AmeriScan: April 22, 2004

* * *

Military Renews Bid for Environmental Law Exemptions

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - Despite opposition from 39 state attorneys general, the Bush administration has again asked the U.S. Congress to exempt the Department of Defense from major federal environmental laws.

Last year Congress granted the administration's request for partial exemptions for the military from the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But President George W. Bush has renewed his bid for exemptions for the Pentagon from provisions of the Clean Air Act and the two primary federal toxic waste cleanup laws - the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Among other changes, the proposal would change the definition of "solid waste" under RCRA to exclude explosives, munitions, munitions fragments and other toxic material, including chemical weapons.

The proposal would ease the military's requirement to comply with CERCLA, which is also known as the Superfund law and holds polluters responsible for the release and clean up costs of their pollution, would remove its obligation.

With regards to the Clean Air Act, the proposal would grant the military 3 year exemptions for many activities and would require the federal government to approve a state's air pollution plan regardless of the plan's failures to compensate for the excess pollution produced by military activities.

Bush administration officials told Congress that the military needs flexibility under the laws in order to better train and prepare its troops and weapons systems, but environmentalists are skeptical - and Congress denied the requests last year.

Heather Taylor, deputy legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, asked "whose interest is the Pentagon really serving by trying to get Congress to relieve the military of its duty to comply with federal health safeguards?"

"Certainly not our troops, their families and the millions of other Americans who would be left living in contaminated communities," Taylor said.

* * *

Kerry Calls for New Conservation Commitment

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - In the second of three environmental speeches slated for this week, Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry told a Louisiana audience that he would "make the protection of our coastlines a national priority."

Kerry, who toured part of Louisiana's deteriorating coast, urged the nation to embrace a new commitment to conservation in order to strengthen the local communities and economies that depend on America's precious natural resources.

"A secure coastline means security for the families who live here, the business owners who make a living here and the sportsmen who hunt and fish here," Kerry said. "I believe that a good economy, strong communities and a healthy environment go hand-in-hand. When I am President, that is exactly where I will lead this country."

Thousands of square miles of America's coast have disappeared, resulting in serious consequences for communities and sportsmen who depend on them.

Kerry criticized the Bush administration for failing to offer any solutions to these coastal concerns and for cutting funds for coastal programs.

"When it comes to protecting our coasts, we do not have a moment to lose," Kerry said. "Today in Louisiana, a piece of land the size of a football field sinks into the Gulf of Mexico an average of every half hour."

"And coastal erosion is not just swallowing your beaches, it is drowning your economy," Kerry added. "Fishermen risk seeing their nets come up empty, sportsmen are watching entire habitats disappear, and people living on the coast fear that their homes or their businesses may literally slip into the ocean."

Kerry said he would work to bring together state and local government with business and environmental leaders to find a fair and effective solution to protect our coastline for the future.

"We will conserve and protect natural resources all over America because we all have a stake in acting as stewards of our environment," Kerry said. "Protecting the environment is about protecting our economy, our health and the places we live. It is about the legacy we leave our children and the America we give them to grow up in."

* * *

Colorado Cutthroat Trout Denied Endangered Species Listing

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration announced Tuesday that the Colorado River cutthroat trout will not be listed as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The finding acknowledges that the species is threatened by habitat destruction to livestock grazing, water diversion, mining, logging and other factors.

In addition it notes that non-native trout have displaced the native from most of its habitat, that whirling disease has infected populations and that "the range of the [species] has been greatly reduced from historic levels," but still concludes that the fish do not warrant further protection.

The decision was issued in response to a December 1999 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and four other groups.

The organizations are dismayed by the verdict and say they will pursue legal action to force the federal government to list the species.

"This decision flies in the face of science," said Jeff Kessler, conservation director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "The only reason a species as imperiled as the Colorado River cutthroat trout is not being protected is to appease the livestock, mining, and timber industries and the states, who are more concerned about turf than conservation and continue to stock millions of non-native trout into the historic range of the native."

The Center for Biological Diversity and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance on Tuesday filed a formal 60-day notice of intent to sue to overturn the decision.

The ESA requires such notice before a suit can be filed.

The groups criticized the Fish and Wildlife Agency for not conducting a full status review of the species and instead rejecting the petition at the "90 day" stage.

Under the ESA, the agency first determines whether a petition present "sufficient information to warrant further consideration" in a finding that is supposed to be completed within 90 days of receiving the petition.

If this finding is positive, the agency then conducts a full status review.

"The standard for 90-day findings is very low and thus the finding will almost certainly be overturned in court," said Jacob Smith, executive director of Center for Native Ecosystems. "This is a clear example of the agency using the courts to further delay needed protection for an important part of our nation's natural heritage."

