Secret New Mexico Oil and Gas Meetings Draw LawsuitSANTA FE, New Mexico,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - Three environmental organizations today filed a lawsuit in New Mexico federal court challenging a secret meeting of an advisory committee to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made up of gas and oil industry representatives scheduled for January 8, 2004. The advisory committee was asked to provide advice to the BLM by the agency's New Mexico state director.
The plaintiff groups - the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Southwest Environmental Center, and Republicans for Environmental Protection New Mexico Chapter - allege that the committee has not made these meetings open to public participation as required by Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).
The suit was filed against Interior Secretary Gale Norton, BLM Director Kathleen Clarke and BLM New Mexico State Director Linda Rundell.
Representing the plaintiffs, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice will ask for a temporary restraining order to halt this meeting until the makeup of the advisory committee can be reconstituted in "a more democratic fashion and the meeting is open to full public participation," Earthjustice said today.
The lawsuit claims the New Mexico BLM field office is in violation of FACA, a federal law that requires that membership of federal advisory committees be balanced and that meetings be open to the public.
“This meeting between government officials and industry representatives is illegal under federal law,” said Mike Harris, an attorney for Earthjustice. “The public was not given notice of these meetings and they appear to be closed to the public.”
The three conservation groups say that the scheduled meeting is taking place to provide recommendations to BLM on the implementation of natural gas development at Otero Mesa under a Resource Management Plan amendment that is still at least 60 days from becoming final.
“This meeting represents a concerted, and illegal, effort to cut the public out of the process,” said Harris.
More than 1.2 million acres of Chihuahuan Desert grassland, Otero Mesa extends eastward from the Hueco Mountains to the Guadalupe Mountains and north from the Texas border into New Mexico. This grassland is inhabited by many species of wildlife, native plants and independent cattle ranches that have been in operation for generations.
Otero Mesa is not currently designated as wilderness, but the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has surveyed the Greater Otero Mesa Area and identified over 520,000 acres suitable for formal wilderness designation.
In 1998, the Harvey E. Yates Company (HEYCO) put a well in near the base of Alamo Mountain and at a depth of 7,100 feet hit a commercially viable find of natural gas. Skyrocketing prices for natural gas make the find worth developing. But if it is turned into an oil and gas field, Otero Mesa wilderness and its wildlife will be lost.
“Any family that likes to hike has the same ownership rights to public lands in the New Mexico as special interests who seek to profit from its exploitation," Harris said. "In America, we make decisions about public lands through a democratic process, not behind closed doors in private meetings between government and industry.”
In a November 2003 meeting, Rundell asked that that New Mexico Resource Advisory Council take on the responsibility of holding “public” meetings to advise BLM on its implementation under the amended Resource Management Plan (RMP).
But to date, none of these meetings have been noticed in the Federal Register and there is no other indication that these meetings are open to public participation.
Nuclear Agency Eliminates Double Seals on Plutonium ShipmentsWASHINGTON, DC,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday issued a final rule revising safety standards for the packaging and transportation of radioactive material.
The rule grants a petition for rulemaking submitted in 1997 by International Energy Consultants, Inc. of Potomac, Maryland to eliminate double seal requirements for plutonium shipments.
International Energy Consultants, a company which provides advice and counsel to senior management in the international energy industry, successfully argued that the double seal requirement does not exist for other radioactive materials, and that the requirement generates excessively high costs in the transport of some radioactive materials without a clearly measurable net safety benefit.
The petitioner contended that the plutonium release limits allowed by federal package performance requirements are identical with or without a "separate inner container," which does not affect the standard to which the outer container barrier must perform in protecting public health and safety and the environment.
In addition, workers who must seal, inspect or move the separate inner container receive unnecessary radiation exposure, the consulting organization argued.
The NRC agreed, reasoning that there is no comparable International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirement for the use of double seals on packages containing plutonium, and current single seal packages used for transporting spent fuel would provide adequate accident protection when applied to packages transporting plutonium.
The final rule maintains a requirement, however, that shipments of greater than 20 Curies of plutonium must be made with the contents in solid form.
Among other things, the final rule would phase out the use of older approved designs for certain transportation packages. This change is being imposed, despite an excellent safety record for the older package designs, in order to bring U.S. transportation regulations into alignment with those in place internationally and to take advantage of safety enhancements in newer designs, the NRC said.
Industry will have four years to phase in the use of newer designs.
Most of the other changes update U.S. regulations to make them similar to international standards established by the IAEA. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's current transportation regulations are based, in part, on those developed by the IAEA, the United Nations organization that sets standards for the handling of radioactive materials.
