TODAY

– April 21, 2015

Govt, states try to block proposed airline merger

(AP) — The federal government is trying to block the proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways, saying it would cause "substantial harm" to consumers by leading to higher fares and fees.

The U.S. Justice Department, joined by the attorneys general of six states and the District of Columbia, filed a lawsuit to block the merger Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C.

The airlines said the government's conclusions were wrong, and they vowed to use "all legal options" to fight back.

The government's action threatens to quash a deal that would create the world's largest airline by passenger miles. The airlines could challenge the government in court, or possibly agree to concessions that would convince regulators to approve the merger.

The lawsuit caught many observers by surprise. In the last five years, antitrust regulators had allowed three other major airline mergers to go ahead, leaving five airlines in control of about 80 percent of the domestic market. But the government argued that this merger would hurt consumers around the country by eliminating a competitor on more than 1,000 routes. Mergers have helped the industry limit seats, push fares higher and return to profitability.

Last year, business and leisure travelers spent more than $70 billion on airfare in the United States. Consumer advocates cheered the lawsuit.

"This is the best news that consumers could have possible gotten," said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance and member of a panel that advises the government on travel-consumer issues.

In its lawsuit, the department said that if the merger leads to even small increases in ticket prices or airline fees, it would cost American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars each year,

As examples, the government cited round-trip fares for travel this month between Miami and Cincinnati and between Houston and New York in which US Airways' fares are far lower than American and other competitors.

In making its case against the merger, the government relies heavily on an airlines executives own words.

Throughout the 56-page lawsuit, Department of Justice lawyers quote internal emails, investor presentations and public comments by the two airlines' top executives noting how past mergers have allowed for increased fares and rising fees for checking a bag or changing flights.

For instance, the suit recalls how US Airways President Scott Kirby noted in 2011 that past mergers had paved the way for the airlines to push through three successful airfare hikes that year.

Shares of both airlines plunged on news of the lawsuit. US Airways Group Inc. shares fell $1.92, or 10.2 percent, to $16.90 in afternoon trading. Shares of American Airlines parent AMR were taken off the New York Stock Exchange shortly after the company filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2011 but still trade over the counter; they were down $2.82, or 48.5 percent, to $2.99.

The companies issued a statement criticizing the Justice Department's conclusions and arguing that together they would create a stronger network of flights that gives travelers more choices.

In a letter to AMR employees, CEO Tom Horton said both companies tried to convince the Justice Department that the deal would be good for their customers and for airline competition.

"Since the DOJ has formed a contrary view, the matter will now be settled by the courts," Horton said, a process he said would "likely take a few months."

The airlines had already announced the management team at the combined company, which would be called American Airlines Group Inc. and led by US Airways CEO Doug Parker. Those plans are now on hold.

The lawsuit will not necessarily stop the deal. The airlines could fight back in court, but it might not even get that far.

Analysts said that the Justice Department could be seeking more time and leverage to squeeze out some concessions. Many experts had expected regulators to pressure American and US Airways into giving up some takeoff and landing slots at Reagan National Airport, allowing for new competitors at the busy airport, which is just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Even outside the two companies, many in the airline industry had expected that the deal would easily win regulatory approval like Delta's purchase of Northwest, United's combination with Continental, and Southwest's acquisition of AirTran.

Justice Department officials "didn't have any problem with the Northwest-Delta merger; didn't have any problem with United-Continental. Where did they think it was going to go?" said Robert Mann, an airline consultant who once worked at American.

At the least, the lawsuit could delay AMR's exit from bankruptcy and make a merger slightly less likely, said Daniel McKenzie, an analyst for Buckingham Research Group.

AMR and US Airways announced in February that they planned to merge into a carrier with 6,700 daily flights and annual revenue of roughly $40 billion. By passenger traffic, it would slightly eclipse United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Along with Southwest Airlines, the deal would leave four airlines dominating the U.S. market.

AMR and US Airways officials had said their merger would help consumers by creating a tougher competitor for United and Delta.
AMR has cut labor costs and debt since it filed for bankruptcy protection. Pilots from both airlines have agreed on steps that should make it easier to combine their groups under a single labor contract, a big hurdle in many airline mergers.

A federal bankruptcy judge in New York was scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday to consider approving AMR's reorganization plan — one of the last steps before the merger would be completed. The hearing was expected to go ahead. The merger has been approved overwhelmingly by AMR creditors and shareholders and by US Airways shareholders.

