White House Mercury Plan Draws Heavy Fire From CriticsWASHINGTON, DC,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - A draft proposal by the Bush administration to reduce mercury emissions by allowing power plants to trade mercury emissions credits would compromise public health for corporate profits, critics say.
"This move is yet another assault on our environment, and another example of how this administration insists on putting special interests ahead of public health," said Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.
The proposal, drafted by officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was leaked Tuesday to the Associated Press.
It would be a drastic shift for mercury emissions regulation - under terms of a court approved settlement agreement with environmental groups, the EPA is required to issue proposed regulations limiting mercury emissions from power plants by December 15, 2003 and issue final rules by December 15, 2004.
That rulemaking centers on adopting a "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) standard - supporters believe it could reduce mercury emissions by some 90 percent by 2007.
But the coal fired power plant industry, which is the nation's largest source of mercury emissions, says commercial technologies are too new and expensive to achieve such reductions.
According to the document obtained by The Associated Press, the new EPA plan would cap mercury emissions at 34 tons by 2010 and 15 tons by 2018.
Critics note that the plan is much less aggressive than existing law and say it would create dangerous mercury hotspots, as some companies will pay for credits in order to avoid reducing their own emissions.
"What is most striking about this egregious rollback is that the technology to control mercury is feasible and available at reasonable cost now and in the next two years," Jeffords said
The nonprofit association of air quality agencies of the Northeast states, says the coal fired power plant industry's annual mercury emissions of 48 tons could be reduced to 7 tons through a combination of benefits from existing air pollution controls and utilization of commercially available mercury reduction technologies
There is increasing concern about the health effects of mercury - the primary health risk emerges when airborne mercury falls into surface waters where it can accumulate in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water transform mercury into methylmercury, which fish absorb when they eat aquatic organisms and humans absorb when they eat fish.
Scientists have shown that methylmercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk.
In 2002, some 30 percent of U.S. lakes and 13 percent of rivers were under active mercury advisories, which urge people to avoid or limit consumption of fish due to high levels of mercury.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan today said that final decisions have yet to be made.
"We believe that a tough, mandatory cap, with trading, offers a promise for greater reductions in mercury emissions over a longer period, because of the improvements in technology and innovation that would follow," McClellan said.
"But we are continuing to explore both options," the White House Press Secretary told reporters. "But the bottom line is, we are moving forward to significantly reduce mercury emissions from power plants."
Cincinnati Agrees to $1 Billion Clean Water SettlementWASHINGTON, DC,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) of Greater Cincinnati would spend more than $1 billion to bring its sewer system into compliance with the Clean Water Act under a settlement with the federal and state governments.
The final settlement with the Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati was announced today by the Justice Department, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the state of Ohio and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)
The settlement intends to end long-standing sewer system violations and address raw sewage backing up into residents' basements.
The MSD of Greater Cincinnati is a department of the City of Cincinnati that serves more than 800,000 customers throughout Cincinnati and Hamilton County and operates seven major wastewater treatment plants. More than 200,000 separate sewer connections tie into MSD's 3,000 plus miles of sanitary and combined sewers.
For years, the city and county have discharged untreated sewage when it rains through overflow pipes from its sanitary sewers, or sanitary sewer outfalls, including some that were constructed long ago in MSD's aging sanitary sewer system.
Under the Clean Water Act it is illegal to discharge untreated wastewater from sanitary sewers. The EPA estimates that there are at least 40,000 sanitary sewer overflows nationally each year - the untreated sewage from these overflows can contaminate waters with bacteria, pathogens and other harmful pollutants, causing serious water quality problems.
The MSD has also caused significant additional pollution of the Ohio River and local streams from combined sewer overflows (CSOs).
Significant portions of Cincinnati's sewer collection system are "combined systems" - this means the system accepts not only sewage but also stormwater when it rains.
When the combined sewers get too full, they overflow and Cincinnati's CSOs discharge an estimated six billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with rainwater each year.
