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Isolation, evacuations in U.S. central Plains as floods kill three

(Reuters) – Flooding that killed three people in Nebraska and Iowa has cut roads to a nuclear power plant and inundated a large portion of a U.S. Air Force base, forcing it to work with a skeleton staff on Monday, while more of region’s residents possibly faced evacuation.

The floods, which have prompted each state’s governor to declare a state of emergency, are the result of last week’s “bomb cyclone” winter storm, a winter hurricane that blew in from the western Rocky Mountains. Three people died in the flooding and at least one person was missing after hundreds of weekend rescues.

The floodwaters forced the operators of the Cooper nuclear plant, near Brownville, Nebraska, to fly in staff and supplies by helicopter, and covered one-third of that state’s Offutt Air Force Base, near Bellevue, home to the U.S. Strategic Command. The nuclear plant continued to operate safely and was at full power, its operator said.

The National Weather Service reported that some of the region’s larger rivers were running at record highs above flood level, causing levy breaks. Some small towns and communities have been cut off by floods while others have seen fresh drinking water become scarce. Floodwaters destroyed many homes and businesses over the weekend.

The NWS reported that temperatures across the hardest-hit areas will reach above 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 C) through midweek and exceed 60 Fahrenheit by Friday. That would speed the pace of snow melt across the region and contribute water to already swollen rivers, the NWS said, possibly forcing evacuations in communities along the Missouri River on the Nebraska and Iowa border, as well as along the Elkhorn and Platte rivers in Nebraska.

“There could be issues across portions of Nebraska and Kansas for the next seven days,” NWS meteorologist Jim Hayes said.

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, who declared a statewide emergency last week, said on Monday that emergency officials have rescued about 300 people but that at least one person was missing.

At Offutt Air Force Base, 30 buildings had been flooded by up to 8 feet (2.4 m) of water and 30 more structures had been damaged, according to reports by the Omaha World-Herald, citing a base spokeswoman. Base officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The flooding covered 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway, the World-Herald reported.

The weather was blamed for three deaths, including one person who died at home after failing to evacuate, and a man swept away while trying to tow a trapped car with his tractor.

In Iowa, one man died after he was submerged in floodwaters on Friday in Riverton, according to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds also issued an emergency proclamation at the outset of the flooding.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone)

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U.S. prosecutors charge former UAW vice president in corruption probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal prosecutors in Detroit on Monday charged a former United Auto Workers vice president with conspiracy to violate labor laws.

Norwood Jewell, who headed the Fiat Chrysler department at the union, was charged in a criminal information. He is the highest ranking former UAW official charged in the wide-ranging investigation into illegal payoffs to UAW officials. To date, seven people have been sentenced in the government’s ongoing criminal investigation.

A lawyer for Jewell, the UAW and Fiat Chrysler did not immediately comment.

(Reporting by David Shepardson)

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Fire engulfs eight massive petrochemical storage tanks in Houston

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A fire at a fuels storage company at the Houston Ship Channel spread on Monday to eight massive petrochemical storage tanks, shutting schools and forcing residents in the suburb of Deer Park to stay indoors.

The fire, which sent a plume of black smoke across the city’s eastern half and was visible from 10 miles (16 km) away, began in a giant storage tank containing naphtha, a volatile component of gasoline, at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

No evacuations or injuries were reported.

School officials in Deer Park, population 32,000, and nearby La Porte, Texas, with about 34,000 residents, suspended classes and told employees not to report to work on Monday.

Tanks containing naphtha and xylene, petrochemicals used to make gasoline and base oils commonly used as machine lubricants, were burning, officials of the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) said.

The company said on Monday that a tank containing Toluene also caught fire. Toluene is used to manufacture nail polish remover and paint thinner.

The burning tanks are surrounded by several other storage tanks within a spill containment dike. Firefighters used a foam fire retardant on nearby tanks to try to limit the fire from spreading.

“ITC officials continue working with local first responders to contain the fire,” the company said in a statement. “The safety of our employees, the surrounding community and the environment is our first priority.”

Ships continued to cross the channel linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered ships not to dock at ITC or an adjoining terminal.

