AmeriScan: April 29, 2004

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A New Twist in the Mercury Controversy

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) formally notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday that it intends to extend the deadline for adopting a final rule to regulate hazardous pollution - including mercury - from power plants to March 15, 2005.

The extension is in response to EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt's claim that the agency could not extend the period for public comment on the rule because of its settlement agreement with NRDC.

NRDC and EPA are parties to a legal settlement agreement requiring the agency to adopt Clean Air Act rules to control mercury emissions from electric power plants by December 15, 2004.

Mercury emissions from power plants are currently unregulated - these facilities emit some 48 tons of mercury each year, accounting for about 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution.

The administration's proposal to use a cap and trade program to reduce emissions of mercury has drawn widespread criticism from environmentalists, scientists, Democrats and state pollution control officers.

Ten state attorneys general have formally opposed the proposal, which they argue favors industry over public health and the environment.

Critics note that the EPA's mercury contained 12 paragraphs almost verbatim from an industry proposal and contend that the cap and trade system it proposes is an inappropriate form of regulation for mercury.

Scientists have shown that mercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk.

The agency is accepting public comment on its proposal until Friday, April 30 - many critics have called on the administration to extend that comment period, but Leavitt said in an April 14 speech that the court order prevented such extension.

NRDC says it had contacted EPA on April 12, notifying the agency that NRDC would agree to extend the December 15 deadline to March 15, 2005, to allow the agency to undertake additional analysis and extend the public comment period.

The New York based environmental organization says that since then - despite repeated inquiries - EPA has not responded to the proposal.

This has prompted NRDC to formally notified EPA that it would regard EPA to be in compliance with the settlement agreement if the agency takes the final action required by the agreement by March 15, 2005. NRDC also is alerting the court of this notification to EPA.

Federal officials have yet to issue a response to the notification.

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Conservationists Challenge Utah Natural Gas Project

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - A coalition of conservation and historic preservation groups sued the Bush administration Monday to halt a natural gas exploration project - known as the "Stone Cabin seismic project" - in eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon region.

The Nine Mile Canyon region contains what many believe is the greatest concentration of rock art sites in the United States and the coalition fears these historic treasures could be damaged by the project.

"The Bush administration has no shame when it comes to elevating energy development over all other uses of our public lands, but the Stone Cabin project takes the cake," said Stephen Bloch, staff attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). "Irreplaceable cultural resources will be damaged or destroyed if natural gas exploration is allowed to proceed as planned. We are going to do our best to stop that from happening."

SUWA is joined in the suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, and Utah Rock Art Research Association.

The project, covering nearly 58,000 acres would take place in several side canyons abutting Nine Mile Canyon and along a plateau overlooking the canyon.

Some 5,500 explosive detonations or seismic "shake points" are scheduled to take place throughout the area.

Seismic testing will be conducted by a combination of vibroseis trucks, large tractor-like vehicles mounted with drills, and helicopter supported drill equipment.

The BLM received letters criticizing the Stone Cabin seismic project from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Native American tribes, along with more than 24,000 comment letters, emails, and faxes from citizens across the country opposing the project.

The Nine Mile Canyon area, in addition to its abundant cultural resources, provides crucial elk and deer winter habitat, as well as critical habitat for the federally protected Mexican spotted owl. The project area also contains two BLM wilderness study areas, as well as two adjacent areas that the agency recognizes as having wilderness character.

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Federal Court Asked to Reconsider Bay Area Air Case

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Environmental and community groups filed a petition Tuesday in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to rehear arguments in a case against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).

On April 6, 2004 the court ruled in a two to one decision that MTC's state implementation plan provision to increase mass transit ridership does not create an enforceable obligation.

The original case sought enforcement of a transportation control measure promised by the agency in 1982, when MTC adopted a measure to increase regional transit ridership 15 percent by 1987.

This measure was adopted to help bring air pollution levels in the Bay Area into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act - the goal was to increase transit ridership and thus reduce auto pollution.

The plaintiffs said MTC never lived up to its obligation to fund the kind of transit improvements needed to meet this target.

Currently Bay Area transit ridership is at roughly 1982 levels despite a 30 percent increase in population.

In July 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson agreed and ordered MTC to ensure that Bay Area regional transit operators increase regional ridership 15 percent above 1982 levels by no later than November 9, 2006.

Judge Henderson found that MTC was required by law to achieve and maintain the 15 percent ridership increase and rejected MTC's arguments that these were not enforceable measures.

But MTC appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed it.

In the petition filed yesterday, the coalition argues that in its April decision the court misinterpreted the law and asks that the case be considered "en banc."

If the petition is granted, a larger, 11 member panel of circuit judges will reconsider the case.

"Other transit agencies around the country understand how to get more people on transit," said Susan Britton, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the groups in the case. "When agencies make transit convenient, affordable, and reliable, ridership goes up. Even Los Angeles, a city known for its love of cars, is doing a good job these days. People want options to get out of the endless traffic jam the Bay Area has become."

