AmeriScan: June 22, 2007

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EPA Proposes National Smog Emissions Cutbacks

WASHINGTON, DC, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - For the first time since 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, proposes to strengthen the nation's air quality standards for ground-level ozone, the main component of smog.

"By strengthening the ozone standard, EPA is keeping our clean air momentum moving into the future," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson Wednesday. He says that since 1980, ozone levels have dropped 21 percent nationwide.

The EPA proposes to revise both ozone standards - the primary standard, designed to protect human health; and the secondary standard, designed to protect vegetation and crops.

Ozone can harm people's lungs and aggravate asthma, resulting in increased medication use and emergency room visits.

The secondary standard is based on scientific evidence that exposure to even low levels of ozone can damage plants.

The existing primary and secondary standards are identical - an 8-hour standard of 0.08 parts per million, ppm.

The EPA proposes to set the primary health standard to a level within the range of 0.070 to 0.075 ppm.

The agency also requests comments on alternative levels of the 8-hour primary ozone standard, within a range from 0.060 ppm up to retention of the current standard.

Two options are proposed for the standard to protect plants. One would establish a new form of the standard to protect sensitive plants from damage caused by repeated ozone exposure throughout the growing season. This cumulative standard would add daily ozone concentrations across a three month period.

The other option would keep the secondary standard identical to whatever is set as the primary health standard.

In 2003, national environmental and public health groups sued to force a deadline by which the EPA would propose and adopt changes in national ozone standards. The proposal signed late Wednesday night by the EPA comes in response to a court-ordered deadline in that suit.

David Baron, the Earthjustice attorney who handled the deadline suit, said the new proposal is not strong enough. "It's especially troubling that EPA's proposal leaves the door open for keeping the current standard in place, when the science advisors unanimously said that's unacceptable. We strongly urge EPA to do the right thing and adopt limits on smog pollution that clean up the air in our neighborhoods and communities."

Ground-level ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created through a reaction of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compound emissions in the presence of sunlight.

Emissions from industry, electric utilities, vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are the major human sources of these ozone precursors.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that if adopted, the EPA proposals would at least double the number of U.S. counties in non-attainment, but argues that their ozone levels are partly caused by emissions from outside the United States.

The Chamber cites a new report by the Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution, HTAP, finding that emissions from foreign nations constitute "a significant share of the background ozone levels."

"Counties in non-attainment are essentially redlined and lose business permanently," said Chamber vice president Bill Kovacs. "Today's HTAP draft interim report is a valuable first step toward subtracting out the foreign air emissions from the domestic totals so that U.S. counties are fairly evaluated and don't suffer unfair economic harm."

EPA will take public comment for 90 days following publication of the proposal in the Federal Register. The agency will hold four public hearings in: Los Angeles and Philadelphia on August 30, and Chicago and Houston on September 5.

The agency will issue final standards by March 12, 2008.

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Bush Tours Restarted Browns Ferry Reactor

ATHENS, Alabama, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - Unit 1 of the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama was restarted this month after it was idled in 1975 by a fire, restarted, and again closed 10 years later.

But an anti-nuclear advocacy group objects to the restart, saying that the reactor is not in compliance with federal fire protection regulations, and did not apply for an exemption from them.

President George W. Bush toured Browns Ferry Thursday to view Unit 1 and express his support for the first nuclear reactor to come online in the United States in more than a decade.

Refurbished at a cost of $1.8 billion, the reactor is on the north shore of Wheeler Reservoir in northern Alabama is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal government agency.

Unit 1 was shut down in 1975 after a fire, started by an employee checking for air leaks with a lighted candle. The fire damaged the power plant but did not trigger a meltdown.

Unit 1 was repaired and operated from 1976 through 1985, when all three Browns Ferry units were shut down for operational and management issues. Unit 2 was restarted in 1991 and Unit 3 was restarted in 1995.

As a result of the Browns Ferry fire, in 1981 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission adopted new fire protection regulations for all U.S. nuclear power plants.

In May 2002 the TVA Board voted to return Browns Ferry Unit 1 to service. Permission to restart was granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NRC, on May 15.

