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    Navajo tribal energy company officials expressed confidence Wednesday they will be able to secure necessary bonding for recently purchased coal mines in Wyoming and Montana without financial backing from the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Transitional Energy Co. has adequate potential collateral for the roughly $400 million in bonds, including a coal mine near Farmington, New Mexico, NTEC Governmental and External Affairs Director Steve Grey told reporters on a conference call. “Our biggest operation is currently the Navajo mine,” Grey said. “It generates very strong revenue for us and the Navajo Nation. Just from that asset alone, we are very well situated.” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez cited concerns about risk and a desire to move away from coal in announcing Tuesday the tribe would not financially back the bonds for the Cordero Rojo and Antelope mines in Wyoming and Spring Creek mine in Montana. NTEC purchased the mines from Cloud Peak Energy, which is going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bonds would ensure the mines could be cleaned up if they ever closed. Nez, however, said he canceled agreements the tribal energy company might have relied on to seek the Navajo Nation's financial backing for the bonds. The announcement was the latest development in a tumultuous year for the Powder River Basin coal region, which produces more coal than any other in the U.S. Three companies with mines in the basin have filed for bankruptcy and two other major players, Arch and Peabody, announced they would merge basin operations. The Cloud Peak deal made NTEC the third-largest U.S. coal producer in the U.S. Antelope is the third-largest coal mine in the U.S., while Spring Creek ranks eighth and Cordero Rojo is 11th. About 1,200 people are employed at the mines, which combined produced almost 50 million tons of coal last year. The mines continue to operate with Cloud Peak as their state permit holder. The Spring Creek mine briefly shut down in late October amid a dispute between NTEC and Montana officials over tribal immunity from lawsuits. Montana officials insisted the company waive immunity so they could enforce environmental laws. Negotiations resulted in an agreement for a 75-day, limited waiver of immunity for the company. Jill Morrison with the Powder River Basin Resource Council landowner advocacy group said Wednesday she was keeping a close eye on the NTEC bonding developments. “We’re just in new territory with all of these coal companies going bankrupt and trying to shed the liability of the coal mines and the reclamation,” Morrison said. ___ Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver
  • Southern California Edison has agreed to pay $360 million to local governments to settle lawsuits over deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment during the last two years, including one blamed for a mudslide that killed more than 20 people, the utility and attorneys announced Wednesday. The sum will reimburse counties, cities and other public agencies for firefighting costs and repairing damage from two of the region’s worst blazes. The figure will not fully repay taxpayer costs, but it will help pay the bills to rebuild roads, other infrastructure and clean up debris, among other things, said attorney John Fiske, who represents local governments. “While this is not 100%, it’s not pennies on the dollar,” Fiske said. “A lot of these communities ... were hit very hard. In the aftermath of these wildfires, all sorts of public resources and taxpayer resources are lost.” The group of nearly two dozen public entities that includes small fire, water and park agencies had sued Southern California Edison for negligence and improper operation of power lines and equipment, failure to clear vegetation around electric lines and for not shutting down circuits when high winds created fire danger. SoCal Edison said it admitted no wrongdoing or liability in the settlement. Utilities have increasingly come under fire for causing devastating wildland blazes in recent years. Tinder-dry vegetation has blown into power lines, sparking fires fanned by high winds across a landscape desiccated from drought and climate change. The Thomas Fire that broke out in dry brush in Ventura County was sparked when the utility’s power lines slapped together in high winds on Dec. 4, 2017, investigators said. Two people were killed and 440 square miles (1,139 square kilometers) were burned. The burn zone included a mountainside above the seaside city of Montecito, where a deluge a month later in fire-scarred terrain triggered a devastating mudslide that killed at least 21 people. Two others were never found. The Woolsey Fire started with the company’s equipment a year ago just outside Los Angeles and quickly spread to the coast, jumping a highway and crossing the Santa Monica Mountains into Malibu, according to the company’s recent quarterly earnings report. It destroyed more than 1,600 homes and killed three people. The settlement does not include private lawsuits for deaths and homes destroyed. The settlement is the most comprehensive in state history because it involves 23 public entities, Fiske said. But the overall figure is dwarfed by the $1 billion settlement Pacific Gas & Electric reached with local governments in Northern California for fires its equipment caused in recent years. The damage from those fires, however, was much greater with more than 20,000 homes destroyed. The payout will be split among the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles and includes the cities of Santa Barbara, Malibu, Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village.
  • Hyatt Hotels Corp. is the latest hotel company to say it’s removing small bottles from its bathrooms in an effort to reduce waste. Hyatt says it is shifting to large, multi-use bottles for shampoo, conditioner, bath gel and lotion at its 875 hotels worldwide. The Chicago-based company says the transition will be complete by June 2021. Hyatt is also cutting down on the use of plastic water bottles at meetings and events and increasing the number of water stations in its hotels so guests can refill their own bottles. Marriott International and Holiday Inn owner IHG announced similar moves in August.
