AmeriScan: July 17, 2003

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Groups Protest Plans for New Plutonium Pit Facility

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - Anti-nuclear forces today protested Energy Department plans to build a new Modern Pit Facility, which would produce cores for nuclear weapons. The groups weighed in with criticism of the concept at an Energy Department public hearing Wednesday on the potential impacts of its plan to replace the production site at Rocky Flats, Colorado - that facility was closed in 1989 for environmental and safety violations.

Plutonium pits form the explosive core of nearly all nuclear weapons and critics of the Energy Department's plan say it is part of the Bush administration's strategy to develop new nuclear weapons, including "bunker busters" and low yield weapons.

According to the Energy Department, the need for the Modern Pit Facility is based on classified analyses of long-term pit production requirements. It calls for a new facility that could produce in excess of 500 plutonium pits per year.

The Energy Department estimates that the new Modern Pit Facility will cost $2 billion to $4 billion to construct, with annual operating costs of some $300 million.

Critics say the costs will run much higher and worry that the plan sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world as the United States is engaged in efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They add that the plan has not considered the environmental ramification of such a facility.

"The draft plan does not evaluate the clean up operation of the Modern Pit Facility at any potential site," said Dr. Mike McCally, a former Air Force officer and a board member of the nonprofit organization Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

McCally, who testified at Wednesday's hearing, says that the Energy Department's Environmental Impact Statement does not offer methods and procedures for "avoiding the environmental accidents and releases that led to the closure of the Rocky Flats plant."

PSR is one of 130 local and national groups that sent a letter to Congress asking members to oppose the Modern Pit Facility plan.

The House Appropriations Committee, which on Tuesday cut much of the funding for the new nuclear weapons research the administration has asked for, also reduced funding for environmental studies of the Modern Pit Facility from $22 million to $11 million.

"Ground burst and earth penetrating nuclear weapons produce clouds of debris coated with long lived, potent radioisotopes and plumes of particulate fallout emitting deadly radioactivity over wide areas," McCally said. "Militarily, medically and morally, these are unusable weapons."

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Congress Asked to Reverse Court Ruling on Nuclear Waste

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - The head of the Department of Energy's nuclear waste cleanup program today asked Congress to overturn a recent federal court ruling that the agency illegally gave itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste so that it could abandon it at three nuclear weapons facilities.

In a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Department of Energy (DOE) assistant secretary for environmental management Jesse Roberson asked Congress to legislatively reverse the court's ruling in a lawsuit brought against the agency by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In her testimony, Roberson said, "The department believes it would be useful for Congress to reaffirm that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not mandate that the department dispose of defense high-level wastes in a geologic repository constructed under the [Nuclear Waste Policy Act].

The department is seeking "explicit legislative reaffirmation that the department has the authority to determine which wastes from reprocessing do not require permanent disposal in a repository designed for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste," Roberson said.

"The court said that the law applies to Energy Department waste and it can't abandon that waste," said Geoffrey Fettus, the NRDC attorney who argued the case on behalf of NRDC, the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Snake River Alliance. The states of Idaho, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington filed a brief supporting the NRDC's position.

"The agency would be better off spending its energy cleaning up its mess rather than running to the Capitol to ask Congress to let it off the hook," Fettus said.

A report on nuclear waste disposal prepared by the investigative arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, and released Wednesday by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana says that a "prolonged court battle" on the issue of the DOE's authority to separate radioactive waste could "seriously hamper DOE's ability to meet accelerated schedules it has set under its new initiative" to accelerate the cleanup of the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

If Congress were to overturn the court's decision, Fettus explained, it would be responsible for making the Nuclear Waste Policy Act applicable to only commercial nuclear waste, not the high-level radioactive waste generated by the government. Such a decision would allow the DOE to abandon millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste in corroding, leaking tanks, he warned.

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Environmentalists Criticize EPA Drinking Water Regulation

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists believe the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to aggressively protect the nation's drinking water from a range of contaminants, including perchlorate - a chemical found in rocket fuel and known to have contaminated water supplies in some 20 states.

Last week, the EPA announced it had concluded a six year review of some 69 drinking water regulations and had finalized nine contaminants on its Contaminant Candidate List (CCL). The agency is required by the Safe Drinking Water Act to review and revise national primary drinking water regulation every six years. The law mandates that each revision "shall maintain, or provide for greater, protection of the health of persons."

The agency ruled that "at this time it is not appropriate to develop regulations" for those nine, even though two of them - aldrin and dieldin - are supposed to be eliminated under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

In addition, the agency decided against adding any new contaminants to its list of some 90 it regulates in drinking water.

The agency did not mention perchlorate in particular, but the pollutant, which is the explosive component of rocket and missile fuel, has emerged the pivotal issue for some environmentalists.

"This decision shows the Bush administration's shocking disregard for what Americans say is the single most important environmental issue - clean safe, drinking water," said Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) , a nonprofit environmental research firm.

