AmeriScan: January 6, 2005

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New Pact Aims to Cut Nutrient Runoff Into Chesapeake

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reached a deal with six states and the District of Columbia to limit discharges of phosphorous and nitrogen from 350 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The two pollutants cause ecological havoc in the Bay, feeding massive algae blooms that kill fish and Bay grasses, which provide vital habitat for the Bay's famous blue crabs.

Robbing the water of oxygen, these algae blooms can form huge dead zones - last year a dead zone covered 35 percent of the volume of the Chesapeake.

"This is a pivotal step in the cleanup and protection of the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA and the states have committed to making the Bay a healthy environment where plants, fish and other aquatic life can thrive and coexist with development," Donald Welsh, regional administrator for EPA's mid-Atlantic region, said Monday.

States participating in the strategy include Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.

According to the EPA the permit limits outlined in the agreement will result in reduction of reduction of about 17.5 million pounds of nitrogen and about one million pounds of phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay each year.

Officials said it could take five years before all facilities are operating under the new permits and have not yet settled on the specific cuts the permits will require.

Environmentalists fear the scope and pace of the reductions are not in line with the problems plaguing the nation's largest estuary.

An annual report on the state of Bay, issued last month by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, found that efforts to restore the ecosystem are failing and the health of the Bay has declined over the past four years,

More than 400 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 20 million pounds of phosphorous enter the Bay each year - the pollutants come from wastewater, agricultural and urban runoff, and air pollution.

The target for a healthy Chesapeake calls for these totals to be cut dramatically - to 175 million pounds for nitrogen and 12.8 million pounds for phosphorous.

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Court Orders Off-Road Vehicles Out of Tortoise Habitat

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to stop off-road vehicle use on more than half a million acres of Southern California in order to protect the endangered desert tortoise.

The ruling impacts lands within the Northern and Eastern Colorado Desert planning area, which includes parts of Imperial, Riverside and San Bernadino counties.

It centers on the use of desert washes - or dry streams - by off-road vehicle users.

The BLM has allowed unrestricted use of the thousands of washes that weave across the planning area.

Conservationists filed suit, charging that the BLM policy was harming the imperiled tortoises and causing longterm harm to vital habitat needed for the species' survival.

"The court's ruling checks the abuses of the executive branch, and upholds the recovery intent of the Endangered Species Act, America's most important wildlife law," said Daniel Patterson an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, who formerly worked with BLM in the area. "BLM better get serious now about keeping off-roaders out, or they will be in contempt of court."

Federal officials said the ban would be implemented immediately, but noted that it could be lifted once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes new biological opinions on safeguarding the desert tortoise.

Those reports could be complete as early as next month.

The ruling is part of longrunning legal dispute over off-road vehicle use in the area.

Last August, the court struck down biological opinions issued by FWS that authorized off-road vehicle use on critical desert tortoise habitat.

That ruling determined that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to consider the negative of the BLM plans on endangered species' recovery, instead looking only at survival.

The BLM failed to respond to the order, prompting conservation groups to file suit.

"Biology 101 teaches that desert wildlife and tortoises need healthy wash habitat," said Elden Hughes, chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee. "Off-roaders want to ignore that, but even the anti-conservation Bush Fish and Wildlife Service should know better. Thankfully, the court got it right."

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Suit Targets Dredging of New York Harbor Superfund Site

NEWARK, New Jersey, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Environmentalists plan to file suit to block a massive dredging project intended to deepen New York Harbor and Newark Bay.

The project is on a collision course with an underwater Superfund site, the environmentalists say, and the government agencies involved have failed to consider the environmental and public health impacts of the planned dredging and blasting.

Filed by a coalition of groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), New York/New Jersey Baykeeper, and GreenFaith, the suit alleges that the current design of the project will re-release dioxin left over from Agent Orange production during the Vietnam War, and other dangerous chemicals, into local waterways and the broader regional environment.

"It is like dropping depth charges into one of the biggest toxic waste dumps on the East Coast with no thought at all about the consequences," said NRDC attorney Brad Sewell.

The suit charges the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority with violations of the Superfund law and the National Environmental Policy Act.

At issue is the Diamond Alkali Superfund site that includes Newark Bay and portions of the adjacent Kill van Kull and Arthur Kill, where contaminants settled after flowing down the Passaic River from a chemical plant in Newark.

Scientists have called Newark Bay one of the world's worst dioxin contaminated sites, with layers of polluted sediment contributing to dangerous levels in blue crabs, fish, and fish eating birds.

The Corps and Port Authority plan years of dredging to deepen and widen the shipping channels in order to allow larger ships access to the harbor.

Underwater explosives will also be used to remove rock adjacent to contaminated sediments - work could start as early as this winter.

The environmental groups want the agencies to revise their plan for removing the contaminated sediments before proceeding with the massive underwater dig.

