AmeriScan: April 9, 2004

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Explosions, Weather Pressure Southwest Emergency Crews

SANTA FE, New Mexico, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Two explosions that touched off a fire at an oil refinery Thursday morning, were not the result of a terrorist attack, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said.

“Our response and communications systems worked the way they’re designed, and we were quickly able to determine this situation was caused by an unfortunate accident, and is not considered to be a terrorist incident,” said Richardson.

Smoke poured from the Giant Oil Refinery near Gallup in western New Mexico as rescue crews converged at the scene. Six people were injured, four of them were critically hurt.

The explosion and fire occurred in a portion of the plant that handles propane and butane. The fire was quickly contained, and other tanks were cooled, and were not in danger.

“I want to commend State Police and McKinley County officials for their prompt response, and our thoughts and prayers are with the injured and their families,” the governor said.

The New Mexico Department of Public Safety and Department of Homeland Security responded to the incident to assist McKinley County officials on scene, and personnel at the state’s Emergency Operations Center, already activated in response to severe weather earlier this week, are closely following the situation.

Heavy rains, high winds and hail slammed the U.S.-Mexico border area Sunday and Monday, producing treacherous floodwaters that have inundated communities, collapsed homes and bridges and claimed 38 lives in the area.

“The damaged area stretches all the way across southern Texas into southeast New Mexico,” said Bob Howard, an American Red Cross disaster relief worker on-site in Texas. “For the entire area so far, Red Cross damage assessment reports that 1,665 homes have been affected by the storms.”

Rising waters from the Rio Escondido in Piedras Negras, Mexico on Monday left at least 34 people dead, many more missing and 2,000 people housed in shelters. Piedras Negras is a city of about 200,000 people, some 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio, Texas. Mexican officials called the flooding in Piedras Negras some of the worst in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border region.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency said that its agents rescued 14 Mexicans trapped by floodwaters near Piedras Negras, Mexico, after a request for help from the Mexican government. The Mexicans, trapped on rooftops, were airlifted to safety by two U.S. helicopters.

Water from a normally quiet West Texas Creek surged across a westbound bridge on Interstate 20 near Pecos on Monday, leveling the bridge and forcing traffic onto a narrow two-lane highway. Texas Department of Public Safety officials say the bridge is scheduled to be reopened next week, but traffic accidents on the alternate route have already claimed four lives.

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Soaring Gas Prices Forecast for Summer

WASHINGTON, DC, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Retail gasoline prices will average $1.76 per gallon, about 20 cents above last summer, the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in its summer driving season forecast covering April to September 2004.

Issued Thursday, the EIA forcast says gasoline markets are tight as the 2004 driving season begins and conditions are likely to remain volatile through the summer.

High crude oil costs, strong gasoline demand growth, low gasoline inventories, uncertainty about the availability of gasoline imports, high transportation costs, and changes in gasoline specifications have added to current and expected gasoline costs and pump prices.

Motor gasoline demand is projected to average 9.32 million barrels per day, a new high, the agency said.

Demand continues to rise annually as the number of drivers and vehicles rises along with the general population and the number of households. Average fleet-wide fuel efficiency is virtually unchanged from last year.

Relatively tight inventory levels are expected to keep pressure on refinery output and import sources during peak demand periods.

The agency warned that the domestic gasoline supply system is "vulnerable to severe price shocks if major refinery or pipeline outages occur."

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Mars Rovers' Mission Extended Five Months

WASHINGTON, DC, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - The Mars Exploration Rovers are going to be rolling around on opposite sides of the red planet for up to five more months beyond their three month primary mission, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said Thursday.

The first of the two, Spirit, met the success criteria set for its prime mission. Spirit gained check marks in the final two boxes on April 3 and 5, when it exceeded 600 meters (1,969 feet) of total drive distance and completed 90 martian operational days after landing.

Opportunity landed three weeks after Spirit. It will complete the two-rover checklist of required feats, when it finishes a 90th martian day of operations April 26. Each martian day, or "sol," lasts about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day.

"Given the rovers' tremendous success, the project submitted a proposal for extending the mission, and we have approved it," said Orlando Figueroa, Mars Exploration Program director at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The mission extension provides $15 million for operating the rovers through September. The extension more than doubles exploration for less than a two percent additional investment, if the rovers remain in working condition. The extended mission has seven new goals for extending the science and engineering accomplishments of the prime mission.

