AmeriScan: March 9, 2005

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Cuts in State, Local Wildfire Funding Alarm Lawmakers

WASHINGTON, DC, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - When the House Forests and Forest Health Subcommittee takes up the Forest Service budget at its hearing today, local governments and environmentalists are urging discussion about the diminishing resources available to states and communities for wildfire season preparations.

The Bush fiscal year 2006 budget proposal cuts $283 million from some fire management programs, including grants to help rural communities fight fires and prevent fuel buildup.

"The current administration has focused much of its rhetoric around the wildfire issue on protecting communities and yet, they continue to make dramatic cuts to state and local assistance programs. Even though up to 85 percent of the land around communities at the highest risk is state or private, resources going to non-federal lands continue to decrease," said the Wilderness Society.

Since the inception of the National Fire Plan in 2001, state and local assistance programs have been cut by $91 million or 57 percent overall, the conservation group points out.

“Communities out here are bracing for a tough wildfire season,” said Bend City Councilman John Hummel in Oregon. “We need all the help we can get. This is no time for the administration to cut the funding that allows us to do the work we need to do to protect lives and property.”

For many Western states, this will be the seventh straight year of drought, which exposes them to heightened wildfire risk.

The federal government will not release its official forecast for the 2005 wildfire season until April, but severe to extreme conditions already exist across most of Oregon, southeastern Washington, western Idaho and Montana.

“Communities simply can’t afford cutbacks in the funding they receive for wildfire assistance,” said Montana State Senator Jesse Laslovich. “The prolonged drought only reinforces the urgency to direct resources to communities and homes in high risk areas.”

Last weekend Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer expressed his concerns about the upcoming summer wildfire season, calling Montana a powder keg. The governor said his state is plagued by continuing drought, a shortage of mountain snow, and forests full of dry timber.

Senators are warning that cutting state and local fire protection funds is penny-wise but pound-foolish.

"You have to review this carefully, because the things we are cutting are really going to come back and haunt the government," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, told Forest Service officials during a hearing last week.

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California Qualifies for $6.9 Million for Storm Recovery

WASHINGTON, DC, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has announced $6.9 million in Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) funding to help Southern California recover from severe storms and flooding that hit the state in February.

"The Bush Administration has made prevention efforts and assisting the long-term recovery in areas impacted by devastating natural disasters a priority," said Johanns on Tuesday. "These emergency funds will provide technical and financial assistance to help restore damaged watersheds and rebuild local communities."

Severe storms and an unusually wet season for California caused flooding and unstable hillsides to collapse in landslides and mudflows. Areas previously burned by wildfires have been especially vulnerable, the USDA said.

The $6.9 million in funding will be spent on two projects in Ventura County that need immediate attention along Santa Paula Creek and at the Santa Paula Airport where mudflows and flooding caused damage to the infrastructure.

This is in addition to $1.2 million for emergency environmental restoration work in California that the USDA provided last month.

Through EWP, the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service works with local project sponsors to help people reduce imminent hazards to life and property caused by floods, fires, drought, earthquakes, tornados and other natural disasters.

Rehabilitation efforts will provide sound erosion control measures that are economically and environmentally defensible. EWP measures include removing debris, reshaping and protecting eroding banks, repairing levees and reseeding damaged areas.

Information on NRCS natural disaster assistance in California can be found at:

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California Prison Staff, Inmates Poisoned by Computer Recycling

WASHINGTON, DC, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - A prison industry that takes old computer terminals apart for recycling is under investigation for exposing prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The national organization represents government workers who have environmental concerns.

PEER said today that hazards identified by staff at the California prison were removed from the response the prison made to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, the reviewing agency.

The federal penitentiary at Atwater is a maximum-security institution located near Merced in California’s Central Valley. The federal prison industry authority UNICOR has operated a computer recycling plant at Atwater since 2002 but the operation has been plagued by safety problems and shutdowns PEER said. Six other federal prisons have similar computer recycling plants.

In late December, prison staff filed an OSHA complaint, alleging that particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, are released when inmate workers break the glass cathode ray tubes during shipping and disassembling.

The UNICOR factory at Atwater provides an open food service in the contaminated work areas, staff complained, and neither prison staff nor inmates were informed of health risks. No training on handling contaminants is provided. Blood and urine monitoring is incomplete, staff said.

In his initial draft response to OSHA, the warden at Atwater acknowledged many of these problems. The Federal Bureau of Prisons headquarters, however, removed most of admissions of fault from its final response that was sent out on February 11, said PEER.

Staff at Atwater wrote the warden to protest the changes and challenge the accuracy of the final report to OSHA.

