- AmeriScan: August 12, 2003 AmeriScan: August 12, 2003

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EPA Faces Legal Actions for Diesel Pollution

WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - The national environmental organization Environmental Defense filed legal and administrative actions Monday against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect public health from diesel air pollution.

Although the EPA has established rigorous emission standards for diesel trucks and buses, it has not done the same for pollution from stationary diesel engines, such as electrical generators. Environmental Defense says its action aims to ensure that stationary diesel engines also are required to meet protective emission standards.

"EPA's diesel double standard is a hazard to public health [and] the agency must address this dangerous diesel loophole," said Dr. John Balbus, Environmental Defense health program director.

Diesel air pollution is among the most dangerous and pervasive sources of air pollution, Balbus said, and "makes the biggest contribution to cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant."

Stationary diesel engines, in particular generators, are increasingly providing prime and backup sources of electrical power, according to Environmental Defense.

Northeastern states recently estimated that there are 33,678 stationary diesel generators in the eight state Northeast region.

California estimates there are more than 16,000 stationary and portable diesel-fueled engines in the state and that 11,300 of these are used for backup power.

An Environmental Defense California study found that in the South Coast, San Diego, San Joaquin, and Sacramento areas alone, 150,000 children attend school in zones with high pollution risk due to the operation of backup diesel generators.

"We can protect public health through sensible, cost effective measures that address the hazardous high polluting diesel generators that have long been overlooked," said Vickie Patton, Environmental Defense senior attorney.

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BLM Keen to Speed Up Oil and Gas Development

WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued new policies last week aimed at reducing or eliminating impediments to oil and gas leasing on lands managed by the agency. The policies, which took effect immediately, instruct BLM land use planners to evaluate the necessity of current constraints on energy development in high potential oil and gas areas.

This includes searching for ways to work around environmental regulations, which the administration believes often needlessly delay the development of oil and gas resources on public lands.

BLM Director Kathleen Clarke said the new policies "will further our agency's efforts to ensure a reliable supply of affordable energy, as called for by the President."

But environmentalists are far from convinced.

"Americans expect our federal agencies to be stewards of our public lands, but the Bush administration prefers that the Bureau of Land Management spend its time and our tax dollars giving away our national treasures to the energy industry," said Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney in the land programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

As part of the BLM's new direction, Clarke has designated seven "focus areas" that contain a high potential for oil and gas development within five states in the Rocky Mountain West - Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

The BLM offices in these states have until the end of the year to identify how best to expedite development of oil and gas.

Clarke downplayed the concerns of environmentalists and said the agency's "overall objective is to ensure the timely development of these critical energy resources in an environmentally sound manner."

The BLM, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages 261 million surface acres of federal land - more than any other federal agency.

Buccino says the BLM's announcement reflects the Bush administration's rejection of the agency's statutory "multiple use" mandate. The administration, Buccino says, is promoting energy development at the expense of other valuable land uses such as farming, ranching and recreation.

"Under this new policy, BLM staff are being directed to force open more of our special places to oil and gas drilling, and as quickly as possible," Buccino said. "Currently, the management plans for our public lands do not allow for the amount of drilling that the Bush administration wants. The agency's action focuses field staff on changing these plans in several controversial places, such as Wyoming's Powder River Basin and Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, to boost drilling."

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California Farm Runoff Decision Draws Legal Challenge

SACRAMENTO, California, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalits and public health groups filed an appeal to the California State Water Resources Control Board Monday to overturn a decision to exempt agricultural runoff from state clean water regulations.

Agricultural runoff is a major source of water pollution in California's Central Valley, but state officials opted to adopt another exemption for the sector last month to take the place of 20 year old exemptions that expired in January 2003.

"Exemptions should be reserved for truly de minimis, inconsequential pollution, not the largest source of pollution causing widespread contamination throughout the waters of the Central Valley," said Earthjustice's Mike Lozeau, attorney for the environmental groups. "The regional board's decision is based on wishful thinking and politics rather than an objective review of the evidence."

Under state law, ignoring pollution in this way is only legal if it will not harm the public or degrade water quality. The groups say the appeal documents provide "overwhelming evidence" that toxic pollution from farms is harming the public and degrading waters.

They point to more than 50 scientific studies and the opinions of six independent scientists that detail how the inadequate requirements are likely to exacerbate water quality problems.

More than 200 public heath, environmental, fishing, and other organizations representing millions of Californians had asked the board for stronger regulation of farm runoff, which pollutes hundreds of miles of California waterways every year.