  • A former top government environmental health official joined health experts on Wednesday in expressing alarm as the Trump administration moves forward with a proposal that scientists say would upend how the U.S. regulates threats to public health. “It will practically lead to the elimination of science from decision-making,” said Linda Birnbaum, who retired last month as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences after serving under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In an appearance before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Birnbaum said the proposal could be used to roll back fundamental protections from air pollution and other toxins. The “effects here could affect an entire generation,” she said. The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed regulation seeks public disclosure of the data underlying studies used by agency officials in deciding how to regulate contaminants and toxins, from car exhaust to coal waste to pesticides. Opponents fear that could include seeking to release identifying information for patients and study participants in violation of confidentiality requirements, leading important public health studies and other research on people to be taken out of consideration instead. The administration says the proposal would increase transparency in government regulation. Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, an EPA principal deputy assistant administrator, told the lawmakers that the agency was working 'to ensure the public has access to information so they can make decisions to protect their health and environment.” But opponents fear the measure will be used to toss out findings of decades of research on humans — and of future studies yet to come — that are a foundation of environmental and public health regulation. With weaker evidence regarding risks to human, the result could be weaker regulation of toxins, opponents said. When the EPA first raised the proposal last year, university heads, public health officials, researchers, health workers, environmental advocates and others lined up at the agency’s public hearings to object. The agency received nearly 600,000 public comments on the change, the majority urging against it. Debate on the proposal revived this month when the EPA sent a draft supplement to the measure to the White House for government review. That made clear that the administration was moving ahead on the measure despite the unusually strong torrent of opposition from scientists and health practitioners. At Wednesday’s hearing before a committee of the Democratic-controlled House, some Republicans also indicated concerns about the measure, which follows past, failed efforts by conservative lawmakers to get similar legislation through Congress. “This is about attacking the EPA under the current administration — not about improving transparency and scientific integrity,” said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the committee’s senior Republican member. Lucas called the EPA proposal “well-intended,” but said broader discussion was needed about “the best way to improve reproducibility and transparency.” Orme-Zavaleta, a career EPA employee, said a draft of the rule obtained by the news media this week was not the final version. Under questioning from Democratic lawmakers, Orme-Zavaleta acknowledged that while the proposal was not intended to be retroactive to existing rules, it could apply to past health studies. Democratic lawmakers argued the change could also be used to throw out findings of health studies and rewrite regulations whenever an existing rule comes up for review. “The true purpose is to undermine the decades of sound science on which the EPA relies to protect public health,” so that “political agendas are given more weight than science,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-NY. It “will endanger the safety and health of millions of Americans for many generations to come.” Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., noted the early draft rule would allow the EPA administrator to make exceptions to the data disclosure requirements. “Can you understand why we might not be comfortable having the final call being made by a coal lobbyist?” Foster asked, referring to the current EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler. Birnbaum, one of five scientists and health experts testifying Wednesday in addition to the EPA official, said eliminating studies and research on humans because of the confidentiality of identifying information would leave regulators more dependent on animal studies, which are less accurate for people. However, Wheeler announced separately in September that the agency intended to scale down and ultimately eliminate testing of chemicals on animals. Animal rights advocates welcomed the move, but health officials said it eliminated an essential safeguard for human health.
  • Facebook says it removed 3.2 billion fake accounts from its service from April to September, up slightly from 3 billion in the previous six months. Nearly all of the bogus accounts were caught before they had a chance to become “active” users of the social network, so they are not counted in the user figures the company reports regularly. Facebook estimates that about 5% of its 2.45 billion user accounts are fake. The company said in a report Wednesday that it also removed 18.5 million instances of child nudity and sexual exploitation from its main platform in the April-September period, up from 13 million in the previous six months. It says the increase was due to improvements in detection. In addition, Facebook said it removed 11.4 million instances of hate speech during the period, up from 7.5 million in the previous six months. The company says it is beginning to remove hate speech proactively, the way it does with some extremist content, child-exploitation and other material. Facebook expanded the data it shares on its removal of terrorist propaganda. Its earlier reports only included data on al-Qaida, ISIS and their affiliates. The latest report shows Facebook detects material posted by non-ISIS or al-Qaida extremist groups at a lower rate than those two organizations. The report is Facebook’s fourth on standards enforcement and the first to include data from Instagram in areas such as child nudity, illicit firearm and drug sales, and terrorist propaganda. The company said it removed 1.3 million instances of child nudity and child sexual exploitation from Instagram during the reported period, much of it before people saw it.
