Leader of white nationalist gang escapes Arkansas jail

Wesley Gullett appears in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service on August 1, 2019. U.S. Marshals Service/Handout via REUTERS

By Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – A white nationalist gang leader facing federal charges escaped from an Arkansas jail along with another inmate on Thursday, officials said.

Wesley Gullett, who prosecutors earlier this year said was the head of the New Aryan Empire, was found to be missing early on Wednesday at the Jefferson County Jail in Pine Bluff, a city about 30 miles (50 km) south of Little Rock, the U.S. Marshals Service said in a statement.

The New Aryan Empire began as a prison gang and branched out beyond prisons, with members committing violence to support a large drug-trafficking operation, the Department of Justice said in February.

Christopher Sanderson appears in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service on August 1, 2019. U.S. Marshals Service/Handout via REUTERS

Christopher Sanderson appears in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Marshals Service on August 1, 2019. U.S. Marshals Service/Handout via REUTERS

The other inmate missing was Christopher Sanderson, 34, who was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, the Marshals Service said. His prior convictions include possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver and theft.

Federal prosecutors in 2017 charged Gullett and more than 40 other people with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, according to court documents.

This past February, a federal grand jury named other defendants and brought additional charges. For Gullett, those new charges included attempted murder and assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Gullett, 30, who is from Russellville, Arkansas, has pleaded not guilty.

The Marshals Service has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the capture of Gullett and a $5,000 reward for Sanderson and agency officials warned that both men should be considered armed and dangerous.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Rains ease, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana still face flood of ‘historic magnitude’

A mattress and dresser drawer are among the debris scattered on a lawn near a damaged house after several tornadoes reportedly touched down, in Linwood, Kansas, U.S., May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Nate Chute

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Thousands of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana residents braced for more flooding on Thursday as swollen rivers continued to rise, although the threat of rain was expected to ease by the afternoon, officials said.

Many in the U.S. Southern states have already evacuated homes, as of further flooding drove fears that decades-old levees girding the Arkansas River may not hold.

There were no reports of major levee breaks early on Thursday, said Dylan Cooper, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s office in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“The rivers and tributaries are still rising from all that water flowing downstream from up north,” said Cooper.

“We call it the bathtub effect. There’s only so much water that the levees and reservoirs can hold before that water just spills over,” he said.

The only good news is that it looks like the area is going to have a dry few days into the weekend, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the NWS Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

“They can use any dry weather they can get,” said Oravec.

More than a week of violent weather, including downpours and deadly tornadoes, has lashed the central United States, bringing record-breaking floods in parts of the states, turning highways into lakes and submerging all but the roofs of some homes.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson told a news conference on Wednesday, that the state is experiencing a “flood of historic magnitude.”

Flooding has already closed 12 state highways, he said, and 400 households have agreed to voluntary evacuations.

Hutchinson sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday asking for a federal emergency declaration for Arkansas.

The levee system along the Arkansas River “has not seen this type of record flooding” before, Hutchinson said in his six-page letter.

Hutchinson said Trump had promised assistance in an earlier conversation, several media outlets reported.

Rivers were expected to crest by early June to the highest levels on record all the way down to Little Rock, Arkansas, forecasters said.

“We’ve had river highs of 44.9 feet in places,” said Cooper of the Arkansas River. “We’re blowing through records.”

In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city, Mayor G.T. Bynum warned that the city’s levees were being tested “in a way that they have never been before.”

He said the 20-mile (32 km) levee system, which protects some 10,000 people, was working as designed so far and being patrolled around the clock by the Oklahoma National Guard.

At least six people have died in the latest round of flooding and storms in Oklahoma, according to the state’s Department of Health.

More than 300 tornadoes have touched down in the Midwest in the past two weeks. Tornadoes pulverized buildings in western Ohio on Monday, killing one person and injuring scores.

In Louisiana, the Mississippi River was also at record flood levels due to record-breaking rainfalls this spring, forecasters said.

Trump authorized emergency aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the state late on Wednesday.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Mississippi rose above flood stage in early January and has remained there since, forecasters said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Arkansas, Oklahoma brace for historic flooding in storm-hit U.S. Midwest

A storm cloud is seen in Shawnee, Kansas, U.S. in this still image taken from a May 28, 2019 video obtained from social media. Daniel Hogue/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Communities along the swollen Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas prepared on Wednesday for further flooding, with the mayor of Tulsa urging thousands of residents behind the city’s aging levees to be ready to evacuate in the event of a “worst-case scenario.”

