Friday, November 12, 2021

Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled, but landowners still unsure what will happen to easements on their property

Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed route (Associated Press map)

Atlantic Coast Pipeline developers used eminent domain to force thousands of landowners to sell them narrow strips of land to bury the pipeline. But in July 2020, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy canceled the project. Over a year later, those landowners still don't know what will happen to the easements crossing their property.

"Some landowners have miles of the pipeline already installed on their properties. Contractors for Duke and Dominion also cleared trees along more than 110 miles across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, leaving about half of the felled trees on the property," Emily Allen reports for Mountain State Spotlight. From West Virginia to North Carolina, "The proposed pipeline would’ve crossed more than 2,600 easements, covering nearly 4,300 acres of land — all of which Duke and Dominion now own the rights to," according to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Dominion spokesperson Christine Mitchell told Allen in an email that the company will hang onto the easements for the next few years to "develop the most responsible approach" for restoration. "We plan to keep the easements until all restoration and monitoring are complete," she wrote. "However, we will evaluate individual landowner requests on a case-by-case basis."

Landowners fear the easements could be sold to another pipeline developer after the land is restored in one to two years, said Isak Howell, a Roanoke-based lawyer with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which represents dozens of landowners in ACP cases. FERC hasn’t addressed the relinquishment of easements, Allen reports.

Quick hits: Farmer's 5-year-old YouTube channel nears 1 million subscribers; how to get landowner permission to hunt

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

Etiquette, common sense, and the Golden Rule all play a role in the neighborly art of requesting permission to hunt on someone else's land. Read more here.

In some rural communities, social workers join with law enforcement to provide support for crisis calls that aren't related to criminal activity. Read more here.

Some towns, counties and states have interesting, even unique, ways to decide tied elections. In Pennsylvania, which calls for casting lots, a rural town will decide the winner of its deadlocked mayoral race by drawing numbered marbles from an antique jug that's been there for decades. How does your local government deal with ties? Read more here.

A 37-year-old farmer from western Minnesota started up a YouTube channel five years ago to try to give Americans a glimpse into everyday rural life. Now he has more than 850,000 subscribers, and he says about half are non-farmers. Read more here.

Agriculture Department data from 2019 has some interesting food for thought, one columnist writes. Texas has the most farmers and farmland of any state, with 247,000 farms and ranches covering 126 million acres. But its $5.5 billion yield puts it in second place to California, which had $10.9 billion in net farm income from only 69,000 farms. Alaska's farms collectively netted a $5.5 million loss, the only state to end up in the red. And though Alaska is the largest state, it has the fewest farms: 1,050, even fewer than the smallest state, Rhode Island, which has 1,100. Read more here.

An opinion article discusses hillbilly stereotypes in pop culture, and why they're outdated and lazy. Read more here.

Courts side with drug industry in major opioid rulings, calling into question common public-nuisance lawsuit tactic

Two state courts recently sided with the pharmaceutical industry in opioid epidemic trials that could have brought tens of billions of dollars to states and localities to mitigate the addiction crisis. The rulings call into question the legal underpinning of thousands of similar lawsuits, and could make it more difficult to win large payouts from the drug industry.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma's Supreme Court tossed out a 2019 ruling in an opioid case against Johnson & Johnson worth $465 million. The judges ruled, 5 to 1, that the company can't be held responsible for the state's opioid crisis. "This ruling comes less than two weeks after a state court judge in California sided with drug companies in another major opioid lawsuit," Brian Mann reports for NPR. In the California verdict, the Superior Court ruled that prosecutors hadn't proved that marketing from Allergan, Endo, Johnson & Johnson and Teva caused the opioid epidemic.

Oklahoma prosecutors had argued that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance because their marketing strategy for pain pills caused an opioid epidemic. But the state supreme court "concluded the public nuisance law was never intended to address a big public crisis like the opioid epidemic," Mann reports. Public nuisance claims are meant to address "discrete, localized problems, not policy problems," the judges wrote in the ruling, and allowing the law to apply to non-traditional nuisance claims leaves the law "impermissibly vague."

"The rulings raise questions about the legal strategy used by state and local officials, who argue the drug industry should be held liable for fueling the opioid crisis," Mann reports. Thousands of opioid lawsuits across the nation are based on similar public-nuisance claims.

That's because "many state public nuisance laws do not include a statute of limitations, which would restrict the time available to take legal action," Jan Hoffman reports for The New York Times. "The amount of money that can be recovered can be far greater than that exacted in a more conventional tort claim. And in some states, one defendant can be held liable not only for the damages it created but for those of other defendants as well." Also, a defendant found guilty of creating a public nuisance "has to take corrective action and must usually pay substantially to prevent future harm."

