AmeriScan: April 29, 2007

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Feds Fund Elephant, Gorilla, Turtle Conservation

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will award more than $861,000 in international conservation grants that will help protect more than 15 species of animals in 18 countries, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Friday.

Species that will benefit include African elephants and rhinoceros, chimpanzees and Cross River gorillas, five species of sea turtles, the quetzal, puma, jaguar, and the maned wolf.

Matching funds and in-kind contributions of more than $2.5 million from international and in-country partners will raise the total devoted to the efforts to more than $3.3 million.

"For a wide variety of species, ranging from black rhinos to leatherback turtles, we are working in partnership with other countries to ensure the conservation of imperiled animals," Kempthorne said. "The grants will empower these countries to reduce the threats to their wildlife and its habitat and ensure that cherished species do not become extinct."

The grants will help support a wide range of projects and activities including better law enforcement and training, wildlife management courses, anti-poaching programs, research, species reintroduction and relocation, threat assessments, population and habitat surveys and seminars and regional wildlife conferences.

Countries receiving the grants include Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, Namibia, Kenya, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia and Gabon in Africa; Vietnam and Indonesia in Asia; Panama, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica in South America and the West Indies and Bahamas in the Caribbean.

One funded project will relocate 34 black rhinoceros from an overstocked private reserve in Kenya to another reserve to increase the population growth rate while broadening the animals' gene pool.

Others will provide funds for monitoring and nest protection to conserve the major leatherback turtle nesting population in South Bioko, Equatorial Guinea, and to establish new monitoring and nest protection programs for leatherback and green turtles in the Rio Campo Natural Reserve on the Equatorial Guinea mainland.

Funds will help complete and distribute a training film for enforcement officers designed to curb elephant poaching and the illegal trade in ivory in Africa.

Funds will go to a project that is developing an incentive program to persuade ranchers in Costa Rica to help preserve wild cats, including jaguar, and puma and their prey.

Surveys and related work to help conserve the Cross River gorillas of Cameroon and Nigeria also will be funded.

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Toxic Algae Bloom Kills Southern California Birds, Animals

SAN PEDRO, California, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - A marine algae that produces a toxic acid is blooming along the coast of Southern California and the beaches are littered with dead birds, seals, dolphins, and otters. In Santa Barbara a 29 foot sperm whale washed ashore. Many of the dead animals have tested positive for domoic acid poisoning.

Domoic acid poisoning has happened every spring since the International Bird Rescue Research Center, IBRRC, opened its center in San Pedro in 2001, but this year, center staff say many more birds and animals are dying than in years past.

Endangered brown pelicans with domoic acid poisoning, which affects the brain, can have seizures while flying, causing them to fall from the sky. Some have crashed into car windshields or ended up on freeways and airport runways.

IBRRC Director Jay Holcomb said, "I have been doing this work for 35 years and I have never seen anything like this as far as the number of species affected, other than an oil spill."

"We have very serious concerns about what is happening to seabirds, and how it may affect populations, especially California brown pelicans, who are heading into breeding season. The loss of breeding adults at this time may impact the next generation as well," Holcomb said.

California brown pelicans are still on the federal Endangered Species List, but a petition has been filed to de-list them.

Although domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin produced by microscopic algae, something is making recent blooms of the algae especially virulent.

IBRRC is working closely with the Caron Laboratory at the University of Southern California, providing body fluids from suspect birds for analysis.

Professor Dave Caron and Assistant Research Professor Astrid Schnetzer test the waters off Southern California and alert the center when domoic acid is present. The staff then braces and prepares the intensive care unit.

The only way to save the birds is to flush the toxins out of their systems, a labor intensive process.

This spring dead birds began littering beaches in March. IBRRC rescue personnel walking the beaches reported "dead birds everywhere." Species included grebes, gulls, cormorants, American avocets and loons.

The Marine Mammal Care Center, which is next door to IBRRC in Fort MacArthur, has been overwhelmed with sick seals and sea lions who eat the same fish as pelicans - anchovies and sardines.

IBRRC explains that the fish eat the affected algae, which do not kill them, but the animals that eat the fish get concentrated amounts, depending on how many affected fish they eat. Whether they live or die depends how much of the poison they ingest.

State Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Horton Friday issued a warning against eating sports-harvested shellfish, anchovies, sardines, and both sports-harvested and commercially caught lobsters and crabs from the waters off Los Angeles, Orange, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Dogs, cats, birds and other household pets are also susceptible to domoic acid poisoning and should not be fed these seafoods, he said.

