From icy Texas to snowy Seattle, frigid weather blankets huge swath of U.S.

(Reuters) – Winter weather battered the United States from coast to coast on Thursday as a series of storms expected to last for days mixed with an arctic air mass to bring snow and freezing rain as far south as Texas where there was a deadly multi-vehicle pileup.

A line of freezing rain stretched from Texas to West Virginia, with some of it accumulating one-quarter to one-half inch, according to meteorologist Marc Chenard at the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Among the areas to get a coating of freezing rain during the Thursday morning rush hour was Fort Worth, Texas, where local media reported that at least five people were killed in a massive pileup of some 70 vehicles on an interstate highway.

Video at the scene showed dozens of smashed cars and trucks, some literally piled on top of one another on a wet roadway and under cloudy skies.

The Texas precipitation was part of a system that was bringing rain to several southeastern states and modest amounts of snow to West Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey, but was winding down, Chenard said.

A separate system will make its presence felt in the mid-Atlantic area on Saturday, he said.

“That may bring potentially significant freezing rain accumulations to portions of Virginia and Maryland,” he added.

Meanwhile, another weather system was making its way into the Pacific Northwest where it was forecast to remain through Saturday and bring as much eight inches (20 cm) of snow to normally rainy Seattle and 12 inches (30 cm) to Portland, Oregon. Seattle averages about 6 inches of snow in an entire winter season.

“An event of this magnitude is rare,” said Chenard.

That weather system is forecast to make its way eastward, bringing significant snowfall to the upper Midwest over the weekend and freezing rain south almost to Gulf Coast of Texas.

“There likely will be winter weather impacts in the East by early next week,” Chenard added.

The storm systems, which normally would have brought rain, have been converted into snow and ice makers by a polar air mass that has descended upon much of the country, bringing frigid temperatures before beginning to recede in the middle of next week, Chenard said.

Recent low temperatures in the upper United States from Montana to Wisconsin have ranged from minus 35 to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 to minus 40 degrees Celsius).

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

U.S. sets COVID-19 death record for second week, cases surge

(Reuters) – The United States lost more than 22,000 lives to COVID-19 last week, setting a record for the second week in a row, as new cases also hit a weekly high.

California was the state with the most deaths at 3,315 in the week ended Jan. 10, or about eight out of every 100,000 people, up 44% from the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Arizona had the highest death rate per capita at 15 per 100,000 residents, followed by Rhode Island at 13 and West Virginia at 12 deaths per 100,000 people.

On average, COVID-19 killed 3,239 people per day in the United States last week, more than the number killed by the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Cumulatively, nearly 375,000 people in the country have died from the novel coronavirus, or one in every 873 residents. The total could rise to more than 567,000 by April 1, according to a forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

The United States reported more than 1.7 million new cases of COVID-19 last week, up 17% from the prior seven days. Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottleib said new cases could start declining in February.

“By the end of this month, we’ll have infected probably about 30% of the American public and maybe vaccinated another 10%, notwithstanding the very difficult rollout of the vaccine,” Gottleib told CNBC on Friday. “You’re starting to get to levels of prior exposure in the population where the virus isn’t going to spread as readily.”

Across the United States, 13.4% of tests came back positive for the virus, down from 13.6% the prior week, according to data from the volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project. The highest rates were in Iowa at 59%, Idaho at 54% and Alabama at 45%.

(Graphic by Chris Canipe, writing by Lisa Shumaker, editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. court allows Equitrans to keep building Mountain Valley natgas pipe

By Scott DiSavino

(Reuters) – The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a motion to stay a permit for the $5.8-$6.0 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia.

Analysts said that court decision on Wednesday – not to stay the pipeline’s Biological Opinion – increases the odds Equitrans Midstream Corp can put the long-delayed project into service in the second half of 2021.

The Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

Mountain Valley is one of several oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with permits issued by the Trump administration.

When Equitrans started construction in February 2018, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

The 303-mile (487.6 km) pipeline was designed to deliver 2 billion cubic feet per day of gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to consumers in the Mid Atlantic and Southeast. One billion cubic feet is enough to supply about 5 million U.S. homes for a day

Analysts said denial of the stay allows Equitrans to continue construction in areas other than the 25-mile (40-km)exclusion zone surrounding the Jefferson National Forest while the court considers the merits of appeals against the Biological Opinion.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may decide soon to reduce that exclusion zone to 7.7 miles.

Height Capital Markets also said Mountain Valley must begin applying for an individual stream crossing permit in case it loses an ongoing lawsuit against its Nationwide Permit or President-elect Joe Biden’s administration remands the permit, both of which seem probable.

