As wildfires devour communities, toxic threats emerge

FILE PHOTO: Vanthy Bizzle hands some small religious figurines to her husband Brett Bizzle in the remains of their home after returning for the first time since the Camp Fire forced them to evacuate in Paradise, California, U.S. November 22, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

By Sharon Bernstein

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – As an uncontrollable wildfire turned the California town of Paradise to ash, air pollution researcher Keith Bein knew he had to act fast: Little is known about toxic chemicals released when a whole town burns and the wind would soon blow away evidence.

He drove the roughly 100 miles to Paradise, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from his laboratory at the University of California, Davis, only to be refused entrance under rules that allow first responders and journalists – but not public health researchers – to cross police lines.

It was the second time Bein says he was unable to gather post-wildfire research in a field so new public safety agencies have not yet developed procedures for allowing scientists into restricted areas.

Fires like the one that razed Paradise last November burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials, leaving dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water. Lead paint, burned asbestos and even melted refrigerators from tens of thousands of households only add to the danger, public health experts say.

Bein’s experience highlights the difficulties in assessing the impact of today’s massive disasters, whether wildfires that burn entire towns or flooding after major hurricanes, incidents scientists say are becoming more common due to climate change.

“Everything that we’re doing, it feels like this is a question nobody has asked before, and we have no answers,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at U.C. Davis.

Researchers are examining soil tested for the presence of chemical compounds in neighborhoods destroyed by the 2017 wildfire that swept into Santa Rosa, located in California’s Sonoma County north of the Bay Area, and comparing it to uninhabited land nearby where only trees had burned, Hertz-Picciotto said. In that still-uncompleted study, researchers found nearly 2,000 more chemical compounds in the soil than in uninhabited parkland nearby. Researchers are now working to identify the compounds.

While scientists have studied wildfires for decades — learning much about the impact on air, soil and nearby ecosystems — fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare.

 

COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH

As natural disasters increase in scope and frequency, public health researchers across the United States are developing new lines of inquiry with unusual speed.

Scientists, many of them funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), are studying pregnant women exposed to polluted air and water after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017; residents of Puerto Rico forced to live in unrepaired homes where mold and fungi grew after Hurricane Maria in 2017; eggs from backyard chickens that ate California wildfire ash, among other topics.

“It’s fundamentally critical that we be able to understand these situations and the risks to populations both in the short term and in the long term,” said NIEHS senior medical adviser Aubrey Miller, who is helping to develop quick-response disaster research cutting across scientific specialties.

To do that, NIEH has sped up the time it needs to fund research, from months or years to as little as 120 days, said Gwen Collman, who directs the agency’s work with outside researchers.

At U.C. Davis, where researchers are studying eggs from backyard chickens that may have breathed smoke and pecked at ash in areas affected by wildfires, the work is complicated.

“In an urban fire you’re dealing with contaminants that don’t go away – arsenic, heavy metals, copper, lead, transformer fluid, brake fluid, fire retardant,” said veterinarian Maurice Pitesky, who is leading the study.

Any contaminants found in the eggs could stem from other factors such as the proximity of the home to a factory, a waste disposal site or a highway, he said.

In an as-yet-uncompleted study, researchers have tested eggs sent by individual owners of roughly 350 backyard properties concerned about possible contamination from wildfires and other causes, researcher Todd Kelman said. The locations of the yards were mapped to see which homeowners lived near wildfire areas, and the eggs were tested to see if they have high levels of contaminants such as lead, cadmium and other chemicals associated with human buildings and activities.

COMBING PARADISE

One recent morning, teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in white hazmat suits combed through Paradise, loading seared paint cans, partially melted pesticide containers and the remains of propane tanks onto trucks to be hauled away.

Rusty Harris Bishop, a toxics expert with the EPA who worked on the Paradise cleanup, said removal teams take away whatever contaminants they find, including melted pipes or asbestos-laden construction materials, going beyond the older definition of hazardous household waste.

