Supreme Court to Hear Cheney Energy AppealWASHINGTON, DC, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to hear Vice President Dick Cheney's appeal of a court ruling that would force him to disclose details of meetings of his controversial energy task force.
The high court will hear the case in the new year, with a ruling expected in June 2004.
So far Cheney's lawyers have been unable to convince lower courts that the White House has the right to shield information from the public about the role of energy industry executives and lobbyists on the task force.
The public interest group Judicial Watch filed suit in 2001 to obtain the documents after Cheney's office ignored its request for information about the meetings of the task force.
The organization, which was later joined in the suit by Sierra Club, contends that Cheney inappropriately allowed industry lobbyists to help craft White House energy policy.
The plaintiffs say the public has a right to know what influence energy corporations may have had in crafting the administration's energy plan.
Bush officials say there was nothing devious about the meetings and argue that the White House should be able to gather information and advice without public scrutiny.
In July 2003, a three judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Bush administration is subject to "discovery," and must comply with requests for information.
In rejecting the government's arguments, the court wrote that the White House's position would "transform executive privilege from a doctrine designed to protect presidential communications into virtual immunity from suit."
The administration asked the appeals court for a rehearing, but that request was denied in September, prompting the White House to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
"We are seeking to hold the Bush administration accountable for shutting the public out," said David Bookbinder, senior attorney for the Sierra Club. "The American people have already waited far too long to find out exactly how energy industries influenced our national energy policy."
Bookbinder said the plaintiffs believe the Supreme Court could have rejected the administration's arguments "out of hand" but added that the decision to hear the case "will draw attention to the extreme positions the Bush administration has taken, essentially arguing that they are above the law and immune from the courts."
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said he is confident the Supreme Court will reject the Bush administration's "unprecedented assertion of unchecked executive power."
Supreme Court Will Review Mexican Truck CaseWASHINGTON, DC, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court today decided to review a federal court order preventing the Department of Transportation from allowing long haul trucks from Mexico onto U.S. roads without adequate review of their environmental impact.
The court is expected to hear oral argument in the spring of 2004 and issue a ruling by June 2004.
The Bush administration requested the review after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied petitions for a rehearing its January 2003 ruling.
That ruling found that the Bush administration had violated environmental law by announcing in November 2002 that it was opening U.S. highways to long haul trucks from Mexico.
The administration's plan would allow some 30,000 diesel trucks from Mexico onto U.S. roads, trucks that the suit's plaintiffs contend are mostly older, more polluting models.
Bush administration officials argued their policy was designed to comply with the North American Free Trade Agreement, but a coalition of public health, environmental and labor organizations sued to block the plan, which they say did not take into account the negative environmental impact of allowing the trucks on U.S. highways.
Critics cite a study that indicates by 2010 trucks from Mexico will emit twice as much particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, both harmful air pollutants, as U.S. trucks.
The court agreed with the plaintiffs and told the government that it must complete an Environmental Impact Statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act and a Conformity Statement as required by the Clean Air Act.
In addition, the ruling requires the Department of Transportation to study the impact of increased air pollution on border state communities and, where necessary, develop plans to lessen the anticipated harm, before it can move toward processing applications for cross-border trucking.
The 9th Circuit issued the ruling in response to a lawsuit filed in that court in May 2002 by a coalition of environmental, consumer and labor groups, including Public Citizen and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
"We believe that when the Supreme Court reviews all the facts, the justices will rule that federal environmental laws require the government to determine the health impact of these trucks before - not after - they begin rolling through the American heartland," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
Critics note that the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to step in even though the Department of Transportation has already begun to assess the environmental impacts in compliance with the court order.
"The last thing the Bush administration should do is stop this process dead in its tracks," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which intervened in the case in support of the coalition. "Unfortunately, this administration would rather cut corners than protect the health of Americans."
Sierra Salvage Logging Project BlockedSAN FRANCISCO, California, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - A three judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's denial of a preliminary injunction on a 17,000 acre post fire logging project in the Sierra Nevadas. The ruling is a victory for environmentalists, who say the salvage logging project is unnecessary and would harm the California spotted owl.
"This ruling is a strong signal to the U.S. Forest Service that they cannot continue to misrepresent conditions on the ground in order to justify logging," said attorney Rachel Fazio of the John Muir Project at the Earth Island Institute, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The 2-1 ruling by the court reaffirms an earlier stay it imposed in November 2002 that halted logging of any live trees in the Eldorado National Forest near Lake Tahoe until the full appeal was considered.
The court determined that the 1,700 acre logging project likely violated federal environmental law and would harm imperiled wildlife and ruled that the Forest Service likely violated the Sierra Framework and the National Environmental Policy Act in approving logging in occupied California spotted owl habitat.
The California spotted owl is not listed on the Endangered Species Act, but the species was under consideration for listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the time the salvage project was proposed.
The Forest Service said the salvage project consisted of an area devastated by the fire in desperate need of clearing and that was no longer inhabitable by California spotted owls.