Although defendants have a permit for their CSOs, the plaintiffs complaint alleges that defendants' discharges do not comply with the permit's terms.
Today's final settlement completes the relief obtained by the 2002 partial consent decree that required defendants to address certain specified SSOs and to develop with a plan to eliminate the rest of them.
This final decree requires defendants to carry out that SSO plan and to develop and implement a plan to bring their CSOs and wastewater treatment plants into compliance with the law.
The final decree requires that all work under the two major plans must be completed by February 2022.
The decree allows defendants to request additional time if the projects are estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion dollars, although the schedule must still be as expeditious as possible, and is subject to the approval of EPA, the state, and ORSANCO.
The settlement was lodged in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio and is subject to a 30 day public comment period. Both consent decrees are subject to final court approval.
EPA Criticized for Pesticide PolicyWASHINGTON, DC,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - Conservation and pesticide watchdog groups say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is giving illegal special access to a group of chemical corporations. The organizations say documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and other sources reveal that the corporate insider group has met regularly with EPA officials in secret and has urged EPA to weaken regulations that protect endangered species from pesticides.
According to the conservation and pesticide watchdog groups, the chemical companies are pushing EPA to weaken pesticide safeguards by cutting expert biologists in the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries out of consultations determining the effects of pesticides on wildlife.
The EPA has started a rulemaking to reserve authority over such evaluations to itself.
"EPA is letting the pesticide industry have inside influence over the fate of endangered species poisoned by toxic pesticides," said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice.
The conservation and pesticide watchdog groups outlined their concerns in a letter to agency officials and demanded the EPA cease giving illegal special access to a group of chemical corporations.
They say the EPA established the task force of 14 agro-chemical companies in 2000. It meets regularly with EPA officials in closed meetings and has no public interest representatives.
Federal law prohibits the government from using and meeting in secret with such insider groups and from obtaining advice from committees comprised of only the regulated industry.
Federal law also requires that the meetings of advisory groups be open to the public.
"EPA has an open door policy to the biggest chemical companies in America while excluding the rest of us," said Mike Senatore of Defenders of Wildlife. "That is not right. In America all voices are supposed to be heard, not just wealthy interests that make campaign contributions."
The groups that sent the letter told the EPA they will consider pursuing legal action if the agency does not commit to bring its actions into compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington Toxics Coalition, and Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, represented by Earthjustice, sent the demand letter.
Florida Appeals Court Rejects Takings ClaimTALLAHASSEE, Florida,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists hailed today's ruling by a Florida District Court of Appeals to reject a corporate claim that denial of an offshore drilling permit entitled the company to a takings claim.
The ruling is the culmination of more than seven years of litigation by environmental groups aimed at preventing the Coastal Petroleum Company from drilling off the coast of Florida.
The case began when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection granted Coastal Petroleum an oil drilling permit in 1996.
Earthjustice initiated a lawsuit on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Florida Audubon Society to have the permit invalidated on the ground that it violated oil and gas permitting laws.
The plaintiffs repeatedly argued that Coastal Petroleum was seeking a permit solely for the purpose setting up a "takings claim." Such a claim would allow the company to claim billions of dollars in just compensation from the state if the permit were denied.
The environmental lawyers said that although it claims to be an oil company, Coastal Petroleum has never produced a drop of oil from its offshore oil leases and has never made a profit in its 50 year existence.
The oil drilling permit was denied on environmental grounds, as the court agreed with plaintiffs that on balance the slim prospects of finding any recoverable oil were outweighed by the environmental risks of drilling.
Coastal then filed a lawsuit claiming that the lawful denial of the permit entitled it to hundreds of millions of dollars for the "taking" of its offshore lease.
Under the takings law, companies or individuals may claim that they deserve financial compensation if the government takes or renders useless private property.
Today's decision upheld the ruling from the bench that threw out this claim on the grounds that Coastal Petroleum was not guaranteed a permit for drilling under their oil and gas lease.