But cleanup protocols after such disasters are evolving along with the public health science, he said. 

That gap in knowledge concerns researchers like Bein, who plans to train as a firefighter to get access to the burned areas in the next big blaze.

“As these types of fires become more frequent in nature, where instead of once every decade it’s once every summer . . . then we really need to know how this is going to affect health,” Bein said.

Holocaust survivor meets with California teens involved in Nazi salute photos

Auschwitz survivor Eva Schloss, stepsister of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank, talks to the media at Newport Harbor High School after speaking with a group of students seen in viral online photos giving Nazi salutes over a swastika made of red cups that sparked outrage in Newport Beach, California, U.S., March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Steve Gorman

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) – An Auschwitz survivor and stepsister of Holocaust diarist Anne Frank met on Thursday with some of the California high school students who posed in social media photos giving Nazi salutes over a swastika made of red cups used in a drinking game.

The anti-Semitic images, one with the caption “master race” – a reference to the Nazi belief in ethnic purity – went viral after being posted to Snapchat on Saturday, fueling concerns about a recent surge in incidents of hate speech in public schools nationwide.

Eva Schloss, 89, a peace activist who has chronicled her Holocaust experiences in several books, visited privately for more than hour at Newport Harbor High School with about 10 of the teens involved, along with their parents, student leaders, faculty members and a local rabbi who helped organize the meeting.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Schloss said the students described the Nazi salute incident as “a joke,” and she was surprised when they professed not to have fully understood the meaning and consequences of their behavior.

“It did show that education, obviously, is still very, very inadequate,” said Schloss, a London resident who was in California this week on a U.S. speaking tour. She said the students expressed sincere remorse for what happened on Saturday.

“I was 16 when I came out of Auschwitz,” Schloss said she told the students. “I was their age when I realized my life was completely shattered.”

The photos were taken at a party attended by students from several high schools serving a cluster of predominantly white, largely affluent Orange County communities. The images included teens with arms raised in a Nazi salute and students crowded around the cups arranged in the shape of a swastika.

School officials said they have interviewed more than two dozen students and are weighing possible disciplinary action.

LIVES INTERTWINED

The early life of Schloss, a native Austrian, closely parallels that of her German-born stepsister, Anne Frank. Both families moved to Amsterdam to escape anti-Jewish Nazi persecution in their homelands.

The two girls lived near each other and were friends before Germany’s Dutch occupation, forcing both families into hiding. Frank’s personal journal about her family’s ordeal was posthumously published in 1947 as “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

Frank died at age 15 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in early 1945.

Like Frank’s family, Schloss was captured by the Nazis in 1944 in Amsterdam and was sent to Auschwitz, where her brother and father died. Schloss and her mother were liberated by the Soviet army, and her mother married Frank’s father, Otto, in 1953.

Newport Beach Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who helped organize the students’ meeting with Schloss, said the controversy should be a “wake-up call” to a rising tide of anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks acts of racism, says the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported at U.S. public schools jumped 94 percent from 2016 to 2017, the latest year such figures are available.

One factor appears to be wide-scale human migration stirred by war, political upheaval and environmental degradation, which in turn has fed a global rise in xenophobia and discriminatory politics that is “becoming mainstreamed in much of the Western world,” said regional ADL director Peter Levi.

“High school kids are not immune from that,” he said.

Another factor, he said, is the spread of extremist ideology by way of social media and the Internet, “and everyone has access to that in his pockets.”

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Newport Beach, California; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Darren Schuettler and Lisa Shumaker)

Trump border wall prototypes torn down to make way for new barrier

FILE PHOTO: The prototypes for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall are seen behind the border fence between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

(Reuters) – The prototypes for President Donald Trump’s contest for a border wall near San Diego, California, were torn down on Wednesday, to make way for a new section of actual border fencing.

To the president’s supporters, the eight 30-foot-high (9-meter) models were a symbol of his commitment to build a wall along the length of the U.S. Mexico border to enhance national security. To opponents, they were a waste of taxpayer money and an affront to Mexico and immigrants.

