AmeriScan: February 14, 2007

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Winter Storm Blasts Through Northeast, Midwest

WASHINGTON, DC, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - A powerful winter storm affected the entire Northeast today as it moved up the East Coast. The storm delayed plane, rail and bus travellers and closed at least six airports.

The Orange County and Dutchess County airports were closed this morning and remain closed until future notice, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Planes at Newark International Airport are experiencing 30 to 45 minute delays due to wind.

Eleven deaths have resulted from the storm in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Ohio, the Associated Press reported.

One to two feet of wind-blown snow buried portions of Upstate New York, northwest Pennsylvania and northern Vermont.

A wintry mix of sleet and freezing rain is falling over northern Virginia, Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York and southern New England. Freezing rain in the DC Metro area produced ice accumulations up to one inch.

Schools were closed today across much of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.

As much as 15 inches of snow fell in Ohio and Indiana as the storm hit the Midwest, and snow accumulations near 20 inches were measured from central Illinois through northeast Ohio.

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Tuesday activated the New York State Army National Guard to assist in the massive snow removal operations in Oswego County and activated the State Emergency Operations Center. Last Thursday, Governor Spitzer declared a State Disaster Emergency for Oswego County and surrounding areas battered by lake-effect snows since February 2.

Greyhound Lines Inc., the nation's largest intercity bus company, closed 10 terminals and canceled or delayed service on 23 routes due to the severe weather, the company said in a statement on its website.

As the storm moves north into Canada, a blizzard warning remains in effect for New Hampshire and Maine. The National Weather Service warns that wind-blown snow will make for treacherous travel conditions overnight and into Thursday.

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Navy Rejects California Coastal Commission Whale Safeguards

LOS ANGELES, California, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - In a letter to the California Coastal Commission, the U.S. Navy said Monday that it will not comply with a decision by the commission that requires the Navy to protect whales during two years of naval sonar exercises planned off the southern California coast.

The Navy said it is, "unable to agree to the conditions regarding the use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar as set forth" by the commission. They Nayv challenged California’s jurisdiction to regulate the use of sonar more than three miles off its coast.

At a public hearing in January, the bi-partisan commission voted eight to one to condition its approval of the Navy’s exercises on a set of 14 requirements, 12 of which were aimed at lessening harm to whales and other marine mammals from the blasts of mid-frequency active sonar.

The naval exercises are scheduled to take place in waters that host blue whales, humpbacks, gray whales, dolphins, porpoises and other sensitive and iconic California species.

The move is a violation of longstanding precedent and the commission’s authority, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

"The Navy’s rejection of the common-sense protective measures required by the commission for sonar training is an attack not just on whales and other marine life off our coast but on the commission itself," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC.

"The Navy’s novel notion that California has no authority to protect marine mammals ignores the fact that the commission has been doing so for years under federal coastal protection laws," Reynolds said.

Among the requirements presented by the Coastal Commission to the Navy were - avoidance of key marine mammal habitat, such as the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the gray whale migration route; a requirement to power down at nighttime and in other conditions of low visibility, when whales are hard to spot; and expanded safety zones around ships to keep from blasting nearby whales.

In its letter, the Navy agreed only to submit any monitoring reports it prepares to the commission.

Whales around the world have been found dead or dying following encounters with mid-frequency military sonar.

In 2004, whale biologists examined the link between Navy sonar and whale strandings and concluded that the evidence of sonar causation is "very convincing" and "overwhelming."

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Lawsuit Seeks to Protect Polar Bears, Walrus

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - Polar bears and walrus in the Arctic are being harmed by expanding oil and gas exploration because federal regulations do not assess the combined threat of exploration together with global warming, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by two environmental groups.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, the lawsuit challenges U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS, regulations that allow harm to the animals through oil and gas activities in the Beaufort Sea and adjacent coastal plains where climate change is shrinking ice sheets essential to survival of these species.

Drilling, seismic work and transportation disturb feeding polar bears, cause abandonment of maternity dens and generally disrupt polar bear life cycles, said Earthjustice attorney Clayton Jernigan, who filed the suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment.

By issuing regulations without taking global warming into account, the lawsuit claims, the Service violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The Service did not assess impacts in the context of a warming Arctic, and failed to demand that appropriate protective measures be taken by those engaged in exploration, said Kassie Siegel, Climate Program director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Siegel was lead author of the petition that convinced the federal government in January to propose listing the polar bear as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming.

"The government is well aware that global warming threatens polar bears with extinction and is transforming the entire Arctic ecosystem, yet these regulations fail to take this into account," Siegel said.

Recent research confirms that global warming degrades the bears' physical condition, reduces cub survival and is linked to drowning, starvation and cannibalism among the bears, said Whit Sheard of the plaintiff group Pacific Environment.

He said the suit is aimed at preventing oil and gas exploration from further hurting the animals.

"The FWS must take a hard look at the impacts of both a changing Arctic environment and increased oil and gas development before authorizing further harm to polar bears and walrus," Sheard said.

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Church Group Sentenced for Poaching Baby Leopard Sharks

MONTEREY, California, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - Restitution and contributions collected as a result of federal prosecution of a church-based poaching operation that removed thousands of undersized California leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay will be used to create a $1.5 million fund to help restore habitat for sharks and other wildlife.

Speaking at a press conference Monday at Monterey Bay Aquarium, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan joined representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to announce the partnership fund.

The fund includes a $500,000 contribution by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity which includes the Bay Area Family Church in San Leandro, and more than $410,000 in restitution assessed to its pastor, Kevin Thompson, and five co-defendants.

The California Coastal Conservancy will add $300,000 to the fund, and another $300,000 will be added through the combined contributions of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

"These sharks were shipped illegally from California to profit-motivated dealers throughout the United States and Europe," said Paul Chang, special agent in charge of the Service's Pacific Region Law Enforcement Office in Portland, Oregon.

