AmeriScan: December 1, 2006

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Snowstorm Buries Plains, Midwest

CHICAGO, Illinois, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - Winter is officially still three weeks away, but the first major snowstorm of the season is blowing across the Plains and Midwest, grounding hundreds of flights, closing schools, icing highways, and threatening to dump up to a foot of snow on communities that had enjoyed balmy weather just days ago.

The wintry weather spread across an area stretching from Texas and Oklahoma to Michigan, and a blizzard warning was posted in parts of Oklahoma. The storm is blamed for at least five traffic deaths.

Nearly 230,000 Ameren Illinois customers across 44,000 square miles in Illinois are out of power today. Ameren officials say this ranks as the worst ice storm in the company's history.

Hardest hit areas are central and southern Illinois. Power to tens of thousands of customers was restored today, but with tree limbs falling on lines that are still weighted by the ice, many new outages are occurring.

280,000 AmerenUE customers across 24,000 square miles in Missouri are out of power today, most in the St. Louis area. Crews are coming from 14 states to help restore power but Ameren says lengthy outages are expected. Customers are urged to seek shelter, to unplug electrical equipment and turn off their furnaces.

The system roared through the Northwest and Rockies earlier this week; it rolled through Kansas on Wednesday, coating tree limbs and power lines with half an inch of ice. By Thursday, the storm was moving northeast from Oklahoma on the way to Illinois.

Sleet, snow and freezing rain forced the cancellation of 200 flights out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and closed some schools. In the Texas Panhandle, roads were covered with ice and up to seven inches of snow.

Northern Oklahoma expected to receive eight to 12 inches of snow, while parts of Illinois prepared for six to 12 inches. Varying amounts were also forecast for Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, customers raided hardware and convenience stores for storm supplies because of six inches of snow in the forecast.

In Springfield, Missouri, freezing rain and sleet knocked out power to 15,000 customers and the forecast called for snow and high winds.

"It looks like it's going to get messy," said a meteorologist in the suburb of Romeoville, Illinois. "There could be times where some areas see two inches of snow per hour."

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, more than 400 flights were canceled for today, but tonight all U.S. airports are open, and O'Hare has only 15 minute delays.

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$1 Billion in Tax Credits for Clean Coal Projects

WASHINGTON, DC, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - The Bush administration has awarded $1 billion in federal tax credits to utility companies for clean coal power generation as part of the administration calls its "strategy to move toward emission-free energy."

The tax credits, authorized by the energy law passed by Congress in 2005, were awarded Thursday to nine companies mostly for advanced coal and gasification projects using a process called integrated gasification combined cycle, IGCC.

IGCC is based on a process in which coal is converted into a gaseous fuel through partial oxidation.

An additional $650 million in tax credits for similar projects will be available in 2007, according to an Energy Department fact sheet.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who made the announcement, said that the energy content of abundant U.S. coal resources is higher than that of "nearly all the oil in the world."

"These tax credits will help us find ways to use coal in an environmentally sensitive way," he said.

Because coal is both plentiful and relatively cheap in the United States and other countries such as China and Australia, it is expected to remain the main source of electricity generation for decades. Burning coal produces roughly half of all the electricity generated in the United States.

The portion of power generated from coal in overall electricity production is projected to increase in the United States from the current 50 percent to 57 percent by 2030 as demand for electricity grows.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called the action the largest step to broad commercialization of clean-coal technologies.

IGCC and other advanced technologies are expected to extract 55 percent to 60 percent of coalís energy content compared to 35 percent in existing, modern coal-fired plants, Connaughton said.

He said the United States is well on the way to meet its stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas intensity of its economy by 18 percent by 2012 through the use of these and other clean energy technologies as well as measures to increase energy efficiency.

Greenhouse gas intensity is the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output.

The president of Tampa Electric, one of the tax credit recipients, said that incentives would bring "significant savings" to customers. Tampa Electric was the first U.S. utility to commercialize IGCC technology, in partnership with the Department of Energy.

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New Jersey Power Plants Must Upgrade Pollution Controls

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - Power utility PSEG Fossil LLC has agreed to pay six million in cash and perform $3.25 million in mitigation projects after the company failed to install pollution controls at coal-fired power plants in New Jersey as required by a 2002 court order.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the state of New Jersey announced the settlement on Thursday.

The settlement covers PSEG's coal-fired power plants in Jersey City and Hamilton, New Jersey and is more stringent than the 2002 settlement the company violated.

Subject to court approval, the new settlement secures additional air pollution reductions, tighter controls, environmental projects, and a financial penalty.

PSEG will be required to pay a civil penalty of $6 million - $4.25 million to the federal government and $1.75 million to New Jersey.

PSEG will perform environmental mitigation projects valued at $3.25 million to reduce particulate matter from diesel engines in New Jersey.

"This amended settlement provides increased public health benefits over the original settlement," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general for the Justice Departmentís Environment and Natural Resources Division.

