AmeriScan: July 14, 2003

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Army Corps Reduces Missouri River Flow

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - In the wake of a federal court ruling that conservationists consider a major victory, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun reducing the amount of water released from its Missouri River dams this summer.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler issued a preliminary injunction on July 12 that forces the federal agency to lower the water levels along the river from July 15 to September 1 in order to protect endangered species. The Army Corps began reducing water flows on Sunday.

Kessler's ruling is in response to a request made in May by a coalition of some 10 conservation groups who asked for the preliminary injunction.

The coalition filed suit in February to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations plan for six dams that inhibit the flow of the Missouri River. The conservation groups believe the Army Corps is violating the Endangered Species Act as the high water levels have a negative impact on federally protected bird and fish species.

"The court recognized the extraordinary fact that changes needed to protect endangered species would actually increase the purely economic benefits of the river," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense who is involved with the case. "This ruling will prevent the Corps from wasting valuable water in a drought to float the mere four towboats actually using the river right now."

Conservationists contend the economic concerns of the barge industry on the Missouri River are far outweighed by the environmental - and economic - benefits of lower summer time flows.

Lower water levels will ensure that river sandbars where two endangered bird species build their nests are not submerged and the conservationists say that exposed river sandbars stimulate local economies by serving as beaches in the American heartland.

In addition, they say that holding water behind the dams in summer to create lower river levels supports a recreation economy on the reservoirs that some estimate tops $100 million annually.

The decision to deliver the injunction is "a turning point for the Missouri River," said David Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and an attorney with Latham and Watkins, who represented most of the organizations in the case.

"It is about time that the wildlife interests that have gotten the short end of the stick for so many years - and that serve as modern-day proxies for the rich environmental resources that once characterized the mighty Missouri - finally will get their due," said Hayes.

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FDA Eases Health Claims Approval Process

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced broad changes to its policy for approving health claims for food and dietary supplements. The agency says the regulatory changes will help consumers obtain more comprehensive information about the health consequences of food and dietary supplements, but critics say the administration is opening the door to consumer confusion that could harm public health.

The FDA, in a report released Friday, revised the process by which it reviews health claims of manufacturers of food and dietary supplements to allow companies lobby the agency for approval to make health claims instead of having to rely on scientific consensus. The FDA will use a grading system for health claims on labels based on the scientific evidence available.

"This new initiative will better protect consumers from making uninformed or misinformed choices about their diet and nutrition, by giving consumers better information about the health consequences of those choices," said FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan. "The FDA review process for making qualified claims, when combined with our strong enforcement work, will reward companies that make healthier products while more aggressively enforcing the law against companies that appeal to consumers through false and misleading health claims."

Food and dietary supplementary manufacturing groups support the new process, but some food safety and public health groups believe the public could be the loser.

"This action represents the biggest rollback in food-labeling standards in 20 years," said Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non profit nutritional advocacy group. "The FDA's grading system for health claims is untested and should not be used until the agency has completed consumer behavior research that shows that consumers will not be misled."

Silverglade says the new procedures are illegal as they violated a 1990 law that mandates significant scientific agreement for health claims.

"Consumers do not want the federal government to authorize 'wishy-washy' health advice by food companies," he said. "The new FDA policy is akin to allowing drug companies to make claims even if their products have not been proven effective."

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Interior Doles Out $70 Million to States for Endangered Species

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - The Interior Department today announced some $70 million in grants to 29 states to support conservation planning and acquisition of key habitat for threatened and endangered species.

The grants, which are funded through the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund and authorized by Section 6 of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, will benefit species ranging from the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast to the threatened spectacled eider in Alaska.

"Today's grant awards recognize the important work that states and their partners are doing to conserve and recover threatened and endangered species," said Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton. "Grants are an important tool in our efforts to empower local governments and citizens as they seek to develop voluntary conservation partnerships that provide real benefits to listed species."

The Section 6 grant programs include the $6.6 million Habitat Conservation Planning Assistance Grants Program, the $51.1 million Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Grants Program, and the $12.7 million Recovery Land Acquisition Grants Program.

