ICE sting operation targeting foreign students blasted as “cruel and appalling” by Elizabeth Warren


Since January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested about 250 foreign students at a fake university in Michigan. It’s part of a sting operation by federal agents.

The University of Farmington was opened in 2015 as a guise by ICE officials. It was created to entice foreign-born students, mostly from India, who had arrived legally in the U.S. on legitimate student visas.

But the government says the phony university was a “pay-to-play” scheme the students used to remain in the U.S. under a student visa. Some of the students were arrested and deported while others await trial in the states.

The Detroit Free Press reported that nearly 80% of those have voluntarily left the country. The Homeland Security Investigations Detroit office told the newspaper that about half of those remaining have received final orders of removal.

An ICE spokesperson told CBS News that this type of operation serves as a deterrent because it reminds students to be careful to follow the law while studying in the U.S.

But several lawmakers took to social media to express outrage at the operation, including 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Actress Alyssa Milano also reacted to the sting operation.

The Detroit Free Press reported that seven of eight recruiters charged by the government pleaded guilty and have been sentenced. The eighth person will be sentenced in January.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Helms defended the operation, the newspaper reported.

“Their true intent could not be clearer,” Helms wrote in a sentencing memo this month for one of the recruiters, the newspaper reported. “While ‘enrolled’ at the University, one hundred percent of the foreign citizen students never spent a single second in a classroom. If it were truly about obtaining an education, the University would not have been able to attract anyone, because it had no teachers, classes, or educational services.”  





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Leonardo DiCaprio refutes Brazilian president’s claim that he funded Amazon wildfires


LOS ANGELES – Leonardo DiCaprio has refuted bizarre and false claims from Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro that the actor financed the wildfires in the Amazon, playing into a ploy by the the World Wildlife Fund to generate donations.

DiCaprio posted a statement on Instagram Saturday that “while worthy of support, we did not fund the organizations targeted.”

“This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right?” Bolsonaro said, according to Reuters, during a brief remarks in front of the presidential residence on Friday. “Giving money to torch the Amazon.”

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Reuters reported that Bolsonaro appeared to be commenting on disputed social media posts that WWF had paid for photographs taken by volunteer firefighters and used them to solicit donations, including $500,000 from DiCaprio. The claim is the latest in an effort by Bolsonaro to divert blame for the disastrous fires from his government, which scaled back enforcement against illegal logging, mining, and ranching.

Bolsonaro also talked about DiCaprio on Thursday during a live webcast, saying that the World Wildlife Fund had paid the volunteer firefighting organization to take pictures of forest fires in the Amazon.

A tract of Amazon jungle is seen after a fire in Boca do Acre, Amazonas state, Brazil on Aug. 24, 2019.Bruno Kelly / Reuters

“So what did the N.G.O. do? What is the easiest thing? Set fire to the forest. Take pictures, make a video,” the president said, adding that the fund “makes a campaign against Brazil, it contacts Leonardo DiCaprio, he donates $500,000.”

“A part of that went to the people that were setting fires,” Mr. Bolsonaro said. “Leonardo DiCaprio, you are contributing to the fire in the Amazon; that won’t do.”

The Friday accusation came days after four members of a volunteer firefighting brigade were arrested on suspicion of setting fires in order to stir up donations for their organization. They were released Thursday on a judge’s order.

DiCaprio is an active environmentalist, pledging $5 million to the Amazon and starting his namesake foundation in 1998, which is focused on projects that “protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction.” The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is part of the Earth Alliance.





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Angelina Jolie leaves UTA for rival WME



Angelina Jolie is cleaning house ahead of the new year.

The star has left her agents at UTA for rivals WME, Variety reports. Jolie came to UTA as a director in 2011 (she’s been behind the camera on four features), while being repped by IFA for acting. Then she started using UTA for all her work.

The “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” actress is now shooting Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” directed by Chloé Zhao. She will also voice a character in Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan,” which she is producing.



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Dutch Police Arrest Man Suspected of Stabbing Three Teens in Mall



THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – Dutch police arrested a 35-year-old homeless man Saturday on suspicion of stabbing three teens on a street in The Hague that was crowded with Black Friday shoppers.

The man, whose identity wasn’t released, was detained in The Hague early Saturday evening and taken to a police station for questioning, police spokeswoman Marije Kuiper said.

The victims, two 15-year-old girls and a 13-year-old boy, were treated in a hospital and released late Friday. Police said in a statement that they didn´t know one another.

The victims have spoken to detectives.

