In Texas, Concerns About Damage To Flooded Toxic Waste Sites

Flood water from last week’s storm ripped apart fences and flooded I-10. The San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site is just on the other side of the road.

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Rebecca Hersher/NPR

In Texas, officials are still trying to confirm whether flood water has spread contamination from decades-old toxic waste sites, as water recedes and residents return to homes that, in some cases, were flooded with water that passed over known contaminated areas.

The Environmental Protection Agency says 13 Superfund sites were flooded and potentially damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The agency said Monday morning that its personnel had not been able to inspect 11 of them: Bailey Waste Disposal, French LTD, Geneva Industries/Fuhrmann Energy, Gulfco Marine Maintenance, Highland Acid Pit, Malone Services, U.S. Oil Recovery, Patrick Bayou, Petro-Chemical Systems, Triangle Chemical and the San Jacinto Waste Pits.

EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman wrote in a statement on Monday, “EPA teams are in place to investigate possible damage to these sites as soon flood waters recede, and personnel are able to safely access the sites.” NPR found little or no water left around six of those sites on Sunday.

“That site started sinking into the river”

In a separate statement, the EPA also said it had done initial aerial assessments of 41 Superfund sites, and planned to inspect the San Jacinto Waste Pits by boat on Monday. The agency has not confirmed whether that inspection went forward or what it found.

The site is located in the middle of the San Jacinto River about 20 minutes from downtown Houston, adjacent to Interstate 10. It is made up of two main pits, was used as a dumping area for toxic waste from a paper mill in the 1960s, and is heavily contaminated with chemicals called dioxins, according to the EPA.

“This was just an open pit on the edge of the San Jacinto River,” says Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group that works with state and federal agencies on waterway cleanup efforts in the region. He says a bad location for waste disposal was made worse by groundwater pumping over the years. “That site started sinking into the river, so probably since the mid-70s about half that pit has been permanently underwater. So all those years that dioxin can get out into the water.”

A sign along the San Jacinto River warns against eating fish or shellfish from the river. A nearby site that has been a source of toxins was flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

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Rebecca Hersher/NPR

The site was added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites in 2008, after the EPA found the area around the pits was contaminated with both dioxins and furans. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department warns people should not eat fish and crabs from the area because the animals may be contaminated.

Jones, who used to work for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, says he’s been generally happy with the EPA’s handling of the site, but wishes the entire process moved more quickly, given the dangers to wildlife and humans who live in the area.

“With all of our government agencies, whether it’s federal or state, we don’t put enough money into [them],” he says. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality did not return requests for comment.

In 2011, the pits full of toxic soil and sand were temporarily capped with a liner held in place with large rocks, and last year the EPA announced it was taking public comments on a proposed plan to remove 152,000 cubic yards of contaminated material from the site. The agency was still reviewing those comments when last week’s storm hit.

“I don’t trust it”

Residents who live near multiple Superfund sites in the Houston area say they haven’t heard from EPA or TCEQ officials, and some are concerned that the mud left behind by flooding could be dangerous.

Barbara and Ellen Luke grew up a few blocks from the Highland Acid Pit, which were contaminated with industrial sludge thought to contain sulfuric acid in the 1950s.

The Highlands Acid Pit Superfund site remained flooded on August 31. The water has since receded, and some residents are concerned that toxins from the site could have spread into the nearby neighborhood.

Jason Dearen/AP

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Jason Dearen/AP

“We always walked down there and messed around,” says Barbara. Her 73-year-old mother still lives in the family home, which had two feet of water in it at the height of the floods last week. On Sunday, the sisters set fire to whatever waterlogged belongings wburn in the front yard. Both women said they are skeptical of any official who tells them the area is safe.

“I don’t trust it,” says Barbara. “I mean that is probably something that will forever affect the environment. I don’t see how you can get rid of that.”

Up the street, Adolfo Peralta says the water was 12 feet high in his yard. His home, he says, is destroyed. He’d like to repair it, but his wife would like them to move, in part because she’s concerned about contamination. He’s hoping someone from the government will be able to tell him definitively that the water and soil on his property are safe in the coming weeks.