The three programs were established to help reduce potential conflicts between the conservation of threatened and endangered species and land development and use.

The largest pool of funds - from the Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Program - will help states acquire land associated with approved Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP).

The $6.6 million from the Habitat Conservation Planning Assistance Grants Program provides grants to support the development of HCPs and the $12.7 million from the Recovery Land Acquisition Grants Program funds acquisition of habitat for endangered or threatened species in support of approved recovery plans.

The Interior Department reports 1,263 species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Bush administration, which has been criticized by conservation groups for its policies regarding endangered species protection, has not listed any species under the law. Administration officials say the Endangered Species Act does little to actually recover species and is in need of reform.

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Environmentalists to Sue EPA Over Toxic Air Emissions

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - Two national environmental group have filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not meeting a July 1, 2003 deadline to propose regulations to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals from the nation's cars, trucks and buses.

The groups note that these chemicals - in particular benzene and formaldehyde - can cause a range of serious health impacts, including cancer, birth defects, neurological damage, and respiratory effects.

"For years, the EPA has promised the public and the courts that it will reduce toxic emissions from motor vehicles - just not yet," said Jim Pew, attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which is representing U.S. Public Interest Group and Sierra Club in the case.

"Now yet another deadline has passed, and the EPA still has done nothing to protect the public from this well known threat," Pew said. "It is time for the EPA to live up to its word, and give us more than empty promises."

The EPA committed in a 2001 rulemaking to obtain the information it believed was missing from its analysis of mobile source air toxics and to propose a rule by July 1, 2003.

The agency's assessment of air toxics across the nation shows that motor vehicle emissions are the largest source of hazardous air pollutants nationwide and increase the risks of cancer and other serious adverse health effects for millions of Americans.

Environmentalists say mobile air toxics could be reduced by wider application of existing technology, such better emissions controls and testing, as well as increased use of cleaner-burning gasoline during the summer smog season.

Rules mandating such use currently apply to 30 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States and reduced the amount of benzene in gasoline by more than 50 percent.

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Energy Secretary Asks States to Save Energy

WASHINGTON, DC, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - Energy Department Secretary Spencer Abraham has sent a letter to all 50 of the nation's governors urging them to engage the public in educational efforts to conserve energy. Citing the concerns about low natural gas supplies, Abraham asked the state governors to join the federal agency's Smart Energy Campaign, which it describes as a broad based communications campaign to educate consumers, homeowners and businesses on the need to conserve energy.

Abraham launched the campaign with a Smart Energy Tour to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin in the past week and is currently planning visits to Georgia and Tennessee.

"In the wake of rising natural gas demand, it is important that we all practice smart energy use in the coming summer and winter months when demand for natural gas is at its peak," Abraham said. "From simply installing a programmable thermostat to control home temperature, to installing energy efficient lighting, energy consumers can do a lot to cut costs at home and help relief the growing pressures on America's natural gas supply."

In his letter, Abraham touted the administration's smart energy program and asked each governor to put a link to the program's new Web site - http://www.energysavers.gov - on their official Web site.

"The Bush administration is also looking for ways to lead by example in saving energy and, in particular, natural gas at our country's federal facilities," Abraham wrote in his letter. "I would encourage state governments to do the same."

Energy efficiency advocates, while supportive of the administration's educational initiatives, would like to see more active policy to shift the nation's energy consumption patterns. Addressing a capitol hill briefing today, Mark Hopkins, the acting president of the Alliance to Save Energy, called on the administration and the Congress to urge the corporate community to adopt a 10 percent energy reduction goal.

"Energy efficiency is the quickest, cheapest, cleanest way to increase our natural gas and other energy supplies. We need a long-term approach to the natural gas shortage, and energy efficiency must be the foundation of our nation's energy policy," Hopkins said. "We may be running short of natural gas, but we will virtually never run out of energy efficiency. It is our nation's inexhaustible energy supply."

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Some Low Level Ozone Formed by Lightening

BOULDER, Colorado, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - Most of the low level ozone that Americans must contend with is formed when sunlight and heat mix with car exhaust and other pollution, but in other parts of the world, such as the tropical Atlantic, ozone near the Earth's surface appears to originate naturally in ways that have left scientists puzzled.

