AmeriScan: July 20, 2007

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Record Size Dead Zone Forecast in Gulf of Mexico

WASHINGTON, DC, July 20, 2007 (ENS) – A team of federal government and university scientists is predicting that the "dead zone" off the coast of Louisiana and Texas this summer could be the largest since shelf wide measurements began in 1985, and much larger than the average size since 1990.

A dead zone is an area of low oxygen or no oxygen which can kill all marine life in it.

The scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, and Louisiana State University, led by R. Eugene Turner of LSU, predict this summer's "dead zone" may be as large as 8,500 square miles, an area about the size of New Jersey.

Since 1990, the average annual hypoxia-affected area has been approximately 4,800 square miles. The "dead zone" measured 6,662 square miles in 2006.

Tropical storms and hurricanes are capable of disrupting the physical structure of the water column and aerating the bottom layer.

While NOAA has predicted an active hurricane season for 2007, if no strong storms appear, this year's dead zone could equal the largest recorded in 2002 and stretch into Texas' continental shelf waters.

The "dead zone" is an area in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by a seasonal change where algal growth, stimulated by input of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, settles and decays in the bottom waters.

The decaying algae consume oxygen faster than it can be replenished from the surface, leading to decreased levels of dissolved oxygen. This low oxygen area is of particular concern because of its potential to affect the valuable Gulf fishery.

The forecast is based on nitrate loads from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in May and incorporates the previous year's conditions.

"I am anticipating a historically large hypoxic zone this summer because the nitrate loading this May, a critical month influencing the size of the area, was very high," said Turner.

"The difference between 2007 and 2002 cannot be explained by increased river flow. The riverine flow in May 2007 was 77 percent of the May 2002 discharge, but it contained 35 percent more nitrogen," he said.

The relatively high nitrate loading may be due to more intensive farming of more land, including crops used for biofuels, unique weather patterns, or changing farming practices, the scientists said.

Research indicates that nearly tripling the nitrogen load into the Gulf over the past 50 years has resulted in the widening dead zone.

"This prediction is an example of the ecological forecasting capabilities of NOAA and its partners. We believe such forecasts will become important tools for coastal managers in the coming years," said David Whitall, a NOAA scientist involved in this project.

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Judge Protects Miami Drinking Water from Limestone Mines

MIAMI, Florida, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - A federal court in Miami has blocked the permits for a massive limestone mining project near Everglades National Park that could have contaminated Miami-Dade County's largest freshwater wellfield.

In a 177 page opinion issued last Friday, Judge William Hoeveler blasted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for "ongoing disregard" for critical health and environmental risks, including the recent discovery of benzene in the drinking water wells.

"In three decades of federal judicial service, this Court has never seen a federal agency respond so indifferently to clear evidence of significant environmental risks related to the agency's proposed action," wrote Judge Hoeveler.

He admonished the Corps for its "apparently unyielding determination to approve mining, regardless of the demonstrated risks of adverse impacts," and a "disregard" for public participation.

"The mines threatened to poison the drinking water of millions of Miami-Dade residents by introducing cancer-causing chemicals and dangerous bacteria into local wells," said attorney Brad Sewell with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

"The federal government abdicated its responsibility to protect these communities and our environment," he said. "Fortunately, the judge decided to right this egregious wrong."

The lawsuit, filed nearly five years ago by the NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the National Parks Conservation Association, also charged that deep-pit limestone mining operations would threaten the multi-billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

"The project would have destroyed endangered Everglades wetlands and blocked water flows into Everglades National Park," said NPCA Regional Director John Adornato.

The same judge ruled in March 2006 that the Army Corps, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, violated federal law by ignoring the threat the project posed to the environment when they approved it in April 2002.

Because the earlier ruling did not actually set aside the Army Corps permits, the Corps has allowed mining to continue while it studies the problem.

Scientists with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had previously objected to the project because the mining pits would have destroyed thousands of acres of rare wildlife habitat and forced more water to seep out of the Everglades.

The agencies' objections were withdrawn by the Bush administration.

Scientists have become increasingly concerned that the current half-mile buffer zone around 15 wells near the planned site is dangerously inadequate.

Plaintiffs have long warned that the mining projects could allow potentially lethal parasites, including cryptosporidium, to enter the Miami-Dade drinking water system.

Judge Hoeveler's ruling applies only to the mining sites closest to the wells, allowing work to continue on areas farther away until the Corps finishes its environmental studies, estimated to be one to two years away.

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Stockton Obeys Court Ruling, Ends Water Privatization

STOCKTON, California, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - A $600 million, 20 year water privatization contract signed with much fanfare in February 2003 dissolved late Tuesday night at Stockton City Hall.

The contract between the City of Stockton and OMI-Thames Water for operation and maintenance of the city's water, wastewater and stormwater utilities was the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi.

In 2003, the citizens of Stockton fought for the right to vote on whether water management services would be privatized, but the City Council decided on privatization before a vote took place.

The Concerned Citizens Coalition of Stockton, the Sierra Club, and the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County sued on the grounds that the city did not abide by environmental requirements before signing the contract.