When the IAEA revises its transportation standards to reflect scientific and technical advances, the NRC updates its own regulations to be compatible with those of the IAEA. The current revision is being coordinated with the Department of Transportation, which is the lead federal agency for transportation regulations in the United States.
The final rule will be effective October 1, 2004.
Feds Ban Ephedra Diet SupplementsWASHINGTON, DC,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a consumer alert on the safety of dietary supplements containing ephedra and has notified manufacturers of its intent to publish a final rule that will have the effect of banning them.
The rule will state that dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids present an unreasonable risk of illness or injury.
"FDA will publish a final rule as soon as possible that will formalize its conclusions that dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids present unreasonable risks to those who take them for any reason," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, announcing the forthcoming ban on Tuesday. "Today's action puts companies on notice of our intentions, and it tells consumers that the time to stop using ephedra products is now."
Ephedra, also called Ma huang, is a naturally occurring substance derived from botanicals. Its principal active ingredient is ephedrine, which when chemically synthesized is regulated as a drug. In recent years ephedra products have been promoted to assist weight loss, enhance sports performance, and increase energy.
The FDA's concerns about ephedra arise in part from the substance's mechanism of action in the body. Ephedra is a stimulant similar to adrenaline, but it can have potentially dangerous effects on the heart, the agency says.
Ephedra's supporters believe that when taken as directed, the herb can safely provide relief for certain allergy and asthma conditions and also help with weight loss. The Chinese have used this herb for over 5,000 years, particularly to treat asthma and reduce upper respiratory infections.
FDA's evaluation is based on many studies reviewed by the RAND Corporation, which found little evidence for effectiveness other than for short term weight loss, but did find evidence suggesting safety risks.
Other recent studies have also confirmed that "ephedra use raises blood pressure and otherwise stresses the circulatory system, effects that have been conclusively linked to significant and substantial adverse health effects like heart problems and strokes," the FDA said.
"We are taking action today to notify Americans about the unreasonable risk of ephedra as currently marketed in dietary supplements," said FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan, M.D., Ph.D.
"Our action is based on diligent and thorough work by the agency as required by the challenging legal standard in the dietary supplement law. We worked hard to obtain and review all the available evidence about the risks and benefits of ephedra, including its pharmacology, studies of ephedra's safety and effectiveness, adverse event reports, and reviews by independent experts."
The FDA has sent 62 letters to firms marketing dietary supplements containing ephedra and ephedrine alkaloids alerting them to this future rule.
"By issuing these letters today, we're sending a strong and unambiguous signal about the safety of dietary supplement products containing ephedrine alkaloids," said McClellan.
"Consumers should stop buying and using ephedra products right away, and FDA will make sure consumers are protected by removing these products from the market as soon as the rule becomes effective," he said.
FDA's action comes after a public comment period intended to cap years of debate about the risks and safety of ephedra in dietary supplements. In 1997, FDA first proposed a rule on dietary supplements containing ephedra including requiring a warning statement on these products. FDA modified this proposed rule in 2000, and last February the agency announced a series of actions designed to protect Americans from the potentially serious risks of dietary supplements containing ephedra. To solicit comments on new evidence about ephedra as well as on a proposed warning statement, last February's actions included publishing a Federal Register notice outlining FDA's concerns and reopening the comment period.
Following publication of this notice, the FDA received and reviewed tens of thousands of comments.
"We are going to issue a rule that clarifies and applies a legal standard that that has never been used before," said Dr. McClellan. Using the challenging standard provided under the law, we have done all we can to make sure our regulatory action will succeed."
While working on the forthcoming rule, FDA has taken a series of high profile enforcement actions. Inspections have resulted in voluntary compliance, voluntary recalls, warning letters, seizures and injunctions, criminal enforcement and joint enforcement actions with the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.
The FDA says that because of its enforcement actions some classes of ephedra products have already been removed from the market, such as those marketed for enhancing sports performance, and the demand for ephedra products has declined significantly, and many companies have already stopped marketing ephedra products.
But while supporters say ephedrine can be dangerous if abused, and acknowledge that ephedra has greater cardiovascular activity than caffeine, they say health cautions for ephedra and caffeine should be similar.
Atlantic Shark Quotas Cut to Conserve SpeciesWASHINGTON, DC,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - Annual catch levels for large coastal sharks will be slashed by 45 percent this year in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to prevent overfishing and rebuild shark populations, according to NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for U.S. fisheries management.
The agency will implement further catch reductions from a fishery closure January through July off North Carolina to protect habitat and nursery grounds.