In its lawsuit, the Justice Department was joined by the attorneys general from American's home state of Texas, US Airways' home state of Arizona, plus Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

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Written on 04/21/2015, 2:09 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — U.S. stocks are ending mostly lower as big companies turn in a mixed batch of earnings results.
Written on 04/21/2015, 1:18 pm by MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press National Writer
(AP) — In its first report on trafficking around the world, the U.S. criticized Thailand as a hub for labor abuse. Yet 14 years later, seafood caught by slaves on Thai boats is still slipping into the supply chains of major American stores and supermarkets. The U.S. has not enforced a law banning the import of goods made with forced labor since 2000 because of significant loopholes, The Associated Press has found. It has also spared Thailand from sanctions slapped on other countries with weak records in human trafficking because of a complex political relationship that includes cooperation against terrorism. The question of how to deal with Thailand and labor abuse will come up at a congressional hearing Wednesday, in light of an AP investigation that found hundreds of men beaten, starved, forced to work with little or no pay and even held in a cage on the remote island village of Benjina. While officials at federal agencies would not directly answer why the law and sanctions are not applied, they pointed out that the U.S. State Department last year blacklisted Thailand as among the worst offenders in its report on trafficking in people worldwide. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said the plight of about 4,000 forced laborers in Thailand's seafood industry can no longer go unheeded. "There have been problems with systematic and pervasive human trafficking in Thailand's fishing fleets for more than a decade, but Washington has evidently considered it too hard to find out exactly what was happening and is not taking action to stop it," he said. "No one can claim ignorance anymore. This is a test case for Washington as much as Bangkok." Hlaing Min, a 32-year-old migrant fisherman from Myanmar who worked around the clock for more than two years before he ran away, also begged the U.S. for help. "Basically, we are slaves — and slavery is the only word that I can find — but our condition is worse than slavery," he said. "On behalf of all the fishermen here, I request to the Congressmen that the U.S. stop buying all fish from Thailand. ... This fish, we caught it with our blood and sweat, but we don't get a single benefit from it." The AP investigation tracked fish caught by slaves to the supply chains of large food sellers such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, as well as popular brands of canned pet food such as Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. The companies all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it. While some human rights advocates say boycotts are effective, many U.S. seafood companies say cutting off all imports from an entire country means they no longer have any power to bring about change. During a recent visit to Jakarta, State Department Undersecretary Catherine A. Novelli was asked what the U.S. would now do. "I'm sure that your public would be concerned that the fish that they ate came from a slave," said an Indonesian reporter. Novelli's response was quick. "In the United States we actually have a law that it is illegal to import any product that is made with forced labor or slave labor, and that includes fish," she said. "To the extent that we can trace ... where the fish are coming from, we won't allow fish to come into the United States that has been produced with forced labor or slavery." However, the Tariff Act of 1930, which gives Customs and Border Protection the authority to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports, has been used only 39 times in 85 years. In 11 cases, the orders detaining shipments were later revoked. The most recent case dates back to 2000, when Customs stopped clothing from Mongolian firm Dong Fang Guo Ji based on evidence that factory managers forced employees, including children, to work 14-hour days for low wages. The order was revoked in 2001, after further review found labor abuse was no longer a problem at the company. Detention orders that remain in place can have mixed results. In 1999, Customs blocked hand-rolled unfiltered cigarettes from the Mangalore Ganesh Beedie Works in India, suspecting child labor. However, the AP found that Mangalore Ganesh has sent 11 large shipments of the cigarettes to Beedies LLC of Kissimee, Florida, over the past four years through the ports of New York, Miami and Savannah, Georgia. Beedies LLC said the cigarettes go straight from the U.S. ports to a bonded warehouse, and are then exported outside the country. To start an investigation, Customs needs to receive a petition from anyone — a business, an agency, even a non-citizen — showing "reasonably but not conclusively" that imports were made at least in part with forced labor. But spokesman Michael Friel said that in the last four years, Customs has received "only a handful of petitions," and none has pointed to seafood from Thailand. The most recent petition was filed two years ago by a non-profit against cotton in Uzbekistan. "These cases often involve numerous allegations that require extensive agency investigation and fact-finding," he said. Experts also point to two gaping loopholes in the law. Goods made with forced labor must be allowed into the U.S. if consumer demand cannot be met without them. And it's hard, if not impossible, to prove fish in a particular container is tainted, because different batches generally mix together at processing plants. Former Justice Department