US Commerce Secretary: US ‘Won’t Tolerate’ China’s Ban on Micron Chips

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The United States “won’t tolerate” China’s effective ban on purchases of Micron Technology MU.O memory chips and is working closely with allies to address such “economic coercion,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Saturday.

Raimondo told a news conference after a meeting of trade ministers in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework talks that the U.S. “firmly opposes” China’s actions against Micron.

These “target a single U.S. company without any basis in fact, and we see it as plain and simple economic coercion and we won’t tolerate it, nor do we think it will be successful.”

China’s cyberspace regulator said May 21 that Micron, the biggest U.S. memory chip maker, had failed its network security review and that it would block operators of key infrastructure from buying from the company, prompting it to predict a revenue reduction.

The move came a day after leaders of the G7 industrial democracies agreed to new initiatives to push back against economic coercion by China — a decision noted by Raimondo.

“As we said at the G7 and as we have said consistently, we are closely engaging with partners addressing this specific challenge and all challenges related to China’s non-market practices.”

Raimondo also raised the Micron issue in a meeting Thursday with China’s Commerce Minister, Wang Wentao.

She also said the IPEF agreement on supply chains and other pillars of the talks would be consistent with U.S. investments in the $52 billion CHIPS Act to foster semiconductor production in the United States.

“The investments in the CHIPS Act are to strengthen and bolster our domestic production of semiconductors. Having said that, we welcome participation from companies that are in IPEF countries, you know, so we expect that companies from Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc, will participate in the CHIPS Act funding,” Raimondo said.

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France Confirms Bird Flu Vaccination After Favorable Tests

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France confirmed its aim to launch a vaccination program against bird flu in the autumn after results from a series of tests on the vaccination of ducks showed “satisfactory effectiveness,” the farm ministry said. 

A severe strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly called bird flu, has ravaged poultry production around the world, leading to the culling of over 200 million birds in the past 18 months. 

France has been the worst hit country in the European Union and is facing a strong resurgence of outbreaks since early this month in the southwestern part of the country, mainly among ducks. 

It had already launched a pre-order of 80 million vaccines last month, which needed to be confirmed based on final tests carried out by French health safety agency ANSES. 

“These favorable results provided sufficient guarantees to launch a vaccination campaign as early as autumn 2023,” the farm ministry wrote on its website. 

Governments, often shy to use vaccination due to the trade restrictions it can entail, have increasingly considered adopting them to stem the spread of the virus and avoid interhuman transmission. 

The results of the tests demonstrated a good control of virus transmission in vaccinated mule ducks, a differentiation between infected and vaccinated animals, known as the DIVA principle, and a reduction in virus excretion by vaccinated birds, the test conclusions said. 

France has mandated two companies, France’s Ceva Animal Health and Germany’s Boehringher Ingelheim, to develop bird flu vaccines for ducks. 

Several other EU countries have been carrying out tests, including the Netherlands on laying hens and Italy on turkeys. 

First results in the Netherlands showed the vaccines tested were efficient. 

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China, South Korea Agree to Strengthen Talks on Chip Industry

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China and South Korea have agreed to strengthen dialog and cooperation on semiconductor industry supply chains, amid broader global concerns over chip supplies, sanctions and national security, China’s commerce minister said.

Wang Wentao met with South Korean Trade Minister Ahn Duk-geun on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Detroit, which ended Friday. 

They exchanged views on maintaining the stability of the industrial supply chain and strengthening cooperation in bilateral, regional and multilateral fields, according to a statement from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on Saturday.

Wang also said that China is willing to work with South Korea to deepen trade ties and investment cooperation.

However, a South Korean statement on the same meeting did not mention chips, instead saying the country’s trade minister had asked China to stabilize the supply of key raw materials — and asked for a predictable business environment for South Korean companies in China.

“The South Korean side expressed that communication is needed between working-level officials over all industries,” not just for semiconductors, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The source declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

South Korea is in the crosshairs of a tit-for-tat row between the United States and China over semiconductors.

China’s cyberspace regulator said last week that Micron had failed its network security review and that it would block operators of key infrastructure from buying from the company.

The U.S. has pushed for countries to limit China’s access to advanced chips, citing a host of reasons including national security.

About 40% South Korea’s chip exports go to China, according to trade ministry data, while U.S. technology and equipment are necessary for South Korean chipmakers Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix.

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Farmer-Turned-Policeman Serves as Mexico’s Eyes, Ears at Popocatepetl Volcano

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When the Popocatepetl volcano reawakened in 1994, Mexican scientists needed people in the area who could be their eyes and ears. State police helped them find one, Nefi de Aquino, a farmer then in his 40s who lived beside the volcano. From that moment on, his life changed.

He became a police officer himself, but with a very specific job: watching Popocatepetl and reporting everything that he saw to authorities and researchers at diverse institutions.

For nearly three decades, de Aquino says he has been “taking care of” the volcano affectionately known as “El Popo.” And for the past 23 of those years, he has been sending scientists daily photographs.

Collaboration between researchers and local residents — usually people of limited means — is crucial to Mexico’s volcano monitoring. Hundreds of villagers collaborate in different ways. Often local residents are the only witnesses to key events. Sometimes scientists install recording devices on their land, or have them collect ash samples.

One evening this week, the thin 70-year-old policeman with a hoarse voice stopped his patrol truck near the cemetery overlooking his home town, one of the area’s best vantage points. At his feet lay the town of Santiago Xalitzintla. Directly in front at a distance of 14 miles (23 kilometers) sat Popocatepetl, puffing smoke, the rim of its crater aglow.

Because it appeared calm, de Aquino didn’t stay long. Over the previous week, he had been busy sending digital volcano photographs to a slew of researchers at universities and government agencies as the mountain’s activity increased and authorities raised the alert level. Once again, the world’s eyes were on the 17,797-foot Popocatepetl, including those of the 25 million people living within 60 miles of its crater.

On Friday, officials said the volcano’s activity had decreased somewhat although they maintained the same alert level.

A farmer who was a meat packer for three years in Utah in his late 20s when he illegally emigrated to the United States, de Aquino’s life took a radical turn one day in 1994 when someone in his home town told him police were looking for him.

At first he was afraid to go to the police, but eventually did. The interview was brief.

“‘Do you know how to read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Write?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you drive?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have a license?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Heck, this one will work.'”

Officers told de Aquino that the government was looking for people to monitor the volcano and that he, then 41, had certain advantages. He appeared serious, he had finished high school, and during his short stay in the United States he had learned how to take photographs.

‘Immersed in the volcano’

At first, de Aquino was given a volunteer civil defense role, and he took some courses at National Center for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED where he was “immersed in the volcano.” But he wasn’t thrilled with doing the work without pay. So authorities offered to send him to the police academy.

Although de Aquino became an officer with some normal police duties, he was an odd cop. He almost always worked alone, patrolling remote mountain roads, taking photos of the volcano.

The ways that local people who help monitor the volcano are compensated are seldom straightforward, because they are not on the payrolls of universities or other research institutions, despite “becoming our eyes close to the volcano,” said Carlos Valdes, a researcher at the UNAM’s Geophysics Institute and former head of CENAPRED.

As an example, Valdes said that the key person when the seismic monitoring system was installed on Popocatepetl was a mountain climber who lived in the town of Amecameca. The man, since deceased, knew the safest routes to climb and how to avoid putting instruments in locations that were sacred to locals.

