AmeriScan: January 18, 2005

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Stranded Whales Die on North Carolina Beaches

OREGON INLET, North Carolina, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - A pod of 31 pilot whales that stranded themselves across five miles of beach on the northern Outer Banks Saturday have all either died or had to be euthanized, according to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries).

The whales washed up across about five miles of beach near Oregon Inlet, North Carolina.

NOAA Fisheries coordinated a response to the whale strandings with Coast Guard crews and National Park Service personnel.

Twenty-four pilot whales died, and another seven were euthanized because they were too badly hurt to survive, officials reported.

In stormy weather, a single minke whale that was found on the beach in Corolla on the northern Outer Banks had to be euthanized Saturday.

Near Buxton on Sunday, the body of a pygmy sperm whale was found along with another so sick it had to be euthanized, the "Virginian-Pilot" newspaper reported.

Working in cold, wet weather, marine biologists gathered tissue and fluid samples from the whales in an attempt to learn why the marine mammals beached themselves. The samples will be sent to labs across the country for analysis.

Laura Engleby, NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist, said, "It's always tough when large numbers of marine mammals strand themselves like this, but we are continuing to learn as much as we can about why this happens, and what we can do to help."

The pilot whale, like the killer whale, is a member of the dolphin family, and is second only to the killer whale in size. Very social in their habits, pilot whales are well known for stranding in groups of a few animals to several hundred at a time.

Pilot whales have been documented stranding themselves in New England, Florida, New Zealand, Australia, and the Falkland Islands, but scientists have not determined why the whales do so.

Pilot whales are among the most common and widely distributed whales in the world. In the United States, pilot whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but they are not an endangered species.

The National Stranding Network has advised the public to report any other beached whales to 305-862-2850. Do not attempt to move or free any whale that is beached. Please contact those trained professionals who are coordinating the rescue.

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December Warmer Than Average Across the USA

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - The national average temperature for December 2004 was above normal for the Lower 48 United States, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center in Asheville. The global average temperature for December was fifth warmest on record.

While much of the western half of the nation was warmer than average, a brief period of very cold temperatures and heavy snowfall occurred in the Midwest and parts of the South, where temperatures averaged near the long-term mean - the period from 1895-2003.

Based on preliminary data, NOAA scientists report that the average temperature for the Lower 48 states for December was 35.7° F (2.1° C), which was 2.2 F (1.2° C) above the 1895-2003 mean. This was the 23rd warmest December on record.

The December temperature ranking of 23rd warmest is close to that for all of 2004 as a whole, which ended as the 24th warmest year on record.

The mean temperature in 19 states was above average, with all of these states being west of the Mississippi River with the lone exception of New Hampshire.

Three western states - Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska - were much warmer than the long-term mean, while only two states in the Lower 48 - Mississippi and Louisiana - were cooler than average for the month.

The relatively warm temperatures for the nation led to below average residential energy demand. The nation’s Residential Energy Demand Temperature Index was the 35th lowest on record for December.

For Alaska, the year as a whole was much warmer than average, ranking as the fourth warmest since statewide records began in 1918. Alaska was warmer than average for December too, with a statewide temperature of 4.5 F (2.5° C) above the 1971-2000 mean.

December precipitation was near average for the nation overall. Dryness in the central U.S. balanced above-average wetness in the Southwest and Northeast.

The last few months of 2004, and the year as a whole were much wetter than average, with the year ending as the sixth wettest on record.

The second half of 2004 ranked second wettest for any July-December in the last 110 years, partly as a result of multiple tropical hurricane and storm systems in the South and East, and much above-average rain and snowfall in areas of the Southwest.

The wetter than average conditions in parts of the West in 2004 helped ease drought that has been entrenched for more than five years in some western locations. Although water deficits still remain in much of the West, moderate-extreme drought affected only 10 percent of the western U.S. at the end of December, based on a widely used measure of drought, the Palmer Drought Index. This compares to 69 percent in March of 2004 – the peak of the 2004 drought.

After a relatively slow start to the 2004-05 winter season for many parts of the country, a major snowstorm affected much of the Midwest in late December, causing major disruptions throughout the region.

Some cities in the Midwest received more than their annual average snowfall in a single day. Two feet was reported in places such as Scottsburg, Indiana, and across a large area of the western Ohio Valley.

Snow was also recorded in Brownsville, Texas for the first time since February 1895, with 1.5 inches falling on Christmas day. Further north, Victoria, Texas received over a foot of snow from the same storm, a record for the city.

The average global temperature irregularity for combined land and ocean surfaces during December 2004 was 0.79° F (0.44° C) above the 1880-2003 long-term mean. This was the fifth warmest December since 1880, the year that marks the beginning of reliable instrumental records.