This advisory is in addition to the current quarantine on the sport-harvesting of mussels along the entire California coastline that took effect April 20.

Humans have died from eating mussels contaminated with domoic acid. In humans, domoic acid poisoning can cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, loss of short-term memory, motor weakness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, coma and possibly death.

Short term memory loss is permanent, so the illness is called amnesic shellfish poisoning. Because the toxin affects the brain, the long term effects of domoic acid poisoning are not known, something that concerns Holcomb.

"In my opinion, domoic acid is the new DDT," Holcomb said. "If the effects of domoic acid poisoning are cumulative in the brain, and we don't know that yet, it could have serious consequences on the population of California brown pelicans.

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Appeals Court Upholds Dolphin-Safe Tuna Labeling Standard

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - A federal appeals court Friday declined to allow the weakening of the "Dolphin Safe" tuna label.

The three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a unanimous judgement against the Bush administration, ruling that in an effort to weaken the standards for determining if tuna is "Dolphin Safe," the Commerce Department based its findings on political issues, not science.

"This is a total victory for dolphin protection and for a 'Dolphin Safe' tuna label that can be trusted," said David Phillips, director of Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project.

In the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, some schools of yellowfin tuna swim directly below dolphins. When the dolphins surface for air, they are seen by fishermen who cast nets around dolphins in order to catch the tuna below. Many dolphins drown in the purse-seining nets or suffer severe stress and die after being chased.

In 1990, Congress created a consumer labeling program for "dolphin-safe tuna" that outlawed the labeling of tuna caught by intentionally netting dolphins as "dolphin-safe." All nations exporting tuna to the U.S. had to adopt dolphin protection programs "comparable" to that of the United States.

But the Bush administration has been trying to weaken the Dolphin Safe standards in an attempt to allow tuna from Mexico to be imported to the United States although it is caught by setting nets on dolphins.

"Congress required the Bush administration to base their decision about the standards of the 'Dolphin Safe' tuna label on science," Phillips said. "But the pressure from the State Department and the Mexican government to gut dolphin protections were enormous."

"The Ninth circuit recognized this in their strong decision against the Bush administration - a decision that benefits dolphins, American consumers, and the US tuna industry which follows the rules and protects dolphins during fishing trips."

The Appeals Court ruled "We agree with the district court's conclusion that this record demonstrates the Secretary was improperly influenced by political concerns."

The District Court Judge Thelton Henderson wrote, "This court has never, in its 24 years, reviewed a record of an agency action that contained such a compelling portrait of political meddling."

"This portrait is chronicled in documents which show that both Mexico and the United State Department of State ... engaged in a persistent effort to influence both the process and the ultimate finding, and that the high ranking officials (sic) in the Department of Commerce were willing to heed these influences notwithstanding the scientific evidence to the contrary."

Organizations suing the Bush administration for the dolphins include Earth Island Institute, biologist Samuel LaBudde, The Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Defenders of Wildlife, International Wildlife Coalition, Animal Welfare Institute, Society for Animal Protective Legislation, Animal Fund, and Oceanic Society.

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EPA Air Rule Defies Unanimous Supreme Court Decision

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - A supplemental rulemaking that would allow coal-fired power plants to increase their emissions when they add new generating capacity was proposed Wednesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA.

The proposal would exempt coal-fired power plants from installing the best available pollution controls when upgrading their facilities to produce more power.

The proposal adopts the same utility industry position that the Supreme Court justices rejected unanimously on April 2 in a clean air enforcement case brought by the EPA and environmental groups against Duke Energy, Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy.

"This move by EPA represents defiance of the Supreme Court decision and a rush to reward dirty coal-fired power plant lawbreakers," said John Walke, clean air program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "EPA's action will result in more air pollution while trampling on the law and damaging public health."

The EPA is now requesting comment on two options to be used when determining if the New Source Review, NSR, requirements of the Clean Air Act would apply to an existing power plant making a physical or operational change.

The New Source Review requires stationary sources of air pollution to use "Best Available Control Technology" such as add-on control equipment or modification of the production processes or methods, when increasing emissions with a physical or operational change.

In its October 2005 proposal, just overruled by the Supreme Court, the EPA proposed an hourly emissions increase test alone, where the agency would remove the annual emissions increase test in the current regulations and a power plant would be subject to NSR if the hourly emissions would increase.

In this supplemental rulemaking, EPA is including a new "preferred" option under which the current annual emissions increase test that is presently used is retained and applied in those situations where a power plant's hourly emissions would increase.