"Once Opportunity finishes its 91st sol, everything we get from the rovers after that is a bonus," said Dr. Firouz Naderi, manager of Mars exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where the rovers were built and are controlled.

"Even though the extended mission is approved to September, and the rovers could last even longer, they also might stop in their tracks next week or next month. They are operating under extremely harsh conditions," Naderi said.

Spirit is seeking geological evidence for an ancient lake thought to have once filled the Gusev Crater.

"We're going to continue exploring and try to understand the water story at Gusev," said JPL's Dr. Mark Adler, deputy mission manager for Spirit.

Reaching Columbia Hills, a Martian feature which could hold geological clues to that water story, is one of seven objectives for Spirit's extended mission.

Opportunity has a parallel mission, to seek geologic context for the outcrop in the Eagle crater by reaching other outcrops in the Endurance crater and perhaps elsewhere.

Other science objectives are to continue atmospheric studies at both sites to encompass more of Mars' seasonal cycle and to calibrate and validate data from Mars orbiters for additional types of rocks and soils examined on the ground.

The team has set three new engineering objectives for their rovers. They are to traverse more than a kilometer (0.62 mile) to demonstrate mobility technologies. They will characterize solar-array performance over long durations of dust deposition at both landing sites, and they will demonstrate long term operation of two mobile science robots on a distant planet.

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Indian River Lagoon Restoration Wins Florida Approval

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Florida Department of Environment Secretary Colleen Castille has signed off on a $1 billion joint plan by the state and federal government to restore water flows to the Indian River Lagoon.

When complete, the project will restore more than 53,000 acres of wetlands, reduce pollution and provide water storage to return a natural flow of fresh water to the St. Lucie and Indian River estuaries.

“Approval of this plan to protect the Indian River Lagoon is the next step in the restoration of America’s Everglades,” said Governor Jeb Bush. “This is further evidence of Florida’s continued commitment to restore the River of Grass on time and under budget.”

The Indian River Lagoon is recognized as an estuary of national significance and is a Florida Aquatic Preserve and an Outstanding Florida Water. Part of the $8 billion, 30 year plan to save America’s Everglades, the project now requires federal approval by the U.S. Congress.

Once complete, the restoration project will return historic flows of cleaner water across 90,000 acres of natural land spanning Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.

The plan includes construction and operation of 12,000 acres of inland reservoirs and 9,000 acres of pollution-filtering treatment marsh. To restore habitat within the estuaries, the plan also recommends removing more than 5 million cubic yards of muck from the waterways.

Together with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida water managers plan to build miles of pumps, levees and canals to capture and redirect water.

The reservoirs and treatment marshes, which will provide 170,000 acre-feet of water storage, offer an alternative to discharging excess water into the St. Lucie River that can harm habitat and degrade water quality.

"The South Florida Water Management District has completed a thorough scientific evaluation and delivered a comprehensive restoration plan,” said Castille. “Delivering water at the right time to the right places will restore habitat, improve water quality in the St. Lucie River and provide flood protection to residents across three counties.”

"The Indian River Lagoon South Restoration Project is moving forward because of a dedicated partnership between federal, state and county governments," said South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Henry Dean, "and because of the invaluable contributions from the local community."

Florida’s share of Everglades restoration is ahead of schedule and under budget. Since 2000, Governor Bush has committed more than $2.5 billion through the end of the decade to clean up and restore the River of Grass.

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Cell Towers Rising in National Parks Without Public Input

WASHINGTON, DC, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Cell towers are proliferating across the landscape of America's national parks, and the National Park Service has abdicated its responsibility to protect park scenery and serenity by opening every unit to cell tower construction, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) charged on Thursday.

The national nonprofit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers says that the park service is violating requirements that the public be notified of, and allowed to comment on, all new cell towers.

A review of Federal Communications licenses by the Forest Conservation Council shows cell towers in a number of parks, including Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Everglades National Parks, as well as Big Cypress and Mojave National Preserves. None of these facilities had the required public notices, says PEER.

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened federal lands to tower construction, Congress directed the National Park Service to develop appropriate regulations for preventing unsightly proliferation of towers.

But currently the NPS does not know the number or location of cell towers within national parks.