"The trial court got it absolutely right," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "Coastal Petroleum is not really an oil company and there never really was an oil and gas prospect. All they wanted was to get their permit was denied so they could get hundreds of millions of dollars from the state. It did not work."
Human Global Warming Link Strong, Scientists sayARLINGTON, Virginia,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - There is no doubt human activities are having measurable--and increasing - impacts on global climate, according to two U.S. atmospheric scientists who have reviewed research by colleagues.
Results of the study, which appears in the December 5th issue of the journal "Science" as part of a "State of the Planet" assessment, cites atmospheric observations and multiple computer models to paint a detailed picture of the climate changes likely to buffet Earth in coming decades, including rising temperatures and an increase in extreme weather events such as flooding.
Although skeptics remain, this study confirms what many scientists believe - that there is ample evidence manmade greenhouse gas emissions are causing the climate to warm, and if left unchecked, could cause rising sea levels, the melting of the polar icecaps, and a host of other environmental problems that could have far reaching impacts.
"There is no doubt the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate," write Thomas Karl of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center and Kevin Trenberth, director of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Karl and Trenberth conclude that industrial emissions have been the dominant influence behind climate change for the past 50 years, overwhelming natural forces.
Levels of a key greenhouse gas - carbon dioxide (CO2) - levels in the atmosphere have risen by 31 percent since pre-industrial times - from 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to more than 370 ppmv today.
Other human activities, such as emissions of sulfate and soot particles and the development of urban areas, have significant but more localized climate impacts, Karl and Trenberth report. Such activities sometimes cause temperatures to rise or fall, but not by enough to offset the impact of greenhouse gases.
"The likely result is more frequent heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation events, and related impacts, e.g., wildfires, heat stress, vegetation changes, and sea level rise which will be regionally dependent," they write.
Karl and Trenberth estimate that, between 1990 and 2100, global temperatures will rise by 1.7 to 4.9 degrees Celsius (3.1 to 8.9 degrees Fahrenheit).
The authors base their estimate on computer model experiments by a number of climate scientists, observations of atmospheric changes and recorded climate changes over the past century.
If societies successfully cut emissions and stabilized carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, temperatures would still increase by an estimated 0.5 degree Celsius over a period of decades, Karl and Trenberth warn, because greenhouse gases are slow to cycle out of the atmosphere.
"Given what has happened to date and is projected in the future, significant further climate change is guaranteed," the authors write, adding that if current emissions continue, the world would face the fastest rate of climate change in at least the past 10,000 years.
Snail Food Production Startles ResearchersPROVIDENCE, Rhode Island,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - A startling mutual aid society is linking fungus and snails in marine ecosystems, according to a study led by a Brown University biologist.
The study presents the first evidence that a species of marine snail engages in a previously undemonstrated form of food acquisition and ecological control. It finds the species initiates and encourages the growth of fungi, its preferred food, on live marsh grass.
"In its manner of manipulating fungi, the snail is conducting a low level form of food production," said lead scientist Brian Silliman, an ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral candidate at Brown University. "This is fungal farming in a completely new group (phylum) of organisms and the first demonstration in the marine environment."
The new study, which appears in the current "Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences," establishes the mechanism by which the snail, among the most abundant grazers found in southern salt marshes, is able to affect its ecosystem.
Silliman authored the study with Steven Newell of the University of Georgia Marine Institute.
In surveys conducted along 2,000 kilometers of salt marshes on the southern U.S. shoreline, the researchers observed that the snail, known as the marsh periwinkle, Littoraria irrorata, actively grazes a live salt marsh cordgrass.
They say that as the snail crawls along the grass surface, it scrapes grass tissue with its band of saw like teeth and creates longitudinal cuts in leaf surfaces, making a much larger meal possible.
While it travels, the snail also deposits feces laden with fungal spores and nutrients into the sensitive inner tissue of the leaf, effectively stimulating and fertilizing fungal crops.
The result of snail grazing on marsh grass surface is an infestation of fungi, a major diet component for the snail, and the slowing of marsh grass growth.