“Since the test and evaluation of these prototype models is complete, they have served their purpose and are now being removed,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman Ralph DeSio said in a statement.

Using jackhammers, ladders and blow torches, military special forces and CBP special units spent weeks trying to go under, over and through the walls to test their strengths and weaknesses.

The tests of the eight prototypes, which Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Michael Scappechio of the San Diego sector said cost between $300,000 and $500,000 each to build, showed the effectiveness of the kind of steel post, or “bollard,” fence that already exists along large sections of the border.

Now, a new 30-foot-high bollard fence is being built as a secondary barrier along a 14-mile (22.5 km) section, behind an existing, 18-feet-high bollard fence, Scappechio said.

The ability of agents to see through a barrier is crucial to their safety, and a fence made out of steel posts or “bollards” is easier to repair when breached and relatively cost-effective, he said, while the 30-foot height is a deterrent to climbers.

The fence will also incorporate fiber optic sensor, Scappechio said.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

U.S. states sue Trump administration in showdown over border wall funds

A view shows a new section of the border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A coalition of 16 U.S. states led by California sued President Donald Trump and top members of his administration on Monday to block his decision to declare a national emergency to obtain funds for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California came after Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday to help build the wall that was his signature 2016 campaign promise.

Trump’s order would allow him to spend on the wall money that Congress appropriated for other purposes. Congress declined to fulfill his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall this year..

“Today, on Presidents Day, we take President Trump to court to block his misuse of presidential power,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

“We’re suing President Trump to stop him from unilaterally robbing taxpayer funds lawfully set aside by Congress for the people of our states. For most of us, the office of the presidency is not a place for theater,” added Becerra, a Democrat.

The White House declined to comment on the filing.

In a budget deal passed by Congress to avert a second government shutdown, nearly $1.4 billion was allocated toward border fencing. Trump’s emergency order would give him an additional $6.7 billion beyond what lawmakers authorized.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violated the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could slow Trump’s efforts to build the wall, which he says is needed to curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The lawsuits could end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Michigan joined California in the lawsuit.

The states said Trump’s order would cause them to lose millions of dollars in federal funding for national guard units dealing with counter-drug activities and redirection of funds from authorized military construction projects would damage their economies.

In television interviews on Sunday and Monday, Becerra said the lawsuit would use Trump’s own words against him as evidence that there was no national emergency to declare.

Trump said on Friday he did not need to make the emergency declaration but wanted to speed the process of building the wall. That comment could undercut the government’s legal argument.

“By the president’s own admission, an emergency declaration is not necessary,” the states said in the lawsuit. “The federal government’s own data prove there is no national emergency at the southern border that warrants construction of a wall.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

California tells Trump that lawsuit over border wall is ‘imminent’

FILE PHOTO: The prototypes for U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall are seen behind the border fence between Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes/File Photo

By David Morgan and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – California will “imminently” challenge President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to obtain funds for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said on Sunday.

“Definitely and imminently,” Becerra told ABC’s “This Week” program when asked whether and when California would sue the Trump administration in federal court. Other states controlled by Democrats are expected to join the effort.

“We are prepared, we knew something like this might happen. And with our sister state partners, we are ready to go,” he said.

Trump invoked the emergency powers on Friday under a 1976 law after Congress rebuffed his request for $5.7 billion to help build the wall that was a signature 2016 campaign promise.

The move is intended to allow him to redirect money appropriated by Congress for other purposes to wall construction.

The White House says Trump will have access to about $8 billion. Nearly $1.4 billion was allocated for border fencing under a spending measure approved by Congress last week, and Trump’s emergency declaration is aimed at giving him another $6.7 billion for the wall.

Becerra cited Trump’s own comment on Friday that he “didn’t need to do this” as evidence that the emergency declaration is legally vulnerable.

“It’s become clear that this is not an emergency, not only because no one believes it is but because Donald Trump himself has said it’s not,” he said.