The way to compensate the man, was “to buy tires for his jeep, repair the vehicle, get him coats,” because it was otherwise difficult to pay him.

Paulino Alonso, a technician at CENAPRED who does fieldwork at Popocatepetl, said collaboration with locals also has given researchers a better understanding of how locals perceive risks.

“A machine is never going to speak to the human perception of danger,” Alonso said.

Three photos a day

In 2000, when Popocatepetl grew more active, authorities declared a red alert and thousands of people were evacuated. De Aquino’s monitoring work intensified.

“They gave me cameras, a patrol car and binoculars and every day I had to send three photos: one in the morning, one at midday and one at night,” the policeman said.

De Aquino continues working to this day, filling his adobe-walled home with thousands of photographs. He lives alone on a modest ranch on the volcano’s slopes, where he has some fruit trees growing beside a stream, and raises corn and a few animals.

De Aquino helps keep locals informed about the volcano and assists during evacuations. Once, his house became an impromptu shelter for soldiers, police and government officials, he said.

De Aquino has gotten to go along on overflights of the crater, the first time terrified. “You see the whole base, how it lights up, how it puts out smoke … it felt strange,” he said.

He has continued in his job despite being past retirement age.

“What I have learned from (Popocatepetl) is that while it’s calm, it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “But when it gets mad, it goes crazy.”

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US Revokes License of Drug Distributor Over Opioid Crisis Failures

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The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stripped one of the nation’s largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers Friday after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis.

The action against Morris & Dickson Co., which threatens to put the company out of business, came two days after an Associated Press investigation found the DEA allowed the company to keep shipping drugs for nearly four years after a judge recommended the harshest penalty for its “cavalier disregard” of rules aimed at preventing opioid abuse.

The DEA acknowledged the time it took to issue its final decision was “longer than typical for the agency” but blamed Morris & Dickson in part for holding up the process by seeking delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lengthy pursuit of a settlement that the agency said it had considered. The order becomes effective in 90 days, allowing more time to negotiate a settlement.

12,000 unusually large orders

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the 68-page order that Morris & Dickson failed to accept full responsibility for its past actions, which included shipping 12,000 unusually large orders of opioids to pharmacies and hospitals between 2014 and 2018. During this time, the company filed just three suspicious order reports with the DEA.

Milgram specifically cited testimony of then-company president Paul Dickson Sr. in 2019 that Morris & Dickson’s compliance program was “dang good,” and he didn’t think a “single person has gotten hurt by [their] drugs.”

“Those statements from the president of a family-owned and -operated company so strongly miss the point of the requirements of a DEA registrant,” she wrote. “Its acceptance of responsibility did not prove that it or its principals understand the full extent of their wrongdoing … and the potential harm it caused.”

Roots go back to 1840

Shreveport, Louisiana-based Morris & Dickson traces its roots to 1840, when its namesake founder arrived from Wales and placed an ad in a local newspaper selling medicines. It has since become the nation’s fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, with $4 billion a year in revenue and nearly 600 employees serving pharmacies and hospitals in 29 states.

In a statement, the company said it has invested millions of dollars over the past few years to revamp its compliance systems and appeared to hold out hope for a settlement.

“Morris & Dickson is grateful to the DEA administrator for delaying the effective date of the order to allow time to settle these old issues,” it said. “We remain confident we can achieve an outcome that safeguards the supply chain for all of our health care partners and the communities they serve. … Business will continue as usual and orders will continue to go out on time.”

Morris & Dickson’s much larger competitors, a trio of pharmaceutical distributors known as the Big Three, have already agreed to pay the federal government more than $1 billion in fines and penalties to settle similar violations. Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson also agreed to pay $21 billion over 18 years to resolve claims as part of a nationwide settlement.

While Morris & Dickson wasn’t the only drug distributor whom the DEA accused of fueling the opioid crisis, it was unique in its willingness to challenge those accusations in the DEA’s administrative court.

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Elon Musk’s Brain Implant Company Says It Has Approval to Begin Human Trials

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Elon Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink says it’s gotten permission from U.S. regulators to begin testing its device in people.

The company made the announcement on Twitter Thursday evening but has provided no details about a potential study, which was not listed on the U.S. government database of clinical trials.

Officials with the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the agency granted the approval, but press officer Carly Kempler said in an email that the FDA “acknowledges and understands” that Musk’s company made the announcement.

Neuralink is one of many groups working on linking the nervous system to computers. The aim is to put into humans a neural-chip implant designed to decode and stimulate brain activity.

Earlier this week, for example, researchers in Switzerland published research in the journal Nature describing an implant that restores communication between the brain and spinal cord to help a man with paralysis to stand and walk naturally. There are more than 30 brain or spine computer interface trials underway, according to

Musk – who also owns Twitter and is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX – said last December that his team was in the process of asking regulators to allow them to test the Neuralink device.

The device is about the size of a large coin and is designed to be implanted in the skull, with ultra-thin wires going directly into the brain. Musk has said the first two applications in people would attempt to restore vision and try to help people with little or no ability to operate their muscles rapidly. He also said he envisions that signals from the brain could be bridged to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord for someone with a broken neck.

After Musk made a presentation late last year about the device, Rajesh Rao, co-director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington, said he didn’t think Neuralink was ahead of other teams in terms of brain-computer interface achievements but was “quite ahead” in terms of the hardware in the devices.

It’s unclear how well this device or similar interfaces will ultimately work, or how safe they might be. Neuralink’s interface is considered an “investigational device” at this point, and clinical trials are designed to collect data on safety and effectiveness.

In its tweet this week, Neuralink said that it’s not yet recruiting participants for the study and will provide more information soon.

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Regulators Take Aim at AI to Protect Consumers, Workers

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As concerns grow over increasingly powerful artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT, the nation’s financial watchdog says it’s working to ensure that companies follow the law when they’re using AI.

Already, automated systems and algorithms help determine credit ratings, loan terms, bank account fees, and other aspects of our financial lives. AI also affects hiring, housing and working conditions.

Ben Winters, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said a joint statement on enforcement released by federal agencies last month was a positive first step.

“There’s this narrative that AI is entirely unregulated, which is not really true,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Just because you use AI to make a decision, that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from responsibility regarding the impacts of that decision. This is our opinion on this. We’re watching.’”

In the past year, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau said it has fined banks over mismanaged automated systems that resulted in wrongful home foreclosures, car repossessions and lost benefit payments, after the institutions relied on new technology and faulty algorithms.

There will be no “AI exemptions” to consumer protection, regulators say, pointing to these enforcement actions as examples.

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau Director Rohit Chopra said the agency has “already started some work to continue to muscle up internally when it comes to bringing on board data scientists, technologists and others to make sure we can confront these challenges” and that the agency is continuing to identify potentially illegal activity.

Representatives from the Federal Trade Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Justice, as well as the CFPB, all say they’re directing resources and staff to take aim at new tech and identify negative ways it could affect consumers’ lives.

“One of the things we’re trying to make crystal clear is that if companies don’t even understand how their AI is making decisions, they can’t really use it,” Chopra said. “In other cases, we’re looking at how our fair lending laws are being adhered to when it comes to the use of all of this data.”

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act, for example, financial providers have a legal obligation to explain any adverse credit decision. Those regulations likewise apply to decisions made about housing and employment. Where AI make decisions in ways that are too opaque to explain, regulators say the algorithms shouldn’t be used.

“I think there was a sense that, ‘Oh, let’s just give it to the robots and there will be no more discrimination,’” Chopra said. “I think the learning is that that actually isn’t true at all. In some ways the bias is built into the data.”

EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said there will be enforcement against AI hiring technology that screens out job applicants with disabilities, for example, as well as so-called “bossware” that illegally surveils workers.

Burrows also described ways that algorithms might dictate how and when employees can work in ways that would violate existing law.

“If you need a break because you have a disability or perhaps you’re pregnant, you need a break,” she said. “The algorithm doesn’t necessarily take into account that accommodation. Those are things that we are looking closely at. … I want to be clear that while we recognize that the technology is evolving, the underlying message here is the laws still apply and we do have tools to enforce.”

OpenAI’s top lawyer, at a conference this month, suggested an industry-led approach to regulation.

“I think it first starts with trying to get to some kind of standards,” Jason Kwon, OpenAI’s general counsel, told a tech summit in Washington hosted by software industry group BSA. “Those could start with industry standards and some sort of coalescing around that. And decisions about whether or not to make those compulsory, and also then what’s the process for updating them, those things are probably fertile ground for more conversation.”

Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, said government intervention “will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful” AI systems, suggesting the formation of a U.S. or global agency to license and regulate the technology.

While there’s no immediate sign that Congress will craft sweeping new AI rules as European lawmakers are doing, societal concerns brought Altman and other tech CEOs to the White House this month to answer hard questions about the implications of these tools.

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Investment in Solar Will Eclipse Oil in 2023, IEA Finds

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Global investment in clean energy production in 2023 will be significantly larger than investment in fossil fuel-based energy generation, and for the first time, more money will be invested in solar energy than in the oil sector, according to a report issued by the International Energy Agency on Thursday.

The report, World Energy Investment 2023, finds that globally, $2.8 trillion will be invested in energy in 2023, including production, transmission and storage. Of that amount, $1.7 trillion will be invested in clean technology, which the IEA defines as “renewables, electric vehicles, nuclear power, grids, storage, low-emissions fuels, efficiency improvements and heat pumps.”

The estimate for clean energy for 2023 reflects a 24% increase over that for 2021 in a sector expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future, as governments worldwide attempt to meet the internationally agreed-on target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Achieving that goal would allow the world to avoid some of the worst effects of global warming.

‘Moving fast’

While the report shows that the road to a zero-carbon future is long, it also offers the possibility that key interim goals, including total investment targets for 2030, remain achievable.

“Clean energy is moving fast — faster than many people realize,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said in a statement accompanying the report. “This is clear in the investment trends, where clean technologies are pulling away from fossil fuels. For every dollar invested in fossil fuels, about 1.7 dollars are now going into clean energy. Five years ago, this ratio was 1-to-1. One shining example is investment in solar, which is set to overtake the amount of investment going into oil production for the first time.”

The report estimates that in 2023, total global investment in solar power technology will be $382 billion, compared with $371 billion invested in oil production. In 2013, the amount invested in oil production was $636 billion, five times larger than the $127 billion invested in solar.

No pandemic slowdown

Nat Bullard, an energy analyst and a senior contributor to BloombergNEF, which provides strategic research on the transition to a low-carbon economy, told VOA that the IEA report was clarifying after a period of complexity in the energy markets.

“We have had, in succession and overlapping, a pandemic, a supply chain crunch, inflation and a very, very large war all going on at once,” he said. “They’ve made long-term trends hard to see because you’ve had a lot of near-term variability.

“What the report highlights, and the IEA has generally been very clear, is that if you look on an evidence basis, during COVID we did not actually see any deceleration in interest in energy transition,” he said. “In the years after that, supply chain disruptions, high prices for hydrocarbons and big conflicts have actually encouraged investment.”

Not evenly distributed

China is far and away the largest single investor in clean energy, plunging $184 billion into the selector in 2022. Taken as a whole, the European Union invested $154 billion in clean energy in 2022.

The U.S. trailed both, with $97 billion invested last year. However, the amount spent by the U.S. in 2023 will likely be significantly larger thanks to passage of legislation last year containing funding for clean energy generation.

Rounding out the top five, Japan invested $28 billion in clean energy; India, $19 billion.

While rising investment in renewable power is good news in the climate-change fight, the IEA points out that it is heavily tilted toward large developed economies, with poorer countries and the Global South, in particular, seeing relatively little investment.

The entire continent of Africa, for example, saw just $10 billion in clean energy investment in 2022.

Electric vehicles and batteries

Two of the fastest-growing segments of the clean energy investment space are electric vehicles (EVs) and batteries that store power generated by clean energy technologies.

In 2023, the IEA estimates that $129 billion will be invested in electric vehicle technology, more than nine times the $14 billion invested just five years earlier. Battery storage will be the target of $37 billion in investment this year, over seven times the $5 billion invested in the sector in 2018.

In both segments, China is leading the way. In 2022, the entire world’s production capacity for lithium-ion batteries, the type most commonly used in EVs, stood at 1.57 terawatt hours. China accounted for 76% of that capacity. By 2030, according to the IEA, that capacity will have ballooned to 6.79 TWh, but China’s dominance will continue, accounting for 68% of the total.

Fossil fuels still growing

While renewables may be attracting more investment dollars than fossil fuels in 2023, the IEA reported that consumption of fossil fuels will continue to rise this year.

Meeting the net-zero goal in 2050 requires a slowing of investment in fossil fuels technology, according to the IEA. According to the report, more than $1 trillion will be invested in fossil fuels in 2023. To meet the agency’s benchmark for progress, that figure would have to be reduced by more than half by 2030.

Conversely, to remain on track, investment in clean energy must continue to grow. The agency estimates that to meet the benchmark for 2030, annual investment will have to grow from $1.7 trillion this year to $4.6 trillion in 2030.

To reach that goal, clean energy spending would have to grow by about 15% every year between now and 2030, somewhat higher than the 11.4% annual growth the sector has experienced over the past three years.

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US Supreme Court Limits Federal Government’s Ability to Police Pollution Into Wetlands

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The Supreme Court on Thursday sharply limited the federal government’s authority to police water pollution into certain wetlands, the second decision in as many years in which a conservative majority narrowed the reach of environmental regulations.

The outcome could threaten efforts to control flooding on the Mississippi River and protect the Chesapeake Bay, among many projects, wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh, breaking with the other five conservatives.

The justices boosted property rights over concerns about clean water in a ruling in favor of an Idaho couple who sought to build a house near Priest Lake in the state’s panhandle. Chantell and Michael Sackett objected when federal officials identified a soggy portion of the property as a wetlands that required them to get a permit before filling it with rocks and soil.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said in an opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that wetlands can only be regulated under the Clean Water Act if they have a “continuous surface connection” to larger, regulated bodies of water. There is no such connection on the Sacketts’ property.

The court jettisoned the 17-year-old opinion by their former colleague, Anthony Kennedy, allowing regulation of what can be discharged into wetlands that could affect the health of the larger waterways.

Kennedy’s opinion covering wetlands that have a “significant nexus” to larger bodies of water had been the standard for evaluating whether permits were required for discharges under the 1972 landmark environmental law.

Opponents had objected that the standard was vague and unworkable.

Environmental advocates said the new standard would strip protections from millions of acres of wetlands across the country.

Reacting to the decision, Manish Bapna, the chief executive of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called on Congress to amend the Clean Water Act to restore wetlands protections and on states to strengthen their own laws.

