AMID RISING TENSIONS
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has quadrupled its production of enriched uranium amid tensions with the U.S. over Tehran's unraveling nuclear accord, two semi-official Iranian news agencies reported Monday.
The announcement came just after President Donald Trump and Iran's foreign minister traded threats and taunts.
While the reports said the production is of uranium enriched only to the 3.67% limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran reached with world powers, it means that Iran soon will go beyond the stockpile limits established by the accord. Iran insists that it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears that its growing nuclear program could someday allow it to build them.
This follows days of heightened tensions sparked by the Trump administration's deployment of bombers and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf over still-unspecified threats from Iran. While Trump's dueling approach of flattery and threats has become a hallmark of his foreign policy, the risks have only grown in dealing with Iran, where mistrust between Tehran and Washington stretch back four decades. So far this month, officials in the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers sustained damage in a sabotage attack; Yemeni rebels allied with Iran launched a drone attack on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia; andU.S. diplomats relayed a warning that commercial airlines could be misidentified by Iran and attacked, something dismissed by Tehran. On Tuesday, Yemen's Houthi rebels said they launched a bomb-laden drone targeting an airport in Saudi Arabia that also has a military base inside of it, an attack acknowledged by the kingdom.
All of these tensions are the culmination of Trump's decision a year ago to pull the U.S. out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers. While both Washington and Tehran say they don't seek war, many worry that any miscalculation could spiral out of control.
Both the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported on the quadrupled production, quoting Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesmen for Iran's nuclear agency. He said the increase in production of 3.67% enriched uranium does not mean Iran increased the number of centrifuges it has in use, another requirement of the deal.
He said Iran "in weeks" would reach the 300-kilogram limit set by the nuclear deal.
Kamalvandi said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency about its move.
Trump's tweet Monday came just hours after a rocket fell in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone less than a mile from theU.S. Embassy, causing no injuries. Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul told the Associated Press that the rocket was believed to have been fired from eastern Baghdad. The area is home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.
"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran," Trump tweeted. "Never threaten the United States again!"
Trump's tweet reflects what has been a strategy of alternating tough talk with more conciliatory statements he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration's intentions. His administration had taken a surprising hard line toward Iran by rushing to deploy the aircraft carrier group and other military assets to the region in response to a threat they have yet not publicly detailed. But he also said he was hoping that the Islamic Republic would sit down to negotiate with the U.S.
He described his approach in a speech Friday, saying, "It's probably a good thing because they're saying, 'Man, I don't know where these people are coming from,' right?"
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded Monday by tweeting that Trump had been "goaded" into "genocidal taunts." Zarif referenced both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as two historical leaders that Persia outlasted. "Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone," he wrote. He ended his tweet with: "Try respect — it works!"
He also used the hash tag #Never Threaten An Iranian, a reference to a comment he made in negotiations for the atomic accord.
Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear accord, under which Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since the withdrawal, the U.S. has reimposed previous sanctions and come up with new ones, as well as warning other nations that they would be subject to sanctions as well if they import Iranian oil.
In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's military intercepted two missiles fired by the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The missiles were intercepted over the city of Taif and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, the Saudi-owned satellite channel al-Arabiya reported, citing witnesses.
Between the two targeted cities is Mecca, home to the Kaaba that Muslims pray toward five times a day. Many religious pilgrims are in the city for the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
BOKOSHE, Okla. (AP) - Susan Holmes' home, corner store and roadside beef jerky stand are right off Oklahoma Highway 31, putting them in the path of trucks hauling ash and waste from a power plant that burns the high-sulfur coal mined near this small town.
For years, when Bokoshe residents were outside, the powdery ash blowing from the trucks and the ash dump on the edge of town would "kind of engulf you," Holmes said. "They drove by, and you just couldn't breathe."
Over three decades, the ash dump grew into a hill five stories high. Townspeople regard the Environmental Protection Agency as the only source of serious environmental enforcement. Whenever people took their worries about ash-contaminated air and water to state lawmakers and regulators, "none of them cared," Holmes said.
So the residents of this 500-person town have nothing but warnings for similarly situated communities now that the EPA under President Donald Trump has approved Oklahoma to be the first state to take over permitting and enforcement on coal-ash sites.
