AmeriScan: April 20, 2007

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FEMA Deploys Storm Damage Assessment Teams to Northeast

BOSTON, Massachusetts, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - In the wake of this week’s powerful nor’easter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is sending damage assessment teams to eight northeast states to take a look at what damages exist. The states where assessments will take place are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York and New Jersey.

The teams are expected to begin the assessments in the next few days working with each state’s emergency management operations.

"Although we have had federal response teams in the states before the onset of the storm, the local, state and federal Preliminary Damage Assessment teams are the boots on the ground needed to look at the extent of the damages," said Stephen Kempf, Jr., FEMA regional administrator in New York. "Once we see what the scope of the damage is, this will help us determine if there is a need for federal assistance."

The storm has passed and the weather was clear and warm today across most of the Northeast, but flooding is still a concern. Flood warnings are in effect for parts of New York, New Jersey and New England, with some rivers remaining above flood stage through today.

Preliminary damage assessments are a joint effort between local, state and federal officials. During an assessment, teams will be looking at the amount and type of damage, the number of homes affected and the extent of the damage to those homes.

Teams will asses the impact on the infrastructure of affected areas or critical facilities such as roads, bridges and state and local buildings.

They will look at the level of insurance coverage in place for homeowners and public facilities and the assistance available from other sources such as federal, state, local, voluntary organizations.

The damage assessments can take days and sometimes weeks providing there is adequate access to the damaged areas. In many cases, high flood waters can delay a damage assessment, preventing access until flood waters recede.

"It is important that we are responsive to the states requests for damage assessments and that is why we had teams on standby before the storm hit," said Art Cleaves, FEMA regional administrator in Boston.

FEMA has already activated its Regional Response Coordination Centers in Maynard, Massachusetts and New York City to assist the affected states.

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Shell's Arctic Ocean Oil Drilling Permit Challenged

FAIRBANKS, Alaska, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - An indigenous group and five conservation organizations filed challenges Monday to a federal agency's recent decision allowing Shell Offshore Inc. to drill oil wells in the Beaufort Sea near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge beginning in June.

The challenges were filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice on behalf of the group Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, REDOIL, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Alaska Wilderness League, and Pacific Environment.

The complainants say the federal Minerals Management Service, MMS, approved the plan through a rushed process without fully analyzing the potential impacts, and without conducting a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The agency refused to consider the potential for an accidental spill of crude oil, despite the potential for damage to the sensitive Arctic ecosystem, the groups say.

The groups say there was no analysis of the impact of two drill ships accompanied by ice breakers, support vessels, and air support. This level of industrial activity in the Beaufort Sea threatens the endangered bowhead whale, polar bears and birds, including threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders, they say. The constant air traffic associated with drilling can disturb caribou and interfere with the subsistence hunt.

"Given the resources at stake and the potentially devastating effects this drilling could have on bowhead whales, seals, birds and fish, it is unacceptable for the government to rush this through without a thorough public review of the impacts," said Faith Gemmill of REDOIL.

"The subsistence rights of the communities are being ignored and Shell's plans will violate their rights," she said.

"REDOIL members living in the villages of Nuiqsut, Kaktovik, and Barrow depend on the Beaufort Sea for their livelihood. Why did MMS disregard this?" Gemmill asked.

Doreen Simmonds, an Inupiat resident of Barrow and REDOIL member, said, "As a mother and a grandmother, I am concerned that the Arctic Inupiat whaling culture is at risk because the MMS insists rushing ahead with offshore oil plans."

"The government of the people, in helping the industry drill for oil at all costs, is disregarding the future of the Arctic people. They are doing this with an outdated Environmental Impact Statement and without proper input from the public," Simmonds said.

Robert Thompson, an Inupiat hunter, whaler and REDOIL member who lives in Kaktovik, said, "There is a great lack of adequate spill response strategies in Shell's proposed plans, as well as the fact that no tests have been done in Arctic ice to provide data about toxic spills in our ocean and no answers provided when we ask how long would the toxins remain if spilled."

"All of our subsistence resources will be impacted from land to sea - from the caribou to the whale. Why are we given less voice than other peoples in the lower 48 - where offshore plans have been cancelled due to the public outcry?" Thompson asked.

