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Daily Archives: May 26, 2023

US Judge Says Fire Retardant Is Polluting Streams but Allows Continued Use

The U.S. government can keep using chemical retardant dropped from aircraft to fight wildfires, despite finding that the practice pollutes streams in western states in violation of federal law, a judge ruled Friday.

Halting the use of the red slurry material could have resulted in greater environmental damage from wildfires, said U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana.

The judge agreed with U.S. Forest Service officials who said dropping retardant into areas with waterways was sometimes necessary to protect lives and property.

The ruling came after environmentalists sued following revelations that the Forest Service dropped retardant into waterways hundreds of times over the past decade.

Government officials say chemical fire retardant can be crucial to slowing the advance of dangerous blazes. Wildfires across North America have grown bigger and more destructive over the past two decades as climate change warms the planet.

More than 200 loads of retardant got into waterways over the past decade. Federal officials say those situations usually occurred by mistake and in less than 1% of the thousands of loads used annually.

A coalition that includes Paradise, California — where a 2018 blaze killed 85 people and destroyed the town — said a court ruling that stopped the use of retardant would have put lives, homes and forests at risk.

“This case was very personal for us,” Paradise Mayor Greg Bolin said. “Our brave firefighters need every tool in the toolbox to protect human lives and property against wildfires, and today’s ruling ensures we have a fighting chance this fire season.”

State and local agencies lean heavily on the U.S. Forest Service to help fight fires, many of which originate on, or include federal land.

Fire retardant is a specialized mixture of water and chemicals including inorganic fertilizers or salts. It’s designed to alter the way fire burns, making blazes less intense and slowing their advance.

That can give firefighters time to steer flames away from inhabited areas and in extreme situations to evacuate people from danger.

“Retardant lasts and even works if it’s dry,” said Scott Upton, a former region chief and air attack group supervisor for California’s state fire agency. “Water is only so good because it dries out. It does very well to suppress fires, but it won’t last.”

The Oregon-based group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics argued in its lawsuit filed last year that the Forest Service was disregarding federal law by continuing to use retardant without taking adequate precautions to protect streams and rivers.

Christensen said stopping the use of fire retardant would “conceivably result in greater harm from wildfires — including to human life and property and to the environment.” The judge said his ruling was limited to 10 western states where members of the plaintiff’s group alleged harm from pollution in waterways that they use.

After the lawsuit was filed the Forest Service applied to the Environmental Protection Agency for a permit that would allow it to continue using retardant without breaking the law. The process could take several years.

Forest Service spokesperson Wade Muehlhof said the agency believes retardant can be used “without compromising public health and the environment.”

“The Forest Service is working diligently with the Environmental Protection Agency on a general permit for aerially delivered retardant that will allow us to continue using wildfire retardant to protect homes and communities,” Muehlhof said.

Climate change, people moving into fire-prone areas, and overgrown forests are creating more catastrophic megafires that are harder to fight.

Many areas of the western U.S. experienced heavy snowfalls this past winter, and as a result fire dangers are lower than in recent years across much of the region.

Debt Ceiling Deadline Is Extended to June 5, Yellen Says

President Joe Biden said a deal to raise the government’s debt ceiling seemed “very close” late Friday, even as the deadline for a potentially catastrophic default was pushed back to June 5. 

The later date, laid out in a letter from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, set the risk of a devastating default four days later than an earlier estimate. It came as Americans and the world uneasily watched the negotiating brinkmanship that could throw the U.S. economy into chaos and sap world confidence in the nation’s leadership. 

Yet Biden was upbeat as he left for the Memorial Day weekend at Camp David, declaring, “It’s very close, and I’m optimistic.” 

With Republicans at the Capitol talking with Biden’s team at the White House, the president said: “There’s a negotiation going on. I’m hopeful we’ll know by tonight whether we’re going to be able to have a deal.” 

In a blunt warning, Yellen said failure to act by the new date would “cause severe hardship to American families, harm our global leadership position and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests.”  

Anxious retirees were making contingency plans for missed checks, with the next Social Security payments due next week. 

Biden and Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seemed to be narrowing on a two-year budget-slashing deal that would also extend the debt limit into 2025 past the next presidential election. After many rounds of closed-door talks, a compromise had appeared to be nearing on Friday. 

Republicans have made some headway in their drive for steep spending cuts that Democrats oppose. However, the sides are particularly divided over McCarthy’s demands for tougher work requirements on government food stamp recipients that Democrats say is a nonstarter. 

Any deal would need to be a political compromise, with support from both Democrats and Republicans to pass the divided Congress. Failure to lift the borrowing limit, now $31 trillion, to pay the nation’s incurred bills would send shock waves through the U.S. and global economies. 

But many of the hard-right Trump-aligned Republicans in Congress have long been skeptical of Treasury’s projections, and they are pressing McCarthy to hold out. 