Another neighbor, Dwight Chandler, is repairing a home that’s been in his family since 1942. “I grew up in that acid pit,” he says. “Played in it my whole life. That’s my cousin. He was raised here, played in it. Um, ain’t affected us, you know?” His cousin nods in agreement from across the room.

It’s always difficult to tie any particular health outcome to contamination, or lack of it. Studies have found significantly higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness among those living along the Houston Ship Channel and San Jacinto River.

Chandler says he welcomes testing for toxins in the neighborhood. It can’t hurt. But he’s not waiting for it; he’s rebuilding now.

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Hong Kong Broadcaster's Decision To Drop BBC Prompts Anger

Hong Kong in 2012. The territory’s public-service broadcaster will replace the BBC with the China National News, broadcast in Mandarin, China’s official dialect, instead of the Cantonese more commonly spoken in Hong Kong.

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Vincent Yu/AP

One of the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s colonial past is going silent. The territory’s public broadcaster will pull the plug on a 24-hour stream of the BBC World Service, replacing it with state-controlled media from China.

A spokesperson for Radio Television Hong Kong, known as RTHK, says the decision to end the radio broadcasts, which have aired since 1978, was not influenced by politics. The BBC said in a statement that it is “always disappointed when a service our listeners are used to changes” adding that it is “doing everything we can to ensure we continue to reach our audiences.”

The move has prompted anger from some listeners in Hong Kong, who launched an online petition calling for the service to be restored. “Hong Kong touts itself as an international city. Yet the removal of the BBC World Service from the airwaves makes the city feel more parochial and inward‐looking,” the petition reads.

In addition to dropping the BBC, the China National News that replaces it will be broadcast in Mandarin, China’s official dialect, instead of the Cantonese more commonly spoken in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Postreported on Sunday that the move to drop the World Service relay was part of a larger shakeup of RTHK’s digital radio operation which had “failed to attract a significant audience.”

It says that the service would still be available online, via satellite and “on RTHK’s analogue channel.”

The SCMP acknowledged that the switch has “raised concern in some circles” and that “its replacement with bulletins in [Mandarin] from state-run China National News, is [cited by critics] as evidence of declining press freedom in Hong Kong.”

In 1997, Britain handed back Hong Kong to China in a historic transfer of sovereignty in which Beijing pledged to grant the territory a special status, preserving for it “a high degree of autonomy.”

However, in recent years, Beijing has increasingly taken a heavier hand in Hong Kong affairs, cracking down on dissent and refusing to allow free elections for the territory’s leader, which was a stipulation of the so-called Hong Kong Basic Law negotiated as part of the handover.

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Scanning The Future, Radiologists See Their Jobs At Risk

These days, a radiologist at UCSF will go through anywhere from 20 to 100 scans a day, and each scan can have thousands of images to review.

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In health care, you could say radiologists have typically had a pretty sweet deal. They make, on average, around $400,000 a year — nearly double what a family doctor makes — and often have less grueling hours. But if you talk with radiologists in training at the University of California, San Francisco, it quickly becomes clear that the once-certaingolden path is no longer so secure.

“The biggest concern is that we could be replaced by machines,” says Phelps Kelley, a fourth-year radiology fellow. He’s sitting inside a dimly lit reading room, looking at digital images from the CT scan of a patient’s chest, trying to figure out why he’s short of breath.

Because MRI and CT scans are now routine procedures and all the data can be stored digitally, the number of images radiologists have to assess has risen dramatically. These days, a radiologist at UCSF will go through anywhere from 20 to 100 scans a day, and each scan can have thousands of images to review.

“Radiology has become commoditized over the years,” Kelley says. “People don’t want interaction with a radiologist, they just want a piece of paper that says what the CT shows.”

Dr. Marc Kohli says that radiologists should embrace artificial intelligence.

