AmeriScan: December 19, 2005

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House Passes Arctic Drilling With Defense Appropriations

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Today the House of Representatives passed legislation authorizing energy production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) by a vote of 308-106 as part of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act.

The Arctic drilling provision is seen to complicate the appropriation of funds to support American troops at a time of war, and it does not belong there, opponents say. They see the vote as a political move to attach a highly controversial measure to a bill that is almost certain to pass.

The provision was inserted at the last minute against the wishes of many members of Congress. Wilderness advocates are united in opposition to including Arctic drilling language in the Defense Appropriations bill.

Today's House vote authorizes oil and gas development on 2,000 acres of ANWR's 1.5 million acre coastal plain.

"This vote represents the largest potential increase of American energy supplies - and the biggest step toward energy independence - Congress has approved since 1973 when it passed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Act," said Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican.

"When the Senate passes this bill," said Pombo, "a nearly 20-year debate will be brought to a close and we will finally get to the business of meeting our energy demands with more American supplies. When it comes to our economy, our national security and families facing skyrocketing energy prices, this is unquestionably the right thing to do."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said, "Finally, conferees have agreed to a provision that will allow exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We all know the energy crisis that Americans are facing already through high heating oil prices. Easing our dependence on foreign oil is central to our economic and national security, and this provision puts us on the right path."

Now the measure goes to the Senate, where opposition to Arctic drilling is stronger than in the House.

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, went to the floor of the United States Senate today to oppose adding drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Department of Defense Appropriations Bill. "This is basically giving the oil companies a sweetheart deal around federal laws and regulations that no other company has ever gotten," she said.

Cantwell, a member of the Senate’s Commerce and Energy Committees, serves as the chair of Energy Independence 2020 and has been a leader in the fight to stop plans to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

After her remarks on the floor, Cantwell was joined by a group of senators at a press conference who announced that they will use available procedural options to strip this drilling effort from the defense bill.

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New Orleans' Levees Will Be Rebuilt for Category 3 Hurricanes

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Federal Coordinator For Gulf Coast Rebuilding Donald Powell announced new actions Thursday that will strengthen the levees around New Orleans to keep out catastrophic floodwaters. The improvements are intended to address the main causes of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina that inundated 80 percent of the city.

Powell said the the completion of previously authorized levee projects will be accelerated, and the levees will be armored to improve reliability.

The three interior canals - 17th Street, Orleans, and London Avenue - will be closed and state-of-the-art pump stations at the lakefront will be installed.

In addition, existing non-federal levees will be raised to federal design standards.

By the end of 2005, we expect to have repaired all breached areas, Powell said.

All of these actions can be substantially completed within three years and will provide greater flood and storm protection for the most densely populated areas of Greater New Orleans, said Powell.

President George W. Bush's budget request, currently making its way through Congress, includes $1.6 billion for the U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers, part of which will be used to accomplish these improvements.

The administration also plans to dedicate $250 million of these funds to high priority wetlands restoration efforts that will also provide additional flood and storm protection to the greater New Orleans area.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said, "I want to thank the President for his commitment to rebuild the New Orleans levees to a true Category 3 level. It is a strong signal to our families that they can come home and rebuild."

The levees were designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, while Katrina was a stronger Category 4 hurricane when it hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, claiming at least 1,000 lives and displacing 400,000 people.

"New Orleans can rebuild with more confidence and businesses can reestablish themselves, knowing that their investments will be better protected," the governor said. "This is a down payment. This is one of our top federal priorities. Now it's time to fight for housing."

Because the Corps of Engineers wants to find out what happened from an engineering perspective to the New Orleans protection system to ensure optimum designs for its reconstruction and for future projects, the Chief of Engineers commissioned an Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) to perform the engineering evaluation.

The American Society of Civil Engineers is supporting with an External Review Panel, which will provide an independent oversight of the IPET evaluation. IPET will use collected data, laboratory testing, and modeling activities in its analysis. Their final report will be released in June 2006.

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Forest Service Opens Tongass Roadless Areas to Logging

JUNEAU, Alaska, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service has decided to permit two timber sales in roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska that have conservationists up in arms.

Last week, the Forest Service announced the Navy timber sale which would clearcut 2,070 acres on Etolin Island. This project proposes to log 50 million board feet – about the amount of wood taken off of the Tongass annually for the past several years. This sale would impact three inventoried roadless areas and require 35 miles of new roads to be built.