"They're going to do absolutely nothing," predicted Tim Tanksley, a rancher in Bokoshe, about 130 miles southeast of Tulsa in a Choctaw Nation coal patch that helped fuel the railroads.
Across the country, the EPA under Trump is delegating a widening range of public health and environmental enforcement to states, saying local officials know best how to deal with local problems. Critics contend that federal regulators are making a dangerous retreat on enforcement that puts people and the environment at greater risk.
One administration initiative would give states more authority over emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Some states and counties say the EPA is also failing to act against threats from industrial polluters, including growing water contamination from a widely used class of nonstick industrial compounds. Michigan, New Jersey and some other states say they are tackling EPA-size challenges — like setting limits for the contaminants in drinking water — while appealing to the real EPA to act.
In Houston's oil and gas hub, local officials and residents say a lax EPA response to toxic spills during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 left the public in the dark about health threats and hampered efforts to hold companies responsible for cleaning up.
Nationwide, EPA inspections, evaluations and enforcement actions have fallen over the past two years, some to the lowest points in decades, or in history.
The agency says environmental enforcers remain on the job despite the plunging enforcement numbers.
"There has been no retreat from working with states, communities and regulated entities to ensure compliance with our environmental laws," said George Hull, the agency's enforcement spokesman.
Past EPA officials accuse the Trump administration of pulling back on enforcement of polluters and turning back the clock to a dirtier, more dangerous time.
"The reason that the ultimate authority to enforce the law was put into federal hands was because the states weren't any good at it," William Ruckelshaus said. Now 86, Ruckelshaus served as the first administrator of the EPA in 1970, when President Richard Nixon created the agency amid a wave of public anger over contaminated air and water. The previous year, the pollutant-slicked surface of Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire for only the latest time, sending smoke billowing through downtown Cleveland.
Then and now, some states lack the resources and legal authority to police big polluters. And crucially, Ruckelshaus said, some states just don't want to. They see routine environmental enforcement as a threat to business and jobs.
Congressional Democrats say Trump is selective in his passion for state sovereignty and has blocked states that want tighter environmental enforcement. They point to Trump's call to revoke California's authority under the Clean Air Act to set tougher mileage standards than those Trump wants, among other examples.
Oklahoma acquired permitting and oversight authority over a half-dozen coal-ash dumps and ponds last year under then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt left the agency amid ethics probes last year, and now he lobbies for coal.
Georgia has also applied to manage its coal-ash dumps and ponds. The EPA says it is talking with other interested states.
Risks from coal-ash sites jumped to national attention in 2008, when a dike broke at a Tennessee coal ash pond, releasing 1 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
Coal ash — the gunk left after pollution equipment captures the worst of the toxic soot that once poured out of power plant smokestacks — contains heavy metals and carcinogens, including lead, mercury, arsenic and radium. The tiny particles can seep into the lungs and blood system.
An Associated Press analysis of data released by utilities last year showed widespread evidence of groundwater contamination around coal plants nationwide.
In Oklahoma, groundwater testing at some of the ash sites shows contaminants at levels above what the government deems safe, according to Earthjustice and other environmental groups that are suing to reverse the EPA's transfer of permitting and oversight.
A 10-year-old who hit other kids. An 8-year-old who threatened to bomb his elementary school. A former high school student who tried to get into his old school without permission.
Law enforcement officers, school representatives and mental health officials in Douglas County reviewed those real-life cases last week as part of an effort to prevent school violence.
The local experts are following a nationwide trend by creating a threat assessment group that aims to connect troubled youths to services and keep community members aware of ongoing security concerns.
While many school districts have their own threat assessment team, this larger group, known as the Douglas County Threat Advisory Team, will be an additional resource. It will allow officials across the community to easily and openly share strategies or offer programs to help kids.
The group will focus on juveniles but is prepared to discuss adults, such as a disgruntled parent or teacher going through a traumatic event, who may be a threat to a school. The idea is to help someone who is making verbal threats and intervene before the threats turn into violent actions.