Air emissions tests detected the presence of a volatile organic compound six miles away from the facility. Levels were below those considered hazardous, ITC said.

The fire was not affecting operations at the nearby Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint-venture refinery in Deer Park, said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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Top U.S. court spurns Georgia death row inmate’s racist juror claim

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday paved the way for a black Georgia death row inmate to be executed, turning away his bid to challenge his death sentence for the 1990 murder of his sister-in-law on the basis that the trial was tainted by a racist white juror who questioned whether black people have souls.

Keith “Bo” Tharpe was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of 10 white people and two black people in Georgia’s Jones County. The allegations of racial bias arose from an interview with one of the jurors years later, not comments made during the trial.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a statement agreeing with the court’s decision not to hear the case, noting that it turned on whether Tharpe could appeal and not the merits of his claim. But Sotomayor said she was “profoundly troubled” by the evidence Tharpe had uncovered.

“These racist sentiments, expressed by a juror entrusted with a vote over Tharpe’s fate, suggest an appalling risk that racial bias swayed Tharpe’s sentencing,” Sotomayor wrote.

Tharpe, 60, had been scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection in 2017 but the Supreme Court granted him a last-minute stay of execution.

Tharpe’s lawyers, as they were preparing an appeal in the case in 1998, spoke with the trial jurors including a man named Barney Gattie, who has since died.

“After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls,” Gattie told Tharpe’s lawyers in an affidavit, according to court papers.

Gattie also told the defense lawyers that there are two kinds of black people, one who he called “regular black folks” and another group he referred to using a racial slur.

“Because I knew the victim and her husband’s family and knew them all to be good black folks, I felt Tharpe, who wasn’t in the ‘good black folks’ category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did,” Gattie added.

Tharpe kidnapped and raped his estranged wife, Migrisus Tharpe, and used a shotgun to kill Jaquelin Freeman, her sister, in September 1990, according to court records. He was sentenced to death in 1991.

This marked the second time Tharpe’s appeal had reached the Supreme Court. In January 2018, the justices in a 6-3 unsigned decision – without hearing oral arguments – threw out a lower court’s ruling that had rejected Tharpe’s biased jury assertion. Tharpe again appealed the Supreme Court after the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2018 refused to let him pursue his claim.

His appeal was built upon a March 2017 Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Hispanic man over a juror’s racist comments. The justices on a 5-3 decision in that case threw out a Colorado state court decision that upheld the conviction of Miguel Pena Rodriguez, who was accused of sexually groping two teenage sisters in 2007.

A juror in that trial said during deliberations that Pena Rodriguez, a Mexican-born lawful permanent U.S. resident, “did it because he’s Mexican, and Mexican men take whatever they want.” The question Tharpe’s lawyers had raised was whether that decision applied retroactively to his case, meaning he could raise the same claim.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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U.S. Supreme Court takes up Kansas identity theft case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider a bid by Kansas to revive the state’s policy, blocked by a lower court, of prosecuting people for identity theft for using other people’s Social Security numbers in order to gain employment in a case linked to immigration issues.

The justices will hear the state’s appeal of a 2017 ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court that voided the convictions of three restaurant workers, finding that a 1986 federal law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, prevents states from pursuing such prosecutions.

The three men – Ramiro Garcia, Donaldo Morales and Guadalupe Ochoa-Lara – had provided their employers Social Security numbers that were not their own before being prosecuted for identity theft.

Lawyers on both sides refused to comment why the three men did not have or did not use their own Social Security numbers, saying it was not relevant to the legal question. People who enter the country illegally do not get assigned Social Security numbers, which are assigned by the U.S. government to all legal residents.

The number is primarily used to identify people for employment and tax purposes. Its original purpose was to track each person’s payments into the Social Security program, which provides money for retirees and people eligible for other social welfare programs.

The state appeals court found that the federal law defined the circumstances under which immigrants can be penalized for providing incorrect information to employers. The law required employers to fill out a form, known as the I-9, attesting that they have reviewed prospective employees’ documents and can confirm they are authorized to work in the United States. The law also stated that the form “may not be used for purposes other than for enforcement of this act.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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U.S. Supreme Court rejects Hawaii B&B that refused to serve lesbian couple

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge to a lower court ruling that found that the owner of a Hawaii bed and breakfast violated a state anti-discrimination law by turning away a lesbian couple, citing Christian beliefs.