attorney Jim Rubin said Customs can't stop trafficked goods without the help of other federal agencies to investigate overseas. "You can't expect a Customs guy at the border to know that a can of salmon caught on the high seas was brought in by a slave," he said. The U.S. response to Thailand is also shaped by political considerations. For years, the State Department has put Thailand on the watchlist in its annual trafficking report, saying the Thai government has made efforts to stop labor abuse. But last year, after several waivers, it dropped Thailand for the first time to the lowest rank, mentioning forced labor in the seafood industry. Countries with the same ranking, such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea, faced full sanctions, and foreign aid was withheld. Others, like Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe, faced partial sanctions. Thailand did not: U.S. taxpayers provided $18.5 million in foreign aid to the country last year. "If Thailand was North Korea or Iran, they'd be treated differently," said Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They're a key ally and we have a long relationship with them." In the 1960s and '70s, when the U.S. needed Thailand's help in the Vietnam War, the country "got a pass on everything," Kurlantzick said. Then Thailand's record on human rights gradually improved, along with its economy. That changed dramatically in 2006, when the military first ousted the prime minister. It declared martial law and then overtook the government again last year. In response, the U.S. condemned the current regime and has suspended $4.7 million in military funding to the Southeast Asian nation. However, the U.S. still includes Thailand in military exercises, and the country is considered a critical ally against terrorism. A U.S. Senate report in December detailed how top al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded, slammed into a wall and isolated at a secret safe house in Thailand as part of CIA interrogations in 2002. And in 2003, a senior al-Qaida operative was arrested outside Bangkok after more than 200 people died in a Bali nightclub bombing. The U.S. also wants strong relations with Thailand as a counterweight to China, whose influence is growing in the region. Along with the State Department, the Labor Department has also flagged seafood from Thailand year after year as produced by forced labor in violation of international standards. Department of Homeland Security senior policy adviser Kenneth Kennedy referred to discussions for an action plan on labor abuse in Thailand that began in the fall. "I think the U.S. government recently has realized that we need to pay attention to this area," he said. "We need to address conditions that have been reported for years and that are in the public minds and in the public eye very much." Thailand itself says it is tackling labor abuse. In 2003, the country launched a national campaign against criminal organizations, including traffickers. In 2008, it adopted a new anti-human trafficking law. And last month, the new junta government cited the fight against trafficking as a national priority. "This government is determined and committed to solving the human trafficking issues, not by words but by actions," Deputy Government Spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. "We are serious in prosecuting every individual involved in the network, from the boats' captains to government officials." However, a Thai police general on a fact-finding mission earlier this month to Benjina declared conditions were good and workers "happy." A day later, Indonesian authorities rescued more than 320 abused fishermen from the island village, and the number of workers waiting to be sent home has since risen to more than 560. Under United Nations principles adopted in 2011, governments must protect against human rights abuses by third parties. However, some local authorities in Thailand are themselves deeply implicated in such practices, said Harvard University professor John Ruggie, who wrote the principles, known as the "Ruggie Framework," as a U.N. special representative. Also, Thailand's seafood industry, with annual exports of about $7 billion, is big business for the country and depends on migrant labor. Migrant fishermen rescued from Benjina were bewildered to learn that their abuse has been an open secret for years. Maung Htwe, a 26-year-old migrant worker from Myanmar, did backbreaking work for Thai captains in Indonesian waters over seven years, earning less than $5 a day, if he was lucky. "Sometimes I'm really angry. It's so painful. Why was I sold and taken to Indonesia?" asked Htwe, who was among the workers rescued from Benjina. "If people already knew the story, then they should have helped us and taken action."  
Written on 04/21/2015, 1:13 pm by MATTHEW PERRONE, AP Health Writer
(AP) — A top federal drug regulator says that increased safety problems with homeopathic remedies contributed to the government's decision to revisit its oversight of the products at a public hearing this week. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday wrapped up a two-day meeting to hear from supporters and critics of products like Zicam Allergy Relief and Cold-Eeze, alternative remedies that are protected by federal law, but not accepted by mainstream medicine. Similar to dietary supplements, the FDA does not review the safety or effectiveness of homeopathic remedies before they are sold. But unlike supplements, homeopathic medicines can state that they are intended for specific medical symptoms and conditions. The FDA's Cynthia Schnedar, a director of drug compliance, said the agency has issued 40 warning letters to homeopathic product makers since 2009 amid increasing U.S. sales. In perhaps the most serious case, in 2009 the FDA ordered the maker of Zicam to stop marketing three products that contained zinc gluconate. The agency linked those products to 130 reports from consumers who said they lost their sense of smell. In 2010, the FDA warned about reports of toxicity in children taking Hyland Homeopathic's teething tablets, which contained irregular levels of an ingredient called belladonna. And last month the agency warned U.S. patients with asthma not to rely on homeopathic products claiming to treat the respiratory condition, which can cause fatal complications if not properly managed. Despite such problems Schnedar stressed that this week's FDA meeting was a "listening session," and that the agency has not reached any decision about whether to alter its regulations. "We're gathering information to allow us to consider whether to adjust the current enforcement policies we have in place," Schnedar said in an interview. The FDA hasn't revisited its oversight of homeopathic products since 1988, when it essentially exempted the industry from basic production and quality control requirements, like listing ingredients and dosing levels on product labels. Zicam and hundreds of other homeopathic remedies are often sold alongside over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and aspirin at pharmacies across the U.S. But homeopathic medicine is based on a 200-year old theory unsupported by modern science: that ingredients which create certain symptoms in healthy people are effective in treating the disease that causes the same symptoms. A key principle of traditional homeopathy holds that the more diluted a remedy is, the better it works. Today, many remedies marketed as homeopathic contain heavily diluted drugs, vitamins and minerals. For instance, Zicam contains a heavily diluted dose of zinc as its "active ingredient." On Monday, industry executives and lobbyists argued that the current FDA framework works well for homeopathy. Representatives from the Consumer HealthCare Products Association, with represents homeopathic manufacturers, emphasized that consumers like having easy access to alternative treatments. But industry critics argued that many consumers do not understand how homeopathic products differ from conventional medicines. "Stocking homeopathic remedies labeled for specific symptoms or conditions alongside conventional over-the-counter drugs on the pharmacy or supermarket shelves is innately misleading," said Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center. She and others want the FDA to require homeopathic remedies to undergo the same safety and effectiveness reviews as conventional drugs. But failing that, Fugh-Berman said that the products should carry a disclaimer warning that they have not been shown to treat or prevent any disease or condition.
Written on 04/21/2015, 1:11 pm by COREY WILLIAMS, Associated Press
(AP) — A woman of Arab and Jewish descent who was strip-searched at a Detroit-area airport has reached a settlement in a lawsuit filed on her behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday. The federal government will give Shoshana Hebshi $40,000 as compensation for being humiliated on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks after armed agents forced her from a plane at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, made her undress during a search and held her for hours. Frontier Airlines, the Transportation Security Administration and Wayne County Airport Authority were named in the federal lawsuit. Hebshi, who has a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, has said she was ethnically profiled based on her dark complexion. "I filed this lawsuit because I didn't want others to experience the kind of unnecessary trauma that I did, and it has given me faith that the justice system can work to protect constitutional rights," Hebshi said in a release. "This settlement gives me some peace of mind. Now, I feel like I can finally put the incident behind me." Hebshi of Sylvania, Ohio, was traveling home after visiting a sister in California when was removed from the Frontier Airlines flight after it landed Sept. 11, 2011. She was seated next to two Indian-American men, whom crew members had said spent a lot of time in the plane's bathroom. All three were detained, according to the ACLU. Hebshi was held for hours before being released. The two men also were released. "People do not forfeit their constitutional rights when they step onto an airplane," said ACLU attorney Rachel Goodman. "This settlement sends that critical message, and will help protect future passengers from having to endure what Shoshana went through." The Airport Authority said its insurer agreed to a financial settlement to avoid "further time-consuming and costly litigation." That amount was not released. Airport police "acted quickly and responsibly, and followed appropriate protocols in responding to a request for help from one of our airline partners," Authority Chief Executive Thomas Naughton said in a release. "I strongly support their actions. We remain committed to vigilantly protecting the safety of the travelling public." As part of the settlement, Frontier will amend its employee handbook to more clearly state its zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and provide all new employees with training on that revision. The airline also will amend its customer complaint policy to ensure allegations of discrimination are given appropriate attention. Frontier Airlines declined to comment on the settlement.
Written on 04/21/2015, 1:09 pm by 
MAE ANDERSON, AP Technology Writer
