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Insulating skin has fueled infernos before Grenfell Tower

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For the last decade, engineers specializing in fire safety have worried about the hidden danger posed by the kind of insulated metallic skin that transported flames up a high-rise apartment building in London, killing dozens.

Panels of the armor-like “cladding” have become a popular facade on tall buildings worldwide, both for their sleek look and energy-saving virtues. They also have helped fuel spectacular infernos in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the United States.

Some fire experts worry that, with energy efficiency a priority worldwide, the proliferation of “green” buildings has the unintended consequence of fanning fire danger. Though cladding can be flame-resistant, the result can be deadly when it is not.

“The good intent of sustainability translates into a potential fire safety problem,” said Brian Meacham, a fire protection engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. His concerns began to crystalize in 2010, he said, when he was in South Korea presenting a paper on new technology and fire safety and a cladded high-rise burned.

At London’s Grenfell Tower, flames raced with alarming speed up 24 stories of cladding in which a plastic core was sandwiched between thin sheets of aluminum. That composite is one of several kinds of exterior paneling that helps moderate inside temperatures, saving on energy needed for heating and cooling.

The tower’s aging concrete facade received the face-lift last year as part of a 10 million pound ($13 million) publicly funded refurbishment effort aimed, in part, at making the building more energy efficient.

The tower, home to as many as 600 people, burned Wednesday. At least 58 people were confirmed or presumed dead, a tally that could rise.

Authorities are still investigating the fire. Its behavior strongly implicated the cladding, several fire safety experts said in interviews. Anger has mounted in the community following reports that contractors had used cheaper panels in which the plastic insulation was not fire-resistant.

Cladding with pure plastic insulation costs less and insulates better than an alternative that incorporates fire-slowing minerals, experts said. On short buildings, it makes sense.

Not so for taller buildings. The International Building Code — a model of construction standards adopted widely in the United States, some areas of the Middle East and the Americas — calls for the use of fire-resistant cores in buildings over 40 feet (12 meters) tall. The code in England is less specific, giving architects latitude in how they make sure exterior insulation is safe as long as “the external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire.”

Two British government officials — Trade Minister Greg Hands and Treasury chief Philip Hammond — said in separate TV appearances Sunday that the cladding used on Grenfell seems to be prohibited by British regulations. Hands cautioned that officials don’t yet have exact details about the renovation.

Fires fueled by metal composite cladding in the past five years have charred high-rises in France, Dubai and South Korea. A 2007 casino fire in New Jersey was a wake-up call in the United States. Fires in buildings with other types of outer insulation have struck in other places, including Australia and China, where one killed 58 people. Though the fires may not be frequent, their quick spread makes them very dangerous.

To get a green certification, a building must, among other things, be more energy efficient than local codes require. The designation, conferred by private firms for a fee, does not focus on fire safety, referencing instead local code requirements. While the cladding made Grenfell Tower more energy efficient, the building did not reach green certification.

Green building practices may not be “inherently introducing risk, but I think it makes it a lot easier to make mistakes,” said Peter Weismantle, a Chicago-based architect who specializes in “supertall” buildings, including the world’s highest in the United Arab Emirates. He cited factors such as workmanship as well as the improper use of flammable cladding.

The U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees the industry-leading certification known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), said in a statement to The Associated Press that the Grenfell tragedy holds safety lessons.

“We stand with those who will learn these lessons in honest efforts to advance the aligned goals of life/safety and environmental building performance,” said the statement attributed to Brendan Owens, an engineer and senior vice president at the council. “Compromising life/safety in search of environmental gain is not a choice.”

In 2012, fire safety experts invited green building representatives to a symposium in Chicago. The engineers’ concern was that various green requirements could inadvertently conspire to increase fire danger. Meacham, the Massachusetts professor, addressed the gathering and said he did not sense much interest in fire safety within the green building industry then — or since.

“I think they view it as outside of their agenda,” Meacham said. “I don’t think they’re being necessarily mean about it; I think it’s more ignorance of the issues.”

In some places, the issue is impossible to ignore.

At least 30,000 buildings across the United Arab Emirates alone have cladding or paneling similar to the kind that safety and construction experts have blamed for rapidly spreading high-rise fires there, Dubai Civil Defense director-general Maj. Gen. Rashid Thani al-Matrooshi acknowledged in April 2016.

In January, Dubai authorities announced new fire safety rules, saying existing buildings with questionable cladding would “have to change it” under normal maintenance schedules. But they offered no further information to the public.

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More than just pie, the Pecan industry sets sights on snacks

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The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump Administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.

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Navajo Nation marks 150th anniversary of return to homeland

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A long-lost original copy of a historic treaty signed in 1868 by leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes and the U.S. government will go on display later this year as the Navajo Nation commemorates a dark, but significant chapter of history.

Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez and other tribal officials gathered Tuesday in Albuquerque to detail some of the events that will mark the signing of the treaty 150 years ago.

That treaty is what cleared the way for tribal members to return to their homeland in the heart of the American Southwest after being rounded up years earlier by the U.S. cavalry and forced to make an arduous and deadly trek hundreds of miles to a camp in eastern New Mexico.

Nez recounted the hardships of what came to be known as the Long Walk, saying many Navajos died along the route to Bosque Redondo. He also talked about those who stayed behind and hid in canyons and on mesa tops, often foregoing the warmth of a fire to avoid capture.

“We want our younger generation to know about our history,” Nez told a room packed with tribal officials and reporters.

He also talked about problems facing tribal communities, from suicide to alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. He said he wants to tap into the resilience of those Navajo ancestors who endured the hardships of the 1800s.

“What this will do is inspire, encourage our people out there that they can’t give up, to jump back up, dust themselves off and to fight even harder than ever before for what they believe in,” Nez said.

Navajo President Russell Begaye has said this year’s commemoration is also about telling the story of the Long Walk, the signing of the treaty and the return home from the perspective of Native Americans. He and other tribal officials say one goal is to address what they called a “legacy of misrepresentation” that has stemmed from that era.

Before research and planning began for this year’s events, there were only two known copies of the historic treaty. The whereabouts of one is now a mystery and the other has been kept by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The third copy turned up only recently when the relatives of a peace commissioner who was involved in the negotiation and signing of the treaty in 1868 found the document in a trunk in the family attic.

It was rolled up and bound with the original but faded ribbon. It was in pristine condition along with notes and other documents that historians hope might fill in some of the blanks from that time.

Pages of that copy will be on display starting in June at the Bosque Redondo Memorial near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The National Archives is partnering with the Navajo Nation to display the other original copy at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, for the month of June.

It took more than two years of planning to make the exhibition possible as this marks only the second time an original treaty has gone back to a homeland.

Museum director Manny Wheeler said the treaty is more than just a document to the Navajo people.

“When I saw the document and I saw the marks of all of our leaders on that paper, it is a powerful thing and it is very much so opening up dialogue among all Navajos about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler suggested that as much as the document was key to the Navajos’ past, it also has the power to change the future by awaking tribal members to the importance of preserving their culture and language.

The leaders of the Navajo Nation’s three branches of government signed a proclamation earlier this year declaring 2018 as the year of the treaty, and the tribe launched a website .

The commemoration also includes a day of prayer across the Navajo Nation, cultural nights, tours of the tribal council chambers and a run that will span more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) from Fort Sumner to the Navajo capital.

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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