The groups fear the impacts drilling will have on the nearby coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"Clearly some folks in Washington fail to realize that what happens in the Beaufort Sea - where the government says Shell can drill - is 100 percent interdependent with what happens in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," said Chuck Clusen, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If oil gets into the Beaufort Sea, animals in the refuge will suffer. That's not acceptable, and it defeats the purpose of having a wildlife refuge at all."

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Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Proposed for Endangered Listing

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - The National Marine Fisheries Service today proposed a new rule to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as Endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The announcement came in response to a listing petition filed in April 2006 by a number of conservation organizations and one individual.

Scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 1,300 whales as recently as the 1980s. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s most recent surveys show the whale’s population is now around 300.

"This decision will ultimately lead to more funding for the long-delayed research needed to ensure the Cook Inlet beluga has a fighting chance at long-term survival," said Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson.

In response to a similar listing petition filed in 1999, the Service identified unregulated subsistence harvests as a possible source for the declines and refused to list the whale under the Endangered Species Act, instead listing it as "depleted" under the less protective Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Since then, the population has not rebounded as federal scientists expected, despite severe limitations on subsistence harvests.

"The Endangered Species Act is our country’s most effective law for wildlife protection and recovery," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Applying the tools of the Act to beluga recovery is the best hope for this highly imperiled whale."

The agency must finalize the listing rule and identify critical habitat for the beluga within one year, and then must develop a recovery plan for the whale.

"There are few places in the world like Anchorage where a species of whale is as visible, enthralling, and accessible as the Cook Inlet beluga," said Mike Frank, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska. We need to do all we can to make sure that continues in the future."

"The government’s decision allows Cook Inlet beluga recovery to be governed by science, where it belongs," said Randy Virgin, executive director of Alaska Center for the Environment. "We’re confident that beluga recovery and human activity in Cook Inlet can coexist, and today’s decision will bring funding and research to this critical challenge."

The petitioners are Cook Inletkeeper, the Alaska Center for the Environment, National Audubon Society - Alaska State Office, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Center for Biological Diversity, Alaska Oceans Network, Defenders of Wildlife, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of Potter Marsh and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, and Sylvia Brunner, PhD.

A copy of the rule can be found here.

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Green Infrastructure Stormwater Solutions Get Earth Day Boost

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson marked Earth Day by signing a statement of intent with four environmental organizations to promote the use of "green infrastructure" approaches to lessen sewer overflows and runoff after storms.

Through green infrastructure techniques, stormwater and its pollutants are managed using natural systems to help absorb, infiltrate, evaporate or reuse excess stormwater instead of using traditional infrastructure that collects, stores and transports water through large, buried sewer systems. Water is treated as an important resource rather than a waste product.

Rain barrels and cisterns, green roofs that are covered with vegetation and plantings, tree boxes, rain gardens, and pocket wetlands are examples of common green infrastructure approaches.

"Earth Day is an annual reminder to all Americans that environmental responsibility is everyone's responsibility," said Johnson Thursday at the signing ceremony at Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center. "EPA is pleased to join our water infrastructure partners to help communities understand the environmental and economic benefits of going green."

The statement of intent formalizes a collaborative effort among EPA, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, NACWA, the Association of States and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Low Impact Development Center to assist state, city and local governments in implementing and evaluating innovative and effective green infrastructure approaches.

"NACWA is committed to America’s waters and to greening America’s communities," said Dick Champion, NACWA president and director of the Independence, Missouri Water Pollution Control Department. "Many of NACWA’s cities have implemented green infrastructure with great success. With EPA’s support, we can help more cities 'go green' while they control stormwater, combined and separate sewer overflows, and more."

In the statement of intent, EPA and its partners announce their plan to offer technical assistance, training, and outreach to potential users of green infrastructure, including states, cities, counties, utilities, environmental and public health agencies, engineers, architects, landscape architects, planners and nongovernmental organizations.

Green infrastructure includes vegetated swales, rain gardens, porous concrete, and rain barrels to capture or divert storm water that otherwise would go directly into the sewer system and uses nature’s own mechanisms for treatment.

"While these green measures can make a dent in the amount of stormwater entering the sewer system," Champion said, "we must not lose sight of the fact that the nation’s clean water agencies still need the resources to maintain and upgrade their hard infrastructure — the pipes and facilities needed to treat wastewater everyday. It is incumbent on all of us to identify new sources of revenue to maintain our infrastructure."