Courtesy of Christopher Jovais

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Courtesy of Christopher Jovais

‘Computers are awfully good at seeing patterns’

That basic analysis is something he predicts computers will be able to do.

Dr. Bob Wachter, an internist at UCSF and author of The Digital Doctor, says radiology is particularly amenable to takeover by artificial intelligence like machine learning.

“Radiology, at its core, is now a human being, based on learning and his or her own experience, looking at a collection of digital dots and a digital pattern and saying ‘That pattern looks like cancer or looks like tuberculosis or looks like pneumonia,’ ” he says. “Computers are awfully good at seeing patterns.”

Just think about how Facebook software can identify your face in a group photo, or Google’s can recognize a stop sign. Big tech companies are betting the same machine learning process — training a computer by feeding it thousands of images — could make it possible for an algorithm to diagnose heart disease or strokes faster and cheaper than a human can.

UCSF radiologist Dr. Marc Kohli says there is plenty of angst among radiologists today.

“You can’t walk through any of our meetings without hearing people talk about machine learning,” Kohli says.

Both Kohli and his colleague Dr. John Mongan are researching ways to use artificial intelligence in radiology. As part of a UCSF collaboration with GE, Mongan is helping teach machines to distinguish between normal and abnormal chest X-rays so doctors can prioritize patients with life-threatening conditions. He says the people most fearful about AI understand the least about it. From his office just north of Silicon Valley, he compares the climate to that of the dot-com bubble.

“People were sure about the way things were going to go,” Mongan says. “Webvan had billions of dollars and was going to put all the groceries out of business. There’s still a Safeway half a mile from my house. But at the same time, it wasn’t all hype.”

‘You need them working together’

The reality is this: dozens of companies, including IBM, Google and GE, are racing to develop formulas that could one day make diagnoses from medical images. It’s not an easy task: to write the complex problem-solving formulas, developers need access to a tremendous amount of health data.

Health care companies like vRad, which has radiologists analyzing 7 million scans a year, provide data to partners that develop medical algorithms.

The data has been used to “create algorithms to detect the risk of acute strokes and hemorrhages” and help off-site radiologists prioritize their work, says Dr. Benjamin Strong, chief medical officer at vRad.

Zebra Medical Vision, an Israeli company, provides algorithms to hospitals across the U.S. that help radiologists predict disease. Chief Medical Officer Eldad Elnekave says computers can detect diseases from images better than humans because they can multitask — say, look for appendicitis while also checking for low bone density.

Radiologist John Mongan is researching was to use artificial intelligence in radiology.

Courtesy of Mark Kohli

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Courtesy of Mark Kohli

“The radiologist can’t make 30 diagnoses for every study. But the evidence is there, the information is in the pixels,” Elnekave says.

Still, UCSF’s Mongan isn’t worried about losing his job.

“When we’re talking about the machines doing things radiologists can’t do, we’re not talking about a machine where you can just drop an MRI in it and walk away and the answer gets spit out better than a radiologist,” he says. “A CT does things better than a radiologist. But that CT scanner by itself doesn’t do much good. You need them working together.”

In the short term, Mongan is excited algorithms could help him prioritize patients and make sure he doesn’t miss something. Long term, he says radiologists will spend less time looking at images and more time selecting algorithms and interpreting results.

Kohli says in addition to embracing artificial intelligence, radiologists need to make themselves more visible by coming out of those dimly lit reading rooms.

“We’re largely hidden from the patients,” Kohli says. “We’re nearly completely invisible, with the exception of my name shows up on a bill, which is a problem.”

Wachter believes increasing collaboration between radiologists and doctors is also critical.

“At UCSF, we’re having conversations about [radiologists] coming out of their room and working with us. The more they can become real consultants, I think that will help,” he says.

Kelley, the radiology fellow, says young radiologists who don’t shy away from AI will have a far more certain future. His analogy? Uber and the taxi business.

