Monday PM October 4th, 2010

Houston ship channel closed to marine traffic after weekend barge mishap…Coast Guard official praises Deepwater Horizon rig evacuation with saving 115 lives…Sales of previously occupied home up for second straight month…


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The Coast Guard says much of the Houston ship channel will be closed to marine traffic until at least Tuesday night. Petty Officer Richard Brahm says the estimate comes from the joint team at the scene of a barge collision with a tower that supports a high-voltage electric transmission line. That tower threatened to topple it into the channel. The Coast Guard says the tow boat Safety Quest was pushing three barges loaded with scrap metal about 6 a.m. Sunday when it crashed into the tower on the channel at Baytown. No injuries were reported. The channel is the lifeline to the Port of Houston, the nation’s leader in foreign waterborne tonnage and imports and runner-up in U.S. export tonnage and total tonnage.

A Coast Guard official says the fact that more than 100 people escaped the Gulf of Mexico rig explosion alive is a sign that the evacuation effort went fairly well. Captain James Hanzalik, chief of Incident Response for the Coast Guard’s 8th District, told a federal investigative panel there was nothing more his agency could have done to prevent the Deepwater Horizon from sinking. The joint panel of the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement is trying to determine the cause of the blast and massive oil spill that followed. Of the 126 people on board the rig, 11 were killed in the blast. Hanzalik also said the Coast Guard currently relies on oil industry partners for help in rescuing so many people from a deepwater rig.

The administrator of the fund doling out money to Gulf oil spill victims says geographic proximity to oil-impacted areas will no longer play a role in whether people and businesses are compensated. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who is overseeing the Gulf Coast claims facility, has faced complaints from angry residents and business owners that the fund is moving too slowly, is not being generous enough and is denying claims that should be paid. Feinberg says that the process is fluid and that he understands the concerns. He announced a more lenient program that would not rule out claims simply because claimants are not located on the coast. The April 20th rig explosion killed 11 workers and spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil from BP’s underwater well.

The number of people who signed contracts to buy homes rose in August for the second straight month but remained far below last year’s pace. The weak economy and fears that prices will fall are keeping many consumers away from the housing market. The National Association of Realtors says its seasonally adjusted index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes rose 4.3 percent to a reading of 82.3. That’s still more than 20 percent below the pace in the same month a year earlier. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected the index would rise to 81.4. The index provides an early measurement of sales activity because there is usually a one- to two-month lag between a sales contract and a completed deal.

Orders to U.S. factories fell in August, reflecting a big drop in demand for commercial aircraft. But outside of the volatile transportation sector, orders rose for the first time since March. The Commerce Department says that factory orders fell 0.5 percent in August, the third drop in the past four months. Orders had been up 0.4 percent in July. The weakness came from a big decline in demand for commercial aircraft and a drop in demand for motor vehicles. However, outside of transportation, orders posted a solid 0.9 percent increase.

The Justice Department is suing American Express for alleged anticompetitive practices while proposing a settlement with the two biggest credit card companies, Mastercard and Visa. In court papers, the Department and various state attorneys general sued all three companies, saying they were attempting to insulate themselves from competition.

Verizon Wireless could pay out up to $90 million in refunds to cell phone customers who were improperly charged for inadvertent web access or data usage over the past several years. The FCC had asked Verizon last year about $1.99-a-megabyte data access fees that appeared on the bills of customers who didn’t have data plans but who accidentally initiated data or web access by pressing a button on their phones. In a statement on its website, Verizon Wireless said most of the 15 million customers affected will receive credits of $2 to $6 on their October or November bills. Customers no longer with the New York-based carrier will get refund checks. Some will receive larger sums.

Toyota says it has fixed about 3.7 million vehicles in the United States that have been part of the company’s massive safety recalls. Toyota says in a progress update that customer complaints about unintended acceleration made to its consumer hotline have fallen considerably since April. Toyota has been working to rebuild its reputation for safety in the wake of more than ten million recalls worldwide. Company officials say they have completed 5 million fixes in the U.S. to recalled vehicles. About 1.3 million vehicles have received fixes for issues with sticking gas pedals and floor mat problems. Toyota says it is expanding the role of engineering teams created to investigate problems with unintended acceleration to include other problems as well.

President Barack Obama is announcing a program that pairs top companies and community colleges in hopes of ramping up America’s job skills. Obama says it will make it easier for students looking for jobs. He also says it will put the colleges and businesses together to create programs that match curricula with boardroom needs. TheSkills for America’s Future initiative is backed by companies like Gap, McDonald’s and Accenture. The partnership plan is a recommendation of the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Two new members have been installed on the Federal Reserve, which has enormous power over Americans’ pocketbooks. Janet Yellen becomes vice chairwoman, the Fed’s second-highest ranking official, and Sarah Bloom Raskin is now a governor. Both were sworn into their jobs today. They were tapped by President Barack Obama to fill vacancies on the Fed’s seven-member board in Washington. Before joining the Fed, Yellen was president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco since 2004. Raskin was Maryland’s Commissioner of Financial Regulation. They will help decide how much additional aid the Fed should provide to energize the economy.

Gardens have been named the hottest trend in restaurants this year as more chefs involved with the eat local food movement decide to grow their own tomatoes, herbs and other produce. A third of the 2,000 chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association named gardens the top trend. Chris Moyer leads sustainability programs for the group, and he says it costs restaurants less to grow their own produce than to buy it elsewhere and have it shipped. He says gardening also gives chefs better control over quality. Owners at restaurants with gardens say they’ve been well-received. Larry Bertsch is a frequent customer at the Blue Water Grill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He says he likes knowing his food is grown 20 feet from the kitchen.

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