Senate NASA

Former Sen. Bill Nelson, nominee to be administrator of NASA, speaks during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation confirmation hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Senate confirms Bill Nelson to lead NASA

WASHINGTON | The Senate has confirmed former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who once flew on the space shuttle, to be the next NASA administrator.

Lawmakers agreed to President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the space agency by consensus late Thursday, without a roll call vote.

“I am honored by the President’s nomination and the Senate vote,” Nelson said in a statement. “I will try to merit that trust. Onward and upward!”

Nelson will become NASA’s 14th administrator, succeeding another former member of Congress, Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma. Nelson currently serves on the NASA Advisory Council.

Nelson promised, when nominated, to “help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities.” The space agency is working to send astronauts back to the moon this decade.

“Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit,” Nelson said. “The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”

Nelson, 78, grew up near Cape Canaveral and was serving as a Democratic congressman when he launched aboard space shuttle Columbia on Jan. 12, 1986. His commander was Charles Bolden Jr., who later served as NASA administrator under President Barack Obama — at Nelson’s urging.

Just 10 days after their flight ended, the space shuttle Challenger failed shortly after liftoff and all seven astronauts were killed.

Nelson, who has a law degree and is a former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, served six terms in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1991. He was elected in 2000 to the Senate, where he served until his defeat in 2018 by former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Judge says Kushner’s apartment company violated laws

BALTIMORE | A judge in Maryland has ruled that an apartment company co-owned by Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, repeatedly violated state consumer protection laws by collecting debts without required licenses, charging tenants improper fees and misrepresenting the condition of rental units.

Administrative Law Judge Emily Daneker said in her 252-page decision Thursday that violations by Westminster Management and the company JK2 were “widespread and numerous,” the Baltimore Sun reported.

Kushner and his brother, Joshua, each held 50% interest in JK2. Westminster is the company’s successor.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, sued Westminster and 25 related companies in 2019, claiming they took advantage of financially vulnerable consumers in the Baltimore area.

The judge ruled tenants often were misled about apartment conditions and were not allowed to see their actual apartments until their move-in days.

Daneker found Westminster charged illegal fees thousands of times over the course of more than two years, such as wrongly charging more than $332,000 in agent fees.

“These circumstances do not support a finding that this was the result of isolated or inadvertent mistakes,” the judge wrote.

The judge also concluded that Frosh’s office did not establish that the companies illegally misrepresented their ability to provide maintenance services and were not violating consumer protection laws during the entire period alleged by the attorney general.

The Kushner Cos., which owns Westminster, characterized the judge’s decision as a victory for the company.

“Kushner respects the thoughtful depth of the Judge’s decision, which vindicates Westminster with respect to many of the Attorney General’s overreaching allegations,” Kushner Cos. general counsel Christopher W. Smith said in a statement.

Westminster has repeatedly alleged that Frosh’s case was politically motivated, but the judge said the evidence does not support that claim.

Frosh’s office declined to comment on the ruling, citing the ongoing litigation.

Both sides have 30 days to file responses to the judge’s ruling.

Most of the properties involved in the case are in Baltimore County, but some are in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.

Controversial nuke plant shuts down

BUCHANAN, N.Y. | Indian Point permanently stopped producing power Friday, capping a decades-long battle over a key source of electricity in the heart of New York City’s suburbs that opponents have called a threat to millions living in the densely packed region.

The retirement of the Indian Point Energy Center along the Hudson River could increase New York’s short-term reliance on natural gas plants, despite the state’s goal of reducing carbon emissions. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others who fought for its shutdown argue any benefits from the plant are eclipsed by the nightmare prospect of a major nuclear accident or a terror strike 25 miles north of the city.

“There are 20 million people living within 50 miles of Indian Point and there is no way to evacuate them in case of a radiological release. And the risk of that is quite real,” said Paul Gallay, president of the environmental group Riverkeeper.

The actual shutdown will be straightforward: a control room operator for Indian Point’s Unit 3 will push a red button to shut down the reactor Friday night. It will complete a contentious closing of the plant’s two reactors years in the making.

The Unit 2 reactor shut down exactly a year ago under a 2017 agreement among the Cuomo administration, Riverkeeper and the plant’s operator, Entergy Corp. Unit 3’s shutdown under the same agreement paves the way for a decommissioning that is projected to cost $2.3 billion and take at least 12 years. The tall twin domes visible from the river will eventually be demolished.

The two reactors, which went online two years apart in the mid-’70s, had generated about a quarter of the electricity used in New York City and the lower Hudson Valley.

They also generated controversy.

Environmentalists faulted the plant for killing fish by taking in massive amounts of river water for cooling. Critics said the plant was antiquated and pointed to a safety history that included faulty reactor bolts and radioactive tritium detected in groundwater onsite.

Fears that Indian Point could be a terror target intensified after one of the planes hijacked for the Sept. 11 attacks flew by the plant on its way down the river to the World Trade Center.