“The Supreme Court ripped the heart out of the law we depend on to protect American waters and wetlands. The majority chose to protect polluters at the expense of healthy wetlands and waterways. This decision will cause incalculable harm. Communities across the country will pay the price,” Bapna said in a statement.

The outcome almost certainly will affect ongoing court battles over new wetlands regulations that the Biden administration put in place in December. Two federal judges have temporarily blocked those rules from being enforced in 26 states.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said the Clean Water Act has been responsible for “transformational progress” in cleaning up the nation’s waterways.

“I am disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision that erodes longstanding clean water protections,” he said in a statement.

Damien Schiff, who represented the Sacketts at the Supreme Court, said the decision appropriately narrowed the reach of the law.

“Courts now have a clear measuring stick for fairness and consistency by federal regulators. Today’s ruling is a profound win for property rights and the constitutional separation of powers,” Schiff said in a statement issued by the property rights-focused Pacific Legal Foundation.

In Thursday’s ruling, all nine justices agreed that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property are not covered by the act.

But only five justices joined in the opinion that imposed a new test for evaluating when wetlands are covered by the Clean Water Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas and Alito would have adopted the narrower standard in 2006, in the last big wetlands case at the Supreme Court. They were joined Thursday by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett.

Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justices charged that their colleagues had rewritten that law.

Kavanaugh wrote that the court’s “new and overly narrow test may leave long-regulated and long-accepted-to-be regulable wetlands suddenly beyond the scope of the agencies’ regulatory authority.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority’s rewriting of the act was “an effort to cabin the anti-pollution actions Congress thought appropriate.” Kagan referenced last year’s decision limiting the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

In both cases, she noted, the court had appointed “itself as the national decision-maker on environmental policy.” Kagan was joined in what she wrote by her liberal colleagues Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The Sacketts paid $23,000 for a 0.63-acre lot near Priest Lake in 2005 and started building a three-bedroom home two years later.

They had filled part of the property, described in an appellate ruling as a “soggy residential lot,” with rocks and soil in preparation for construction, when officials with the Environmental Protection Agency showed up and ordered a halt in the work.

They also won an earlier round in their legal fight at the Supreme Court.

The federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the EPA’s determination in 2021, finding that part of the property, 300 feet from the lake and 30 feet from an unnamed waterway that flows into the lake, was wetlands.

The Sacketts’ own consultant had similarly advised them years ago that their property contained wetlands.

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U.S., Microsoft Warn Chinese Hackers Attacking ‘Critical’ Infrastructure

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State-sponsored Chinese hackers have infiltrated critical U.S. infrastructure networks, the United States, its Western allies and Microsoft said Wednesday while warning that similar espionage attacks could be occurring globally.  

Microsoft highlighted Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean with a vital military outpost, as one of the targets, but said “malicious” activity had also been detected elsewhere in the United States.  

The stealthy attack — carried out by a China-sponsored actor dubbed “Volt Typhoon” since mid-2021 — enabled long-term espionage and was likely aimed at hampering the United States if there was conflict in the region, it said.  

“Microsoft assesses with moderate confidence that this Volt Typhoon campaign is pursuing development of capabilities that could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises,” the statement said.  

“In this campaign, the affected organizations span the communications, manufacturing, utility, transportation, construction, maritime, government, information technology, and education sectors.”  

Microsoft’s statement coincided with an advisory released by U.S., Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and British authorities warning that the hacking was likely occurring globally.  

“This activity affects networks across US critical infrastructure sectors, and the authoring agencies believe the actor could apply the same techniques against these and other sectors worldwide,” they said.   

‘Living off the land’    

The United States and its allies said the activities involved “living off the land” tactics, which take advantage of built-in network tools to blend in with normal Windows systems.  

It warned that the hacking could then incorporate legitimate system administration commands that appear “benign”.  

Microsoft said the Volt Typhoon attack tried to blend into normal network activity by routing traffic through compromised small office and home office network equipment, including routers, firewalls and VPN hardware.  

“They have also been observed using custom versions of open-source tools,” Microsoft said.   

Microsoft and the security agencies released guidelines for organizations to try to detect and counter the hacking.  

“It’s what I would term a low and slow cyber activity,” said Alastair MacGibbon, chief strategy officer at Australia’s CyberCX and a former head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre.  

“This is someone wearing a camouflage vest and carrying a sniper rifle. You don’t see them, they’re not there,” he told AFP.  

“When you think about something that can really cause catastrophic harm, it is someone with intent who takes time to get into systems.”  

Once inside, the cyber attackers can steal information, he said. “But it also gives you the ability to carry out destructive acts at a later stage.”   

‘Highly sophisticated’   

A number of other governments had found similar activity since the Volt Typhoon alert was issued, said Robert Potter, co-founder of Australian cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0.  

“I am not sure how communications infrastructure would be at risk from these attacks because those networks are highly resilient and difficult to bring down for more than small intervals,” Potter told AFP.  

“However, the ongoing threat from China-based APT (advanced persistent threat) groups is real.”  

The director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Jen Easterly, said China had been stealing intellectual property and data worldwide for years.  

“Today’s advisory, put out in conjunction with our U.S. and international partners, reflects how China is using highly sophisticated means to target our nation’s critical infrastructure,” Easterly said.  

China offered no immediate response to the allegations. But it routinely denies carrying out state-sponsored cyber-attacks.   

China in turn regularly accuses the United States of cyber espionage. 

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Analysis: China Steps Up Response to US Chip Moves but Economic Reality Limits How Far

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Beijing’s restrictions on American chipmaker Micron in retaliation to sweeping US chip curbs mark a major step up in its response to Washington’s pressure and could open the door for further measures in the geopolitical standoff, analysts say.   

But they warned President Xi Jinping’s ability to raise the stakes will be limited as he battles to re-energize the world’s number two economy while it struggles to recover from years of zero-Covid-imposed inertia.   

China on Sunday banned the use of Micron’s chips in critical infrastructure projects, which Beijing said posed “major network security risks” that could affect “national security”.   

Washington expressed “serious concerns” over the ruling that came just as leaders of the world’s seven richest nations (G7) signed a statement urging Beijing to end “economic coercion”.   

The move marked a significant shift in China’s response to US measures that have targeted the country’s technology sector, with Gary Ng, a senior economist at Natixis who specializes in the global chip trade, calling it “a landmark case”.   

He emphasized it was China’s first cybersecurity probe into a foreign company since tighter rules were announced in 2021, and a rare instance when the scope of such reviews was expanded to include national security concerns.   

“I wouldn’t be surprised if regulators used these reviews as a tool for retaliation in future” when faced with other geopolitical issues, he said.   

Emily Weinstein, a research fellow at Georgetown University specializing in the US-China tech rivalry, added that the definition of what fell under “critical information infrastructure” was very broad — ranging from online government services and defense to healthcare and water conservation.   

“Technically that could mean that anything qualifies,” she said.   

“China has consistently found national security or other reasons to create protectionist barriers” including mandatory technology transfer agreements, which require companies to store all data locally and requirements for foreign entities to have joint ventures with local partners in several sectors.   

‘Fuel to this fire’    

China began an investigation into Micron in late March, five months after the US unveiled sweeping curbs aimed at cutting off Beijing’s access to high-end chips, chipmaking equipment and software used to design semiconductors.   

“This is clearly part of a tit-for-tat retaliation for what Beijing perceives as Washington’s support of Micron and the US semiconductor industry,” said Paul Triolo, a China tech expert at consultancy Albright Stonebridge.   