It's too early to know if the rulings indicate that public-nuisance arguments are bound to fail, according to University of Richmond opioid litigation expert Carl Tobias. "There are other state and federal opioid cases underway right now in New York, Ohio and West Virginia. Tobias said the public nuisance argument may still hold up in some courts and jurisdictions," Mann reports.

"The opinions could prod cities and counties, many of which have been equivocal about settlement deals brokered by states, to capitulate," Jan Hoffman reports for The New York Times. "They could also fuel the resolve of pharmacy chains, like Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, the cluster of defendants most resistant to talks, to fight even harder."

In July, Johnson & Johnson and drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., and McKesson Corp. agreed to a $26 billion settlement in New York for their role in the opioid epidemic.

Pandemic roundup: conspiracy fact-checks; unvaccinated employees' death benefit payouts may be denied . . .

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:

Employers may deny death benefit payouts for unvaccinated employees who die of Covid-19. Read more here.

Medical officials and misinformation experts warn about a tsunami of anti-vax misinformation now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for kids age 5-11. has a thorough guide to the Pfizer shot for kids. They also have a host of other fact checks about pandemic and coronavirus vaccinations. And here's a fact-check about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers' claims about the coronavirus.

In related news, a newly published Dutch study found that people who believe pandemic conspiracies are more likely to catch the virus, lose their jobs, and be socially isolated. Read more here.

An appellate court has temporarily halted the Biden administration's vaccine mandate for private businesses, but the White House is urging businesses to move forward with it. Meanwhile, thousands of federal workers have sought religious exemptions to the mandate.

A Maryland public health official says he got fired because a vocal minority didn't like his advice on the pandemic and made trouble with the city council. Read more here.

Pfizer and Merck anti-viral pills show promise in treating Covid-19 patients. Antivirals are expensive and difficult to develop, especially for acute respiratory diseases, but they could change the course of the pandemic, say experts.

A fast-spreading offshoot of the Delta variant is on the rise in the United Kingdom and other countries; experts worry it could cause a winter coronavirus surge if not enough people are vaccinated. Read more here.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Independent rural pharmacies are shuttering, killed off by chains; millions of Americans are left in 'drugstore deserts'

Number of healthcare deserts by county, defined as counties where most people lack adequate access to pharmacies, primary care providers, hospitals, hospital beds, trauma centers, and/or low-cost health centers. (GoodRx report; click here for more information.)

"Corner pharmacies, once widespread in large cities and rural hamlets alike, are disappearing from many areas of the country, leaving an estimated 41 million Americans in what are known as drugstore deserts, without easy access to pharmacies," Markian Hawryluk reports for The Washington Post. "An analysis by GoodRx, an online drug-price-comparison tool, found that 12 percent of Americans have to drive more than 15 minutes to reach the closest pharmacy or don’t have enough pharmacies nearby to meet demand. That includes majorities of people in more than 40 percent of counties."

Independent pharmacies are struggling to compete with chains whose relationships with insurers and pharmaceutical benefit managers give them a competitive edge. "Insurers also have ratcheted down what they will pay for prescription drugs, squeezing margins to levels that pharmacists call unsustainable," Hawryluk reports. "As the insurers’ drug plans steered patients to their affiliated drugstores, independent shops watched their customers drift away. They find themselves at the mercy of pharmaceutical middlemen, who claw back pharmacy revenue through retroactive fees and aggressive audits, leaving local pharmacists unsure if they’ll end the year in the black."

Those pressures have whittled away at the number of independent pharmacies. "From 2003 to 2018, 1,231 of the nation’s 7,624 independent rural pharmacies closed, according to the University of Iowa’s Rural Policy Research Institute, leaving 630 communities with no independent or chain retail drugstore," Hawryluk reports.

UPDATE, Nov. 18: A study for the PBMs' trade group, by two Penn State professors, found that the number of independent pharmacies in the U.S. increased 12.9% from 2010 to 2019, while the number of chain pharmacies decreased 0.2%. Also, "CVS Health announced Thursday morning that the company plans to close 900 stores nationwide over the next three years because of what executives described as changes in consumer shopping behavior, population, and the future of health care needs," The Boston Globe reports.

Rural America at a Glance report out Nov. 18; webinar set

The Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service will publish its annual Rural America at a Glance report on Nov. 18. That same day at 1 p.m. ET, ERS economist Elizabeth Dobis will present the report's top-line findings in a free, one-hour webinar. 

The report typically summarizes rural trends in population, employment, poverty, and income. This edition focuses on factors affecting the resiliency and recovery of rural communities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, including population and employment change, intensity of infection, vaccination rates, and broadband internet availability and adoption.

Click here for more information or to register for the webinar, and click here for the 2020 edition of the report.

Fresh veggie imports up 200% in past two decades; USDA digital magazine Amber Waves has more data-rich reports

Increasing consumer demand for year-round access to fresh produce has driven a 200% increase in fresh vegetable imports over the past two decades. That brings a host of challenges to U.S. farmers.