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Report Praises Platte River Critical Habitat Designations

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Areas along Nebraska's Platte River are properly designated as "critical habitats" for the river's endangered whooping crane and threatened piping plover, according a new report released Wednesday by a federal panel of experts.

The report by a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council found that recommendations by the federal government aimed at protecting these and other federally listed species were scientifically valid at the time they were made, but called on future decisions to be based on newer scientific approaches.

The report focuses on the central Platte River, which provides habitat for endangered whooping cranes and interior least terns, as well as threatened piping plovers, and on the lower Platte River, where broad, shallow waters provide important habitat for endangered pallid sturgeon.

The river is considered by conservationists to be the most important stopover for migratory birds in the nation's heartland.

The Platte River Basin stretches across three states; the North and South Platte Rivers originate in Colorado - the North Platte flowing through Wyoming - and meet in Nebraska to form the central and lower Platte River.

A series of dams and reservoirs have been constructed throughout the river basin for flood control and to provide water for farm irrigation, power generation, recreation, and municipal use.

But this water control system has caused habitat changes that were at odds with the protection of the listed species and conflicts over the protection of federally listed species and water management in the Platte River Basin have existed for more than 25 years.

In recent years, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a series of opinions requiring that new water depletions would have to be balanced by mitigation measures, and a lawsuit forced the designation of "critical habitat" for the piping plover.

The report concludes that in most instances habitat conditions are indeed affecting the likelihood of species survival and recovery.

For example, the committee found that the central Platte habitat is important to whooping cranes because many, if not all, stop there during migration at some point in their lives - some seven percent of the total population stops there in any one year.

The report also notes that if whooping crane deaths - which occur primarily during migration - were to increase by only three percent, the general population would probably become unstable.

Whooping cranes are the rarest species of crane in the world, with only about 185 wild birds remaining.

Deterioration and loss of habitat in the central Platte is contributing to the continuing drop in numbers of piping plovers and interior least terns, the report says.

Human activities and increased attacks by predators on nests are also key factors in the birds' decline.

Almost no piping plovers live along the central Platte anymore, but because the area did provide a suitable habitat for reproduction until a few years ago, it should still be considered a critical habitat, according to the committee.

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Vermont Passes Law to Regulate Genetically Modified Crops

MONTPELIER, Vermont, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Vermont has become the first state in the U.S. to pass a law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seeds. The law, known as the "Farmer Right-to-Know Act," was signed into law Monday by Vermont Governor James Douglas.

The law mandates the labeling of genetically modified seeds at all retail outlets and requires seed manufacturers to keep track of genetically modified organism (GMO) or biotech seed sales in the state.

Environmentalists hailed the law as a historic victory of grassroots mobilization over big dollar corporate lobbying. Seventy-nine Vermont towns have passed resolutions opposing the use of genetically modified crops.

"Farmers and consumers have a right to be protected from unwanted genetic mutations," said Ben Davis, an environmental advocate with Vermont's Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and author of a fall 2003 report that showed genetic contamination of organically grown corn. "This law is the first step toward providing that protection."

The Vermont law provides farmers and consumers basic information allowing them to choose GMO or non-GMO seeds, he added

"Giving consumers a choice is a fundamental right in our society," said Davis. "Given the invasive nature of GMOs, farmers and home gardeners need to be able to make informed choices."

Davis says the low level of contamination found in VPIRG's 2003 study suggests unintentional contamination from GMO crops is a reality in Vermont - and there is evidence the problem could be much more widespread.

A larger study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in February found DNA from genetically engineered crops in traditional varieties of three major U.S. food crops that have no history of genetic engineering. The study suggests this contamination is pervasive and warns that federal regulators are failing to address an issue that could have stark economic, environmental and public health consequences.

The U.S. researchers warn that seed contamination, if left unchecked, could disrupt agricultural trade, unfairly burden the organic industry, and allow hazardous materials into the food supply.

Evidence of seed contamination could make it more difficult for U.S. exporters to assure Japan, South Korea, the European Union, and other export customers that grain and oilseed shipments do not contain unapproved genetically modified crop varieties and to supply commodity products free of engineered sequences.

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Parks Group Fears for Future of C&O Canal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - The future of the C&O Canal National Historical Park is threatened by development and an annual funding shortfall of some $13 million, according to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA).

In a report released Tuesday - on the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court justice's hike to save the C&O Canal from being covered in asphalt - NPCA is encouraging Congress and the administration to fund the preservation of the park.

"The 'Great National Project' is now greatly neglected," said Joy Oakes, NPCA's Mid-Atlantic regional director. "This historic riverside forest lacks the funding and staff to preserve for the future what thousands of local residents enjoy today."

