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Some ships tipped off to searches

Briefs and news of note.

Published May 20, 2006

LONG BEACH, Calif. - Under intense pressure from shipping companies concerned about costly delays, the Coast Guard is tipping off some large commercial ships about security searches that had been a surprise, high-ranking Coast Guard officials have said.

Shipping companies say the surprise boardings at sea cause delays costing up to $40,000 an hour.

"We're trying to facilitate commerce and keep the port secure - and sometimes the two conflict," said Capt. Paul E. Wiedenhoeft, who is in charge of the port complex at Los Angeles and Long Beach. "When possible, we're trying to give shippers as much notice as we can."

The practice has caused considerable debate within the Coast Guard.

"The purpose of the inspections is for the Coast Guard to send a message to all these ships that they might be boarded at any time," said Stephen E. Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander who is now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "... If you say, 'Heads up, when you get close to port in two days we're going to board you,' that sort of defeats the purpose of the boarding."

FDA: High levels of benzene found in drinks

WASHINGTON - A government analysis of more than 100 soft drinks and other beverages turned up five with levels of cancer-causing benzene that exceed federal drinking-water standards, the Food and Drug Administration said Friday.

The companies that make the drinks have been alerted and either have reformulated their products or plan to, the FDA said. Government health officials maintain there is no safety concern, an opinion not shared by at least one environmental group.

The five drinks listed by the government were Safeway Select Diet Orange, Crush Pineapple, AquaCal Strawberry Flavored Water Beverage, Crystal Light Sunrise Classic Orange and Giant Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail. The high levels of benzene were found in specific production lots, the FDA said.

Scientists say factors such as heat or light exposure can trigger a reaction that forms benzene in the beverages.

Dr. Laura Tarantino, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety, said drinking sodas high in benzene does not pose a health risk. "This is likely an occasional exposure; it's not a chronic exposure," Tarantino said.

Federal judge blocks prayer at Ky. graduation

RUSSELL SPRINGS, Ky. - A federal judge on Friday blocked a southern Kentucky high school from including prayers in its graduation ceremony Friday evening.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit this week seeking a restraining order on behalf of an unidentified student at Russell County High School in Russell Springs.

U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley granted the temporary restraining order Friday morning, prohibiting the school district from having even a student representative say a prayer during the ceremony.

Out-of-state reports raise Katrina's official death toll

NEW ORLEANS - Louisiana raised its Hurricane Katrina death toll by 281 Friday to 1,577 after including more out-of-state evacuees whose deaths were deemed related to the storm or its grueling aftermath.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals decided that if residents' deaths were hastened by the stress and trauma associated with relocating - or even an accidental injury during travel - those deaths should be counted in the toll.

Of the deaths reported out of state, 30 occurred among those who had fled to Florida.

Runaway bride's wedding plans may be finished

ATLANTA - The runaway bride and the fiance who took her back have broken up for good, friends and family told People magazine.

"We're just glad there's a final resolution," John Mason's father, Claude Mason, was quoted as saying.

Jennifer Wilbanks, 33, would not confirm or deny a breakup, saying, "John and I have some things to work out," the magazine reported.

Wilbanks disappeared four days before her wedding day in April 2005. Hundreds of police and volunteers searched for her.

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 07:51:55]

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