The city did no environmental review, despite evidence for potentially severe environmental consequences, relying instead on reviews of other projects undertaken by OMI-Thames Water.

"At a time when the Sacramento Delta water system is already polluted and highly fragile, OMI-Thames declared a 'Run to Fail' operating mode," the Sierra Club said, "consciously deciding to neglect management problems resulting in harmful infrastructure neglect."

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Humphreys decided last November that the contract with OMI-Thames was illegal, would have "significant" environmental impacts, and must be canceled.

With its vote, the City Council agreed to withdraw its appeal of Judge Humphreys' ruling and entered into a settlement agreement with Concerned Citizens that gives the city until March 1, 2008, to change from private to public water management.

The vote will be costly for Stockton. The city must pay $1.975 million in attorney fees and costs to Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, the law firm representing the plaintiff groups, within 30 days.

"We are thrilled that the people will once again have a say over the way the water is managed in our city," said Diane Park of the League of Women Voters of San Joaquin County. "This decision truly is a victory for democracy. It's essential that citizens are able to hold elected officials accountable for decisions affecting the public interest."

"Water management is too important to be left in the hands of private companies who answer to shareholders and not to the people whose water they control," said Dale Stocking, conservation chair of the Delta/Sierra Group of the Sierra Club.

In a joint statement, the city and the company said, "This decision follows a four-year partnership that has delivered significant cost savings and numerous upgrades and improvements to City facilities," but to "engage in any further legal action is counterproductive to serving the needs of Stockton citizens."

The partnership was supposed to result in savings of $175 million over the 20 year life of the contract.

OMI-Thames Water is an alliance between OMI, part of the American, employee-owned CH2M HILL Companies, Ltd., and Thames Water, Britain's largest water and sewerage services company.

Headquartered in Englewood, Colorado, OMI manages 170 water and wastewater facilities, including several in California.

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U.S. Streamlines Fruit and Vegetable Import Process

WASHINGTON, DC, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, is streamlining the import process for fruits and vegetables if they are certified to have originated from a pest-free area or meet one of four other standards set by the agency.

These standards include port-of-entry inspection, approved postharvest treatment, a phytosanitary certificate verifying that the fruit or vegetable is free from a specified pest or pests, or that the risk associated with the commodity can be mitigated through commercial practices.

The import of fruits and vegetables that do not meet these standards will continue to undergo the full rulemaking process, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced Tuesday.

"This new approach will allow us to focus less on administrative processes and more on the science of facilitating imports that do not pose a risk of introducing foreign pests and diseases," said Johanns.

"A more efficient review process for imported fruits and vegetables should also help to expand market access for U.S. agricultural exports as other countries recognize U.S. efforts to encourage trade," he said.

The USDA also is establishing a notice-based process for approving pest-free areas in exporting countries.

The final rule will become effective August 17. The changes in the rule do not alter which fruits and vegetables are eligible for importation or how the risks associated with those commodities are evaluated or mitigated.

This rule only makes more timely the approval of fruits and vegetables that are safe for importation into the United States, Johanns says.

The regulation of imported fruits and vegetables is a shared responsibility between USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, FDA.

USDA regulates the importation of fruits and vegetables to ensure they are free of plant pests that could potentially compromise the safety of U.S. agriculture.

FDA is responsible for ensuring that the fruits and vegetables consumed by Americans, whether grown domestically or imported from other countries, meet the highest health and safety standards.

USDA is also in the process of creating a website that will allow customers to search, by commodity or country, for eligible fruits and vegetables and their requirements for import into the United States. The goal is to launch the system this winter.

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Public Access to EPA Library Materials "Not Required"

WASHINGTON, DC, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - While claiming that the public is receiving excellent library service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is finalizing procedures that may lock away a large portion of its library collections from public access.

Agency policy documents released Tuesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, state that, "Increasingly EPA publications are being scanned or digitized into the National Environmental Publications Internet Site, available to all via the Internet."

However, the agency says it is keeping at least one copy of each document in its original format in case the electronic copy becomes corrupted.

These copies are being shipped to one of three "repositories" located in Cincinnati, North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and Washington, DC. How the public, and even EPA's own staff, access these growing repositories has been uncertain, PEER says.

Over the past 18 months, the EPA has closed large parts of its library network, including regional libraries serving 23 states, as well as its Headquarters Library and several technical libraries.

Even as Congress moves to reverse EPA's library closures, the agency is now racing to cement new procedures restricting the ability of the public to locate or read technical documents in the agency's possession.

A new proposed policy circulated internally for comment on July 11, states, "Repository libraries are not required to provide public access to their collections…"

Compounding the inaccessibility of physical collections, the public's ability to electronically search digitized EPA holdings is problematic as well.

Public requests are funneled into a "frequent questions" web page that PEER says "yields balky and incomplete answers" to patrons' questions. ENS has waited more than 16 hours for an answer to a research question posed to test the system.

The remaining EPA libraries are directed to provide public access but may tailor or reduce that access depending upon resource limitations. The policy states, "Available public access choices from a member library shall be based on its capacity to provide them."

These policies have been posted on an EPA staff website called "QuickPlace" and staff has been given only 14 days to comment on them.

