AmeriScan: January 13, 2005

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Heavy Rains, Sunken Barges Put Midwest At Risk

HUNTINGTON, West Virginia, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - Power outages due to heavy rainfall have hit tens of thousands of people along the Ohio River in Ohio and Indiana, many of whom were already coping with flooded homes and businesses.

Five people died after inhaling carbon monoxide from generators they were using for electricity.

The river has flooded parts of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, and crested Wednesday at Cincinnati at nearly five feet above flood stage. It is predicted to recede below flood stage there today.

Elsewhere on the Ohio River, a round-the-clock salvage operation is underway to retrieve four coal barges that sank at the Belleville Locks and Dam at Reedsville, Ohio, leaving five of the dam’s eight gates blocked or partially blocked.

Coal shipments to power companies located along the Ohio River and public drinking water supply intakes could be affected if the navigational pool goes down along a 41 mile stretch of the river above the Belleville Locks to Willow Island Locks and Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday.

The pool might go down if the barges cannot be freed within three days, the Corps said.

The sunken barges are four of the six coal barges that broke loose from their stations during high water on the Ohio River January 6. Transportation on the river was halted in both directions after the barges broke free from a tug and four sank near the Belleville Locks and Dam.

One barge made it through the locks, and another barge that did not sink but was trapped against the Belleville Locks was removed Saturday.

As a safety precaution, the locks at Belleville are now closed to river traffic. The Willow Island Locks are also closed to downriver traffic until further notice. Corps officials and the U.S. Coast Guard continue to work with the towing company to determine the safest method of removing the barges.

Salvage experts are on the scene and three vessels have begun moving salvage rigs, cranes and barges into place to deal with the sunken barges.

Corps officials say they worry about losing the navigation pool if the barges cannot be freed from the gates.

"Loss of the navigation pool can have serious effects," the Corps said. "It would close that part of the river between Belleville and the Willow Island Locks and Dam to navigation traffic, including coal shipments to power companies located along the Ohio River, and it may affect the stability of barges in fleeting areas along the river."

It could also shut down public water supply intakes and other industrial intakes. In addition, with the rapid reduction of water level, some areas along the river may suffer severe bank failure and slips.

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U.S. Equipment to Detect Radioactivity Placed in Bahamas

NASSAU, Bahamas, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - To detect hidden shipments of radioactive materials, the United States and the Commonwealth of the Bahamas signed an agreement earlier this week to install special equipment at one of the Bahamas’ busiest seaports, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said Wesnesday. Neither country revealed exactly where the equipment will be installed.

The Bahamas will be the first country in the Caribbean to deploy this type of detection system. The United States has already installed similar systems in the Netherlands, Greece, Sri Lanka, Belgium and Spain.

Stretching in a 750 mile stretch from just off Florida, to just off Haiti, the Bahamas offer many opportunities for smugglers to pass forbidden technology and nuclear materials that could be used to make a dirty bomb or other nuclear device.

“Successful detection of radioactive materials as they cross a country’s borders is fundamental in stopping a nuclear or dirty bomb attack,” Secretary Abraham said. "Helping better protect the world’s maritime shipping network from nuclear smuggling is an important objective we are working to achieve."

Robert Witajewski, chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, signed the agreement on behalf of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with Ruth Millar, the financial secretary of the Ministry of Finance of the government of the Bahamas.

This agreement is part of the Energy Department’s NNSA Megaports Initiative, a program to detect, deter, and interdict illicit shipments of nuclear and other radioactive materials.

The program is intended to block terrorist attempts to use the global maritime industry for malicious purposes.

The specialized radiation detection technology deployed under this program is based on technologies originally developed by NNSA laboratories as part of overall U.S. government efforts to guard against proliferation of weapons materials. NNSA works with foreign partners to equip seaports with radiation detection equipment and to provide training to law enforcement officials.

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Heat Warning Program Goes to Every Large U.S. City

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - Because heat is one of the greatest weather related killers in many parts of the developed world, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is collaborating with cities across the United States and around the world to expand heat warning systems.

NOAA’s National Weather Service said Tuesday that it is expanding the number of Heat/Health Watch Warning Systems from 16 cities in the United States to every municipality with a population exceeding 500,000, and is helping other countries adapt the program for their own local conditions.

The potentially widespread health problems associated with heat waves have created a growing impetus to develop warning systems to allow urban health agencies and local meteorological offices to issue advisories to the public if a dangerous heat wave is imminent.

