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News Briefs

Blair Suggests Support of Possible U.S. Action Against Iraq


British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday endorsed President Bush’s decision to take on states that accumulate weapons of mass destruction and suggested that he would back U.S. action against Iraq.

Blair stopped short of adopting Bush’s characterization of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil” -- a view that has been widely condemned in Europe -- but said he shares the sentiment behind it.

“Those who are engaged in spreading weapons of mass destruction are engaged in an evil trade, and it is important that we make sure that we take action in respect of it,” Blair said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. ahead of a trip there.

“The accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq poses a threat, not just to the region, but to the wider world, and I think George Bush was absolutely right to raise it,” Blair said. “Now, what action we take in respect of that is an open matter for discussion.”

Asked if Britain was ready to use force against Iraq, he responded: “When we’re ready to take action, then we’ll announce it. It is a real issue. It is a real threat.”

Blair’s statements were his strongest to date on Iraq and appeared to be the opening salvo in an international campaign to rally support for military action against Saddam Hussein if the Iraqi president refuses to allow international weapons inspectors back into the Persian Gulf nation.

Astros Buy Back Stadium Name from Enron


The Houston Astros have paid Enron Corp. $2.1 million for the right to strip the name of the failed energy trader from the team’s downtown baseball park.

The money will be placed in the Enron estate, which is managed jointly by the company, the U.S. bankruptcy court handling its case and the creditors committee. No disbursement has been decided upon, an Enron spokesman said Wednesday. The agreement is subject to approval by the court.

When the field opened in 1999, Enron signed a 30-year, $100 million pact to secure the naming rights to the park, payable in installments. Despite being in bankruptcy since December, Enron was paid up through August.

However, the Astros feared Enron might try to sell the ballpark’s naming rights to another company without the team’s consent. And the club was eager to remove the besmirched name from its ballpark by the team’s Opening Day, which is April 2.

EPA Veteran Resigns Over Admin Stance on Power Plants


A senior Environmental Protection Agency official resigned this week, protesting what he described as Bush administration efforts to undermine tough legal actions against dozens of aging coal-fired power plants and refineries that have violated federal emission standards.

Eric Schaeffer, who headed the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement, said Thursday that Energy Department officials treat the power industry as their “client” in pursuing drastic changes to enforcement policies aimed at eliminating millions of tons of unlawful air pollution.

“Fifteen months ago, it looked as though our lawsuits were going to shrink these dismal statistics,” Schaeffer said in his resignation letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. “Yet today we seem about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”

The resignation of Schaeffer -- a 12-year EPA veteran who oversaw air pollution enforcement rules for the past five years -- dramatizes an intense battle over proposals to roll back enforcement efforts against power plants and refineries in the Midwest and Southeast. Those power companies upgraded or expanded their facilities well beyond routine maintenance without installing new anti-pollution equipment as required by the Clean Air Act, the EPA and Justice Department contend.

Baby Bells Win Victory as House Approves Broadband Reform Bill


The House on Wednesday approved a controversial measure that frees the regional Bell telephone companies from having to share their high-speed data wires with rivals -- a reform backers say will encourage the phone giants to more aggressively roll-out faster Internet access.

The 273-157 vote approving the “Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001” was a victory for the so-called Baby Bells, which argued that expanding high speed Internet access, or broadband, will help boost the recovering U.S. economy and enable consumers and businesses to watch videos online, download large files or even undergo data intensive medical diagnoses.

“With this vote today, House members took a giant step forward toward economic recovery, increased innovation and expanded consumer choice,” said Walter B. McCormick Jr., president of the U.S. Telecom Association, whose members include the four Baby Bells and about 1,400 other local phone carriers.

McCormick added that House passage of the bill moves the Bells -- comprised of BellSouth Corp., Qwest Communications International Inc., SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. -- one step closer to leveling the playing field with cable TV companies, which serve about 70 percent of the nation’s nearly 10 million broadband subscribers.

Despite its wide margin of approval in the House, the broadband bill -- which was co-authored by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. -- faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., has decried the measure as “blasphemy.”