The top two sources of imported fresh veggies are Mexico (77%) and Canada (11%), thanks to favorable trade agreements, a stronger dollar, and those countries' ability to cater to Americans' tastes with affordable organic and greenhouse-grown produce, Wilma Davis and Gary Lucier report for Amber Waves, a digital Agriculture Department magazine.

Extended market-window creep is another reason for Mexico and Canada's increasing dominance of imported vegetables: The U.S. once imported vegetables mostly when they were out of season domestically, but vegetables grown under greenhouses or in much warmer climates make it easy for American wholesalers or grocers to buy imported produce even when it's in season in the U.S. For example, "Summer is historically the primary market window for U.S. producers; however, fresh vegetable import volumes from Mexico during the summer months have shown substantial increases in the past 15 years," Davis and Lucier report. (The proliferation of imported, greenhouse-grown produce helped spur AppHarvest, a start-up building huge greenhouses in Kentucky.)

Amber Waves has other excellent reports from USDA's Economic Research Service that can inform rural reporting. Here are a few others from this month's edition, and from ERS's home site:

Food pantry use increased from 2019 to 2020 for most types of U.S. households. "Data from the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement sponsored by the USDA Economic Research Service shows that use of food pantries increased from 2019 to 2020. In 2020, 6.7 percent of all U.S. households reported using a food pantry, an increase from 4.4 percent in 2019," Alisha Coleman-Jensen and Matthew P. Rabbitt report.

Free meal sites expanded rapidly to provide meals to children during the early months of the pandemic, Saied Toossi reports. A working paper provides more details, and notes that free meal sites are more prevalent in urban areas, leaving many rural communities underserved.

Off-farm organizations are responsible for bringing 40% of total irrigation water applied to croplands. Several federal agencies collaborated on a survey of such organizations in 2019, the first federal attempt to collect nationwide data on such organizations since the Census Bureau's 1978 Census of Irrigation Organizations. The report highlights broad trends, including how much water is lost to seepage because of unlined irrigation canals. Considering the massive drought in the West, that data matters. Read more here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Candidate, clearly bigoted on social media, got elected to New Jersey Senate after getting no news-media coverage

New Jersey state Sen.-elect Edward Durr
(Photo by Ellie Rushing, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Edward Durr was such a long-shot candidate in his New Jersey legislative race that no one seemed to notice something rather striking about him: He had a history of posting bigoted, misogynistic and derogatory comments on social media," reports Paul Farhi of The Washington Post. But he beat the state Senate president, probably because he was such a long shot that he got no news coverage in a largely rural district.

Durr, a Republican, called the prophet Mohammed a pedophile, blamed "illegal aliens: for spreading disease, "used the motto of the far-right QAnon conspiracy movement and compared vaccination mandates to the Holocaust," Farhi writes. "He also denigrated Vice President Harris on Facebook, writing that she had earned her position only as a result of her race and gender."

"According to a search of the Nexis database, which catalogues thousands of news sources, there were no published or broadcast reports about Durr’s posts in the six months leading up to Election Day," Farhi reports. "Durr’s comments made plenty of news after last week’s election, when reporters finally caught up to his social-media history. But by then he had already scored a stunning upset over Democrat Steve Sweeney, one of the state’s most powerful officials. Durr, 58, won the Senate seat by roughly 2,200 votes out of 65,000 cast."

Durr had a long record of "incendiary posts," but he also "got no media coverage when he ran unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat in 2017 nor when he ran and lost again two years later," Farhi writes. Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, told him, “No one even considered that [Durr] was a real threat, and that includes me.”

Legislative districts of southern New Jersey
(Each district has a senator and two House members)
Farhi writes, "Years of cutbacks and consolidation among news organizations have left many communities without vigorous local coverage. . . . The southern New Jersey region once had four daily newspapers. But in 2012, Advance Publications merged three that it owned — the Gloucester County Times, Today’s Sunbeam in Salem County and the News of Cumberland County — into a single paper, the South Jersey Times. Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties form the heart of the district won by Durr. The Times’s major competitors include the Courier Post in Cherry Hill and its sister paper, the Daily Journal in Vineland, both owned by Gannett Co., the nation’s largest newspaper owner and a vigorous cost cutter. The Philadelphia Inquirer is the region’s leading metropolitan paper."

"The reporting staffs of the surviving local newspapers “have been decimated” and “barely cover local news anymore," David Wildstein, who runs the New Jersey Globe, a digital news site focused on state issues and politics, told Farhi, who writes, "Collectively, the South Jersey Times, Courier Post and Daily Journal list a total of 13 news reporters on their mastheads, covering a four-county region that has a population of just over 1 million. Editors of the papers didn’t reply to multiple requests for comment."