Micron was singled out to make a political statement, Triolo said, adding that previous cybersecurity reviews of domestic firms, such as ride-hailing app Didi, focused on data instead of broadening the scope to include national security.   

Washington has banned Chinese chipmakers including Micron rival Yangtze Memory Technologies.   

The announcement came as the G7 nations said they would move to “de-risk, not decouple” from China, while Washington pressures allies to unite in restricting chip equipment exports to China. 

“The strong statement from G7 may have added fuel to this fire,” Ng said.   

However, Xi’s desire to combat what he sees as US hegemony will need to be balanced against the impact such measures would have on the economy.   

According to analysts, Micron — one of the US’s largest memory chipmakers — was an easy target because its semiconductors could be replaced by products from South Korea’s SK Hynix and Samsung.   

But restrictions against other US firms such as Intel and Qualcomm would be much harder to deal with because their technologies are used in consumer goods, including smartphones, that are made in the country and shipped abroad.    

Betting on South Korea     

“The approach of limiting US firms like Micron intends to send a signal that Beijing is willing to bear some pain as it contests with the US,” Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said.   

“But Beijing is quite careful to limit costs to itself,” he said, according to Bloomberg News.    

The ban will come down particularly hard on companies offering cloud services or data centers because they use hardware that requires high-end memory chips, according to Toby Zhu, an analyst at market research firm Canalys.   

He told AFP that Micron’s consumer goods products are “completely replaceable” by South Korean and domestic memory chip suppliers.   

And Triolo said Beijing was “betting on switching to South Korean suppliers”.  

However, the White House last month urged South Korean chipmakers not to export to China to fill any gap left by a ban on US semiconductor imports.   

The Netherlands and Japan have already announced their own restrictions on chip exports, following requests from Washington.   

Ng added: “China has been quite cautious not to retaliate too much… because Beijing can’t ramp up domestic capacity quickly to match any shortfall.” 

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Philippines Health Officials Try to Build Trust in Routine Vaccines

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Seated on his mother’s lap, one-year old Jeon Tyler Ancheta gets vaccinated for measles and rubella. Jeon Tyler lets out a short cry after the needle is pulled out of his arm, but he’s comforted by his mother while a doctor enthusiastically says “good.”

There’s a line of parents who brought their kids to get vaccinated at this local health clinic. It’s a positive sign in a country that has a large number of unvaccinated children.

The Philippines has about one-million children who have not received a single routine vaccination according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The country is ranked in the top five globally for the highest number of zero-dose children. In addition, there are many kids who are only partially vaccinated for diseases that require multiple shots including measles.

So, health departments across the country have teamed up with UNICEF and the World Health Organization for a nationwide vaccine campaign.

Robert Pascual Jr. came to this clinic with his two-year old daughter Zafeerah. “When she grows up, I want her to be protected and safe,” Pascual said although he acknowledged having some vaccine hesitancy until recently.

The reasons behind the high number of unvaccinated children in the Philippines include strict lockdowns during the pandemic that kept families from routine medical appointments.

Many Filipinos also have lingering mistrust of vaccines after more than 800,000 Filipino children received a dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, which was later shown to increase the risk of a severe form of the disease in some people.

Several studies show the Dengvaxia debacle caused a drop in Filipino parents’ trust of vaccines, even with vaccines that have been routine for children for decades. Health officials in the Philippines say this led to measles outbreaks.

“There are myths that these particular vaccines give you the disease itself. So, there’s a lot of controversies,” says Dr. Jennifer Lou Lorico-De Guzman, medical coordinator for the national immunization program for the city of Taguig.

“We are trying to educate the public about the importance of vaccines,” she adds.

Health advocates such as Ma. Nieves Bulalacao are hitting the streets to talk to parents. On a recent morning, Bulalacao walked through Taguig’s side streets and alleyways alongside nurse Gigi Quintero who carried a cooler stocked with ice packs and vaccines for measles as well as rubella.

“We’re trying to find parents with children who need to be vaccinated,” Bulalacao said.

Together they went door to door telling parents how contagious diseases like measles are and that vaccines are the best way to protect their children.

They came across Stephanie Opider whose three children need to be vaccinated. “It’s dangerous because measles can spread quickly,” Bulalacao told Opider.

The children’s father, Joeson Dalanon, is afraid vaccinations could harm their kids. “I hear there are lots of kids who die so I didn’t want them to get vaccinated,” Dalanon said.

These parents are especially concerned about their middle child, three-year-old King Andrei, who they say gets convulsions whenever he gets a fever.

Eventually the parents agree, seemingly reluctantly, to let Quintero vaccinate all three of their children. Bulalacao acknowledges that more work needs to be done so that parents can feel confident that vaccination is the right decision. “We have to keep reassuring them that these routine vaccines will not harm their kids,” she said.

At a clinic in Taguig’s Maharlika neighborhood, Suhaira Bago lines up with her two-year-old daughter Alicia for a measles and rubella vaccination. They’re part of this neighborhood’s Muslim community and Bago says some families refuse to let their children get inoculated.

“Many of the [grandparents] have a lot of influence over these decisions in their family,” Bago says. “They say they didn’t get the vaccine so their [grandchildren] don’t need it either. The issue with the [Dengvaxia] vaccine only added to this feeling for many.”

Cristina Rakim, a city health worker in this neighborhood who’s also Muslim, says outreach teams are investing significant time in this community. ”We’re trying to convince parents and grandparents how much safer their children and grandchildren will be if they’re vaccinated,” Rakim said.

Two-year-old Alicia didn’t even flinch when the needle went in and out of her arm. Her mother smiled when she later said, “I know this measles and rubella vaccine will protect my child.”

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Microsoft Says China-Backed Hacker Targeted Critical Infrastructure in Guam, US

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Microsoft Corp. said on Wednesday it had uncovered malicious activity by a state-sponsored actor based in China aimed at critical infrastructure organizations in Guam and the United States. 

Microsoft said it assessed with “moderate confidence” that this Volt Typhoon campaign “is pursuing development of capabilities that could disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia region during future crises.” 

Volt Typhoon has been active since mid-2021 and has targeted critical infrastructure organizations in Guam and elsewhere in the United States, the company said.

Guam is home to major U.S. military facilities, including the Andersen Air Force Base, which would be key to responding to any conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Microsoft said it had notified targeted or compromised customers and provided them with information. 

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. 

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Class of 2023 Graduates Overcome Obstacles of Coronavirus Pandemic

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Four years ago, high school and college students in the class of 2023 had just entered their first year when the coronavirus pandemic hit. They were thrust into an academic world of uncertainty when in-person classes stopped and were moved to online platforms.

Now recent graduates, they are the last undergraduate class with memories of what it was like to be students when the pandemic began. 

“It was shocking and confusing because we didn’t know what was going to happen with our studies,” said Sarabeth McClain, 22, who just received her undergraduate diploma in economics and political science at Rhode Island University. 

When the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic in March 2020, in-person classes stopped in the United States, forcing students to learn online.  

“It was chaotic. I was taking classes that quickly went virtual, and I started to feel more distant from my professors,” said Rachel Buxbaum, who was in a doctoral degree program in clinical psychology at Long Island University in New York. “Plus, I began seeing psychotherapy patients online, and it all felt overwhelming.”

COVID-19 changed everything, including the college experience. 

“It was a resilience test for these students and impacted their ability to focus on education,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. 

According to a 2021 Best Colleges survey, 9 out of 10 college students said they struggled with isolation, anxiety and a lack of focus during the pandemic.