Earlier, police said they were “using all our available means – visible and unseen – to find the suspect in this stabbing as soon as possible” and appealed for witnesses.

That included studying video footage from the area, where many surveillance cameras are located.

The attack in the Netherlands came hours after a man wearing a fake explosive vest stabbed several people in London, killing two, before he was fatally shot by officers. Police are treating it as a terrorist attack.

Dutch police say the motive for the stabbing in The Hague remains unknown. “We are keeping all scenarios open,” their statement said.

The stabbing occurred around 7:45 p.m. in an area teeming with shoppers and close to the city´s most popular nightlife centers.

Police cordoned off the area until deep into the night as forensics experts combed the street for clues.

The street was opened again Saturday.

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Bluff collapses within steps of passenger train tracks in Del Mar after heavy rains



Passenger rail service on the main line between Los Angeles and San Diego faced interruptions Saturday after a section of the Del Mar bluffs collapsed within a few feet of tracks following heavy rains this week.

The cliff failure occurred Friday south of Seagrove Park in front of a condominium complex, according to witnesses.

“The first time we saw it was this morning when we woke up,” said Ken Knight, a Washington resident who was vacationing in the area. “It’s probably a foot or two from the ties on the track. It’s close.”

On Saturday, the North County Transit District, which runs the Coaster passenger line, said it would close portions of the tracks south of the Solana Beach station to make repairs. Bus service will be provided to assist travelers.

Coaster trains will run on their regular Saturday schedule from Oceanside Transit Center to Solana Beach Coaster station and passengers will be taken by bus to Santa Fe Depot, according to the NCTD. Travelers who are headed north will be bused to Oceanside Transit Center.

Service for the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner will also be affected. For more information go online at PacificSurfliner.com or call (800) 872-7245.

Regularly scheduled train service for both Amtrak and the Coaster is expected to resume on Sunday, according to a news release.

Del Mar has seen a significant increase in bluff collapses in recent years, largely attributed to the destabilizing effects of urban runoff and erosion from ocean waves. Sea-level rise driven by climate change is expected to exacerbate failures in coming decades.

This week’s incident comes after a Thanksgiving storm soaked the San Diego region.

Regional transportation officials have planned a number of drainage upgrades and other improvements aimed at stabilizing the bluffs. Long-range plans are also being developed to relocate or stabilize the train tracks that service Amtrak, Coaster and freight operations.

Beachgoers in Del Mar and other areas are encouraged to keep a safe distance from steep cliff sides, roughly 25 to 40 feet.

While parts of the bluffs are made of sturdy mudstone, other sections are very precarious, specifically stretches that were filled with loose materials when the railroad was constructed.

Smith and Robbins write for the San Diego Union-Tribune. U-T reporter Charles T. Clark contributed to this report.





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Farmers Are Using Food Waste To Make Electricity : The Salt : NPR


Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, owns Bar-Way Farm, Inc. in Deerfield, Mass. He has an anaerobic digester on his farm that converts food waste into renewable energy.

Allison Aubrey/NPR


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Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, owns Bar-Way Farm, Inc. in Deerfield, Mass. He has an anaerobic digester on his farm that converts food waste into renewable energy.

Allison Aubrey/NPR

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the PBS NewsHour

As the season of big holiday meals kicks off, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on just how much food goes to waste.

If you piled up all the food that’s not eaten over the course of a year in the U.S., it would be enough to fill a skyscraper in Chicago about 44 times, according to an estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And, when all this food rots in a landfill, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In fact, a recent report from the United Nations from a panel of climate experts estimates that up to 10 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food waste.

So, here’s one solution to the problem: Dairy farmers in Massachusetts are using food waste to create electricity. They feed waste into anaerobic digesters, built and operated by Vanguard Renewables, which capture the methane emissions and make renewable energy.

The process begins by gathering wasted food from around the state, including from many Whole Foods locations. We visited the chain’s store in Shrewsbury, Mass., which has installed a Grind2Energy system. It’s an industrial-strength grinder that gobbles up all the scraps of food the store can’t sell, explains Karen Franczyk, who is the sustainability program manager for Whole Foods’ North Atlantic region.

The machine will grind up all kinds of food waste — “everything from bones, we put whole fish in here, to vegetables to dry items like rice or grains,” Franczyk says as the grinder is loaded. It also takes frying fats and greases.

Watch a video on farms turning food waste into renewable energy, in collaboration with PBS NewsHour.