Weak El Niño conditions persisted into December with sea-surface temperatures in much of the central and east-central equatorial Pacific remaining warmer than average for the month, and the December global ocean surface temperature was second warmest on record.

The warmer than average December concludes another much warmer than average year for the globe: the fourth warmest since 1880.

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Double Security Requirement Placed on Radioactive Gauges

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2004 (ENS) - Thefts of portable gauges containing radioactive material have become so commonplace that licensees will soon have to use "two independent physical controls" to secure the gauges against theft, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has announced. The agency is not concerned that the devices are being stolen for use in making a "dirty bomb" or for other terrorist purposes, but says the gauges pose a potential "health and safety risk" to the public.

There are an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 portable gauges in the United States used to determine physical properties such as density and moisture content of soil, concrete and other materials. Licenses for these devices are most often issued to companies involved in road construction and maintenance.

The gauges typically contain two encapsulated sources of radioactive material, which vary in the radioisotope used and its quantity.

About 50 of these gauges are reported stolen each year, with the recovery rate less than 50 percent, the NRC says. More than two-thirds of the stolen gauges were taken from vehicles parked in the open; most of these were stored in a portable transportation case and secured with a metal chain to the open bed of a pickup truck.

Too often, the agency says, thieves find the gauges in their bright yellow cases chained to the truck. They cut the chain and steal the gauge, worth about $6,000, which they then pawn.

The NRC says that two acceptable controls might be securing the device inside a locked van or truck and secured to the vehicle with a steel cable. Or the gauge might be safely secured in a locked storage facility within a separate secured area in a warehouse.

In a final rule published January 12 in the Federal Register, the NRC requires two independent physical controls for these gauges when they are not under the control and constant surveillance of the licensee.

The NRC believes that increasing physical controls will deter thieves by making it more difficult to steal portable gauges. At a minimum, two controls would delay a thief and draw attention from bystanders that may prevent the theft, the agency said.

Current NRC regulations require licensees to secure portable gauges in storage or maintain control and constant surveillance of the gauges when not in storage.

Generally, the gauges are stored in a permanent storage location within a licensed facility. Sometimes, portable gauges are stored at a job site, a temporary storage location or on a vehicle. When being transported in a vehicle, a gauge is often placed in a transportation case and then secured in or onto the vehicle.

The amount of radioactive material used in a portable gauge is small, and the material is encapsulated in stainless steel, the NRC says. Still, the theft of portable gauges poses a concern to public health and safety.

"A stolen gauge poses a potential radiation hazard to individuals who may come into close contact with the source. It also poses an environmental concern if it is abandoned, inadvertently recycled or used inappropriately," the NRC says.

Due to the quantity and characteristics of the radioactive material used, the NRC does not believe portable gauges pose a substantial national security risk for malevolent use such as in a “dirty bomb.” The agency says, "There is no discernible pattern to suggest that gauges are being stolen for terrorist purposes."

But the agency says that loss of control of radioactive material still poses a potential health and safety risk to the public. The NRC says it is increasing this security requirement based on health and safety considerations rather than common defense and security concerns.

The final rule becomes effective in early June, 180 days after publication.

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Idaho Lab Seeks Public Input on Nuclear Reactor Cleanup

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Energy, in cooperation with the state of Idaho and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is seeking public comment on a proposal to prepare to decommission the Power Burst Facility reactor at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

An Engineering Evaluation and Cost Analysis document, available for review at, describes two alternatives for preparation actions to decommission the Power Burst Facility reactor building.

The Power Burst Facility reactor was built in 1972. It was used by INEEL scientists and engineers for experiments to determine the safe operating limits of reactor systems, until it was placed in standby mode in 1985. It was designed to simulate various kinds of imagined accidents caused by sudden increases in the operating power level of the reactor, and was the only reactor in the world capable of performing rapid changes in power level within milliseconds.

DOE will perform the work under the Superfund as a non-time critical removal action.

This action includes removing approximately two-thirds of the shielding lead from the structure. The lead will be re-used, recycled, or disposed. The proposal for phase one demolition evaluates two alternatives. The first alternative, used as a baseline for comparison and which is a requirement under the Superfund law, is no action other than the required surveillance and maintenance of the reactor facility.

The second and preferred alternative includes removal and disposition of water from the reactor pool and vessel, and removal and disposal of the experiment test chamber, called the in-pile tube, from the reactor vessel. More shielding will be placed over the vessel once the water is removed.

The Energy Department says the preferred alternative would reduce long term risk, minimizes short term worker risk and radiation exposure, is cost-effective, and provides a safe and stable condition that is environmentally sound as the agencies prepare for the decommissioning of the reactor in Phase 2.