The Nationwide Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows the project to cross waterbodies.

“We continue to have high conviction that the project will be completed, though the Biden administration could delay the ultimate in-service date to 2022,” Height Capital Markets said.

Mountain Valley is owned by units of Equitrans, NextEra Energy Inc, Consolidated Edison Inc, AltaGas Ltd and RGC Resources.

(Reporting By Scott DiSavino; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Mountain Valley says natural gas pipeline timing depends on litigation, U.S. approvals

(Reuters) – Equitrans Midstream Corp said on Monday it will evaluate the cost and timing of the completion of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline based on ongoing litigation and upcoming federal approvals.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave Mountain Valley permission late Friday to resume some construction on its $5.4 billion-$5.7 billion pipeline, which runs from Virginia to West Virginia.

“As the litigation process progresses and as we receive additional information from FERC regarding potentially releasing the remainder of the route for construction, (Mountain Valley) will continue to evaluate its current construction plans, budget, and schedule,” Equitrans said.

Mountain Valley is one of several U.S. oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with federal permits issued by the Trump administration.

FERC suspended work on Mountain Valley a year ago due to litigation over the project’s Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

The FWS issued a new Biological Opinion in early September. Environmental and other groups continue to challenge the latest FWS approval and other federal permits in court.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said they expect the project to enter service in mid 2021 but noted timing could slip to the third quarter of 2021 if legal challenges prevent some stream crossings.

“We acknowledge the legal challenge that is currently before Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and have agreed to temporarily delay stream and waterbody activities out of respect for that process,” Equitrans said.

Equitrans has said it expects the pipeline, which is about 92% complete, to enter service in early 2021.

In February 2018, when Equitrans started construction, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alexander Smith and Steve Orlofsky)

Several states wary of $48 billion opioid settlement proposal

Several states wary of $48 billion opioid settlement proposal
By Tom Hals and Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – Several U.S. states that have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic are pushing back on a proposed $48 billion settlement framework that would resolve thousands of lawsuits against five drug companies accused of fueling the addiction crisis.

The proposal would bring an end to all opioid litigation against AmerisourceBergen Corp<ABC.N>, Cardinal Health Inc<CAH.N> and McKesson Corp<MCK.N>, drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Inc<TEVA.TA><TEVA.N>, and Johnson & Johnson<JNJ.J>.

The companies have proposed paying $22.25 billion cash mostly over 18 years, while services and drugs to treat addiction valued at $26 billion by the companies would be provided over the coming decade, mostly by Teva.

Officials in states such as Ohio, New Hampshire and West Virginia — all hard hit by the deadly drug addition crisis — voiced concerns about the proposal.

James Boffetti, the associate attorney general for New Hampshire, said in an interview he was troubled that payments were stretched over many years.

“The concern is, I think, the states need money now to create the infrastructure for treatment,” he said.

Small states fear the money will be divvied up by population rather than need.

“Any global opioid settlement that doesn’t reflect the unique and unprecedented damage imposed on West Virginia through the opioid epidemic should be DOA,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Some 400,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, according to government data. Roughly 2,600 lawsuits have been brought nationwide by states, local and tribal governments.

The three distributors in a joint statement said they were committed to finalizing a global settlement and would continue working with the other parties on the details of the framework. Teva declined to comment.

J&J said in a securities filing on Wednesday the deal would lower third quarter profit by $3 billion.

The proposal, announced on Monday, was hammered out by the companies and attorneys general in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

It will need broad support among state attorneys general and will have to overcome opposition from the lawyers representing local governments that sued. Those lawyers declined to sign on when presented the proposal last week.

Under the settlement framework, money for each state would be divvied up, with 15% going to the state treasury, 15% for local governments that filed lawsuits and 70% going to a proposed state fund aimed at addressing the crisis.

Boffetti predicted it would takes weeks for states to determine whether they back the settlement framework.

North Carolina’s attorney general, Josh Stein, acknowledged that a detailed term sheet needs to be developed.

“There are a lot of details and mechanics that need to be added to it,” Stein told Reuters in an interview. “That will happen in the coming weeks.”

The proposal did win a major supporter on Tuesday. Tom Miller of Iowa, the longest-serving attorney general, publicly backed the proposal, calling the framework “an important step in addressing the crisis.”

Colorado’s attorney general, Phil Weiser, called it a “very promising development.”

The lawsuits accuse distributors of failing to flag and halt a rising tide of suspicious orders and drugmakers of overstating the benefits of opioids while downplaying the risks.

