AmeriScan: February 15, 2005

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North American Countries Agree on El Niño Definition

WASHINGTON, DC, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. National Weather Service, the Meteorological Service of Canada and the National Meteorological Service of Mexico have reached consensus on an index and definitions for El Niño and La Niña events.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the consensus on behalf of the three organizations on February 10.

Canada, Mexico and the United States all experience impacts from El Niño and La Niña events, also called the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

El Niño is a disruption of the ocean atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific. It has important consequences for weather around the globe, including increased rainfall and flooding in the U.S. southern tier and Peru, and drought in the western Pacific.

La Niña is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific.

"Having the same operational definitions helps to ensure consistency and further coordination in climate assessments issued by the North American meteorological services," said David Johnson, director of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

The index is defined as a three month average of sea surface temperature departures from normal for a critical region of the equatorial Pacific.

Departures from average sea surface temperatures in this region are critically important in determining major shifts in the pattern of tropical rainfall, which influence jet streams and patterns of temperature and precipitation around the world.

Information about NOAA’s Climate Prediction Centers’ ENSO Page is available at http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/lanina/

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Florida International U. Fined $11.5 Million for Overcharging

MIAMI, Florida, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Florida International University (FIU) has agreed to pay $11.5 million to settle allegations that it mischarged costs and overbilled under several contracts and grants with the Department of Energy. The contracts and grants dealt with testing and developing environmental technologies.

As part of the agreement, FIU will also forgo the submission of approximately $1.7 million in additional costs. The improper charging occurred during fiscal years 1995-2003 at FIU’s Hemispheric Center for Environmental Technology (HCET).

"This settlement demonstrates the Justice Department's efforts to ensure that the United States is not overbilled on federal contracts," said Peter Keisler, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Division.

The settlement resulted from an investigation by the Civil Division of the Department of Justice and the Office of Inspector General, Office of Investigations, of the Department of Energy. The investigation resulted from a series of audits conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, Office of Audit Services.

The allegations and settlement has not stopped the flow of federal funds into HCET coffers. The Center announced it is poised to launch a series of initiatives in Latin America that seek to help military forces in the region make efficient and clean use of the environment.

The first two projects include an energy plant in El Salvador, and a wastewater facility in Mexico. The first one is a power plant that does not require traditional fossil fuels. The Mexico initiative will demonstrate how wastewater at a military base can be treated through methods that reduce the need for traditional, energy intensive wastewater treatment plants.

These technology demonstration and validation projects are part of a $2.1 million, two year contract recently awarded to FIU by the U.S. Army.

This is the second phase of an earlier $5 million initiative between FIU and the U.S. Army called the Western Hemisphere Information Exchange Program, which seeks to establish cooperative relations with Western Hemisphere allies to achieve common environmental stewardship and sustainability goals.

These goals include minimizing the environmental impact of military operations, enhancing the quality of life for soldiers and their families, and developing renewable energy alternatives for installations, the university says.

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Air Pollution Exposure in Pregnancy Damages Fetal Chromosomes

NEW YORK, New York, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Exposure of expectant mothers to air pollution from combustion of fossil fuels and tobacco smoking may alter the structure of chromosomes in their fetuses, a new study of 60 newborns in New York City has found. Chromosomes are the threadlike packages in the nucleus of the cell that contain the cell's genetic information.

The air pollutants studied include emissions from cars, trucks, bus engines, residential heating, power generation and tobacco smoking. These pollutants can cross the placenta and reach the fetus.

While previous experiments have linked such genetic alterations to an increased risk of leukemia and other cancers, much larger studies would be required to determine the precise increase in risk as these children reach adulthood.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and private foundations.

"This is the first study to show that environmental exposures to specific combustion pollutants during pregnancy can result in chromosomal abnormalities in fetal tissues," said Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., the director of NIEHS. "These findings may lead to new approaches for the prevention of certain cancers."

The research was conducted by scientists from the Columbia University Center for Children's Environmental Health. Study results will be published in the February issue of "Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention," and are available online at: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org.

Researchers monitored exposure to airborne pollutants, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), among non-smoking African-American and Dominican mothers residing in three low income neighborhoods of New York City - Harlem, Washington Heights and the South Bronx.

"Although the study was conducted in Manhattan neighborhoods, exhaust pollutants are prevalent in all urban areas, and therefore the study results are relevant to populations in other urban areas," said Dr. Frederica Perera, director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health and senior author of the study.