"This has the potential to be a win-win situation," Sewell said. "Hazardous material must eventually be removed from the Bay anyhow. But without safeguards they are going to wind up spreading toxic contamination into important recreational and commercial waterways."

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Oil Giant Drops Out of Arctic Refuge Lobby Group

HOUSTON, Texas, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - ConocoPhillips has left Arctic Power, a lobbying organization focused on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas drilling.

The decision by the Houston based oil giant means that the two largest operators on Alaska's North Slope - BP and ConocoPhillips - are no longer members of the Arctic drilling lobby group, which is strongly supported by the Alaskan state government.

The move was hailed by environmentalists, who say the departure of the largest oil company in Alaska from the group signals increasing opposition to opening the refuge.

"This is a significant win for America's Arctic, and we commend ConocoPhillips for listening to their shareholders and the American people and dropping out of Arctic Power," said Athan Manuel, director of U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Arctic Wilderness Campaign.

"It appears that ConocoPhillips and BP are more enlightened than the Bush administration when it comes to drilling in the Arctic Refuge," said Manuel. "Hopefully Congress will get the message and defeat attempts to allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge this year."

In response to ConocoPhillip's decision, Green Century Capital Management had decided to withdraw a shareholder resolution filed with the company regarding drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

"As ConocoPhillips shareholders, we applaud our company's decision to withdraw from Arctic Power," said Green Century's Michael Leone. "ConocoPhillips clearly recognized that drilling in the Refuge would be risky business, and that participating in Arctic Power's pro-drilling efforts was not ultimately in the company's best interests."

Environmentalists are preparing for yet another tough battle over ANWR, with Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration keen to push for opening the refuge.

Senator Pete Domenici, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, reiterated on Tuesday his desire to see ANWR open to oil and gas drilling.

"We are going to make a push to develop our vast oil resources in the Arctic Refuge in a way that leaves the environment pristine while stabilizing oil prices and enhancing our energy independence," Domenici said Tuesday.

The New Mexico Republican said he expects to finalize language on ANWR for insertion into a budget resolution by May.

"I will fight on the Senate floor to keep those instructions in the resolution and will fight again to defend our legislation in the budget reconciliation vote later this year," Domenici said.

Language to open ANWR was defeated in the Senate in 2003 by a vote of 52 to 48, but prospects look better this year for proponents given a stronger Republican majority in the Senate.

Four incoming senators believed to be favorable to drilling have replaced opponents of opening ANWR to drilling.

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Federal Mute Swan Policy Nets More Controversy

WASHINGTON, DC, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Animal rights advocates are calling on the federal government to ensure that state wildlife agencies are not allowing the illegal killing of federally protected mute swans.

The complaint involves a rider inserted by Congress last month in the massive omnibus spending bill. The language directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop regulations defining which birds are "native" in the United States and excluding "non-native" birds from protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Birds protected under the act cannot be killed without a federal permit.

The regulations have not yet been promulgated, but according The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service are informing state wildlife agency permittees that they no longer need permits to kill mute swans because the species is "non-native."

"Federal and state wildlife agencies are once again jumping the gun in their fervor to kill mute swans," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president for external affairs of The HSUS. "Before the ink has even dried on a backroom political rider that gutted one of our nation's landmark conservation laws, these majestic birds are already in danger of wanton and indiscriminate killing."

The organization sent a letter Monday to the U.S. Department of Justice outlining its complaint - federal officials were not available to comment.

The concern by the advocacy group is tied to a recent legal battle it successfully waged to block a plan by state wildlife officials to kill some 31,000 mute swans across the Atlantic Flyway.

The group successfully argued that that the environmental impact of the planned killing of the plan was not adequately studied and that non-lethal alternatives, such as egg addling, were not fully considered.

A species native to Europe and Asia, mute swans were introduced to estates and parks in the eastern United States beginning in the 19th century.

Proponents of culling the mute swan population contend the birds are consuming far too much submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV). These plants are an important part of the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, providing food and shelter for marine species and improving water quality.

Markarian says the impact of the mute swans on the Bay has been blow far out of proportion.

"Respected organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation point to animal agriculture and sewage treatment plants as the two leading causes of SAV destruction," added Markarian. "Mute swans probably would not make a list of the top fifty. It is time for Congress and wildlife agencies to stop turning swans into scapegoats for their inaction, and stop turning a blind eye to the true environmental threats facing our waters and wildlife."

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Audubon Society Turns 100 Years Old

NEW YORK, New York, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Acting in response to the decimation of plume bird colonies, several local Audubon societies officially formed the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals on January 5, 1905.

The name was later shortened to the National Audubon Society and a century after its formation the group stands as the nation's largest bird conservation organization - and it is ready to celebrate and build on the accomplishments of its first 100 years.