“In theory, the plant was built to withstand an airplane crash in the ‘70s,” Cuomo told reporters recently. “Who knows what would happen now with Indian Point?”

Entergy spokesperson Jerry Nappi said Indian Point has run reliably and safely virtually without interruption since 1962, when the first long-since-retired reactor went online at the site of an old amusement park.

Entergy says low wholesale energy prices and operating costs factored into its 2017 decision to close Indian Point. Nuclear plants have been closing in recent years amid low natural gas prices, slow growth in electricity demand and competition from renewables.

Village of Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker, a lifetime resident, said the plant operators are good neighbors and it’s sad to see them go. The village is among the local beneficiaries of annual payments from Entergy and there were still 750 workers employed there this month.

“We were always known as one of the smallest communities with a nuclear power plant. We were kind of proud of that,” Knickerbocker said. “People would make fun of us, ‘Oh, you glow in the dark?’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we do.’”

Indian Point’s exit is not expected create reliability problems for New York’s electrical grid. But it comes as the Cuomo administration works to increase the share of electricity generated by clean renewables like wind and solar. The state aims to get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Indian Point proponents say its retirement will require New York to rely more heavily on fossil-fuel burning natural gas plants. They note that natural gas generation in New York already increased last year after Unit 2 closed.

“Now we’re going to double the damage when Indian Point 3 shuts down, taking us even further backwards,” said Keith Schue of New York Energy and Climate Advocates.

Backers of the closure say any potential bump up in New York natural gas generation needs to be considered in context of a decrease in fossil fuel generation since 2016, as well as progress in renewables and energy efficiency. New York has more than 20 large-scale renewable energy infrastructure projects that will be under construction this year with more planned.

Tom Congdon, chairman of Cuomo’s Indian Point closure task force, said the state has been preparing for the retirement for years and the state remains on target for its clean air goals. He said a fluctuation in natural gas generation is possible.

“But whatever that change is, it’s temporary in nature because of this tremendous pipeline of renewable energy projects that are all coming online over the next few years,” Congdon said.

Pending state regulatory approval, Entergy will transfer Indian Point to New Jersey-based Holtec International for decommissioning. Spent fuel is being moved to gigantic onsite “dry casks” until it can go elsewhere.

Holtec said it will provide job opportunities more than 300 Indian Point employees, and local communities will have access to payments and assistance to ease their post-nuclear transition.

Knickerbocker hopes that some of the 240-acre site will eventually be used for residential and commercial development.

“It’s the end of an era for us,” she said.

Appeals court tells EPA to ban pesticide or decide it’s safe

WASHINGTON | A federal appeals court on Thursday ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to quickly determine whether a pesticide linked to brain damage in children should be banned, saying the agency had delayed acting on the widely used bug-killer chlorpyrifos for nearly 14 years.

In a 2-1 decision, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to act on a possible ban within 60 days.

“The EPA has spent more than a decade assembling a record of chlorpyrifos’s ill effects,” U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote. “Yet, rather than ban the pesticide or reduce the tolerances to levels that the EPA can find are reasonably certain to cause no harm, the EPA has sought to evade, through one delaying tactic after another, its plain statutory duties.”

Rakoff and U.S. Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen ordered the EPA to decide within 60 days whether the pesticide is safe, including for infants and children, or ban it.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee, in dissent, said 60 days was too short, “likely predetermining EPA’s option’’ and forcing a ban.

“This is a vast overreach, a clear abuse of our discretion,’’ Bybee wrote.

The decision comes after a yearslong battle over the pesticide, which is widely used on oranges, soybeans, almonds and other crops.

During the Obama administration, the EPA had initiated a ban, but the agency reversed that decision shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017. The EPA rejected a legal challenge in 2019, saying environmental groups had failed to prove a ban was warranted.

A spokesman said Thursday that the EPA is reviewing the court decision. President Joe Biden signed an executive order this year to review the Trump EPA’s decision to keep chlorpyrifos on the market.

“As the agency pursues its mission to protect human health, including that of children and the environment, EPA is committed to ensuring the safety of pesticides and other chemicals,’’ spokesman Nick Conger said. “The agency is committed to helping support and protect farmworkers and their families while ensuring pesticides are used safely.’’

Environmental groups said a ban of chlorpyrifos is long overdue.

“The court got it right: EPA’s time is now up,” said Patti Goldman, managing attorney at Earthjustice, one of the groups that challenged the Trump-era decision.

“EPA must now follow the law, ban chlorpyrifos and protect children and farmworkers from a pesticide we know is linked to numerous developmental harms,’’ Goldman said in a statement. “It would be unconscionable for EPA to expose children to this pesticide for any longer.’’

Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, another group involved in the litigation, said the appeals court “ruled in favor of science, which has clearly shown that chlorpyrifos is too dangerous to be used to grow our food.’’

The ruling — and EPA action expected by the end of June — “will ensure that kids can eat fruits and vegetables free of this neurotoxin,’’ Sass said.