Exposure to combustion pollutants was assessed through personal questionnaires and portable air monitors worn by the mothers during the third trimester of their pregnancies. Researchers then calculated the concentration of air pollution to which each pregnant woman and her baby were exposed.

Study participants exposed to air pollution levels below the average were designated as having "low exposure," while those exposed to pollution levels above the average were designated as having "high exposure."

"We observed 4.7 chromosome abnormalities per thousand white blood cells in newborns from mothers in the low exposure group, and 7.2 abnormalities per thousand white blood cells in newborns from the high exposure mothers," said Perera. "In particular, stable alterations were increased, which are of greatest concern for potential risk of cancer, since cells with this type of abnormality can persist in the body for long periods of time."

Chromosomal abnormalities were measured in umbilical cord blood by a "chromosome painting" technique called fluorescence in situ hybridization, one that enabled researchers to observe the structural changes within the chromosome.

"This evidence that air pollutants can alter chromosomes in utero is troubling since other studies have validated this type of genetic alteration as a biomarker of cancer risk," said Perera.

"While we can't estimate the precise increase in cancer risk," he said, "these findings underscore the need for policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels to take appropriate steps to protect children from these avoidable exposures."

Previous studies conducted by Perera and colleagues showed that combustion related air pollutants significantly reduce fetal growth, which may affect cognitive development during childhood.

The study is part of a broader, multi-year research project, "The Mothers & Children Study in New York City," started in 1998, which examines the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and babies to air pollutants from vehicle exhaust, the commercial burning of fuels, and tobacco smoking, as well as from residential use of pesticides and allergens.

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Romney Used Conservation Money for Super Bowl Rally

WASHINGTON, DC, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Shrugging off the objections of his department head, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney used approximately $45,000 in the state's parks and conservation money to stage a pre-Super Bowl send-off rally for the New England Patriots football team on January 30.

Romney then fired the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) chief Katherine Abbott who objected to spending that much money on the Patriots' send-off, as well as her top deputy.

On February 4, without warning, Romney terminated Abbott. On February 7, the number two official at DCR, Pam DiBona, was also forced to resign.

In firing Abbott, the governor blamed her for "inexcusable'' failures that contributed to four West Roxbury High School students being struck by a truck on the VFW Parkway February 4. He said she had failed to have the sidewalks cleared after a snowstorm. The students were injured, one seriously.

In a February 7 letter to Romney, Massachusetts Audubon President Laura Johnson said the organization is "saddened and disappointed by the dismissal of Katherine Abbott as the first DCR Commissioner late last week."

"I have known and worked with Ms. Abbott for over a decade as she has worked in both the public and private sectors," wrote Johnson. "Her work ethic, commitment to public service, and capacity for environmental stewardship have been above reproach; in my view, consistently setting a standard that others in the public sector should seek to emulate. The Commonwealth was well served by her years of devotion to the public’s use and enjoyment of our forests and parks."

Meanwhile, members of the Massachusetts Legislature have vowed an investigation and are pledging to introduce legislation barring Romney from spending state funds, as he has in the past, on July 4 and World Series celebrations.

There remain lingering questions about the extent to which Romney’s use of the DCR funds contributed to an accident along an allegedly unplowed portion of a parkway in which four teenagers were injured.

"It is important, given the context of former Commissioner Abbott’s resignation, to make several points about the parkways," wrote Johnson. "In view of the modern challenges facing the historic parkways, Mass Audubon strongly advocated last year that the legislature should reform DCR parkways management. This was not a position supported universally by the environmental community. We believe that the time had arrived - and the tragic events of the past week reinforce the need - to resolve the long-debated issue of parkways’ maintenance and repair."

"For professionals within the Commonwealth’s environmental agencies, Romney’s tenure has been characterized by paralyzing purges, retaliatory re-assignments and crude gag orders," said Kyla Bennett, the New England Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) a national group that represents natural resources employees.

She noted that fund diversions, such as the Super Bowl incident, are compounding the impact of across-the-board environmental cutbacks. "The human consequences of his actions, unfortunately, extend to diminished public health protections, pollution control and natural resource conservation."

Only 2,500 people attended the January 30 rally at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium that featured Romney. This low attendance meant that DCR spent approximately $18 per attendee, PEER estimates. In addition, the governor’s office told PEER that there was more than one state agency that made a financial contribution toward the Patriots' event.

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First Ski Resort Joins Chicago Climate Exchange

ASPEN, Colorado, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Aspen Skiing Company today announced it has joined the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), North America’s first voluntary, legally-binding, multi-sector market for reducing and trading greenhouse gas emissions.

