- AmeriScan: August 18, 2003 Environment News Service (ENS)
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AmeriScan: August 18, 2003

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Bush Says He Is Committed to Parks and Forests

WASHINGTON, DC, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - President George W. Bush praised his administration's commitment to the nation's forests and parks in his radio address Saturday and urged Congress to embrace his forest thinning plan and his parks policy.

"Our system of national parks and forests is a trust given to every generation of Americans," Bush said. "By practicing good management and being faithful stewards of the land, our generation can show that we are worthy of that trust."

Last week Bush visited an Arizona national forest charred by wildfires and a California recreation area under management of the National Park Service.

The president says that the national forests are in dire need of better management and must be thinned to reduce the threat of wildfires.

Bush said his plan to thin 20 million acres of federal land cuts "through bureaucratic red tape to complete urgently needed forest thinning projects."

"Litigation often delays projects, while some 190 million acres of forest remain at high risk of dangerous fires, and nearby communities remain vulnerable," Bush said. "So I am asking Congress to reform the review process for forest projects."

Critics say the charge that litigation is to blame for the poor state of the forests is unfounded and believe the judicial and administrative reforms Bush wants could be illegal.

They contend Bush's Healthy Forests iniative is a giveaway to the timber industry and will do little to safeguard communities against wildfires.

The President's plan easily passed the House in May. It passed the Senate Agriculture Committee in July but is not expected to move forward without considerable debate on the Senate floor.

"For the health of America's forests, and for the safety and economic vitality of our communities, the Congress must complete work on this bill," Bush said.

The President also asked Congress to provide his requested funding to chip away at the $4.9 billion maintenance backlog across the national park system. Bush says his administration is keeping up with his pledge to tackle the maintenance backlog.

"We have set a new course for our national parks, with better management and renewed investment in their care and protection," Bush said.

Conservationists disagree with the administration's assessment of its parks record and believe little progress has been made on the maintenance backlog.

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Comment Period on Alaska Roadless Rules Extended

WASHINGTON, DC, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service has extended the public comment period for proposed rules to exempt the Tongass and Chugach National Forests from the roadless rule. The comment period for both rules was to have ended August 14 but will now be open until September 2.

The agency says it has received a large volume of responses to the proposed rules to date and cites this as the reason to provide the public additional time to comment.

The roadless rule - officially called the Roadless Area Conservation Rule - has been a source of controversy since it was put into effect in January 2001 during the last days of the Clinton administration.

It bans roadbuilding within some 58 million acres, or one third, of the national forests.

Nine lawsuits involving seven states have been filed challenging the rule over the past two years. The Bush administration believes the rule is too broad, even though the most recent ruling, made by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 14, 2003, upheld the rule.

The administration announced a settlement with the state of Alaska over its challenge to the rule. The Forest Service published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR) and an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) related to this settlement in the Federal Register on July 15.

The NPR would commit the Forest Service to open some 300,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest currently under the roadless rule to logging.

The areas proposed were previously identified for logging in the 1997 management plan for the forest.

The ANPR centers on the administration's intent to lift the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests from the roadless rule.

Environmentalists have been trying to rally opposition to the proposed rules, arguing that the roadless rule should stand and that the Bush administration is trying to appease timber interests.

The Tongass is the largest U.S. national forest and the largest remaining temperate rainforest on Earth. No logging is currently allowed in the Chugach National Forest.

Alaska challenged the roadless rule as a violation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which was passed in 1980 and prohibits administrative land withdrawals.

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Vaccine Protects Monkeys From West Nile Virus

WASHINGTON, DC, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - Federal scientists have created a vaccine that protects monkeys from West Nile virus infection. The research team from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) created the vaccine by replacing proteins in a virus known as dengue type four with the corresponding West Nile virus.

"We are optimistic that our engineered virus vaccine will provide long term immunity to West Nile virus, but the human clinical trials will give us the definitive data," said Dr. Brian Murphy, of the NIAID Laboratory of Infectious Diseases.

Human clinical trials of the vaccine are expected to begin before the end of this year.

A paper on the development of the virus will be published in the September issue of the journal "Virology."

West Nile virus, which was first detected in the United States in 1999, is spread to people by mosquitoes. It usually produces mild, flu like symptoms but can cause a deadly encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. Some 470 people in the United States have become sick from West Nile virus this year and 10 have died.

The potential West Nile vaccine is a live but weakened virus. To create it, scientists took the dengue four virus and replaced its outer shell proteins with corresponding proteins from West Nile virus, explained Dr. Alexander Pletnev, lead investigator and NIAID molecular biologist.

