Thursday PM, December 24th, 2009

Small fires break out at Valero Energy refinery in Texas City…Number of new jobless claims fall…Stores count on last-minute shoppers…


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Two small fires broke out at a Valero Energy refinery in Texas City. Bill Day with San Antonio-based Valero told the Associated Press that nobody was hurt in either blaze. Day says the initial fire was reported around 5 a.m. at a crude unit and was quickly put out. Day says a small secondary fire in a gas line had been contained several hours after the initial fire. Day says there was no environmental impact to the community and the impact to refinery production “is unknown at this time.” He provided no cause for the fires. A December 4th boiler failure at the refinery left one man dead from blunt force trauma and two other workers hurt. Texas City is about 40 miles southeast of Houston.

The number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits has fallen more than expected as the labor market makes a fitful recovery. The Labor Department says the number of new jobless claims fell to a 452,000 last week, down 28,000 from the previous week, on a seasonally adjusted basis. That’s a better performance than the decline to 470,000 that economists had expected. The four-week average for claims, which smoothes out fluctuations, fell to 465,250–the 16th straight weekly decline. That’s viewed as an encouraging sign that the labor market is improving gradually. Both the average and new claims numbers are at their lowest levels since September 2008, when the financial crisis hit with full force.

Last-minute shoppers–snowed in by last weekend’s East Coast storm or just waiting for the best deals–came out in force on this day before Christmas. Stores are counting on these last-minute shoppers in a season that appears to be better than last year’s disastrous season. A Christmas Eve snowstorm in the nation’s heartland is slowing some shoppers after hitting the mountain states a day earlier. But based on early readings, stores nationally have been packed all week. Shoppers were procrastinating even more this year than last year. A storm that slammed the northeast on the critical weekend before Christmas also put more pressure on merchants.

United Airlines, Continental, and All Nippon Airways are asking for antitrust approval so they can work together more closely on flights across the pacific. The three carriers already sell tickets on each other’s planes. But they want to form a joint venture that would strengthen their financial ties. The three filed an application with the Transportation Department on Wednesday. They say it would be the first of its kind between the U.S. and Asia. The three airlines say it will help them compete with other big airlines that have a presence in Tokyo.

Texas will audit the state’s beleaguered food stamp program in an effort to improve accuracy and efficiency in processing applications. Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Tom Suehs requested the audit in an effort to “fix our system so that it works for everyone.” State Auditor John Keel said the review will include an examination of food stamp operations in other parts of the country in an effort to improve the Texas system. Federal law requires that applicants be processed within 30 days. More than 40 per cent of the Texas applicants are not processed within the month-long period. Keel offered no time frame for the audit. HHS spokeswoman Stephanie Goodman says the department in recent months added 674 employees this fall to help process applications.

Farmers hurt by bad weather last year will soon be able to sign up for aid under a federal disaster program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that signup for losses suffered during the 2008 crop year will begin January 4th. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says qualified producers will receive payments beginning next month. But there are concerns about how strong that safety net will be. In getting a disaster program included in the latest version of the federal farm bill, lawmakers limited the program’s cost, in part, by basing aid on a farmer’s total income. Critics worry this could leave a farmer who lost a lot of expensive cotton but made money on corn or soybeans without needed aid.

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