Briefs: Trump administration skips environmental rules, citing the pandemic

President Donald Trump announces FDA approval of plasma treatment at Sunday news conference. (White House livestream)

Associated Press

Hurricanes, California wildfires, White House departure, New Zealand families confront shooter and Donald Trump's promises

The Associated Press

Thousands of oil and gas operations, government facilities and other sites won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise bypass rules intended to protect health and the environment because of the coronavirus outbreak, The Associated Press has found.

The result: approval for less environmental monitoring at some Texas refineries and at an army depot dismantling warheads armed with nerve gas in Kentucky, manure piling up and the mass disposal of livestock carcasses at farms in Iowa and Minnesota, and other risks to communities as governments eased enforcement over smokestacks, medical waste shipments, sewage plants, oilfields and chemical plants.

The Trump administration paved the way for the reduced monitoring on March 26 after being pressured by the oil and gas industry, which said lockdowns and social distancing during the pandemic made it difficult to comply with anti-pollution rules. States are responsible for much of the oversight of federal environmental laws, and many followed with leniency policies of their own.

AP's two-month review found that waivers were granted in more than 3,000 cases, representing the overwhelming majority of requests citing the outbreak. Hundreds of requests were approved for oil and gas companies. AP reached out to all 50 states citing open-records laws; all but one, New York, provided at least partial information, reporting the data in differing ways and with varying level of detail. 

Almost all those requesting waivers told regulators they did so to minimize risks for workers and the public during a pandemic — although a handful reported they were trying to cut costs.

Residents flee as Gulf Coast sees possible tandem hurricanes

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Gulf Coast braced Sunday for a potentially devastating hit from twin hurricanes as two dangerous storms swirled toward the U.S from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Officials feared a history-making onslaught of life-threatening winds and flooding along the coast, stretching from Texas to Alabama.

A storm dubbed Marco grew into a hurricane Sunday as it churned up the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana. But, Marco's intensity was fluctuating, forecasters said, and the system was downgraded to a tropical storm Sunday night.

Another potential hurricane, Tropical Storm Laura, lashed the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and was tracking toward the same region of the U.S. coast, carrying the risk of growing into a far more powerful storm. 

Experts said computer models show Laura could make landfall with winds exceeding 110 mph, and rain bands from both storms could bring a combined total of 2 feet  of rain to parts of Louisiana and several feet of potentially deadly storm surge. 

"There has never been anything we've seen like this before, where you can have possibly two hurricanes hitting within miles of each over a 48-hour period," said Benjamin Schott, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service's Slidell, Louisiana, office.

Massive Northern California wildfires rage on; 1 man dead

SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Three massive wildfires chewed through parched Northern California landscape Sunday as firefighters raced to dig breaks and make other preparations ahead of a frightening weather system packing high winds and more of the lightning that sparked the huge blazes and scores of other fires around the state, putting nearly a quarter-million people under evacuation orders and warnings.

At the CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco, authorities announced the discovery of the body of a 70-year-old man in a remote area called Last Chance. The man had been reported missing and police had to use a helicopter to reach the area, which is a string of about 40 off-the-grid homes at the end of a windy, steep dirt road north of the city of Santa Cruz.

The area was under an evacuation order and Santa Cruz Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Chris Clark said it was a stark reminder of the need for residents to leave the area. 

"This is one of the darkest periods we've been in with this fire," he said. 

The fatality was the first for the CZU fire and seventh fire victim in the state in the last week that has seen 650 wildfires across California, many of them sparked by the more than 12,000 lighting strikes recorded since Aug., 15. There are 14,0000 firefighters. 2,400 engines and 95 aircraft battling the fires. 

3 years after Harvey, some in Houston still waiting for help

HOUSTON (AP) — Some Houston residents say they endured difficult, often hazardous living conditions while waiting months, even years for help from the city to fix flood-damaged homes after Hurricane Harvey.

Sleeping in a closet because it was the only space that didn't reek of mold. Dealing with rodents and roaches that would come in through warped or rotted flooring. Couch surfing at 67 years old until patchwork repairs made a home temporarily habitable.

Those were just some of the things people dealt with as they waited for help they say never came, despite submitting — and resubmitting — paperwork.

Three years after Harvey, some Houston residents feel angry and abandoned as their repair efforts were bogged down by a city program they described as slow and bureaucratic. The program has finished rebuilding less than 70 homes since it started January 2019. 

