least 35 new monuments have been dedicated since 2000. Though the monuments have attracted debate and legal issues for decades, the recent spike in attention has prompted many city leaders to remove the monuments, Berkowitz and Blanco report.

However, “laws in some states make removing Confederate symbols extremely difficult, including in South Carolina, where a law written in 2000 requires two-thirds of legislators have to approve any removal,” Berkowitz and Blanco report. “An Alabama law restricting Confederate removals was enacted in 2017, and it is unclear whether or how the recent removals square with it.”

In his first story as a New York Times reporting fellow, rural reporter Will Wright looks at the problem of where to take Confederate monuments that local governments no longer want.

Quick hits: PG&E pleads guilty to 84 deaths in 2018 fire

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

North Dakota is in an economic crunch because of pandemic fallout on oil and agriculture. That bodes ill for other less financially stable states. Read more here.

Nurse shortages in rural areas can hinder covid-19 fight. Read more here.

Murray Energy's bankruptcy still casts a shadow on coal's economic viability. Read more here.

Rural Oregon leaders consider revolt against covid-19 stay-at-home orders. Read more here.

PG&E pleads guilty to 84 felony counts of involuntary manslaughter from deaths that happened during the November 2018 Camp Fire. Read more here.

Blackjewel LLC has filed suit against its former president, claiming he transferred $34 million to a family business and a family-run subsidiary trust about six months before the company filed for bankruptcy. Read more here.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

'Militias' push back against some rural anti-racism protests with intimidation, threats and maybe help of police

"The demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality that have convulsed major metropolitan areas, from Minneapolis to Miami, have also made their way into small-town America, redrawing the geography of the Black Lives Matter movement," Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post. "But the activists spearheading unlikely assemblies in rural and conservative corners of the country have faced fierce online backlash and armed intimidation, which in some places is unfolding with the apparent support of local law enforcement."

The notion of rural protests might shake up the popular image of rural America as a conservative, white monolith, but about 21 percent of the rural U.S. is non-white, and many small-town residents are liberal, especially the younger ones, April Simpson reports for Stateline.

"Over 3,000 towns have held some form of protest, an explosion of political expression with far-reaching consequences," John W. Miller reports for The Daily Yonder. "Remarkably, they’re breaking out in counties Donald Trump carried by over 40 points and attracting explicit support from liberals and Trump supporters."

Some people Miller interviewed said they believed the protests are gaining popularity because of the brutality of Minneapolis resident George Floyd's death at the hands of the police, and because of the bipartisan spirit of the protests.

Many rural protests have not seen overt intimidation or had any trouble with local law enforcement. Chris Dyson, 21, organized recent peaceful protests in downtown Punxsutawney, Pa., pop. 5,800—the first such protests in the town famous for its Groundhog Day tradition, Miller reports. There was some backlash online, someone used the n-word, and one threw a beer can, but that's about it.

Punxsutawney Police Chief Matt Conrad, 33, said he's agreed to meet with Dyson to talk about ways to improve racial tolerance in town, and said he stopped by every day to talk to the protesters. "I left an olive branch for us to create something together," Conrad told Miller. "There’s enough division in this country."

Supreme Court rules against Trump order ending DACA

"The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration may not immediately proceed with its plan to end a program protecting about 700,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation," Adam Liptak and Michael Shear report for The New York Times. "The court’s ruling was a blow to one of President Trump’s central campaign promises — that as president he would “immediately terminate” an executive order by former President Barack Obama that Trump had called an illegal executive amnesty for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants."

The decision on the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals has rural repercussions, since undocumented workers frequently work in rural meatpacking plants and on farms.

The 5-to-4 opinion said the court wasn't trying decide whether the program is a sound policy, but whether Trump's executive order included a "reasoned explanation" as required by law.

"After contentious debates among his aides, Trump announced in September 2017 that he would wind down the program. He gave only a single reason for doing so, saying that creating or maintaining the program was beyond the legal power of any president," Liptak and Shear report. "But the justifications the government gave, Chief Justice [John] Roberts wrote, were insufficient. He said the administration may try again to provide adequate reasons for shutting down the program."