The quota reductions are just one of the conservation measures contained in Amendment 1 to the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Tunas, Swordfish and Sharks. The amendment concludes seven years of litigation with industry stakeholders and environmental organizations that impacted the development and implementation of long term shark management programs.
On January 28, 2002, a pair of conservation groups sued the federal fisheries agency to prevent overfishing of large coastal sharks in U.S. waters.
The Ocean Conservancy and National Audubon Society, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit against NOAA Fisheries, then known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, charging that the agency has failed to halt overfishing, or to rebuild large coastal shark populations in the Atlantic Gulf, based on the best available science.
The new regulations announced December 28, 2003 are based on updated and peer reviewed scientific shark assessments and fulfill requirements of a settlement agreement reached between the agency and litigants on shark management, the agency says.
“Favorable peer reviews of our 2002 stock assessment have allowed us to move shark management out of the courts and back into the hands of scientists, fishery managers and the American public,” said Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries. “Now we can get these much needed regulations in place to strengthen our rebuilding plan for large coastal sharks and to manage all Atlantic sharks for the long term benefit of the species and the nation.”
The 2002 stock assessments for large and small coastal sharks included some good news about these species. In the large coastal complex, blacktip sharks have been rebuilt and sandbar sharks are no longer overfished. But the assessment showed this complex as a whole was overfished and overfishing is still occurring.
The small shark coastal complex is not overfished, and Atlantic sharpnose, bonnethead and blacknose sharks are healthy, NOAA Fisheries says. The assessment showed that finetooth sharks are not overfished but fishing rates are too high for this species.
Some of the measures in Amendment 1 took effect on December 30, 2003, while others will take effect on February 1, 2004. Highlights include a revised rebuilding timeframe for the large coastal complex of 26 years, elimination of the commercial minimum size limit, establishment of regional commercial quotas, increase of recreational catch and size limits, and establishment of gear restrictions and a time and area closure.
Amendment 1 includes measures to prevent bycatch of prohibited and juvenile sharks and to protect one of the only shark habitat areas of particular concern that extend into federal waters.
Nineteen shark species are fully protected and may not be landed by fishermen. All 19 species have been identified for protection since 1997.
Amendment 1 sets up criteria for determining which species belong on the protected list. These criteria include the species biology makes vulnerable for depletion, those that are rarely encountered or observed in directed fisheries or as bycatch, or species not easily identified by fishermen.
Excess Nutrients in Delaware River System to Be CurbedPHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) – Harmful levels of nutrients in the Appoquinimink River and its tributaries in New Castle County, Delaware will be reduced according to a plan established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The plan establishes pollution budgets, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), that set the maximum amount of a specific pollutants that can be introduced into the river and its tributaries.
"This plan is a critical milestone in reducing nutrient impairments and restoring the environmental health of the Appoquinimink River and its tributaries," said Donald Welsh, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator.
The Appoquinimink River watershed drains approximately 47 square miles in New Castle County. It is primarily an agricultural area, but also includes urban areas of Middletown, Odessa, and Townsend.
High concentrations of nutrients find their way into waterways stormwater runoff from farms and fertilized lawns, and discharges from municipal and industrial treatment facilities.
All plants and animals need small amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, to grow and reproduce. However, an excess of nutrients can lead to eutrophication, a condition in which prolonged blooms of algae rob light and oxygen from other organisms, the EPA says.
When a water body does not meet its water quality standards for a particular pollutant, the federal Clean Water Act requires the state to include the water body on its list of impaired waters. Delaware has listed sections of the Appoquinimink and its tributaries as impaired due to high nutrient concentrations and/or low dissolved oxygen levels.
Once the water body is impaired, a TMDL must be developed to set the maximum amount of a specific pollutants that an estuary, lake or river can receive. After that load amount is calculated, all sources of that pollutant in the watershed are required to reduce their contributions of the contaminant to specified levels.
The EPA has established TMDLs for the Appoquinimink River basin to address those stream segments impaired as a result of excess nutrients and low dissolved oxygen. To address nutrient impairments, TMDLs have been established for total nitrogen and total phosphorus in order to attain and maintain water quality standards.
Small Arizona Water Systems Must Find and Fix PollutionWICKENBURG, Arizona,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week ordered two public water systems in Wickenburg, Arizona to determine how lead contaminated their drinking water and correct the problem, as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The water systems, which serve 160 people, are required to come up with a plan to correct the problem by July 2004.