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While Whole Foods donates a lot of surplus food to food banks, there’s a lot waste left over. Much of it is generated from prepping prepared foods. Just as when you cook in your own kitchen, there are lots of bits that remain, such as onion or carrot peel, rinds, stalks or meat scraps. The grinder turns all these bits into a slurry. “It really becomes kind of a liquefied food waste,” Franczyk says.

From here, the waste is loaded into a truck and sent to an anaerobic digester. “There’s no question it’s better than putting it in the trash,” Franczyk says. She says the chain is committed to diverting as much waste as possible and aims for zero waste. In addition to food donations, Whole Foods composts; this waste-to-energy system is yet another way to meet its goal. “We really do like the system,” she says.

We visited Bar-Way Farm, Inc. in Deerfield, Mass. Owner Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, showed us how his anaerobic digester, which is installed next to his dairy barn, works.

“We presently take in about a 100 tons [of waste], which is about three tractor-trailer loads, every day,” Melnik says.

In addition to all the food waste from Whole Foods, he gets whey from a Cabot Creamery in the area, as well as waste from a local brewery and a juice plant.

In the digester on his farm, Melnik combines food waste from Whole Foods and other local sources with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome.

Allison Aubrey/NPR


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Allison Aubrey/NPR

In the digester on his farm, Melnik combines food waste from Whole Foods and other local sources with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome.

Allison Aubrey/NPR

In the digester, he combines all of this waste with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome.

“We capture the gas in that bubble. Then we suck it into a big motor,” Melnik explains. Unlike other engines that run on diesel or gasoline, this engine runs on methane.

“This turns a big generator, which is creating one megawatt of electricity” continuously, Melnik says — enough to power more than just his farm. “We only use about 10 percent of what we make, and the rest is fed onto the [electricity] grid,” Melnik explains. It’s enough to power about 1,500 homes.

He says times are tough for dairy farmers, so this gives him a new stream of revenue. Vanguard pays him rental fees for having the anaerobic digester on his farm. In addition, he’s able to use the liquids left over from the process as fertilizer on his fields.

A large motor (housed inside here) runs on the methane gas captured in the digester. This motor powers a generator, which creates electricity — enough to power about 1,500 homes.

Allison Aubrey/NPR


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Allison Aubrey/NPR

A large motor (housed inside here) runs on the methane gas captured in the digester. This motor powers a generator, which creates electricity — enough to power about 1,500 homes.

Allison Aubrey/NPR

“The digester has been a home run for us,” Melnik says. “It’s made us more sustainable — environmentally [and] also economically.”

Vanguard Renewables hopes to expand its operations in the state and elsewhere. “There’s more than enough food waste in Massachusetts to feed all of our five digesters, plus many more,” says CEO John Hanselman.

Massachusetts has a state law that prohibits the disposal of commercial organic waste — including food — by businesses and institutions that generate at least one ton of this waste per week. This has created an incentive for food businesses to participate in the waste-to-energy initiative.

Hanselman points to Europe, where there are thousands of digesters in operation. His hope is that the concept will spread here. “The food waste recycling through anaerobic digestion could be done in every part of the country,” Hanselman says.

The company is currently building an anaerobic digester on a farm in Vermont. The gas produced there will be piped to Middlebury College, which will help the college reduce its carbon footprint.



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Expectant mother gives birth on American Airlines jetway; gives daughter appropriate name


An American Airlines flight landed with an extra passenger. 

On Wednesday, Nereida Araujo gave birth to a healthy baby girl on the jetway of Flight 868, after the plane landed in Charlotte, North Carolina from Tampa, Florida during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. 

The uncommon birthplace inspired the newborn’s fitting moniker: Lizyana Sky Taylor.

“Baby Sky decided to enter the world on a plane,” Araujo wrote on Facebook. “Mommi (sic) handled it well thanks to everybody who assisted us with love & care.”

American Airlines spokesperson Crystal Byrd told USA TODAY that the airline “requested medical personnel due to a passenger who needed assistance” upon landing in Charlotte.

More: Woman gives birth mid-flight to baby boy on JetBlue plane named ‘Born To Be Blue’

“Paramedics, along with the Charlotte Fire Department, assisted in the delivery of a healthy baby girl at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport on the jetway,” Grace Nelson, spokesperson for Mecklenburg EMS Agency, told USA TODAY. 

Nelson added, “We are happy (and thankful of course!!) to be a part of this family’s story.”

According to Charlotte’s local news station, WSOC, Araujo said she was 38 weeks pregnant and cleared to fly by the airline and her doctor, before her water broke toward the end of the 1-hour-and-39-minute flight. 