Senate passes bill that funds public lands conservation, reduces backlog of maintenance needs in national parks

The Senate voted 73-25 Wednesday to pass a bill to protect public lands and address part of the national park system's maintenance backlog. It would permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million a year. "It would also provide $9.5 billion to help clear part of the Interior Department’s nearly $20 billion in maintenance projects that had been deferred because of budget constraints," Elvina Nawaguna reports for Roll Call.

The move is also meant to help its two sponsors, Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., both Republicans facing tough re-election battles, Nawaguna reports. The bill passed with little trouble, after less than two weeks of debate and with no major amendments. A Democratic aide told Nawaguna that the bill will get a House floor vote before the July 4 recess.

Policy experts suggest four major changes in federal rural policy amid pandemic

"With Congress back in session, a debate is raging about whether to offer covid-19 relief to state, local, and tribal governments, which are in acute fiscal crisis due to an unexpected double whammy: the direct costs associated with taking quick, decisive action to protect public health, and the indirect costs of loss of revenue that are the inevitable fallout of interrupted economic activity due to social distancing," Katharine Ferguson and Anthony Pipa write for Brookings. Ferguson is the associate director of the Community Strategies Group at the Aspen Institute and Pipa is a senior fellow in Global Economy and Development at Brookings.

Ferguson and Pipa suggest four ways the federal government can improve rural policies to address systemic disparities that have grown over the past 15 years. Click here to read more.

Living near oil and gas wells linked to premature birth, especially among less-educated and non-white mothers

Living near an oil or gas well in California's San Joaquin Valley during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk of spontaneous premature birth, according to a newly published study in Environmental Epidemiology. The study may apply to the 17.6 million Americans living near active oil and gas wells throughout the U.S.

Previous studies have linked premature birth and other health problems with living near hydraulic fracturing, or fracking wells. This study, led by researchers at the March of Dimes Prematurity Center at Stanford University, focused on the San Joaquin Valley because most most oil and gas wells in California use conventional extraction methods (though some are fracking wells).

The study focused on spontaneous preterm births, meaning those that happen at least three weeks before the mother's due date for no known medical cause. Researchers examined 225,000 births from healthy mothers who lived within six miles of oil and gas wells in the San Joaquin Valley between 1998 and 2011. They found that women who lived near wells in their first and second trimesters were 8%-14% more likely to experience a spontaneous preterm birth, especially women who were non-white and/or didn't go to college, even after the researchers controlled for outside factors that could impact the health of such groups.

A secondary data analysis from Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences found a possible explanation for the preterm births: residents living near oil and gas wells may be exposed to more air pollution.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Study highlights rural health disparities for non-senior adults

A new report from the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Health Studies highlights disparities in rural health and rural health care. Left Behind: Health Care in Rural America is the insurance company's seventh annual study of the topic; it uses answers from its annual consumer survey of people 18 through 64 in August 2019.

Among the study's key findings:
  • Fewer rural respondents in the poll reported being in good health than their urban or suburban counterparts. Almost seven in 10 rural residents (69 percent) described their health as good or excellent, compared to 80% of urban residents and 78% of suburban residents.
  • Rural people were more likely to report poor health, with 69% saying they had at least one underlying condition, compared to 66% of urban respondents and 64% of suburbanites. 
  • Rural respondents were more likely to report having a mental health condition (31%) compared to 29% of urban respondents and 24% of suburban respondents.
  • Rural respondents, at 38%, were far less likely to receive health insurance through an employer, compared to 53% of urban respondents and 59% of respondents. The report notes that 19% of rural residents said they have no health insurance. 
  • Rural (12%) and urban (13%) respondents were about twice as likely as suburban residents (6%) to receive health care through Medicaid or another state-funded program.
  • Rural respondents were less likely to report being able to afford health-care costs; 75% said they could afford routine health expenses, compared to 82% of urban respondents and 85% of suburban respondents.