"EPA claims that its libraries are designed for the twin purposes of improving the quality of information for agency decision-making as well as raising public environmental awareness, but right now the libraries are not serving either purpose very well," said PEER Associate Director Carol Goldberg.

"Significantly, EPA is not even bothering to consult the public who paid for these collections," she said.

EPA's own scientists have not been consulted either. A union grievance filed on August 16, 2006 protested the closure of libraries as making it harder for scientists and other specialists to do their work. EPA ignored the grievance.

On Monday, February 5, 2007, the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of EPA Locals filed an unfair labor practice complaint on this issue before the Federal Labor Relations Authority, FLRA.

On June 26, the FLRA upheld the complaint and ordered the EPA into binding arbitration with a hearing set for August 14, 2007.

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Building Green in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - Commercial and residential buildings in San Francisco may have to meet the highest environmental standards in the nation, if the city follows the recommendations of Mayor Gavin Newsom's Green Building Task Force.

The new standards, proposed in the Task Force report of July 11, would be similar to those already in place for San Francisco municipal buildings. Any new standards would need approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

"We must create more energy and resource efficient buildings in San Francisco to meet our aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets," said Mayor Newsom. "I convened the Green Building Task Force in order to challenge the folks in this town who actually build buildings and finance construction to achieve the highest levels of environmental performance."

The 10 member Task Force includes representatives of San Francisco's building ownership, developer, financial, architectural, engineering, and construction communities.

The Task Force first met on March 15, 2007, and met every two weeks through June 15, 2007. Meetings were open and transparent, with no closed-door sessions.

"We recognized the need to improve the quality of buildings, and we wanted to focus on green building," said Phil Williams, chairman of the task force and a vice president at Webcor Builders, a large commercial building general contracting firm.

For large commercial buildings and renovations, the Task Force recommends a phased approach, with an immediate target of LEED Certified, increasing to LEED Gold by 2012.

"LEED" is the U.S. Green Building Council's resource efficiency standard, which stands for "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."

For smaller commercial buildings, where the payback for green design is less substantial, the Task Force recommends voluntary compliance to the extent practicable.

High-rise residential buildings would follow the same guidelines as commercial buildings. Smaller residential buildings of one to four units, and mid-rise buildings under 75 feet high are recommended to achieve a GreenPoint Rating of 75 points by 2012.

GreenPoint Ratings, better suited for smaller residential than commercial construction, were developed by "Build It Green," a professional non-profit membership organization promoting healthy, energy and resource-efficient buildings in California.

The Task Force acknowledged that green building can result in added design and construction costs. Current industry estimates range from 0-2 percent cost increase for LEED Certified buildings, two to three percent for LEED Silver buildings and three to five percent for LEED Gold buildings.

"Trends show that costs for green buildings are decreasing as the market continues to grow and mature," the report says.

The Task Force recommends incentives including development bonuses, property assessment equalization, and fee reductions that would be phased in over the next five years.

City permitting fees could be raised to cover additional administrative costs of the program, and possibly to provide fee rebates to those project sponsors producing green projects exceeding sustainability requirements, the Task Force suggests.

Click here to read the Green Building Task Force Report.

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Atlantic Seaboard Barrier Islands Studied for Conservation

BALD HEAD ISLAND, North Carolina, July 20, 2007 (ENS) - The nonprofit Bald Head Island Conservancy has launched an in-depth program to study conservation and development strategies that promote barrier island sustainability.

Ecologically critical to the protection of the mainland, barrier islands are some of the fastest disappearing habitats on Earth because of overdevelopment and rising sea levels.

On Bald Head Island off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, the Conservancy is planning what it claims will be "the world's first Barrier Island Study Center" in response to growing global concern regarding barrier island sustainability.

But the Conservancy has overlooked the new Barrier Island Research and Learning Center at the University of Georgia, UGA, Marine Institute on Sapelo Island that was dedicated on May 7.

This new center, built at a cost of nearly $2.3 million with funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Georgia Research Foundation, resulted from a partnership between UGA and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The center will be administered by the UGA Marine Institute, a unit of the university's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

Sapelo's marshes and adjacent estuaries account for about a third of all the remaining salt marsh wetlands on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States.

On Bald Head Island, construction on the $2.5 million, certified green study center is scheduled to begin in the fall, for completion in 2008.

The center will promote community conservation by integrating scientific research about barrier island sustainability and effective management strategies.

Bald Head Island is a privately owned vacation and second home destination located two miles off the southeastern coast of North Carolina and accessible only by boat.

Since 1983, ownership, development and stewardship of the island has been in the hands of Bald Head Island Limited, owned by the George P. Mitchell Family.

Open to the public, the island has more than 800 homes and nearly 200 year round residents. Of the island's 12,000 acres of beach, marshland and maritime forest, 10,000 acres are protected and will remain undeveloped.

In addition to analyzing barrier island behavior, the research will examine the conservation efforts and planning used on Bald Head Island by the Mitchell family.

"Bald Head Island is one of the only islands that has taken a sustainable perspective in development," said Conservancy Executive Director Dr. Suzanne Dorsey. "Here, there has been a developer who approached the island with that purpose in mind."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.