Becerra and California Governor Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, have been expected to sue to block Trump’s move.

Becerra told ABC that California and other states are waiting to learn which federal programs will lose money to determine what kind of harm the states could face from the declaration.

He said California may be harmed by less federal funding for emergency response services, the military and stopping drug trafficking.

“We’re confident there are at least 8 billion ways that we can prove harm,” Becerra said.

Three Texas landowners and an environmental group filed the first lawsuit against Trump’s move on Friday, saying it violates the Constitution and would infringe on their property rights.

The legal challenges could at least slow down Trump’s efforts to build the wall but would likely end up at the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

Congress never defined a national emergency in the National Emergencies Act of 1976, which has been invoked dozens of times without a single successful legal challenge.

Democrats in Congress have vowed to challenge Trump’s declaration and several Republican lawmakers have said they are not certain whether they would support the president.

“I think many of us are concerned about this,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Trump could, however, veto any resolution of disapproval from Congress.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller told Fox News on Sunday that Trump’s declaration would allow the administration to build “hundreds of miles” of border wall by September 2020.

“We have 120-odd miles that are already under construction or are already obligated plus the additional funds we have and then we’re going to outlay; we’re going to look at a few hundred miles.”

Trump’s proposed wall and wider immigration policies are likely to be a major campaign issue ahead of the next presidential election in November 2020, where he will seek a second four-year term.

(Reporting by David Morgan and David Lawder; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Monster mudslides, water rescues as storm punishes California

A man carries flowers in the rain in the flower district on Valentine's Day in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – Motorists swam for their lives and residents were rescued from homes sliding downhill as the wettest winter storm of the year triggered floods and mudslides across California on Thursday.

In Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, a mudslide carried away two homes and engulfed five cars, sending one woman to the hospital, Southern Marin Fire Department tweeted. Dozens of homes were evacuated in the area.

In Cabazon, about 84 miles (135 km) east of Los Angeles, two motorists swam from their vehicle and were rescued by helicopter after their car was engulfed by churning brown floodwaters, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman said.

“We’ve had multiple water rescues throughout the day, I think today our helicopter is up to about a dozen,” said CalFire spokesman Richard Cordova. “We haven’t seen rain like this in 10 years.”

Three Delta Air Lines passengers suffered minor injuries when severe turbulence shook a flight headed from southern California to Seattle on Wednesday, according to authorities.

The moisture-rich tropical storm, known as an atmospheric river, has lashed Northern California with rain and snow since late Tuesday. The moisture flow, nicknamed the “Pineapple Express” for its origin near Hawaii, unleashed its full force overnight.

Power lines, trees and car-sized boulders littered roads in San Diego County and flash flood warnings were in place after regions like Palomar Mountain got nearly 10 inches (25 cm) of rain, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

WILDFIRE AREAS AT RISK

To the north, Venado, a town near San Francisco famed for its rainfall, got more than one foot of precipitation over 48 hours.

Areas, particularly at risk, were those that suffered deadly wildfires in the last two years, leaving scorched hillsides devoid of vegetation and prone to collapse.

Residents in Northern California’s Butte County – where the Camp fire killed 86 people and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures last year – were told to leave their homes over concerns a creek could overflow and flood communities.

Hundreds of people in Lake Elsinore, 56 miles east of Los Angeles, got mandatory evacuation orders on fears hillsides scorched by the 2018 Holy Fire could turn into debris flows.

To the north Redding, the town devastated by the Carr Fire in 2018, was hit with around 14 inches of snow that shut down Interstate 5 south of the Oregon border and knocked out power to thousands of customers.

A couple more feet of snow was expected to fall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California through Friday, said NWS meteorologist Hannah Chandler-Cooley in Sacramento.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown)

Pineapple Express’s biggest punch set to hit water-logged California

The aftermath of turbulence is seen on Compass Flight 5763 to Seattle, February 13, 2019 in this still picture obtained from social media video by Reuters February 14, 2019. JOE JUSTICE, SCRUM INC./via REUTERS

(Reuters) – The worst of the rain, snow, and winds carried by the so-called Pineapple Express, a river of warm air loaded with moisture, will hit California on Thursday and stick around at least through Friday, forecasters said.