Aspen Skiing Company is the first company in the resort industry to join CCX. The company operates the four mountains in the Aspen/Snowmass area - Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

Computer modeling suggest that high-altitude regions like Colorado will be some of the first to experience the effects of climate change, with ski resorts facing shorter winters, warmer nights and wetter shoulder seasons.

"Climate change is the most pressing issue facing the ski industry today," said Aspen Skiing Company President and CEO Pat O’Donnell. "The Chicago Climate Exchange provides a framework for businesses to address the issue, and it holds us to a strict emissions reduction plan. Right now this is a cutting edge program, but 10 years from now everyone’s going to be trading carbon credits, and we’ll be ahead of the curve."

Aspen has already created one climate friendly addition to the slopes - an onslope microhydroelectric system that generates clean power from spring runoff.

The Chicago Climate Exchange is the first system in the U.S. and North America to set a legally binding reduction commitment and apply the cap-and-trade principle to the climate change problem through the trading of emissions allowances.

CCX members commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change and global warming by four percent by 2006 from a 1998-2001 baseline.

Members who exceed the reduction goal may sell emission allowances on the Exchange. Members who do not meet the reduction goal must buy allowances on the Exchange to come into compliance.

Emission reductions achieved through the Chicago Climate Exchange are the first reductions achieved through a legally binding mechanism in the United States.

"We commend Aspen Skiing Company for their innovation, vision and leadership in joining the Chicago Climate Exchange," said Dr. Richard Sandor, CCX’s chairman and CEO. "Companies in this sector should be mindful of the potential risks climate change present to their industry. Making a commitment to reduce their emissions makes excellent business sense and prepares companies for a future where carbon management will be essential for profits and public confidence."

CCX members reflect a cross-section of major public and private sector North American entities, including Ford Motor, International Paper, IBM, American Electric Power, Manitoba Hydro, Amtrak, the City of Chicago and Oklahoma University, as well as non-industrial environmental innovators such as World Resources Institute, Natural Capitalism and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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Helicopters Used to Study Alaska Forest Wilderness

JUNEAU, Alaska, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - The Alaska Region Forest Service, together with the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, will be using helicopters to conduct a congressionally mandated, 10 year program to inventory and analyze Alaska national forest wilderness and wilderness study areas. The program will provide baseline information on forest health on 93 plots.

Regional Forester Dennis Bschor said he has just signed a decision allowing crews to use helicopters to access these more dangerous plots.

"Access to these remote plots will, in most cases, be arduous and, at times, dangerous. While 37 of these plots can be safely accessed on foot, up to 56 locations can only be safely accessed by helicopter. Helicopter landings are not normally allowed in these wilderness areas," Bschor said.

"My decision is based on my concern for the safety of Forest Service crews while they inventory extremely remote and difficult-to-access areas," said Bschor. "I believe this decision provides an appropriate balance between employee safety and protection of the wilderness."

There are 7.5 million acres of wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service in Alaska. There are 19 wilderness areas in the Tongass National Forest and a wilderness study area in the Chugach National Forest. These areas are usually very remote and extremely arduous to access, making them difficult to inventory and survey. It is for these very reasons that Alaska's national forest wilderness areas have not been inventoried as part of the congressionally mandatory forest inventory analysis.

"These baseline inventories are an important part of responsible forest management," added Bschor. "In a time when our nation's forests are being threatened by invasive species, unmanaged recreation, and catastrophic wildfires, it is imperative that we monitor our treasured forests for changes in vegetation, air quality, ecosystems, and other threats to their health. We cannot adequately monitor our remote sites without the use of helicopters."

Bschor considered minimum requirements, public comment and operational parameters for the surveys when making his decision to allow helicopter use. His decision contains orders for a continual review process to assess any impacts the surveys and helicopter operations may have on the public's forest experience, the impacts on the land and resources, and the safety of the survey crews.

Bschor also ordered that helicopter use be closely monitored, and that strict mitigation measures be used to reduce and limit any impacts the surveys may have on the forests.

At the same time, the Bush administration is aggressively moving forward with nearly 50 roadless area logging projects in the Tongass National Forest which will cost taxpayers over $166 million to administer, according to the Unified Forest Defense Campaign, a coalition of 13 state and national conservation groups.

According to Forest Service data, taxpayers lost $35 million in 2002 and have spent nearly $1 billion since 1982 letting the timber industry clearcut the Tongass.