This method of agriculture - called "fungiculture" - was thought to occur only in three distinct insect lineages, including certain ants, termites and beetles.
The snail is the first gastropod, or mollusk, shown to exhibit fungal-farming behavior, Silliman said.
But the researchers acknowledge that given the biological simplicity of this low level fungal production, fungal farming may be more geographically and phylogenetically widespread than presently envisioned, in particular in systems where fungal spores are abundant, grazers can manipulate fungus growing media and fungus is a major diet of consumers.
Efficiency, Renewables Could Help Ease Natural Gas PricesWASHINGTON, DC,
December 3, 2003 (ENS) - Concern over natural gas prices has many in Congress determined to increase U.S. supplies, but some believe lawmakers are focusing on the wrong side of the equation. Even the most aggressive efforts to increase the supply of natural gas will take years to affect prices, energy experts say, yet increased energy efficiency and renewable energy generation could have a more immediate impact.
According to a new report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), policies designed to spur new investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy generation could begin lowering natural gas prices immediately and help consumers save money.
"The study quantifies the benefits that energy efficiency and renewables would provide to our economy by reducing high energy bills borne by consumers and industry," said Dr. Neal Elliott, Industry Program director at ACEEE and coauthor of the study. "Contrary to what many are saying, there is something we can do about natural gas prices right now. Efficiency and renewable energy can reduce natural gas prices quickly and affordably."
The report - "Natural Gas Price Effects of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Practices and Policies" - details that reducing natural gas prices through energy efficiency and renewable energy is not only fast, but also relatively inexpensive.
"For every dollar of consumer investment in this area, $4.50 is saved through lower natural gas prices and reduced consumption," said Dr. Elliott. "This is the fastest and cheapest method of delivering relief from high natural gas prices."
Lower consumption and natural gas prices would save consumers $103 billion over the 2004 through 2008 period, according to ACEEE, for a public investment of some $7 billion and private investment of $23 billion.
The organization outlines the policy changes needed to create these savings, such as updated state and federal appliance efficiency standards, requiring electric utilities to use more renewable power generation, and expanding rebates and grants to consumers to improve equipment efficiency.
ACEEE is also calling for expanded federal research and development support for emerging efficiency and renewable generation technologies, along with tax incentives for efficiency and renewable energy investments.
2003 Hurricane Season Above NormalWASHINGTON, DC,
December 3, 2003, (ENS) - Federal hurricane specialists say the 2003 Atlantic Hurricane season was above normal, producing 14 tropical storms - seven of which became hurricanes and three major hurricanes. Six of the named systems affected the United States, said scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), bringing high wind, storm surge or rain.
The 2003 Atlantic hurricane season officially ended on November 30.
NOAA scientists identified the high likelihood of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season as early as May, said John Jones, deputy director of the NOAA National Weather Service.
"We expected an above normal season based in part on the wind, air pressure and ocean temperature patterns that recur annually for decades at a time and favor active hurricane seasons," Jones said. "These patterns make up the active phase of the Atlantic's multi decadal signal."
The period from 1995 to 2003 has been the most active for Atlantic hurricanes in the historical record, according to NOAA.
Seven of nine seasons since 1995 have been above normal and scientists are "concerned that this increased activity will continue in the coming years," said Jim Laver, director of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center. "Since NOAA began making Seasonal Atlantic Hurricane Outlooks in 1998, we have correctly predicted the levels of activity in every season by the August update."
The 2003 season included Hurricane Isabel, which became one of the strongest hurricanes on record with maximum sustained winds of 165 miles per hour. Isabel caused record storm surge flooding to the upper Chesapeake Bay, including the Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Annapolis, Md., waterfronts.
Tropical storm conditions from Isabel extended over much of the rest of the region from North Carolina northward to Long Island, New York, as the storm made landfall.
Other hurricanes in 2003 include: Claudette, which struck Texas near Matagorda Island; Juan, the worst hurricane to hit Halifax, Nova Scotia, in modern history; and Fabian, the most destructive hurricane to hit Bermuda in more than 75 years.
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