More than a week of stormy weather, including violent downpours and deadly tornadoes, has devastated the central United States, bringing record-breaking floods in parts of the two states, turning highways into lakes and submerging all but the roofs of some homes.

More rain is forecast, and the floods are expected to spread, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) and local officials.

A tornado and storm cloud is seen in Eudora, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. AJ SCOTT /via REUTERS

A tornado and storm cloud is seen in Eudora, Kansas, U.S. in this still from a video taken May 28, 2019 obtained from social media. AJ SCOTT /via REUTERS

“The rain has been coming fast and furiously and it all has to drain through the rivers,” Patrick Burke, a meteorologist at the NWS Weather Prediction Center, said in an interview on Wednesday. More heavy downpours were forecast through Wednesday night over much of the two states, with between 1 and 3 inches (2.5 to 7.6 cm) expected, he said.

By early June, rivers are expected to crest to the highest levels on record all the way down to Little Rock, Arkansas, Burke said.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma’s second largest city, Mayor G.T. Bynum warned that the city’s 70-year-old levees were being tested “in a way that they have never been before.”

“Please prepare for the worst-case scenario that we’ve had in the history of the city,” he said on Tuesday. So far, he added, the 20-mile (32 km) levee system, which protects some 10,000 people, was working as designed.

At least six people have died as a result of the latest round of flooding and storms in Oklahoma, according to the state’s Department of Health.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raised the release of water from the Keystone Dam, in northeastern Oklahoma on the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers about 23 miles from Tulsa, into the river system to 275,000 cubic feet per second to stop the dam from overflowing.

A plague of extreme weather has upended life in the region, with more than 300 tornadoes touching down in the Midwest in the last two weeks.

Several tornadoes touched down on Tuesday evening in Kansas, damaging homes, uprooting trees and ripping down power lines, according to the NWS. Tornadoes also pulverized buildings in western Ohio, killing one person, and injuring scores of others.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Jeffrey Benkoe)

More U.S. states push ahead with near-bans on abortion for Supreme Court challenge

Anti-abortion marchers rally at the Supreme Court during the 46th annual March for Life in Washington, U.S., January 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum signed legislation on Wednesday making it a crime for doctors to perform a second-trimester abortion using instruments like forceps and clamps to remove the fetus from the womb.

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

FILE PHOTO:Governor Doug Burgum (R-ND) speaks to delegates at the Republican State Convention in Grand Forks, North Dakota, U.S. April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Dan Koeck

The move came the same day that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans – outlawing the procedure if a doctor can detect a heartbeat. The bill now goes to Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature in March also passed a ban on abortions if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can often occur before a woman even realizes she is pregnant.

Activists on both sides of the issue say such laws, which are commonly blocked by court injunctions, are aimed at getting a case sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 5-4 majority, to challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The North Dakota bill, which Burgum’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, confirmed in an email that the governor signed, followed similar laws in Mississippi and West Virginia.

Known as HB 1546, it outlaws the second-trimester abortion practice known in medical terms as dilation and evacuation, but which the legislation refers to as “human dismemberment.”

Under the North Dakota legislation, doctors performing the procedure would be charged with a felony but the woman having the abortion would not face charges.

Similar legislation exists in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, but is on hold because of litigation, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights group.

Abortion-rights groups challenging such bans argue they are unconstitutional as they obstruct private medical rights.

North Dakota has one abortion provider, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo. Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She previously said her clinic would wait for a decision in a case involving similar legislation in Arkansas before deciding on a possible legal challenge to HB 1546.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Two U.S. military bases in Texas to house immigrants: Mattis

Honduran families seeking asylum wait on the Mexican side of the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge after being denied entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Phil Stewart

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to house immigrants at two bases in Texas, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday, the latest sign of the military being drawn into a supporting role for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Fort Bliss, an Army base in El Paso, Texas, and Goodfellow Air Base in San Angelo, Texas, would be used, Mattis said, but he added that he could not confirm any specifics.

“We’ll provide whatever support the Department of Homeland Security needs in order to house the people they have under their custody,” Mattis told reporters in Alaska before leaving on an Asia trip.

In the face of outrage at home and overseas over his crackdown on illegal immigration, Trump was forced last week to abandon his policy of separating children from parents who are apprehended for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The U.S. military, and Mattis in particular, have stressed that it is simply providing logistical support to the Department of Homeland Security, which deals with immigration issues.