The weather system, headed east from near Hawaii, is the wettest storm on the U.S. West Coast this season. It has swamped cars, flooded vineyards and forced hundreds of Californians to evacuate their homes Wednesday to escape the threat of mudslides.

Three Delta Air Lines passengers suffered minor injuries when severe turbulence shook a flight headed from southern California to Seattle on Wednesday, according to authorities.

The plane, a Embraer 175 aircraft operated by Compass Airlines under contract with Delta, was forced to land in Reno, Nevada, Compass said in a statement.

“We did a nose dive twice,” a passenger wrote on Twitter, according to the newspaper.

“That whole area from Southern California and on up to Washington is primed for severe turbulence at altitude, especially over the mountains” said David Roth, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Roth said risks for motorists will be highest during Thursday’s morning commute. Some mountain areas in southern and central California will get up to an inch of rain an hour for at least three hours, with the rain continuing throughout the day.

“It will be the most dangerous in areas where there were wildfires,” he said. “The ground is already saturated with water and there’s not much vegetation left to hold the soil.”

Some areas around Los Angeles could see more than five inches (13 cm) of rain from the storm, which is being channeled to the coast by the flow of atmospheric moisture.

Residents of Lake Elsinore, 56 miles (90 km) east of Los Angeles, got mandatory evacuation orders because nearby hillsides, scorched by fire in 2018, might turn into rivers of mud and debris.

Among the hardest-hit areas was northern California, where rain driven by winds up to 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour) pounding parts of Sonoma County’s wine country.

The NWS also expects more than eight feet (2.4 meters) of snow in some areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Pineapple Express is one of a string of storms that have swelled snowfall in California to above-average levels, delighting farmers and skiers following years of drought.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Andrew Hay and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by David Gregorio)

‘Pineapple Express’ storm douses California with rain, snow

Snow capped mountains are seen behind the downtown Los Angeles skyline, California, U.S., February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – A Pacific storm system known as the “Pineapple Express” threatened to dump up to 8 inches of rain and 8 feet of snow on areas of California, raising risks of flooding and mudslides, meteorologists said on Wednesday.

“The (Pineapple) Express is no joke,” said Bob Oravec, meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland of the strongest weather system of the season.

The weather system, also known as an atmospheric river, gets its name from the flow of moisture that periodically heads east from waters adjacent to the Hawaiian Islands to soak the U.S. West Coast. It blanketed parts of Hawaii with snow over the weekend and is expected to drench California.

The San Francisco Bay area could be hit by flash flooding and falling trees as saturated ground gets up to 8 inches more rain and strong winds blow in, the weather service said.

“We’re talking 3 to 5 inches of rain in San Francisco and coastal areas in just the next 24 hours, and more on into Friday,” Oravec said.

To the northeast in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, passes could see between 80 and 100 inches (approximately 7 to 8 feet) of snow through Friday.

Valley areas face flood watches over fears the relatively warm Pineapple Express system could initially drench areas as high as Lake Tahoe with rain, melting snow and swelling rivers.

WILDFIRE BURN AREAS

The Central and Southern California coast can expect flash flooding and possible mudslides near recent wildfire burn areas, the NWS reported.

Oravec said that the problem is not just the amount of rain, but the fact that it will hit in a short amount of time.

“It’s going to be heavy and fast,” he said. “Debris flows and mudslides are a risk in any area scorched by the wildfires. There’s little to no vegetation to slow that water down.”

Up to 2 inches of rain was expected in the Los Angeles area between Tuesday evening and Thursday morning, the weather service said.