Daily Yonder's livestream features experts discussing rural housing challenges during the pandemic

The pandemic has hit many local rural economies hard, likely making increasing the ranks of rural Americans who need subsidized housing. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Program Service programs, which serve more than half a million Americans, received no supplemental funding in the $2 trillion CARES Act, The Daily Yonder notes.

The Yonder, with its Rural Assembly partner and the Housing Assistance Council, produced two livestreams, available on YouTube, with experts discussing what policymakers are doing to address rural housing needs in the pandemic, and whether rural America is being adequately considered in lawmakers' attempts to craft pandemic solutions. Click here for more information and to watch.

Some states launch ad campaigns touting rural areas as post-pandemic getaways

As states begin to loosen stay-at-home orders, many rural towns are grappling with the desire to stay safe with the need for tourism money. Some states and tourism areas have launched advertising campaigns trying to bring in tourists, frequently with ads that tout rural areas' lack of crowds. Ads for West Virginia and Wyoming emphasize "both the beauty of their locations and the fact that vacationers will still be able to adequately social distance because of the open space," Sarah Cavill reports for Digital Media Solutions, a digital marketing industry website.

Read more here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Oil refiners try a new strategy to get around biofuel blending requirements: claiming hardship from pandemic

In the latest salvo of the oil-versus-ethanol battle, "Refiners are aiming to escape biofuel blending rules by winding back the clock, asking the EPA for economic hardship status dating back to 2013 that would free them from their obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

In March, the Trump administration declined to appeal a court decision that limited refinery waivers, seeming to signal an end to large oil refiners' use of waivers to get around fuel blending requirements. The court decision specified that EPA could only grant waivers to small refiners that had been continuously exempt from the biofuel blending requirements since the program began in 2013, McCrimmon reports. So now, "Refiners are now petitioning the EPA for economic hardship status dating back to then, allowing them to meet the court’s standard going forward."

The move puts President Trump in an awkward position as he looks toward the November election. "The oil and agriculture industries are key pieces of Trump’s political base, and he’s long been caught in the middle of their fight over federal biofuel policy — especially the use of blending waivers, which ethanol producers claim are crushing their business," McCrimmon writes.

The EPA hasn't taken action on refiners' request for economic hardship status, Stephanie Kelly reports for Reuters. But the Department of Energy, which reviews waiver applications before making recommendations to the EPA, said last month that the department would review retroactive blending waivers.

Meatpacking plants, prisons, large non-white populations biggest common threads among rural pandemic hotspots

New covid-19 infection rates over the past 30 days (Daily Yonder map made with USA Facts data;
click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
"Meatpacking plants continue to be the largest single factor in covid-19 hotspots in rural America. But the next largest characteristic of rural America’s hardest hit counties is that they are home to large numbers of non-whites," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "Of the 46 rural counties that have been hardest hit by new cases of covid-19 in the last 30 days, 20 trace their high numbers back to meatpacking plants. Another five counties had large numbers of infections at state or federal prisons." The 46 counties were those where more than 1 percent of the population is infected.

Other hard-hit rural counties tend to have large shares of non-white populations, including African-Americans and Native Americans. Two counties with large proportions of Hispanic residents are on the top 46 list. Click here for a list and stats on the top 46 counties, plus an interactive map with county-level data.

Supreme Court rejects cases on guns, Clean Water Act

The U.S. Supreme Court mainly made news Monday for its ruling protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ workers (which has alarmed some faith-based organizations), but another point of interest is the list of cases the court declined to hear. Specifically, it rejected a case that would have clarified whether suction dredge mining was subject to the Clean Water Act, and it also refused to hear multiple cases on gun rights.

In the mining case, the Eastern Oregon Mining Association sought to reverse a lower court's decision that the Clean Water Act covers mining activities that move stream-bed material, Pamela King reports for Energy & Environment News. Increasingly strict state and federal laws could hurt mining companies financially and make it less likely for them to continue to develop new claims, said a mining association attorney.