UPDATE, Nov. 15: Eric Lach of The New Yorker interviewed defeated Senate President Steve Sweeney, who said “We used to have local papers. And people used to be able to read about all of these wonderful things that were going on.” He also noted, Lach writes, an "NJ Advance Media analysis of his district . . . showed that Republican registration went up some thirty per cent in the past four years, while Democratic registration rose only twelve per cent. Southwestern New Jersey is poorer, more rural, and whiter than other areas of the state—bad conditions lately for the Democratic Party. Sweeney had received about as many votes this year as he did when he won re-election in 2017, but thousands of additional voters had come out."

Pandemic further stresses rural volunteer fire departments

A chief walks through his fire station in Ringgold, Va.
(Photo by Caleb Ayers, Danville Register & Bee)
Rural fire departments have struggled to get adequate funding, volunteers, employees and equipment, but the pandemic has made the situation worse.

"Rural firefighters have been on the front lines of the pandemic, tackling wildfires and vehicle accidents even as they transport ill and injured residents to hospitals," Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "Covid-19’s heavy toll on rural hospitals has extended to emergency responders, meaning firefighters are answering more medical calls than ever before. The increased workload, and the specter of vaccine mandates, has made recruitment even tougher."

The pandemic has traumatized rural firefighters and other health-care providers. "The mass death and suffering of the past 20 months has spawned a surge of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, insomnia and substance use disorder among health care professionals of all kinds," Wright reports. "Answering calls at the homes of relatives, friends and neighbors—which many rural firefighters have had to do—magnifies the pain."

That's on top of difficulties rural fire departments already face, such as poor roads and communications infrastructure, increasingly frequent and more powerful wildfires, and state laws that can require volunteer EMTs to transfer patients to paramedics for more advanced treatment—without compensation.

That's a lot to ask a volunteer to endure, even those who feel called to serve their communities as fire fighters. "Of more than 1.1 million firefighters nationwide, 67% are volunteers who are not paid or receive a minimal amount to cover gas and other expenses, according to a 2021 fact sheet by the National Volunteer Fire Council," Wright reports. "Many of them are in rural America: Nearly 40% of communities with between 5,000 and 9,999 residents had all-volunteer departments as of 2018, according to a tally released last year by the National Fire Protection Association. In communities with between 2,500 and 4,999 people, the percentage of all-volunteer departments was 72%, and 92% in towns of less than 2,500."

Younger people are far less likely to volunteer at fire departments, several firefighters told Wright. Bob Timko, of the National Volunteer Fire Council's recruitment and retention committee, told her that volunteer departments need to work harder to recruit, possibly by partnering with local businesses: "[Young people] aren’t coming in the door ... I would challenge leadership to develop a program or use resources to educate people on what we do."

Studies show student debt can hurt communities, and averages 60% more in rural areas than the rest of the nation

Percentage of income going to student loan payments in 2016 (Map is from this study.)

A pair of new studies show how the burden of student-loan debt hurts rural communities.

Young adults from rural areas average about 60 percent more student-loan debt than their suburban and urban counterparts, and it's not because they're consistently borrowing more money, according to a study published in Rural Sociology. The trend is particularly pronounced among women. At age 25, about 48 percent of rural college attendees carry student debt, compared to 38% of suburban and 37% of urban attendees. Rural students also tend to have more debt: an average of $19,680, compared to $16,780 for urban and suburban attendees.

"Rural college-goers’ higher debt can be partly explained by their parents tending to have lower incomes, lower wealth, and less education compared to their non-rural counterparts. Rural college-goers’ higher rates of migration during college also plays a significant role," study author Alec P. Rhodes, a Ph.D. sociology candidate at Ohio State, told The Daily Yonder's Kristi Eaton.

Rhodes said women may have more debt because the best-paying rural jobs that don't require a college degree tend to be dominated by men. "As a result, rural women may feel greater pressure than rural men to take on debt to attend college," he said. "These combined 'penalties' of being a woman and having a rural background may contribute to especially high student debt levels among rural women."

Student-loan debt has a broad impact, argues a study in the International Journal of Community Well-Being. "Higher levels of student debt are generally related to lower levels of homeownership and higher levels of rental stress, or people that have trouble making rent payments," authors Jackson Parr and Steven Deller report in The Daily Yonder. "The problems created by too much student debt are two-fold, as people may not have any room to take on mortgage debt, driving them toward rent. With so many people driven to rent from a limited amount of available housing, rent goes up and squeezes the student debt payers even more."

In sum, student-loan debt remains smaller than Americans' $4.1 trillion of credit debt or $15.5 trillion mortgage debt, but it has grown significantly in the past two decades as tuition has increased. "From 2006, consumer-credit debt grew approximately 70% and mortgage debt grew by 24%, but student-loan debt grew by 232%," Parr and Deller write. "The Consumer Price Index increased only 21.1%. Although this may indicate more people attending college, the percentage of high-school graduates attending college grew by just four percentage points (65.8% in 2006 to 69.7% in 2016), an increase of 38% in terms of absolute number of students. Meanwhile, debt loads increased. Based on analysis by the Institute for College Access and Success (2018) of survey data from American four-year universities and colleges, the average student debt level increased from $18,650 in 2004 to $29,650 in 2016."