"This has led to an important collaboration to construct Heat/Health Watch Warning Systems for vulnerable large cities around the world," said Laurence Kalkstein of the University of Delaware Center for Climatic Research and developer of the new system.

The system measures oppressive air masses affecting health and is part of a national focus on the special hazards excessive heat has on urban centers.

Based on NOAA Weather Service storm data from 1994 to 2003, excessive heat is the number one weather-related killer, causing more fatalities per year than floods, lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, winter storms and extreme cold.

"Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to implement the Heat/Health Warning System program and is now becoming the worldwide model for heat forecasting,” said Gary Szatkowski, meteorologist-in-charge of the NOAA Weather Service forecast office in New Jersey.

Cities in the northeastern and midwestern United States have the strongest weather mortality relationships, because weather variability, rather than heat intensity, is the single important factor in defining human sensitivity to heat, Szatkowski says.

People living in highly variable summer climates are ill adapted to extreme heat, because it occurs irregularly. "For this reason, temperate cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Chicago exhibit extreme increases in the number of deaths reported when an intense heat wave occurs compared to many tropical cities in the world," Szatkowski explained. "This is one reason that early season heat waves are associated with higher mortality, because people within the city population acclimate to the heat as the hot season continues."

According to Kalkstein, the Philadelphia program provided the model used in developing programs for Shanghai, China; Toronto, Canada; and six cities in Italy - Rome, Palermo, Milan, Genoa, Bologna and Turin.

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States to Lobby Congress for Chesapeake Bay Restoration Funds

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2005 (ENS) – Chesapeake Bay region government leaders have endorsed the concept of a regional financing authority charged with distributing and prioritizing restoration funds across the six state Chesapeake Bay watershed and say they will lobby Congress for more money to clean up the imperiled ecosystem.

The announcement came Monday at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council, a group of state and federal officials that work together on a voluntary basis to set goals and polices for protecting and restoring the Bay, the nation's largest estuary. The states of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia border the Bay.

In 2000 the council agreed to a detailed plan to clean up the Bay, but it lacks the authority to adopt regional, legally binding restoration goals and has no means to ensure compliance with any measures it may agree to.

In addition, the 2000 agreement provided no money for cleanup and funding for protection efforts have been spotty.

In October 2004, a blue ribbon panel set up by the council called for a six-year $15 billion investment to reduce pollution in the Bay and recommended the creation of a regional financing authority.

Calling the Chesapeake "a national treasure and a resource of worldwide significance," the panel said current funding does not meet the needs for restoring Chesapeake Bay water quality by 2010 because the Chesapeake Bay Program does not have a large enough permanent funding base to fund the necessary management measures.

"Restoring the Chesapeake Bay will cost many billions of dollars and requires an unyielding commitment from federal, state and local governments, private individuals and industry to obtain these funds," the panel said.

Council members Monday said they agree with those recommendations and will create a new panel of finance and legal experts to develop specifics for how a regional financing authority could be developed.

The new panel will provide the council with a proposal by July 1, 2005.

"For two decades Bay states and the federal government have worked together to coordinate on-the-ground restoration programs throughout the Bay watershed,” said Virginia Governor Mark Warner. “Today, we are taking the first strides toward jointly prioritizing the financing of these efforts at the watershed level. The Bay's crabs and rockfish know no political boundaries, and neither should our restoration efforts."

The state leaders will be hitting Capitol Hill “within the next 45 days” in a bid to convince federal lawmakers to fund the initiative, Warner, outgoing chair of the council, told reporters.

The plan outlined by the blue ribbon panel calls for $1 billion in funding this year for the Bay - some five times what the federal government currently spends on restoration efforts.

The decision comes amid increasing evidence that efforts to restore the ecosystem are failing because of a lack of funding, coordination and commitment by federal and state officials.

An annual report on the health of the Chesapeake, issued last month by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, rated the state of the Bay “dismal” and found that its health has declined over the past four years.

The foundation says the ecosystem is “dangerously out of balance” largely from massive, unnatural influxes of nitrogen and phosphorous, which come from sewage wastewater, agricultural and urban runoff, and air pollution.

“There is no question: lack of progress stems directly from lack of leadership, the politics of postponement, inadequate enforcement of existing laws, insufficient funding, and little or no accountability,” according to the report.

