AmeriScan: February 23, 2005

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Special Counsel Dismisses Hundreds of Whistleblower Cases

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Special Counsel has dismissed or otherwise disposed of more than 1,000 whistleblower cases in the past year, according to a letter from the Bush appointed Special Counsel released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national organization representive natural resources government employees.

In a letter dated February 14, 2005 and addressed to U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who is the Ranking Member on the House Government Reform Committee, Special Counsel Scott Bloch defends his 13 months in office by pointing to a sharp drop in backlogged whistleblower cases.

Bloch has yet to announce a single case where he has ordered an investigation into the employee’s charges. Bloch says that 100 disclosures are still pending.

"I share with you a 100 percent commitment to protecting federal whistleblowers, the merit system principles, and bringing justice to the federal workforce. These ideals can only be served by reducing the historic backlog in this agency that I inherited," writes Bloch.

He calls dismissal of the more than 1,000 whistleblower cases, "a creative and longlasting strategic solution to the problem that will redound to the credit of the federal workforce for years to come."

"Everyone agrees that backlogs and delays are bad but they are not as bad as simply dumping the cases altogether," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

This letter is the first account that Bloch has released of his tenure. Ruch notes that his office’s report for FY 2004, which ended in October, is overdue.

"If the Office of Special Counsel under Scott Bloch is not helping whistleblowers then there is no reason for the office to continue to exist," Ruch said.

Bloch wrote to Waxman that in the past year the Office of Special Counsel has made 470 claims of retaliation disappear. In none of these cases did Bloch’s office affirmatively represent a whistleblower to obtain relief before the civil service court system, called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Bloch says that another 30 retaliation cases remain in the backlog.

In order to speed dismissals, Bloch instituted a rule forbidding his staff from contacting a whistleblower if their disclosure was deemed incomplete or ambiguous. Instead, Office of the Special Counsel simply dismissed the matter. As a result, says Ruch, hundreds of whistleblowers never had a chance to justify why their cases had merit.

"According to Scott Bloch there is no waste, fraud or abuse in the federal government that deserves investigation," said Ruch, noting that there may be even more dismissals than Bloch reported because the numbers cited above are limited to what was defined as a backlog and do not include new cases.

Congressmen Waxman and Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, also on the House Government Reform Committee and its Civil Service Subcommittee had originally written to ask for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office into Bloch’s removal of staff in his office, hiring of cronies, and failure to answer Freedom of Information Act requests. In his letter to Waxman, Bloch defends all of his actions in detail.

Read the letter from Scott Bloch to Representative Henry Waxman.
See the original letter from Representative Waxman and Representative Davis
Look at the last full status report on OSC’s backlog

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New Mexico Uranium Plant Could Mean Public Liability

TAKOMA PARK, Maryland, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - A new report about a uranium enrichment plant proposed for Lea County, New Mexico concludes that it would cost between $3 billion and $4 billion to properly manage and dispose of the depleted uranium (DU) waste that the plant would generate.

Such high costs could not be recovered from the customers for enrichment services and might become a taxpayer liability, according to the report released today by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a science education organization, and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), and anti-nuclear advocacy group.

The report also discusses recent research on the health effects of DU, much of it performed at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Institute in Bethesda, Maryland after the 1991 Gulf War, that the report says has implications far wider than the New Mexico plant.

The research indicates that depleted uranium may cause or contribute to genetic mutations, tumors, birth defects, neurological damage, and cellular level toxicity.

DU may emit radiation that can cross the placenta and harm the fetus, the report warns. There is also research that indicates that the chemical and radiological toxicities of uranium may, in some cases, be acting in a synergistic manner. Federal regulations limit uranium inhalation based on cancer risk and drinking water intake based mainly on kidney toxicity.

There are currently some 740,000 tons of depleted uranium in unstable hexafluoride form stockpiled at Department of Energy sites at Paducah, Kentucky, Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

LES, a corporate consortium led by the European company Urenco, wants to build the plant in New Mexico. Another company, USEC, seeks to build a similar plant in Ohio.