  • The federal government, which ended the 2019 budget year with its largest deficit in seven years, began the new budget year with a deficit in October that was 33.8% bigger than a year ago as spending hit a record. The Treasury Department said Wednesday that the deficit last month totaled $134.5 billion, up from a shortfall in October 2018 of $100.5 billion. The government ran up a deficit of $984.4 billion for the 2019 budget year that ended Sept. 30, 26% larger than in 2018. The Congressional Budget Office is forecasting that the deficit for 2020 will hit $1 trillion and will remain over $1 trillion for the next decade. The country has not experienced $1 trillion annual deficits since 2009 through 2012 following the 2008 financial crisis. The projections of trillion-dollar deficits are in contrast to President Donald Trump’s campaign promises in 2016 that even with his proposed tax cuts he would be able to eliminate future deficits with cuts in spending and growth in revenues from a stronger economy. The previous period of surging deficits spawned a political backlash that put Republicans back in power in the House, but the current surge in deficits has not sparked a similar uproar. Republicans are considering another round of tax cuts and Democrats running for president are putting forth big new spending proposals such as Medicare for All. The government’s budget year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. For October, the big jump in the deficit reflected a 7.8% rise in spending from a year ago that pushed outlays for the month of October to a record $380 billion. Revenues in October fell 2.8% to $245.2 billion from the same month a year ago. One revenue category that showed a big increase was tariffs on imports, which totaled $8 billion, up 39% from a year ago. The Trump administration imposed a new round of tariffs on China in September after negotiations between the two nations failed to reach a trade agreement to address American concerns about protection of intellectual property and other issues. Negotiations with China are ongoing, and Trump said Tuesday that the two countries were close to a partial agreement that would roll back some of the tariffs the two sides have imposed. But the president said, “If we don’t make a deal, we will substantially raise those tariffs.”
  • Volkswagen is making Tennessee its North American base for electric vehicle production, breaking ground on an $800 million (727 million euro) expansion at its plant in Chattanooga. Volkswagen of America CEO Scott Keogh was at the factory Wednesday for the expansion’s groundbreaking ceremony. In an announcement from Volkswagen, Keogh called it a “a big, big moment” for the company. “Electric vehicles are the future of mobility and Volkswagen will build them for millions, not just millionaires,' Keogh vowed. The move toward electric vehicles underscores the company's effort to transform itself after the 2015 diesel scandal, in which Volkswagen was caught using software to cheat on emissions testing. Further cementing a more-eco-friendly image, the company also announced a partnership with The Conservation Fund to protect and restore land in the U.S. Senior Executive Vice President for Public Affairs David Geanacopoulos, speaking in Chattanooga on Wednesday, said Volkswagen’s first donation will expand the nearby Cherokee National Forest by about 1,500 acres (600 hectares), according to a release from the company. The donation “will help improve water quality, access to recreation and outdoor exploration,” Geanacopoulos said. The zero emission vehicle has the working name “ID. CROZZ.” ID stands for intelligent design. Initially it will be made in Germany. Once Volkswagen completes a 564,000-square-foot (52,397-square-meter) addition to the Chattanooga body shop, production is expected to begin there in 2022. The company is also adding a 198,000-square-foot (18,394-square-meter) plant for the assembly of battery packs. Volkswagen currently builds the midsize Atlas SUV and the Passat sedan at the Chattanooga factory. A five-seat version of the Atlas, called the Atlas Cross Sport, began production there in October and goes on sale early next year. Both internal combustion engine vehicles and battery electric vehicles will be built on the same assembly line. The plant, which employs about 3,800 people, will add about 1,000 new jobs. Attending the groundbreaking were Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, German Ambassador to the U.S. Emily Haber, and other state and local officials.
  • Record throngs of travelers are expected to jam into airports over the Thanksgiving break and airlines are adding hundreds of flights a day in response. The Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday that it expects to screen more than 26.8 million passengers and airline crew members between Nov. 22 and Dec. 2. That would be a 4% increase over last year. The busiest days figure to be the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day — about 2.7 million people — and the Sunday after the holiday, when TSA expects to screen more than 2.8 million people. The lightest day is expected to be the holiday itself. U.S. airlines are adding about 850 flights and 108,000 seats per day compared with the same period last year, according to their trade group, Airlines for America. There were nearly 25,000 flights a day over the Thanksgiving stretch last year. Here are some tips for dealing with the crowds: — Get to the airport early. TSA says it will use overtime and move screeners around to make sure checkpoints are adequately staffed, and that mostly worked over the summer. — Check TSA’s website to make sure you’re not carrying prohibited items. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that we see at our checkpoints each and every day, and the No. 1 thing we hear from passengers is, ‘I forgot it was there,’” said Patricia Cogswell, TSA’s acting deputy administrator. — Sign up for a trusted-traveler programs like Precheck. It might not always save you that much time — Precheck lines can get long too — but at least you won’t have to take off shoes, belts and light jackets, and you can leave that tablet or laptop in your bag. — Be patient, and get used to it. Travel demand is booming, so “passengers will continue to experience holiday-level travel volumes throughout the year, but this is our busiest time of the year,” said Kevin Burke, CEO of Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group. — Next Thanksgiving could be much worse because many travelers aren’t prepared for new rules covering identification documents. Beginning next October, the government plans to require that identification to board a plane comply with so-called Real ID standards. However, the U.S. Travel Association estimates that 99 million Americans don’t have an ID that meets the requirements, meaning people could be turned away at airport security checkpoints. Congress required more secure IDs in a law way back in 2005, but the deadline for enforcing it has been pushed back many times in the face of opposition by privacy advocates and slow adoption by many states. Older driver licenses might not comply with the law. You are OK if yours has a gold star logo. The government and travel groups have been conducting a public-relations campaign to make people aware that they might need a new driver’s license to fly. The groups must make sure the campaign works, “because if it doesn’t, we’re going to have a mess on our hands,” Burke said.