“The deal’s within reach. It just has to be agreed to,” said Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican who is one of the negotiators. 

In optimistic comments earlier at the White House, before Yellen’s letter was released, Biden gave a shout-out to one of his top negotiators, saying she’s “putting together a deal, hopefully.” 

He was referring to Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young, who attended a salute to the Louisiana State women’s national basketball champions. 

While the contours of the deal have been taking shape to cut spending for 2024 and impose a 1% cap on spending growth for 2025, the two sides remain stuck on various provisions.  

“The world is watching,” International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said after meeting Friday with Yellen. “Let’s remember we are now in the 12th hour.” 

Weeks of negotiations between Republicans and the White House have failed to produce a deal — in part because the Biden administration resisted negotiating with McCarthy over the debt limit, arguing that the country’s full faith and credit should not be used as leverage to extract other partisan priorities. 

“We have to spend less than we spent last year. That is the starting point,” said McCarthy. 

Meanwhile, McCarthy is feeling pressure from the House’s right flank not to give in to any deal, even if it means blowing past the Treasury deadline. 

McCarthy said Donald Trump, the former president who is again running for office, told him, “Make sure you get a good agreement.” 

Watchful Democrats, though, are also pressing Biden. The top three House Democratic leaders, led by Representative Hakeem Jeffries, spoke late Thursday with the White House. 

McCarthy has promised lawmakers he will abide by the rule to post any bill for 72 hours before voting. The Democratic-held Senate has vowed to move quickly to send the package to Biden’s desk. 

Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings agency placed the United States’ AAA credit on “ratings watch negative,” warning of a possible downgrade. 

The White House has continued to argue that deficits can be reduced by ending tax breaks for wealthier households and some corporations, but McCarthy said he told the president as early as their February meeting that raising revenue from tax hikes was off the table. 

Pentagon Promising to Unleash Cyber Campaigns if Needed

U.S. military leaders are starting to unveil the updated Defense Department cyber strategy, calling for troops to “campaign in and through cyberspace” in order to defend the country. 

The Pentagon on Friday announced it shared a classified version of its 2023 Cyber Strategy with Congress earlier this week and promised to produce an unclassified summary of the new strategy in the coming months.

The new cyber strategy updates the previous one, issued in 2018, and “is informed by years of real-world experience of significant [Defense Department] cyberspace operations,” according to a Pentagon statement.

Those operations include 47 deployments to 22 countries by U.S. Cyber Command “hunt forward teams,” most recently to Latvia and Albania.

Hunt forward teams also played a role in securing the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. officials have likewise been learning from Russia’s attempts to use cyberattacks as part of its invasion of Ukraine.

“The department will maximize its cyber capabilities in support of integrated deterrence, employing cyberspace operations in concert with other instruments of national power,” the Defense Department said Friday in a separate, unclassified fact sheet.

It also warned that U.S. military cyber teams “will campaign in and through cyberspace below the level of armed conflict to reinforce deterrence and frustrate adversaries.”

In line with previous statements and congressional testimony from top Pentagon officials, the new cyber strategy lists China as the main threat.

“The People’s Republic of China (PRC) represents the department’s pacing challenge,” according to the strategy fact sheet. “The PRC has made significant investments in military cyber capabilities and empowered a number of proxy organizations to pursue malicious cyber activities against the United States.”

Earlier this month, the director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, warned that China would very likely turn to cyberspace should tensions between Beijing and Washington boil into something more.

“In the event of a conflict with the U.S., we will almost certainly see China use aggressive cyber operations against our critical infrastructure and almost certainly be able to disrupt critical infrastructure,” Jen Easterly told a forum organized by the Special Competitive Studies Project.

 

Just this past week, CISA, along with the FBI, the U.S. National Security Agency and partners from Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, issued a warning about cyber activity by a China-linked threat actor known as Volt Typhoon. 

 

A separate report this week, issued by tech giant Microsoft, warned that Volt Typhoon “is pursuing development of capabilities that could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises.”

It also cautioned that the Chinese-backed cyber actor already “has targeted critical infrastructure organizations in Guam and elsewhere.”

Other top threats in the 2023 Pentagon Cyber Strategy include Russia, North Korea, Iran, terror organizations and crime syndicates.

Additionally, the Pentagon said the new strategy complements the 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy, launched by the White House earlier this year.

White House cybersecurity officials said the national strategy calls for a more aggressive response from all aspects of the U.S. government to any malicious cyber activity.

“We are certainly in a more forward-leaning position to make sure that we’re protecting the American people from these threats,” a senior administration official said during the rollout in March, adding that that included the use of military tools.

“These are options that the president has, and we’re certainly open to using all of them,” the official noted. 

Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.

UN Weekly Roundup: May 20-26, 2023

Editor’s note: Here is a fast take on what the international community has been up to this past week, as seen from the United Nations perch.