The report concludes that unless LES provides at least $2.5 billion in financial guarantees, it is possible that the people of New Mexico, U.S. taxpayers, and future generations would be stuck with a multi-billion dollar radioactive waste liability.

The report was filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in late November 2004 by NIRS and the public interest group Public Citizen as part of their legal intervention in the licensing proceeding of LES. A redacted version excluding proprietary LES corporate financial data is being released to the public today.

"The labeling of depleted uranium as ‘low-level’ waste by the NRC is not going to diminish its dangers," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, principal author of the report and president of IEER. "To paraphrase Shakespeare, dangerous radioactive waste by any other name would still pose significant public health risks."

"The people of New Mexico and the taxpayers of the United States may find themselves saddled with enormous liabilities," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of NIRS, which sponsored the IEER report.

"Corporations can easily wiggle out of their obligations. It happened, for example, when Getty Oil dumped the wastes from its plutonium reprocessing plant into the laps of the federal government and the state of New York over three decades ago. That multi-billion dollar mess still hasn’t been fully cleaned up, and the waste has nowhere to go," Mariotte said.

"The health risks of depleted uranium may be far more varied than is recognized in federal regulations today," said Dr. Brice Smith, senior scientist at IEER and co-author of the report. "Children in the future may be saddled with a legacy similar to that of the sorry history of lead poisoning over the past three generations, but this time we are dealing with a heavy metal that is also radioactive."

The report can be found at: www.ieer.org/reports/du/LESrptfeb05.pdf

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$95 Million Hearst Ranch Conservation Deal Closes

SACRAMENTO, California, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says the state and its conservation partners have closed escrow on a conservation plan for the historic 82,000 acre Hearst Ranch. Completion of the agreement for $95 million after more than six years of planning marks one of the largest land conservation transactions in state history. Valued at $230 million, the property includes one of the most significant coastal land gifts ever made to the State of California.

The Hearst Corporation, American Land Conservancy and California Rangeland Trust have partnered with the state to preserve 128 square miles of pristine rangeland that includes 18 miles of coastline along scenic Highway One.

"The dramatic nature of this agreement is exceeded only by the vision for the state's future and the value for the people that it will provide," said Schwarzenegger. "Thanks to Steve Hearst and our conservation partners, this magnificent property will forever be preserved."

"With this agreement, we have demonstrated what can be done when people are committed to the land and the resources here at the ranch," said Stephen T. Hearst, a great grandson of William Randolph Hearst and vice president and general manager of the Sunical Land & Livestock and San Francisco Realties Divisions of The Hearst Corporation.

"I feel great that the hard work of so many people came together to make today a reality," said Hearst. "This is an excellent example of what can be accomplished through public-private stewardship agreements."

Under the accord, Hearst will transfer to the state some 13 miles of coastline that will be owned outright by the state for public access, including close to 1,000 acres along Highway One.

Hearst has agreed to transfer additional land in cooperation with Caltrans for a future improvement of Highway One to protect the coast. The state will also receive an irrevocable easement for public access to additional coastal land to complete a critical 18-mile segment of the California Coastal Trail through the Hearst Ranch.

In addition to the coastal protection, a conservation easement will cover the 80,000 acres of ranchland east of Highway One. Virtually all development rights on the ranch will be retired permanently.

"This transaction was only possible because of Hearst's careful stewardship of the land for seven generations that kept this working landscape, cattle ranch and coastline in such a beautiful, natural state," said Nita Vail, executive director California Rangeland Trust.

Terms of the agreement include $80 million in cash and $15 million in California tax credits paid to Hearst from the Natural Heritage Preservation Tax Credit program for the land and development rights. The difference was gifted to the state by Hearst.

The partnership between the state and Hearst was reviewed in public meetings around the state, and hundreds of pages of legal documents detailing the plan were made public in the unprecedented display of openness before any votes were taken by state agencies. The plan was unanimously approved by all state agencies with oversight, including the Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, State Parks Department, California Transportation Commission and the state Public Works Board.

The conservation plan was supported by dozens of environmental and community organizations and endorsed by key elected local, state and federal elected officials.