New data from four satellites, however, has shed some light on the subject and researchers found that much more low-atmosphere ozone over the tropical Atlantic develops as a result of lightning than of agricultural or fossil fuel burning.

The findings of the researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), along with collaborators in Canada and Europe, appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

The scientists used satellite data from three National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft, one satellite from the European Space Agency, and a computer model from NCAR.

They found that in the early part of the year, intense fires set by farmers for land-clearing and traditional cultivation in northwest Africa resulted in large amounts of pollution. The satellites tracked the pollution as spread over the Atlantic toward South America and the scientists report that this pollution greatly increased ozone at low altitudes near the fires.

But when the scientists examined areas of elevated ozone levels measured by satellites and aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean south of the equator, they were surprised to find that this ozone was caused mainly by lightning rather than the fires.

The research was funded by NASA's Earth Science Enterprise (ESE) in cooperation with the National Science Foundation. NASA's ESE is dedicated to understanding the Earth as an integrated system and applying Earth System Science to improve prediction of climate, weather and natural hazards using the unique vantage point of space.

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Blight Resistant Potato Gene Identified

MADISON, Wisconsin, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - Scientists have discovered a gene that protects potatoes against late blight, the devastating disease that caused the Irish potato famine.

The discovery of the gene, found in a wild Mexican potato, and its cloning by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was reported today in online editions of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

There is significant potential from the identification of the gene as all of the varieties of potato now cultivated commercially on more than 1.5 million acres in the United States are highly susceptible to potato late blight.

Late blight is a family of fungal pathogens that wreaks havoc in the field, turning tubers to mush and invariably killing any plant it infects.

The world's most serious potato disease, late blight is best known as the cause of the Irish potato famine. Seeming to appear from nowhere in 1845, the fungus wiped out the staple crop of the densely populated island nation, causing mass starvation over five years and killing more than a million people.

The gene that protects potatoes from the fungus comes from a plant that scientists believe co-evolved in Mexico alongside the late blight pathogen.

"We think this could be very useful," said John Helgeson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of plant pathology, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a senior author of the PNAS paper. "No potato grown in the United States on any scale at all has resistance to this disease."

The insertion of a single gene, according to scientists, effectively protects plants from the range of late blight pathogens.

"So far, the plants have been resistant to everything we have thrown at them," said Helgeson.

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Researchers Find Unexpected Lizard Diversity

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, July 14, 2003 (ENS) - A graduate evolutionary biology student at Washington University in St. Louis has found extensive genetic differentiation among populations of numerous Anolis lizard species inhabiting single Caribbean islands.

While to the naked eye the lizards appear to be uniform, these lizards from the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Jamaica all show a surprising amount of genetic diversity.

The variation that graduate student Richard Glor has found startles evolutionary biologists and challenges researchers to understand what is causing the DNA evolution, said Dr. Jonathan Losos, Washington University professor of biology, and Glor's co-adviser.

"What is so exciting about the variation Rich has discovered is that it is completely unexpected," said Losos, who has studied Caribbean lizards for more than 15 years. "These lizards have been a model system for understanding evolutionary diversification for 30-plus years, including by a number of famous scientists, yet Rich was the first to discover this."

Losos says Glor has uncovered a "whole different layer of speciation and diversification in these species."

Glor focused on two widely distributed species for each island - two common ones to all four islands. One is known as a trunk-ground species, which live at the bottom of tree trunks and forage on the ground, and the other is a trunk-crown species, which live at the treetop and forage in the foliage found there.

Analysis by Glor and Washington University biology professor Dr. Allan Larson show that a trunk-crown species in Hispaniola diverged millions of years ago from those in Cuba, and different trunk-crown species on Hispaniola are genetically different from other populations in different regions of the island.

"With each species, there are forms that in one area are greatly different genetically from what we thought was the same species in another area," Glor said.

Part of the results of the Anolis study will be published in a forthcoming issue of "Evolution." Glor and his collaborators intend to formulate and test theories on what is driving the genetic variation.

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