For much of two years, the lives of both college and high school students were turned upside down with uncertainty and the unease of not spending time with their classmates in person. 

“The quarantine led to an increase in social anxiety for them,” explained Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, a psychology professor in the School of Health Professions at Long Island University.  “Interacting with their peers is important to them, and with the quarantine that was lost, including some social skills.”

“I was struggling,” said high school student Jessica Hernandez, who graduated from Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia, “because I couldn’t socialize with anyone since everyone was stuck behind a screen.” 

Besides social isolation, another Best Colleges study, in 2022, found the transition to remote learning caused significant stress from an increase in distractions and a loss of academic resources such as academic advisers.

“I felt neglected because the teacher wasn’t there to help me in person,” Hernandez told VOA, “and there were many distractions at home with my phone and TV easy to get to all the time, while I’m watching online classes from my bed.”

However, another high school student called her online learning “super easy.”

“It was such a quick transition during COVID that the teachers didn’t have much time to figure out online learning,” said Reda Adkins, a graduate of Perry High School in Perry, Ohio, “and so they were laid back and there was no pressure on the students to study and learn.”

According to a 2021 Frontiers in Psychology survey, 33% of college students were concerned about their academic futures due to the pandemic.

“I don’t feel there are many advantages to taking classes online,” said Sam Lodge, a graduate in economics at the University of Wisconsin. “It hurt me academically because it was harder to learn and process the information.”

“I didn’t like online learning and missed the structure of going to class, including classroom discussions,” said McClain.

“The professors prepared me academically,” said Matthew Shea, who received his diploma from Pennsylvania State University. “However, it was hard to pay attention during the lectures when you’re not in the classroom. I was also more hesitant to ask questions online rather than in-person, where I am more comfortable raising my hand.”

However, other students adapted to learning virtually, Pasquerella noted.

“Most students were skeptical about learning online during the pandemic, but after in-person college classes resumed, many wanted to have more online courses, especially for the flexibility.”

According to a new survey by TimelyCare, a virtual health and well-being program for students in higher education, about 80% of graduating seniors say the pandemic affected their workforce preparedness.

“I’m looking for employment right now,” Lodge told VOA. “During COVID, the lack of being social, including talking to new people, has had an impact on my reaching out to people who are hiring.”

Despite a disrupted college experience and trepidation about entering the workforce, nearly all of this year’s college graduates are hopeful for their future, TimelyCare said.

“I’m looking forward to my work as a clinical psychologist in primary health care at a hospital in New York,” said Buxbaum, who completed her doctoral degree.

“I feel like I’m regaining my mental energy, and I’m going to a local community college in northern Virginia to study to become a nurse,” said high school graduate Hernandez. 

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Do Americans Hate Their Lawns Enough to Get Rid of Them?

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The idea of the American Dream can conjure up images of tidy suburban homes with immaculate green lawns, but achieving and maintaining that lush carpet of grass can seem like a nightmare.

“Most people don’t install lawns, they get them when they buy the house. They’re stuck,” says Paul Robbins, author of Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are.

“That’s the first thing we learned in our research is that most people would prefer not to have them, but they feel that they need to have them, or that they can’t do anything about it. And the need to have them is that they feel an obligation to their neighbors,” Robbins said.

Conforming to the neighbors can be timely, expensive and unhealthy, due to the chemicals used to keep the lawn perfect. But not conforming can also be costly. Janet and Jeffrey Crouch, a Maryland couple who live about 45 minutes outside of Washington, learned this lesson when they decided to forgo a lawn to plant native plants that are wildlife-friendly.

“We started planting native plants and the butterflies and bees and birds started coming immediately when we stopped using pesticides and fertilizers,” Janet Crouch says.

But their next-door neighbor complained to the homeowners association, which like a typical HOA, oversees the management of some residential communities and is usually run by a board of volunteer homeowners. The Crouches were ordered to pull out their native plants and replace them with grass. They refused.

“We were not using pesticides or fertilizers. We knew we were doing things that were beneficial for the environment,” Janet Crouch says. “So, it just seemed fundamentally wrong to tear out this piece of paradise that we’ve created and put in turf grass, which is an environmental dead zone.”

Lawns are considered environmental dead zones in part because they provide no food or shelter for wildlife, including pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies, which are among the wildlife whose numbers are decreasing at a rapid rate due to habitat destruction and other human-related actions. One million species worldwide face extinction, many within decades, due to the loss of biodiversity.

“The fundamental ecological fact about turf grass is that it’s not native to North America, with maybe one exception. And to plant a crop which is not native to the continent, and then try to engineer it into a state of absolute perfection, is like pushing a boulder up the hill,” says Ted Steinberg, author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn.

An industry report suggests Americans spend almost $100 billion on lawn care yearly, with each household, on average, spending $503 on lawn care and gardening.

“Super-green monoculture is an ecological boondoggle,” Steinberg adds. “It uses a lot of chemical inputs, a lot of water — you water a lot — and leaches nutrients from the soil, and that sends people back to the store for more chemical inputs, especially fertilizer.”

Chemicals used to maintain lawns include glyphosate and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, known as 2,4-D, which are suspected of causing cancer and other health ailments and can contaminate groundwater. Some states already ban the use of certain chemicals on lawns. Others, particularly in the arid West, have restrictions on how often or if people can water their grass.

“There’s more than 40 million acres across the country of turf,” says Nancy Lawson, author of The Humane Gardener and Wildscapes. Lawson is also Janet Crouch’s sister and the person who encouraged the Crouches to install native plants. “Turf is the No. 1 irrigated crop, so it’s taking up a lot of water.”

Lawson has created a wildlife oasis of native plants surrounding her house. She lives in an area of Maryland that is not governed by HOAs.

“I think the future of the lawn, as it is now, is doomed,” Lawson says. “So, what’s the alternative? Well, it shouldn’t be rock or something like that because you’re heating up the planet even more. So, the alternative is plants, and it’s native plants that know how to grow in your soil conditions, in your sun conditions, in the weather of your region.”

The Crouches’ battle against their HOA took three years. The couple says they spent $60,000 fighting to keep their natural garden. They won and as a result of their efforts, the state of Maryland passed a law that allows people to grow native plants instead of grass, no matter what their HOA wants.

Robbins, who is also an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes lawns will always be around, but not in the state they are in now.

“They’re going to be targeted in places where they’re most appropriate, where you’ve got kids and you want them to have a place to run around,” Robbins says. “There’s going to be fewer of them, and they’re going to live alongside much more biodiverse options.”

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Apple Inks Multi-Billion-Dollar Deal With Broadcom for U.S.-Made Chips

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Apple Inc on Tuesday said it has entered a multi-billion-dollar deal with chipmaker Broadcom Inc. to use chips made in the United States. 

Under the multi-year deal, Broadcom will develop 5G radio frequency components with Apple that will be designed and built in several U.S. facilities, including Fort Collins, Colorado, where Broadcom has a major factory, Apple said. 

Broadcom were up 2.2% after the announcement, hitting a record high. The chipmaker is already a major supplier of wireless components to Apple, with about one fifth of its revenue coming from the iPhone maker in its two most recent fiscal year. 

Apple has been steadily diversifying its supply chains, building more products in India and Vietnam and saying that it will source chips from a new Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co plant under construction in Arizona. 

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA correspondent Michelle Quinn

The two companies did not disclose the size of the deal, with Broadcom saying only that the new agreements require it to allocate Apple “sufficient manufacturing capacity and other resources to make these products.” 