The justices refused to hear an appeal by Phyllis Young, who runs the three-room Aloha Bed & Breakfast in Honolulu, of the ruling that she ran afoul of Hawaii’s public accommodation law by refusing to rent a room to Diane Cervilli and Taeko Bufford in 2007. Litigation will now continue that will determine what penalty Young might face.

The case was appealed to the nine justices in the wake of the high court’s narrow 2018 decision siding with a baker from Colorado who refused based on his Christian faith to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

That decision did not resolve the question of whether business owners can claim religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. Young said her decision to turn away the same-sex couple was protected by her right to free exercise of her religious beliefs under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The Supreme Court in the baker case also did not address important claims including whether baking a cake is a kind of expressive act protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, a question not raised in the Hawaii case.

The conservative-majority court could yet weigh in soon on both issues as it has a separate appeal pending involving a different bakery in Oregon that refused to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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WDFW Fish Managers Say Late Smelt Run Doesn’t Justify Fishery

Smelt are running up the Cowlitz River, but state fish managers say they are not seeing substantial enough numbers to justify a fishery this year. In late January, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) projected a poor 2019 smelt return, which would not likely support a fishery.

“The delayed run, which didn’t begin entering the river until early March, has not changed the assessment,” said Laura Heironimus, a WDFW fish manager. “People get excited when they see fish running up the river, but the monitoring data we have indicates the run is not strong enough to support harvest.”

“Though still a low run, more fish are returning than did last year, which may indicate a positive shift in ocean conditions for smelt” Heironimus said. “This may bode well for future years.”

Smelt along the Pacific Coast were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010. Since then, WDFW has opened limited recreational dip-net fishing in the Cowlitz River for smelt – also known as eulachon – four of those years when returns have been strong.

WDFW is the primary state agency tasked with preserving, protecting and perpetuating fish and wildlife and ecosystems, while providing sustainable fishing and hunting opportunities.

Fire engulfs eight massive petrochemical storage tanks in Houston

HOUSTON (Reuters) – A fire at a fuels storage company at the Houston Ship Channel spread on Monday to eight massive petrochemical storage tanks, shutting schools and forcing residents in the suburb of Deer Park to stay indoors.

The fire, which sent a plume of black smoke across the city’s eastern half and was visible from 10 miles (16 km) away, began in a giant storage tank containing naphtha, a volatile component of gasoline, at about 10:30 a.m. on Sunday.

No evacuations or injuries were reported.

School officials in Deer Park, population 32,000, and nearby La Porte, Texas, with about 34,000 residents, suspended classes and told employees not to report to work on Monday.

Tanks containing naphtha and xylene, petrochemicals used to make gasoline and base oils commonly used as machine lubricants, were burning, officials of the Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) said.

The company said on Monday that a tank containing Toluene also caught fire. Toluene is used to manufacture nail polish remover and paint thinner.

The burning tanks are surrounded by several other storage tanks within a spill containment dike. Firefighters used a foam fire retardant on nearby tanks to try to limit the fire from spreading.

“ITC officials continue working with local first responders to contain the fire,” the company said in a statement. “The safety of our employees, the surrounding community and the environment is our first priority.”

Ships continued to cross the channel linking refineries and chemical plants in Houston and Texas City, with the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Coast Guard ordered ships not to dock at ITC or an adjoining terminal.

Air emissions tests detected the presence of a volatile organic compound six miles away from the facility. Levels were below those considered hazardous, ITC said.

The fire was not affecting operations at the nearby Royal Dutch Shell Plc joint-venture refinery in Deer Park, said Shell spokesman Ray Fisher.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Gary McWilliams; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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Far-flung job offers pose tough choices for GM Ohio workers

By Nick Carey and Ben Klayman

TOLEDO, Ohio (Reuters) – General Motors Co built the final Chevrolet Cruze small car at its Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant on March 6, despite demands from President Donald Trump, Ohio political leaders and the United Auto Workers union not to close the plant and leave nearly 1,500 workers laid off.