The "minimal" national policy that did exist expired on April 4, PEER points out, and the service has no coherent policy of what are inappropriate cell tower placements, heights or configurations. It is left up to each park superintendent to decide.

Cell phone coverage is not precluded in wilderness areas, which means that every corner of every national park may soon be receiving cell phone signals.

In response to PEER's criticism, the National Park Service is now claiming a public safety rationale but has been unable to identify the extent or utility of emergency usage.

“The Park Service has seized upon public safety as an after the fact pretext; the agency has not even studied its public safety communications needs,” said PEER Board Member Frank Buono, a former veteran National Park Service manager who does not own a cell phone.

“Of greater concern, the logic of this new public safety argument dictates cell coverage over every square inch of the National Park System," said Buono, "a decision the National Park Service appeared to reach without one iota of public involvement.”

The American Red Cross recommends bringing a cell phone along for added safety while camping or hiking. While some hikers and climbers may think that carrying a cell phone is a good insurance policy, others say reliance on them can lead to trouble.

Guide Chris Uggerholt says, "As a guide, I have been trained to not be dependent on a cell phone. When you are situated in a canyon or cravasse, you need to hike to the top to make a call. When an emergency situation occurs, climbing out of the canyon can be a dangerous and time consuming thing to do. Even if a signal is found, it is very difficult to discribe your location to rescuers."

"In an emergency sitatuation where a cell phone is not present," Uggerholt says, "the process of response slows down. But with a cell phone, things are rushed and the checks and balances disappear."

But for some parks lovers, the issue is the quality of the wilderness experience. “The National Park Service is inducing the death of solitude,” mourned Buono. “How can one commune with nature when you cannot escape the calling area of civilization?”

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Tricolor Blackbirds Fall Victim to Farm Practices

IDYLLWILD, California, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday called on government wildlife agencies to grant emergency protection for the tricolored blackbird, Agelaius tricolor, a bird native to California that scientists say has experienced a steep decline in the past decade. More than 99 percent of these birds live in California.

The tricolored blackbird forms the largest colonies of any North American passerine, or perching, birds. One breeding colony may consist of thousands of birds, making the species appear abundant, but the Center warns that the overall population is disappearing quickly.

Once numbering in the millions, entire colonies, up to tens of thousands of nests, in cereal crops and silage are often destroyed by harvesting and plowing of agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley. Scientists say that concentration of a high proportion of the population in a few breeding colonies increases the risk of major reproductive failures, especially in vulnerable habitats such as active agricultural fields.

Mowers, conditioners, windrowers, forage harvesters, wagons and blowers, tractors and trucks involved in the silage harvest destroy the tricolor eggs and nests as they cut the fields for animal fodder.

The Center submitted a petition requesting immediate action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish & Game prohibiting or at a minimum delaying harvesting and plowing activities on private lands used for breeding during the nesting season.

“This wholesale destruction of such a large number of tricolor nests is threatening the very survival of the species,” said Monica Bond, a biologist with the Center.

“It would be a travesty to let this unique bird suffer the same fate as the Passenger Pigeon, another formerly abundant colonial species that no one ever imagined could be driven to extinction,” she said.

The tricolored blackbird breeds in dense colonies in California’s Central Valley, Coast Ranges, and southern California. The species looks similar to the red-winged blackbird but is behaviorally different. The tricolor defends very small breeding territories within a colony and forages outside the colony, sometimes up to four miles away.

Original habitat for the species consisted of extensive freshwater emergent marshes and native grasslands that once covered the Central Valley and other parts of California. Most of the prime native habitat for the blackbird has been destroyed or degraded, possibly contributing to historical population declines.

The species has demonstrated flexibility in utilizing non-native habitats such as thickets of Himalayan blackberry and grain silage fields.

In its petition, the Center says harvesting and plowing are "in clear violation" of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and California’s Unfair Competition Law and "are responsible for the current precipitous decline of the species that necessitates immediate listing under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts."

Attorney for the Center Julie Teel said, “The agencies have known about the problem for decades, yet no meaningful protection for the blackbird has yet been afforded.”

Tricolors are also losing habitat to land conversions from rangeland to vineyards, orchards, and urban development, and high levels of predation in the little remaining marsh habitats.

