Criminal Investigation Targets Army Chemical Weapons Depot
WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Justice Department has convened a grand jury to look into reports of safety, security and environmental lapses at the chemical weapons storage operations of the Bluegrass Army Depot in Kentucky, according to documents released today by a national association of workers in natural resources agencies.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, says the grand jury investigation was prompted by reports of "high-level misconduct and mismanagement from Depot staff, including concerns about the safety of chemical munitions stockpiles."
Located outside of Richmond, Kentucky and 30 miles south of Lexington, the Bluegrass Army Depot is charged with safeguarding and disposing of more than 500 tons of chemical warfare agents located in 45 storage units called igloos, including the deadly nerve agent VX.
The igloos also contain live rockets, and propellants. The igloos are supposed to be constantly monitored to detect any leak of chemical agent or rocket propellant or any deterioration of storage conditions.
Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international arms control agreement which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, the weapons at Bluegrass and eight other locations must be destroyed by April 2012. But in late 2006 the Pentagon announced that it did not expect disposal of the U.S. stockpile to be completed until 2023.
In a letter dated February 8, 2007, Jeffrey Phillips, a Justice Department lawyer in the Environmental Crimes Section, wrote that a December 1, 2006 grand jury subpoena in the "on-going criminal investigation" of "Chemical Weapons Activity" at the Depot requires base staff to preserve "evidence."
Phillips specified that this evidence might include "laboratory samples and specimens," and documents such as emails, memos, photos, maps, diagrams, spreadsheets, presentation materials, notes and recordings, including "one's own personal files."
He directed base staff to assemble, "Documentation concerning the Depot, such as might reflect site conditions, deterioration of the chemical weapons storage area, plans and training to account for leaks or terrorist attacks…" as well as, "Environmental or technical investigation reports regarding the Chemical Weapons Activity" and "All documents related to … worker safety and/or environmental compliance."
Whistleblowers have described a culture at Bluegrass Army Depot which tolerates lapses in monitoring protocol and discourages reports of problems.
The Justice Department is also seeking any records of investigations directed against staff promotion, termination and transfer decisions as well as "discussions related to … responses to public inquiries, public investigations or this investigation."
"This criminal investigation into problems at Blue Grass is long overdue," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is representing depot whistleblowers.
"Even if the misconduct at Blue Grass does not rise to the level of a crime," said Ruch, "there has unquestionably been a complete breakdown of management competence and integrity at this sensitive facility as well as severe lapses in oversight by the Depot’s parent agency, the Army Material Command."
Federal Health Agency Allots $160 Million for Flu Research
BETHESDA, Maryland, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, is awarding $23 million a year for seven years to establish six Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance. Researchers will investigate both avian and human influenza.
Researchers will determine the prevalence of avian influenza in animals that routinely come into close contact with people; learn how flu viruses evolve, adapt and transmit infection; and identify immunological factors that can determine whether a flu virus causes only mild illness or death.
Some centers will monitor for international and domestic cases of animal and human influenza to rapidly detect and characterize viruses that may have pandemic potential and to create vaccine candidates targeted to those viruses.
"The threat of an influenza pandemic is a major source of concern for the public health community," says NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, MD. "The new NIAID Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance will help expand the federal government’s existing international and domestic influenza surveillance efforts, further our understanding of influenza viruses, and generate the information and tools necessary to better prepare and respond to a pandemic situation."
The six NIAID Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance are:
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis - principal investigator, Dr. Robert Webster. Research involves uncovering immune system mechanisms that protect against the H5N1 avian flu virus; and identifying the factors that make animals and people susceptible to flu virus infection. In addition, St. Jude will expand its animal surveillance to more than a dozen countries and multiple U.S. states, monitor pediatric populations for flu and monitor all populations for evidence of the reemergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS.
University of California at Los Angeles - principal investigator, Dr. Scott Layne. Investigators will monitor animal influenza internationally and in the states of Alaska, Washington and California. They will maintain a lab network capable of providing real-time information about circulating influenza virus strains and antiviral drug resistance, information that will be most critical during the early stages of an influenza pandemic.
"This new center is an acknowledgment that the health of people, domestic animals, and wildlife are inextricably entwined, and that veterinary medicine and human medicine really are one medicine," said Bennie Osburn, dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which will take part in the study.
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis - principal investigator, Dr. Marguerite Pappaiaonou. Researchers will conduct international and domestic animal flu surveillance covering all major domestic flight paths of migratory birds. This center will carry out a human influenza surveillance study in Thailand and monitor U.S. agricultural workers who work with swine.
Emory University, Atlanta - principal investigator, Dr. Richard Compans. Studies will determine how influenza viruses adapt to new hosts and are transmitted between different hosts, and analyze human immune responses to influenza vaccination and infection. The researchers will examine how human genes might be silenced to decrease or eliminate flu infections and evaluate flu transmission between patients and physicians in hospital emergency rooms.
Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City - principal investigator, Dr. Adolfo Garcia-Sastre. Researchers will conduct molecular studies to identify influenza virus genes associated with the development of disease, the adaptability of flu viruses in birds and mammals, and the transmission of flu viruses between different hosts.
University of Rochester, Rochester - principal investigator, Dr. John Treanor. A human surveillance system will be established to monitor selected communities in New York for seasonal flu virus infections. Researchers will study how flu viruses adapt to new species of animals.
All of the research findings generated by the six centers will be used to strengthen the pandemic influenza preparedness and response efforts of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Visit PandemicFlu.gov for one-stop access to U.S. government information on avian and pandemic flu.
Alaska Judge Stops Bounty Payments to Wolf KillersANCHORAGE, Alaska, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - On Friday, a state judge in Anchorage issued an injunction halting the payment of $150 to pilots and aerial gunners for each wolf foreleg from five areas where the state wants to reduce numbers of wolves.
In a lawsuit brought by three conservation groups, State Superior Court Judge William Morse said the cash payments are bounties, and the state Department of Fish and Game does not have legal authority to offer them.
"We are pleased the bounty program is temporarily stopped," said Tom Banks, Alaska associate with Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiff groups.
"We believe that the reason the number of wolves that have been killed this year is lower than desired is because the state relied on outdated and incomplete information about the wolf populations in the control areas," Banks said. "The state should put the money that was allocated for the bounty program toward conducting a proper survey of the wolf populations before any more wolves are shot by aerial gunners."
Trish Rolfe of the plaintiff group Sierra Club said, "We applaud the court's decision, and believes it is a great step in the right direction. Alaskans have made their voices heard, and it is clear that voters want to see an end to aerial gunning of wolves. We urge Governor [Sarah] Palin to stand up for the will of the people, and put this program on hold."
Priscilla Feral, president of the plaintiff group Friends of Animals, thanked the group's many friends and supporters "who respect free-living wolves."
Plaintiffs are suing the state to terminate the predator control program altogether, but say Friday's ruling is significant.
The ruling does not affect the state's predator control program that has killed 660 wolves over four years. The program ends on April 30.
Matt Robus, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, says the judge issued a "very narrow restraining order aimed at the payment incentive" and it will be followed.
He says the agency will weigh possible options, including some discussed in court, such as offering a fuel subsidy or enlisting the Alaska Board of Game to enact regulations for cash incentives.
Forested Valley Near Honolulu Protected in PerpetuityHONOLULU, Hawaii, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - The Trust for Public Land and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources announced today the permanent protection of one of the last open spaces in the urban Honolulu area.
During the past 20 years, the 3,716 acre valley narrowly escaped destruction for a freeway, and has been under threat of residential development. Today, those threats are history.
"This beautiful valley is just 10 minutes from downtown Honolulu," said Lea Hong, Hawaiian Islands Program Director for Trust for Public Land.
"We thank the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Estate of Samuel Mills Damon, the U.S. Army Garrison, Hawaii, the State Legislature, and our federal Congressional delegation, for their partnership and hard work in protecting this tremendous resource for the public," said Hong.
Funds for this $5.5 million purchase came from state of Hawaii general funds, a Recovery Land Acquisitions grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, and the Department of Defense Army Compatible Use Buffer Program.
"The Army is proud to have contributed to the protection of such a wonderful cultural and natural resource," said Colonel Howard Killian, commander, U.S. Army Garrison, Hawaii.
U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye said, "Programs like the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program serve the extremely useful purpose of protecting Hawaii's fragile environment while at the same time, making sure that our troops have places to train. I was happy to support the U.S. Army Garrison, Hawaii's efforts to obtain adequate funding for this program in Hawaii."
U.S. Congressman Neil Abercrombie said, "I am pleased that our office could assist in supporting adequate funding to the Army Compatible Use Buffer Zone Program's Hawaii projects. This is a win-win program in which the Army helps to protect Hawaii's special natural and cultural resources."
Moanalua Valley contains five distinct forest types and over nine miles of streams. The native forest provides habitat for endangered plants and animals, including the ‘elepaio forest bird, and is the location of the last sighting of the Oahu creeper, now thought to be extinct.
"Moanalua Valley is home to a remarkable array of endangered species, especially considering how close it is to urban Honolulu. Oahu is Hawaii’s most populous island, and properties like this are increasingly rare," said Patrick Leonard, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Island Office.
The Valley houses culturally important sites, including a famed stone carved with unique petroglyphs of winged warriors. It also features stone bridges hand-crafted by Italian masons in the late 1800s.
The valley will be managed by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, DLNR, Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
"This property will preserve important native habitat, and watershed, as well as offer area residents and visitors an opportunity to leave the city behind and experience nature and cultural history close at hand," said DLNR Chair Peter Young,
The valley will be open to the public for hiking, hunting, cultural resource preservation, and education. The back of the valley will be managed for wildlife preservation.