Running 184.5 miles along the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, Maryland, the C&O Canal National Historical Park is what remains of George Washington's vision to connect East to the western frontier by a series of canals.

Of the 4,000 miles of canals built during the 19th century, the C&O is the only towpath canal that remains mostly intact.

Millions of local residents currently canoe the Potomac and take their strollers and bicycles out for weekend jaunts along the canal towpath.

The report notes that few of these residents and visitors suspect that they are visiting one of the most diverse natural and cultural areas in the eastern United States.

But NPCA says hazardous waste and invasive plants and animals threaten the park's ecosystem.

Some historic lock houses, farmhouses, and other buildings are crumbling, and development and utilities are encroaching on park boundaries.

The park's business plan, a joint project of the National Park Service and NPCA completed in 2001, indicated that the C&O Canal National Historical Park operates with an annual shortfall of more than $13 million-nearly twice the park's current annual budget.

More than 170 new full time equivalent staff members, including an archaeologist, park interpreters, and a hydrologist, are needed to protect the park's vast archaeological and natural heritage and meet the needs of visitors, according to the report.

For example, only one person staffs some visitor centers - if that person becomes ill, the visitor center is closed to the public.

"This park is a national treasure - an integral part of our nation's history," Oakes said. "But just as the canal was in turmoil 170 years ago and even 50 years ago, it remains so today."

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Dumping Iron in Oceans No Quick Fix to Climate Change

WOODS HOLE, Massachusetss, April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Dumping iron in the ocean is known to spur the growth of plankton that remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, but a new study indicates iron fertilization is not the answer to climate problems that some had hoped.

"You would have to keep doing it over, and if you wanted to have a big impact the size of the area required is bigger than the Southern Ocean," said study coauthor Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "And even if you could do it, what effect might it have on other aspects of ocean ecology? This remains an unknown."

Scientists have quantified the transport of carbon from surface waters to the deep ocean in response to fertilizing the ocean with iron, an essential nutrient for marine plants, or phytoplankton.

Prior work suggested that in some ocean regions, marine phytoplankton grow faster with the addition of iron, thus taking up more CO2.

This latest study, however, is the first accurate quantification of how much of the carbon in these plants is removed to the deep ocean.

The new data, reported in the April 16 issue of the journal "Science," suggest that there is a direct link between iron fertilization and enhanced carbon flux and hence atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, but that the quantities that can be removed are no greater than natural plankton blooms and are not large enough to serve as a quick fix to our climate problems.

The data is from the largest ocean fertilization experiment to date, known as the Southern Ocean Iron Experiment, which was conducted using three ships in January and February 2002 at two sites in the Southern Ocean, the oceans surrounding Antarctica.

More than 100 scientists were involved with the international, U.S. led effort, funded by the National Science Foundation with additional support from the Department of Energy.

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Clouds Formed by Aircraft Pose Climate Concern

HAMPTON, Virginia April 29, 2004 (ENS) - Cirrus clouds, formed by contrails from aircraft engine exhaust, are capable of increasing average surface temperatures enough to account for a warming trend in the United States that occurred between 1975 and 1994, scientists say.

The results of the study show that increased cirrus coverage, attributable to air traffic, could account for nearly all of the warming observed over the United States for nearly 20 years starting in 1975.

"But it is important to acknowledge contrails would add to and not replace any greenhouse gas effect," said Patrick Minnis, senior research scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Minnis noted that during the same period, warming occurred in many other areas where cirrus coverage decreased or remained steady.

"This study demonstrates that human activity has a visible and significant impact on cloud cover and, therefore, on climate," Minnis added. "It indicates that contrails should be included in climate change scenarios,"

The study by NASA scientists was published this month in the "Journal of Climate."

Contrails form high in the atmosphere when the mixture of water vapor in the aircraft exhaust and the air condenses and freezes.

Persisting contrails can spread into extensive cirrus clouds that tend to warm the Earth, because they reflect less sunlight than the amount of heat they trap. The balance between Earth's incoming sunlight and outgoing heat drives climate change.

Minnis and colleagues determined the observed 1 percent per decade increase in cirrus cloud cover over the United States is likely due to contrails induced by air traffic.

Using published results from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies general circulation model, Minnis and his colleagues estimated contrails and their resulting cirrus clouds would increase surface and lower atmospheric temperatures by 0.36 to 0.54 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.

Weather service data reveal surface and lower atmospheric temperatures across North America rose by almost 0.5 degree Fahrenheit per decade between 1975 and 1994.

"This study indicates that contrails already have substantial regional effects where air traffic is heavy, such as over the United States," Minnis said. "As air travel continues growing in other areas, the impact could become globally significant."

NASA's Earth Science Enterprise funded this research. NASA's Earth Science Enterprise is dedicated to understanding the Earth as an integrated system and applying Earth System Science to improve prediction of climate, weather, and natural hazards using the unique vantage point of space.