During the past year, workers with the Idaho Completion Project have successfully removed contaminated soils at the Power Burst Facility. These soils were taken to the INEEL Superfund Disposal Facility on-site for treatment and disposal. More than 72,500 tons of soil were hauled more than 105,000 miles without a safety incident. DOE reports.

Written comments on DOE’s plan are welcome through January 23 online at or mailed to: Kathleen Hain, U.S. Department of Energy, P.O. Box 1625 MS 1222, Idaho Falls, Idaho 83415-1222 or email:

The document, as well as an electronic comment form, is available at Public briefings on this project can be arranged by calling (208) 526-3183 or the INEEL’s toll-free number at (800) 708-2680.

Detailed information is available in the Administrative Record file for the Power Burst Facility (Waste Area Group 5) online at:

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Mississippi River and Tributaries Swollen to Flood Stage

WASHINGTON, DC, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - The Mississippi River is currently running at crest, at or near flood stage, or above flood stage. This is the result of heavy rains and an early snow melt and there are growing concerns about the threat of devastating flooding, the Department of Homeland Security said in alert this morning.

High waters have caused problems for river traffic on the Ohio River and minor flooding in low-lying areas outside the levees that hold in the river's water.

Last week's four to eight inches of rain over a good part of the lower Missouri, upper Mississippi, and the Ohio River basins swelled river levels to well above flood stages along a 900 mile section reach of the river. The volume of water coursing down the river this January has not been seen in more than 50 years according to federal, state, and local officials and long-time residents.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Coordination Center reports that salvage efforts continue at Belleville Locks and Dam to remove the four barges that sank below several gates of the dam on the Ohio River at Belleville, West Virginia.

Until the gates can be closed, the navigation pool between Belleville and the Willow Island Locks and Dam will continue to drop. This pool enables the dam to maintain water depths on the river suitable for navigation. When the pool drops to six feet, locking operations are suspended.

The U.S. Coast Guard is poised to close the locks to maritime traffic this morning because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard officials say the Belleville navigational pool will fall to six feet today and to 2.3 feet by Wednesday.

The loss of the navigation pool will close the river between Belleville and Willow Island to navigation traffic, including coal shipments to power companies along the Ohio River. It may also affect the stability of barges in fleeting areas along the river. In addition, with the rapid reduction of water level, some areas along the river may suffer bank failure and slips, endangering riverside roadways.

In the Mississippi Delta, high waters have flooded farm lands and rural roads. In New Orleans, Louisiana, the Coast Guard has posted advisories on the Mississippi, directing river traffic to be vigilant about high waters.

On Monday, the Corps set up temporary field offices in Dyersburg, Tennessee; as well as in Caruthersville and Cape Girardeau, Missouri to monitor flooding from the Mississippi River in parts of Tennessee and Kentucky.

On Wednesday, the river is expected to crest at 54.5 feet at Cairo, Illinois, about 14.5 feet above flood stage. The water gauge at Cairo is a key indicator because it measures the combined flow of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, or about 40 percent of the nation's waters.

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Some Pesticides Pose Uncalculated Risks

RIVERSIDE, California, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - A University of California researcher has found that many widely used pesticides pose previously uncalculated toxic risks due to the differing biological reactions of their isomers in the environment. Isomers are molecules with the same chemical formula but in which the atoms are arranged differently.

Jay Gan, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of California-Riverside has found that this group of pesticides, although chemically identical, have very different biological and environmental impacts between their two, or more, isomers.

He says this fact may have implications for risk assessment and research and development directions of new products.

Currently about 25 percent of pesticides - including organophosphates and synthetic pyrethroids - fall into this classification and this ratio is expected to increase as new products are being introduced into the market.

Gan and his colleagues at UC Riverside examined five common insecticides, including organophosphates, such as profenofos, and synthetic pyrethroids, such as permethrin.

For all these compounds, one of the isomers was consistently over 10 times more toxic than the other to Ceriodaphia, a small crustacean often used to assess water toxicity.

The researchers also found that a specific isomer lingered longer in the environment than the other, making one form of permethrin almost twice as prevalent in sediment or runoff water. This means that the environmental impact of these pesticides may depend on the behavior of a particular isomer instead of the whole compound, the team concluded.

Gan’s findings add weight to the argument that when assessing risk regulators should consider whether a product is a compound with more than one isomer, and that the chemical industry should pursue the value of producing single isomer products instead of mixed isomer products.

By using pesticides with just the active isomer, farmers will likely achieve the same degree of pest control at a much-reduced rate of chemical use, Gan concludes. This will have environmental benefits as much less chemical is introduced into the environment.

