AmeriScan: March 26, 2002
Bush Administration Undermining Air Quality ProtectionsWASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents released by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) details how the Bush administration plans to undermine federal air pollution standards, the conservation group charges.
The internal EPA documents are summaries of a two day meeting that EPA staff held earlier this year to discuss the Bush administration's plans for weakening a Clean Air Act provision called the New Source Review (NSR). The provision requires facilities to install modern pollution controls when they upgrade or modify their equipment and increase their emissions.
"These documents show in black and white how Bush political appointees at EPA are trying to cripple the Clean Air Act," said John Walke, the director of NRDC's air program. "When Bush appointees had two or more choices for air quality safeguards, the document shows they invariably picked the option that would generate the most pollution. Public health doesn't seem to be an issue."
The NSR provision requires more than 17,000 of the country's largest polluting facilities, including oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, incinerators, iron and steel foundries, paper mills, cement plants, and a broad array of manufacturing facilities, to prevent emissions increases after equipment upgrades.
The EPA documents indicate that the Bush administration plans to weaken New Source Review by implementing three separate proposals, the NRDC charges.
First, the administration plans to allow facilities to set baselines for its emissions that are higher than their actual emissions. This would let facilities claim that their emissions have remained stable while they increase to the new, artificial baseline, NRDC says.
Second, the EPA plans to create a new loophole from the NSR requirements, called the clean unit exemption. The new exemption would allow increases in pollution emissions, which are now regulated under the NSR provision, to avoid cleanup or new pollution controls, NRDC warns.
Under the third proposal, the EPA would adopt a plantwide applicability limit (PAL) concept that sets a 10 year cap on pollution emitted by an entire facility. The PAL would last 10 years, allowing pollution decreases that occurred nine years ago to offset actual and continuing pollution increases.
The EPA would not mandate pollution control requirements for new or existing polluting equipment under a PAL, and PAL levels would not be required to decline to improve air quality over time, the NRDC says.
"More than 30,000 Americans die every year from power plant air pollution alone, and weakening the standards would only make things worse," said Walke.
Security Gaps Found at Nuclear PlantsWASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Representative Edward Markey says documents sent to him by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) show that there are dangerous gaps in security at the nation's nuclear reactor sites.
Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has released a report analyzing more than 100 pages of NRC correspondence sent to him in response to several letters seeking information about the agency's security protocols in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The report, "Security Gap: A Hard Look at the Soft Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security," identifies a number of security lapses, Markey said.
"There is little comfort to be found in the agency's response to my questions," said Markey. "Black hole after black hole is described and left unaddressed. Post 9/11, a nuclear safety agency that does not know - and seems little interested in finding out - the nationality of nuclear reactor workers or the level of resources being spent on security at these sensitive facilities is not doing its job."
Among Markey's allegations:
Markey's report echoes concerns raised by other members of Congress and nuclear watchdog groups regarding the ability of nuclear reactors to resist an impact by a commercial aircraft, such as those used to destroy the World Trade Center towers and damage the Pentagon.
Twenty-one commercial reactors are located within five miles of an airport, the report notes. Yet 96 percent of all U.S. reactors were not designed to withstand the impact of even a small aircraft.
Other problems cited in the report include insufficient security around stored spent nuclear fuel. If storage casks were breached by a terrorist attack, dangerous amounts of radiation could be released, the report warns.
The NRC has not determined how long spent fuel casks could withstand a fire, and has not provided information on the worst scenario for breached spent fuel casks.
The report also warns that security exercises at nuclear reactor sites are inadequate, and sites fail to withstand practice attacks about 50 percent of the time.
Last August, for example, a security exercise at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont, revealed "potential vulnerabilities in the security program's response strategy," the NRC reported.
The NRC has rated the security problems at Vermont Yankee as "yellow," or one level below the highest level of concern. The security weaknesses "were generally predictable, repeatable and indicative of a broad programmatic problem," the NRC determined, creating an issue of substantial importance to safety."
Court Reduces U.S. Control Over Shrimp ImportsARLINGTON, Virginia, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - A federal court has reversed an international court opinion allowing the U.S. to ban shrimp imports from nations that do not do enough to protect endangered sea turtles.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a ruling by the Court of International Trade that would have expanded the present U.S. embargo on imported shrimp. Critics of the embargo said it violated international trade agreements.
For more than a decade, U.S. law has imposed the same restrictions on imported shrimp as on shrimp harvested by domestic fleets, requiring use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on trawl nets in regions where threatened or endangered turtle species live.
Malaysia and three other countries challenged the U.S. shrimp-turtle law before the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1996. A 1998 WTO Appellate Body ruling required the United States to make changes to the way it implements the law to avoid discriminating against exporting countries.
The U.S. State Department decided to allow imports from nations that require TEDs on those vessels catching shrimp destined for the United States market, while not requiring them on other vessels. The WTO ruled that the State Department's plan was legal.
Conservation groups including the Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Humane Society and the Sierra Club challenged that ruling, arguing that the State Department plan was not consistent with U.S. laws protecting threatened and endangered sea turtles. Last year, the Court of International Trade said the United States could go back to barring all shrimp imports from nations that do not require TEDs on all shrimp nets.