The companies have denied any wrongdoing. Drugmakers say their products carried government-approved labels that warned of the addictive risks of opioids, while distributors argue their role was to make sure medicines prescribed by licensed doctors were available for patients.

The proposed deal has widened a fault line between attorneys general and local governments.

Cities and counties generally hired private attorneys to bring their cases, and attorneys general want to limit the amount of the settlement that goes to pay private lawyers. The attorneys for local governments also generally opposed Teva contributing opioid treatment drugs to the settlement, instead of cash, in part because of concerns that the framework placed an inflated value on those drugs.

Last week’s talks failed to reach a global deal, and on Monday, the three wholesale distributors and Teva struck a last-minute $260 million settlement with two Ohio counties, averting the first federal trial over opioids.

North Carolina’s Stein said he looked forward to resolving concerns about the proposal and warned that settling lawsuits individually was unsustainable.

“If we proceed on the current path and each county and city brings their case and extracts whatever amount they may be able to get from these companies, the companies will end up bankrupt,” he said. “The opioid crisis is a national problem that demands a national solution.”

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Nate Raymond in Boston, Massachusetts; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Sandra Maler)

Eyeing conservative U.S. top court, two states pass abortion measures

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2018. REUTERS/Erin Schaff/File Photo

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – Voters in Alabama and West Virginia on Tuesday passed ballot measures that could pave the way for new limits or a full ban on abortion in those states if the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

In Oregon, meanwhile, an initiative that would prohibit the use of taxpayer money to fund abortion except in cases of medical necessity appeared headed for defeat.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, legalized abortion nationwide, and the justices have reaffirmed a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion in subsequent rulings since then.

Abortion opponents hope the addition of President Donald Trump’s appointee Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, replacing a retired justice who had protected abortion rights and cementing a 5-4 conservative majority, will lead to a dramatic scaling back or outright reversal of abortion rights recognized under the 1973 ruling.

In Alabama, an amendment to the state’s constitution to formally “recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and rights of children, including the right to life” was leading by a margin of 59 percent to 40 percent with 96 percent of precincts counted, according to the New York Times.

The Republican-backed Amendment 2 does not specifically outlaw or restrict abortion in Alabama. But Republican state Representative Matt Fridy has said he wrote the measure with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in mind.

“We want to make sure that at a state level, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that the Alabama Constitution cannot be used as a mechanism by which to claim that there is a right to abortion,” Fridy told Fox News in an August interview.

In West Virginia, a ballot measure amending the state’s constitution to say that “nothing in this constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or funding of abortion” was ahead 51 percent to 48 percent with 54 out of 55 precincts reporting.

The Republican-led West Virginia legislature voted in March to put the initiative on the ballot, with lawmakers saying they wanted to make clear there was nothing in the state constitution preventing them from passing abortion-related legislation should the Roe ruling be overturned or narrowed.

Oregon’s Measure 106 would amend the state constitution to bar the use of public money to fund abortions except in cases of medical necessity or where mandated by federal law.

“All three of these instances are the latest in a long string of attacks on access to reproductive healthcare nationally,” said Katie Glenn, Alabama state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates. “Amendment 2 in Alabama specifically would pave the way to ban abortion without exception, regardless of whether the person was a victim of rape or incest or if their life is at risk.”

A number of Republican-governed states over the years have passed laws seeking to put restrictions on abortion, some of which have been invalidated by the courts.

The Supreme Court in 2016 bolstered constitutional protections for abortion rights when it threw out key parts of a Texas law that imposed hard-to-meet regulations on abortion facilities and doctors, finding the measure placed an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion in violation of a 1992 high court precedent.

Anthony Kennedy, the retired justice who Kavanaugh replaced, sided with the court’s four liberals in the 2016 ruling.

Overturning Roe would end a constitutional right to abortion, enabling individual states to set their own policies.

Alabama and West Virginia are among the states that already have laws on the books imposing certain restrictions on abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The institute said four states have laws that would automatically ban abortion if Roe were to be reversed, seven states have laws that express an intention to restrict abortion as much as possible in the absence of Roe, and nine states still have on the books their unenforced, pre-Roe abortion bans.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

Twenty states sue federal government, seeking end to Obamacare

FILE PHOTO: A sign on an insurance store advertises Obamacare in San Ysidro, San Diego, California, U.S., October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

(Reuters) – A coalition of 20 U.S. states sued the federal government on Monday over Obamacare, claiming the law was no longer constitutional after the repeal last year of its requirement that people have health insurance or pay a fine.

Led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, the lawsuit said that without the individual mandate, which was eliminated as part of the Republican tax law signed by President Donald Trump in December, Obamacare was unlawful.