A string of winter storms has swelled snowpack in California to above-average levels, delighting farmers in need of water and skiers in search of powder.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay, additional reporting by Rich McKay, editing by Louise Heavens)

U.S. seizes record $1.3 billion meth haul bound for Australia

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer extracts methamphetamine concealed in a loud speaker found in a shipment at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Authorities in California have seized a record 1.9 tons of methamphetamine worth some $1.3 billion along with heroin and cocaine, all bound for Australia.

The seizure followed an operation by U.S. border officials and Australian law enforcement and took place on Jan. 11 at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport, authorities said on Thursday. The drugs were “artfully” hidden in a shipment of loud speakers.

Authorities in California seize methamphetamine concealed in a shipment of loud speakers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

Authorities in California seize methamphetamine concealed in a shipment of loud speakers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

Four Australians and two U.S. citizens were arrested on Wednesday by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on suspicion of involvement in the trafficking, authorities said.

“There’s no question that the criminal organization behind this scheme has been dealt a significant blow,” Joseph Macias, special agent-in-charge for Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles, said in a statement.

The two containers of drugs, hidden inside metal boxes labeled “Single Loud Speakers,” contained 3,810 pounds (1,730 kg) of methamphetamine, about 56 pounds (25 kg) of cocaine and 11.5 (5.3 kg) pounds of heroin, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said.

It was the biggest seizure of methamphetamine in the United States and amounted to about 17 million doses, authorities said, adding that if it had reached Australia it would have been worth approximately $1.3 billion.

“Someone’s in TONNES of trouble!,” AFP officials said in a statement posted on Facebook with video footage of the suspects’ arrest. “Luckily we worked with our US buddies and were able to stop the shipment before it reached our shores.”

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

U.S. weekly jobless claims retreat from one-and-a-half-year high

Job seekers and recruiters gather at TechFair in Los Angeles, California, U.S. March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Monica Almeida

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped from near a 1-1/2-year high last week, but the decline was less than expected, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth.

Still, the Labor Department’s report on Thursday continued to point to strong job market conditions, which should underpin the economy amid rising headwinds, including a fading fiscal stimulus boost and a trade war between Washington and Beijing, as well as slowing growth in China and Europe.

The Federal Reserve last week kept interest rates steady but said it would be patient in lifting borrowing costs further this year in a nod to growing uncertainty over the economy’s outlook. The U.S. central bank removed language from its December policy statement that risks to the outlook were “roughly balanced.”

“Labor market conditions remain quite positive, good news for workers, for the consumer sector and the economy more broadly,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 19,000 to a seasonally adjusted 234,000 for the week ended Feb. 2, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The drop partially unwound the prior week’s jump, which lifted claims to 253,000, the highest reading since September 2017.

Claims that week were boosted by layoffs in the service industry in California, most likely striking teachers in Los Angeles.

A 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government as well as difficulties adjusting the data around moving holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. day, which occurred later this year than in recent years, also probably contributed to the spike in filings.

The longest shutdown in history likely forced workers employed by government contractors to file claims for unemployment benefits.

The shutdown ended on Jan. 25 after President Donald Trump and Congress agreed to temporary government funding, without money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 221,000 in the latest week.

U.S. stocks were trading lower on renewed fears of a global slowdown after the European Union cut its economic growth forecasts and White House adviser Larry Kudlow warned there was still a sizable distance to go on U.S.-China trade talks. The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MOMENTUM SLOWING

The Labor Department said no states were estimated last week. The four-week moving average of initial claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 4,500 to 224,750 last week. Claims by federal government workers, which are filed separately and with a one-week lag fell 8,070 to 6,669 in the week ended Jan. 26.

“Claims remain important to watch in the weeks ahead,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in White Plains, New York. “The data are suggesting at least some slowing in employment growth.”

The government reported last Friday that non-farm payrolls increased by 304,000 jobs in January, the largest gain since February 2018. Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell 42,000 to 1.74 million for the week ended Jan. 26.

These so-called continuing claims had raced to a nine-month high in the prior week. The four-week moving average of continuing claims rose 4,250 to 1.74 million.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)