The Service started its investigation in 2003 when a San Diego-based special agent received a tip that a group of people was harvesting leopard sharks at night from San Francisco Bay.

The three year investigation involved enforcement officers from California Department of Fish & Game, the United Kingdom's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Fish Health Inspectorate and The Netherlands General Inspection Service.

Service special agents in California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia and New York were also involved.

California's investigation, led by Game Warden Rebecca Hartman, focused on Ira Gass of Azusa, California, who had continued poaching sharks even after being previously prosecuted by the state for the illegal take and possession of undersized leopard sharks.

Eventually, Thompson, 48, and five others including Gass, were indicted on federal Lacey Act charges in January 2006. The Lacey Act prohibits the interstate commercialization of wildlife taken in violation of state laws. California law prohibits the possession, take, buying or selling of leopard sharks less than 36 inches in length.

Thompson pleaded guilty to one Lacey Act charge, admitting that between 1992 and 2003, he led other church members in a scheme to illegally catch and sell undersized leopard sharks to aquarium dealers in the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

In addition to paying $100,000 restitution, the pastor was sentenced January 22, to one year and one day in prison.

The five other defendants pleaded guilty to Lacey Act charges and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to eight months and varying terms of home confinement and probation. They paid restitution ranging from $20,000 to $100,000.

The defendents admitted church vessels were used to fish for the undersized sharks, which were stored at a facility in San Leandro owned by a business associated with the church.

Sharks were shipped out of Oakland and San Francisco airports for sale to dealers throughout the country and abroad for $9 to $25 each. One defendant admitted selling the them through his business, Amazon Aquarium, Inc. located in Alameda, California, and another sold them through through his business in Oakland, Bayside Marine Aquatics.

One defendant intentionally mislabeled them as "common sharks" to avoid detection by wildlife inspectors and sold them for $50-$75 each.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Cabrillo Aquarium in San Pedro, California and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago assisted federal wildlife agents and Illinois Conservation officers in the transport and care of 19 baby leopard sharks confiscated during the investigation. Most were returned to the ocean; four remain on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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Overfishing Scheduled to End by 2010

WASHINGTON, DC, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - NOAA Fisheries Service has begun to develop new federal guidance intended to assist regional fishery management councils end overfishing in all U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries by 2010.

This deadline is a new requirement under the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 2006 passed by Congress in the final days of the last session.

"The President is determined to stop overfishing and rebuild the nation's marine fisheries to sustainable levels to maximize their economic and environmental benefit to the nation," said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service. "We are pleased that Congress gave us new tools to end all overfishing and we look forward to continued support in the 2008 budget process."

Initial funding for these activities is included in the 2008 budget request for NOAA Fisheries Service.

Overfishing still occurs at various levels in 48 fisheries in U.S. waters, Hogarth says.

NOAA provides guidelines to facilitate consistent application of the law's 10 national standards among the nation's fishery managers - the regional fishery management councils.

The new action would modify the guidelines for National Standard 1 of the Act, also known as the overfishing standard.

To end overfishing and prevent it from occurring in the future, the new law requires all fisheries to be regulated under annual catch limits, with accountability measures to ensure that catches do not exceed the limits.

The new law elevates the importance of following scientific advice in fishery management decisions, so the new guidelines for National Standard 1 will address the role of science in establishing annual harvest caps.

The public is offered an opportunity to discuss these issues and comment on to meet the law's new mandates.

An initial public scoping meeting will be held March 9, from 9 am to 3 pm at 1315 East-West Highway, Room 4527, Silver Spring, Maryland. Additional public scoping meetings will be set in the near future.

Written comments may be emailed to: annual.catch.limitDEIS@noaa.gov; faxed to: 301-713-1193; or mailed to: Mark Millikin, NOAA/NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway; Silver Spring, MD 20910. The deadline for comments is April 2, 2007.

After consideration of public input that NOAA receives during this scoping period, the agency will develop a proposal for specific regulations, and then will hold another public comment period. The agency aims to finalize the modified National Standard 1 guidelines by the end of 2007.

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Pennsylvania's Trash Tax Hike Could Cost $41 Million

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania, February 14, 2007 (ENS) - The Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association is warning that Governor Ed Rendell's proposed $2.75 per ton increase in Pennsylvania trash taxes would cost the state's municipalities, businesses, and consumers nearly $41 million a year in higher costs for collection and disposal of trash.

Pennsylvanians disposed of 14.9 million tons of trash in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

At that volume, an additional trash tax of $2.75 per ton would cost Pennsylvania consumers, businesses, and municipalities an extra $40,975,000 on top of what they're paying already for collection and disposal, calculates the Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association, PWIA.

"We are surprised and disappointed that the Rendell administration has proposed an increase in trash taxes amounting to $2.75 per ton as part of its 2007-08 budget," said PWIA President Tim O'Donnell.

The Pennsylvania Waste Industries Association represents private-sector waste haulers, recyclers, and landfill operators in Pennsylvania and is affiliated with the National Solid Wastes Management Association.

"If this increase is allowed to go through, it would push the state's trash taxes to $9 per ton," O'Donnell said. "Keep in mind that just five years ago state taxes on trash totaled $2.25 per ton. We don't think it's fair to ask Pennsylvanians to bear what would amount to a 400 percent increase in trash taxes over a five-year period."

O'Donnell said that as trash disposal becomes more expensive, illegal dumping tends to increase, adding to environmental problems and clean-up costs.

The PWIA is a regular oppponent of trash tax hikes. In 2004, the association objected to the governor’s plan to increase the tax $5 per ton on top of a tipping tax increase of $4 per ton, imposed in 2002.

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