Rhodes, the author of the first study, speculated that cancellation of federal student debt, lately a hot-button political topic, would disproportionately benefit rural students. He told Eaton the nation should address long-term wage stagnation that has made college harder to pay for, and believes states should invest more in higher education to make college more affordable.

DEA cracks down on suspect dispensing of buprenorphine, which could pose obstacles to rural patients seeking help

In April, the Department of Health and Human Services began allowing most medical providers to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid-use disorder without having to obtain special training. But the Drug Enforcement Administration's aggressive tactics against pharmacies suspected of improperly dispensing the drug may dissuade stores from carrying it, making prescription filling more difficult.

"The ramifications can be particularly acute in rural areas, where a dearth of addiction treatment providers, lack of transportation and stigma against these medications already create barriers," Aneri Pattani reports for NPR. "If pharmacies decline to provide buprenorphine too, patients will have few options left." Buprenorphine is the gold standard for treating opioid addiction, and though drug overdose deaths hit record highs in 2020, fewer than 20% of people who misuse opioids receive medication to treat it. About one-in-five pharmacies in the U.S. don't dispense buprenorphine. 

Buprenorphine has some value as a street drug, but "research suggests that buprenorphine misuse has decreased in recent years even as prescribing has increased, and that most people who use diverted buprenorphine do so to avoid withdrawal symptoms and because they can't get a prescription," Pattani reports. "Buprenorphine is less likely to cause overdoses than other opioids because its effects taper off at higher doses."

Pattani illustrates the DEA's tactics with the story of a pharmacy in Fayette County, West Virginia. Pharmacist Martin Njoku began dispensing buprenorphine in 2016 after a flood displaced residents in a nearby county. He told NPR he saw it as doing the right thing for people who needed help. But the DEA raided his pharmacy a few years later and revoked its registration to dispense controlled substances. "Although two judges separately ruled in Njoku's favor, the DEA's actions effectively shuttered his business," Pattani reports.

National Rural Health Day coming on Nov. 17; Twitter chat that day to talk digital equity and its role in rural health

The Rural Health Information Hub (@ruralhealthinfo) and the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (@NOSORH) will co-host a Twitter chat on Nov. 17 in honor of National Rural Health Day. The chat will begin at 10 a.m. ET and will last about an hour. You can find it on Twitter by searching for the #RuralHealthChat hashtag. The chat will focus on digital equity and how it relates to rural Americans' health. Click here for more information.

From the website: "Digital equity refers to the ability of all people to access and use the digital tools necessary to fully participate in our society. Unfortunately, many rural areas and populations lack basic technologies of everyday life, such as broadband, that can impact access to healthcare and an individual’s ability to learn, work, and thrive." During the chat, participants will "discuss the factors that impact technology access in rural communities, ... how lack of technology access affects health, share tips and resources available to tackle access issues, and celebrate rural communities that have addressed digital equity in meaningful ways. We’ll be using the hashtags #RuralHealthChat and #PowerofRural to tweet with experts from around the country who are excited to share their knowledge. Everyone is welcome to provide comments, questions, or just follow along!"

Special guests will include:

  • Health Resources & Services Administration representative – @HRSAgov
  • Kyle Zebley, Vice President Public Policy, The American Telemedicine Association – @AmericanTelemed
  • Carrie Cochran-McClain, Chief Policy Officer, National Rural Health Association – @ruralhealth
  • Nicole Clement, TASC Program Specialist, National Rural Health Resource Center – @RHRC
  • Kellie Kubena, Agriculture Department Rural Health Liaison, Rural Development Innovation Center – @usdaRD

Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Infrastructure bill has much for rural America

