AmeriScan: August 17, 2007

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Two Storms Kick Atlantic Hurricane Season Up a Notch

MIAMI, Florida, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - The Atlantic hurricane season is accelerating. A tropical storm warning has been issued for the U.s. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as Hurricane Dean blows westward across the Caribbean Sea at 25 miles per hour.

Classed as a category 2 hurricane, Dean is packing maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour with higher gusts. The hurricane is likely to gain strength over the next 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service.

Dean's center will be passing close to the islands of St. Lucia and Martinique within the next six hours, forecasters warn.

Storm surge flooding of two to four feet above normal tide levels, accompanied by large and dangerous battering waves is possible near Dean's center.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and 52 Puerto Rico emergency managers participated in a meeting August 15 to discuss preparedness for Hurricane Dean, including commodity distribution.

The Florida State Emergency Operations Center is activated at Level III operations and is monitoring the storm. Texas and Louisiana are working closely with FEMA region VI in preparing for Hurricane Dean.

Meanwhile, to the north and west of Hurricane Dean, Tropical Storm Erin made landfall near Corpus Christi this afternoon.

The storm deluged already soggy Texas, killing at least two people, one in San Antonio and one in Houston.

The National Weather Service in Austin/San Antonio has issued a flood warning for the Pedernales River as numerous showers and thunderstorms are forecast to continue for the next 24 to 48 hours.

For Houston and Galveston, forecasters have issued a flood warning for the San Bernard River, and people are urged to stay away from the river until water levels recede.

Total rain accumulations of three to six inches are expected across much of central and southern Texas with isolated maximum amounts of 10 inches possible.

In Houston, Harris County's top elected official, Judge Ed Emmett, has ordered county emergency officials to maintain a constant watch on Hurricane Deanís progress toward the Gulf of Mexico and to take all necessary precautions to ensure the county is prepared should the dangerous storm threaten the area.

As part of those preparations, officials with the county and cooperating agencies assembled at the Emergency Management offices Thursday to begin round-the-clock operations through the weekend, said Emmett, who serves as director of the county Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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Underpayment of Gas Royalties Costs Burlington $97.5 Million

WASHINGTON, DC, August 17, 2007 (ENS) Ė Burlington Resources Inc. has agreed to pay the United States government $97.5 million to resolve claims that it underpaid royalties owed on natural gas produced from federal and Indian leases, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Last year, Burlington became a wholly owned subsidiary of ConocoPhillips, the third largest integrated energy company in the United States.

The settlement resolves allegations under the False Claims Act that Burlington systematically under-reported the value of natural gas that it produced from onshore federal and Indian leases from March 1, 1988, to March 31, 2005, and as a resultpaid less royalties than it owed to the United States and various Indian tribes.

Each month, companies are required to report to the federal Minerals Management Service the value of the natural gas produced from their federal and Indian leases and to pay a percentage of the reported value as royalties.

The United States alleged that Burlington used transactions with affiliated entities to claim excessive deductions for the cost of transporting and treating its gas, and to otherwise understate the value it reported each month for its natural gas production.

"The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that those who remove valuable assets from public or Indian lands pay a fair price for those assets," said Peter Keisler, assistant attorney general for the Civil Division. "We will continue to pursue claims against other companies that seek to evade their royalty payment obligations."

The settlement with Burlington arises from a lawsuit filed by a private whistleblower under the False Claims Act, which alleges that a number of companies systematically underpaid royalties due for their federal and Indian natural gas production.

The Justice Department partially intervened against several defendants in the lawsuit, and previously settled with Shell Oil Co. for $56 million and Dominion Exploration and Production Co. for $2 million. The department is continuing to pursue claims against Exxon-Mobil Corporation.

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Mattel Recalls Toxic Toys From China - Again

EL SEGUNDO, California, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - Mattel, Inc., the world's largest toy company, is recalling millions of toys for the second time this month on concerns about high levels of toxic lead and magnets in toys made for Mattel in China.

This recall includes the "Sarge" character toy car from the film "CARS" manufactured between May 2007 and July 2007. The paint used on the die-cast metal cars contains impermissible levels of lead.

A total of 436,000 "Sarge" cars are being recalled, including 253,000 in the United States and 183,000 outside the country.

The recall of the Sarge toy results from Mattel's increased investigation and ongoing testing procedures following the recall of select Fisher-Price toys on August 1, 2007, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

The toy was produced by Early Light Industrial Co., Ltd, one of Mattel's contract manufacturing facilities in China, which subcontracted the painting of parts of the toy to another vendor, Hong Li Da (HLD), also in China, the company said.

While the painting subcontractor, HLD, was required to utilize paint supplied directly from Early Light, it instead violated Mattel's standards and utilized paint from a non-authorized third-party supplier.

The recall includes 18.2 million Barbie, Polly Pocket, Batman and Doggie Day Care toys with magnets, the company said in a statement. Of the total, 9.5 million are in the United States, however, the majority of the toys are no longer in retail stores, the company said.