Broadcom and Apple previously had a three-year, $15 billion agreement that Bernstein analyst Stacy Rasgon said was set to expire in June. He said the development was positive for Broadcom, despite the fact that the two firms did not give a time frame for how long the work will last. 

“It’s good that it removes that overhang,” Rasgon said. “Broadcom has existed over the years with a number of these long-term agreements with Apple. Sometimes they have them and sometimes they don’t.” 

Apple said it will tap Broadcom for what are known as film bulk acoustic resonator (FBAR) chips. The FBAR chips are part of a radio-frequency system that helps iPhones and other Apple devices connect to mobile data networks. 

“All of Apple’s products depend on technology engineered and built here in the United States, and we’ll continue to deepen our investments in the U.S. economy because we have an unshakable belief in America’s future,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. 

Apple said it currently supports more than 1,100 jobs in Broadcom’s Fort Collins FBAR filter manufacturing facility. 

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Dutch Government to Hold 3M Liable for ‘Forever Chemicals’ Harm

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The Dutch government said on Tuesday it would hold U.S. industrial group 3M Co. liable for polluting the Western Scheldt river with potentially harmful substances known as PFAS, or “forever chemicals.” 

3M said in a statement e-mailed to Reuters that it had received a letter from the Dutch government’s legal representative on Tuesday and was studying its contents. 

The Netherlands said it would hold the company responsible for pollution in the Dutch part of the river, allegedly caused by its nearby Belgian plant. 

Higher than acceptable pollutant levels have resulted in financial damages for the fishing fleet and the government, the Netherlands said. 

“I think polluters should pay … Holding 3M liable is in line with that basic position,” Dutch Infrastructure and Water Management Minister Mark Harbers said in a statement. 

3M said it had already invited the Dutch authorities to have a meeting about the PFAS situation in the Western Scheldt. 

“(We) welcome the opportunity for conversation with the Dutch government and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management,” it said in its statement. 

3M’s website shows it has a plant that makes products that contain PFAS on the Belgian side of the Scheldt river, which originates in France. 

Last December 3M set itself a 2025 deadline to stop producing PFAS. The European Union is considering a ban on the chemicals. 

Perfluoralkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) do not break down quickly and have in recent years been found in dangerous concentrations in drinking water, soils and foods. 

SEE ALSO: A related video by VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias

The chemicals have been used in everything from cars to medical gear and nonstick pans due to their long-term resistance to extreme temperature and corrosion. 

But they have also been linked to health risks including cancer, hormonal dysfunction and a weakened immune system as well as environmental damage. 

The Dutch government said there would be an assessment of how much of the alleged PFAS damages 3M could be held liable for. 

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Increasing Health Emergencies Leave WHO ‘Overstretched’

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A growing number of health emergencies around the world, from COVID-19 to cholera, have left the World Health Organization’s response “overstretched,” a senior advisor said on Tuesday.  

Speaking at the U.N. agency’s annual meeting, Professor Walid Ammar, chairman of a committee reviewing the WHO’s emergency response, said funding and staffing gaps were widening in the face of ever-increasing demands.  

“[The] program is overstretched as demands have only grown with the multiplicity and complexity of emergencies,” he said.  

As of March, the WHO was responding to 53 high-level emergencies, a report by the committee said. These included diseases like COVID-19, cholera and a Marburg outbreak in Equatorial Guinea and Tanzania, as well as humanitarian emergencies like the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and floods in Pakistan.  

The report also noted that climate change was increasing the frequency of events like floods and cyclones, all of which have health consequences.  

However, the emergency program’s core budget for 2022-2023 is only about 53% funded, the report found, calling for more stable financing.  

The WHO and member states are trying to reform how the agency — and countries — respond to health emergencies, as well as shoring up the WHO’s funding. On Monday, member states approved a new budget including a 20% hike in their mandatory fees. 

The report also called on the WHO to look for more efficiencies: for example, in Malawi, four different emergency teams were responding to cholera, COVID-19, polio, and flooding, in ways that may have overlapped, it said.  

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Brazil Declares Health Emergency Amid Avian Flu Cases in Wild Birds

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Brazil declared a state of animal health emergency for 180 days in response to the country’s first detection of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in wild birds, in a document signed Monday by Agriculture Minister Carlos Favaro.  

Infection by the H5N1 subtype of avian flu in wild birds does not trigger trade bans, based on guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health. However, a case of bird flu on a farm usually results in the entire flock being killed and can trigger trade restrictions from importing countries. 

Brazil, the world’s biggest chicken meat exporter with $9.7 billion in sales last year, has so far confirmed eight cases of the H5N1 in wild birds, including seven in Espirito Santo state and one in Rio de Janeiro state.  

The country’s agriculture ministry said later Monday it has created an emergency operations center to coordinate, plan and evaluate “national actions related to avian influenza.”  

Though Brazil’s main meat producing states are in the south, the government is on alert after the confirmed cases, as avian flu in wild birds has been followed by transmission to commercial flocks in some countries. 

Over the weekend, the Health Ministry said samples of 33 suspected cases of avian influenza in humans in Espirito Santo, where Brazil confirmed the first cases in wild birds last week, came back negative for the H5N1 subtype.  

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TikTok Sues to Stop Ban in US State of Montana

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TikTok on Monday filed suit in U.S. federal court to stop the northern state of Montana from implementing an overall ban on the video-sharing app.

The unprecedented ban, set to start in 2024, violates the constitutionally protected right to free speech, TikTok argued in the suit.

“We believe our legal challenge will prevail based on an exceedingly strong set of precedents and facts,” a TikTok spokesperson told AFP.

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed the prohibition into law on May 17.

Gianforte said on Twitter that he endorsed the ban in order to “protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party.”

“The state has enacted these extraordinary and unprecedented measures based on nothing more than unfounded speculation,” TikTok contended in its lawsuit.

Five TikTok users last week filed a suit of their own, calling on a federal court to overturn Montana’s ban on the app, arguing that it violates their free speech rights.

Both suits filed against Montana argue the state is trying to exercise national security power that only the federal government can wield and is violating free speech rights in the process.

TikTok called on the federal court to declare the Montana ban on its app unconstitutional and block the state from ever putting it into effect.

“Montana can no more ban its residents from viewing or posting to TikTok than it could ban the Wall Street Journal because of who owns it or the ideas it publishes,” the lawsuit filed by TikTok users contends.

The app is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance and is accused by a wide swath of U.S. politicians of being under the tutelage of the Chinese government and a tool of espionage by Beijing, something the company furiously denies.

Montana became the first U.S. state to ban TikTok, with the law set to take effect next year as debate escalates over the impact and security of the popular video app.

A matter of law

The prohibition will serve as a legal test for a national ban of the platform, something that lawmakers in Washington are increasingly calling for.

The Montana ban makes it a violation each time “a user accesses TikTok, is offered the ability to access TikTok, or is offered the ability to download TikTok.”

Each violation is punishable by a $10,000 fine every day it takes place.

Under the law, Apple and Google will have to remove TikTok from their app stores and companies will face possible daily fines.

The prohibition will take effect in 2024 but would be voided if TikTok is acquired by a company incorporated in a country not designated by the United States as a foreign adversary, the law reads.

The cases should move quickly in court, since they center on points of law that don’t require lots of evidence to be gathered, according to University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias.

“There are very compelling constitutional arguments that favor the plaintiffs,” Tobias said.