Austin Companies Help Shoppers Offset CO2 for Earth MonthAUSTIN, Texas, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - Green Mountain Energy Company, the nation's leading provider of cleaner energy and carbon offset products, today announced its partnership with Whole Foods Market's national Earth Month carbon reduction initiative, The Whole Earth Weigh-In: 30 Ways in 30 Days.
Green Mountain has designed a way for Whole Foods Market shoppers to easily track and calculate their carbon footprintthrough a customized version of their web based carbon calculator and trademarked BeGreen carbon offset product.
The BeGreen Weigh-In calculator allows shoppers to total the carbon emissions resulting from daily activities associated with electricity and natural gas usage, driving and air travel. Eco-Action tips enable people to immediately shed pounds off their carbon weight.
People can offset all or a portion of their carbon footprints by purchasing BeGreen Carbon Offsets derived from cleaner energy projects across the country - including solar and wind power - as well as forest sequestration and energy efficiency projects.
"As the planet weighs in and the threat of global warming gets heavier, we were delighted to assist Whole Foods Market in educating shoppers about the many simple but effective ways they can lighten their personal carbon footprint," says Gillan Taddune, chief environmental officer, Green Mountain Energy Company. "Working together, we can all initiate small steps that can ultimately make a big difference in helping to address the negative impacts of climate change."
To take a small step, people can choose renewable energy. Green Mountain says that by purchasing 100 percent new renewable energy for a year, an American household could avoid pumping over 7.5 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
People could take a small step by planting a tree. A single tree can absorb one ton of carbon dioxide, CO2, over its lifetime. More carbon offsets can be had by changing to compact fluorescent bulbs, recycling more, or adjusting the thermostat.
"When we came up with concept for the "Whole Earth Weigh-In" initiative, we wanted to ensure we teamed up with the partner to not only provide the carbon calculator component to the program, but one who was in sync with our own philosophy for green consumer education and that's Green Mountain Energy Company," said Laurie Rocke, Whole Foods Market project team leader, national marketing.
The Whole Earth Weigh-In is an integrated carbon weight-loss plan incorporating a special guidebook for consumers available in all Whole Foods Market stores and an interactive online tool.
The program educates about the negative impact that carbon dioxide, CO2, has on the environment and offers straightforward tips and tools that everyone can use to reduce their CO2 emissions.
"Green Mountain Energy Company and Whole Foods Market are a dream team of two of Austin's best and brightest companies. By working together on The Whole Earth Weigh-In program, they have made it even easier and more fun for people to do the right thing for the environment," says Robin Rather, co-founder of Austin LiveableCity and member of Green Mountain's environmental advisory board.
This initiative is part of a month-long program in April and is found online at: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/earthday.
Two Rare Salamanders to Get Conservation Status Review
SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 2, 2007 (ENS) - It took a formal petition and two lawsuits, but two species of salamanders will receive additional review under the Endangered Species Act, the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.
Both species - the Siskiyou Mountains and Scott Bar salamanders - are endemic to the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California.
The Service made the determination in response to a January 19, 2007 court order in a lawsuit brought by five environmental groups - the Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Environmental Protection Information Center, Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands Project.
The court order reversed an initial finding published in April 2006, in which the Service concluded that the two species did not warrant additional review.
"The Siskiyou Mountains and Scott Bar salamanders have two of the smallest ranges of any western salamander and are severely threatened by logging," said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "These salamanders need the effective protection of the Endangered Species Act to survive."
Siskiyou Mountains salamanders are found in approximately 200 locations, and Scott Bar salamanders are found in only 27 locations.
Both salamander species live in mature and old-growth forests such as those that once covered much of the Northwest. Today only fragments of these forests remain, facing increasing pressure from logging and development.
The Siskiyou Mountains salamander and Scott Bar salamander are terrestrial, medium sized, slender-bodied salamanders with short limbs and a dorsal stripe.
Both the salamanders are found within, and are associated exclusively with, rock or talus outcrops in a variety of forest habitats where moisture and humidity are high enough to allow respiration through their skin.
A recently completed study by the U.S. Forest Service, cited by the environmental groups, concludes that "mature to late-seral-forest attributes provide optimal habitat for the Siskiyou Mountains salamander. Stands of mature and older forests evenly distributed and interconnected across the geographical range of this species would likely best insure its long-term viability."
"It took three years, two lawsuit and a mountain of scientific evidence to finally force the Bush administration to protect these threatened species," said Joseph Vaile, campaign director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. "The Scott Bar salamander was just discovered last year. It would be a tragedy if politics led to its extinction."
The Service will now proceed with the additional review, known as a 12 month finding, and seek additional information through a status review. The 12 month finding will indicate whether or not there is evidence to support listing the two species.