The EPA, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Water Infrastructure Network estimate the funding gap between what is currently being spent and what the nation’s clean water utilities need at $300-$500 billion over the next 20 years.

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Smuggler of Endangered Butterflies Jailed for 21 Months

LOS ANGELES, California, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - A Japanese citizen who described himself to federal investigators as "the world's most wanted butterfly smuggler" was sentenced this week in federal court in Los Angeles to 21 months in prison for trafficking in rare butterfly species protected by U.S. and international law.

Hisayoshi Kojima, 57, of Kyoto, Japan was also ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, and $7,656 in restitution to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a $1,175 court assessment.

Service special agents began investigating Kojima in 2003 after an insect dealer in Texas told agents of Kojima's reputation within the trade as the world's top smuggler of rare and protected butterflies.

Investigators learned Kojima's smuggling network spanned the globe. He routinely produced for sale endangered butterflies from the South Pacific, Caribbean and Spain, including one pair of Queen Alexandra's birdwings, an endangered species that is the largest butterfly in the world. Kojima sold the pair to an undercover agent for $8,500.

"He was able to produce butterflies for sale that are almost never seen in commercial trade, or even made available to university collections," said Special Agent Ed Newcomer who led the three year investigation.

"During the last months of our investigation, Kojima offered to sell me a variety of species of endangered or protected butterfly that had a collective value of more than $294,000," said Newcomer. Forty three specimens of rare butterflies were sold to undercover agents.

Newcomer said Kojima was aware of his reputation as a top smuggler, and once bragged to Newcomer that he'd been able to outsmart a federal agent who investigated him in 1999 for illegally collecting endangered butterflies from national parks in California, Nevada and Arizona.

"During one of our undercover meetings, he told me he was the world's most wanted butterfly smuggler," Newcomer said.

Kojima was indicted by a grand jury and arrested in July 2006. He pleaded guilty in January to 17 criminal charges related to the sale and smuggling of butterfly species including five counts of illegally offering to sell endangered species, five counts of importing wildlife contrary to law, five counts of smuggling wildlife and two counts of illegally importing endangered species.

All of the species involved in the case are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the federal Endangered Species Act.

Included in the list of rare butterflies Kojima offered for sale was the endangered Giant Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio homerus, the largest butterfly in the western hemisphere. The species is depicted on the $1,000 Jamaican banknote.

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Southern Florida Groundwater Levels at Record Lows

RESTON, Virginia, April 20, 2007 (ENS) - Water levels at more than half of the 36 monitoring sites operated by U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, in southern Florida have already reached the lowest levels ever recorded for this time of the year. The USGS projects additional record-breaking lows in parts of these aquifers if water levels continue to decline at present rates.

While groundwater level declines in south Florida are normal during the dry season, climatologists have indicated that this is one of the driest seasons on record for southern Florida.

At the same time, public demand on groundwater resources has increased, corresponding to an estimated 25 percent increase in population in the South Florida region from 1995 and 2005. Prinos notes that the greatest groundwater level declines correspond to areas where groundwater withdrawals occur.

"Each year we see the overall declining trends continue at some locations," said USGS hydrologist Scott Prinos. "Water levels in parts of the lower and mid-Hawthorn aquifers tend to be about a foot lower each year and water levels in parts of the sandstone aquifer are about 0.2 to 0.3 foot lower each year."

Water managers have relied upon the USGS network to monitor groundwater conditions in some of southern Florida's primary aquifers for more than 25 years.

These aquifers include the lower Tamiami, mid-Hawthorn, sandstone, and water table aquifers of southwestern Florida, and the surficial aquifer system in Palm Beach, Martin, and St. Lucie counties.

Surface water levels in rivers, canals, lakes and water conservation areas are also very low, with more than a third of the 23 real-time surface water monitoring sites currently at or below the record minimum for this time of the year.

Of all the locations in southern Florida where the USGS continually monitors water levels, only coastal areas in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have groundwater and surface water levels that are near normal for this time of year, Prinos says.

These findings were determined using an online website developed by the USGS in cooperation with the South Florida Water Management District.

The website uses incoming monitoring data and statistical analysis of existing data to compare current water levels to data collected over the past 25 years. The site is used by water managers as they make decisions concerning southern Florida's water resources.

Click here to access the Current Water-Level Conditions website.