“The U.S. Supreme Court already admitted that an individual mandate without a tax penalty is unconstitutional,” Paxton said in a statement. “With no remaining legitimate basis for the law, it is time that Americans are finally free from the stranglehold of Obamacare, once and for all,” he said.

The U.S. Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the Trump administration would defend the law in court.

The individual mandate in Obamacare was meant to ensure a viable health insurance market by forcing younger and healthier Americans to buy coverage.

Republicans have opposed the 2010 law formally known as the Affordable Care Act, the signature domestic policy achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, since its inception.

Paxton and Schimel, both Republicans, were joined in the lawsuit by 18 states including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Utah and West Virginia. It was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Texas.

(Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington)

Supreme Court divided over Ohio voter purge policy

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of arguments in a key voting rights case involving a challenge to the OhioÕs policy of purging infrequent voters from voter registration rolls, in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative and liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared at odds on Wednesday in a closely watched voting rights case, differing over whether Ohio’s purging of infrequent voters from its registration rolls — a policy critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — violates federal law.

The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote.

Conservative justices signaled sympathy to the state’s policy while two liberal justices asked questions indicating skepticism toward it. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Ohio’s policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not ruled against the state.

Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. They argued that voting should not be considered a “use it or lose it” right.

Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as “Every vote counts” and “You have no right to take away my right to vote.”

“This is about government trying to choose who should get to vote. We know that’s wrong,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the rally.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio’s policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act contained language that permitted the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. life expectancy fell in 2016 as opioid overdoses surged: CDC

A used container of the drug Narcan used against opioid overdoses lies on the ground in a park in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Life expectancy in the United States dipped in 2016 as the number of deaths due to opioid drug overdoses surged and total drug overdose deaths rose 21 percent to 63,600, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

Life expectancy fell to 78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2015, the second annual decline in a row and the first two-year decline since a drop in 1962 and 1963.

Opioid-related overdose deaths have been on the rise since 1999, but surged from 2014 to 2016, with an average annual increase of 18 percent, to become a national epidemic. From 2006 to 2014 the rise was only 3 percent annually on average and between 1999 to 2006 averaged 10 percent per year.

In 2016, 42,249 people died from opioid-related overdoses, up 28 percent from 2015, while the number of deaths from synthetic opioids other than methadone, such as fentanyl and tramadol, more than doubled to 19,413, the CDC said.

The 2016 rate of overdose deaths was up across all age groups but was highest rate among people aged 25 to 54.

West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania had the highest age-adjusted drug overdose death rates in 2016.

The number of drug overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone, was 14,487 in 2016.

As the U.S. opioid addiction epidemic has worsened, many state attorneys general have sued makers of these drugs as they investigate whether manufacturers and distributors engaged in unlawful marketing behavior.

President Donald Trump in October declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, which senior administration officials said would redirect federal resources and loosen regulations to combat abuse of the drugs. However, he stopped short of declaring a national emergency he had promised months before, which would have freed up more federal money.

(Reporting by Caroline Humer; editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Jonathan Oatis)

At Trump rally, West Virginia governor switches parties

President Trump talks with West Virginia's Democratic Governor Jim Justice after he announced that he is changing parties during a rally in Huntington, West Virginia. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (Reuters) – West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, standing next to President Donald Trump at a rally on Thursday night, announced that he was changing political parties, ditching the Democrats and joining Trump’s Republicans.

“I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor,” Justice told the crowd. “So tomorrow I will be changing my registration to Republican,” he said to loud cheers.

Justice, a billionaire businessman with interests in coal and agriculture, won election in November as a Democrat in his first attempt at political office. Until 2015, he had been a registered Republican.

Trump, who won West Virginia by 42 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, campaigned on a promise to bring back coal jobs, an important industry in the state.

Justice said his late mother would have told him about switching parties: “Jimmy, it’s about damn time you came to your senses.”

Justice told the crowd he had met with Trump twice at the White House in the past several weeks to present ideas on coal and manufacturing.

“He’s got a backbone. He’s got real ideas. He cares about America. He cares about us in West Virginia,” Justice said of Trump, a fellow billionaire businessman.

Trump, who earlier in the day promised a “very big announcement” at the rally, welcomed Justice into the party’s ranks.

“Having big Jim as a Republican is such an honor,” Trump said of the 6-foot-7-inch governor.

With Justice changing his affiliation, there are now 34 Republican governors, 15 Democrats and one independent. Republicans will now control both the legislature and the governorship in 26 of the 50 states.

Republicans control both houses of the West Virginia legislature.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Bernard Orr)