Nation roundup for December 24


GMO salmon no threat, FDA says

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal health regulators say a genetically modified salmon that grows twice as fast as normal is unlikely to harm the environment, clearing the way for the first approval of a scientifically engineered animal for human consumption.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday released its environmental assessment of the AquaAdvantage salmon, a faster-growing fish which has been subject to a contentious, yearslong debate at the agency. The document concludes that the fish “will not have any significant impacts on the quality of the human environment of the United States.” Regulators also said that the fish is unlikely to harm populations of natural salmon, a key concern for environmental activists.

The FDA will take comments from the public on its report for 60 days before making it final.

The FDA said more than two years ago that the fish appears to be safe to eat, but the agency had taken no public action since then. Executives for the company behind the fish, Maynard, Mass.-based AquaBounty, speculated that the government was delaying action on their application due to push-back from groups who oppose genetically modified food animals.

Experts view the release of the environmental report as the final step before approval.

“We are encouraged that the environmental assessment is being released and hope the government continues the science-based regulatory process,” AquaBounty said in a statement.

If FDA regulators clear the salmon, as expected, it would be the first genetically altered animal approved for food anywhere in the world.

Critics call the modified salmon a “frankenfish.” They worry that it could cause human allergies and the eventual decimation of the natural salmon population if it escapes and breeds in the wild.

Few tests at toxic sites after storm

OLD BRIDGE, N.J. (AP) — For more than a month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that the recent superstorm didn’t cause significant problems at any of the 247 Superfund toxic waste sites it’s monitoring in New York and New Jersey.

But in many cases, no actual tests of soil or water are being conducted, just visual inspections.

The EPA conducted a handful of tests right after the storm, but couldn’t provide details or locations of any recent testing when asked last week. New Jersey officials point out that federally designated Superfund sites are EPA’s responsibility.

The 1980 Superfund law gave EPA the power to order cleanups of abandoned, spilled and illegally dumped hazardous wastes that threaten human health or the environment. The sites can involve long-term or short-term cleanups.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey, says officials haven’t done enough to ensure there is no contamination from Superfund sites. He’s worried toxins could leach into groundwater and the ocean.

“It’s really serious and I think the EPA and the state of New Jersey have not done due diligence to make sure these sites have not created problems,” Tittel said.

The EPA said last month that none of the Superfund sites it monitors in New York or New Jersey sustained significant damage, but that it has done follow-up sampling at the Gowanus Canal site in Brooklyn, the Newtown Creek site on the border of Queens and Brooklyn, and the Raritan Bay Slag site, all of which flooded during the storm.

‘Hobbit’ extends No. 1 journey

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tiny hobbit Bilbo Baggins is running circles around some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” took in $36.7 million to remain No. 1 at the box office for the second-straight weekend, easily beating a rush of top-name holiday newcomers.

Part one of Jackson’s prelude to his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the Warner Bros. release raised its domestic total to $149.9 million after 10 days. The film added $91 million overseas to bring its international total to $284 million and its worldwide haul to $434 million.

“The Hobbit” took a steep 57 percent drop from its domestic $84.6 million opening weekend, but business was soft in general as many people skipped movies in favor of last-minute Christmas preparations. Tom Cruise’s action thriller “Jack Reacher” debuted in second-place with a modest $15.6 million debut, according to studio estimates Sunday.

Hepatitis C tests are continuing

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Hospitals across the country recommended hepatitis C testing for about 7,900 patients last summer after a traveling medical worker was accused of stealing drugs and infecting patients with tainted syringes in New Hampshire. But five months later, nearly half of those who were possibly exposed to the liver-destroying disease in other states have yet to be tested.

David Kwiatkowski is accused of stealing syringes of the powerful painkiller fentanyl from the cardiac catheterization lab at New Hampshire’s Exeter Hospital and replacing them with saline-filled syringes tainted with his own blood. In jail since his arrest in July, he pleaded not guilty to 14 federal drug charges earlier this month and is expected to go to trial next fall.

Thirty-two people in New Hampshire have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C that Kwiatkowski carries, along with six in Kansas, five in Maryland and one in Pennsylvania. At least 3,700 people outside New Hampshire have yet to be tested, hospitals and health officials told the AP.

For example, in Michigan, where Kwiatkowski grew up and started his career, about 2,300 patients at five hospitals were notified that they may have been exposed to hepatitis C by Kwiatkowski. As of early December, only about 500 had gone in for testing, none of whom were diagnosed with a strain linked to the New Hampshire outbreak, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

In Pennsylvania, 2,280 patients at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian were notified that they should get tested, but only 840 have, one of whom was diagnosed with a matching strain of hepatitis C.