“I was sleeping and I felt like a pop in my lower back,” Araujo told the outlet. “I just felt like liquid and I woke my husband up.”

An American Airlines flight arrives at O'Hare airport in Chicago.
An American Airlines flight arrives at O’Hare airport in Chicago.

Nelson noted that Sky’s airport birthplace is “exceptionally rare.” But she’s not the first woman to go into labor on a plane.  

In February, an expectant mother gave birth to a baby boy thousands of feet in the air on a JetBlue flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Fort Lauderdale. The birth of the airline’s “youngest customer to date” coincidentally happened on a plane named “Born To Be Blue.”

Similarly, in June 2017, a baby boy was born on a Spirit Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas. As a result, the discount airline gifted the newborn free flights for himself and a guest every year on his birthday for life.

Related: Spirit Airlines flight diverts for in-flight birth of baby

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Thanksgiving 2019: Woman gives birth on American Airlines jetway



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Rick Perry dances toward the exits


In a Cabinet as volatile as Trump’s, Perry’s biggest success may come down to one achievement: “He hasn’t been fired yet, has he?” asked Illinois Rep. John Shimkus, a senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Here is a report card on Perry’s handling of some of his biggest priorities as secretary:

Making natural gas great again: A-minus

The energy industry gave Perry high marks for streamlining the DOE permit process and expediting approvals for U.S. companies to export liquefied natural gas, a fuel the former Texas governor hailed as “freedom gas” as he became the industry’s biggest booster abroad. He relished that role during his several trips to Ukraine and other European countries, where he pitched the fuel as an alternative to the continent’s reliance on Russia.

“I feel like a traveling salesman, which is exactly what I am,” Perry told an American Petroleum Institute event in September. As more U.S. gas plants came on line, the United States became the world’s No. 3 exporter of the fuel, and Perry’s effort helped drive deals like one in which Poland agreed to buy natural gas from the U.S. — though that campaign also embroiled him in the ongoing impeachment investigation.

Charlie Riedl, head of the trade association Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, said promoting the fuel was a core part of Perry’s message. “At every opportunity Perry was talking about U.S. LNG, not just in Ukraine,” Riedl said. “It wasn’t a side conversation. It was part of his main remarks.”

But Perry’s power to clear away permitting hurdles at DOE didn’t extend to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that couldn’t approve several gas export projects for months because it lacked a quorum. FERC approved three projects on Nov. 21, just 10 days before Perry’s exit.

And Perry’s efforts to draw more interest from Chinese companies to invest in the U.S. industry were undermined by Trump’s trade war. The U.S. share of sales to the leading LNG market fell from 7 percent in the first half of 2018 to 1 percent in the first half of this year.

Rescuing coal and nukes: D-minus

Despite Trump’s promises to save the coal industry, it has continued its sharp decline during Perry’s tenure. Nuclear power hasn’t suffered as much, but a handful of reactors have closed in recent years and many others are slated to retire, and a wave of expected new reactors has failed to materialize.

Perry whiffed with his first proposal to have FERC mandate customer-financed supports for struggling coal and nuclear power plants, which he justified on national security grounds as propping up plants that store their fuel on site. Critics attacked the plan as an assault on free-market principles, and FERC unanimously reje cted it in early 2018 — even with a commission mostly made up of Trump-appointed Republicans.

“It was not a serious document,” Harvard Electricity Law Initiative Director Ari Peskoe said of the proposal. He added that just by filing the plan, “DOE required the entire industry to waste tens of millions of dollars responding to a proposal that was [dead on arrival].”

Perry tried again, pushing a plan at the White House that would have used DOE’s emergency authority to keep the plants open. But the president’s advisers on the National Security Council and National Economic Council scuttled the proposal over concerns it could not stand up to legal scrutiny.

Still, both FERC and the Energy Department have kept alive discussions of how to create financial incentives for “baseload” power from coal and nuclear plants, though no firm plans have yet emerged. DOE has also poured money into research to develop a new generation of small nuclear reactors that it hopes could eventually be far simpler and cheaper to build than the technology in the existing fleet of plants.

Rolling back regulations: C

Perry pushed to ease federal mandates that prohibited the sale of some types of older, inefficient light bulbs in favor of new LED versions, and he agreed to allow sales of faster but less efficient dishwashers. Republicans and industry groups have long bristled under the Obama administration’s push for energy efficiency, arguing they interfered with consumers’ ability to choose what products to buy.

