AmeriScan: July 19, 2002

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Drought Parches One Third of the Nation

WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - By the end of June, 36 percent of the contiguous United States was in severe to extreme drought, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Above normal temperatures and drier than normal conditions led to a worsening drought situation across more than one third of the United States last month, based on a common measure of drought severity, the Palmer Drought Index.

The average temperature for the contiguous United States was 71.6 Fahrenheit (22.0 C) in June, 2.3 F greater than the 1895-2001 long term mean for the month, making it the fifth warmest June on record. Colorado and Nebraska had their second warmest June since statewide records began in 1895, while New Mexico and Nevada had their fifth warmest June.

The above average warmth coincided with dry conditions in many areas. Fourteen states from the West Coast to the mid-Atlantic had below average precipitation totals and four states - Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska - were much drier than average.

In the East, drought conditions were most severe in an area stretching from central Virginia to central Georgia. The past 12 months were the driest July through June on record for North Carolina and South Carolina, and drought has affected parts of the region for much of the past four years.

Severe to extreme drought continued throughout large parts of the western United States from Arizona to Montana, affecting farming and the risk of wildfires. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 80 percent of range and pastures were classified as poor to very poor in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado in early July, with conditions worsening during June and early July in California, Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

The drought, combined with last winter's mild weather, has boosted populations of grasshoppers and Mormon crickets, which are now devouring crops and rangelands across the West, the "Associated Press" reports. In some areas, between 50 and 200 grasshoppers can be found in every square yard of cropland - or about one million grasshoppers per acre.

Wildfires are also causing problems for western residents. By the end of June 2002, almost 2.8 million acres had burned in the United States, much of it in the west, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This acreage is almost twice the total burned during the same period in 2000, one of the worst wildfire seasons in the past 50 years.

In 2000, severe to extreme drought affected 19 percent of the nation at the end of June compared with 36 percent affected in 2002. In the Dust Bowl year of 1934, July saw severe to extreme drought covering 63 percent of the contiguous United States.

Near average temperatures covered much of the south and northeast, and Maine and New Hampshire had cooler than average temperatures for the month.

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Bush Administration Opposes Renewables Requirement

WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - The Bush administration and several utilities are opposing a provision of the Senate energy bill that would require utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The Senate energy bill includes a renewable electricity standard that requires major electric companies to increase sales of electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources from two percent today to about 10 percent by 2020. This would result in a quadrupling, by 2020, of the amount of clean, renewable energy produced.

The 74,000 megawatts of renewable energy that would be online by 2020 would be enough to power about 53 million homes.

"Bush's opposition to the renewable electricity standard makes no sense given that its own study shows that the renewable electricity standard would actually save consumers billions of dollars," said Alan Nogee, clean energy program director at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

"The administration is catering to big utilities that want to continue dishing out the same old mix of dirty fossil fuels," Nogee said. "The summer air conditioning and smog season is a stark reminder of the need to develop clean energy sources."

Twelve states, including Texas, have already enacted their own renewable electricity standards.

"Because of the Texas renewable electricity standard that President [George W.] Bush signed when he was governor of Texas, the amount of wind turbines built in Texas last year was more than those built in the entire U.S. in any year," Nogee said. "It's a shame that Bush won't support the clean air, consumer savings and energy security benefits that renewable energy could provide on the national level."

Research by the UCS finds that the Senate's renewable electricity standard could save consumers almost $3 billion through 2020. A recent analysis by the federal Energy Information Agency (EIA) shows that a more comprehensive 10 percent renewable electricity standard than the one included in the Senate energy bill would save consumers over $13 billion through 2020 on reduced energy bills.

Energy technologies like wind, solar and bioenergy can also help reduce the emissions of heat trapping gases that cause global warming, and reduce smog forming pollution that fossil fuel burning power plants emit.

Despite this evidence, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has sent a letter to Congress stating that the administration opposes the federal renewable electricity standard.

On Thursday, Abraham participated in a ceremony to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, an institution dedicated by President George H.W. Bush, the current president's father.

"NREL has made many important contributions over the years, especially in reducing the costs and increasing the efficiency of renewable energy sources," Abraham said. "So much of the progress we have made in these crucial technologies can be traced to the groundbreaking research and development work performed by NREL."