Although there are currently no enforceable perchlorate safety standards, the EPA's currently recommended safe dose is equal to one part per billion (ppb) in drinking water.

EWG, believes a national safety standard should be no higher than 0.1 ppb.

Some in Congress are also pushing for action - California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require the EPA to establish a national drinking water safety standard for perchlorate contamination in drinking water supplies by July 1, 2004.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a military spending bill that contained a provision ordering the EPA and the Pentagon to study perchlorate contamination in groundwater. The provision calls on EPA to set a drinking water standard for the pollutant within six months of its passage.

EPA officials say there are still large holes in the data and contend a rulemaking process can not begin until studies are complete unless there is congressional action. The agency has asked the National Academy of Science to study the issue and expects that report next year.

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Decision on Slickspot Peppergrass Listing Delayed

WASHINGTON, DC, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it needs at least six additional months to determined whether to list the slickspot peppergrass on the Endangered Species Act.

The agency says it needs more time to analyze the available data about the plant species, which is native to sagebrush-steppe habitats in southwest Idaho. Slickspot peppergrass ranges from four to 12 inches in height, and has many tiny, white flowers.

"The extension will allow the Service to gather and evaluate additional information about the plant, its status, and the risks it faces," said Dave Allen, regional director of the Service's Pacific Region.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there is substantial disagreement over whether or not the monitoring data collected since 1995 is sufficient to support either an increasing or a decreasing population trend.

And the agency said in a news release that there is substantial disagreement among the scientific reviewers about the number of reported observations being sufficient "to conclude an overall negative impact to the species is likely to occur."

Wednesday's announcement prolongs a decision on the species, which was first proposed as a candidate species in 1999. In November of 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service was sued by the Committee for Idaho's High Desert and Western Watersheds Project for failure to issue an emergency rule to list the plant, and for not proceeding with a proposed rule to list it as endangered or threatened.

Based upon a settlement agreement between the Service and the plaintiffs, the court signed an order for the Service to submit a proposal to list the species by July 15, 2002, in the Federal Register.

Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act allows the Interior Department Secretary to extend the 12 months allotted to make a final listing decision by up to six months when "substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency or accuracy of the available data" exists.

The 30 day public comment period begins July 18, 2003, when notice of the extension will be published in the Federal Register, and closes August 18, 2003.

When the agency proposed the species for listing in 2002, biologists had documented 70 occurrences of slickspot peppergrass but only six of these areas were considered to be of high quality. In 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service said that remaining suitable habitat to support this species is less than 12,400 acres.

"We plan to work closely with our State, Federal and community partners to ensure the future of the slickspot peppergrass," Allen said. "Voluntary conservation agreements can provide significant benefits for this and other candidates for Endangered Species Act protection."

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 thus far not added any species to the list.

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Deep Convection Could Exist at Third Spot in North Atlantic

WOODS HOLE, Massachusetts, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - Deep mixing of ocean waters in the North Atlantic - known as convection - was thought to only occur in two locations, but new research suggests it does indeed occur in a third location first proposed a century ago by explorer and oceanographer Fridtjof Nansen.

Deep convection is a process that forms deep waters of the world's oceans and plays a major role in the climate system.

It was thought to occur only in the Labrador Sea and the Mediterranean Sea but in a study published in the journal Nature, researchers say it may also be occurring in the Irminger Sea east of Greenland because of a sporadic and localized atmospheric phenomenon known as the Greenland tip jet.

The researchers say the finding could alter the thinking about the ocean's overturning circulation that affects the Earth's climate. Lead author Robert Pickart of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says the study places an additional complexity to the climate puzzle that must now be taken into account in observations and models, and that the implications of an additional source of Labrador Sea Water are far reaching.

"I believe we found the smoking gun in the debate about deep water formation east of Greenland," Pickart said. "This study essentially ends a 100-year controversy, and I am convinced we will acquire the data from the ocean profiling system now in place in the Irminger Sea to prove it conclusively in the future."

The Labrador Sea and the Mediterranean have been thought to be the only locations where open ocean convection leads to formation of deep water in the North Atlantic to depths of 1500-2000 meters.

Polar air blows across Canada during the winter, removing heat over much of the Labrador Sea and causing the surface layers to sink and mix into deep waters.

New evidence rekindled interest in Nansen's idea that a large amount of Labrador Sea Water may actually be formed outside the Labrador Sea in the Irminger Sea. A recent study by atmospheric scientists focused attention on the Greenland tip jet - a narrow, sporadic atmospheric jet that develops off of Cape Farewell- and Pickart's research team pulled together corroborating evidence from atmospheric models, meteorological data, remote sensing fields, and oceanic modeling in order to make their case.

Pickart and colleagues may be able to finally prove the idea with a new ocean profiling system deployed in the Irminger Sea three years ago.

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Scientists Test Snowball Earth Hypothesis

RICHARDSON, Texas, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - Some scientists believe that the Earth underwent periods of extreme cold from 750 million to 600 million years ago - so cold that all water, including the surface of the oceans, was frozen solid. The entire planet was in essence, a giant snowball.