Now, a federal appeals court has overturned that decision, putting the U.S. back in the position of requiring that exporting nations demonstrate that their shrimp shipments come from ships using TEDs.
"The court ruling ensures that U.S. shrimp vessels will continue to have a level playing field with foreign shrimpers, and that the many companies around the nation that export seafood will not face foreign retaliation for what might have been an illegal U.S. trade barrier," said Richard Gutting, Jr., president of the National Fisheries Institute, the nation's largest seafood trade association.
"U.S. State Department officials continue to make tremendous progress in protecting sea turtles around the world, and we are pleased that their efforts have been upheld," added Gutting.
Arsenic Linked to Arterial DiseasesDALLAS, Texas, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Long term exposure to arsenic, a common groundwater contaminant in some areas, has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and diseased arteries.
For the first time, researchers report a strong, dose dependent relationship between arsenic exposure and the development of atherosclerosis - a buildup of plaque - in the arteries leading to the brain. The findings point to arsenic, and perhaps to other pollutants, as risk factors for blood vessel disease throughout the body.
"More than 100 million people are exposed to underground water with high concentrations of arsenic," said Dr. Chih-Hao Wang of the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Wang is lead author of a paper appearing this week in "Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association."
"Chronic arsenic poisoning, called arseniasis, is an emerging epidemic in Asia. Our results indicate that long term arsenic exposure may lead to the progression or acceleration of carotid artery disease and most likely generalized artery disease in humans," Wang added.
The researchers studied 199 men and 264 women, in an area of southwestern Taiwan with a high prevalence of arseniasis and high rates of blackfoot disease (BFD), a disease caused by blockages of the small blood vessels that nourish the feet.
Scientists have measured the amount of arsenic in well water in the region since the early 1960s. Based on those measurements and detailed questionnaires given to the subjects, the researchers calculated the duration and amount of arsenic exposure for each individual.
Using ultrasound, the team measured the plaque in each subject's carotid arteries. These arteries, located in the neck, carry blood to the brain.
Three indicators of long term exposure to arsenic - how long someone consumed well water, the average arsenic concentration in that water, and the cumulative arsenic exposure - were associated with the buildup of plaque in the subjects' carotid arteries. The amount of plaque increased as the amount of arsenic exposure increased.
The researchers divided subjects into three groups based on arsenic exposure levels and found that those with the highest exposure had three times the risk of artery disease as people who were not exposed to arsenic. Those in the middle range of exposure had double the risk of someone who was not exposed.
"From the strong dose dependent relationship, we conclude that long term arsenic exposure is an independent risk factor for atherosclerosis and that carotid atherosclerosis is a novel marker for arseniasis," the researchers write.
Smart Growth Programs Fall Victim to Budget CutsWASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Budget shortfalls are forcing more than a dozen states to make or consider massive cuts to smart growth programs, finds a new report from a trio of conservation groups.
The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse and Smart Growth America, warns that cutting these programs will threaten local economies, the environment and public health, and calls on state legislators to defend them.
"We understand that states have to tighten their belts, but this is not the time to return to the failed policies of the past," said Deron Lovaas, NRDC's deputy director for smart growth policy. "We have hundreds of examples around the country of programs building vibrant communities, revitalizing older neighborhoods, and protecting our cherished green spaces. States have to take the long view."
The economic downturn has slashed state revenues, with one estimate placing the total budget shortfall for states in fiscal year 2002 at $40 billion. Though it appears the economy is on its way to recovery, state budget officials are still struggling to make ends meet in this fiscal year and the next.
The report surveyed the status of smart growth programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Funding for these programs could be eliminated in Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Utah. Colorado and Ohio are considering smaller funding cuts.
However, some state officials are expanding similar programs or starting new ones. Three weeks ago, for example, California voters passed a $2.6 billion ballot measure protecting open space.
Washington state lawmakers have passed five smart growth statutes this year, and Massachusetts legislators are considering two measures that would provide more money to preserve green space, clean up brownfields, and encourage communities to incorporate smart growth principles in local planning.
The report's authors say these officials are responding to their constituents.
"While our national priorities clearly have changed since the tragic events of September 11, Americans have a different set of local priorities, and sprawl is one of their top concerns," said Allison Smiley, director of the Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse. "Even in last November's election, voters passed 73 percent of the open space protection ballot measures in 14 states."
The report is available at: http://www.nrdc.org/cities/smartgrowth/pstatebgts.asp
Hazardous Wastes Could Become New FuelWASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to allow certain hazardous waste materials to be burned in special power generating plants
The proposal would exempt some byproducts of petroleum refining and perhaps other industries from hazardous waste regulations such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The materials would be processed, along with fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, coke and even municipal solid waste and sewage sludge, to produce a synthetic gas.
The EPA estimates that from the petroleum refining industry alone, up to seven to 10 million tons of hazardous byproducts now managed under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) could be transferred to gasification systems.
Gasification is a technology that puts coal and other carbon containing materials under high temperature and pressure to convert them into synthetic gas. This gas is then used as a fuel to generate electricity or steam, or as a basic chemical building block for many uses in the petrochemical and refining industries.