One square equals $1 billion. (Washington Post chart; click to enlarge)
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Congress passed on Friday has much for rural America. Here's some of what we found, and more will likely be forthcoming later as we continue to comb through the gargantuan bill, which has:
  • $550 billion in new spending, which is mostly paid for but would add $256 billion to $350 billion to the deficit over the next decade without raising taxes. Most of the funding comes from unspent pandemic relief and tightening enforcement on reporting gains from cryptocurrency investments. (The National Association of Counties has a more detailed breakdown of the bill's funding sources.) Moody's Analytics estimates it could add as many as 660,000 jobs by 2025.
  • $110 billion for roads and bridges, with specific earmarks for Appalachian and Alaskan highways (Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, "were instrumental" in crafting the bipartisan package, according to The Washington Post.)
  • $66 billion for railroads. Passenger rail gets a lot of that money (the Post says Amtrak's expansion would be the largest ever, but the bill also has funding for freight-train safety.
  • $65 billion to expand broadband to under-served communities, including rural areas, including $14 billion for subsidizing internet bills for the poor, and $2 billion for the Agriculture Department's Reconnect Loan and Grant Program for rural areas.
  • $65 billion to update power lines and cables and invest upgrades to protect utilities from cyberattacks. It also has funding for renewable energy development.
  • At least $55 billion for water infrastructure, including $10 billion to clean up the "forever chemicals" per- and polyfluoroalkyls, and money for drinking water in tribal communities.
  • $47 billion for "resilience," mainly for cybersecurity upgrades to infrastructure and for addressing droughts, floods, coastal erosion and other extreme-weather issues.
  • $21 billion for cleanup of abandoned wells and mines.
  • $10 million over five years for the new Rural and Tribal Assistance Pilot Program through a new Build America Bureau. "The program would provide financial, technical and legal assistance; assistance with development-phase activities; and information on innovative financing practices to rural and Tribal communities. It would sunset after five years," NACo reports.
  • $2 billion over five years to fund the newly established Rural Surface Transportation Grant program for road and bridge projects. Under the new program, counties can apply directly to the Transportation Department for projects. The federal government will cover 80% of the costs for approved projects.
  • The Digital Equality Act of 2021, which prioritizes federal broadband funding for rural and other underserved communities.
  • Additional counties for the Appalachian Regional Commission service area; also, ARC is eligible for new funding initiatives. Manchin's wife Gayle is ARC's federal co-chair.
  • Three more years for the Secure Rural Schools program, which the Forest Service funds to make up for losses in timber revenue.
Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler debunks claims that the bill isn't mainly for infrastructure.

Urban Institute says SNAP recipients in 21% of counties still can't buy 3 modest meals a day, even with bigger benefit

Gap between SNAP benefit and meal cost in 2020 compared to after Oct. 1, 2021; blue indicates a shortfall.
Urban Institute map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

On Oct. 1, the Biden administration implemented the largest-ever permanent increase in benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, raising the average per-person benefit by $36 a month. But a paper by the Urban Institute says many hungry Americans still can't afford a modest meal, and rural residents—who disproportionately rely on the program—tend to see some of the biggest gaps between how much money their benefits are worth and how much they need to afford to reliably eat. 

Before the boost, residents in 96 percent of U.S. counties couldn't afford to eat three modestly priced meals a day. After the boost, that was still true of 21% of counties, leaving them in the "SNAP gap," the report says. That's more likely for urbanites, but "some of the largest gaps in benefit adequacy persist in rural areas," the report says. "In fact, after the 21% increase in maximum SNAP benefits, four of the top five counties with the largest percent gap in benefits are nonmetropolitan."

Interior Dept. overturns Trump administration reduction of spotted-owl habitat, saying it was based on faulty science

A northern spotted owl pursues a mouse in Deschutes
National Forest in Oregon. (AP photo by Don Ryan)
"Political appointees in the Trump administration relied on faulty science to justify stripping habitat protections for the imperiled northern spotted owl, U.S. wildlife officials said Tuesday as they struck down a rule that would have opened millions of acres of forest in Oregon, Washington and California to potential logging," Matthew Brown and Gillian Flaccus report for The Associated Press. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a decision made five days before Trump left office to drastically shrink so-called critical habitat for the spotted owl."

The federal government has protected 9.6 million acres of the owl's habitat—old-growth forests—since 2012, but many have blamed the move for hurting rural logging communities in the West. In August 2020, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt proposed removing protections for about 2% of the birds' habitat, but "the timber industry said the plan didn't go far enough and called for removal of more than 28%," Brown and Flaccus report.

Northern spotted owl habitat
(American Bird Conservancy)
In January, then-Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith "abruptly changed her agency's recommendation and went even further, telling Bernhardt more than one-third of the protected land, or almost 3.5 million acres (1.4 million hectares), should be excluded from protection." She said spotted owls were more threatened by barred owls, and that controlling the predators' numbers would better help. 

Government biologists warned that the changes would trigger the extinction of the species, but Bernhardt and Skipworth dismissed their objections. "Officials said in documents provided to AP that Bernhardt and Skipwith underestimated the threat of extinction and relied on a "faulty interpretation of the science" to reach their decision," Brown and Flaccus report.

However, Bernhardt told the AP in an email that the scientists' "reasonable certainty" of the owls' fate didn't meet the legal threshold for habitat protection. Under the statutory authority established by Congress, the Interior may only protect such areas if a species "will" go extinct, Bernhardt wrote, and suggested that wildlife officials who wish to change that standard should talk to Congress.

Wildlife officials twice delayed the changes after President Biden's inauguration, and the policy was never implemented. But it's one of many Trump administration moves—since struck down—that opened up public lands for drilling, logging and other commercial interests. The administration also tried to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse, declared gray wolves no longer endangered (which may have resulted in overhunting in Wisconsin), and drastically reduced the footprints of two national monuments in Utah that sit atop rich coal seams.