"We will never reverse the rising tide of pollution if agricultural polluters are not required to abide by reasonable controls long applicable to virtually every other segment of society," said DeltaKeeper Bill Jennings. "Contrary to the Regional Board's belief, pollution control requirements cannot be based upon the willingness of farmers to comply with the law."

The impaired Central Valley waters are the primary source of drinking water for more 20 million Californians across the state. State and federal environmental officials have declared that many of these waters are unsafe for uses such as drinking, swimming, and/or fishing.

"The Board's job is to consider the interests of the millions Californians who are entitled to clean water, and not focus on those who pollute those waters," said Linda Sheehan of The Ocean Conservancy.

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Study Finds Jetski Races Polluting San Francisco Bay

BENICIA, California, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - A recent jetski race caused a significant increase in toxic pollutants in San Francisco Bay waters, according to the environmental group Bluewater Network.

Tests conducted by the organization at the International Jet Sports Boating Association's National Tour on July 26 in Benicia, California, indicates that public health may be threatened by similar events held on reservoirs used for drinking water.

Bluewater Network reports that in just five hours of racing, levels of benzene and methyl-tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) - compounds recognized by the state as toxics - increased from effectively zero to levels recognized as dangerous to human health.

Benzene, a known carcinogen, exceeded health requirements by 270 percent and MTBE levels were 730 percent above health standards and more than 1900 percent above standards based on taste and odor.

"This event was intended to celebrate Benicia's waterfront, but instead it left the water poisoned and toxic," said Russell Long, executive director for Bluewater Network, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in San Francisco. "This should be a lesson to any communities considering permitting a similar event on their waters - the impacts are just too great to justify."

Bluewater Network says some pollutants may have continued to increase even beyond the published results, as the races continued for another day and a half after the samples were taken. Samples were collected from the race viewing area and along the waterfront.

The vast majority of jetskis use two-stroke engines, which dump 25 percent to 40 percent of their fuel unburned into the environment. Almost half of this evaporates, adding to the air pollution produced directly by their engines.

California's Coastal Commission has previously denied a permit to the World Finals jetski races, which had attempted to move to Mission Bay in San Diego, because of the concerns about the environmental impact.

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New Funds Earmarked for Lake Tahoe

LAKE TAHOE, Nevada, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - A collection of federal and state officials, along with several members of Congress, unveiled a proposal Monday to guarantee funding to restore the clarity of Lake Tahoe. Under the proposal the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act will be altered to direct $300 million from present and future Bureau of Land Management (BLM) surplus land auctions in Las Vegas to the Lake Tahoe Basin.

There is already bipartisan support for the proposal in Congress and support from the Bush administration, said Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican.

"There is only a narrow window of opportunity to save this American treasure for future generations, and we must take advantage of that window," Ensign said. "Now, we will not have to rely on fighting budget battles every year to get the necessary money."

The proposal would provide steady funding for the $300 million Lake Tahoe Restoration Act - three years ago Congress promised the funds, but actual appropriations have fallen far short of the $30 million annual figure.

The funds from the BLM auctions are comprised of the proceeds from public land sales in Las Vegas Since the Southern Nevada Public Management Act was passed in 1998.

These funds are comprised of the proceeds from public land sales in Las Vegas and are currently used for Nevada's general education program, parks, trails and the acquisition of environmentally sensitive land in Nevada. The most recent auction of 995 acres brought in $232 million. Since the passage of the Southern Nevada Act, 13 auctions have brought in $566 million.

Lake Tahoe is world renowned for its deep blue waters, but pollution is taking its toll and efforts to preserve and clean up the lake could run as high as $1.5 billion.

Estimates find that the clarity of the 193 square mile lake has declined by a foot a year for the past four decades.

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Conservationists Look to Secure Santa Cruz Salamander Habitat

SANTA CRUZ, California, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - The Trust for Public Land (TPL) announced Monday that a $540,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) will help protect land to aid in the recovery of federally protected species in Santa Cruz.

According to the national land conservation organization, the money will help purchase the 289 acre Buena Vista property, which is home to the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The grant was awarded through the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund Recovery Land Acquisition Program, which is part of the ESA and provides federal money for conservation efforts on nonfederal lands to help states protect key habitat

The Santa Cruz long-toed salamander was listed as endangered in 1967, pursuant to the ESA.

Historically, the species was found from Santa Cruz County to Baja California, Mexico. Today, only seven populations are known within Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in California.

Habitat loss is the key threat to the salamander, which inhabits upland chaparral and woodland areas that support communities of coast live oak or Monterey pine. The small, dark colored salamanders live in the burrows of small mammals or along the root systems of plants.

The property is one of the last undeveloped areas of chaparral and coastal woodlands on the west side of U.S. Highway 1 and is also home to several threatened plants, including the robust spineflower, Hooker's manzanita, and Kellogg's horkelia.

