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Obama pick for EPA chief to assess coal ash disposal sites

WASHINGTON: President-elect Barack Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency vowed yesterday to immediately assess hundreds of coal ash disposal sites at power plants across the country in the wake of two spills in Alabama and Tennessee.

Testifying at her Senate confirmation hearing, Lisa Jackson said the agency also will reconsider ways to regulate the ash and how it is stored, something the EPA recommended in 2000 but did not act upon.

Coal ash ponds storing waste created by burning coal are not subject to federal regulations. Oversight of the ponds and landfills varies by state.

Jackson said the agency's decisions will be based on science and the law and not politics. Her statement was the clearest signal yet that the Obama administration plans to take the EPA in a different direction.

"Science must be the backbone of what EPA does," said Jackson. "EPA's addressing of scientific decisions should reflect the expert judgment of the agency's career scientists and independent advisers."

Shinseki promises to modernize Veterans Affairs if confirmed

WASHINGTON: Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki promised to modernize Veterans Affairs if confirmed by the Senate to lead that department.

Shinseki, 66, said yesterday that six-month waits to have a disability claim processed would not be acceptable under his watch.

Shinseki would be the first Asian-American to lead the agency. He received a warm welcome from senators at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii, said he anticipates Shinseki would be confirmed Tuesday - the day Obama is sworn in as president. Akaka praised Shinseki's qualifications and empathy for veterans, but warned that leading the agency wouldn't be easy.

"The frustrating lack of timeliness, and the challenges of coordinating [the Department of Defense's] and VA's systems, are some of the areas that must be addressed quickly," he said.

Farm communities, poor families, nutrition eyed by Agriculture nominee

WASHINGTON: Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack promised yesterday to work to boost the economies of farm communities, promote nutritious foods and help poor families put meals on the table if confirmed to lead the Agriculture Department.

Vilsack, who has won wide support from farm groups and farm-state members of Congress, told the panel that the department faces "historic challenges," mostly brought on by economic woes.

If confirmed, Vilsack would oversee the nation's nutrition programs, including food stamps, which make up a large part of the department's budget. Those programs are facing increased need in recent months as the economy has stumbled.

Despite problems in rural communities, the agricultural sector has fared better than many industries in recent years as the demand for renewable fuels has helped fuel record crop prices. But those prices have dropped in recent months.

The farm-friendly panel has voiced few qualms with Vilsack, who was chief executive of one of the country's largest crop-producing states for eight years.

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