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Protected Area for Colorado Plant Cut By More Than Half

DENVER, Colorado, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - Critical habitat set aside for a rare Colorado native plant is less than half of what was proposed in a federal habitat protection plan last year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its critical habitat designation for the Colorado butterfly plant Tuesday, but reduced the area desingated for protection by 4,948 acres or 58 percent.

The Colorado butterfly plant is related to evening primroses. It has whitish-pink flowers, and grows up to three feet tall. This plant was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2000 because of loss of healthy stream habitat due to Front Range urban development, non-selective use of herbicides, water diversions, and conversion to agricultural use and urban development.

Ninety percent of the area designated as critical habitat is on private land, with state lands making up the remaining 10 percent.

The critical habitat designation was completed in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation. The organizations were angered by the 58 percent reduction in the size of the critical habitat designation.

The plant has already disappeared from all but one site in Colorado, and even this area was dropped from protection, the conservationists said.

"We are quickly losing the last of our healthy stream habitats across Colorado and Wyoming,"said Erin Robertson, staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems. "Water quality, native fish, and native plants like the Colorado butterfly plant are all suffering."

The Service said some areas in Wyoming were excluded from the critical habitat designation because the Service and private landowners developed conservation agreements that will provide benefits for the plant. Similarly, habitat in Weld County, Colorado was excluded because the City of Fort Collins signed a conservation agreement with the Service.

“We appreciate the efforts and willingness of private landowners to partner with the Service to seek solutions that are compatible with the conservation of the plant as well as landowner activities,” said Ralph Morgenweck, the Service’s director for the Mountain-Prairie Region. “It is volunteer partnerships such as these that will provide for the long-term persistence of this species.”

But conservationists say such Wildlife Extension Agreements were used to "gut the habitat plan." They say that these agreements, while useful for monitoring the status of the plant populations, provide no protection for threatened species.

Wildlife Extension Agreements are non-binding. They ask landowners to report on land use activities and allow the Service to conduct surveys on private land. They expire after a fixed time period regardless of the status of the plant, and and only restrict herbicide use within 100 feet of the plant. All other aspects of the plan are negotiable, and there are no consequences if a participant violates any part of the agreement.

Under the Bush administration, the Service has designated critical habitat for endangered or threatened species only in response to court orders in lawsuits brought by conservation groups.

In all critical habitat designations, the Service includes this paragraph, "In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the Service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while preventing the Service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits.

"In almost all cases, recovery of listed species will come through voluntary cooperative partnerships, not regulatory measures such as critical habitat," the Service always says.

Conservationists disagree. "The only thing that will save this native plant is protecting its habitat," said Erik Molvar, a biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "But instead of protecting enough habitat to allow butterfly plant populations to recover, the Service just slashed its habitat protection plan by more than half."

This native wildflower has completely vanished from Boulder and Douglas Counties, due to loss and degradation of its habitat. Now it is found only along streams near the I-25 corridor from Wheatland, Wyoming to a few miles past the Colorado border in addition to one isolated population along the Wyoming-Nebraska border east of Cheyenne.

"The Service gave away the farm and is getting almost nothing in return," warned Robertson. "The public is getting a raw deal."

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Another North Atlantic Right Whale Found Dead

BOSTON, Massachusetts, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba worked Tuesday with officials from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to document the body of a dead right whale spotted afloat in the Atlantic Ocean 78 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts.

The Escanaba, homeported in Boston, received a call from a NOAA surveillance plane reporting the dead whale. The cutter arrived at the reported location to find the carcass of a 45 foot long female right whale.

As requested by NOAA officials, Escanaba crewmembers obtained a sample of the whale for DNA testing. Crew members placed a self-locating data marker buoy on the whale to further track its movements.

“Hopefully the DNA test will prove that the female whale was not actively reproducing,” said Seaman Paul Miliken, a former resident of Eastham, Massachusetts, and former first mate on a whale watching boat out of Provincetown.

The North Atlantic Right whale is one of the world's most endangered whale species. Hunted nearly to extinction, fewer than 300 individuals remain today. Ship strikes are the most common cause of death, and several other North Atlantic right whales have been found dead this season.

On December 1, 2004, NOAA Fisheries said it would investigate the death of a pregnant female found beached at Ocean Sands, North Carolina the week before. Preliminary results from an examination of the carcass indicate that the animal likely died from blood loss owing to a massive wound to the left tail fluke, probably caused by a ship strike, NOAA said.