Kwiatkowski was fired a few weeks into his temporary job at UPMC in 2008 after a co-worker accused him of swiping a fentanyl syringe from an operating room and sticking it down his pants. Citing a lack of evidence, hospital authorities didn’t call police, and neither the hospital nor the medical staffing agency that placed him in the job informed the national accreditation organization for radiological technicians. Within days, Kwiatkowski was starting a new job at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, where one patient also has since been diagnosed with hepatitis C linked to Kwiatkowski.

Though the VA center initially said it had identified 168 patients who may have been exposed, that number was later lowered, and 68 patients ultimately were tested. Two other Maryland hospitals where Kwiatkowski worked also have completed their testing, with no diagnosed cases of hepatitis C matching Kwiatkowski. But at the fourth, The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, four patients have been diagnosed with the strain of disease linked to Kwiatkowski.

About 500 of the 1,567 patients notified by Johns Hopkins have yet to be tested, according to hospital spokeswoman Kim Hoppe. Kwiatkowski had been referred by a staffing agency that assured Johns Hopkins that it had followed a vigorous vetting process, Hoppe said. He worked there for two 13-week stints, from July 2009 to January 2010.

Saint Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Kwiatkowski worked in late 2007 and early 2008, notified and tested 31 patients without finding any linked cases to Kwiatkowski. In Kansas, nearly all of the 416 patients who may have been exposed at Hays Medical Center have been tested and six have been diagnosed with infections linked to the New Hampshire outbreak.

There have been no cases linked to Kwiatkowski in Arizona, where about 300 patients from two hospitals have been asked to get tested and about 280 have done so. Kwiatkowski worked at Maryvale Hospital in Phoenix in 2009 and the Arizona Heart Hospital in 2010. He was fired from the latter job after 10 days after a co-worker found him passed out in a bathroom stall with a stolen fentanyl syringe floating in the toilet.

That incident was reported to police, Kwiatkowski’s staffing agency, a state regulatory board and the national accreditation organization, but the accreditation group dropped its inquiry after learning police hadn’t filed charges.

Days later, Kwiatkowski landed a new job filling in for striking technicians at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. That hospital has recommended testing for 312 patients but won’t say how many have followed through or have been diagnosed with hepatitis C. A hospital spokesman referred questions to the city health department, which did not return calls.

Testing also is still under way in the last place Kwiatkowski worked before heading to New Hampshire — Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins, Ga. According to the hospital, fewer than 100 people have yet to be tested, and there haven’t been any cases yet linked to Kwiatkowski.

In New Hampshire, where about 3,300 patients were tested, Kwiatkowski is charged with seven counts of illegally obtaining drugs and seven counts of tampering with a consumer product, though prosecutors have said further charges are possible. Although New Hampshire cannot charge him for possible violations in other states, it can use evidence gathered in those jurisdictions in its trial, U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said. Other states are waiting to see the outcome of New Hampshire’s case before deciding whether to file charges, he said.

“We continue to reach out to other states affected by this matter,” Kacavas said this week. “Other health organizations and departments continue to do their work in their states, but nothing has changed in the sense that our prosecution will go forward. At this point, we are the only prosecution in the country, and we’ll see how it rolls out.”

Ranchers split over US border security plan

NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) — When Dan Bell drives through his 35,000-acre cattle ranch, he speaks of the hurdles that the Border Patrol faces in his rolling green hills of oak and mesquite trees — the hours it takes to drive to some places, the wilderness areas that are generally off-limits to motorized vehicles, the environmental reviews required to extend a dirt road.

John Ladd offers a different take from his 14,000-acre spread: the Border Patrol already has more than enough roads and its beefed-up presence has flooded his land and eroded the soil.

Their differences explain why ranchers are on opposite sides of the fence over a sweeping proposal to waive environmental reviews on federal lands within 100 miles of Mexico and Canada for the sake of border security. The Border Patrol would have a free hand to build roads, camera towers, helicopter pads and living quarters without any of the outside scrutiny that can modify or even derail plans to extend its footprint.

The U.S. House approved the bill authored by Utah Republican Rob Bishop in June. But prospects in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate are extremely slim and chances of President Barack Obama’s signature even slimmer. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified in Congress this year that the bill was unnecessary and “bad policy.”

