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BUSINESS TODAY

OIL PRICES FALL: Oil prices fell Wednesday after government data showed U.S. inventories of crude grew last week, surprising many traders and analysts who had expected supplies to shrink because of lingering output problems caused by Hurricane Ivan. Contributing to the drop in prices was word of a tentative agreement between the Nigerian government and the leader of a militia group that had threatened to target foreign oil firms and their workers. Light sweet crude for November delivery fell 39 cents to settle at $49.51 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after rising above $50 a barrel Tuesday. Meantime, the price of natural gas futures surged by nearly 9 percent. Natural gas for November delivery rose 56 cents to settle at $6.911 per 1,000 cubic feet.

BANK TO STAY OPEN 'TIL MIDNIGHT: BankAtlantic tried to distinguish itself by keeping branches open seven days a week. Then, it extended hours and stayed open during holidays. Now, the Fort Lauderdale bank is experimenting with late night. Starting in January, BankAtlantic is extending its hours from 7:30 a.m. until midnight seven days a week in seven locations, including a branch at 8001 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. An eighth branch in Miami-Dade County has been open until midnight since June. Jarett Levan, BankAtlantic's chief marketing officer, said his bank "continues to redefine "bankers' hours.' "

THEFT LEADS TO PHONE OUTAGES: Verizon Communications said four portable diesel generators providing backup power to phone switching units were stolen Tuesday night, contributing to phone outages that numbered about 21,000 Wednesday, mostly in Polk County. A large majority of Verizon's 2.2-million phone customers in Florida are served by central switching offices that have permanent onsite generators to provide continued service in the event of a power outage, spokesman Bob Elek said. The rest are served by remote switching units, which only have battery backup and are vulnerable to outages unless they are connected to a portable generator. The missing generators each weigh about 150 pounds to 200 pounds, generate at least 10 kilowatts of electricity and cost about $5,000 apiece, Elek said.

SCRUSHY CHARGES ADDED: Federal prosecutors added perjury and obstruction of justice charges to the criminal case against fired HealthSouth Corp. chief executive Richard Scrushy on Wednesday under a new indictment in the rehabilitation giant's accounting scandal. The new charges, part of a superseding indictment, were announced by the Justice Department as it consolidated conspiracy and fraud charges while trimming the number of counts from 85 to 58. Scrushy, 52, previously pleaded not guilty to charges accusing him of conspiracy, securities fraud and money laundering, among other crimes.

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