“The concern is not only about prisoners but about staff who go home with toxic dust on their clothes and risk spreading contamination to their families,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, an attorney.

Wipe samples taken off skin, clothing, floors and work surfaces showed dangerous levels of hazardous dust. “Recycling computer parts is inherently a dirty business but it does not have to be a deadly one,” Ruch said.

A 2003 study of the computer recycling operation at Atwater conducted by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition found that "UNICOR's primitive practice of manually smashing leaded glass in athode ray tubes unnecessarily exposed workers to risk of toxic contamination and cuts. Security restrictions on the kinds of tools available to prisoners made their work less efficient and more dangerous. Workstations were not designed to avoid ergonomic hazards."

"One inmate reported, 'Even when I wear the paper mask, I blow out black mucus from my nose every day. The black particles in my nose and throat look as if I am a heavy smoker. Cuts and abrasions happen all the time. Of these the open wounds are exposed to the dirt and dust and many do not heal as quickly as normal wounds.'

"Inmates reported that those who sought to improve conditions faced discipline and loss of their jobs," the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report states.

In recent months, the State of California and Dell, the country’s largest computer maker, have cancelled their computer recycling contracts with UNICOR. Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also suspended its contract.

None of these moves were prompted by safety concerns but PEER says they all have the effect of placing greater economic pressure on keeping costs low for the remaining UNICOR computer clients.

“At a time when budgets are getting thinner, the temptation to cut corners and put workers at risk becomes even greater,” Ruch added, pointing to the larger question as to whether UNICOR is equipped to handle electronic waste safely. “At the very least, there needs to be an independent investigation into what is going on at Atwater.”

All relevant documents are online at:

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Test Could Improve Detection of Prion Disease in Humans

SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - A sensitive post-mortem test that could help scientists determine if a person died of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a human neurological disorder related to mad cow disease, has been developed by a Nobel Laureate led team from the University of California-San Francisco.

Team leader Stanley Prusiner, M.D. received the 1997 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of prions, the infectious proteins that trigger mad cow disease and other brain wasting diseases.

To date, no live animal test for prion diseases exists. But the finding opens the possibility that such testing might be refined in the future so it can be used to detect prion disease in living people and animals before the onset of symptoms, the scientists said.

The test, called conformation-dependent immunoassay (CDI), was originally developed to detect various forms of disease-causing proteins called prions in cows, sheep, deer and other animals.

In the new study, researchers found that CDI not only identifies prions in human brain tissue but is faster and far more precise than the standard immunological detection methods, which detect only a small fraction of the infectious prions that may be in the brain.

In the study, Prusiner and his colleagues extracted brain tissue from 28 people who had died of CJD. They tested these samples using the immunoassay, which uses highly specific antibodies that bind to all disease-causing prions in the brain.

They measured only the prion proteins that are resistant to an enzyme called protease.

Protease-resistant prions are abnormal and usually infectious, meaning they can cause CJD and other neurodegenerative diseases. The immunoassay detected abnormal prions in all of the sampled brain regions, while other testing detected abnormal prions in less than 25 percent of the sampled brain regions.

The researchers suggest that the immunoassay could be used to establish or rule out the diagnosis of CJD with greater accuracy than previously used methods, particularly when a small number of samples are available.

Unlike viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, prions contain no DNA or RNA. Instead, prions are an altered type of protein normally found within cells in humans and other organisms.

These abnormal prion proteins appear to convert other, normal prions to an abnormal shape.

Abnormal, misfolded proteins contribute to other age-related neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

According to Prusiner and his colleagues, CDI testing might eventually have a role in the diagnosis of other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in which normally shaped proteins are structurally altered.

Now Prusiner and colleagues are exploring the possibility of using CDI in living tissue, like blood or muscle, to detect and diagnose prion diseases, such as CJD or mad cow disease while people or animals are still alive.

The finding appears in the March 1 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Associate researchers include medical doctors Jiri Safar, Bruce Miller, Michael Geschwind, and Stephen DeArmond, all of the University of California-San Francisco.

Two components of the National Institutes of Health - the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging, supported the study. Additional support was provided by the John Douglas French Foundation for Alzheimer's research, the McBean Foundation, and the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center of California.

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Illinois Patents Process to Recover Fine Coal Dust

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - A discovery and application of new technology developed at a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), has led to recovery of coal dust previously wasted in the mining process.

Researchers at the Illinois State Geological Survey have developed a new technology for recovering and dewatering fine coal.

The process is known in the mining industry as froth flotation. In the past, as much as 20 percent of coal has been lost as coal fines, or dust, was washed away in a slurry of water.