“We’re not going to get into the political aspect. Providing housing, shelter for those who need it is a legitimate governmental function,” Mattis said.

One U.S. official, speaking earlier on the condition of anonymity, said it was expected that one of the bases would house immigrant families and another immigrant children.

On Sunday, Mattis said the U.S. military was preparing to build temporary camps at two military bases to house immigrants but did not name the facilities.

Last week, the U.S. military said it had been asked by the government to get ready to house up to 20,000 immigrant children.

Trump has previously turned to the military to help with his border crackdown. Earlier this year, U.S. National Guard forces were dispatched to border states to help tighten security.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)

Deadly South Carolina prison riot exposes staffing shortage

FILE PHOTO: The Lee Correctional Institution is seen in Bishopville, Lee County, South Carolina, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A gang-related melee at a South Carolina prison that ended with seven dead and 17 injured, the deadliest U.S. prison riot in a quarter century, exposed the vulnerability of an understaffed system.

Forty-four guards were on duty overseeing 1,583 inmates at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, when the violence broke out, and it took eight hours to put an end to the riot early on Monday.

Across the country, cuts to state budgets have left state prison systems understaffed, a reality that prison officials and law enforcement experts say increases the risk of being unable to contain any outbreaks of violence quickly.

“We’re grossly understaffed at many facilities across the United States,” said Brian Dawe, executive director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, a clearinghouse for best practices and information for corrections officers and others.

The South Carolina riot was sparked by a fight among prison gangs over turf and contraband around the time of a shift change in three cell blocks. That meant more staffers than usual were present, but the melee still went unchecked for hours, Bryan Stirling, South Carolina’s prison director, told a news conference.

About a quarter of South Carolina’s state prison guard jobs are unfilled, Stirling told The State newspaper in January. South Carolina is far from alone in having double-digit vacancy rates.

There are no national figures on prison staffing, but state records show that 16 percent of guard jobs are unfilled in Delaware and 31 percent in Oklahoma, as well as 15 percent of all corrections jobs, including guards, in Arkansas.

Similarly, 16 percent of guard positions in North Carolina prisons and 14 percent in Texas were unfilled late last year, according to local media. Missouri had a shortage of more than 400 guards and officers were being bused from one prison to another on overtime to cover shifts.

The federal system had a ratio of 10.3 inmates per correctional officer in 2005 and a ratio of 4.9 inmates per prison staff, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In some states facing staff shortages, there might be one officer for every 40 or 50 inmates, union officials said.

The ratio at the Lee Correctional Institution Sunday evening was 35.9 inmates per guard.

Dawe put the ideal ratio at about five to one, but Michele Deitch, a lecturer on corrections at the University of Texas, said it depended on layout of the prison and the type of facility, such as whether it was minimum or maximum security.

“It’s not like you can take one number and apply it to every facility,” Deitch said. “It’s not really a great indicator.”

Compounding the chaos, when the fighting erupted in South Carolina on Sunday, all the guards pulled out to await police backup. It took four hours for officers to move into the first dorm, and their response was slowed by having to deal with wounded inmates, Stirling said.

Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, said the mayhem underscored that state prisons lack personnel to keep inmates safe, as well as protocols to quell unrest.

“They don’t have the staff to keep things running in the prison,” she said. Scott added that mixing juvenile with adult inmates, the use of solitary confinement and a lack of mental health treatment also fed violence.

South Carolina Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Taillon declined to comment on Wednesday. He referred a reporter to Stirling’s Monday statement that the state was beginning to retain staff through extra pay, bonuses and overtime after years of losing about 150 officers annually.

The number of Americans in state prisons fell to 1.38 million in 2016, down about 4 percent from a decade earlier, according to U.S. Department of Justice data. But experts say the drop was not enough to close the guard shortage substantially.

Budgets have been cut for several years, with a survey of 45 states by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York showing a 0.5 percent decline in prison expenditures from 2010 through 2015. South Carolina’s spending dropped 2.4 percent over that period, with the sharpest declines in Nevada, down 14.7 percent, and Michigan, down 12.4 percent.

Oklahoma Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh, citing the South Carolina violence, said he recognized the risks potentially facing prisons in his cash-strapped state, which announced a hiring freeze on corrections officers in February.

“This could have easily been us,” Allbaugh, who has been critical of a funding shortage in a state with one of the highest rates of incarceration, said on Twitter.

Plagued by high turnover, some prisons are turning to overtime to make up for staffing gaps as they struggle to fill low-paying jobs seen as dangerous and undesirable in a growing U.S. economy with a tight labor market.

