A Sept. 24 Metro in Brief item reported that the group U.S. PIRG had ranked the Washington area 13th among the nation's smoggiest big cities. This week, the group said it had discovered an error in its calculations. Its corrected report ranks the area 22nd. (Published 10/2/04)

THE REGION

Immigration Benefits Backlog Cut

U.S. immigration officials said yesterday that they have made strong progress in recent months in reducing a backlog of applications for immigration benefits.

A report this year showed that the number of pending applications for all benefits had mushroomed by nearly 60 percent in three years, to 6.2 million at the end of fiscal 2003.

Eduardo Aguirre, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at a news conference yesterday that the number has since dropped to 4.8 million. He attributed the change to technological improvements and streamlined procedures.

Authorities said far fewer applications were processed in 2003 because of security requirements imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. No breakdown was released yesterday on how many immigrants have been granted permanent resident status this year.

Report Ranks Area 13th for Smog

The Washington area ranks 13th among the nation's smoggiest big cities, according to a report released yesterday by the environmental group U.S. PIRG.

The group studied levels of ozone, a primary component of smog, and soot in the air during 2003. It found that there were 64 times last year when the area's smog levels exceeded the recommendations set by the Environmental Protection Agency for eight hours of exposure. The top two spots for smog were in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, followed by Houston, according to the study.

THE DISTRICT

Free Services at SE Community Fair

District residents will be able to receive free medical and dental services and job information at a community fair tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Benning Terrace, at 4450 G St. SE.

More than 25 D.C. government agencies and faith-based and community groups, led by the D.C. Department of Human Services, have joined together to present the fair and two others next month. There will be free exhibits, entertainment and information about free prenatal care, food assistance, medical insurance, college scholarships and senior citizen and other services.

The additional fairs will be held Oct. 9 at River Terrace in Northeast and Oct. 16 at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Northwest. For more information, call 202-671-4436.

MARYLAND

Ex-Senator Hatfield Hospitalized After Fall

Former Oregon senator Mark O. Hatfield is in intensive care with a head injury he suffered after helping to open a building named in his honor in Bethesda, a family spokesman said yesterday.

Hatfield, 82, widely considered the senior statesman of Oregon politics, fell and struck his head in his daughter's home in Bethesda Wednesday evening after attending the dedication of a building at the National Institutes of Health, said Gerry Frank, a longtime friend who served as chief of staff to the former Republican senator.

Hatfield was taken by ambulance to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and later transferred to Washington Hospital Center, where he was being treated in the intensive care unit, Frank said.

Fire Suspected as Linked to Arsonist

Montgomery County fire officials said they are trying to determine whether a fire set at a Wheaton condominium building early yesterday is linked to a series of arsons across the region.

Someone set fire to the outside of a garage on the ground level of the three-story Tiers of Wheaton condominiums in the 10000 block of Amherst Avenue, said Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

None of the building's dozen or so residents was hurt. The fire was set about 3:40 a.m. and caused $5,000 in damage to the garage door and some siding, Piringer said. He said it was similar to the serial arsons because someone set fire to the exterior of an occupied building in the middle of the night.

If linked, it would mark the second time that authorities believe the serial arsonist has struck in Montgomery County. The first time was Feb. 14, when three people were treated for smoke inhalation after their Silver Spring apartment building was torched.

Investigators are trying to determine whether the Wheaton fire was the 40th in the region linked to a serial arsonist over the past 18 months. Authorities have said they suspect, but have not concluded, that two other fires since Sept. 17, in the District and in Prince George's County, also are linked to the string of arsons.

Anyone with information can reach the arson task force at 301-77-ARSON.

Utility Sues Over Planned Pipeline

The Chesapeake Ranch Water Co. filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Calvert County Board of Commissioners and the Maryland Department of the Environment, seeking to prevent the county from building a pipeline next to the utility's existing facilities.

The suit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, alleges that the county has not received the proper environmental permits for a two-mile water line and production well in Lusby. The utility also said the county's water plans are inadequately designed, a waste of taxpayer money and a threat to the 10,000 users of Chesapeake's water system.

The dispute began in February, when the county decided to supply water to the growing town center in Lusby instead of using Chesapeake. The utility lost a federal lawsuit to block the county's plans but has appealed the decision.

VIRGINIA

School Administrators Support Kelly

Forty-one administrators at Prince William County elementary schools have signed a letter asking the School Board to extend Superintendent Edward L. Kelly's contract.

Kelly announced this month that this year, his 18th, would be his last at the head of the 65,000-student system. Although he had sought a two-year extension when his contract expires in the spring, he said School Board members made clear that they were ready for a change and he withdrew his request.

"Please reconsider your stance and convince Dr. Kelly to remain as superintendent of schools for at least two more years," the letter read. "We want to be led by him."

Jarcelyn Hart, who has taught in the county for 12 years and is the principal of Minnieville Elementary, was one of the signers. "I just support his leadership," he said. Kelly, who was present when the principals read the letter at a School Board meeting Wednesday, said he appreciated the support. "When people stand up and say those things that are so flattering to you, you can't help but be a little bit embarrassed," he said.

"The only surprise is that they admitted it."

-- Red Line rider Tom Peterson, on disclosure by Metro officials

yesterday that the rail system's cars are breaking down nearly twice

as often as they did three years ago. -- Page A1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan, David A. Fahrenthold, Karlyn Barker, Katherine Shaver, Amit R. Paley and Christina A. Samuels and the Associated Press.