Beginning in January 2007, Mattel implemented enhanced magnet retention systems in its toys across all brands.

"The safety of children is our primary concern, and we are deeply apologetic to everyone affected," said Robert Eckert, chairman and chief executive officer, Mattel.

No injuries were reported from the recalled products, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission chief Nancy Nord said in a news conference. But the effects of ingesting lead may take years to become evident.

Approximately 310,000 U.S. children aged one to five have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which the federal government recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances, which says, "Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death."

Jim Walter, senior vice president of Worldwide Quality Assurance, Mattel, tried to assure the public that better production monitoring would result in non-toxic toys in the future.

"We have immediately implemented a strengthened three-point check system," said Walter. "First, we're requiring that only paint from certified suppliers be used and requiring every single batch of paint at every single vendor to be tested. If it doesn't pass, it doesn't get used."

The company is also increasing unannounced random inspections and will be "testing every production run of finished toys to ensure compliance before they reach our customers," Walter said.

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Presidential Candidates Queried on Environmental Openness

WASHINGTON, DC, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, is the only presidential candidate of either party to sign a pledge to adhere to principles of open government if elected, especially with respect to the environment.

Developed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, the Public Service Pledge calls upon candidates to commit their presidency to conduct the public business in the open, keep vital documents in the public domain, protect scientists "who report inconvenient truths," and protect whistleblowers.

Beginning in mid-June, PEER contacted all the campaigns by phone, fax, email and letter asking whether the candidate would abide by policies that avoid suppression and political manipulation of science, particularly on environmental issues - practices that have become a hallmark of the Bush administration.

The organization, which represents government employees in natural resources agencies, has followed up repeatedly with each campaign.

"We applaud Governor Richardson for being forthright and committing without hesitation to protecting the values of public service," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

"Frankly, it is disquieting that the other candidates need so much time to ponder whether an unambiguous pledge of open and transparent government fits within their campaign strategies," Ruch said.

Joining PEER in this effort is a group of prominent Americans, called the Leadership Council, whose members include political activists such as environmental attorney Robert Kennedy, Jr., former Congressman Pete McCloskey, and entertainer Al Franken.

In addition, the Leadership Council features public servants notable for being honest at great cost, such as climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, ex-FBI agent Coleen Rowley, and former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers.

Former Senator John Edwards sent an equivocal letter offering "to discuss where I stand on the issues that you have presentedÖ"

Only one other candidate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, gave a definitive answer, rejecting the pledge "at this time" via a phone call from his campaign staff.

"We are mystified that these candidates seem unable to express a clear opinion on these basic issues," Ruch said. "Presumably, voters want to know whether a presidential aspirant values honesty over message control."

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Court Upholds Michigan Ballast Water Law

LANSING, Michigan, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Steven Chester Thursday praised the decision by U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens to dismiss a lawsuit that challenged Michigan's ballast water law that is designed to stop invasive species from reaching the Great Lakes.

A coalition of nine U.S. and Canadian shipping companies and associations sued to block the law in U.S. District Court in Detroit, claiming it is unworkable and unconstitutional.

Judge Feikens on Wednesday granted the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

"Judge Feikens' ruling is a victory for the Great Lakes," said Chester. "Invasive species have already caused horrendous damage to Michigan's ecology, as well as our economy, and we must make every effort to stop these invaders before more reach our waters."

"The state is facing a serious threat to its environment (from invasive species), has determined the likely avenues by which those species are being introduced, and has taken measures to stop this introduction," the judge wrote.

The 2005 law, which took effect this year, is aimed at controlling the spread of exotic invasive species like the zebra mussel, which has spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes region and in the large navigable rivers of the eastern Mississippi drainage since they were introduced in the 1980s.

Zebra mussels are native to freshwater rivers and lakes in Eastern Europe and western Asia and are believed to have come to the United States in ballast water taken on and dumped by cargo ships as they stabilize their loads.

Michigan's law requires all ocean-going vessels to seek a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, that either certifies they will not discharge ballast water while in Michigan's ports or they have technology onboard that will treat the ballast water before it is released to prevent the introduction of invasive species to Michigan waters.

"Michigan has shown true leadership in putting an end to this open-door system that has for too long allowed invaders to harm Michigan's vast water resources," said Chester. "We know these species enter our state through ballast water, and it is time for the shipping industry to acknowledge this threat and join with us to protect our lakes."

Judge Feikens' ruling came on the same day as lawmakers in Ohio introduced legislation that would follow Michigan's lead in requiring shippers treat any ballast water before it is discharged in their ports. The bill would require the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to develop a permitting and ship inspection system.

"We welcome the efforts from our neighbors in Ohio, and encourage all of our Great Lakes' partners to join with us and ensure the Great Lakes are protected for generations to come," said Chester.