The scientists tested two versions of the West Nile/dengue 4 virus in rhesus monkeys, one with the entire dengue virus RNA and one with some of the dengue RNA deleted.

By doing so, they proved that deleting some of the dengue RNA weakened it even further.

Because it was less able to replicate, the West Nile/dengue 4 virus with the RNA deletion will be the first one used in the planned clinical trials in humans.

The scientists explain that this is favored because it triggered high levels of West Nile antibodies and did not produce measurable levels of virus in monkeys. It could provide life long immunity against West Nile virus and would be highly unlikely to mutate into a virus that causes disease.

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Report Raises Issues of Gene Flow From GM Crops

WASHINGTON, DC, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - The possible spread of DNA from genetically modified (GM) crops to wild and domesticated relatives raises a new set of issues for scientists and policymakers to consider, according to a new issue brief released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

The report notes that gene flow is not unique to GM crops, but it draws attention to the ecological and economic concerns that could arise if novel traits from these transgenic crops spread to other populations.

Titled "Have Transgenes, Will Travel: Issues Raised by Gene Flow From Genetically Engineered Crops," the brief notes a primary ecological concern that transgenic plants will breed with wild relatives and confer a trait not otherwise found in nature to the resulting plant. This has the potential to alter the gene pool for that crop and to threaten biodiversity.

The Pew Initiative reports, however, that despite the theoretical concerns presented by gene flow, it is unclear if the spread of DNA from transgenic crops is an ecological help or a hinderance. Depending on the type of trait passed on, the general fitness of a plant could increase or decrease as a result of acquiring that trait, the report says.

The primary economic concern stems from the possible impact to specialty markets, such as organic crops, if genetic material from transgenic plants were to spread and mix with a crop intended to exclude transgenic materials.

The report says that many concerns about gene flow from transgenic plants could be addressed by technologies currently under development that, if applied, could render GM crops sterile and unable to breed.

"As new transgenic crops are tested and grown, preventing unwanted gene flow to other crops will present technical and regulatory challenges as well as possible economic conflict," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research project. "We also need a better understanding of transgenic gene flow into wild plant populations if we are to frame appropriate policies," he said.

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Weather Extremes Tell Prairie Tale

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - The familiar flat, grassy landscape of the Midwest is the product of weather extremes, scientists report.

Compared with adjacent regions, the tall grass area of the plains endures more frequent periods of severe drought, more lightning strikes and subsequent fires from frequent winter thunderstorms, drier cold weather and more rapid plant and soil moisture evaporation, according to team of researchers from the Illinois State Water Survey and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The team studied newly available long term climate data and published their findings in the current issue of the journal "Physical Geography."

The experience of the Midwest's prairie is one of extremes, including some of the very factors that could be more widespread as a result of global warming, said Stanley Changnon, a water survey scientist and professor of geography.

"What this shows is that the whole environment of the Midwest has been very sensitive to certain extreme weather events," he said. "Having long term data lets us talk more intelligently about potential changes in global climate."

For their research Changnon and his colleagues digitized national climate data going back to 1890. Information from before 1948, when the federal government began a formal record keeping procedure on computer punch cards, was taken from records left by volunteer weather observers.

Once they interpreted and entered the information into digital records, the researchers began analyzing individual weather factors and running comparisons.

The triangular shaped tall grass area scrutinized in the study stretches from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Fargo, North Dakota to Indianapolis, Indiana.

European explorers described the area as "an inland sea" - a humid area with grasses up to six feet tall.

Long ago, the plains were bulldozed flat during four major glacial advances and retreats that left behind sands, nutrient rich soils and rocks. Wide flat rivers drained the melting ice finally about 11,500 years ago, at which time the tall grasses arose. Shorter domesticated grasses and farmers' fields of corn, wheat and soybeans have since replaced the tall grasses.

To the north and south of the tall grass region, there emerged extensive forests. A long debated scientific question, the researchers noted, is why the tall grass prairie only supported grass when the soil easily could have sprouted diverse forests.

The researchers found their answers in more drought and more lightning strikes, drier cold weather and faster evaporation of moisture.

"The long term data we have gathered and are analyzing can provide us with very useful guidance as we talk about potential changes to our agricultural systems and to the way we as people live in general," said Changnon.

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Recovery Plan for Endangered Mussel Revised

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has revised its plan to recover an endangered freshwater mussel native to the Upper Mississippi and its major tributaries.

The Higgins' eye pearlymussel was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1976, and the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a recovery plan in 1983. But the impact of the zebra mussel - a nonnative invasive species - has forced the federal agency to reconsider how to recover the Higgins' eye pearlymussel.