* * *

Wildlife Service Will Review Status of Kangaroo Rat

CARLSBAD, California, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says a petition to delist the endangered Stephens' kangaroo rat provided substantial information to warrant a 12-month review of the species' conservation status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The federal agency is now seeking all commercial and scientific information about Stephens' kangaroo rat, including its range, biology, status, habitat needs, and other conservation efforts, as well as the effects of the recent southern California fires on local populations of the species.

California listed the species as threatened in 1971, under the California Endangered Species Act.

In 1988, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Stephens' kangaroo rat as endangered under the federal ESA, because of habitat destruction and inadequate protection from other federal, state and local laws.

Stephens' kangaroo rats are nocturnal, burrow-dwellers that feed primarily on seeds.

The species is currently known to exist in portions of southwestern San Bernardino, western Riverside, and parts of northern and central San Diego counties in California.

The decision comes in response to a petition first submitted in 1995 by a private citizen - Robert Perkins - on behalf of the Riverside County Farm Bureau that requested delisting of the species from the ESA.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was unable to respond to the petition within the 90-day period required by law.

In 2002, Perkins submitted another petition - this time as an individual - seeking the removal of Stephens' kangaroo rat from the endangered species list.

The 1995 and 2002 petitions asserted that both the discovery of new populations of Stephens' kangaroo rats after the species was federally listed - and the fact that Habitat Conservation Plans have been put into effect - indicate that the species no longer warrants protection under the Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says these assertions have enough merit for it to review the status of the status and to determine whether downlisting the Stephens' kangaroo rat from endangered to threatened, or removing the species from ESA protection may be warranted.

The federal agency will accept comments and information about the Stephens' kangaroo rat will be accepted until June 21, 2004.

* * *

Louisiana, Army Corps Agree on Coastal Restoration

WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana state officials have reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the completion of a "Near-term" Plan for Coastal Ecosystem Restoration.

The plan will serve as a framework for identifying the highest priority, most promising coastal restoration projects in Louisiana in order to accelerate their design and implementation.

The restoration of the Louisiana coastland is considered one of the more daunting environmental restorations - more than 2,000 square miles of the state's coast disappeared last century and some 30 miles is lost annually.

The near-term plan will focus on the best opportunities for restoration in the near-term given the present state of knowledge, on the best ways to sequence that work, and on the best ways to evaluate success.

In addition, the plan will guide the research and planning efforts that are needed to determine and support the future long-term needs of coastal Louisiana restoration.

U.S. Army Assistant Secretary John Paul Woodley, Jr. praised Louisiana officials for "forging a cooperative alliance that has enabled federal and state officials to come to agreement on this significant policy guidance."

"I am confident that by continuing to work together the federal agencies and the State will produce a near-term plan that will stand the test of rigorous scrutiny as to environmental and economic benefits, so that resources are allocated wisely," he added.

The near-term plan is designed to build upon progress made under the 1990 Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act and will guide the next phase of the restoration effort.

The plan, once finalized, is intended to guide how projects will be identified, prioritized, sequenced and budgeted over the next 10 years.

* * *

Biotechnology Produces Auto Fuel from Wheat Straw

ORLANDO, Florida April 22, 2004 (ENS) - Bioethanol is on the horizon, delegates to the inaugural World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing in Orlando heard today.

Unlike conventional ethanol, bioethanol is made not from grain, but from cellulosic biomass, such as wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse, and corn stovers and stalks left over after harvesting. This alternative fuel, compatible with current automobile engines, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The commercial production breakthrough reported by a Canadian biotech company, Iogen Corp., involved using recombinant DNA-produced enzymes to break apart cellulose — the tough substance that gives plants their rigidity — to produce sugars. The sugars produced in such a biorefinery process are used to make greener versions of ethanol and plastics than are possible using petroleum as the basic material of production.

“The commercial use of industrial enzymes to convert agricultural biomass into clean motor fuel represents a key breakthrough in our ability to produce homegrown energy, reducing our reliance on foreign oil and providing new markets for agriculture biomass,” said Brent Erickson, vice president of industrial and environmental biotechnology for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

"This breakthrough means we can grow our own fuel, and farmers could harvest two crops from every field — a grain crop and a biomass crop," Erickson enthused. Many members of BIO's Industrial & Environmental Section are pursuing similar projects, he said.

Using this technology, raw materials such as wood product manufacturing residues, municipal solid waste and garden waste could supply more than 500 million dry tons of biomass — enough to make more than 50 billion gallons of ethanol, approximately a quarter of current U.S. gasoline consumption, Erickson said.

Another 10 to 15 billion gallons could be produced from corn stalks and husks and wheat straw, according to the Biotech 2003 report from Burrill & Co.