  • Anger over devastating California wildfires sparked by Pacific Gas & Electric power lines is coming to a head — in a beer. And an outcry is brewing. Steve Doty, owner of Shady Oak brewery in Santa Rosa, announced a new beer called “F--- PG&E,” describing it on Facebook last week as “a classic California pale ale, featuring Cashmere and Simcoe hops and a touch of malt sweetness.” Doty told the Press Democrat that he meant to draw attention to the negligence of PG&E executives and was stunned by the onslaught of critical comments by people who said they are related to utility employees. One person who said she was married to a PG&E gas serviceman commented on Facebook that she found the label insulting. “My husband has been working 18-hour days and not seeing his little boys for the past two weeks to help our local community,” the comment said. “Your label is hurting the men and women that work day in and day out for their community.” Other people attacked Shady Oak by giving it 1-star reviews on Yelp and Google or calling the taproom with violent threats, Doty said. PG&E has been blamed for a series of destructive wildfires in Northern California in recent years that have killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes. Its workers have been attacked amid sweeping blackouts last month meant to prevent its electrical equipment from toppling or coming into contact with branches and sparking fires. The state’s largest utility, PG&E faces a vote Wednesday by state regulators over whether to open an investigation into the outages. Doty posted an apology to those upset by the beer name. As a conciliatory gesture, he offered $1 off a beer for those with an “honest review” on social media and $2 off a beer for PG&E employees. But Doty said he is still standing by the name. While the brewery typically rotates its lineup of beers on tap, he said he’s considering making an exception because of the popularity of the PG&E beer. “My general rule for the brewery is that I don’t want to brew the same beer twice,” Doty said. “We had a great weekend. The sales were crazy.” ___ Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, http://www.pressdemocrat.com
  • Scientists say they were unable to confirm a highly publicized 2014 study that suggested banking culture can promote dishonesty. New lab experiments with bankers in the Middle East and Asia Pacific turned out differently, maybe indicating that the original finding doesn’t apply worldwide, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature. In response, the authors of the original work pointed to several differences between the two studies and stressed that they never intended to imply that all banks have a problematic business culture. Instead, the point of the 2014 study is that such a culture could be part of the reason for episodes of fraudulent or unethical behavior, Alain Cohn and colleagues of the University of Zurich wrote in Nature. In fact, the original study focused on employees of a large international bank that was involved in several high-profile legal disputes involving “problematic business practices,” they wrote. They did not identify the bank or its location because they had promised confidentiality, but said it was involved in trading, asset management, investment banking and private banking. The original work, covered by The Associated Press and other news agencies, subjected 128 employees of that bank to a laboratory test of honesty. Each repeatedly flipped a coin and reported the results, knowing that certain outcomes would earn them money. The question was how often they’d lie about the results. Participants who had just been asked about their work at the bank showed evidence of cheating, while other bank employees, who hadn’t been asked about their work, did not. That indicates the employees were basically honest, but that thinking about their jobs triggered dishonesty. That suggests that banking culture favors dishonest behavior, Cohn and his colleagues concluded in 2014. The new study repeated that experiment with 620 commercial bankers from a large institution in the Asia Pacific region and 148 commercial bankers from a medium-sized institution in the Middle East. It found no statistically significant effect of asking employees about their work ahead of the coin-flipping. Zoe Rahwan of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and co-authors of the new study suggested several possible explanations for the disparate results. One is that the banking culture sampled in the original study is different in other places, they said. Another is that only “ethical” banks let their employees participate in the new study, following widespread press coverage of the 2014 results. The new work was done in 2015 and 2016. Cohn and colleagues agreed that banks with history of misconduct were probably less likely to let their employees participate in the new work, resulting in a sample different from the one they tested. That and some procedural differences between the studies — one studied a bank involved in trading and investment, the other studied a commercial bank, for example — suggest the new work can’t address whether the 2014 study applies to different institutions or countries, they said. ___ The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.