In November, the Forest Service approved the Emerald Bay Timber Sale. Forest Service plans to allow the clearcut of pristine old-growth forest within an 8,000 acre project area 40 miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska.

The decisions were made despite an August ruling of 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which found the Tongass National Forest plan in violation of the law.

“It’s as if the Forest Service bureaucracy is in overdrive,” said Laurie Cooper, manager of the Alaska Rainforest Campaign. “The public’s been told nothing yet about how the agency is going to set about making a legal plan for the Tongass, but they have no problem barreling ahead with taxpayer-subsidized logging projects.”

Cooper says the Emerald Bay timber sale, "will cut out the heart of the 350,000 acre roadless area complex that makes up the Cleveland Peninsula."

The Forest Service says the Emerald Bay project includes the construction of six miles of "new low-impact road" within the Cleveland Inventoried Roadless Area. About two miles of the road construction would occur in a medium old-growth reserve along with the construction of a new log transfer facility.

After harvest, the Forest Service says, "the entire road and transfer facility would be put in storage and allowed to re-vegetate." The project would affect less than two percent of the Cleveland Inventoried Roadless Area’s 191,477 acres.

Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said, “This type of project can boost the economic health of communities by helping local, family-run businesses keep operating and create jobs," said Cole. According to the Forest Service, the Emerald Bay project could generate nearly 90 local jobs for the life of the project.

The Emerald Bay decision is subject to appeal within 45 days of the date that legal notice of this decision was published in the Juneau Empire, November 21, 2005. Notice of Appeals must be filed with the Regional Forester, Alaska Region, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska 99802-1628.

On August 5, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Forest Service’s substantial errors in calculating market demand for the Tongass National Forest logging program violated the law and concluded that the agency needed to complete a new plan for the forest.

Cooper says, "At the heart of the court’s ruling was the Forest Service’s failure to consider logging less of the remaining roadless areas in the rainforest, including the Emerald Bay."

Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said, "The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued in August concerning the Tongass National Forest Plan does not restrict the Emerald Bay project."

“Logging the rainforest before fixing the Tongass forest plan is like trying to drive across the country without a map,” said Dan Ritzman, Alaska Coalition executive director. “The agency is going to get lost and continue to waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

“It’s as if the Bush administration has blinders on when it comes to acting on a federal court’s decision,” said Cooper. “Their single-minded focus on taxpayer-subsidized logging in our country’s largest national forest apparently takes precedence over developing a legal plan for the Tongass.”

Sportsmen, commercial fisherman, recreation seekers, and conservationists still are hopeful that the court decision will force the Forest Service to work with the public to develop a responsible management plan in the Tongass.

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Maui Mayor Will Seek Control of Primary Drinking Water Source

KAHULUI, Maui, Hawaii, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa has announced that he will work to obtain control over water from four streams overlying the Iao aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for the island of Maui.

The Na Wai 'Eha - the "four great waters" of the 'Iao, Waihe'e, Waikapu and Waiehu streams - have been controlled by Wailuku Agribusiness Company Inc. (WACI) for at least 100 years.

The company has phased out its agriculture activities but continues to divert water from the streams to sell to other agricultural interests, including Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and Maui Pineapple Co.

The Hawaii Supreme Court has ordered that water no longer needed for agriculture must be returned to the stream from which it was being drawn to restore stream flow as water in Hawaii is held as a public trust.

Undeterred by this law, this court order and pending litigation, WACI has recently reformed as the Wailuku Water Company.

Mayor Arakawa has asked WACI to voluntarily restore sufficient flows to `Iao and Waihe`e streams to ensure a continuous flow to the ocean, which is necessary to support native stream life.

If WACI fails to do so, Mayor Arakawa will submit funding proposals to the County Council and seek acquisition of the watershed land and ditch systems owned by WACI so that Maui County itself can accomplish this restoration.

“Restoring Maui’s streams is a critical component to preserving our public water resources and to recharging the aquifer,” said Mayor Arakawa. “I will do everything necessary to ensure that control of this key asset in Maui’s future rests with the people of Maui.”

In return for the mayor's pledge, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice representing two Maui community groups has announced a resolution of litigation over ground water from the Iao aquifer.