Some residents, like 70-year-old Doris Brown, turned to nonprofits and the state. They also formed a group — the Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus — to bring attention to their plight. 

Top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to leave White House

WASHINGTON — Kellyanne Conway, one of President Donald Trump's most influential and longest serving advisers, announced Sunday that she would be leaving the White House at the end of the month.

Conway, Trump's campaign manager during the stretch run of the 2016 race, was the first woman to successfully steer a White House bid, then became a senior counselor to the president. She informed Trump of her decision in the Oval Office.

Conway cited a need to spend time with her four children in a resignation letter she posted Sunday night. Her husband, George, had become an outspoken Trump critic and her family a subject of Washington's rumor mill. 

"We disagree about plenty but we are united on what matters most: the kids," she wrote. "For now, and for my beloved children, it will be less drama, more mama."

She is still slated to speak at the Republican National Convention this week. Her husband, an attorney who renounced Trump after the 2016 campaign, had become a member of the Lincoln Project, an outside group of Republicans devoted to defeating Trump.

Families confront New Zealand mosque shooter at sentencing

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — Families and survivors had their first chance to confront the white supremacist who slaughtered 51 worshippers in a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques as his four-day sentencing hearing began Monday.

"You killed your own humanity, and I don't think the world will forgive you for your horrible crime," said a tearful Maysoon Salama, the mother of 33-year-old Atta Elayyan, who was killed in March 2019 attacks. "You thought you can break us. You failed miserably."

The gunman, 29-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, pleaded guilty in March to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism — the first terrorism conviction in New Zealand's history. He could become the first person in New Zealand to be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the toughest sentence available.

Tarrant was brought into the Christchurch High Court shackled and wearing a gray prison outfit. In the dock, unshackled and surrounded by five officers, he showed little emotion throughout the hearing. He occasionally looked around the room, tapped his fingers, and watched the survivors as they spoke.

The courtroom was only half full due to coronavirus distancing requirements, while many others watched from adjacent courtrooms where the hearing was streamed. Survivors and family members occasionally wept and comforted each other.

'End of the world': Countdown to Beirut's devastating blast

BEIRUT — The 10 firefighters who received the call shortly before 6 p.m. — a big fire at the nearby port of Beirut — could not know what awaited them.

The brigade of nine men and one woman could not know about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate warehoused since 2013 along a busy motorway, in the heart of a densely populated residential area — a danger that had only grown with every passing year.

They and nearly all the population of Beirut were simply unaware. They were not privy to the warnings authorities had received, again and again, and ignored: ammonium nitrate is highly explosive, used in fertilizer and sometimes to build bombs. The stockpile was degrading; something must be done.

They knew, of course, that they lived in a dysfunctional country, its government rife with corruption, factionalism and negligence that caused so much pain and heartbreak. But they could not know that it would lead to the worst single-day catastrophe in Lebanon's tragic history.

Across the city, residents who noticed the grey smoke billowing over the facility Aug. 4 were drawn to streets, balconies and windows, watching curiously as the fire grew larger. Phones were pulled out of pockets and pointed toward the flames. 

Trump delivered on some big 2016 promises, but others unmet

He's broken his pledge never to take a vacation or play golf for pleasure. His plan to update the nation's infrastructure has become a running punchline and he's dropped his threat to throw Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl out of a plane without a parachute. But behind the drama, chaos and tumult that has defined President Donald Trump's administration, the president has fulfilled a wide range of promises he made during his 2016 campaign.

It's a theme that will play a major role in the upcoming Republican National Convention, as the president tries to convince a weary nation that he deserves a second term, even when millions of Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, the economy is in tatters and racial tensions are boiling over.

"I'm the only candidate that gave you more than I promised in the campaign. It's true. I'm the only one ever, maybe ever," Trump said at a rally in battleground Arizona last week.

Back in 2016, Trump was criticized for failing to release detailed policy plans akin to those of his rival, Hillary Clinton. What Trump did do was lay out a vision for a new America — one driven by a nationalist self-interest and disregard for Democratic norms. 

In the years since, Trump has acted on that vision, making good on his nativist immigration rhetoric, tearing back regulations on business and transforming America's role in the world by abandoning multilateral agreements and upending decades-old alliances, cheered on by many of his most loyal supporters and generating great alarm among his critics.

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