Two samples collected at the public water systems for the Remuda Ranch Center exceeded the EPA's action level for lead of 15 parts per billion. Of 10 samples collected, lead was detected in two samples at concentrations of 54 and 45 parts per billion.
Remuda Ranch is required to examine system piping, monitor its water sources and conduct public education for the community. Remuda Ranch also must develop a plan to control corrosion from system pipes, a major cause of lead contamination.
Since 1993, the EPA has required small public water systems to monitor drinking water regularly for lead and copper. If contaminants are detected, systems are required to correct the problem through treatment or pipe replacement.
"Consumers must be assured the water coming from their kitchen faucets is safe and lead-free," said Alexis Strauss, director of the EPA's Water Division. "This order will ensure that Remuda Ranch promptly fixes its current problems and prevents future ones."
The EPA has ordered a public water system in Meadview, Arizona to monitor its drinking water for lead and copper. The water system for the Lake Mead City Community Cooperative, which serves 250 people, is required to monitor the drinking water in local homes by March 2004 and again before September 2004. Failure to monitor could result in fines of up to $27,500 per day.
In mid-December 2003, the EPA issued a similar order to a public water system in Paulden, Arizona. Last October, the EPA ordered 22 small water systems in Arizona towns to monitor their drinking water for lead and copper.
There are 650 public water systems serving small communities in Arizona that are required to monitor drinking water for lead and copper. Systems serving more than 100 people are required to monitor at least 10 homes.
The EPA has determined that lead and copper can pose a health concern at certain exposure levels. Relatively low levels of lead can cause high blood pressure and kidney problems in adults. In children and infants, lead has been linked to delays in physical and mental development, including learning disabilities. Copper can cause liver and kidney damage at elevated levels.
Southern Hemisphere Ocean Pattern Spreads Nutrients WorldwidePRINCETON, New Jersey,
January 2, 2004 (ENS) - Marine life around the world is dependent on a single ocean circulation pattern in the Southern Hemisphere where nutrient rich water rises from the deep and spreads across the seas, new research demonstrates.
"When we shut off this one pathway in our models, biological productivity in the oceans drops to one-quarter of what it is today," said Jorge Sarmiento, a Princeton University oceanographer who led the study published in the January 1, 2004, issue of "Nature."
The results suggest that ocean life may be more sensitive to climate change than previously believed because most global warming predictions indicate that major ocean circulation patterns will change.
While oceanographers have identified many ocean circulation patterns, Sarmiento and his team found that three-quarters of all biological activity in the oceans relies on this single pattern. Marine organisms account for half all biological productivity on Earth.
Sarmiento conducted the study in collaboration with Nicholas Gruber of the University of California-Los Angeles, Mark Brzezinski of the University of California-Santa Barbara and John Dunne of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy.
The discovery helps oceanographers settle a longstanding question about what keeps the world's oceans fertile.
Most biological activity in the ocean is concentrated near the surface where an abundance of microorganisms perform photosynthesis and support marine food chains. These organisms and their byproducts slowly sink from the surface, decomposing along the way and carrying nutrients to the deep ocean.
Until now, it has not been clear how the surface becomes replenished with the nutrients that seemed lost to the deep ocean.
Previous research has shown that ocean water does not mix well across layers of equal density, which are mostly oriented horizontally in the ocean. Once the organic matter sinks to the abyss, it takes a long time for nutrients to cross the layers and return to the surface. Without a mechanism to bring deep water back to the surface, the oceans would lose about one-fiftieth of their nutrients to this sinking process each year, Sarmiento said.
Sarmiento and colleagues identified an enormous system that carries nutrient-rich seawater southward in the deep ocean, brings it to the surface in the Antarctic Ocean where the density layer barrier is weak and ships it north. The water sinks again in the Northern Hemisphere and starts over.
The researchers discovered a chemical signature - the presence of high nitrate and low silicate levels - that is unique to this nutrient carrier, which is called the Subantarctic Mode Water, and used it to trace the influence of this water in surface waters around the world.
"It is really quite amazing," said Sarmiento. "I had no idea of the extent of its influence."
The Subantarctic Mode Water is responsible for feeding nearly all the world's oceans, except for the North Pacific, which is resupplied with nutrients through another circulation pattern, the researchers found.
The finding has attracted interest among oceanographers. "They have clearly identified the pathway that counteracts the so-called biological pump, which acts to strip the surface layer of its nutrients," said Arnold Gordon of Columbia University. "One now wonders how global change will alter the efficiency of this pathway."
Sarmiento said the research group "is now hard at work investigating the details of this nutrient circulation pattern with an eye to examining how it might respond to global warming in model simulations."
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