Each of the two groups has a stake in water supplies from the aquifer. Many members of the group Hui o Na Wai 'Eha are taro farmers, and members of the other group, the Maui Meadows Homeowners Association, drink water from the aquifer.

Earthjustice announced that the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is withdrawing their legal challenges to the permit applications of the Maui County Department of Water Supply (MDWS) for water from the Iao aquifer.

This dispute over the 'Iao aquifer began in July 2003, when the state Water Commission, in response to Maui Meadows’ petition, took over management of the 'Iao aquifer by designating it a ground water management area. This required all water users, including the Maui County Department of Water Supply, to apply for permits by July 2004.

Earthjustice and OHA objected to MDWS’s applications and requested a contested case hearing, an administrative trial, which was scheduled to begin in April 2006. This settlement will avoid such litigation, which in a similar case on Oahu, stretched on for over a decade without final resolution.

In another case, Earthjustice and the Maui community groups are seeking to set instream flow standards that would provide basic flows necessary to sustain public purposes such as ecological protection and Native Hawaiian taro farming. This restoration is intended as an interim measure only, pending resolution of the flow standards.

“Our streams support important public purposes, including helping to recharge our ground water supplies,” said Burt Sakata, president of Hui o Na Wai 'Eha and a Waihe`e resident. “We’re glad that the community groups, OHA, and the County of Maui can work together to protect our water resources for present and future generations.”

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Manager Charged With Dumping Dredged Spoil Near Hilton Head

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Michael L. Hayhurst, Jr. was indicted Friday by a federal grand jury and charged with violating the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act and for covering up illegal discharges of dredged material from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in connection with a dredging operation he supervised in Calibogue Sound in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

The indictment states that Hayhurst was hired as the project manager for the dredging operation by South Island Dredging Association (SIDA), a group formed by a number of homeowner associations for the purpose of funding and obtaining approval from the Army Corps for the dredging operation.

The Army Corps issued a permit to SIDA to dredge areas in and around Calibogue Sound but required that fine-grained dredged material not to be used for beach restoration be placed in an ocean-going barge for disposal at a designated site in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina.

The permit also required that the barge be equipped with electronic tracking equipment to ensure that it was in fact making trips to the ocean disposal site.

“The indictment in this case alleges that the defendant disregarded the laws that protect our waters, with a clear intent to deceive the Corps of Engineers,” said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Instead of complying with the terms of the permit, the indictment alleges that between February and May of 2003, Hayhurst illegally dumped dredged materials into Calibogue Sound, altering the course and condition of the Sound.

Hayhurst is alleged to have violated the False Statements Act when he placed seawater instead of dredged material into the ocean-going barge and transported the seawater to the ocean disposal site to conceal from the Army Corps the fact that he was illegally discharging the dredged material into Calibogue Sound.

“Environmental crime involves a betrayal of the public trust - and our nation’s resources,” said U.S. Attorney Jonathan Gasser for the district of South Carolina.

“Dredging is a critical activity in providing navigation throughout the country,” said John Paul Woodley, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works of the Army Corps of Engineers. “This indictment reflects the Army's deep commitment to ensuring that dredging is conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.”

If convicted, Hayhurst faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison on the Clean Water Act charge, five years in prison for the False Statements Act charge, and one year in prison for the Rivers and Harbors Act charge.

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California Man Charged With Conspiracy to Import Endangered Cycads

LOS ANGELES, California, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - California resident Andrew Anhh Nguyen was charged Wednesday by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles with conspiring to import endangered plants called cycads, which resemble palms or tree ferns.

Cycads are a small group of primitive-looking plants, belonging to the genera Encephalartos and Cycas, whose ancestors date back more than 200 million years. Certain cycad species face threats in the wild from habitat loss and over-collection.

The cycads are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a treaty through which the United States and more than 150 other countries protect certain species of fish, wildlife and plants against over-exploitation by regulating trade in the species.

Nguyen, of Walnut, California, was allegedly conspiring to import cycads into the United States. He was also charged with eight counts of customs offenses, including smuggling and importing cycads by means of false declarations and statements, and one count of violating the Endangered Species Act.

The indictment describes Nguyen’s agreement in April 2001 to purchase some 51 protected Encephalartos plants from a co-conspirator for approximately $26,000. The plants were allegedly shipped to Nguyen from Zimbabwe by a second co-conspirator.