"It’s irresponsible for the federal government to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars subsidizing the timber industry in Alaska and, in the process, damaging an international treasure that attracts hunters, fishermen and tourists from around the world," the Unified Forest Defense Campaign said in a statement Monday.

This coalition of national and regional conservation organizations includes Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC, The Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Earthjustice, National Environmental Trust, US PIRG, American Lands Alliance, Northwest Old Growth Campaign, National Forest Protection Alliance, Alaska Rainforest Campaign, Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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Kinder Morgan Fined $335,000 for Caustic Soda Spill

TRENTON, New Jersey, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has fined Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals, LLC of Carteret $355,000 for polluting a state waterway and unauthorized discharging of hazardous substances.

The violations stem from an October 30, 2004 sodium hydroxide spill that contaminated the Arthur Kill and surrounding land.

Sodium hydroxide, which is also known as caustic soda or lye, is a colorless, corrosive liquid widely used in the chemical industry. Contact with sodium hydroxide can cause severe burns to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes.

"Our urban waterways and communities are especially vulnerable to toxic spills, and strict enforcement against polluters is critical to protecting them," said DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell.

"DEP is holding Kinder Morgan accountable for spilling toxic sodium hydroxide into the state's waterways and onto the streets of one of the state's most densely populated areas."

On October 30, 2004 a steel tank storing sodium hydroxide collapsed and struck an adjacent storage tank. The tank discharged approximately 457,714 gallons of sodium hydroxide into the Arthur Kill and surrounding land and roads.

In addition, 74,979 gallons of sodium hydroxide leaked from the adjacent tank but were contained within the facility.

DEP fined Kinder Morgan $320,000 for spilling hazardous substances and $35,000 for discharging pollutants into state waterways.

State investigators determined that area shellfish beds were not impacted by the sodium hydroxide spill.

DEP inspected the site in January to assess Kinder Morgan's progress since the initial inspection in November 2004, and inspectors found that Kinder Morgan currently is investigating the cause of the tank's collapse. The company is dismantling both tanks and portions of the tanks' foundation to determine the cause of the spill.

Kinder Morgan, Inc. is one of the largest energy transportation and storage companies in America, operating more than 35,000 miles of natural gas and products pipelines and 135 terminals across the United States.

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Hurricane Ivan Spared Grand Cayman Coral Reefs

SANTA BARBARA, California, February 15, 2005 (ENS) - Hurricane Ivan did not irreparably damage Grand Cayman island's coral reefs, according to a photo survey conducted by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society (OFS), based in Santa Barbara.

The survey was commissioned by the new Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, as a result of the resort’s partnership with Cousteau’s OFS Ambassadors of the Environment, an environmental education and eco-adventure children’s program at the resort.

It was originally feared that the spectacular reefs, which entice thousands of tourists to Grand Cayman annually to explore their natural beauty, were damaged by the severity of Hurricane Ivan last fall.

The intensity and frequency of storms last year prompted the investigation not only to report the consequences of the storms, but to also lay the groundwork to preserve and repair damage to the reefs and its inhabitants.

Survey observations revealed that the hard coral structure of the reef was not significantly impacted and damage to encrusting corals of which the reef is made was minimal.

Storms act much as forest fires do on land, temporarily devastating the landscape, but the natural resilience of such healthy ecosystems enables them to restore themselves.

Thus, many ecosystems can handle an infrequent, intense disturbance. These sites will generate a greater variety of species that may actually increase biodiversity on the bottom over the next few years, the researchers believe.

In conducting the photo survey, Cousteau’s team, led by Dr. Richard Murphy and Denise Naguib, followed the lead of the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, which holds responsibility for monitoring and managing the health of the reefs and has many years of quantitative studies documenting their condition.

Though not open until October 2005, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is taking care to raise awareness of environmental issues during and after construction.

The resort has created a new management position designed to protect and celebrate the natural and cultural resources of Grand Cayman - under the title of executive director of culture, environment and destination services, in addition to partnering with Cousteau’s OFS to custom design a children’s program to share the wonder of nature and demonstrate ecological principles.

Jean-Michel Cousteau believes the Hurricane Ivan survey will be a useful instrument for The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Ambassadors of the Environment program to illustrate these principles and show how nature restores itself when protected from further stress.

"An important message of the Ambassadors program is learning lessons from nature that can help us live more sustainable lives back home," Cousteau said. "Hurricane Ivan is providing a valuable natural experiment from which we can explore such concepts as the value of biodiversity, ecological health, resilience, disturbance and sustainability."