The Bush administration defended its policy on embryonic stem-cell research before a Senate committee, facing critics who say federal restrictions will hold back potential cures for diseases. The hearing offered the first public debate since President Bush, on Aug. 9, became the first to allow taxpayer funding for the research, but only for the 64 stem-cell lines already created by that date. Of those, the Bush administration said 24 or 25 are ready now.

The Environmental Protection Agency warned its Ohio counterpart that it must improve its handling of federal programs or be stripped of enforcement powers covering air and water pollution. A preliminary EPA report also suggested the state should train staff better and open regulatory practices to the public. Environmentalists have accused the Ohio EPA and its former chief, Donald Schregardus, of being lax with polluters. The report comes as Bush fights for Senate confirmation of Schregardus as the federal EPA's top rule-enforcer.

Thousands of former military sites with contaminated soil and water or unexploded ammunition are being cleaned up much more slowly than the Pentagon reported, according to the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress. It said a Pentagon report on the $200 million-a-year program claimed half the work was finished when only one-third had been. The Army Corps of Engineers, which has run the project for 15 years, had yet to comment.

A powerful new X-ray telescope yielded evidence that all but confirms the existence of a massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, astronomers reported in the journal Nature. In the study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists observed for the first time a flare of X-ray energy produced where the lip of the black hole would be, 24,000 light years from Earth. Older studies showed the galaxy contained something dense and massive, but because black holes keep light from escaping, they've been difficult to observe.

Workers at an IRS processing center in Pittsburgh run by Mellon Bank hid thousands of federal tax returns or shredded them, apparently because they thought they had fallen behind, a top Mellon official said. At least 40,000 returns and payments totaling $810 million were lost at the center, which handled returns from New England and New York.

The number of families receiving temporary welfare assistance continues to decline, the Department of Health and Human Services reported. Between September 2000 and March 2001, families on welfare dropped 3 percent, from 2.2 million to 2.1 million; individual recipients declined by 4.4 percent to 5.4 million. Welfare rolls peaked in 1994 at 14.3 million, but new rules and a strong economy caused them to drop 60 percent by mid- 2000.

Ukrainian immigrant Nikolay Soltys was charged with seven first-degree murder counts after a nationwide manhunt led to his arrest last week in California. Soltys, above at his arraignment, is accused of killing his pregnant wife and five other relatives in Sacramento. One of the counts was for his unborn child. Soltys didn't enter a plea.

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