“This is just one environmentally friendly application of industrial biotechnology,” said Erickson. “The benefits of industrial biotechnology are expanding, from boosting the cleaning power of laundry detergent to enabling manufacturers to make everyday products like paper, vitamins and textiles more efficiently and with a cleaner environmental footprint.”

The World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing features more than 100 speakers and four tracks of sessions on novel technologies, environmental impact and policy issues. The meeting runs April 21–23 at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando.

BIO represents more than 1,000 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations in all 50 U.S. states and 33 other nations. BIO members are involved in the research and development of healthcare, agricultural, industrial and environmental biotechnology products.

* * *

Fear Not the Supervolcano

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina April 22, 2004 (ENS) - According to one scientific theory, some 75,000 years ago the last truly colossal volcanic eruption on Earth came close to wiping out all the primates, including humans.

And some believe it could happen again, but researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) say it is not something to lose sleep over.

"It is not hyperbole to say that the biggest eruptions could bring an end to civilization," said Dr. Allen Glazner, professor of geologic sciences at UNC. "Such eruptions are evident in the geologic record, and the classic textbook picture of volcanoes implies that huge pots of magma are brewing under most active volcanoes today."

But that traditional view is wrong, according to Glazner's latest research - work conducted jointly with UNC assistant geology professor Dr. Drew Coleman and Dr. John Bartley of the University of Utah.

In two studies appearing in April issue of "GSA Today" and the May issue of "Geology," the scientists present new insights into the potential for volcanoes to produce gigantic eruptions - explosions thousands of times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens.

"Although evidence for such massive eruptions is found throughout the geologic record, our investigation of magmas frozen below long-extinct volcanoes in California's Sierra Nevada led us to conclude that the largest eruptions are significantly less likely than many people believed," Glazner said.

The researchers studied magma bodies that cooled beneath the land's surface - those bodies, known as plutons, are the chief building blocks of the Earth's crust

Typically, plutons are hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers in volume. This has lead geologists to long assume that huge stores of magma are commonplace active volcanoes and to reason that the potential for truly catastrophic eruptions exists in many volcanically active areas.

But these new studies, Glazner said, found little evidence of "big blobs of magma" and cast doubt on the assumption that gigantic eruptions should be relatively common.

The results suggest that plutons are likely to be built by a multitude of small molten intrusions over millions of years and are not like a closed can of food waiting to explode when heated, Coleman said.

"We conclude that volcanoes are more prone to chugging along, producing many small - though still dangerous - eruptions such as the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens, rather than huge civilization-destroying eruptions," he said.

* * *

A Shrimp With a Kick

BERKELEY, California, April 22, 2004 (ENS) - The swiftest kick - and perhaps the most brutal attack - of any predator comes from - a lowly crustacean. The species, known as the mantis shrimp or stomatopod, flails its club-shaped front leg at peak speeds of 23 meters per second to shatter the hard shells of their prey, scientists report.

The phenomenon was recorded by University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) scientists with the help of a British Broadcasting Company camera crew and a high-speed video camera.

"The speed of this strike exceeds most animal movements by far," said UC Berkeley biologist Sheila Patek. "It is insanely fast, but important for generating the forces necessary to crush its preferred food - snails."

When slowed down by a factor of 330, the video shows the mantis shrimp's fist pummeling the shell of a snail like a slow-motion glove smashing into the face of a boxer, Patek explained.

The UC Berkeley biologist and her colleagues are currently conducting experiments that show that the blow yields a tremendous amount of force - far more than 100 times the mantis shrimp's body weight.

They reported the record-setting strike and the unusual saddle-shaped spring in the hinge of the shrimp's striking appendage that makes it all possible in a short note appearing in the April 22 issue of the journal "Nature."

The spring is technically a hyperbolic paraboloid, a structure the researchers describe as similar to a Pringles potato chip.

Hyperbolic paraboloids are very strong - in particular when compressed - and have been used by architects to create structures that do not easily buckle.

The nautilus employs this structural element to build a sturdier shell, but in mantis shrimp the saddle-shaped structure can also function as a spring, the researchers found.

It stores energy until a quick release propels the shrimp's club in a shell-crushing blow.

"We know of no other biological example where this saddle-shaped structure is used as a spring," Patek said.

Mantis shrimp are distant relatives of the shrimp and lobster, common around the world and major invertebrate predators around coral reefs.

Some hide in burrows and dart out to spear fish with their sharp appendages.

Others roam the ocean floor in search of other crustaceans - crabs, clams and snails - and smash them open with their club-shaped front appendages. In captivity, these club-equipped stomatopods have been known to break the glass walls of their tank.

* * *