Dina Mays, a 14-year veteran of Lordstown Assembly, was not at the plant for its last day. She had already moved on to her new workplace, GM’s Toledo transmission plant, where the automaker builds 10-speed transmissions for popular pickup trucks.

The U.S. auto industry is heading into a new cycle of plant closings and job cuts. Sales in the world’s second-largest vehicle market are projected to fall. Consumers shifting away from traditional sedans such as the Cruze have left GM with more workers assigned to building cars than the market can support.

But GM has the reverse problem with trucks – for now, it cannot build them fast enough. That is helping GM find new jobs for displaced sedan plant workers, and blunt attacks from the UAW and politicians.

The automaker recently announced it will add 1,000 jobs at a plant in Flint, Michigan, to build a new generation of GM’s largest pickups.

A GM spokeswoman said last week that 538 workers from a Detroit plant slated to close in 2020 and nearly 100 from Lordstown have already signed on in Flint to fill those jobs.

That and other job opportunities could cushion the blow for most of the 1,450 workers currently laid off at Lordstown. The Ohio plant is one of five North American GM plants slated to close by January 2020.

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has said the automaker expects to have 2,700 job openings by early 2020 at other thriving plants, enough to absorb nearly all of those displaced in plants in Maryland, Ohio and Michigan willing or able to uproot for work hundreds of miles away. GM said another 1,200 affected hourly workers are eligible for early retirement.

Based on a plant-by-plant count provided by GM, if every worker displaced or soon to be displaced volunteers for or accepts a new job – and those eligible to retire do so – that would potentially leave up to 500 GM workers jobless, far fewer than the thousands decried by the UAW and Trump.

Ohio is a key state for Trump’s 2020 re-election chances. In July 2017 he vowed in Youngstown, Ohio, near GM’s Lordstown plant, that those auto jobs were “all coming back.”

“Don’t move,” he told residents. “Don’t sell your house.”

On Sunday, Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Barra to demand she “do something quickly” to keep the Lordstown plant running. GM responded, “Our main focus remains on our employees and offering them jobs in our plants where we have growth opportunities. We have opportunities available for virtually all impacted employees.” The company said the ultimate fate of the plant will be decided in contract negotiations with the UAW this fall.

NOMADIC LIFESTYLE

Mays and other veteran GM factory workers have been pushed into nomadic lives before. Mays is on her third GM factory in 15 years. In 2005, she moved to Lordstown in northeastern Ohio after being laid off at a GM plant in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s rough,” Mays said.

Her eldest son is at college and a 12-year-old son remains with relatives near Lordstown. “But I have to be able to support myself and my kids.”

After 25 years with GM, she has five years until retirement, so transferring “was the best decision I could make.”

For those who move, GM offers a $30,000 cash package to offset costs. If the company has jobs for laid-off workers elsewhere and they refuse them, they lose their supplemental pay and are eligible to hire on again only at their “home plant” – in this case, Lordstown.

SCANT OPTIONS

For Joe Stanton, 55, transferring 160 miles (260 km) to Toledo from Lordstown made sense.

With 25 years at GM, he also has five years to go before he can retire. He rents an apartment with Mays just outside Toledo to cut costs. He moved from Pittsburgh to Lordstown in 2006 when his GM plant there closed. He owns two homes, one near Lordstown and one in Pennsylvania.

Stanton misses his adult son in Pittsburgh and girlfriend near Lordstown but said he is lucky not to have small children or sick parents to care for so he could move to Toledo.

If the UAW renegotiates a new product for Lordstown, retooling the plant would take years, Stanton said.

“That’s a gamble I wasn’t willing to take,” he said.

For those left behind, the outlook is bleak.

Tod Porter, chair of Youngstown State University’s economics department, estimated Lordstown’s closure could cost more than 8,000 jobs including at auto suppliers and service providers, in an area still affected by steel mill closures decades ago.

Dave Green, president of UAW Local 1112, which represents workers at Lordstown, said he is fighting for the plant to reopen but added unemployed GM workers have scant options.

“If you don’t want a job flipping burgers for minimum wage, you got to get the hell out of here,” he said.

(Reporting by Nick Carey and Ben Klayman in Toledo, Ohio; Editing by Joe White and Matthew Lewis)

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