The idea is a matter of much debate, but a group of scientists from the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and Hebrew University of Jerusalem believe the answer to the theory may lie in 700 million year old rocks in northern Ethiopia. The scientists have received a three year, $150,000 grant to conduct the study from the Binational Science Foundation, an organization established by the governments of the United States and Israel to promote joint scientific and technological research between the two countries

"This project will test the Snowball Earth hypothesis, which explains perplexing features of 800 million- to 570-million-year-old sedimentary deposits that indicate the Earth's climate fluctuated dramatically between episodes when the planet was covered with ice and episodes when the climate was much hotter than it is today," said UTD Geosciences Department head Dr. Robert Stern. "The evidence includes thick glacial deposits on all continents sandwiched between warm water limestones and chemical indications that primitive photosynthetic marine life died off during so-called 'Snowball' episodes."

The goal of the project in Ethiopia, according to Stern, will be to establish the sequence of events recorded in the rocks and interpret the results to better understand how and why Earth's climate was changing at that time.

An international team of researchers that included scientists from UTD reported earlier this year that the northern Ethiopian rock formations appear to be the first documented evidence of Snowball Earth events in the Arabian-Nubian Shield - this is a huge, poorly known region that stretches north to south from Israel to Ethiopia and east to west on either side of the Red Sea.

Meteorological and geological events which may have occurred in the Snowball Earth scenario should not be confused with ice ages that took place a few million years ago - a brief span of time on the geologic clock.

The scientists, along with researchers from Mekele University in Ethiopia, hope to begin their field examination of Ethiopian rocks from the Neoproterozoic era this October.

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Lead Sinks Slowly Through Soil, 17 Year Study Finds

HANOVER, New Hampshire, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - A 17 year study has found that lead moves very slowly through the soil. Published in the recent edition of a journal of the American Chemical Society, three Darmouth scientists reported the findings of the experiment on Vermont's Camels's Hump.

High elevation forests, such as the one at Camel's Hump, are considered good environmental indicators because they are very sensitive to atmospheric and climate conditions and collect lead from the air and water.

Using isotopic analysis for the first time at this field site, the researchers traced several varieties of lead with different atomic weights and say that their findings support earlier studies that show "that lead in forests in the Northeast moves very, very slowly."

"The lead that was emitted from gasoline and settled into the soil over about 30 or 40 years is not going to end up in our drinking water anytime soon," said Andrew Friedland, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth.

Friedland cautions that this is not a reason for complacency - the Dartmouth team and others are working on mountains worldwide to discover how soil retains pollutants such as lead and why the lead moves so slowly through the soil.

One piece of this study began in 1984 as part Friedland's dissertation research - he applied a trace amount of lead over a one-square-meter area in Camel's Hump. Returning with colleagues in 2001, Friedland found the lead applied in 1984 had only moved down into the soil about seven centimeters.

"And it will probably move slower in the future because the soil becomes denser," explained lead author James Kaste, a post-doctoral researcher in the Earth Sciences Department and with the Environmental Studies Program. "It is pretty rare to have a long-term study in this field, and here is a 17 year experiment that we were able to conduct."

"The next step is to identify how the lead binds to the soil," Kaste said. "We want to learn if it binds to organic matter, for example, or if it precipitates out."

Lead is one of the most widely dispersed natural contaminants in the world. At elevated levels, it can cause nervous system disorders and even low levels have been linked to learning disabilities and other behavioral and developmental problems in children.

Throughout most of the 20th century, people added lead to the atmosphere primarily by burning leaded gasoline, which eventually settled to the earth.

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University of California Backs Green Buildings, Clean Energy

OAKLAND, California, July 17, 2003 (ENS) - The University of California Board of Regents today approved a university wide policy for the design of environmentally friendly buildings and a standard for the use of clean energy. The policy creates a framework for the University of California (UC) to improve its energy efficiency and environmental sustainability on all of its 10 campuses.

"The Green Building Policy and Clean Energy Standard will provide UC with an important new set of guidelines for environmental sustainability," said George Marcus, chair of the regents' grounds and buildings committee. "We greatly value the committed work of the student groups and others with whom the university worked in partnership to develop this new policy."

The Green Building Policy and Clean Energy Standard calls for the university to adopt principles of energy efficiency and sustainability in its capital projects to the fullest extent possible, taking into account budgetary constraints and regulatory and programmatic requirements.

The university will minimize its impact on the environment and reduce non-renewable energy use by purchasing green power from the electrical grid, promoting energy efficiency, and creating local renewable power sources. Renewable sources of power in California include geothermal and wind energy.

The policy will be applied to all proposed and existing university facilities. The regents will receive an annual report that examines impacts of the policy on energy utilization and building design and on operating costs.

The university will finalize the policy's implementation guidelines for its 10 campuses. The adoption of this policy is the first step toward the development and implementation of a larger, comprehensive sustainability policy for the entire University of California, the Board of Regents said.

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