This wasn't the first time Bernhardt undermined government scientists: when he was the deputy secretary, pesticide lobbyists convinced him to block a 2017 FWS study that found that the pesticide chlorypyrifos was so toxic that it threatened the existence of more than 1,200 endangered species.

Illinois drafting required media-literacy course; high-school students' videos on the subject to be shown online tonight

Axios llustration by Aïda Amer
Illinois has become the first state to require students to take a course in media literacy, and tonight at 6 p.m. CT the Illinois Media Literacy Coalition will showcase award-winning videos by Illinois high school students about the importance of understanding media, reports Monica Eng of Axios.

The course will be required in the 2022-23 school year. The law says the course should help students analyze the purpose of media messages and how they are made, how media influences behavior, and the importance of digesting multiple media sources, Eng reports.

State Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Teutopolis, said the law is "anti-Trump, anti-conservative" and a bid by liberals "to get into our school systems at a young age," according to the Illinois Radio Network. "Supporters of the law tell Axios it's not about politics, but giving students tools to develop their own BS detectors," Eng writes, quoting attorney Maaria Mozaffar, who helped write the law: "I would use the analogy of financial literacy classes."

Columbia College Chicago professor Yonty Friesem, who is co-writing the teaching framework, told Eng that Lessons in the course will be framed as discussions: "We don't want to dictate how it's going to be taught. Instead, we want to show the value of asking questions and reflecting on how the media impacts us. This is not about making the teacher the sage on the stage, but about facilitating discussions where people can have different opinions . . . civil debate and deliberation." Friesem invites comments and suggestions at

New rural coronavirus vaccinations fall for third week in row

Vaccination rates as of Nov. 4, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The number of new coronavirus vaccinations in rural counties fell for the third week in a row Oct. 29 through Nov. 4, marking the lowest pace for the shots since mid-August, The Daily Yonder reports

"Newly completed vaccinations fell by about 20% last week compared to two weeks ago. Rural (nonmetropolitan) counties reported 166,000 newly completed vaccinations the week of Friday, Oct. 29, through Thursday, Nov. 4. That’s down from about 207,000 two weeks ago," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report. "Meanwhile, the number of newly completed vaccinations in metropolitan counties grew by more than 15% last week compared to two weeks ago. Metropolitan counties reported 1.6 million newly completed Covid-19 vaccinations last week, compared to 1.4 million two weeks ago."

Last week's shots increased the rural vaccination rate by 0.4 percentage points, to 44.5% of the population, and raised the metro vaccination rate by 0.6 percentage points to 56.6%—a 12.1 percentage point gap that is increasing, Murphy and Marema report.

Click here for more charts, maps and regional analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Democrats see rural problems beyond last week's Va. result

Last week's election, the first since Democrats took control of Congress and the White House, highlighted the party's weakness in rural areas. Much has been made of the results in Virginia, where high turnout among rural voters helped Republican Glenn Youngkin defeat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018. But Democrats' concerns are national.

NBC News chart compares races for governor.
In Virginia, not only did more rural voters show up, but more of them voted Republican. They were 16 percent of the state's voters in 2020, 19% this year. And though President Biden lost rural Virginia by about 6 points, McAuliffe lost by 27—a much more difficult margin to make up in the 2022 midterms through increased suburban and urban turnout, Dante Chinni writes for NBC News.

Some Democrats believed their rural vote "had already bottomed out, especially during the Trump era, when Republicans had run up the numbers of white voters in rural areas to dizzying new heights. Virginia, however, is proof it can get worse," Astead Herndon and Shane Goldmacher write for The New York Times. "In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70% or more . . . Youngkin was above 70% in 45 counties, and he surpassed 80% in 15."

Democrats were hurt in Virginia by McAuliffe's gaffe about parents and schools, and frustrations over school closures in the pandemic, as well as Republican arguments about "taxes and anti-racist school curriculums they claim have gone too far," Dan Balz of The Washington Post reports. But Youngkin's win went beyond specific policies. As Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told Balz: "What the Democrats have a hard time understanding is that politics are cultural and not logical."

Elsewhere, Democrats said the Virginia result was indicative of broader problems the party has with rural voters. "The twin results raise a foreboding possibility for Democrats: that the party had simply leased the suburbs in the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even more of rural America," the Times reports. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a rural Democrat from North Dakota who lost her seat in 2018, told The Hill, the bottom line for Democrats is that "You can't be a majority party in this country without doing better in rural America."