“First is free speech, and second is if the ban is justified by national security, that is a matter for the federal government not any individual state.”

The law is the latest skirmish in duels between TikTok and many western governments, with the app already banned on government devices in the United States, Canada and several countries in Europe.

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Group of Western US States Reach Deal to Stave Off Crisis on Drought-Stricken Colorado River

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Arizona, Nevada and California said Monday they’re willing to cut back on their use of the dwindling Colorado River in exchange for money from the federal government — and to avoid forced cuts as drought threatens the key water supply for the U.S. West.

The $1.2 billion plan, a potential breakthrough in a year-long stalemate, would conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026, when current guidelines for how the river is shared expire. About half the cuts would come by the end of 2024.

That’s less than what federal officials said last year would be needed to stave off crisis in the river but still marks a notable step in long and difficult negotiations between the three states.

The 2,334-kilometer river provides water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and more than two dozen Native American tribes. It produces hydropower and supplies water to farms that grow most of the nation’s winter vegetables.

In exchange for temporarily using less water, cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three states will be paid. The federal government plans to spend $1.2 billion, said Lauren Wodarski, a spokesperson to U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat.

Though adoption of the plan isn’t certain, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called it an “important step forward.” She said the bureau will pull back its proposal from last month that could have resulted in sidestepping the existing water priority system to force cuts while it analyzes the three-state plan. The bureau’s earlier proposal, if adopted, could have led to a messy legal battle.

“At least they’re still talking. But money helps you keep talking,” said Terry Fulp, former regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin region. He noted the agreement is a “short-term, three-year deal” and that because the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming didn’t face immediate cuts, they were not part of the pact.

The three Lower Basin states are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water altogether from the river. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.

California gets the most, based on a century-old water rights priority system. Most of that goes to farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District, though some also goes to smaller water districts and cities across Southern California. Arizona and Nevada have already faced cuts in recent years as key reservoir levels dropped based on prior agreements. But California has been spared.

Under the new proposal, California would give up about 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026 — a little more than half of the total. That’s roughly the same amount the state first offered six months ago. It wasn’t clear why the other states agreed to a deal now when California didn’t offer further cuts. Leaders in Arizona and Nevada didn’t immediately say how they’d divide the other 1.4 million acre-feet.

The Imperial Irrigation District would account for more than half of California’s cuts. J.B. Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said the district has already taken measures to improve water efficiency and will need to do more. He said the district is working on a pilot summer idling program where farmers would sign up to turn off their water for 60 days for forage crops. During that time of year, yields are already down and more water is required, he said.

Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of California, which supplies water to 19 million people in southern California, said the wet winter means the state simply needs less water. His district is planning on leaving 250,000 acre-feet this year in Lake Mead and won’t withdraw it until after 2026.

The district will also turn over to the federal government a program that pays farmers to fallow land that typically nets them about 130,000 acre-feet of water a year, he said.

The Colorado River has been in crisis for years due to a multi-decade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse. Water levels at key reservoirs dipped to unprecedented lows, though they have rebounded somewhat thanks to heavy precipitation this winter.

In recent years, the federal government has cut some water allocations and offered billions of dollars to pay farmers, cities and others to cut back. But key water officials didn’t see those efforts as enough to prevent the system from collapsing.

Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute focused on the Colorado River, called the amount of cuts the three states have proposed a “huge, huge lift” and a significant step forward.

“It does buy us a little additional time,” he said. But if more dry years are ahead, “this agreement will not solve that problem.”

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Aid Groups in Cameroon Urge Women With Obstetric Fistula to Seek Medical Treatment

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As the International Day to End Obstetric Fistula approaches Tuesday, scores of women who have been treated for the medical condition are encouraging their peers in northern Cameroon to get help.

Many sufferers of obstetric fistula — characterized by urinary and fecal incontinence — believe the disease is a curse for wrongdoing. Now former patients and aid groups are telling families fistula can be treated.

The network of women who have been successfully operated on for obstetric fistula in Cameroon’s northern region say they are educating communities that it is a disease that can be treated.

Hospital workers say obstetric fistula is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum, caused by prolonged, obstructed labor without access to timely, high-quality medical treatment. The disease leaves women and girls leaking urine, feces or both, and often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty, medical staff members say.

Catherine Debong, 31, is the spokesperson for Women in Maroua, a group of women who have been operated on for obstetric fistula. Maroua is a town in Cameroon’s far north that shares a border with Chad and Nigeria. 

Debong said she is urging parents, husbands, clerics, community leaders and traditional rulers to educate others that obstetric fistula is not a curse or divine punishment for wrongdoing. She said she wants communities to encourage women who have gone into hiding due to the disease to seek treatment.

Debong said a Roman Catholic priest took her to the hospital in 2012 after she had lived with fistula for six years. She is now committed to saving the lives of other women with fistula whom she said are dying without medical help. 

Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health says between 350 and 1,500 new cases of fistula are reported each year. Seventy-five percent of the cases are reported on Cameroon’s northern region, where more than 80% of civilians seek help from African traditional healers and seldom visit hospitals.

Cameroon reports that 60% of patients seeking help in hospitals have lived with obstetric fistula for more than 5 years. Eighty percent of patients have no formal education and 90% were teenagers when they had their first baby.

Many sufferers are accused of witchcraft and abandoned by their relatives.

The Cameron government is trying to end the stigma and discrimination attached to the condition through education programs.

Boyo Maurine is with the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services program, a nonprofit group that works with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The group educates communities about obstetric fistula and encourages women to seek treatment.

“Generally, the individuals perceive that people will not want to associate with them because of the odor that comes from them and from the embarrassment that will come from constantly being wet without any form of control,” Boyo said. “They already feel that they do not belong to society, and this leaves them sometimes with some negative emotions like sadness, depression, anger and aggression, which is as a result of this condition.”

In 2020, the U.N. launched a global commitment to fistula prevention and treatment, including surgical repair and social reintegration. The campaign hopes to end fistula by 2030, while transforming the lives of thousands of women and girls.

The International Day to End Obstetric Fistula draws attention to the condition, which affects tens of thousands of women globally. 

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WHO Members Approve Nearly $7 Billion Budget

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The World Health Organization on Monday won basic approval for a $6.83 billion budget over the next two years, including a 20% hike in mandatory membership fees.

As the U.N. health agency kicked off its annual decision-making assembly, member states in a key committee approved the budget without objection.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the move as “historic and a big milestone.”

The budget still needs to be approved by all the member states at the end of the 10-day event, but the approval procedure is basically a formality.

The decision comes after last year’s assembly agreed to a dramatic overhaul of WHO funding.

Shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, countries agreed on the need to provide more reliable and stable funding.

The WHO is largely financed by its 194 member states.

The portion of funding from mandatory membership fees — “assessed contributions” calculated according to wealth and population — had dwindled to below one-fifth, with the rest coming from “voluntary contributions.”

This left WHO with limited leeway to respond to crises such as COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and other health emergencies.

Last year’s assembly agreed to gradually increase the membership fee portion to 50% by the 2030-31 budget cycle at the latest.

The 2024-25 budget cycle marks the first incremental increase, with countries agreeing to hike their assessed contributions by 20% from the 2022-23 budget.

In return for the funding shift, WHO has begun implementing 96 reforms, including towards more transparency on its financing and hiring and broader accountability.

Tedros told the assembly earlier Monday that WHO so far had implemented 42 of the requested reforms “and 54 are ongoing.”

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