According to an environmental law expert, "The court may not have wanted to dip its toe back into Clean Water Act issues after deciding a case that set a new standard for determining whether pollution that passes through groundwater on its way to jurisdictional waters should be subject to federal permitting," King reports. "The high court's 2019 term, he added, has created more uncertainty and risk of liability for companies that must comply with the Clean Water Act."

The Supreme Court also "declined to hear 10 Second Amendment cases, despite inconsistent gun law rulings by lower courts in recent years and clear interest among some justices to weigh in on how legal challenges over the right to bear arms are evaluated," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

The court has sidestepped major Second Amendment rulings for the past decade. A UCLA law professor suggested on Twitter that the trend was mostly due to Chief Justice John Roberts' reluctance to take up the matter, Lucia reports.

Amid confusion over dicamba ruling, EPA says farmers can keep spraying already-purchased stocks through July

A federal appeals court recently halted the sale of all dicamba-based herbicides in the U.S. until December after ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency didn't do its due diligence when reauthorizing the chemical in 2018. But the decision—which came in the middle of spraying season—was open-ended enough that states have been confused about whether dicamba use was still allowed, and the EPA stepped in with its own interpretation of the ruling.

"Without clear instructions from the EPA, to which the court's 'vacatur' order was directed, states have been left to draw their own conclusions about what the ruling means for retailers, farmers and applicators," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. States sought guidance from the EPA following the ruling, and at least 15 states decided to allow continued spraying.

The court opinion indicated that dicamba use should also be immediately halted along with sales, but EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler "had a different interpretation of the ruling. The agency released a 12-page cancellation order Monday that ruled the sale of dicamba herbicides needed to be halted, but farmers could continue to use their existing supply through July 31," Jonathan Hettinger reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.
The ruling only covers the 2018 reauthorization of dicamba, which expires on Dec. 20. The EPA will likely reauthorize it for next year. 

Covid-19 spiking among migrant farmworkers as farm operators try to figure out how to keep workers safer

A spike in covid-19 cases in Immokalee, Florida, exemplifies what's happening in many agricultural areas in the U.S.: migrant workers are getting hit hard by the pandemic, and though they're considered essential workers, many have little access to health care or adequate social distancing measures at work or home, Elizabeth Royte reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed in Immokalee, the tomato-growing capital of the U.S., over the past few weeks, especially among undocumented agriculture workers. The town of about 30,000 averages about 24 new cases per day, a twelve-fold increase over April's numbers. The county has had 49 covid-related deaths and 213 hospitalizations, Royte reports.

"The same conditions are common in other ag-intensive regions, many that have seen their own covid-19 outbreaks. Positive cases in Monterey County, California, jumped from a total of 73 in March, to 187 in April, and 310 in May, according to county health statistics. More than a third of those diagnosed are farmworkers, many of whom share homes or apartments with two or three families," Royte reports. "At a farm in Tennessee, all 197 migrant employees recently tested positive for covid-19, though only three displayed symptoms. Yakima County, Washington, has seen a surge of covid-19 among agricultural workers, with nearly 500 cases. Fruit packinghouse workers in the county walked off the job last month, protesting lack of protective equipment; the state will require stronger protections for its agricultural workers that take effect June 3."

Meanwhile, "farm owners and operators also face unprecedented challenges. Unequipped to deal with a deadly virus outbreak, they’ve had to figure out how to keep workers safe while also maintaining production — often with limited or conflicting information," Dave Jamieson and Chris D'Angelo report for HuffPost. "While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many states have issued guidance for agricultural workers and employers, there is no federal regulation specifically created to protect farm workers during covid-19."

Monday, June 15, 2020

Small meatpackers are increasingly in demand during the pandemic, but aren't getting much help from the feds

As several large meatpackers have increasingly been forced to temporarily shutter plants or scale back on services during the pandemic, small, independent slaughterhouses have enjoyed increasing demand. "But while the Trump administration threw its weight behind getting large meat plants back up and running, smaller companies have not enjoyed the same backing in terms of regulatory easing or financial aid," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico.