TPL has been working with Congressman Sam Farr, a California Democrat, as well as the California DFG, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners on the project, with the goal of permanent protection for the entire 289 acre property.

"This grant is instrumental in continuing our work to protect this important habitat land and we can not thank our partners enough for helping to see this conservation effort through," said Reed Holderman, Regional Director for Trust for Public Land.

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Why Birds Sing

CHICAGO, Illinois, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - Researchers are inching closer to determining why birds - or at least European starlings - sing. In a study published in the last week's edition of the journal "Nature," University of Chicago researchers report how songs that birds have learned to recognize trigger responses both in individual neurons and in populations of neurons in the bird's brain.

"We found that cells in a part of the brain are altered dramatically by the learning process," said Dr. Daniel Margoliash, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy and of psychology, and coauthor of the paper. "As birds learn to recognize certain songs, the cells in this area become sensitive to particular sound patterns or auditory objects that occur in the learned songs, while cells never show such sensitivity to patterns in unfamiliar songs. Specific cells in the brain become 'tuned' to what the bird is learning."

Bird songs have captured the interest of humans for ages, but for the birds themselves song recognition is no casual business.

The ability to match a singer to a song, often down to the level of an individual bird, can mean the difference between "a day spent wrestling through the thicket and one spent enjoying a sun soaked perch, or the missed chance at mating with the healthiest partner around," the researchers report.

The study builds on earlier research by Timothy Gentner, lead investigator of the study and a research associate in the department of organismal biology and anatomy. Genter has shown that European starlings learn to recognize different songs by the individual pieces that comprise each song.

For this latest study, Gentner taught birds to press different buttons on a small metal panel depending on the song they heard. The researchers rewarded correct responses with food and turned the lights off to convey an incorrect response.

"If you listen closely to a singing starling, you will hear that the song is really composed of much shorter sounds," Gentner said. "We call these sounds 'motifs,' and to produce a song, the bird will sing the same motif a few times, then switch to a new repeated motif, and then another, as long as he can keep it going. When male starlings sing, they might use only half of the motifs they know and then mix up the motifs when they sing another song."

Given this highly variable motif structure, when other starlings are learning which songs belong to which individuals, they do it by concentrating on the motifs, Gentner explained.

"Rather than representing all motifs equally well at any time, we find that experience modifies the brain to highlight those motifs that are the most important to the bird at that time," Gentner said.

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Celebrating the Return of Miss Pearl the Sea Turtle

NEW YORK, New York, August 12, 2003 (ENS) - The New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is celebrating the return of Miss Pearl - a female hawksbill sea turtle, which is one of the world's most endangered species. The turtle returned last month to the Pearl Cays in Nicaragua with her transmitter still attached, WCS announced today, after a three year hiatus.

Named Miss Pearl by local Nicaraguan participants and scientists from the WCS, the turtle had already distinguished herself in 2000 by traveling farther than any other hawksbill WCS had tagged, venturing nearly 250 miles to the Honduras border.

Now that she has made the return trip back to the nesting beach where scientists originally tagged her, those working on the project are ecstatic.

"This is fantastic and incredible," said WCS conservationist Dr. Cynthia Lagueux, who runs the organization's sea turtle project in Nicaragua. "We are really starting to get some good data about this nesting population."

WCS tags hawksbills to focus its efforts on where the turtles need the most protection. The National Marine Fisheries Service supplied several transmitters in a cooperative effort to protect hawksbills, which sometimes venture into U.S. waters.

But more important than high tech tools, WCS says, is the education of local people about protecting sea turtles, both at sea and when they are laying eggs on nesting beaches. These education programs, Laguex says, may be doing more to bolster local populations than the tracking program.

"Most everyone is really cooperating with our plea to stop killing hawksbills and taking their eggs," Lagueux said. "We have had several local fishers and divers tell us they understand what we are trying to do and that they will not take anymore eggs."

Before the WCS project began, virtually all hawksbill sea turtle nests were poached for their eggs. Recent surveys have shown that the number has dropped to an amazing ten percent or less, due almost entirely to education efforts.

Lagueux cautions that loss of sea turtle nesting habitat now looms as one of the largest threats and says that recent development of several of the nesting cays by foreign investors is destroying many prime nesting beaches.

The hawksbill has been the target of commercial hunting for one reason - its highly prized shell. Scutes from a hawksbill turtle shell rival other material such as ivory and rhino horn in terms of value and are used to make products such as hair combs and eyeglass frames. As a result the population has been reduced to a fraction of its former size and has been listed as an Appendix I species under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977, a listing forbidding all trade.

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