When used as a fuel, the synthetic gas, or "syngas," is cleaner than almost any fuel in use today and is comparable to natural gas, the EPA says.
The agency says the gasification proposal will promote increased energy efficiency while reducing the volume of hazardous waste that would otherwise be treated and disposed of on land. It will also conserve natural resources by supplementing crude oil sources in electricity production, petroleum refining and chemical manufacturing, the EPA says.
"Today's action is a step forward for the environment and energy self sufficiency," said Marianne Lamont Horinko, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response. "The agency's objective is to increase recycling and energy recovery. This proposal encourages recycling of waste materials by lessening the regulatory burden on industry, while protecting public health and the environment."
The proposal is part of an EPA initiative to promote flexible, innovative ways to recycle more wastes while reducing the nation's reliance on fossil fuels.
"Today's announcement is the first in a series of agency initiatives on this issue, with more to be announced later this spring," added Horinko.
Sensitive Sensor Finds Missing PollutantBERKELEY, California, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Chemists at the University of California at Berkeley think they have found the nitrogen oxides missing from most air pollution models.
Nitrogen oxides, or NOx compounds, react with natural and artificial carbon compounds to form pollutants like nitric acid, a component of acid rain. About half of the NOx present in the atmosphere is accounted for by air pollution models, but the source of the other half had not been identified.
With the help of the most sensitive detector of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the world, the Berkeley chemists think they have found the missing NOx.
"Nitrogen oxide radicals are the major species controlling production of photochemical smog and subsequent chemical reactions in the atmosphere," said Ronald Cohen, professor of chemistry and leader of the UC Berkeley research team. "Until now, though, no one had really looked at what are, in some places, the most abundant NO containing chemicals in the atmosphere."
Deploying the detector in downtown Houston and in a remote Sierra Nevada forest, they detected large amounts of organic nitrogen oxide (NO) compounds known as alkyl nitrates, which had been thought to be a minor constituent of smog. In the forest, these alkyl nitrates included chemicals such as isoprene nitrate, which could only come from combining hydrocarbons emitted by trees with tailpipe emissions of NOx.
In Houston, other alkyl nitrates are formed by combining NOx with industrial hydrocarbon chemicals.
The UC Berkeley team's description of the instrument and their analysis of test data from a forested research plot in the Sierra will appear in the March 2002 issue of the "Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres." The article was posted on the Web this week.
"Our technique allows us to identify the molecules in the atmosphere and then build models of air pollution that are more accurate, that have the right chemistry," explained Cohen. "With the right chemistry, we can get better predictions. We hope our device for measuring NO compounds is a better tool for following pollution."
Cohen is trying to make a more compact and cheaper nitrogen oxide detector for routine air pollution monitoring in urban areas. Today's smog monitors measure the total of all nitrogen oxides in the air, and are unable to break this down into the specific amount of each NO containing chemical.
"Cutting NO emissions actually works to reduce smog and greenhouse gases, and today's NO detectors are OK for monitoring that," Cohen said. "But if we want to understand quantitatively the effect of local pollution on the global scale, we need to know how and in what form NO is transferred to the rest of the globe. We need instruments like this to identify the classes of nitrogen oxides."
2002 Sees Few Tornadoes - So FarWASHINGTON, DC, March 26, 2002 (ENS) - Only 11 tornadoes have touched down so far in 2002 - about six percent of the 178 tornado average the nation experiences by this time of year in a normal year.
But officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warn that the nation is now entering its most active season for tornadoes.
"The storm pattern is starting to pick up pace with strong cold fronts coming through. I'd be surprised if the slow start continues," said Joseph Schaefer, director of NOAA's storm prediction center. "Things could easily turn around, making this an above-average year. With spring approaching, it's just too early to say that we have lucked out."
The position of the jet stream and resulting storm track prohibited tornado development for much of the winter, Schaefer said.
"Typically winter season tornadoes are the result of large weather systems which cross the country, bringing cold air down from Canada and drawing warm moist air up from the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "The collision of air masses helps to spawn tornadic thunderstorms. This year, however, the storm tracks either stayed to the north or went right along the gulf coast, so we didn't have the moist air and the cold air colliding in the right place at the right time for tornadoes."
Every year, about 70 Americans are killed by tornadoes with 1,500 injured. An average of 1,200 tornadoes cause more than $400 million in damages each year.
Peak tornado activity occurs during the months of March through early July.
The average number of tornadoes over the past three years from January to March 15 is 178. Only three years since 1950 have seen fewer tornadoes during the same period: four in 1969, six in 1988, and eight in 1951.
The National Weather Service advises to plan for tornadoes before they strike. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center issues storm outlooks each day, indicating areas at risk for severe weather with outlooks extending as far as three days into the future.
"If your area is in a moderate or high risk for severe storms, that is the time to be sure you have fresh batteries for your NOAA Weather Radio, and be sure your shelter is prepared with bottled water, blankets and pillows to protect you from flying debris," Schaefer said. "By monitoring changing weather conditions, you will be prepared for the warning from your local forecast office."
More information about tornado forecasting and research is available at: http://www.noaa.gov/tornadoes.asp
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