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois who led the House Democratic campaign arm in 2020 and isn't seeking re-election, told the Times, “It’s not sustainable for our party to continue to tank in small-town America. . . . We’ve got a branding problem as Democrats in way too many parts of our country.” Herndon and Goldmacher, reporting from Hot Springs, Va., conclude, "Some Democrats urge the party to just show up more. Some believe liberal ideas can gain traction, such as universal health care and free community college. Others urge a refocus on kitchen-table economics like jobs programs and rural broadband to improve connectivity. But it is not clear how open voters are to even listening."

New rural coronavirus infections are down more than 20%, but the virus remains much more entrenched in rural areas

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Oct. 24-30
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New coronavirus infections and Covid-19-related deaths fell in rural and metropolitan areas during the last week of October, but the virus remains much more entrenched in rural counties, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Compared to metro rates, the rural new infection rate is 70 percent higher and the death rate is twice as high

During the week of Oct. 24-30, compared to the previous week, new coronavirus cases "dropped by 7% in nonmetropolitan (rural) counties, falling to about 102,000 new infections, down from 109,000 two weeks ago. New rural infections have dropped for six consecutive weeks and are now at half the level they were in September at the peak of the Delta-variant surge," Murphy and Marema report. Meanwhile, "infections in metropolitan counties dropped by 3% last week to 364,000. Metropolitan deaths dropped by 23% to 6,366."

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Wolves may reduce frequency of car collisions with deer, not just by killing them but keeping them away from roads

Indigenous tribes and wildlife advocacy groups are suing the state of Wisconsin to stop the state wolf hunt, which was set to begin last week until a judge blocked it. Their concerns center on the wolves' lives, but there's another good reason to halt the hunt, Ed Yong writes for The Atlantic: New research shows that wolves can cut down on serious or fatal car collisions with deer, and not just by killing them.

Wolves "tend to prowl along human-made corridors such as trails and roads. By killing deer near these areas, or simply intimidating them into staying away, wolves could keep the animals far from cars," Yong reports. By analyzing 22 years of data, researchers found "Wisconsin’s wolves have reduced the frequency of deer-vehicle collisions by a quarter. They save the state $10.9 million in losses every year—a figure 63 times greater than the total compensation paid for the loss of livestock or pets."

Nov. 17 webinar on covering coronavirus shots for children

A free Nov. 17 webinar from the National Press Foundation aims to help journalists explain the coronavirus vaccines' clinical-trial results in plain language and also look ahead to how vaccinating children will affect family, schools, day care, extracurricular activities and more. It will also offer tips for covering vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and disinformation.

Speakers include:

  • Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health
  • Rachana Pradhan, national correspondent for Kaiser Health News

The briefing will begin at noon ET on Zoom. It's free to attend, but reporters must register in advance. Click here to register or for more information.

Portrait of Washington hospital illustrates rural health-care workers' deeply held resistance to coronavirus vaccination

Dayton, in Columbia County,
Washington (Wikipedia map)
President Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandate for health-care workers has not, by and large, resulted in widespread staff shortages from workers quitting instead of getting vaccinated. But vaccine mandates are far less popular in rural America, as illustrated by an in-depth look at a hospital in rural Washington state, Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, issued one of the nation's first vaccine mandates for health-care workers in August. With days to go before the deadline, the issue was far from settled at Dayton General Hospital, according to CEO Shane McGuire. "Dozens of McGuire’s employees were still marked as unvaccinated. At least 15 were in the process of applying for religious or medical exemptions, a few had already quit in protest, and many more were facing termination unless they decided to vaccinate against the coronavirus in the next five days before the mandate went into effect," Saslow reports. "McGuire liked to refer to his small staff as a family, and many in fact were family, but it had been splitting in two since the beginning of the year, when exactly 50 percent of the hospital’s few hundred employees chose to be vaccinated and 50 percent refused."

The story recounts McGuire's struggle to educate staffers about vaccines and make it more palatable to skeptical staff while making staff feel that their concerns were heard. Saslow also profiles Katie Roughton, the hospital's director of nursing, who quit rather than get vaccinated. "Regardless of scientific facts or the vaccine data, she believed what she was hearing on her TV, her computer, the local grocery store, her own family dinner table: The vaccines were rushed and oversold, and worse yet, the state mandate signaled the government’s latest attempt to seize greater control," Saslow reports. "It was an infringement on individual rights. It was socialism. Her father-in-law had taken an experimental anthrax vaccine before deploying for the Gulf War, and he blamed the side effects for making him permanently disabled. Four of her family members were being forced to quit their jobs over vaccine mandates, and they were encouraging her to do the same."

Roughton snapped when one of the hospital's doctors called her to ask how she believed they could further control the spread of the virus, Saslow reports: "'Do you want my personal or professional opinion?' she asked, and before long she was prodding him about the breakthrough infection and the science of vaccines, and he was calling her 'stupid,' and they were screaming at each other — doctor against nurse, liberal against conservative, no longer partners in patient care but adversaries staking out opposite sides in an ideological battle that Roughton had been fighting since."