The unit was restarted on May 22 and is expected to generate up to 1,200 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 650,000 homes.

The nuclear industry and President Bush view the restart as a victory for a clean, safe, abundant source of electricity.

"I remind those who share my concern about greenhouse gases that nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases," the President told an audience at the Brown's Ferry site yesterday.

"If you are interested in cleaning up the air, then you ought to be an advocate for nuclear power," he said to applause. "Without nuclear power here in the United States, there would be nearly 700 million additional tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year."

"There is no single solution to climate change, but there can be no solution without nuclear power," Bush said.

But a document uncovered by the anti-nuclear advocacy group Nuclear Information and Research Service, NIRS, shows the reactor is not in compliance with the fire protection regulations, and did not apply for an exemption from the regulations.

Instead, the NRC allowed the reactor to restart under "enforcement discretion" like the two other Browns Ferry reactors it shares a building with.

"This means that the NRC simply decided not to enforce its own regulations in the Browns Ferry case," says Paul Gunter, director of NIRS' Reactor Watchdog Project. Gunter uncovered the hidden document, which was made public only after his inquiries to the NRC.

"It is very troubling that the NRC would allow the restart with Browns Ferry in violation of the Browns Ferry fire law," said Gunter.

The NRC said May 15 that its inspectors "completed a comprehensive operational readiness inspection prior to determining that TVA had met NRC standards and could restart the final unit."

In the month since the restart, the TVA has reported that Unit 1 had to be shut down twice in operations known as scrams - once on May 24 due to a leak of hydraulic fluid, and once on June 9 due to a high fluid level in a drain tank. The Emergency Core Cooling System was not needed in either scram.

Click here for a fact sheet on some of the safety deficiencies at Browns Ferry..

View a NIRS paper on specific fire protection issues at Browns Ferry-1.

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U.S. Army Plans to Contract Out Environmental Jobs

WASHINGTON, DC, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Army is about to begin contracting out its environmental, natural and cultural resource staff positions, according to agency documents released Wednesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

The Army is proceeding despite advice from its own lawyers that privatizing these functions violates the basic conservation law governing Defense Department operations.

In mid-March announcements, the Army notified contractors to begin preparing bids on environmental jobs at the nation's oldest Army facility, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and its largest, the White Sands Missile Range, which covers more than 2.2 million acres in southcentral New Mexico.

Formal bidding will begin this summer with contract awards slated for January 2008. Approximately 800 positions will be affected at the two bases.

While presently limited to these two bases, many more installations are beginning preparations for similar outsourcing packages covering more than 20,000 slots.

"Apart from being illegal, privatizing environmental and resource protection makes it easier for the Army to conceal mistakes and mismanagement," warned PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization represents hundreds of civilian Defense biologists, engineers and archaeologists.

Last year, PEER successfully settled a lawsuit to stop the outsourcing of resource management jobs at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

That suit was based on 20 years of congressional prohibitions against the military contracting out its environmental functions to private consultants.

Ruch has written to Congress members asking them to intervene to stop the outsourcing plans. In his June 20 letter to the chairs of the both the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Ruch asks that Congress require the Pentagon to report on whether it is meeting current environmental mandates.

"If the Army goes forward we will sue them," warned Ruch, noting that environmental and resource specialists at West Point and White Sands who have been notified that they may lose their jobs are already looking elsewhere.

The Defense Department controls more than 25 million acres within the domestic U.S. More than 90 percent of these training grounds, bombing ranges and weapon depots remain undeveloped and so contain the highest number of federally protected species per acre of any federal lands.

Besides their critical role in wildlife protection, Defense agencies play major roles in conservation of cultural resources and pollution prevention.

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Federal Protection Sought for 475 Southwestern Species

SANTA FE, New Mexico, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - The conservation group Forest Guardians has filed a formal petition under the Endangered Species Act to protect 475 rare plant and animal species across the Southwest. The group says "species extinctions are ripping a hole in the web of life."