Jackie Switzer, a former prison guard and executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals lobbying group, said officers often were asked to work overtime or double shifts.

“They are not as responsive as they would be if they were fresh. That in turn creates a dangerous situation,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Storms unleash tornadoes in U.S. east, record snow in Midwest

Dark clouds hover above buildings amidst tornadoes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the U.S., April 10, 2018 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Emmet Finneran/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Deadly slow-moving storms generated record or near-record snowfall and low temperatures in the U.S. Midwest and tornadoes further east on Sunday, leaving airline travelers stranded and thousands without power.

In Michigan, where snowfall was expected to reach 18 inches in some areas, about 310,000 homes and businesses were without power because of an ice storm, most of them in the southeast of the state.

Large areas of Detroit were without power and customers were not expected to have it back on Sunday night, utility DTE Energy said. It was working to have 90 percent of outages restored by Tuesday, DTE spokeswoman Carly Getz said in a statement.

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

Cars are seen on a road during a tornado in Mountainburg, Arkansas, U.S., April 13, 2018 in this picture grab obtained from social media video. JOSHUA COLEMAN/via REUTERS

The weight of ice on power lines, coupled with high winds, caused more than 1,000 power lines to fall in Detroit and Wayne County, DTE said.

The worst of the snow was focused on the upper Great Lakes, with Green Bay, Wisconsin, seeing its second largest snowstorm ever after 23.2 inches fell as of Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service said.

For the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, the April monthly record for snowfall of 21.8 inches (55 cm) was surpassed on Saturday, the National Weather Service said.

Two tornadoes tore up trees and ripped apart homes in Greensboro and Reidsville, North Carolina, killing a motorist who was hit by a tree, according to Greensboro’s city manager, local media reported.

The storms stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Midwest and were moving into the Northeast and New England.

Record low temperatures for the date were expected in Oklahoma City on Monday at 30 degrees F (-1 C), and in Kansas City, Missouri, at 25 F (-4 C), Hurley said.

On Friday, the weather system produced 17 reports of tornadoes in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, with four people injured and 160 buildings damaged in a possible tornado in northwest Arkansas, local media reported.

The weather was blamed for two traffic deaths in western Nebraska and Wisconsin, according to National Public Radio.

The storms also killed a one-year-old girl when a tree fell on a recreational vehicle where she was sleeping, the sheriff’s office in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, said.

By Sunday night, 1,804 flights had been canceled into or out of U.S. airports, the website flightaware.com reported, including 148 flights in or out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Andrew Hay in Taos, N.M.; Editing by Adrian Croft and Peter Cooney)

After Parkland shooting, U.S. states shift education funds to school safety despite critics

Adin Chistian (16), student of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, embraces his mother Denyse, next to the crosses and Stars of David placed in front of the fence of the school to commemorate the victims of a shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Before the ink could dry on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s signature last month, critics cried foul over the bill he signed into law to spend $400 million boosting security at schools across the state following February’s Parkland mass shooting.

School officials, local sheriffs and Democrats opposed different provisions, including one to provide $67 million to arm teachers. Educators, in particular, voiced concerns that the state will strip money from core education funding to pay for the new school resource officers and beefed up buildings.

“We are a very lean state,” said Florida state Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat who voted against the bill. “If we’re spending money somewhere, we’re taking it from somewhere else.”

In the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people, at least 10 U.S. states have introduced measures to increase funding for hardening of school buildings and campuses, add resource officers and increase mental health services, according to Reuters’ tally.

Many of the proposals outlined the need for bulletproof windows, panic buttons and armored shelters to be installed in classrooms. Some legislation called for state police or sheriff’s departments to provide officers to patrol public schools.

Altogether, more than 100 legislative bills to address school safety, not all of which have funding components, have been introduced in 27 states since the Feb. 14 shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But states do not usually have extra money on hand or room to raise taxes. So to pay for the measures, states are mostly shifting money away from other projects, dipping into reserves or contemplating borrowing.

“I would characterize these proposals and the bills that were passed, for example Florida and Wisconsin, as primarily shifting funding from other priorities,” said Kathryn White, senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Budget Officers.

Calls for more gun control and more safety measures have come during peak budget season for nearly all states, whose legislatures spend the spring in debates that shape the coming year’s budget starting July 1.

STATE BY STATE

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called a special legislative session last month, when lawmakers agreed to create a $100 million school safety grant program.

