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Scientists puzzled by mercury jump in Great Lakes fish

CLOSE Scientists puzzled by mercury jump in Great Lakes fish
Scientists puzzled by mercury jump in Great Lakes fish

The budget proposal contains far deeper cuts than anticipated. President Trump said it fulfills his campaign promises “to re-prioritize federal spending so that it advances the safety and security of the American people.” Detroit Free Press

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Ronnie Gotcher, 59 of Detroit has been fishing for year on the Detroit River. He came to Riverside Park in Detroit on Tuesday, March 21, 2017 hoping to catch Walleye but they weren't biting this morning. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

DETROIT — It's not supposed to be like this.

Though advisories about toxic mercury in fish have continued in Michigan and the surrounding Great Lakes, with recommendations to limit consumption of certain species to a few times per month, the amount of mercury found in fish tissues has dropped steadily over decades since the 1970s. That corresponded with the reduction of pollution coming from Midwestern smokestacks as regulations tightened, pollution prevention technology improved, and coal-fired factories and power plants went offline.

But over the last several years, that started changing. Scientists are finding mercury levels rising in large Great Lakes fish such as walleye and lake trout. Curiously, it's occurring with fish in some locations but not others. Researchers are still trying to figure out why.

The mercury levels are not surpassing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thresholds. But researchers want to determine if what they are seeing is a temporary trend or a trajectory that's only going to worsen.

The answer has large ramifications for Michigan's vital sports fishing industry. Anglers spent $2.4 billion in trip-related expenses and equipment in 2011, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Mercury is a heavy, silvery metal, unusual in that it's liquid at room temperature. It's naturally occurring, but is rare to find uncombined with other elements.

It's toxic to humans and animals — and unlike many other toxins, mercury remains in the environment for very long periods of time, moving up the food chain and compounding inside animals that ingest it.

The EPA has found that mercury in water has the potential to cause kidney damage from short-term exposures at levels above the maximum contaminant level of just 0.002 parts per million. Mercury can inhibit brain development in fetuses and children, and harm immune systems and adult heart function.

Environment and Climate Change Canada, a agency similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, looks at data collected from multiple fish species and herring gull-egg monitoring across the Great Lakes. One of the survey sites for gull eggs is on Canada's Fighting Island, in the Detroit River near Wyandotte, said Agnes Richards, a research scientist with Environment Canada.

"We've been monitoring since the 1970s, and the (mercury contamination) trends overall have been declining — as have been the emissions of mercury into the atmosphere and deposition into the lakes," she said. "We decided to look at recent trends, from 2000 to 2015. What we found is, at some specific sites, trends have reversed."

The researchers published a finding of their studies in late

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Iowa agrees to help private Medicaid firms shoulder losses

USA Today Network Tony Leys, The Des Moines Register Published 11:18 p.m. ET March 25, 2017 | Updated 38 minutes ago

CLOSE Iowa agrees to help private Medicaid firms shoulder losses
Iowa agrees to help private Medicaid firms shoulder losses

In April 2016 three for-profit companies took over management of Iowa’s Medicaid program. Gov. Terry Branstad says the program is saving the state money but the companies say they are losing money. Critics worry about a loss of services. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

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Kimberly Foltz, left, Iowa chief executive officer for UnitedHealthcare, tells legislators about the state's switch to privately managed Medicaid during a Dec. 13, 2016, hearing at the Statehouse. Seated next to her are Cynthia MacDonald, Amerigroup's Iowa president, center, and Cheryl Harding, AmeriHealth Caritas' Iowa president. (Photo: Tony Leys/The Register)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Officials in Iowa have agreed to help private Medicaid management companies shoulder huge losses they’ve suffered in covering more than 500,000 poor or disabled Iowans, documents released Friday show.

The three national companies have complained about “catastrophic” losses on the Iowa project, which started last April. They have pleaded for the government to help them make up for about $450 million in red ink.

Department of Human Services leaders signed contract amendments in February, under which the government agreed to shoulder some of the losses, the newly disclosed memos show.