When NREL was launched in 1977 it was known as the Solar Energy Research Institute. At that time, electricity produced by solar photovoltaic systems cost several dollars a kilowatt-hour. Today, the cost has been reduced to 20 to 25 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Wind energy in 1977 cost about 40 cents per kilowatt-hour. It can now be produced for four to five cents per kilowatt-hour, and is the fastest growing source of energy in the world.

In 1991, then President Bush designated the facility a DOE national laboratory, and the center became NREL. NREL is now a leading research facility for biomass power, biofuels, geothermal energy, hydrogen, fuel cells, distributed power, hybrid vehicles, advanced vehicle design, fuels utilization and building energy technologies.

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Rice Fungus Genome Sequenced

WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - U.S. researchers have completed the initial sequencing of the genome for a fungus that destroys rice grown around the world.

The research represents the first time that scientists have sequenced the genetic blueprint of a worldwide crop killing fungus.

The fungus Magnaporthe grisea causes rice blast disease, which destroys enough rice each year to feed more than 60 million people.

The fungus has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a potential biological weapon that could be used for agricultural terrorism. Its genome was explored under the joint National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Microbial Genome Sequencing Project.

Certain strains of the fungus can attack domesticated grasses such as barley, wheat, pearl millet and even turf grasses. Rice blast disease, once thought to be confined to developing nations, has emerged in the United States over the past decade with the widespread introduction of rice as a crop in the South.

In the Midwest, golf courses have been devastated by the disease's attack on cool season grasses.

v Rice blast outbreaks have been controlled through the application of expensive and hazardous chemicals. Genome sequencing will allow scientists to understand the interactions between the fungus and grasses, and identify the mechanisms that regulate infection of a host plant.

This knowledge could help scientists discover new ways to prevent fungal crop infection and the spread of rice blast disease.

"This is an important first step toward understanding how this fungus attacks the rice plant," said Patrick Dennis, the National Science Foundation's microbial genetics program director. "The scientific community needs this information to fill long standing gaps in our understanding and to develop new strategies for controlling this destructive pathogen. This will be a springboard to new discoveries."

The research is continuing at North Carolina State University and the Whitehead Institute's Center for Genome Research in Massachusetts.

The rice blast genome sequencing data is available at:

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Hunger Strike Targets Dow Chemical

SEADRIFT, Texas, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - Diane Wilson is sitting in the back of her pickup truck outside a chemical plant, wearing a cowboy hat and refusing to eat to draw attention to pollution in San Antonio Bay.

Wilson is a fourth generation fisherwoman who has been fighting Union Carbide for decades. She made her living by shrimp fishing until she started seeing dead dolphins and pelicans. When the shrimp came up dead, she decided to act.

The Union Carbide plant, now owned by Dow, operates alongside sensitive wetlands and a bay system that provides a livelihood to fishing community of Seadrift. The plant dumps five to 10 million gallons of wastewater each day into a barge canal that opens into San Antonio Bay.

Union Carbide, now owned by Dow, is the company responsible for the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, where the company's pesticide manufacturing plant released a toxic gas cloud over the city. The world's worst industrial disaster killed 2,500 people and injured hundreds of thousands more.

Activists in India are also conducting a hunger strike against Dow, demanding that Dow not escape responsibility for justice for the victims and to ensure that criminal actions against Union Carbide executives be prosecuted.

"Three Bhopal activists, including two women injured in the 1984 disaster, have been on a hunger strike since June 28, 2002," says the Pesticide Action Network. "This effort has a special urgency because the Indian government has sent two major signals that Union Carbide/Dow may be released from responsibility."

Diane Wilson learned that her Texas county has the highest rate of toxic disposal in the country, and her home town hosts three chemical plants. She started studying chemistry and looking into how the industry was affecting her environment.

Wilson began with protests and a hunger strike in the mid-1990s against Formosa Plastics, forcing them to reconsider their discharges of toxic chemicals into the waters where she fished. She was often alone and criticized for her work, but says she knew that someone had to take a stand and stop the pollution.

Today, she is still fighting the chemical discharges, but she is no longer alone. Inspired by Wilson's work, housewives and other members of her community support her. Wilson urges other ordinary women to get involved.

"If a fisherwoman with a high school education that doesn't even like chemistry can get compliance from a petrochemical plant, then anyone can," Wilson said.