"This agreement will allow continued good stewardship to protect the natural resources of the ranch forever," said Harriet Burgess, president of the American Land Conservancy. "This successful outcome would have been impossible without the generosity of Hearst and the hard work of all our partners."

Hearst Ranch Conservation Now Co-Chair Liz Scott Graham said, "This is the best conservation deal in the country over the last 100 years."

The Hearst Ranch began with the first purchase of land by George Hearst in 1865 and is the largest privately owned working cattle ranch on the California coast. It contains scenic vistas, critical beach habitat for elephant seals and other protected species and sandy beaches. The interior sections of the ranch support cattle grazing as well as wildlife on rolling grasslands, in oak and pine forests, numerous riparian areas and watersheds.

The conservation plan will be the second public-private partnership between California and Hearst. The first was the gift of the Hearst Castle to the state almost 50 years ago. The Castle has become the most popular park in the state with as many as one million visitors annually.

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CMS Must Control Toxic Cement Kiln Dust

CHICAGO, Illinois, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 has reached agreement with responsible parties to address an ongoing release of highly alkaline leachate into Lake Michigan from cement kiln dust piles at the Bay Harbor Golf Club near Petoskey, Michigan. Leachate is produced when rain and ground water flow through a waste disposal area.

The agreement requires two units of CMS Energy - CMS Land Co. and CMS Capital LLC - to take immediate steps to control releases from the cement kiln dust piles. The EPA will provide direction and oversight.

Under the order, CMS is required to install an interim recovery system to prevent large volumes of the cement kiln dust leachate from entering Little Traverse Bay. The system must be installed immediately and maintained until long-term measures are complete and shown to work.

In addition, CMS will construct fencing or other engineering controls to restrict access to the leachate areas. Work at the site is expected to begin in early March.

Bay Harbor Co. and Bay Harbor Golf Course have each agreed to provide access to allow CMS to carry out these activities.

As part of these interim measures, a comprehensive investigation will be conducted under EPA direction and oversight. The results of this investigation will be used in designing a long-term remedy for the cement kiln dust piles.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) will negotiate an agreement with the responsible parties for implementation of the remedy based on the investigation.

In negotiating the order, EPA worked closely with MDEQ and consulted with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and the Northwest Michigan Community Health Agency.

"Action to contain the Bay Harbor cement kiln dust release was long overdue," said Acting Region 5 Administrator Bharat Mathur. "Today’s agreement provides a road map to address the situation permanently."

"We appreciate the fact that CMS has made the commitment to undertake the measures that are set out in the agreement," said MDEQ Director Steven Chester. "Little Traverse Bay is both an extremely important Lake Michigan ecosystem and a popular resort area. These steps are geared to enhancing both."

"The tribe’s paramount concern is for the health of the lakes and quality of the waters," said Chairman Frank Ettawageshik of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. "We are pleased that this agreement will help to accomplish our goals, which we believe are in the best interest of all people in the Great Lakes region."

Beginning in 1994, a former cement plant where the cement kiln dust piles are located was developed into a resort and golf course. In August and September 2004, leachate from the piles was seen discharging into Lake Michigan.

Investigations by EPA and MDEQ showed that the leachate has a high pH level, which may cause burns and other health effects. There are also indications that the leachate contains mercury and other contaminants.

In September 2004, MDEQ required responsible parties, including CMS, to restart a leachate collection system that had been shut down. Subsequent investigations by EPA and MDEQ determined that the collection system was not adequate to address conditions at the site and that further measures would be required to protect human health and the environment.

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Sea Otter Has First Case Alaskan Case of Toxoplasmosis

SEWARD, Alaska, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - A sick sea otter found January 29 on the shore of Resurrection Bay in Seward has been diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, a parasite that kills otters in the Lower 48 states. This is the first time the disease has been found in Alaskan otters.

Veterinary staff at the Alaska SeaLife Center, a non-profit marine science facility, have named the male otter UNO.