Still, an idea that House Republicans kicked around for years has advanced farther in the legislative process than ever before and rekindled discussion over how to balance border security with wildlife protection.

The debate raises some of the same questions that will play out on a larger scale when Congress and the president tackle immigration reform: Is the U.S. border with Mexico secure, considered by some lawmakers to be a litmus test for granting legal residency and citizenship to millions? Has the U.S. reached a point of border security overkill?

Heightened enforcement — along with a fewer available jobs in the U.S. and an aging population in Mexico — has brought Border Patrol arrests to 40-year lows.

The U.S. has erected 650 miles of fences and other barriers on the Mexican border, almost all of it after a 2005 law gave the Homeland Security secretary power to waive environmental reviews. The administration of President George W. Bush exercised its waiver authority on hundreds of miles after years of court challenges and environmental reviews delayed construction on a 14-mile stretch in San Diego.

The Border Patrol, which has doubled to more than 21,000 agents since 2004, has also built 12 “forward operating bases” to increase its presence in remote areas. Instead of driving long distances from their stations every shift, agents stay at the camps for several days.

Lots more needs to be done, according to backers of Bishop’s bill to rewrite rules on millions of acres of federal land managed by the Interior and Agriculture departments, including more than 800 miles bordering Mexico and 1,000 miles bordering Canada. The bill would waive reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and 14 other laws in dozens of wilderness areas, national forests and national parks.

“It’s a paralyzing process now,” Bell, 44, said as his GMC truck barreled down a dirt road on a 10-mile stretch of his ranch that borders Mexico. “They wanted to put this road in for a decade, probably even longer. They broke ground on it last year.”

Bell, a burly, third-generation rancher who leases his land from the Agriculture Department, acknowledges there are noticeably fewer border crossers since the government built a fence on the eastern part of his ranch, near Nogales. In the ranch’s west end, the Border Patrol opened one of its camps in 2005 — a collection of shipping containers that agents use as a base while alternating 12-hour shifts.

Yet migrants continue crossing in some rugged reaches that are well outside of cellphone range. Bell says waiving environmental reviews within 100 miles of the border may be unnecessary but that a 25-mile zone would help immensely.

“There are areas where the agents can’t get to,” he said. “By the time they get out of the station and get to these remote areas, then hike another two or three hours just to get close to the border, they have to come back because their day is pretty much eaten up. It’s really difficult when there’s no access out there.”

Ladd, a fourth-generation rancher whose spread near Douglas is in a flatter, more easily traveled area of mesquite-draped hills, thinks the Border Patrol has gone far enough. The agency installed four 80-foot camera towers on his land about six years ago. In 2007, it completed a fence along the 10.5 miles of his ranch that borders Mexico.

Rainfall that runs downhill from Mexico is stopped by debris caught in the mesh fence and an adjoining raised road, Ladd says. The water is diverted to other areas, causing floods and soil erosion on his property.

Ladd, 57, thinks the bill would allow the Border Patrol to “run roughshod” over ranches and farms.

“Be careful what you wish for, they’re going to tear it up,” Ladd tells other ranchers. “Once they get in, it pretty well turns into a parking lot. It’s really hard to get them out.”

Ladd says the 37 miles of roads on his ranch are enough for the Border Patrol’s needs. “Why do you need new ones?” he asks.

The Interior Department raised concerns in a survey of Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge last year that found nearly 8,000 miles of off-road vehicle trails, blaming much of it on smuggling and Border Patrol activity. It urged the Border Patrol to rely on tools like radars and cameras, which are less threatening to wildlife.

Critics of the Border Patrol’s growth have long called new fences, roads and other infrastructure a threat to Sonoran pronghorn, Mexican grey wolves, jaguars and other border wildlife.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2010 offered fodder for both sides of the debate. It found Border Patrol supervisors generally felt land laws didn’t hinder them on the job but that the agency sometimes encountered roadblocks. An unnamed agency took four months to review a Border Patrol request to move a camera tower in Arizona, by which time traffic had moved to another area.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who has led opposition to the bill that has largely split along party lines, calls the effort a disguised step toward repealing environmental laws.

“The border has become a very convenient excuse to go after laws that have been on the books for four or five decades,” he said. “You plant your flag on the 100 miles (of border) and then build from there.”

Bishop dismisses that criticism as a scare tactic and a “lousy argument.”

“Sovereign countries control their borders. Anything that stops us from that is a violation of why we are a nation,” he said.

 

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