The specimens were labeled with numbers rather than species names and Nguyen was provided a key showing which numbers corresponded to which species. The permit accompanying the shipment did not authorize the shipment of any of the species actually in the shipment. The indictment also describes Nguyen’s efforts to illegally import and sell approximately 800 cycad seeds.

Protected species are listed in appendices to CITES. Species listed in Appendix I, the most protected designation, are those threatened with extinction. Appendix I species may be traded only in exceptional circumstances, and then only with required permits.

All species of Encephalartos are listed in Appendix I. All species of Cycas are listed in Appendix II, meaning they may become threatened with extinction if trade in the specimens is not carefully regulated.

The United States implements CITES through the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits trade in specimens contrary to CITES as well as possession of specimens that have been traded contrary to CITES.

“We are serious about enforcing the laws that protect rare plants and wildlife from exploitation and possible extinction,” said David Uhlmann, chief of the Environmental Crimes Section for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. The investigation of this case was led by Special Agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Mississippi Wetlands Developer Imprisoned for Nine Years

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Wetlands criminal enforcement prosecution has resulted in the sentencing of a Mississippi man to nine years in prison and his daughter to seven years. Another defendant will also go to jail for seven years, and the two affiliated corporations they operated were fined a total of nearly $5 million.

All five defendants were convicted after trial earlier this year of Clean Water Act violations for illegally filling hundreds of acres of wetlands during the development of a 2,600 acre subdivision on property in Vancleave, Mississippi known as Big Hill Acres.

All of the defendants were also convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud for then selling hundreds of home sites on the filled-in wetlands despite warnings from public health officials that they were illegally installing septic systems in saturated soil that would contaminate the property.

Robert J. Lucas, Jr.; his daughter, Robbie Lucas; and M.E. Thompson, Jr.; and two affiliated corporations-Big Hill Acres, Inc., and Consolidated Investments, Inc. were sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

Robert Lucas was sentenced to nine years in prison followed by three years of supervised release, and will pay a $15,000 fine. Robbie Wrigley was sentenced to 87 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release, and is also required to pay a $15,000 fine.

M.E. Thompson was also sentenced to 87 months in prison followed by three years supervised release, and will pay a $15,000.

Big Hill Acres, Inc. was fined $4.8 million and sentenced to five years probation. Consolidated Investments, Inc. was sentenced to five years probation and is required to pay a $500,000 fine.

Robert Lucas and the other defendants developed Big Hill Acres from 1994 through 1999. Beginning in 1996, inspectors from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed Lucas that substantial portions of the property contained wetlands and could not be developed as home sites.

The Mississippi Department of Health and other regulatory agencies told the defendants that they were creating a public health threat by continuing to install septic systems in saturated soil that could not support them properly.

Despite warnings and cease and desist orders from the Corps and the EPA, Lucas and his associates continued to improperly install systems that did not conform to state health department regulations in lots that they continued to develop and sell.

Most of the land was sold to low income or fixed income families. While selling the property, Lucas and several other defendants fraudulently told prospective buyers that the property was completely habitable. More than 600 families moved into Big Hill Acres, within several years, a large number of the septic systems failed, causing raw sewage to seep up from the ground and flow across the development.

A number of the homes in Big Hill Acres also suffered from slow drainage; brown, foul-smelling water backing up into bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and sinkholes; and standing water on the lots with debris rising to the surface.

“The defendants in this case defrauded their customers and destroyed wetlands that are critical to the Gulf Coast ecosystem,” said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“The defendants destroyed valuable wetlands and victimized the residents of Big Hill Acres, who ended up with polluted homes and yards with leaking sewage,” said Granta Nakayama, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This sentence sends a convincing message that those who knowingly violate environmental laws and place the public health and welfare at risk will pay a very heavy price.”

On June 10, 2004, a grand jury in the Southern District of Mississippi charged Lucas and his associates with a total of 41 CWA and U.S. criminal code violations in connection with their development of the property. On February 25, 2005, following a two month-long trial, a petit jury in Gulfport, Mississippi returned guilty verdicts against all the defendants on all of the Clean Water Act, conspiracy and mail fraud counts. The sentences were handed down earlier this month.

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