(AP) — The site that sells everything from toilet paper to toys can now send you on a romantic getaway. Amazon is expanding its travel service online, dubbed Amazon Destinations, the latest effort by the e-commerce site to bolster its service offerings. The travel service offers deals on hotels and getaways in three metro areas, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and their surrounding regions. Amazon has offered travel deals since 2012 but those were mainly flash deals with discounted rates. Now, hotels can offer rooms at published rates as well as deal packages and discounts. Some examples of hotels included are Suncadia Resort near Seattle, which has a golf course and hiking trails, or Two Bunch Palms, a hot springs spa resort in Los Angeles. The travel service is part of Amazon's local site which offers discounts on restaurants, entertainment, travel and other offerings from local businesses. It pits Amazon against travel service sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor. Amazon has been broadening its online service offerings across the board. Last month it launched Amazon Home Services, where businesses can sell to customers services like house cleaning and small renovation projects like TV wall mounting and garbage disposal installation. The Seattle company is seeking to balance investments in new areas with turning a profit. Amazon.com Inc. reports first-quarter results on Thursday. Shares rose $4.89 to $394.40 in afternoon trading.
Written on 04/21/2015, 12:49 pm by JENNIFER PELTZ, Associated Press
(AP) — It was a list no state wanted to top. And when South Carolina was ranked as having the highest rate of women being killed by men, The Post and Courier of Charleston set out to explore why. Starting in 2013, the newspaper began an investigation that has spurred proposals for reform and on Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for public service.The New York Times collected three Pulitzers and the Los Angeles Times won two as the awards honored news outlets large and small. The 70,000-circulation Daily Breeze of Torrance, California, won the local reporting award for exposing corruption in a school district, while the 84,000-circulation Post and Courier was recognized for examining the deaths of 300 women in the past decade. "We felt so passionate about this project, and we felt so passionate about the difference it could bring to South Carolina," Publisher P.J. Browning said. Since the series was published, state lawmakers have proposed tougher penalties for domestic violence, and Gov. Nikki Haley created a task force to investigate the problem. The Seattle Times took the breaking news award for covering a mudslide that killed 43 people and exploring whether the disaster could have been prevented. "When public officials were saying, 'Oh, this was unforeseen,' we showed that it was not unforeseen," Editor Kathy Best told staffers. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both won investigative reporting prizes, the Times for an examination of lobbyists' influence on state attorneys general, the Journal for detailing fraud and waste in the Medicare payment system. The Times' coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa won Pulitzers for international reporting and feature photography, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was honored in the breaking news photography category for images of racial unrest touched off by the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The Washington Post took the national reporting prize for exposing security lapses that spurred an overhaul of the Secret Service. The Los Angeles Times' prizes were for feature writing that put a human face on California's drought and for Mary McNamara's television criticism. Bloomberg News was a first-time winner, taking the explanatory reporting award for an examination of corporate tax dodging. The commentary prize went to the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg, who examined justice issues including the case of a man wrongfully convicted of killing a police officer. The editorial writing winner, Kathleen Kingsbury of The Boston Globe, chronicled restaurant workers' low wages and the toll of income inequality. Adam Zyglis of The Buffalo News won the editorial cartooning prize for his look at such issues as immigration and gun control. The Pulitzers, established by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer and first given out in 1917, are American journalism's highest honor. The public service award consists of a gold medal; the other awards carry a prize of $10,000 each. In the prizes' arts categories, Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See," an emotional and intimate World War II novel, won for fiction. The drama prize went to Stephen Adly Guirgis's "Between Riverside and Crazy," a dark comedy about a cantankerous ex-cop and the hard-luck orphans who become his surrogate family. The Pulitzer for general nonfiction went to "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," Elizabeth Kolbert's exploration of the impact of human behavior on the natural world. David I. Kertzer's "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe" won for biography-autobiography. "Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People," by Elizabeth A. Fenn, won for history. Gregory Pardlo's "Digest" captured the poetry prize, and Julia Wolfe's "Anthracite Fields" won for music.
Written on 04/21/2015, 11:52 am by Business Journal staff
The Visalia Chamber of Commerce will host an information session for its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!) for students in grades 7-12 on April 30. Students, families and local business leaders can attend the event from 6-7 p.m. at the Visalia Chamber of Commerce on 220 N. Santa Fe St. to learn more about the application process and curriculum for the yearlong program.  The 2016 application form will be available at the event and YEA! graduates will be present to share their experiences. Business leaders interested in being a mentor, guest speaker, field trip host or investor can also learn more at the information session.  YEA! guides middle and high school students through launching and running their own business or social movement. Students write business plans, conduct market research and pitch their plans to a panel of investors. A second information night will be held from 6-7 p.m. on May 27. Both events are free and open to the public. 