“If the taxi industry had invested in ride-hailing apps maybe they wouldn’t be going out of business and Uber wouldn’t be taking them over,” Kelley says. “So if we can actually own [AI], then we can maybe benefit from it and not be wiped out by it.”

At least for now, Kelley offers what a computer can’t — a diagnosis with a face-to-face explanation.

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William And Kate Expecting Third Child

Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate with their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, in a photograph taken in July.

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Christian Charisius/AP

Kensington Palace has issued an official announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, are expecting their third child.

A statement from the palace said “The Queen and members of both families are delighted with the news.”

Read the press release in full ↓ pic.twitter.com/vDTgGD2aGF

— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) September 4, 2017

The statement also added that the Duchess was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness that has afflicted her during two previous pregnancies.

The announcement comes almost precisely three years after a similar one letting the world know that the couple was pregnant with their second, Charlotte (now aged 2), born on May 2, 2015.

Prince George, 4, third in line to the throne, was born on July 22, 2013.

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Puerto Rico Prepares For A Strengthening Hurricane Irma

Forecast track for Hurricane Irma issued by the National Hurricane Center on Monday, Sept. 4, at 11 a.m. AST.

National Hurricane Center

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National Hurricane Center

The governor of Puerto Rico has declared a preemptive state of emergency and activated the territory’s National Guard ahead of Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm that is expected to strengthen further before making possible landfall on the island by mid-week.

Forecasters say the dangerous storm also looks increasingly likely to hit the U.S. East Coast, either in South Florida or the Carolinas.

New GFS model with #Irma. Every run like this increases odds we’re dealing with a major hurricane landfall just over 2 weeks after #Harvey. pic.twitter.com/EjCYnBtoKL

— Mike Thomas (@MikeTFox5) September 4, 2017

“We have established protocols for the safety of all,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said, urging islanders to take precautions.

Rossello said 4 to 8 inches of rain were expected, with wind gusts up to 60 mph.

Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenthiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, writes in a blog post that the latest tracks for Irma are “bad news for a lot of places from the Leeward islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, and then the U.S.”

Although it’s still too early to say whether Irma would make landfall on the mainland U.S., McNoldy cites long-range forecasts showing possible landfalls on the border between the Carolinas, or alternately near Miami.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami has issued a hurricane watch for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and a hurricane warning for the Leeward Islands north of Guadeloupe, including Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Barthelemy. A watch was also in effect for Guadeloupe as well as Vieques and Culebra.

Detail from a U.S. Hurricane Center map of the forecast track for Hurricane Irma. The red areas denote places where a hurricane warning is in effect; pink denotes a watch.

National Hurricane Center

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National Hurricane Center

The current forecast track has the storm passing closest to St. Martin and Anguilla, where it is expected to hit with 100 mph winds and heavy rain on Tuesday before moving westward toward Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

The Associated Press writes that: “Antigua’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, urged people to take preventative measures in case the storm should keep on its current arc, saying that should include cleaning drains and removing objects that could be sent flying by high winds. Workers began pruning trees and shrubs to reduce chances for branches to tear down power and phone lines.

“The passage of a hurricane is not a matter to be taken lightly, but we must not panic,” Browne said in a statement.

In the Dominican Republic, Public Works Minister Gonzalo Castillo was quoted by the AP as saying workers were clearing away road works and blocked sewer drains in preparation for the storm.

Earlier, some models had the storm re-curving away from the U.S. coast, but McNoldy writes: “At this point, Florida is definitely at risk from at least a close encounter if not a direct landfall from a major hurricane. The southeast U.S. coast is also still at an elevated risk of significant impacts.”

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'He Has A Reason': How Natural Disasters Test The Faithful

For people who believe in God, natural disasters can challenge faith. For some, it becomes impossible to believe there is a God in command when truly awful things happen.

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Charlie Riedel/AP

In churches across Houston on Sunday, pastors struggled to tell their parishioners why a God they believed to be good might have allowed a storm of Biblical proportion to flood their city.