The petition cites the current human-caused extinction crisis, with extinction rates estimated at up to 1,000 times the normal background rate.

This crisis is the reason the federal protection for threatened and endangered in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwestern Region, some found nowhere else on Earth.

Nationwide, only 1,300 U.S. species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, while scientists estimate 6,000 to 9,000 species are at risk and should be granted legal protection.

"The Endangered Species Act can help address the extinction crisis in the U.S., but native plants and animals do not enjoy any of its protections until they are listed under the Act," said attorney Jay Tutchton, director of the University of Denver Environmental Law Clinic.

"It's time to protect the species most at-risk of extinction with the protective umbrella of our most effective biodiversity protection law," he said.

In the past, Forest Guardians has submitted lengthy petitions to obtain Endangered Species Act listing for single species, including species whose protection could safeguard whole ecosystems.

An example is the Gunnison's prairie dog, for which Forest Guardians submitted a 114 page listing petition alongside a diverse coalition of co-petitioners in February 2004.

Interior Department official Julie MacDonald, who was forced to resign last month, was caught reversing the initial finding of agency field biologists on this petition, which would have moved the species closer to federal protection.

"The Julie MacDonald scandal exposed how the Service was keeping the door to the Endangered Species Act closed to a number of species in trouble. Now it's time to kick the door back open and give species in need the protection they deserve," said Dr. Nicole Rosmarino of Forest Guardians.

The 475 species in Forest Guardians' listing petition represent Southwestern biodiversity, including vanishing crayfish, fairy shrimp, beetles, moths, caddisflies, grasshoppers, stoneflies, springsnails, cavesnails, woodlandsnails, mountainsnails, talussnails, scorpions, spiders, fishes, salamanders, prickly pears, scurfpeas, oaks, grasses, and yuccas.

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Gas-Sipping Hybrids Save U.S. Millions of Gallons

GOLDEN, Colorado, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - Hybrid electric vehicles have saved close to 230 million gallons, or 5.5 million barrels, of fuel in the United States since their introduction in 1999, according to a new analysis conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL.

"Sales of hybrid electric vehicles have increased an average of 72 percent a year for the past five years," said Kevin Bennion, an NREL vehicle systems analysis research engineer.

"In 2006 the average fuel economy based on new EPA estimates was 35 miles per gallon for new hybrid models sold in the U.S.," he said.

The average fuel economy improvement for hybrid electric vehicles over the replaced conventional vehicle was approximately 45 percent in 2006.

Even with this improvement, hybrid electric vehicles would have to replace a significant portion of the total light duty vehicle fleet to have an impact on petroleum imports.

For example, net imports of oil in 2003 were 11.24 million barrels per day, and 8.55 million barrels per day went to light duty vehicle use.

"Although the fuel savings from hybrid electric vehicles to date is relatively small compared to the total fuel use, as the technology matures and these numbers increase they can have a significant impact in reducing our overall transportation fuel use," said NREL senior research engineer Matthew Thornton, who leads NREL's vehicle systems analysis research in the Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems.

To estimate the total fuel saved by hybrid electric vehicles, NREL researchers combined hybrid electric vehicle sales and fuel economy data to determine fuel savings.

The fuel economy data included new EPA mpg ratings, but old EPA mpg ratings and user-reported values were also reviewed.

The Center for Transportation Technologies and Systems has conducted research to advance hybrid electric vehicles viability in the marketplace since the early 1990s. Today, the Center focuses on developing and evaluating new technologies such as hydrogen, biofuels and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Operated by the Midwest Research Institute and Battelle, NREL is the primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

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Oregon Utility Protects Birds From Electrocution

PORTLAND, Oregon, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - Portland General Electric, PGE, has a plan that will help birds avoid electrocutions and collisions with electric utility power lines and equipment.

Eagles and other raptors such as hawks and ospreys will benefit the most because they often use utility poles and structures as perches for resting, hunting, roosting or territorial defense, and nesting.

PGE says its customers will also benefit because bird contact with wires can result in power outages and damaged equipment.

PGE has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other habitat area managers, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, to identify high risk areas and retrofit power lines, power poles and other structures to standards.