On December 12, 2004, the carcass of another North Atlantic right whale was found floating south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

In the period from 1975 to 2002, NOAA Fisheries has confirmed some 292 ship strikes on large whales, including 38 on North Atlantic right whales. These whales seem particularly susceptible, said NOAA, since they swim slowly, spend considerable time at the surface, and apparently take little or no evasive action when ships approach.

To reduce threats posed by ship strikes and other encounters with marine traffic, NOAA Fisheries conducts aerial surveys and relays sighting information to mariners. Large ships transiting near critical habitat areas must report in and acknowledge receipt of sighting advisories for the areas.

In addition, NOAA has devised a three-part strategy for reducing ship strikes - learn more about why and when right whales are like to be struck by ships, educate mariners about the problem, and change marine vessel operations to reduce the likelihood of striking a whale.

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Great Lakes Moratorium on Oil Drilling Could Be Lifted

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study on the environmental effects of gas and oil drilling in the Great Lakes. The information will be used by Congress to determine if the current drilling moratorium in the Great Lakes should be extended or not.

Congress required the study in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act of 2002. The same law established a moratorium on all federal and state permits and leases for gas and oil drilling in, or under the Great Lakes.

That moratorium was extended through Fiscal Year 2005 in the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2003.

The geologic formations under Eastern and Middle Lake Erie and those under Lakes Michigan and Huron have some gas and oil production potential that has been mined, the Corps says.

Some 2,200 vertical wells have been constructed in Lake Erie since 1913, all in Canada. Thirteen slant drilling wells have been constructed underneath Lake Michigan since 1979, all in Michigan.

There does not appear to be any oil or gas production potential under Southern Lake Michigan or under Lake Ontario in New York.

Vertical drilling involves the construction of a drilling platform in the open lake, with a well drilling straight down. Slant drilling, also known as horizontal drilling, involves the drilling of a well at an onshore location, typically within 1,000 feet of the lake, straight down and then angled into a deep layer under the lake - down to 4,000 feet deep in the case of Lake Michigan.

Several environmental groups have expressed concern about the slant drilling wells and about pipelines proposed for transporting natural gas proposed to cross Lake Erie, affecting New York and Pennsylvania, and Lake Michigan, affecting Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The Corps will lead the environmental study in collaboration with other federal agencies. A panel of experts from government, academia and the private sector will be convened to review existing information and previous studies from the Great Lakes and elsewhere.

The panel will prepare a report that characterizes the environmental effects of gas and oil drilling on the Great Lakes, including the effects on the shorelines and water of the Great Lakes.

The study will be informational in nature and will not make any specific recommendations. It is not intended to serve as an environmental impact statement for any particular federal action, so public review and comment is not included in the study. The Corps says it will post information gathered for the study and the final report on its website,

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NASA Computer Brings Climate Modeling to Schools

WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2005 (ENS) - College and secondary school students can now use a version of NASA's global climate computer model to see how Earth's climate is changing.

Issuing an invitation to use the model, NASA said Monday that a global climate computer model calculates many things - how much sunlight is reflected and absorbed by Earth's atmosphere; the temperature of the air and oceans; the distribution of clouds, rainfall, and snow; and the future of the polar ice caps.

Scientists run the global climate computer model on supercomputers to simulate climate changes of the past and future, and an educational version for use on personal computers is now available to educators and students at universities and high schools.

NASA says, "Most climate researchers believe that climate change will impact our planet's environment and the world's economy profoundly in the coming decades. Thus, everyone should have a basic knowledge of the Earth’s climate system so that informed judgments may be shaped with regard to critical isdsues."

The Educational Global Climate Model (EdGCM), available for Microsoft Windows and Macintosh platforms, was unveiled January 10 at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in California.

EdGCM incorporates a three dimensional climate computer model that includes complex computer programs in a way that will be familiar to most PC users. Though the climate model runs on a desktop computer, it still allows teachers and students to conduct experiments identical to those that scientists are running on the more powerful supercomputers.

EdGCM also links the climate model to a database and scientific visualization tools, making it simpler to create and organize data and images.

The EdGCM Project is supported by the National Science Foundation, Paleoclimate Program and NASA's Earth Systems Directorate. Scientists and programmers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies worked for decades developing GCMs, including the model at the core of EdGCM.

An EdGCM Cooperative is being designed to encourage communication between students at different schools and between schools and research institutions. This cooperative will help students become familiar with the role that teamwork plays in scientific research.