Scientific studies have shown that chlorpyrifos damages the brains of fetuses and children. California, the largest agricultural state, banned sales of the pesticide as of last year. New York and a handful of other states also have moved to ban it.

Corteva Inc., which had been the world’s largest manufacturer of the pesticide, stopped producing it last year. The company, created after a merger of Dow Chemical and Dupont, said declining sales drove its decision and that officials continue to believe chlorpyrifos is safe.

A spokeswoman said in an email Thursday the company was disappointed at the appeals court ruling, “which threatens to effectively remove an important tool for farmers.’’

Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union, called the court ruling a “huge victory’’ for farmworkers and their families.

“The men and women who harvest our food have waited too long for a ban on this pesticide,’’ she said. She urged quick action so workers and families “no longer have to worry about the myriad of ways this pesticide could impact their lives.’’

Sen. Scott suggests Dems use race as political weapon

WASHINGTON | Sen. Tim Scott accused Democrats on Wednesday of dividing the country and suggested they’re wielding race as “a political weapon,” using the official Republican response to President Joe Biden’s maiden speech to Congress to credit the GOP for leading the country out of its pandemic struggles and toward a hopeful future.

Scott, R-S.C., in his nationally televised rebuttal of Biden’s address, belittled the new president’s initial priorities — aimed at combating the deadly virus and spurring the economy — as wasteful expansions of big government.

“We should be expanding options and opportunities for all families,” said Scott, who preaches a message of optimism while remaining a loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump, “not throwing money at certain issues because Democrats think they know best.”

Citing the partisan battle over Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, which Congress approved over unanimous GOP opposition, Scott said: “We need policies and progress that bring us closer together. But three months in, the actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart.”

But the Senate’s only Black Republican saved some of his sharpest comments for the fraught subject of race. Scott recounted his rise from a low-income family and “the pain” of repeatedly being pulled over by police while driving but said, “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”

Asked Thursday about Scott’s comment, Vice President Kamala Harris told ABC’s “Good Morning America, “No, I don’t think America is a racist country but we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country.”

She added: “One of the greatest threats to our national security is domestic terrorism manifested by white supremacists. These are issues that we must confront, and it does not help to heal our country, to unify us as a people, to ignore the realities of that”

Biden and other Democrats have cited institutional racism as a major national problem.

While acknowledging that “our healing is not finished,” Scott suggested that Democrats and liberals have turned the race issue upside down.

“It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” he said, without providing examples of what he meant. “And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”

He added, “Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue the way one side wants.”

Biden’s address came three months into a presidency that’s seen Republicans repeatedly accuse him of abandoning his campaign pledge to seek bipartisan compromises. While Biden cited a rosy roster of accomplishments and goals in his own speech — “America is on the move again,” he said — Scott said it was Republicans who had bolstered the economy and began to tame the pandemic.

“This should be a joyful springtime for our nation,” said Scott, citing the Trump administration’s role in helping spur vaccine development and beginning a revival of the staggered economy. “This administration inherited a tide that had already turned. The coronavirus is on the run!”

The address also came as Scott, a 10-year veteran of Congress who usually keeps a low profile, has found a spotlight leading his party in a bipartisan effort to overhaul police procedures. That drive was prompted by last May’s slaying of George Floyd, a Black man, and energized anew by this month’s conviction of a white former Minneapolis police officer for the killing.

“I’m still working. I’m still hopeful,” he said of the talks.

Scott criticized many school systems’ decisions to halt or limit in-person classes during the pandemic as a safety measure. Those closures, which were recommended by public health officials, have drawn fire from Republicans as an overreaction and become part of the GOP’s culture war with Democrats.

“Locking vulnerable kids out of the classroom is locking adults out of their future,” Scott said.

Scott cited low unemployment rates for minorities before the pandemic struck last year, calling it “the most inclusive economy in my lifetime.” And he praised GOP efforts including tax breaks to encourage business investments in low-income communities.

“Our best future won’t come from Washington schemes or socialist dreams,” he said, echoing the GOP’s oft-repeated theme that Democrats are pushing far-left plans. “It will come from you — the American people.”

Scott has long embraced themes of opportunity and a cheerful optimism that were conservative calling cards during the Reagan era. He retold the story of a grandfather who left grade school to pick cotton and led a lifetime of illiteracy, his own childhood living in a single bedroom with his single mother and brother and nearly failing out of high school.

Scott said his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime. So I am more than hopeful — I am confident — that our finest hour is yet to come.”

Those messages could make Scott a positive messenger for the GOP in what could otherwise be a divisive 2022 election campaign, when the party has high hopes of winning control of the House and perhaps the Senate. Scott is strongly favored to be reelected next year.

Over the years, Scott at times called out Trump in measured tones over some of his racially offensive broadsides. Yet he’s remained a strong supporter of the former president and opposed Trump’s removal from office after the House impeached him for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

—From AP reports

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