Residents of six towns and villages near crippled nuclear plant can’t return until 2017, government says. The clean-up of the exclusion zone around Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered a series of meltdowns in 2011, was due to be completed by March. Japan’s environment ministry now acknowledges that the decontamination is proving more complicated than expected. Tens of thousands of workers are removing millions of tons of topsoil and vegetation. But in the most contaminated areas, work is yet to begin. More than 90,000 people remain unable to go home, and many have decided they will never return. Separately, many lawmakers and nuclear specialists say the plant operator is perpetuating the kinds of management mistakes that led to the meltdowns. BBC, The Washington Post

Nitrates from agricultural fertilizer can leach into groundwater for 80 years or more, researchers find. Using isotope tracers, scientists followed nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers applied to wheat and sugar beets fields in France. They found that three decades after the 1982 application, 61 percent to 65 percent of the nitrates had been taken up by plants. Much of the rest continued to reside in the soil or was migrating into groundwater. In a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers estimated that nitrates would continue to seep into groundwater for at least another five decades. Thus, even if steps are taken to cut nitrate contamination, the effects of earlier use endure. Los Angeles Times

Thick, choking smog cloaks cities in northeast China for a second day. The smog Monday and today closed schools, airports and highways, snarling traffic and reducing visibility in some places to a few yards. In parts of the industrial city of Harbin, home to more than 10 million people, the PM 2.5 level of fine particulate matter in the air reached 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, 50 times above what the World Health Organization considers safe. Visibility was so low in the city, about 780 miles northeast of Beijing, that two city buses got lost while plying their regular routes. Pedestrians wore masks or clutched their hands in front of their faces to breathe more easily. It is the first major pollution emergency of the season. The Washington Post, South China Morning Post

Construction contractors at New Hampshire power plant accused of 31 safety violations. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration charged general contractor Babcock & Wilcox Construction and five subcontractors at the Berlin Power Plant in Berlin, N.H. The charges include three willful violations, the agency’s most serious offense. Although there were no serious injuries, OSHA said workers were exposed to cave-in, fall, scaffold collapse, crushing, lead, electrocution and other hazards. OSHA said Babcock & Wilcox, which drew 15 of the citations, used cranes on unstable ground and failed to train workers adequately to install fall protection systems, among other problems. Overall, OSHA proposed fines of $280,880. OSHA, The Associated Press

Job safety regulators propose fine of $153,900 against New Jersey concrete company.  The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration accused County Concrete Corp. of 18 violations at its site in East Orange, N.J. The charges included one willful charge, OSHA’s most serious offense. The agency said County Concrete lacked a program to prevent inadvertent machine start-ups and failed to take measures to protect workers against risks including confined space and respiratory hazards. OSHA

Compiled by Stuart Silverstein