“God causes it to happen, but He has a reason,” Pastor Gary Smith told the worshippers at Fifth Ward Church of Christ in northeast Houston. “We don’t comprehend what God has planned for us.”

Spiritual leaders have long offered such counsel in times of human suffering. For people who believe in God, natural disasters can challenge faith. For some, it becomes impossible to believe there is a God in command when truly awful things happen.

“It’s typically been called the ‘rock of atheism,’ ” says Mark Scott, chair of the department of religious studies at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario. “If God is all powerful and omnibenevolent, all good, then why would there be evil in the world? It seems like a logical contradiction.”

The dilemma is so serious that theologians actually have a term for efforts to explain why God and evil can coexist: theodicy.

“It’s a very important topic,” says Scott, who has written widely on the issue of theodicy. “The problem of evil is universally recognized to be a grave threat to faith. People in the midst of suffering often feel abandoned by God.”

Religious leaders offer a variety of answers. Some argue that it is not God who is actually responsible for human suffering.

“There are many Christians who want to get God off the hook,” says Erwin Lutzer, the pastor emeritus at Moody Church in Chicago. “They say either God doesn’t have the power to stop these things, or else they say that he was somehow a meaningful bystander.”

Mark Scott, chair of the department of religious studies at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario, says evil is a “universally recognized” threat to faith. “People in the midst of suffering often feel abandoned by God,” he says.

Courtney Juno/Courtesy of Mark Scott

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Courtney Juno/Courtesy of Mark Scott

Lutzer, a prominent evangelical writer, does not agree. “God is actively involved in all these things,” he says. “They are traceable to God.”

So what, many ask, is God’s will at such times?

One answer is that human suffering is God’s punishment. A whole city may be destroyed, some religious leaders may argue, because of its sinful ways. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, speculated after Hurricane Katrina that New Orleans was hit because it was known for “orgies.”

“We’ve ended up with public denouncements of gays and lesbians and others who conservative Christians point at as the reason nastiness has occurred,” says Anthony Pinn, a professor of religion at Rice University in Houston. “It’s not because God is not good. It’s because people are screwed up. Folks suffer because they are warped individuals. They are warped communities.”

That is not Pinn’s view, nor is it Lutzer’s.

“When disasters come, they fall equally on Christians and non-Christians,” Lutzer says. “Everyone is affected. Natural disasters do not separate the righteous from the wicked.”

‘That’s where we see the grace of God’

Lutzer’s view is that through suffering, God reminds religious believers that life is short and full of uncertainty, and that disasters may sometimes serve to deepen one’s faith.

“We simply do not know the thousands, or perhaps millions, of spiritually careless people who were forced to take God seriously in a time of crisis,” he wrote in a Moody Church blog.

Pinn, who has written on the African-American religious experience, says the faith of enslaved people in America endured not because they understood why God allowed slavery to exist, but because their faith in God enabled them to survive their oppression.

” ‘We know God is loving, kind, just and compassionate,’ the argument [went],” Pinn says, ” ‘and what we ought to be doing is live out those principles. We don’t know why this is happening, but we know we can do something to alleviate it.’ “

Pinn himself left the church after 20 years as a minister because he finally concluded that the persistence of racism and other evils disprove the existence of a just and loving God.

People the world over still believe in God, however, even as they encounter suffering around them. The flooding of Houston has likely not destroyed religious belief there. Wendy Farley of the San Francisco Theological Seminary notes that Houstonians were inspired to help each other in the worst of moments.

“That’s where we see the grace of God,” she says. “That’s where we see God’s message, God’s message, in that good heart that disasters bring forth.” God’s will, she argues, is evident not in the allowance of suffering, but in how people resist their suffering and in the compassion that it brings out.

That message was echoed in Pastor Smith’s sermon on Sunday in northeast Houston.

“This is a trying time for many of us,” Smith said, “but you know what? God is blessing some folks during this time.” He noted “the outpouring of love” from other church communities that came to the aid of his congregants in the preceding days.

“We would never have been introduced to each other,” he said. “That was not Harvey. That was God.”

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