The documents were released Friday afternoon in response to a Des Moines Register open-records request made Jan. 12. A previous Register open-records request led to the December disclosure that the companies were complaining of severe losses and demanding higher rates for a “severely underfunded” system, despite Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s public assurances the project was going well.

Democratic state Sen. Liz Mathis, a leading critic of the shift to private Medicaid management, was startled to learn from the Register Friday that the department had agreed to help shoulder the managed-care companies’ losses.

“This is a shock,” she said. “Where are we going to get the money?”

The state is already in a deep budget crunch. Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amy McCoy said Friday the agreements are expected to cost the state roughly $10 million, which would be paid more than a year from now. She said the federal government would also contribute.

The documents released Friday also show one of the companies, AmeriHealth Caritas, sought permission in February to stop taking new members. AmeriHealth, which wound up with the largest share of Medicaid recipients with serious disabilities, also asked state human services to reassign some of them to the other two companies, Amerigroup and UnitedHealthcare.

“This letter serves as notice that we are beyond the capacity of risk our rates allow us to absorb,” AmeriHealth’s Iowa president, Cheryl Harding, wrote to Iowa Medicaid Director Mikki Stier Feb. 15.

Stier turned down both of Harding’s requests, the memos show.

“This is a shock. Where are we going to get the money?”

Iowa state Sen. Liz Mathis

The state's pledge to help cover the companies' losses is contained in “risk-corridor agreements," which were included in February amendments to the companies' contracts with Iowa's

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Suspects in animal masks rob Bellagio store, send panicked guests fleeing

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Police said at least three people were recently involved in a burglary of a store in the Bellagio.

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Navajo housing agency under fire again from feds

Navajo

Sunset over traffic on I-40 near Sanders, Ariz., on Feb. 23, 2017. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — A Navajo Nation housing agency that has struggled for years to provide dwellings for tribal members, and was the subject of a recent Arizona Republic investigation, is under scrutiny again by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD officials, including a deputy administrator and federal grants specialists, visited the reservation for a week in March after sending a letter to Navajo Housing Authority officials seeking information on construction projects that had failed or were severely flawed.

The Republic in a December 2016 series found the NHA, which has received more than $1.66 billion in federal funds since 1998, built fewer than 300 new residences in the past five years. Just as alarming, however, were revelations of more than $100 million in waste in projects that were built. Among the glaring failures: 36 igloo-shaped townhouses in Tolani Lake, built for $7 million over a decade ago, were never occupied and are decaying.

As the new federal inquiry was being launched, The Republic obtained records of other questionable expenditures from the NHA. Among them:

The housing authority reported that it paid $54.9 million during fiscal 2016 to modernize 50 dwellings — an average of nearly $1.1 million per unit as calculated by The Republic .

NHA records show $19.6 million was spent last year to complete 26 new homes, for a price tag of roughly $750,000 each.

The agency awarded a contract of more than $76 million to supply and install manufactured houses. If all 170 are completed, the price works out to nearly $450,000 each. That includes no real-estate expense, because the dwellings are being placed on tribal trust lands.

The NHA since 2012 has paid $3.9 million to Swaback Partners, a Scottsdale consulting company, to survey the reservation and develop new housing strategies and plans. The authority has identified no residential units that resulted from those plans.

"HUD's staff will seek to fulfill its responsibilities to the public by ensuring our funding is being used in compliance with our required policies and in a timely and appropriate manner," HUD spokesman Hang Liu said of the recent federal investigation on the reservation. "We will then use the information we gather to determine if any corrective actions may be necessary in the future."

HUD officials indicated they intended to examine at least 10 failed or questionable housing projects, including the demolition of 90 unfinished homes in South Shiprock, N.M., and the construction of a women's shelter in Kayenta that sat unopened for years.

The HUD team presented its findings to NHA officials on March 17. Liu declined The Republic 's request to attend that meeting. HUD eventually will produce a final monitoring report on its findings that may include corrective action by the NHA.

Accounting for the spending

Navajo housing agency under fire again from feds

Navajo Housing Authority CEO A.J. Yazzie looks at a refurbished townhome in Window Rock on Feb. 23, 2017.   (Photo: Michael Chow/The

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