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Invasive Crabs Swarm Up East Coast

ITHACA, New York, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - Invasive Japanese shore crabs have been discovered on the shores of Maine's Penobscot Bay.

The crabs pose a direct threat to soft shell clams, mussels and lobsters, say the Cornell University marine biologists who found the crustaceans in Owl's Head, Maine on July 13. Penobscot Bay is now the most northern point along the Atlantic seaboard where these crabs have been found.


A Japanese shore crab. (Photo by Robin Seeley, Cornell University)
The Japanese shore crabs (Hemigrapsus sanguineus ), which feast on mussels, clams and other shellfish, were found at Crescent Beach in Owl's Head by Robin Hadlock Seeley, a marine biologist and an associate curator of Cornell's Malacology Collection, and Erin McDonald, a Cornell undergraduate student.

v Last summer Seeley was conducting her annual survey of the green crab, another invasive species, when she found the smaller purple crab in Casco Bay, Maine. The Japanese shore crabs, which already have invaded the waters of Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, the Jersey shore and the coast of Massachusetts, were not expected to be found this far north so soon.

"The shock is that they've been in almost every place we've looked in Maine," Seeley said. "Anytime you have a new species which is a predator, you have cause for concern."

The Japanese shore crab, also called the Asian shore crab or the Pacific shore crab, was first found along the Atlantic Coast in 1988, when a Franklin and Marshall College undergraduate student saw the unusual looking crab under a bridge at Townsends Inlet in Cape May, New Jersey. The crab may have arrived on the Atlantic shores in dumped ballast water from an Asian merchant ship.

Since then millions of these crabs have migrated north and south. Until now the crab has been found as far north as Long Island Sound, Massachusetts and Harpswell, Maine. It has been seen as far south as North Carolina.

"The shore crabs are more aggressive than the European green crabs, and the green crabs are bad enough," said Seeley.

The Japanese crabs are smaller than adult green crabs, but are stronger and able to tear the claws off larger crab species.

Seeley noted that the Japanese shore crabs could take years to become established in the Penobscot Bay tidal areas.

"By sounding this early warning, maybe we'll have a few years to put a combat plan together," said Seeley. "Having found it in Penobscot Bay, we're continuing our search for it, and we will be working our way up the coast."

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California Salamanders Win Emergency Protection

SACRAMENTO, California, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has extended emergency protection to the Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander.

The emergency listing will remain in effect for 240 days while the USFWS makes a final decision on a proposal to list the Sonoma County population of California tiger salamander as an endangered distinct population segment under the normal listing process of the Endangered Species Act.

"The purpose of the emergency rule provision of the Act is to prevent species from becoming extinct by affording them immediate protection while the normal listing process is being followed," said Steve Thompson, manager of the USFWS California/Nevada Operations office. "In the case of the tiger salamander, there are seven known breeding sites left in Sonoma County, and the population faces a serious and immediate threat of extinction."

This emergency listing complies with a court approved settlement agreement of a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. On June 6, based on the settlement agreement, the court signed an order requiring the USFWS to publish a proposal or an emergency rule to list the species by July 15, 2002.

Urban development is the primary and imminent threat to the remaining seven breeding sites of the Sonoma County tiger salamander population. The animal now occurs in scattered and isolated breeding sites within a small portion of its historic range in Sonoma County.

Four breeding sites have been destroyed or degraded in the last two years. All of the remaining breeding sites are distributed in the city of Santa Rosa and associated suburbs on the Santa Rosa Plain, an area about five miles by four miles wide.

California tiger salamanders use burrows created by small mammals, including ground squirrels and pocket gophers. Adult tiger salamanders spend an average of six to nine months per year in the burrows, where they await the arrival of fall or winter rains.

The loss of these burrow systems is a threat to the continued existence of the California tiger salamander.

The Sonoma County population of the California tiger salamander is isolated from other populations of this species by the Coast Range, Napa River and the Carquinez Straits, a distance of about 50 miles. It constitutes the most northern coastal population of California tiger salamanders.

In September 2000, the USFWS listed the Santa Barbara County population of California tiger salamander as an endangered species.

Comments on the emergency listing will be accepted for 60 days and may be sent to: Field Supervisor, Attn:SCCTS, Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office, 2800 Cottage Way Room W-2605, Sacramento, California 95825.