The findings were published in a paper titled "Enantioselectivity in Environmental Safety of Current Chiral Insecticides" in last week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gan published the paper in cooperation with a team of UCR colleagues including Daniel Schlenk, professor of aquatic ecotoxicology; Soil Physics Professor, William A. Jury; and visiting professor Weiping Liu.

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Orange Peel Plastic Could Displace Petrol-Plastics

ITHACA, New York, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - A Cornell University research group has discovered how to make plastics from citrus fruits, such as oranges, and carbon dioxide.

The new process demonstrates an alternative to making plastic from petroleum, and using a renewable resource instead.

"Almost every plastic out there, from the polyester in clothing to the plastics used for food packaging and electronics, goes back to the use of petroleum as a building block," said Geoffrey Coates, a Cornell professor of chemistry and chemical biology.

"If you can get away from using oil and instead use readily abundant, renewable and cheap resources, then that's something we need to investigate," he said. "What's exciting about this work is that from completely renewable resources, we were able to make a plastic with very nice qualities."

Coates and his graduate students Chris Byrne and Scott Allen found a way to make polymers using limonene oxide and carbon dioxide, with the help of a novel "helper molecule," a catalyst developed in the researchers' laboratory.

Limonene is a carbon based compound produced in more than 300 plant species. In oranges it makes up about 95 percent of the oil in the peel.

In industry, Coates explains, orange peel oil is extracted for various uses, such as giving household cleaners their citrus scent. The oil can be oxidized to create limonene oxide, the reactive compound that Coates and his team used as a building block.

The other building block they used was carbon dioxide (CO2), an atmospheric gas that has been rising steadily over the past century and a half - due largely to the combustion of fossil fuels - becoming an environmentally harmful greenhouse gas.

By using their catalyst to combine the limonene oxide and CO2, the Coates group produced a novel polymer - called polylimonene carbonate - that has many of the characteristics of polystyrene, the petroleum based plastic now used in many disposable plastic products.

"The polymer is a repeating unit, much like a strand of paper dolls. But instead of repeating dolls, the components alternate between limonene oxide and CO2 in the polymer," says Coates.

He says that instead of being pumped into the atmosphere as a waste product, CO2 could be isolated for use in producing plastics, such as polylimonene carbonate.

The Coates laboratory at Cornell houses 18 chemists, about half of them working to make recyclable and biodegradable materials out of cheap, readily available and environmentally friendly materials.

"Today we use things once and throw them away because plastics are cheap and abundant. It won't be like that in the future," says Coates. "At some point we will look back and say, 'Wow, remember when we would take plastic containers and just throw them away?'"

Coates research published in athe September 2004 issue of the "Journal of the American Chemical Society." The work was supported by the Packard Foundation fellowship program, the National Science Foundation, the Cornell Center for Materials Research and the Cornell University Center for Biotechnology.

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Abalone Shell Eyed as Guide for More Effective Body Armor

SAN DIEGO, California, January 18, 2004 (ENS) - The colorful oval shell of the red abalone is highly prized as a source of nacre, or mother-of-pearl, jewelry, but researchers are now examining the shell's ability to absorb heavy blows without breaking.

Engineering researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) are using the shell of a seaweed eating snail as a guide in the development of a new generation of bullet stopping armor.

The researchers have discovered how the abalone produces a "helmet-like" home made with 95 percent adhesive.

The findings by Marc Meyers, a professor in UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, and engineering graduate student Albert Lin were published in the latest issue of "Materials Science and Engineering A."

Abalone shell cannot stop an AK47 bullet, Meyers said, but a careful examination of the steps taken by abalone to make their shells may help materials scientists develop similarly lightweight and effective body armor for soldiers, police, and others.

"In our search for a new generation of armors, we have exhausted the conventional possibilities, so we have turned to biology inspired, or biomimetic, structures," said Meyers, a former scientist with the U.S. Army Research Office. "The laminate structure of abalone shell has stimulated our group to development a new synthetic material using this lowly mollusk as a guide."

Meyers and Lin plan to complete their analysis of the abalone shell and generate a mathematical description that can be used by others to construct body armor based on the abalone.

The abalone shell investigation is one of a growing number of science mimicking-nature, or biomimetic, projects at UCSD.

For example, Meyers also is analyzing the strong, but extremely lightweight bill of the Toco toucan, a Central and South American bird that squashes fruit and berries with its banana shaped bill.

"We are actually interested in basic research on new materials," said Meyers. "We have turned to nature because millions of years of evolution and natural selection have given rise in many animals to some very sturdy materials with surprising mechanical properties."