Beginning in the 1930s and continuing until 2000, five extensive population censuses were conducted to estimate population size of the tricolored Blackbird. A 1975 study concluded that the population of tricolors in the Central Valley had declined by at least 50 percent compared to the 1930s.

Three censuses in the 1990s found that the tricolor population had continued to decline; numbers of birds fell by about 37 percent between 1994 and 1997 and by an additional 38 percent between 1997 and 2000.

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Big Agriculture Leaves Heavy Environmental Footprint

WASHINGTON, DC, April 9, 2004 (ENS) - Inefficient farming practices constitute the most serious environmental threat in the world today, according to a new global survey by Dr. Jason Clay, head of the Center for Conservation Innovation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In his new book, "World Agriculture and the Environment," Clay, an agricultural economist, says inefficiency in agriculture helps to accelerate deforestation, pollution, ocean degradation and species loss.

"Agriculture has had a larger environmental impact than any other human activity and today it threatens the very systems we need to meet our food and fiber needs," said Clay.

The book warns that government subsidies encourage intensive monoculture farming practices that use chemicals and heavy machinery that harm the environment. "U.S. farmers are on a treadmill: the more subsidies they receive, the more they need them to remain competitive globally," said Clay.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman outlined the full extent of the U.S. agricultural empire for an audience at the National Press Club on Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has about 110,000 employees and a program level of about $113 billion, Veneman said.

"Now, if you compare that to the revenues of the largest American companies, USDA would be seventh, just behind Citigroup. We would also rank seventh among the largest corporate banks in the United States with a loan portfolio of about $125 billion," she said.

Currently, about 7.5 percent or 160,000 farmers produce 72 percent or nearly three-quarters of the production in this country of food and fiber for the entire United States.

The other roughly two million farms are on a smaller scale and are increasingly diverse operations driven in part by the love of farming as a lifestyle and the attractiveness of rural living as well as the niche markets for specialty products," said Veneman.

On a global scale agriculture is the world's largest industry, employing some 1.3 billion people and producing about $1.3 trillion worth of goods annually.

Clay offers detailed analysis of the issues and practices of some of the world's biggest crops, from coffee and orange juice to cocoa and tobacco. He finds that agriculture uses more than 50 percent of the habitable area of the planet, including land that should not be farmed, and destroys some 100,000 square miles of forests and other critical species habitat annually.

Globally, Clay warns, agriculture wastes 60 percent of the 2.5 trillion liters of water that it uses each year.

Water resources are already being used close to or beyond their limit, particularly in the Americas, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India. The impacts of global warming are likely to further disrupt water supplies, he says.

The book recommends that governments - especially those of major consuming countries like the United States, China, Japan and the EU -- redirect funding from subsidies and market barriers that promote unfair competition into the adoption of better management practices.

These include government payments for environmental services that farmers provide, such as watershed protection, erosion prevention, clean water, and carbon sequestration.

The book recommends that governments work with farmers and the food industry to develop better management practices in order to increase efficiency and reduce damage to the environment.

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Florida High School First to Install Fuel Cell Power

NORTH PORT, Florida, April 10, 2004 (ENS) - The nation’s first joint hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen curriculum project was dedicated Wednesday at North Port High School. The dedication marks the culmination of a cooperative effort between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“Just like the students of North Port High School, hydrogen is the future," said Assistant Secretary of Energy David Garman at the dedication ceremony. Seeing cutting-edge technology up close is good for students and teachers, but having the chance to work with it hands-on is exciting."

“Hydrogen will be powering the cars they’ll drive in years to come and, in time, the houses they own," he said.

The school’s hydrogen fuel cell, installed through a partnership between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Power and Light and Sarasota County, gives students the opportunity to see the technology in operation.

DOE designed the hydrogen energy curriculum to provide a hands-on educational experience for students interested in energy science. North Port High School’s is one of 10 pilot schools implementing the DOE’s curriculum starting in September.

The fuel cell at North Port provides five kilowatts of power to the school, enough for a classroom.

The school will make use of the heat and water generated by the fuel cell as byproducts. Waste heat will be used to heat water in the school’s kitchen, while water created by the fuel cell’s recombining of hydrogen and oxygen may be used for landscaping.

“Fuel cells are revolutionizing the way we power our nation, offering cleaner, more-efficient alternatives to fossil fuels,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen Castille said. “Investing in next generation technology is promoting energy security and protecting Florida’s air.”