The plaintiffs in the suit, which included Earth Island Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity, argued that owls continue to live in the area targeted for logging. The proposal would also allow the removal of thousands of large, living trees, the environmentalists say, not just the dead wood left by the fire.
The 9th Circuit's opinion agreed with plaintiffs that the continued presence of owls after the fire, and plaintiffs' evidence about numerous green stands ignored by the government, undermined the agency's claim that such areas are no longer suitable habitat.
"The government argues that it reasonably determined the entire area to be unsuitable for owl habitat, it could treat the temporary presence of owls as an aberration," wrote Judge Sidney Thomas for the majority opinion.
Judge John Noonan, who voted in the majority, took aim at the Forest Service's financial interest in the project.
"Any government agency would put a premium on an operation that gives it a perpetual revolving fund not dependent on Congress," Noonan wrote. "Further investigation of the budgetary process of the Forest Service and the impartiality of the service appears appropriate on remand."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Richard Clifton wrote that the public interest did not lie with the owls, but rather with reducing the threat of another wildfire.
"This is not an environmental case where some natural treasure is threatened with extinction because of commercial plans to harvest resources," Clifton wrote. "...Reasonable people can disagree on what approach would be best for the forest, the owls, the environment and the public interest generally ... it does not appear that the Forest Service - or the district court - disregarded the public interest or acted arbitrarily and capriciously in making the judgment that it did."
Park Service Blasted for Alleged Wilderness ViolationsWASHINGTON, DC, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - Four conservation groups today criticized the National Park Service (NPS) for allegedly authorizing wholesale Wilderness Act violations by its own staff at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The conservationists say the national parks in question contain more than 700,000 acres of designated wilderness in some of the wildest country in California - protections that prohibit motor vehicles and aircraft landings within the areas.
The statute allows federal agencies some latitude to engage in practices prohibited by the Wilderness Act but only when the practices are absolutely needed for administering the wilderness.
The conservation groups say that this summer the Park Service adopted an internal procedure for Sequoia and Kings Canyon that in effect voids the restrictions on motor vehicles and equipment found in the Wilderness Act for the Park Service's own activities.
The Sequoia and Kings Canyon procedures, described as "blanket approvals," allow the park to use motor vehicles, helicopter landings, motorized equipment without limit so long as these practices are in connection with a Park Service administrative activity, regardless of necessity.
The conservationists say this "blanket approval" procedure, signed by park superintendent Richard Martin, is the first time such a broad claim of exemption has been employed by any national park with wilderness.
The four groups - the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch - sent a letter requesting Park Service Regional Director Jonathan Jarvis to rescind any blanket approval procedure and to manage wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon according to the law.
They fear that if the blanket approval practices in Sequoia and Kings Canyon remain in place, similar "blanket approval" procedures may be applied to other national parks containing designated wilderness.
"The National Park Service should live by the same rules it imposes on others," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.
Kim Crumbo of Arizona Wilderness Coalition said that although her organization is based in Arizona, "we recognize the harm that could result from the Sequoia Kings Canyon approach."
"We will not let the Park Service use a clever slight of hand to evade the restrictions of the Wilderness Act," Crumbo said.
The groups believe the Park Service needs to instruct the park officials to give specific review to every proposal to use otherwise prohibited activities in wilderness.
Park Service officials had no immediate comment on the letter.
EPA Completes Sybill Oil CleanupCHICAGO, Illinois, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that the cleanup of the Sybill Oil site in Detroit is complete. The $1 million cleanup of the site, a used oil recycling facility, began in July and was paid for by a group of companies, including General Motors (GM) and Rouge Steel Company.
The cleanup included disposal of 26 above ground storage tanks, 36 tons of bulk waste, one million gallons of waste liquids, more than 200 chemical drums and other containers, and a laboratory area.
Throughout the project, air quality along the site border was monitored to ensure neighborhood safety. A few buildings and a water tower remain at the site.
The site was brought to the EPA's attention by the city of Detroit and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
"The EPA needed to take action because of the potential for hazardous run-off from the site reaching the Detroit River," said EPA Regional Administrator Tom Skinner. "We and the other agencies also were concerned about flammable materials left at the site after Sybill sought bankruptcy protection in August 2001."
The site operated from 1991 to 2001 - during this time, it was cited by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for air and wastewater discharge violations.
Prior to Sybill, GM operated an oil processing plant at the site - the automaker was preceded by a Detroit municipal water treatment facility.
And prior to the current cleanup, in 2002, GM and Rouge Steel voluntarily removed and disposed of 1.3 million gallons of wastewater and waste oils from tanks and containment areas.
In January 2003, the EPA sealed off eight sewer drains to prevent releases of oil and upgraded locks and fences at the site.
The group of companies that paid for the cleanup includes General Motors, Rouge Steel, Ford Motor Company, Detroit Diesel Corporation - all of whom sent used oil to the site for recycling.
Bill Would Boost Sea Otter Recovery EffortsWASHINGTON, DC, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - California Congressman Sam Farr introduced legislation last week to give federal support to efforts to restore and study the southern sea otter population.