The money will come out of the state’s general fund. But the spending, coupled with tax cuts and other pending legislation, will leave that fund with reserves of roughly $185 million – enough to run state government for less than four days in the event of a fiscal emergency, according to Jon Peacock, director of the think tank Wisconsin Budget Project.

“That is far less of a cushion than a fiscally responsible state should set aside,” Peacock said.

Funding the safety measures also means that some economic development programs for rural counties did not get funded and a one-time sales tax holiday was scaled back, he said.

In Maine, lawmakers are considering borrowing $20 million by issuing 10-year general obligation bonds to fund loans to school districts for security enhancements.

New Jersey lawmakers are also looking to borrow. On March 26, state senators tacked an extra $250 million for school security onto an existing bill for $500 million of bonds to expand county vocational colleges. The legislature has not yet voted on the measure.

Maryland, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Indiana are also increasing – or trying to increase – funding for school security measures since Parkland.

In Florida, the legislature passed safety spending while approving an increase of only $0.47 per pupil in funding used to cover teacher pay raises, school bus fuel and other operational expenses for education.

“We see $400-plus million in school safety, which we absolutely applaud, but you can’t do that at the expense of your core education program,” Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said shortly before Scott signed the budget.

Stoneman Douglas is among the schools Runcie, who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, oversees.

To be sure, some state and local governments have been adding money for school safety measures for years, particularly after 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting in Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Some critics, particularly Democrats, say measures that only beef up infrastructure or do not create recurring funds fall short of the mark.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in a memo to lawmakers in March that individual districts also need money for prevention and intervention, including education services for expelled students and anti-bullying programs, and other purposes.

“Funding for only ‘hardening’ school facilities, while welcome, is likely not going to be sufficient to address the full range of locally identified needs,” he said.

(Reporting by Hilary Russ and Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Bases and Chizu Nomiyama)

Monsanto, BASF weed killers strain U.S. states with crop damage complaints

Monsanto's research farm is pictured near Carman, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 2017.

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. farmers have overwhelmed state governments with thousands of complaints about crop damage linked to new versions of weed killers, threatening future sales by manufacturers Monsanto Co and BASF.

Monsanto is banking on weed killers using a chemical known as dicamba – and seeds engineered to resist it – to dominate soybean production in the United States, the world’s second-largest exporter.

The United States has faced a weed-killer crisis this year caused by the new formulations of dicamba-based herbicides, which farmers and weed experts say have harmed crops because they evaporate and drift away from where they are applied.

Monsanto and BASF say the herbicides are safe when properly applied. They need to convince regulators after the flood of complaints to state agriculture departments.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year approved use of the weed killers on dicamba-resistant crops during the summer growing season. Previously, farmers used dicamba to kill weeds before they planted seeds, and not while the crops were growing.

However, the EPA approved such use only until Nov. 9, 2018, because “extraordinary precautions” are needed to prevent dicamba products from tainting vulnerable crops, a spokesman told Reuters in a statement last week. The agency wanted to be able to step in if there were problems, he said.

Next year, the EPA will determine whether to extend its approval by reviewing damage complaints and consulting with state and industry experts. States are separately considering new restrictions on usage for 2018.

Major soybean-growing states, including Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois, each received roughly four years’ worth of complaints about possible pesticide damage to crops this year due to dicamba use, state regulators said.

Now agriculture officials face long backlogs of cases to investigate, which are driving up costs for lab tests and overtime. Several states had to reassign employees to handle the load.

“We don’t have the staff to be able to handle 400 investigations in a year plus do all the other required work,” said Paul Bailey, director of the Plant Industries division of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, farmers filed about 310 complaints over suspected dicamba damage, on top of the roughly 80 complaints about pesticides the state receives in a typical year, he said.

Nationwide, states launched 2,708 investigations into dicamba-related plant injury by Oct. 15, according to data compiled by the University of Missouri.

States investigate such complaints to determine whether applicators followed the rules for using chemicals. Those found to have violated regulations can be fined.

Monsanto has said that U.S. farmers spraying this past summer failed to follow detailed instructions of up to 4,550 words printed on labels.

The companies will change usage instructions in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the past summer’s problems.

“With significant adoption and a lot of interest in this new technology, we recognize that many states have received a number of reports of potential off-target application of dicamba in 2017,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said last month.

 

PHOTOGRAPHING DAMAGED SOYBEANS

State investigators try to visit fields within days after farmers report possible damage to take photos before signs of injury, such as cupped leaves on soybean plants hit by dicamba, disappear. They question farmers and the people who applied the herbicide, and often gather samples from plants to test.