"Our heritage at Audubon has always been to connect people with nature," said John Flicker, president of National Audubon Society. "From our earliest days our chapters, staff, and grassroots volunteers have worked to help people make the connection between the health of bird populations, and the health of human populations. "

The organization's early list of accomplishments include building support for the passage of the Audubon Plumage Law in 1910, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1913, and establishment of its first two bird sanctuaries in 1924 - the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary near the president's former home in Oyster Bay, New York, and the Paul J.Rainey Sanctuary in coastal Louisiana.

During the past century, the organization has built a national network of community nature centers and chapters, scientific and educational programs, and advocacy on behalf of areas sustaining important bird populations, engage millions of people of all ages and backgrounds in conservation experiences.

"From our landmark 'State of the Birds' report issued in October 2004, to the recent battle to restore the nest site of legendary Red-tailed Hawk Pale Male, Audubon's work today is as relevant and critical to bird conservation as it was 100 years ago," Flicker said. "We will be here through the next 100 years to give voice to those same founding values and principles."

Audubon plans to continue the celebration throughout the year, including both annual activities like the Great Backyard Bird Count in February and new, special centennial events.

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Scientists Observe Largest Explosion in Space

ATHENS, Ohio, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Scientists have observed the largest explosion in space, generated by a supermassive black hole growing at a remarkable rate.

The eruption, which has lasted for more than 100 million years, has generated the energy equivalent to hundreds of millions of gamma-ray bursts.

The authors of a study describing the explosion said the finding suggests that supermassive black holes are a bigger force to be reckoned with in the universe than previously thought.

The study, published in this week's issue of the journal "Nature," details the discovery of enormous cavities, each about 650,000 light years across, surrounded by hot gas in a distant cluster of galaxies.

The authors of the study said the two cavities, created by an outburst from a supermassive black hole, may explain why some galaxies do not create new stars as they cool down in temperature - the typical recipe for star formation.

When interstellar gas eventually cools and matter accretes, the galaxy should form lots of new stars - but some galaxies produce few of these heavenly bodies.

The authors contend that gigantic space bubbles might be the culprits - the heat generated by the cavities prevents the gas from chilling down and creating stars.

The amount of energy contained in the shock wave created by the explosion also suggests that the supermassive black hole is gobbling up a greater amount of matter than scientists would have predicted.

"It is like a 300 pound person eating 100 pounds of meat in one sitting," said Brian McNamara, an Ohio University astronomer and lead author on the research.

The new study supports recent theories that supermassive black holes have a major impact on the structure of our universe, McNamara said.

The volume of space the black hole occupies is about the same size of our solar system, he said, but it impacts a volume of space much greater than that - about 600 times the size of the Milky Way galaxy.

The scientists next will conduct more detailed studies on the X-ray explosion and similar but smaller objects observed in other galaxy systems.

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Danger Not Over When Volcanic Eruption Ends

SEATTLE, Washington, January 6, 2004 (ENS) - Erupting volcanoes are among the most destructive forces in nature, but the real disaster often does not start until the eruption is over, finds a new study by U.S. researchers.

Where many people live on or near the flanks of such mountains, the real disaster often does not start until the eruption has subsided and the world has stopped paying attention.

After eruptions have finished, rain-swollen rivers emanating from volcanic peaks can send massive lahars - large waves of mud made up of water, ash and volcanic rock - careening down the mountainsides, often burying everything in their paths, even entire towns and villages.

Such lahars can occur for years after an eruption, depending on how much debris the volcano deposits and how much rain falls, until the sediment has either been cleaned off the mountain or has stabilized so that it doesn't erode easily.

University of Washington researchers have found an ideal laboratory for studying the aftermath of a volcanic eruption at Mount Pinatubo, which lies northwest of Manila on the Philippine island of Luzon.

A study detailing the research on how streams on volcanoes recover, published Wednesday in the "Geological Society of America Bulletin."

Mount Pinatubo erupted with devastating force in June 1991 and researchers have been studying data compiled from 1997 through 2003 from five rivers on the volcano's flanks.

The streams are in various stages of recovery, with one almost back to its pre-eruption state because it did not become as clogged by sediment.

But others traverse areas that still have vast amounts of sediment that can be washed away easily.

"In one of the streams we are studying, nothing can live," said Karen Gran, a University of Washington doctoral student in Earth and space sciences and lead author of the paper. "If a big storm hits, the whole riverbed moves."

Gran explained this means that more than 13 years after the eruption, some of the rivers studied have not recovered to the point of having stable channels, which are necessary for a return of aquatic species and a general ecological recovery.

Mount Pinatubo's eruption, the second largest recorded in the 20th century, deposited nearly 1.5 cubic miles of volcanic ash and rock on its flanks, about 10 times more than Mount St. Helens in Washington state deposited in its eruptions in 1980.

"There has been more loss of life and property at Pinatubo from lahars than from the eruption itself," Gran said. "And recovery comes slowly, in stages. It could be years before we start to see ecological recovery on some rivers."