The new technology makes it possible to clean incombustible ash from fine coal, separate and concentrate metallic ores, and remove pollutants from contaminated soils.

The discoveries came under the research leadership of Latif Kahn, Ph.D. “There is actually a set of three technologies at work here. At the root of this process is the principle that particles will either stick to the bubbles in a froth, or remain behind in a slurry of solid particles and liquid,” said Kahn.

Kahn's team uses that principle in creating high-velocity water jets to form a froth that separates product from the waste.

A motorless, rotorless cell capped with an included washer separates the fine coal from mineral matter. An automated filtering system then removes the water from the froth, forming a nearly dry product that can be sold.

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, through the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, funded five years of research that resulted in this development.

“This is good news for the mining industry and for the environment,” said IDNR Director Joel Brunsvold. “The impact of this discovery can’t be underestimated. It is the groundwork to create an entirely new type of business. The implications go even beyond enhancing the Illinois coal industry.”

Another benefit of the discovery is a portion of the profits from patents goes to the University of Illinois and to the Illinois State Geological Society.

“At a time of tight finances in the state of Illinois, this is a great enhancement for state coffers,” said Brunsvold. “We benefit not just from the economic benefit to industry, but from the profit from the patents because of research the state was able to sanction, research that might otherwise not have been done.”

The commercial potential for the discovery was tapped in 2004, when the Illinois State Geological Survey team who developed this system was approached by MHI, a venture capitalist group interested in moving the technologies to full commercialization. Dynamic Separations Inc. (DSI) was formed and is cooperating with the Illinois State Geological Survey team on field demonstrations, currently being funded by the Illinois Clean Coal Institute, as well as pursuing other commercial ventures.

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High Flying Chemical Sensors Find Hawaiian Forest Invaders

VOLCANO, Hawaii, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - Scientists have detected two species of invading plants that are changing the ecology of rain forest near the Kilauea Volcano in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

From a high-altitude aircraft, using new measurement techniques that detect chemical signatures, the scientific team has found how the chemistry of the forest canopy is changing due to the invading species.

Lead author, Dr. Gregory Asner of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, explained, "We found chemical fingerprints from the plant leaves and used them to tell which species dominated specific areas. We employed the recently upgraded NASA Airborne Visible and Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) to measure leaf nitrogen and water content from the aircraft, and corroborated the data on the ground."

The fingerprints showed where the native dominant tree ohia (Metrosideros polymorpha) has been taken over by the invading Canary Islands tree, Myrica faya, and has identified areas where Myrica invasion is in its early stages.

On Kilauea Volcano, the native ohia tree typically has a low concentration of nitrogen in its leaves (.6% to .8%), while the invading Canary Islands tree has relatively high nitrogen concentration (1.5% to 1.8%), because it can acquire nitrogen from the atmosphere.

"The high leaf nitrogen associated with the invading tree means that it is basically fertilizing the forest with more nitrogen," observed Asner. "The leaves turn over faster and there is more nitrogen in the soil. However, the invader shades out nearly all other species, so this excess nitrogen is not available to other species."

"Although we don't know exactly what the domino effects of this invasion will be, we are in a good position to predict them as we learn more about the chemical changes the forest is undergoing," Asner said.

Peter Vitousek from Stanford University, who coauthored the paper, said, "This is the first time where remote sensing showed me something new concerning how an ecosystem works. Up to this point, remote sensing has been invaluable for understanding how features or processes that have been observed in one or a few places are distributed in space and time.

"These new methods discovered a consequence of biological invasion that had not been detected before AND showed how it varies across the landscape," Vitousek said.

The scientists also found another invader, the Kahili ginger plant, Hedychium gardnerianum, growing under the forest canopy. Ginger cannot be detected from above the forest canopy using traditional aircraft or satellite approaches, but the new methods are sensitive to its high water content.

Tim Tunison, chief of resource management of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park says the new findings are valuable on two levels.

"We need to understand the ecological effects of invasions over the landscape to develop effective control strategies, and the Asner/Vitousek work gives us valuable insights about this problem. On a more practical level we need to know the distribution of invasives. Weeds are often difficult to find in dense, wet forest in Hawaii."

"This is the first time in my experience that remote sensing has detected an understory species, kahili ginger, one of the most disruptive weeds in Hawaiian rain forests," Tunison said.

Scientists and resource managers from Carnegie, Stanford University, the U.S. National Park Service, NASA, and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to map for the first time the chemical and structural composition of Hawaiian ecosystems and to find invasive species and track their ecological impacts.