In Arkansas, farmers filed about 985 complaints associated with dicamba, the most of any state. Investigators are probing about 1,200 total complaints involving pesticide use, which includes weed killers, said Terry Walker, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Arkansas delayed inspections of animal feed and allowed overtime to handle the dicamba cases, which is not normal practice, Walker said. He was unable to provide a cost estimate for dealing with the complaints.

Among the farmers who reported damage was Reed Storey, who said he wanted to ensure state officials knew dicamba caused damage even when users follow the instructions.

“I’m calling strictly to let y’all know that we have an issue with this product,” Storey, who spoke last month, said he told Arkansas regulators.

Illinois received about 421 total pesticide complaints, the most since at least 1989, said Warren Goetsch, acting chief of the Bureau of Environmental Programs at the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That includes at least 245 complaints associated with dicamba, which could take until next year to finish investigating, he said.

“It’s frustrating I think for us that we’re as behind as we are,” Goetsch said.

 

MONSANTO’S BIG BET

Monsanto is betting on dicamba-tolerant soybeans to replace those that withstand glyphosate, an herbicide used for decades but which is becoming less effective as weeds develop resistance. The company aims for its dicamba-resistant seeds to account for half the U.S. soybeans planted by 2019.

Monsanto, which is in the process of being acquired by Bayer AG  for $63.5 billion, said it plans to open a call center to help customers use dicamba next year and is talking with states about the product.

Monsanto’s net sales increased $1.1 billion, or 8 percent, in fiscal year 2017 due partly to increased sales of its dicamba-resistant soybean seeds.

The company and BASF already face several lawsuits from farmers alleging damage to plants from dicamba used by neighbors.

 

ANALYZING PLANT SAMPLES

The EPA provides grants to states that help fund investigations into pesticide damage and this year offered 35 states extra assistance analyzing plant samples for dicamba, according to the agency.

Minnesota and Illinois turned to the EPA for help, with the latter saying the federal agency has better equipment to detect low levels of dicamba.

In Iowa, the state’s laboratory bureau received 515 samples to test this year, up 35 percent, as dicamba use helped drive up the total number of pesticide complaints to 270 from a typical range of 70 to 120, according to the state. Each test costs up to $9.

“We are really anxious to flip the page and look ahead to 2018 and try to figure out the things that can be done to improve the situation,” said Mike Naig, deputy secretary of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

 

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)

 

U.S. court rules Arkansas can block Planned Parenthood funding

U.S. court rules Arkansas can block Planned Parenthood funding

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday reversed a ruling that prevented Arkansas from cutting off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood following the release of controversial videos secretly recorded by an anti-abortion group.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis reversed a ruling forbidding Arkansas from carrying through with Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson’s directive to suspend Medicaid reimbursements to a Planned Parenthood affiliate.

U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker in Little Rock had ruled in favor of three women who claimed Arkansas violated their rights under the federal Medicaid law to choose any qualified provider offering services they were seeking.

But by a 2-1 vote, a 8th Circuit said the provision of the Medicaid law the women relied on does not unambiguously create a federal right for individual patients that they could enforce in court.

U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Colloton wrote that the lack of such a right does not mean state officials have unlimited authority to terminate Medicaid providers.

“We conclude only that Congress did not unambiguously confer the particular right asserted by the patients in this case,” he wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy dissented, saying four other appeals courts have reached the opposite conclusion and found a private right of enforcement existed.

Raegan McDonald-Mosley, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement said the fight “is not over.”

“We will do everything in our power to protect our patients’ access to birth control cancer screenings, and other lifesaving care,” McDonald-Mosley said.

Arkansas cut off funds for Planned Parenthood after the anti-abortion activist group Center for Medical Progress released videos in 2015 it claimed showed the group’s officials negotiating the sale of fetal body parts for profit.

Planned Parenthood has denied the allegation and says 13 states that investigated those claims have cleared it of wrongdoing.

Hutchinson, who was among Republican governors nationally who targeted the organization following those videos, welcomed Wednesday’s ruling.

“This is a substantial legal victory for the right of the state to determine whether Medicaid providers are acting in accordance with best practices and affirms the prerogative of the state to make reasoned judgments on the Medicaid program,” he said in a statement.

Planned Parenthood does not perform surgical abortions in Arkansas, which forbids public funding of abortions except in cases of rape or incest. But it provides other gynecological services as well as birth control and breast examinations.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by David Gregorio)