He also pushed a rule change that would let manufacturers design their own tests to measure their products’ energy use and efficiency, a move that critics say would violate the law and give companies too much control.

But those changes haven’t been completed, and opponents are likely to string them out in court for years, frustrating manufacturers’ groups that called them overdue.

Ethics: Incomplete

It’s unclear how much long-term damage Perry’s reputation will suffer from his involvement in Ukraine.

Perry has so far declined to provide information to the House impeachment investigation, but he has denied any knowledge of an alleged scheme by Trump’s appointees to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. One Democratic congressman is separately urging the House Oversight Committee to look into whether Perry helped two Texas oil men win potentially lucrative drilling leases in Ukraine.

“It’s hard not to grade him on a curve” compared with former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and others who flamed out of Trump’s Cabinet, said Jessica Tillipman, an assistant dean and ethics professor at George Washington University Law School who has followed Perry’s work. “But when you grade him against secretaries in past administrations, there are causes for concern and issues that are troubling.”

Getting along with Congress: B

Perry was one of Trump’s least divisive members among lawmakers, not a small thing given the all-but-open-warfare waged between other departments and congressional Democrats.

Republicans were generally effusive about Perry’s time at DOE: “He was very positive,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told POLITICO, echoing other Republicans. “He was very open, transparent, wasn’t afraid of coming up to testify. Wasn’t afraid to take a phone call or weigh in. He had a really good rapport I think with members on both sides. Never a harsh word.”

Democrats largely agreed, despite saying they didn’t agree with the policies Perry was tasked with pushing. But Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), whose subcommittee on the House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees the Energy Department, said he was ultimately disappointed in Perry for “trumpeting Trump.”

“He was a Texas politician, he had a lot of personality,” Rush said. “It’s a shame that he allowed himself to fall victim to this insanity.”



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Winter storm strands 1,000 near Grand Canyon, delays Thanksgiving travelers


PHOENIX (Reuters) – Some 1,000 people were stranded without heat or power in a small Arizona town near the Grand Canyon on Friday during a major winter storm that threatened to disrupt travel for millions as it moves east one day after the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Town Council of Tusayan, just south of Grand Canyon National Park, declared a state of emergency early on Friday morning, citing the power outage and nearly two feet (60 cm) of snow that has made roads impassable.

“We are working to arrange emergency shelter at the National Park, in buses, and at other locations,” said Mayor Craig Sanderson said in a written statement.

“We are working with the County Emergency Management team, Arizona Department of Transportation, (Arizona Public Service) and the National Park Service with a priority on clearing roads,” Sanderson said.

More than 1,000 residents and tourists were stranded in Tusayan, along State Route 64, as of Friday evening, the mayor said and shelters had been set up inside the national park.

The National Weather Service said on Twitter snow had been reported “all the way down at the bottom” of the Grand Canyon.

“Getting the roads open is the main thing we need,” Sanderson said. “The County and (Arizona Department of Transportation) are working to make it possible to safely travel State Route 64.”

The weather service forecast more than a foot (30 cm) of snow across mountain areas of Colorado, Utah and Arizona on Friday before the storm system moves east into the U.S. upper Midwest.

Freezing rain was expected to turn into snowy blizzards in parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan beginning on Friday night, with more than 18 inches (46 cm) of snowfall possible in some mountainous areas, the service said.

Some snow could appear in the Northeast by Sunday morning, the weather service said. New York City and other areas further down the Atlantic Coast could expect a wintry mix of precipitation on Sunday.

More than 4 million Americans were expected to fly and another 49 million expected to drive at least 50 miles (80 km) or more this week for Thanksgiving, according to the American Automobile Association.

Wintry weather disrupted travel this week ahead of Thursday’s Thanksgiving celebrations, with airports in Minneapolis and Chicago reporting hundreds of delayed or canceled flights.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Culver City, California; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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White House, CDC feuding over study about PFAS in drinking water


Hundreds of barrels of dirt sample collected from a former Wolverine World Wide tannery site in Rockford, Michigan, March 1, 2019.

A multimillion-dollar federal study on toxic chemicals in drinking water across the country is facing delays because of a dispute within the Trump administration, according to several people involved in the study or who have knowledge of the process.

The dispute has implications for more than half a dozen communities where drinking water has been heavily contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Concerns about the chemicals have exploded nationally in recent years, following decades of PFAS use in products including non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, food packaging, carpets and military firefighting foams. Scientists say significant delays could limit the effectiveness of the study.