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Northwest Researchers Focus on Bio-Energy

RICHLAND, Washington, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - Four Northwest research organizations are joining forces to explore ways to turn agricultural wastes into energy.

The partnership will bring together industry, processors, growers, universities and federal laboratories to develop new methods for converting agricultural and food processing residue and wastes into bio-based energy and industrial products.

Members of the new Northwest Bioproducts Research Institute include the Department of Energy's (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington; the DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Washington State University (WSU) and the University of Idaho. Each institution will bring its own unique capabilities, staff and facilities to the institute.

"The institute will make the Northwest a leader in bio-based technology but the technology created and demonstrated in this institute will go beyond regional interest," said PNNL director Lura Powell. "It will contribute to the nation's desire to increase markets for agriculture and help reduce its dependence on imported petroleum."

Under terms of the agreement, signed last week, the participating universities and federal research laboratories will collaborate to form a multi-disciplinary research and development program. They will examine and develop methods for converting agricultural and food processing residue and wastes into bio-based fuels, power and industrial products, such as chemicals for plastics, solvents and fibers.

Industry, processors and growers will be able to use and profit from the institute's products and technologies and, in some cases, will profit from the discoveries through licenses.

Laboratory facilities at the four institutions will be used. The agreement also calls on the consortium to seek public and private support for new research facilities.

A Bioproducts Advisory Committee that includes members from industry and grower organizations will be created to set research priorities and help ensure the rapid transfer of scientific discoveries to commercial products and processes.

The institute will explore new uses for food processing byproducts such as discarded culls, hulls, peelings or pulp and collected farm residues such as straw or manure. The most common market for such residues is now livestock feed, which offers little money for farmers. In some cases, food processing and farm residues can become a financial liability if they require disposal.

The institute will create processes and products that are better for the environment, by diverting and reusing wastes and developing energy efficient processes.

"Rural areas, including those in the Northwest, have missed out on the unprecedented national economic growth of the past two decades due to low commodity prices, increased environmental pressures and, more recently, increased energy costs," said WSU president V. Lane Rawlins.

"New technology offers the potential to address all of these issues," Rawlins said. "Opening new markets adds value to agricultural production, converting farm wastes addresses water resource environmental issues, and producing energy may help keep power costs in check."

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Deep Sea Camera Could Find New Species

FORT PIERCE, Florida, July 19, 2002 (ENS) - A Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution scientist has developed a deep sea camera that could capture images of creatures that live in the darkest regions of the world's oceans.

Dr. Edie Widder, an expert in marine bioluminescence, will combine stealth and ingenuity with a self contained underwater camera of her own design in a quest to capture images of creatures that have never been seen before.

The "Eye In The Sea" camera system Dr. Widder designed will be used for the first time next week in the Monterey Canyon area off Monterey Bay, California, at depths of between 700 meters and 1,000 meters.

What makes the camera unique is its ability to sit alone on its tripod on the ocean bottom, waiting for a flash of bioluminescence to trigger its lens. The instant a creature flashes its chemical signal, the camera will record the bioluminescent flash, send out a beam of red light to illuminate the animal, and take a digital image.

Just a small percentage of the deep ocean has been explored, and scientists believe there could be creatures living in those depths that humans have never seen.

"A big noisy submersible with its bright lights can be seen or heard or otherwise sensed by deep sea creatures from a long way away, and that has no doubt scared away a lot of animals," Widder said.

Widder has been trying since 1994 to make her Eye In The Sea project a reality. She succeeded in launching the effort last year with a $35,000 check from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to the Harvey Mudd College of Engineering for initial development.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided $15,000 to help develop the deep sea housing that has to protect the camera system from crushing pressures at depth, and Widder has financed the rest of the project from her own Harbor Branch budget and from the sale of video and still images

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) is providing Widder, an adjunct scientist at MBARI, with ship and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) time and an extra set of the special batteries required by the system. From the research vessel Point Lobos, MBARI's ROV Ventana will transport the Eye In The Sea system to the depths of the Monterey Canyon.

Widder plans to deploy Eye In The Sea for the first time on July 23. The system will be retrieved and any images it has taken will be downloaded the next day. It will then be dropped back into the ocean depths for another 24 hours, and retrieved for the second time on July 25.

Widder plans to deploy the camera for longer periods of time in other parts of the ocean after the system and any images it takes are evaluated.