"UNO has antibodies to toxoplasma, a protozoan parasite," says Dr. Carrie Goertz, veterinary rehabilitation manager at the Alaska SeaLife Center. "We hope it is a localized case, but the fact that toxoplasmosis has appeared here in Alaska is just one more hit for Alaska’s otters."

UNO’s lab test for serology, a measure of blood antibodies, came back from University of California-Davis with a positive result for antibodies to toxoplasma. The test was repeated with the same positive result.

The parasite is widespread among sea otters in California. "As far as we know," says Goertz. "UNO is suffering from the first detected case of toxoplasmosis in Alaskan sea otters."

Toxoplasmosis is a microscopic protozoan that causes symptoms of meningitis or encephalitis in sea otters and other animals. UNO may have acquired it from eating clams contaminated with parasite eggs.

Transmitted by cat feces entering the water, toxoplasmosis attacks the neurological function in otters. Toxoplasmosis causes swelling of brain tissues and neurological signs including seizures and stupor in sea otters and other animals.

People are the basic cause of transmission of the disease to otters, says Goertz. "The likely host is cats, which were brought here by people."

UNO’s condition is listed as guarded. "We are treating him with antimicrobial drugs and have operated on his injured paw, and now we expect to keep him here for at least a month," says Goertz.

But it is possible that the otter can never be released back into the wild. Goertz describes the disease as causing UNO to "zone out," a stuporous condition that could cause drowning, starvation, or increase susceptibility to predation if UNO was on his own in the wild.

"Toxoplasmosis can be fatal," says Goertz. "But we are hoping for the best for UNO and hoping this is an isolated case."

Because toxoplasmosis is a concern for other species, the Alaska SeaLife Center has contacted state and federal officials, and is working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in part to ensure appropriate testing is done. The SeaLife Center operates a 24 hour hotline for the public to report stranded marine mammals or birds, and encourages people who think they may have found a stranded or sick marine animal to call first at 1-888-774-SEAL and avoid touching or approaching the animal. Learn more at http://www.alaskasealife.org

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New Environmental Policy Institute Takes Shape at Duke

DURHAM, North Carolina, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - Duke University has named Timothy Profeta, counsel for the environment to U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, as the first director of its new Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, President Richard Brodhead announced Tuesday.

As Lieberman's counsel, Profeta was a principal architect of the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act in 2003. He is credited with helping to build the coalition of support and coordinating a political and media campaign to promote the act's passage.

"By the end of the decade, I want the Nicholas Institute to be on the 'first-call-made list' by a wide range of groups interested in environmental issues," Profeta said. "It should be a resource for businesses seeking to craft strategies to address environmental problems, policymakers seeking to draft effective solutions, advocates seeking credible insight into environmental challenges, and reporters and the public seeking objective analysis."

"Tim Profeta represents the environmental leaders of the future," Brodhead said. "He is experienced, enthusiastic and savvy about science policy and the political arena, and strategic in thinking about how Duke can best work with others to forge a positive environmental agenda for our nation. He will be a strong leader for this important new institute."

Brodhead also announced that William K. Reilly, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George H.W. Bush and currently president and CEO of Aqua International Partners, has agreed to serve as senior adviser and chair of the board of advisers for the Nicholas Institute. Reilly also chairs the World Wildlife Fund board and is a trustee of the National Geographic Society and The Packard Foundation, among other positions.

"Bill Reilly is recognized as one of the best-informed and most creative leaders associated with environmental issues," Brodhead said. "His career has been aimed at identifying environmental solutions. He will be a strong chair of the Nicholas Institute board and, with Tim Profeta, gives the institute unparalleled leadership."

Said Reilly, "At a time of planet-wide environmental transformation, the Nicholas Institute will not lament the problems but will home in on solutions. And I look forward to helping it find them."

Brodhead said the Nicholas Institute Board will be created to bring leaders and experts from industry, government, foundations, non-governmental organizations and other groups from across the globe to help its policy, research outreach and advocacy missions.

University officials said they envision that the Nicholas Institute will have a global reach and will marshal the broad resources of the university to assist in setting a national environmental agenda.

