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National news in brief

Shuttle set to lift off with beam for station CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA is taking more heat for space station spending as it gears up for another major phase of high-flying construction work.

Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off Thursday with the newest piece of the international space station, a 44-foot girder. The elaborate, wired-up beam will form the foundation for a framework that ultimately will stretch longer than a football field and support a dazzling collection of solar wings and radiators.

Under new anti-terrorism precautions, the 5:13 p.m. launch time was kept secret until late Wednesday afternoon, 24 hours in advance. Up until then, NASA had said only that the launch would take place between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

There was a 40 percent chance that rain or thunderstorms could force a delay.

While technical successes continue to mount in orbit, the latest flap on Earth is over how NASA buys spare parts for the space station. A report by NASA's inspector general office says the space agency has no assurance it is paying a fair price for these parts.Southwest, East rank highest for fire danger BOISE, Idaho - Wide swaths of the Southwest and a patchwork of forests along the East Coast are at the highest risk for wildfire this summer, National Interagency Fire Center officials said Wednesday.

In the Southwest, drought and the amount of moisture in plants has reached a critically low level, said Rick Ochoa, the national fire weather program coordinator.

Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado have already had some spring wildfires. Ochoa said some trees and shrubs were burned to white ash - an indication of fire intensity due to bone dry conditions.

"The southwest might be the epicenter of the fire season this year," Ochoa said.

The western drought extends from Southern California northeast to southwestern Montana. Rainfall in the southern Rocky Mountains is as little as 30 percent of normal.Dow to use microbes to clean up groundwater SAN FRANCISCO - Marking the end of a five-year lawsuit, Dow Chemical Co. announced plans Wednesday to contribute $3 million for San Francisco Bay protection while using new technology to clean up groundwater contamination at its nearby Pittsburg chemical facility.

The deal - struck between environmental group San Francisco BayKeeper and Dow - lets the company back out of a previous agreement to build a groundwater pumping plant to clean up the contamination, which could have cost the company up to $100 million.

Instead, Dow says it will use bioremediation cleanup technology in which nutrients are pumped 100 feet into the ground, stimulating naturally occurring microbes that will eat away at the contaminants.

In exchange, BayKeeper wanted some of the savings passed on to them. Dow has agreed to contribute $3 million to BayKeeper, the Coastal Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, Inc. to purchase or restore wetlands at Bel Marin Keys in Marin County, and in Sonoma, Solano and Napa counties.Former stripper ousted as mayor in Colorado GEORGETOWN, Colo. - Mayor Koleen Brooks said she wasn't disappointed about being ousted after a contentious year in which she has been accused of everything from flashing her breasts at a bar to ordering a hit on an officer.

"It probably just saved me 10 years on my life," she said after a landslide recall vote Tuesday.

Brooks, a former stripper accused of mishandling her job, was removed from office by a vote of 339 to 176 on Tuesday, or 66 percent to 34 percent. She said she accepted the results but will ask for a recount to ensure they were accurate.

Lynn Granger, elected to finish the year remaining in Brooks' two-year term, said she hopes her tenure will be a quiet one.

"I think boring after the last year maybe isn't a bad thing," she said.

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