The shipping companies claim they are developing the required technology but they need more time.

Environmental groups say the problem is too urgent to accomodate delay.

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UC Davis Funded to Research Environmental Causes of Autism

DAVIS, California, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - Exposure to environmental chemicals during fetal development may play a role in the development of autism, federal health and environment officials said last week, announcing $7.5 million in funding for research into this possibility by the University of California's Center for Children's Environmental Health at Davis.

Part of the funding will go to a new autism study called MARBLES - Markers of Autism Risk in Babies - Learning Early Signs. This study begins the search for causes and early markers for the disorder during pregnancy.

Autism is a disorder defined by lack of social and communication skills, limited capacity for language, and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Health officials estimate there could be up to 1.5 million autistic people in the United States today. The causes of autism are largely unknown, although a high familial recurrence rate supports a strong genetic component.

Surveys in California indicate an apparent 210 percent increase in the number of cases of profound autism in children diagnosed over the past 10 years.

There is growing concern from parents and health professionals that prenatal and postnatal exposure to mercury compounds, halogenated aromatics and pesticides, as well as vaccine antigens could act synergistically to alter the expression of as-yet unidentified susceptibility and genetic factors to result in autism spectrum disorders.

The UC Davis Center will support three projects in partnership with the internationally recognized M.I.N.D. Institute of Sacramento, California. M.I.N.D. stands for Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

Two of the National Institutes of Health Childrenís Centers - at the University of California at Davis and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey - are investigating how environmental factors may affect the development of autism.

In the past, health problems were attributed to a single cause and effect such as a virus, genetics, or trauma.

But many illnesses do not fit this model, including several childhood ailments with no obvious explanation - asthma, allergies and autism.

There are a number of emerging theories that diseases can be influenced by multiple environment and heredity factors and gene-environment interactions.

"Autism is a serious developmental problem affecting over one million children," said George Gray, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Research and Development. "Therefore, EPA is pleased to fund the UC Davis Center that brings together high caliber scientists from many disciplines to address key needs in research, assessment, treatment and outreach."

The ultimate goal of the center is to determine the mechanisms by which chemicals known to be toxic to the developing nervous and immune systems contribute to abnormal development of social behavior in children, leading to strategies for prevention and intervention.

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Feds, Conservationists Offer Reward for Oregon Wolf Killer

PORTLAND, Oregon, August 17, 2007 (ENS) - Two conservation groups have sweetened the pot for anyone who has information about the illegal shooting of a female endangered gray wolf in eastern Oregon last October.

Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity Thursday offered a $4,000 reward to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of the crime.

The fund is in addition to $5,000 that has been offered as a reward by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The animal was found dead in early October between Battle Mountain and Whittaker Flats along Oregon Highway 395 near Ukiah, Oregon.

Tests, recently completed at the agency's national forensics laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, confirmed that it was a wolf and that it was killed by a bullet from a high velocity rifle.

Tests on the contents of the wolf's stomach show that it had not been feeding on livestock.

Further DNA testing is planned to determine if it was an offspring of the wolves reintroduced into Idaho.

Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator, said that illegal killings this past year are a primary factor in not meeting the agency's goal of 30 wolf packs in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

Achieving 30 packs would start the three year countdown to removing the gray wolf from its federally protected status, he said.

Anyone with information about the wolf's death can call Special Agent Jim Stinebaugh, 503-682-6131, or Senior Trooper Darren Chandler, 541-963-7175.

"The killing of endangered wildlife like this wolf is a crime against Oregonís children," said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild. "Wolves are the icons of American wilderness, and we hope this reward will produce information that leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever committed this crime."

Since their reintroduction to the northern Rockies in 1994, wolf populations have recovered in the northern Rockies. The animals have been slowly making their way back into Oregon, with a total of six confirmed and many unconfirmed sightings documented in the past 10 years.

In response, the state of Oregon completed a wolf management plan in 2005, which sets a goal of eight packs split between eastern and western Oregon.

"Wolves are an integral part of the web of life in the American West," said Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "With continued legal protection from poaching and preservation of Oregonís wildlands, this majestic animal could once again thrive in our state."

Once common in Oregon, wolves were eradicated from the state by the 1940s as part of a concerted effort to shoot, trap or poison every wolf in the western United States.

In 1974, wolves were protected as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act, and today killing a wolf is a federal crime.

The law provides for criminal penalties of up to $100,000 plus a year in jail for a single offense, and Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agents say they will "aggressively pursue the investigation" of this wolf's death.

"The impact of this illegal killing is deep. Everyone involved has made tremendous compromises to enable rural citizens and wolves to coexist," said Suzanne Laverty, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

"Where wolves have been restored in the American West, they're demonstrating a beneficial role in local ecosystems and disproving all the old myths," she said. "When folks give them a chance, they learn wolves aren't really 'big and bad' like in fairy tales."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.