A three-day environmental summit on the Duke campus September 20-22 will launch the Nicholas Institute, introduce Profeta to the campus community and others, and provide an opportunity for participants to focus on current environmental issues. Officials said the summit will showcase how the institute will work with partners from business, government and nonprofits to develop results-driven environmental plans.

The institute is made possible through a gift from Duke Board of Trustees Chairman Pete and Ginny Nicholas of Boston, who gave the school that bears their name $70 million in December 2003 to push ahead with the new institute and other activities for Duke to assume environmental leadership and achieve worldwide impact.

The Nicholas Institute is found online at: http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/institute

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Society Seeks Declaration That Cockfights Spread Bird Flu

WASHINGTON, DC, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - The Humane Society of the United States says cockfighting activities are a significant means of transmitting avian influenza in Southeast Asia, and the American group is asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify them as a problem.

In a letter sent today to WHO Director-General Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Human Society President Wayne Pacelle asks the international agency to "call on all nations impacted by the avian influenza virus to actively combat cockfighting activities in their country as a critically necessary part of addressing this deadly disease."

Bird flu has killed 45 people from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia since the outbreak surfaced last year and has caused the deaths of over 100 million birds in Asia through disease or culling.

Experts believe several children in Asia have already died from bird flu as a result of exposure through cockfighting.

"We believe cockfighting deserves the WHO's immediate attention because of extensive evidence that the transport of birds for this cruel practice has been a key factor in the spread of the avian flu across Southeast Asia," wrote Pacelle. "Birds transported and used for fighting matches are uniquely capable of spreading deadly viruses like avian influenza."

Pacelle wrote of his concern that cockfighting is widespread in the countries hardest hit by avian flu outbreaks - Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

He cites an estimate by the Thai Cockfighting Association that there are 30 million fighting birds in Thailand and quotes their report that diseased birds from Thailand are being brought to other countries for fights.

Cockfighting practices that encourage disease transmission, such as moving birds around to fight in different locations, evasion of government oversight, and close contact between people and birds.

Cockfighting is banned in the United States, except in Louisiana and New Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Chicken Council have endorsed federal legislation to strengthen penalties for animal fighting, endorsements made in part because of the connection between cockfighting and diseases such as avian flu.

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Dive Deep Into Florida's Wakulla Springs Cave Yet Stay Dry

WAKULLA, Florida, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - Virtual explorers can now take an underwater journey into one of the deepest cave systems in the world through their home computers. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is offering a newly expanded website - Wakulla Springs: A Giant Among Us - which profiles the state’s largest artesian freshwater spring.

"This website expansion allows audiences to dive into Wakulla’s underwater caves from their home computer," said DEP Florida Springs Initiative Director Mike Bascom. "The virtual tour takes viewers through one of the world’s deepest natural cave systems, capturing the beauty and the history within the caves."

One of the deepest in the world, the Wakulla Springs cave system reaches depths of more than 300 feet. Wakulla Springs flows from an underground river at 175,000 gallons per minute.

The Wakulla Springs cave system was first explored by divers in the 1950s, who entered the caves in search of mastodon remains. Since then, researchers have explored more than 12 miles of the Wakulla Springs cave system.

The Wakulla Virtual Cave Dive website to share facts and photographs from research dives. The virtual tour allows online explorers to learn about the Wakulla Springs cave system by moving a "virtual diver" along explored sections of the cave.

The Florida Springs Initiative, established in 2001, is the first comprehensive, coordinated plan to restore and protect Florida’s more than 700 freshwater springs. This year more than $350,000 has been earmarked to protect spring ecosystems, water quality and flow within Florida’s state park system, including Wakulla Springs State Park.

Florida has conserved more than 27,000 acres of spring recharge area across the state, including 3,000 acres around Wakulla Springs.

Wakulla Springs State Park attracts close to 195,000 visitors each year, an economic boost for the state of $7.5 million.

For more information about Florida’s "bowls of liquid light," visit http://www.floridasprings.org. Visit the Wakulla Virtual Cave Dive at http://www.floridasprings.org/exploration/featured/wakulla/.