The unregulated chemicals are known to exist at some level in the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans, with one estimate placing the number as high as 110 million. The chemicals are also the subject of “Dark Waters,” a film released in November starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway.

Some prior studies on PFAS have linked the chemicals to health problems, including high cholesterol, reproductive issues and testicular and kidney cancer. Other studies have failed to replicate some of those results, and some PFAS are better researched than others, leaving the exact implications of exposure unknown.

Can you get cancer from tap water?:New study says even ‘safe’ drinking water poses risk

With public concern rising, congressional lawmakers in 2018 appropriated $10 million for a nationwide study to offer more definitive answers about health effects. The money was budgeted for the Department of Defense, which is also facing at least $2 billion in PFAS cleanup liabilities. The money then flowed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This summer, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the CDC, announced that it would use the funds to study highly exposed communities in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The design of the study shops out the actual research to academic or government partners in each state and provides grant funding to conduct the work.

But the study is off to a slow start, with a dispute between the CDC and White House Office of Management and Budget playing a role, sources say.

A sign at Milford, Michigan's Central Park advises anglers not to eat fish caught from Hubbell Pond or the Huron River, due to potentially harmful PFAS contamination, in this Sept. 8, 2018 photo.

The issue was first referenced publicly on Tuesday by Robert Laumbach, an environmental health researcher at Rutgers University, during a press conference held by U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J. Laumbach is the lead investigator for the New Jersey portion of the study, which will focus on PFAS-impacted communities in Gloucester County, near Philadelphia.

“Unfortunately, the study is being held up by the Office of Management and Budget, with no clear timeline for approval,” Laumbach said.

Kyle Steenland, an Emory University professor who served as an epidemiologist in a landmark PFAS health study in West Virginia, says there are some scientific techniques that can “reconstruct” past exposures and blood levels. But he says it’s still an exercise in estimation, and getting actual data more quickly can only help.

“It’s an iffy product if you don’t have good data,” Steenland said. “I’d be a little concerned if it drags on and on.”

Laumbach said his understanding is that an OMB review can take a year or more, a timeline that Birnbaum also said is possible.

The original funding of the PFAS health study was hailed as a bipartisan victory in Congress. Key senators this week offered continuing support. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., “has reached out to OMB regarding this matter,” his office said.

Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., said communities that face PFAS contamination deserve to know the results of the study as soon as possible.

“In this administration, OMB has consistently been the quicksand into which all rules designed to protect health and the environment sink,” Carper said. “This executive branch agency moves with the utmost haste when it comes to deregulation, but when it comes to basic protections for public health, time and again, OMB creates a standstill.”

Signs from the Michigan Department of Community Health warn to not eat fish from Clark's Marsh in Oscoda on the grounds of the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base due to unsafe levels of PFCs in fish and the surface water. The water tested at least 5,000 ppt for total PFAS due to the contamination at the former base.

Those familiar with the process say an OMB review already led to some delay for the Pease pilot study. Meeting minutes from the CDC show researchers originally hoped to start the project last summer but were unsure how quickly OMB would move.

An official in February offered a conservative estimate that blood draws would begin in August. But the project wasn’t approved by OMB until that month, and the CDC didn’t begin recruiting study participants until October.

“There definitely have been delays in the OMB process,” said Mindi Messmer, a former New Hampshire state representative. “We’re happy that it’s getting started.”

Tainted water:EPA plans to regulate cancer-causing chemicals found in America’s drinking water

Other states are now waiting for the start of the larger federal study. Spokesman Nate Wardle said the Pennsylvania Department of Health is “awaiting additional guidance and information from the CDC” to get started but has begun other aspects of planning.

“Part of that planning requires knowing the study protocol,” Wardle added.

It’s typical for a review to take time, said Betsy Southerland, a former director of science in the EPA’s Office of Water who worked on PFAS prior to leaving the agency in 2017, but she criticized the budget office for not prioritizing PFAS.

“It seems like these kinds of studies should get really expedited reviews because of the concerns these communities have,” Southerland said.

Southerland also said the OMB process can serve as a “black box,” where other federal agencies are able to exert influence away from the public eye. Emails obtained by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists last year showed the White House previously communicated with the Department of Defense and EPA in an apparent effort to curb the findings of a prior CDC study on PFAS.

“The question would be, is it just basically a bureaucratic delay,” Southerland said. “Or is one of those agencies, such as DoD, feeling like these kinds of studies unmask … issues that they don’t want unmasked?”



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