“Because we have such a large volume of students and threats in the community, oftentimes we don’t necessarily track individual cases or provide services to students. Some situations may actually slip through the cracks,” said Omaha Police Deputy Chief Greg Gonzalez. “We never really had that organizational component, where everybody was at the table, everybody’s communicating and everybody’s learning from each other.”
The group includes all seven public school districts in the county, plus someone from Omaha Catholic schools and Boys Town; local law enforcement agencies including the FBI and Nebraska State Patrol; and juvenile probation and mental and behavioral health organizations such as Lutheran Family Services and Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare.
Other communities across the nation have been early adopters, but the idea really took hold after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year that left 17 people dead, said Dave Okada, a consultant who helped the Douglas County group at last week’s two-day training session.
Other states, Okada said, have passed legislation mandating threat assessment groups.
“It’s truly a preventative model,” said Okada, who is a former lieutenant of the Salem (Oregon) Police Department, which created threat assessment teams two decades ago. “We’re assessing a student of concern ... who’s along that pathway, and if we can take them off that pathway or stop them, that’s our goal.”
Sarpy County has had its own threat assessment group since 2016, including an anonymous tip line for members of the community to report threats they might overhear or see on social media. The Douglas County group plans to implement its own hotline, which also will use a phone app and a website, before the next school year starts.
The group will talk about cases that are reported through the tip system but also cases that school districts bring to the group.
“It’s safe to say there’s probably quite a few threats that do not get reported because students are afraid that they’re not anonymous,” said Donald Morrison, supervisor of school safety for the Omaha Public Schools. “We want to meet people where they’re at. If we can get the information about a threat that is out there, then we certainly want that.”
Capt. Kevin Griger of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office said the Sarpy group has received more than 500 tips through the Sarpy hotline since its induction.
“I think it’s been very successful,” he said. “Some individuals that were threatening suicide, we were able to intervene ahead of time. I can only assume it would have saved someone’s life.”
The Douglas County group has been a work in progress since last June, when initial meetings started. By October, the group had received a grant of about $500,000 from the federal government, plus additional funding from the Sherwood Foundation. Most of that money will go to schools in Douglas County to add security equipment, Gonzalez said. The allotments will be determined at future meetings.
The money also allowed for the hiring of Denise Rieder as the group’s coordinator. Rieder formerly served as a lieutenant in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. She will act as a liaison among members of the group.
After being closed more than two months because of flood damage, West Dodge Road reopened to traffic Monday afternoon.
Drivers blared their approval by honking their car and semi horns as officials announced the reopening on-site.
With traffic just past 228th Street quickly reverting back to form, officials recognized the efforts behind an intense project that finished three weeks ahead of schedule.
“It’s gratifying to see the traffic back on there,” said Chris Blume, the on-site superintendent on the project for Hawkins Construction Co. of Omaha.
The Nebraska Department of Transportation hired Hawkins to undertake the emergency repairs on the highway just west of Elkhorn.
According to the State of Nebraska, repairs have cost $2.2 million.
In all, the highway was closed 66 days.
Officials had hoped to reopen the stretch by June. Monday’s early reopening will be welcome news to Memorial Day travelers and commuters between Omaha and Fremont and other points west.
The floodwaters severed a key link on the West Dodge Expressway and on its turn to U.S. Highway 275. With West Dodge and West Center Road closed in the area, traffic diverted instead to West Maple Road, which flooded in March but did not sustain damage.
West Center remains closed and is due to reopen in July.
The section of West Dodge closed March 15 — a Friday when floodwaters were ravaging eastern Nebraska.
Tim Weander, Omaha area district engineer for the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said the waters receded from the highway that Sunday.
He drove out to 228th Street to see the damage.
“I was shocked,” Weander said.
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Pavement buckled and dropped 3 feet in spots. Both eastbound and westbound lanes suffered damage.
To see the highway back open to traffic, Weander said Monday, “we’re just ecstatic.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts said the state has worked with 22 consultants and contractors on different road repairs from the floods.
Ricketts said the people of Nebraska will appreciate having the highway opened three weeks early.
Chris Hawkins, the construction company’s chief operating officer, said he’s not surprised the crew finished the project early.
“This is what we do everyday,” he said.
He, too, heard the horns.
“That guy’s honking — he’s happy too.”