As of 2018, there were about 4,000 small (under 500 employees) and very small (under 10 employees or $2.5 million in sales) meatpacking plants in the U.S. that the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects. Many are in precarious financial shape because they operate on thin profit margins and have difficulty getting loans due to lack of collateral, Bustillo reports.

Many small processors say they were already seeing increased business in the pandemic, because of increasing consumer preference for buying locally raised meat, but say the boom is overwhelming their capacity and increasing their work backlog by months, Bustillo reports. Without help from Congress and the USDA, small meatpackers say the increased business will hurt more than it will help, because it will disrupt their long-term customers.

"As a result, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are urging more help for small processors. A recent letter from Republicans asks the Agriculture Department to reduce regulatory burdens that ban small plants from entering the market and limit competition to major producers resulting in the current bottleneck," Bustillo reports. "Several Democrats and Republicans have introduced bills in the House and Senate to provide aid to small plants, something advocates hope will be included in the next coronavirus relief package."

Large meatpacking plants in the U.S. and Canada are nearly back at capacity, but there's still a months-long backlog of animals awaiting slaughter and processing. Some states, like Maine and Montana, are stepping in with state-level financial aid.

Unusual USDA order opens door to more grazing, logging and development in national forests and national grasslands

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue "ordered the U.S. Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews on its land, paving the way for more grazing, logging and oil development on public lands," Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

Perdue announced the order Friday during a visit to Montana, a state where "ranchers, miners, and oil and gas workers have long argued for increased access to public lands," Beitsch reports. It's also one of the states with a U.S. Senate race that could help switch control of the chamber to Democrats.

The order came in the form of "an unusual memo" to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen that "lacks the formal letterhead or signature typical with such documents, and mainly sets broad goals for the Forest Service rather than laying out any specific policy directives," Beitsch reports.

Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's public lands program, said the order would not only hurt the environment, but said it was essentially a political stunt meant to help Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who is relying heavily public-lands issues in his campaign to defend his seat against former Montana governor Steve Bullock, Beitsch reports.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a bill to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually. The move was seen as an effort to help Daines and fellow Republican senator Corey Gardner of Colorado in their re-election bids.

Study: The more rural you are, the less likely you are to be satisfied with Medicare quality, access, and affordability

The more rural someone is, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied with Medicare, says a recently published study in The Journal of Rural Health.

Researchers in the Rural Health Research Center at the University of Minnesota's studied data from the 2016 Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, which measured respondents' satisfaction with nine different measures related to Medicare quality, access, and/or affordability. The study had more than 10,000 respondents nationwide.

In most measures, satisfaction with Medicare decreased with increasing rurality after adjusting for other socio-demographic and health characteristics. "These findings may have implications for access to and quality of care that rural Medicare beneficiaries receive and their subsequent health outcomes," the researchers write. Read more here.

Supreme Court says Atlantic Coast Pipeline can cross under Appalachian Trail

In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project can pass underneath the Appalachian Trail. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, Niina Farah reports for Energy & Environment News.

The decision overturns a 2018 Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the authority to greenlight a key right-of-way permit for the pipeline, Farah reports. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the 1920 Mineral Leasing Act allows rights-of-way for pipelines on federal land, except for land in the National Park Service. Since the court found that the Appalachian Trail is a part of the system, only Congress could approve such a crossing.

Pipeline developers, led by Dominion Energy Inc., argued that upholding the decision would essentially block natural gas development on the East Coast, Farah reports. Environmental groups argued that since the NPS is responsible for administering the Appalachian Trail, it also has jurisdiction over pipeline construction on federal lands under the trail. So new pipeline construction cannot be allowed, the environmental groups argued, since the NPS has higher conservation standards than the Forest Service.

"During oral arguments, the justices questioned whether they could come to a narrow decision that drew a distinction between a surface trail administered by NPS and subsurface land controlled by the Forest Service," Farah reports. "In the majority decision the justices found that the Interior Department held a limited easement for establishing and administering the Appalachian Trail but that the land itself remained 'federal lands' under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service."