PGE has committed up to $100,000 per year through 2010 to reduce avian risks in the vicinity of three wildlife refuge areas.

Initial work is complete at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. Other known high risk areas identified in the plan for action in 2007-2009 include the State's Sauvie Island Wildlife Area and Hillsboro's Jackson Bottom Wetland Preserve.

"Electrocutions remain a significant cause of mortality and we are pleased that PGE is taking a pro-active approach to address these hazards," said Bob Sallinger, Urban Conservation Director, Audubon Society of Portland.

"We expect that other utilities will follow PGE's example, saving the lives of thousands of raptors and other birds each year," said Ren Lohoefener, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service' Pacific Region.

"PGE's effort to protect raptors and other birds goes back for more than a decade," said Dave VanBossuyt, PGE general manager of distribution. "This is a prime example of how environmental protection and cost-effective business practices are compatible. We've worked as a team with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to make sure this succeeds."

The PGE avian protection plan uses preventative bird-safe methods for newly constructed or rebuilt lines and other electrical equipment in areas with high bird risk.

The company tracks and documents all bird mortalities and at-risk nests sites so problems can be fixed, and undertakes risk assessments of existing lines and structures. Employees will be trained on bird protection issues and procedures.

Bird electrocutions occur when a bird simultaneously touches two conductor wires or one conductor and a ground wire. Large birds such as red-tailed hawks, great-horned owls, ospreys and eagles are the most vulnerable.

The number of bird electrocution deaths each year in the United States is estimated at tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, but these rough approximations are based on limited data.

Concern over these preventable deaths led to the formation of the Avian Powerline Interaction Committee, APLIC, in the mid-1980s by representatives of major utilities, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Audubon Society, and Edison Electric Institute.

APLIC provides guidelines on the latest and best ways to prevent collisions and electrocutions, and in 2005 developed the avian protection plan guidelines for utilities to adopt and modify to fit their own programs.

In Oregon, seven other avian protection plans have been adopted by utilities in the past three years, and two more plans are under development. To view a map of these protected areas, click here.

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Bacteria Want Vitamin B-12 Before They Eat Their Toxics

ITHACA, New York, June 22, 2007 (ENS) - Bacteria discovered in Ithaca sewage sludge by Cornell university professors 10 years ago are now in wide use to detoxify such carcinogenic chemicals as perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE).

They do this by removing chlorine atoms from molecules and leaving less toxic compounds behind.

But the bacteria, Dehalococcoides ethenogenes, are picky about where they work - performing well at some sites and not so well at others - and nobody knows exactly why.

Cornell researchers are now attempting to improve conditions for the organisms to optimize their performance.

Normal laboratory procedures have not provided answers, because the bacteria are hard to grow in a petri dish, said Ruth Richardson, Cornell assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. She is conducting the research with James Gossett, the Cornell professor of civil and environmental engineering who first found the organism.

Richardson is partnering with Gene Network Sciences, a firm specializing in computer simulation of biochemical processes, to create computer models of the inner workings of the bacterium.

Dehalococcoides needs vitamin B-12, she said, so the vitamin is added to cultures that are injected into cleanup sites.

The bacterium also grows better in a mixed community with other kinds of bacteria. "There are some factors it needs from other organisms, and we don't know yet what they are," she said.

Richardson will test the D. ethenogenes strains under a variety of conditions, such as exposing them to different chlorinated compounds one at a time, varying the environment or the nutrients supplied, and then observing which genes are expressed and what proteins are manufactured.

The data will go to Gene Network Sciences, which will try to build computer models of how the bacteria's proteins work together under each condition and whether the pathway for each condition is the same for PCE and TCE, and if not, what steps they have in common.

Richardson, who grew up in the Hudson River Valley, notes that such pollutants are common in the river's harbors. "There are still thousands of sites around the country that need to be cleaned up," she said. "Ithaca has three or four, and that's not atypical."

The project is funded by a three year, $381,000 grant from the Department of Defense, which has about 6,000 toxic dump sites of its own to clean up.

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