Farr's bill, called "The Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act" would organize and authorize funding for sea otter research and recovery programs.
It would authorize population recovery and research programs under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of the Interior, as well as the money to fund both programs for a five year period.
The legislation would set up a Sea Otter Recovery Implementation Team, consisting of fishermen, scientists, marine conservationists, and sea otter rescue organizations, to make recommendations regarding recovery and research goals.
Farr, a Democrat, said the battle to bring the southern sea otter back from near extinction has been ongoing for more than 60 years and is in need of a federal push.
"This legislation will provide the platform for full recovery of sea otters in California and for scientific study that will help improve our understanding of the health of California's coastal ecosystems," Farr said.
Hunted to near extinction by the early 1900s, the southern sea otter is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The historic range of the southern sea otter extended from Oregon south to Baja California, Mexico.
Today the species ranges from Half Moon Bay to Point Conception off the coast of central and southern California, with some 2,000 animals believed to exist in this range.
The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife praised Farr's bill and said it could prove critical to the recovery of the species.
"Recovery efforts are all the more essential as recently released counts of the southern sea otter population found 2,122 otters, 80 fewer than the previous year," said Caroline Kennedy, director of special projects with Defenders of Wildlife.
Texas Has the Most Wintering Whooping Cranes in 100 YearsARANSAS, Texas, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more wintering whooping cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge than there have been in the last 100 years.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Tom Stehn completed a census flight last week at the Texas refuge and tallied 189 whooping cranes.
The current population exceeds by one the previous high of 188 whoopers present in the fall of 1999 and reflects very good nest production last summer, Stehn says.
The record population of 189 includes 24 young cranes that have completed their first migration to Texas.
A record 61 nesting pairs fledged 27 chicks on their nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada, as reported by the Canadian Wildlife Service.
The young cranes were old enough to fly by mid-August increasing their ability to escape from predators and their survival.
Although the whooping crane population remains endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service says the comeback of the species sets a standard for conservation efforts in North America.
The population in Texas reached a low of only 15 birds in 1941, before efforts were taken to protect the species and its habitat.
The population has been growing at 4 percent annually and reached 100 birds in 1987.
"We were hoping for 200 whooping cranes in the year 2000, but the population went into a decline for a couple years before rebounding back to 185 cranes last winter, " said Stehn.
The whooping crane population continues to face many threats, including collisions with power lines in migration, limited genetic variability in the birds themselves, loss of crane migration habitat, and winter habitat threatened with loss of productivity due to reduced fresh water inflows and chemical spills.
The only natural wild population of whooping cranes nest in the Northwest Territories of Canada in summer and migrate 2,400 miles to winter at the Aransas and Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuges and surrounding areas. Their winter range stretches out over 35 miles of the Texas coast about 45 miles north of Corpus Christi, Texas.
"Finding every whooping crane every week is quite a challenge," Stehn said. "We have thousands of other white birds in the marsh including pelicans and egrets that makes aerial spotting of cranes more difficult. Also, the cranes can move during a census flight and either not be counted or else be counted twice."
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s, and today, only about 300 cranes live in the wild.
Some 20 cranes made an assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida earlier this month and a non-migrating flock of approximately 100 birds lives year round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
How to Scare a BearNEW YORK, New York, December 15, 2003 (ENS) - As New Jersey state officials assess the success of the state's first bear hunt in three decades, conservationists have released a report that outlines nonlethal methods for humans to keep black bears from foraging through their garbage or feasting on a backyard bird feeder.
Scientists from the New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recommend playing the sound of a helicopter or flashing a strobe light, among other suggestions they tested for the study.
The scientists, who published their results in the December edition of "Conservation Biology," compared the effectiveness of non-lethal methods for keeping large carnivores away from human structures, livestock, and other potential conflict areas.
They found that motion activated lights and sounds can keep both large and medium sized predators away from food sources, thus preventing a clash that can result in large carnivores being destroyed.
"In wealthy countries such as the United States, non-lethal repellents such as motion activated guards can help resolve human carnivore conflicts without destroying animals that perform important ecological roles" said Dr. Adrian Treves, a conservationist with WCS's Living Landscapes program and coauthor of the study. "We need better methods and we need to consider human behavior as part of the problem - limiting the accessibility of food sources whether its garbage, crops or livestock."
In the study, conservationists tested the non-lethal repellent methods in six wolf territories in Wisconsin, which also contained black bears and other predators.
The study found that motion activated devices, with strobe lights and 30 random noises, were effective for keeping predators away from deer carcasses at the study sites, including bald eagles, wolves, vultures - and black bears.
The researchers determined that "fladry" - a wolf management method from Eastern Europe using flags on fences - may be moderately effective in repelling wolves, but not bears.
"High technology devices are much more expensive, complicated, and limited in effectiveness than a single bullet from a high powered rifle, but they also allow a predator to live - surely the goal of conservation," said the lead author of the study Dr. John Shivik, of Wildlife Services' National Wildlife Research Center and Utah State University.
Hunters in New Jersey killed 328 black bears during the six day bear hunt, state officials reported.