"If a power plant's hourly emissions would increase," the EPA says, "then projected annual emissions would be reviewed using the annual emissions increase provisions in the current rules." A power plant would have to use Best Available Control Technology if the annual emissions would increase but not if annual emissions do not increase, the agency says.

"It's breathtaking, as a matter of logic and public safety, that the Bush administration would actually adopt the dirtier, losing position of polluting lawbreakers that EPA is prosecuting, and make those lawbreakers' demands the law of the land," said Walke.

"EPA has gone from being cop to accomplice, aiding and abetting the lawbreakers that violate the Clean Air Act and spit on public health," Walke said.

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New Coal Mine Methane Venting Technology Tested

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - A demonstration project begun Friday at an abandoned West Virginia coal mine will showcase a technology that can convert the greenhouse gas methane into a source of clean energy.

The thermal oxidation system destroys methane in ventilation air by heating the gas to over 1800 degrees Fahrenheit and converting it to carbon dioxide and water.

The heat produced in this process can then be used directly in mining operations such as coal drying, or it can be used to generate electricity.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, the Energy Department, and industry have partnered to support this first U.S. trial of the technology.

CONSOL Energy, based in Pittsburgh, is hosting the demonstration at the Windsor Mine Portal in West Liberty, West Virginia, near Wheeling. Sequa Corporation's MEGTEC Systems of DePere, Wisconsin has provided the technology.

The EPA, through its Coalbed Methane Outreach Program, is contributing $500,000 to the joint project, and the Energy Department is providing more than $1.1 million. CONSOL and MEGTEC are together providing a total of $400,000 in funding and resources, as well as technical support.

Coal mines are a major source of methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Ventilation shafts from underground coal mines are the source of more than 50 percent of all methane emissions from the coal mining industry worldwide. In 2000, total global ventilation shafts produced an estimated 16.6 billion cubic meters of methane.

Although this project represents the first demonstration of this technology on U.S. soil, it has been successfully operated at one pilot-scale site in Great Britain, as well as at two mines in Australia, one a future commercial-scale operation.

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Wal-Mart Penalized for Stormwater Violations in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, April 29, 2007 (ENS) - Wal-Mart will pay a civil penalty of $24,000 for not preventing rain water from washing sediments and pollution into waterways at its Supercenter construction site in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, announced Thursday that the Fortune 500 company had failed to comply with the federal Clean Water Act with regard to its activities at the site.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Wal-Mart de Puerto Rico, Inc. failed to obtain the appropriate stormwater construction permit on time, failed to promptly develop a plan to control stormwater pollution, failed to prepare and maintain inspection reports, and failed to carry out best management practices during construction of the Caguas Supercenter.

All of these actions are requirements of EPA's stormwater general construction permit.

As part of the settlement agreement, Wal-Mart will provide at least $98,000 for the preservation of land in the area of Las Cucharillas Marsh, part of the San Juan Bay Estuary Watershed. The parcel will be perpetually maintained as an environmentally protected area through deed restrictions and legal agreements.

"Wal-Mart should have taken some simple, straightforward steps to control the rainwater runoff from its construction site and to protect the environment,” said EPA regional administrator Alan Steinberg from his office in New York.

"As development and construction continues to increase on the island, all companies both big and small, need to be aware that following environmental regulations is a business necessity," said Steinberg.

One positive result of this agreement will be the purchase and preservation of land in the area of Las Cucharillas Marsh, a precious ecosystem that contains the highest diversity of waterfowl in the San Juan Bay," he said.

The transferred land is located around Laguna La Mano in the sensitive watershed of Las Cucharillas Marsh in Cataño.

Las Cucharillas Marsh is situated at the intersection of the municipalities of Cataño, Guaynabo and Bayamon and covers 1,236 acres, consisting mostly of wetlands, mangrove forests and open waters.

The marsh serves as a flood plain and acts as a sediment and nutrient filter for runoff waters before they reach the San Juan Bay.

Construction projects are a source of sediment runoff when soil at these sites is disturbed or left in loose piles, the EPA said. When rain washes through the soil, large amounts of sediment may wash into local water bodies, clogging rivers, shore lines and wetlands, and may impact aquatic habitat and reduce the capacity of Puerto Rico's reservoirs.

The Clean Water Act requires operators of construction sites of one acre or larger, such as the Wal-Mart site, to obtain a permit to discharge stormwater and to develop and carry out a stormwater pollution prevention plan.