"The new hardware commitments in the Amendment add assurance that toxic mercury emissions will be dramatically reduced and will also provide important long-term reductions in NOx [nitrogen oxides] and SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions," she said.

"While we are never pleased to see any delays in emissions controls on these coal-fired power plants, we nevertheless recognize that our negotiations with PSEG have yielded more stringent emissions reductions than we might have originally achieved," said Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

PSEG will be required to installed continuous emissions monitoring systems that measure soot and mercury emissions at its Hudson and Mercer plants.

The state of New Jersey and EPA will use information from these monitors to determine the utility's compliance with the emissions limits.

Should PSEG fail to meet the requirements of the amended consent decree, they will be subject to stipulated penalties, ranging from $10,000 to $32,500 per day depending on the type and length of the violation.

SO2 and NOx are significant contributors to acid rain; NOx also increases low level ozone, which causes smog; fine particulate matter causes haze. All of these pollutants cause severe respiratory problems and worsen cases of childhood asthma.

The modified consent decree, which is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval, is online at: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

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Clinton Plants a Mangrove for the Future

PHUKET, Thailand, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - Former President Bill Clinton will plant a mangrove tree Saturday in Phuket to officially launch the Mangroves for the Future Initiative.

Under the initiative, mangroves will be planted in the countries affected by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to reduce their coastal vulnerability. The resort community of Phuket was devastated by the tsunami.

With their long roots, salt-tolerant mangrove trees trap sediments, contributing to land building, and preventing erosion and excessive shifting of coastlines.

The initiative covers the conservation and restoration of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, and estuaries to sustain human livelihoods and reduce vulnerability among coastal communities in the Indian Ocean region.

The initiative covers 12 countries, including India, Indonesia, Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Government agencies, nongovernmental and community organizations, research institutes and universities, IUCN-World Conservation Union, UN agencies and other multilateral bodies are collaborating on the wide-ranging project.

Mangroves for the Future is a US$62 million effort that will be supported through a variety of financial mechanisms, including re-allocations of existing tsunami funds, identification of new funding opportunities and use of existing programs as parallel financing.

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Seagrass Ecosystems in Crisis

WASHINGTON, DC, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - Environmental scientists are calling for a global conservation effort to preserve seagrasses and their ecological services for the world's coastal ecosystems. Their concerns are set forth in an article published in the December issue of "Bioscience," the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

The article, "A Global Crisis for Seagrass Ecosystems," explains the critical role seagrasses play in coastal systems.

"Seagrasses are the coal mine canaries of coastal ecosystems," said co-author Dr. William Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "The fate of seagrasses can provide resource managers advance signs of deteriorating ecological conditions caused by poor water quality and pollution."

Seagrasses are a unique group of flowering plants that have adapted to exist fully submersed in the sea. The scientists say they profoundly influence the physical, chemical and biological environments of coastal waters.

They provide critical habitat for aquatic life, alter water flow and can help mitigate the impact of nutrient and sediment pollution.

But coastal development, population growth and the resulting increase of nutrient and sediment pollution have contributed to large seagrass losses worldwide.

Among its findings, the study analyzed an apparent disconnect between the scientific community's concerns over seagrass habitat and its coverage in the popular media.

While recent studies rank seagrass as one of the most valuable habitats in coastal systems, media coverage of other habitats receive up to 100 times more media attention than seagrass systems.

"Translating scientific understanding of the value of seagrass ecosystems into public awareness, and thus effective seagrass management and restoration, has not been as effective as for other coastal ecosystems, such as salt marshes, mangroves, or coral reefs," said co-author Dr. Robert Orth of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"Elevating public awareness about this impending crisis is critical to averting it."

"This report is a call to the world's coastal managers that we need to do more to protect seagrass habitat," said co-author Dr. Tim Carruthers of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "Seagrasses are just one of the many keys to maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems and their biodiversity."

The study was funded by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis through the National Science Foundation.

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California Man Admits Smuggling Eagle Owl Eggs

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 1, 2006 (ENS) - A California man has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to two felony counts of smuggling live eggs of the federally protected eagle owl, Bubo bubo, and two felony counts of making false statements to federal agents.

Jeffrey Diaz of Redwood City was charged by a federal grand jury in January with two felony counts of smuggling live eagle owl eggs on two occasions from Austria to the United States during the Christian and Orthodox Easter holidays in March and April 2005.

In an effort to disguise the owl eggs, Diaz partially painted them to resemble Easter eggs. He placed them in an Easter basket with plastic grass and hand warmers that temporarily incubated the eggs while they were being transported.

In March 2006, special agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, arrested Diaz at his residence.

Diaz was also charged with making false statements to federal law enforcement authorities, a felony, in connection with the eagle owl smuggling.

Diaz could receive up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for each felony charge.

Three of the smuggled eggs eventually hatched and the birds are currently being cared for in area wildlife centers.

Eagle owls are native to Asia, Europe and the Middle East and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.

Eagle owls are listed under CITES Appendix II, which allows trade in listed species only by special permit. The United States implements the CITES treaty through the Endangered Species Act.

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