Written on 04/21/2015, 11:08 am by Business Journal Staff
Granville Homes is set to open Brio on Broadway, the company’s eighth downtown live-work-play infill project. The Eco-Smart community will debut tomorrow in celebration of Earth Day. Brio on Broadway, located at 1636 Broadway, has 52 residential units on multiple levels within both 2- and 3-story buildings, ranging in size from 602 to 2,173 square feet, many with views of the upcoming Mural District park to be constructed by the City of Fresno at the corner of Fulton and Calaveras. The complex encompasses 14 new buildings and the renovation of an existing home on site. This existing structure will house the leasing office, community laundry room and two rentable residential units. All units are equipped with energy-efficient stainless appliances, karndean plank flooring, custom cabinets, white quartz countertops and ceiling fans. Many of the development’s units include an attached garage and private balcony. Brio on Broadway also includes a community courtyard with a lounge area, outdoor fireplace, barbecue and landscaping with a mix of drought-tolerant, eco-conscious plants and trees. Brio is also the first Granville project downtown to offer all smoke-free units. A number of local officials are expected to attend tomorrow’s grand opening, which will take place at 10 a.m. Coffee and light refreshments will be served and community and apartment tours will be provided.
Written on 04/21/2015, 10:20 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — A California sheriff on Monday disputed an account by the state's largest utility that suggests a county worker using heavy equipment ruptured a gas pipeline and triggered an explosion last week that injured 11 people. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the county equipment operator was smoothing dirt, not digging, near the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas line that ruptured at a gun range on Friday, The Fresno Bee reported (http://bit.ly/1bntmCM). Over the weekend, officials with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Fresno County public works said the county heavy equipment operator apparently nicked the line while working on a berm that was designed to stop bullets at the shooting range operated by the Fresno County Sheriff's Foundation. Mims, however, said the operator was using the front loader's bucket to spread piles of soil along the berm that captures bullets from the shooting range. She added that the loader is not a "digging piece of equipment" and was merely driving on the road near the berm when the gas line ruptured. "We have no one saying anything was dug up or struck or nicked," Mims said. "That will be determined at the end of the investigation." The blast is now being investigated by a host of agencies, including the sheriff's office, the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E and the Fresno Fire Department. PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company has hired a firm to investigate the gas line explosion that injured members of an inmate work crew, two sheriff's deputies and a county equipment operator. Boyles confirmed that there was no call made to the national 8-1-1 utility call center to check if any gas lines were present before digging started. As of Monday, six people remained hospitalized at Community Regional Medical Center — four of them in critical condition. The operator, identified by family as Ismael Areazola, is among those in critical condition with burns, as are three Fresno County Jail inmates. Two other inmates are in stable condition, said Fresno County sheriff's spokesman Tony Botti.
Written on 04/21/2015, 9:37 am by Business Journal staff
A group of five Fresno fifth-graders is seeking help from the community to fund a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee to compete in a global competition. The Sparkle Girls from Riverview Elementary School so far have raised $359 of $7,500 needed to compete in the Destination Imagination's Global Finals May 19-24. Destination Imagination is a project-based educational program that stresses critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and team work. Teams of up to seven members compete in a number of challenges in categories including fine arts, improv, technical and scientific. The Sparkle Girls — Emma Bogna, Ellie Miller, Faith Williams, Kayla Marroquin and Meghan Carey — plan to compete in the improv games. The challenge requires the team to: • Create three independent improvisational sketches• Research and incorporate improvisational games and street performances• Practice integrating randomly selected situations and settings. It is the fourth year of the team competing, and the third year qualifying for the state tournament. Tournaments are hosted in 30 counties to find about 8,000 students who are invited to the global finals. Each and every local person who is able to compete on a global level — whether it be in business, the arts or Destination Imagination — becomes an important ambassador for the Central Valley. The Sparkle Girls have set up a gofundme.com page for community members to help a few daughters of the Valley sparkle on a global level.

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Written on 04/21/2015, 2:09 pm by The Associated Press
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Written on 04/21/2015, 1:18 pm by MARTHA MENDOZA, Associated Press National Writer
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Written on 04/21/2015, 1:13 pm by MATTHEW PERRONE, AP Health Writer
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Written on 04/21/2015, 1:11 pm by COREY WILLIAMS, Associated Press
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