Zebra mussels, which are native to Eastern Europe, invaded the Upper Mississippi River in the early 1990s, brought into the United States in the ballast water dumped by European ships. The species frequently exhibits rapid population growth, and the miniscule zebra mussels affix themselves to native mussels.

Masses of live and dead zebra mussels frequently smother beds of native mussels that contain the endangered Higgins' eye pearlymussel.

Covered by these masses, Higgins' eye and other native mussels are likely to die or become incapable of reproducing.

During the 1990s, zebra mussels devastated what may have been the largest population of Higgins' eye pearlymussels, in the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

The draft revised recovery plan also takes into consideration the threat to the habitat of the species caused by the operation and maintenance of the navigation system on the Upper Mississippi River.

The measures to recover the species include assessing and limiting the impact of zebra mussels and limiting construction in essential Higgins' eye pearlymussel habitat areas.

In addition, it calls for the development of plans to enhance the safety of shipping toxic or hazardous materials, reintroducing the Higgins' eye mussels into historic habitats where zebra mussels are not an active or imminent threat, and identifying any contaminants that may affect the survival of Higgins' eye populations.

The Fish and Wildlife Service draft revised recovery plan is open for public comment through October 14, 2003.

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EPA, GE Agree on Design of Hudson River Cleanup

NEW YORK, New York, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last week that it has signed an agreement with General Electric Company (GE) to perform the project design work for the cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contaminated sediment in the Hudson River.

Under the agreement GE will develop detailed approaches to removing sediment from the river bottom, transporting and disposing of the material, and replacing the habitat in dredged areas. The company will also pay up to $28 million in partial reimbursement of EPA's past and future costs associated with the dredging project. The agreement enters into effect today.

From approximately 1947 to 1977, GE discharged as much as 1.3 million pounds of PCBs from its capacitor manufacturing plants at the Hudson Falls and Fort Edward facilities into the Hudson River.

Under the agreement, the company is responsible for designing a dredging project that will be conducted over a six year period, in two phases, consistent with EPA's February 2002 Record of Decision for the project and the engineering performance standards developed by the federal agency to ensure that the dredging is done safely and effectively.

The agreement covers the detailed design of the dredging project. It does not cover the performance of the actual dredging work itself.

It includes work plans for the design of the dredging work, baseline monitoring, cultural and archeological resources assessment, habitat delineation and assessment, as well as revised provisions to help ensure that the project design work is performed in a manner that is safe for local communities.

The company will perform key activities needed to complete the design of the project, including the evaluation of sediment sampling data on the Upper Hudson River, along with developing engineering and design specifications to support the EPA's selection of sites for sediment processing and transfer facilities.

The design work is expected to take three years to complete and will be performed and paid for by GE with oversight by EPA and the state of New York. The design work will be phased so that dredging can begin in spring 2006.

The Hudson River PCBs Site encompasses a nearly 200 mile stretch of the Hudson River in eastern New York State from Hudson Falls, New York to the Battery in New York City. It includes communities in 14 New York counties and two counties in New Jersey.

PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are linked to other adverse health effects such as low birth weight, thyroid disease, and learning, memory, and immune system disorders. PCBs in the river sediment also affect fish and wildlife.

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Sunoco Fined $968,000 for Groundwater Contamination

BOSTON, Massachusetts, August 18, 2003 (ENS) - Massachusetts environmental officials levied a $968,000 fine against Philadelphia based Sunoco, Inc. last week after the company failed to clean up contaminated groundwater at a company run gasoline station.

The state says the company failed to abide by a previously approved consent order for the site in Hanover, Massachusetts, and did not construct and operate a properly functioning treatment system.

The penalty, announced by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), was assessed following Sunoco's failure to meet the state's cleanup regulations and deadlines.

"Whether large or small, all companies doing business in Massachusetts will be held to the same strict standards for environmental protection," said Environmental Affairs Secretary Ellen Roy Herzfelder. "Activities that put our natural resources at risk will not be tolerated."

The $968,000 demand reflects stipulated penalties that Sunoco agreed to in an August 2001 consent order. That order was negotiated after Sunoco failed to submit a complete site assessment and remedial cleanup plan by DEP deadlines for Capeway Sunoco Service Station in Hanover.

The original consent order included a separate $10,000 penalty.

As part of the original consent order, Sunoco was required to install a high vacuum extraction system at the site to remove concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons in the groundwater. But that system has experienced repeated operational and maintenance problems and it has not operated as designed since Sunoco submitted a report to DEP in February 2002 stating that the system was operational.

"The protection of our environment will not be compromised by delay or efforts that do not meet mandated cleanup standards," said DEP Commissioner Robert Golledge Jr. "Responsible parties are required to address environmental contamination in a timely manner, and if they do not, they will be held accountable."

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