Seven-day cease-fire in Sudan

The United Nations welcomed the start on Monday of a U.S.-Saudi brokered 7-day cease-fire across Sudan, intended to allow civilians and humanitarians to move safely. While fighting has continued during previous cease-fires, this one was agreed upon during formal negotiations and has a basic monitoring mechanism. As of Friday, sporadic clashes had been reported between the warring Sudanese army and rival Rapid Security Forces in the capital, Khartoum and in West Darfur, which has seen deadly fighting.

7-Day Cease-Fire Starts in Sudan

The U.N. refugee agency is moving tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in Chad away from the Sudan border into new camps. UNHCR’s visiting deputy says concerns about security and access to aid are increasing, along with the number of refugees. Watch this report from Henry Wilkins at the Gaga refugee site in Chad:

UN Moves Sudanese Refugees in Chad Away From Border

UN chief: Warring parties must protect civilians

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that the world is failing to live up to its commitments to protect civilians, an obligation that is preserved in international humanitarian law. Guterres said international humanitarian law “is the difference between life and death” in conflict zones.

UN Chief: Warring Nations Must Protect Civilians

Ukrainian exports at their lowest since grain deal began

Despite renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative on May 17, exports of grain and food from Ukraine have slowed to their lowest levels this month since they resumed under the deal in August, as Russian officials repeat complaints that Moscow is not benefiting enough from the initiative. The Istanbul-based Joint Coordination Center that oversees the implementation of the deal said Friday that only two of the three Ukrainian ports authorized to receive and send ships are working, no new vessels have been registered to participate in the initiative in nearly a month, and the number of daily ship inspections have dropped significantly.

Ukrainian Exports Under Black Sea Deal Hit Lowest Levels

UN rights chief urges Iran to decriminalize mandatory hijab for women

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Iran on Wednesday to decriminalize mandatory veiling laws, warning that the harassment of women, including what they do or do not wear, appears to have intensified as street protests have died down. Volker Türk urged Tehran “to heed Iranians’ calls for reform,” and to begin by repealing regulations that criminalize violations of mandatory dress codes. Parliament is considering tightening penalties for people and institutions that fail to comply with regulations.

UN Rights Chief Urges Iran to Decriminalize ‘Mandatory Veiling Laws’

Funding for Horn of Africa drought-affected countries falls far short

Donors raised around $1 billion Wednesday in new commitments for the drought-stricken Horn of Africa during a pledging conference held at the United Nations but failed to close the gap on an appeal seeking $7 billion. The U.N. says the $7 billion is needed this year to assist nearly 32 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia who are facing acute food insecurity after five failed rainy seasons caused unprecedented drought.

UN: Substantial Funds Still Needed for Drought-Stricken Horn of Africa

In brief

— Secretary-General Guterres welcomed the arrest of Rwandan fugitive Fulgence Kayishema in South Africa, for allegedly committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda in 1994. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda charged him in 2001 with having orchestrated the killings of more than 2,000 people on April 15, 1994, at a church in Nyange, Kibuye Prefecture, in western Rwanda. A U.N. spokesperson said the arrest sends a powerful message that those who are alleged to have committed such crimes cannot evade justice and will eventually be held accountable, even more than a quarter of a century later.

— The humanitarian community appealed for $333 million on Tuesday to help 1.6 million people impacted by Cyclone Mocha in the Myanmar states and regions of Rakhine, Chin, Magway, Sagaing and Kachin. The U.N. says it’s in a “race against time” to provide people with shelter and prevent the spread of water-borne diseases.

— The World Health Organization will begin Africa’s largest polio vaccination campaign since 2020 on Saturday, aiming to immunize 21 million children under the age of 5. Vaccinations will begin in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic. The Lake Chad region has one of the highest proportions of so-called “zero dose” children – those who are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated. The campaign comes in response to 14 detections of the poliovirus this year.

Quote of note

“But the fact of the matter is that today’s world leaders have thus far failed miserably by putting selfish national interests ahead of urgent global needs. They have failed to see the big picture — that the world will sink or swim together — or they have decided to play a dangerous game of chicken — demanding that others do more to curb CO2 emissions.”

Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and current member of The Elders, regretting that his generation is passing the climate crisis to the next, during his commencement address to graduates at Harvard’s Kennedy School this week.

What we are watching next week

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to brief the Security Council on Tuesday. Rafael Grossi has been seeking a demilitarized zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant for months and has made several trips to Ukraine and Russia in its pursuit.

Did you know?

The U.N. marked the 75th anniversary of U.N. Peacekeeping on Thursday. The first U.N. mission of military observers was deployed to the Middle East in 1948. Since then, there have been 71 operations around the world. More than 2 million peacekeepers – or “blue helmets” as they are known for their distinctive colored head gear – from 125 countries have served. Women did not really participate until the 1990s. Today, women make up about 9% of the 87,000 peacekeepers serving in a dozen missions. It is not easy or safe work; more than 4,200 have died in the line of duty since 1948.