The study is published in the March 7-11, 2005, early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Maui Ape Preserve on Shaky Ground

HONOLULU, Hawaii, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - Support for a gorilla preserve to house the world famous female lowland gorilla Koko in west Maui, Hawaii is uncertain, although the Gorilla Foundation says it will go ahead with the project.

Construction is in progress on the Maui Ape Preserve on 70 acres of former pineapple land provided by the Maui Land and Pineapple Company on a long term lease.

The Gorilla Foundation plans and "a unique high-tech Visitor Education Center in a convenient tourist location to showcase Koko's ape-human communication skills. The foundation says Koko has an American Sign Language vocabulary of more than 1,000 words and understands "approximately 2,000 words of spoken English."

The California based organization says the new center "will provide a natural environment for Koko and other gorillas, and is a vital step toward saving the species from imminent extinction."

But David Cole, who took over as the CEO of Maui Land and Pineapple Company last year, has sent a letter to the foundation's director, Francine "Penny" Patterson, calling the lease for the Maui Ape Preserve "an awkward fit," the "Honolulu Advertiser" reported today. Cole wrote that the company has decided to focus its efforts on Native Hawaiian values.

In addition, the Gorilla Foundation has been distracted by two lawsuits filed by former employees in San Mateo County Superior Court. On February 15, Kendra Keller and Nancy Alperin filed a lawsuit against The Gorilla Foundation alleging an entitlement to damages in connection with the termination of their employment.

The two women are seeking a total of $1 million from the foundation, claiming that they were pressured to expose their breasts to indulge Koko's curiosity. Keller and Alperin say they never removed their clothes. They claim they were wrongfully fired after reporting health and safety violations at Koko's Woodside enclosure.

A similar second lawsuit, dismissed by the foundation as a "copycat suit" has since been filed by former employee Iris Rivera.

The foundation says it will fight back. "We unequivocally deny the hurtful allegations of the suits and intend to vigorously defend the cases through trial, if necessary, in the San Mateo County Superior Court," the foundation said on February 25.

The foundation's development director Lorraine Slater said yesterday that the Maui Ape Preserve is still on track, although the foundation is still short of its $5 million fundraising goal.

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Acre by Acre New Jersey Buys Highlands Water Sources

TRENTON, New Jersey, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - To protect Hunterdon County's Spruce Run watershed, the state of New Jersey and three townships Tuesday purchased 132 acres in the state's Highlands region.

Spruce Run Reservoir, which is designated a top level waterbody, augments the resources of the Raritan River. This river provides drinking water to residents of 48 municipalities in Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Morris, Somerset and Union Counties. Fifty-five percent of the Raritan River's source water area is located in the Highlands region.

The Highlands cuts across seven northwestern counties and holds the water supply for half the state, but the region has come under increasing development pressure that scientists say could threaten water quality in the future. Sixty-four percent of New Jersey residents, about 5.4 million people, receive their water from the Highlands.


The boy pictured here caught this 33 inch, 10 pound northern pike at the mouth of Spruce Run Creek in Spruce Run Reservoir the first weekend of March. (Photo courtesy Tom Pagliaroli and NJ Division Fish & Wildlife)
"This acquisition proves again that critics of the Highlands Protection Act are wrong," said Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell. "DEP is committed to providing landowners equity and safeguarding water resources under the Act. I call on critics to open a new chapter of cooperation with DEP and the Highlands Council."

The three properties, which are located in Bethlehem Township, Clinton Township and Lebanon Township, contain fields and woodlands that serve as habitat to migratory songbirds and threatened grassland birds. In addition, the preservation of these properties will protect streams that support trout and wetlands that support endangered species including the bog turtle and the spotted salamander.

Commissioner Campbell announced the preservation of the following properties, which the DEP will manage for passive recreation:

"Lebanon Township is proud to be working as part of a region to make sound preservation decisions that benefit local residents and downstream New Jersey residents," said Lebanon Township Open Space and Farmland Preservation Coordinator Eileen Swan. "We can achieve so much more when we work together. We are also grateful to DEP for its continued support in the form of grant monies and staff time."

The purchase of these three properties is part of the New Jersey Water Supply Authority's Spruce Run Initiative, which dedicates a portion of its Raritan Basin System ratepayer funds to helping local, county and state governments to preserve critical watershed properties in the Spruce Run Reservoir watershed.

The aim is to maximize the efficiency of existing watershed preservation programs through a coordinated effort of government, nonprofit, and private resources.

"Preservation of these critical watershed parcels illustrates the value of partnership among governmental entities in the pursuit of a common goal," said New Jersey Water Supply Authority Executive Director Henry Patterson III. "Such projects demonstrate our customers' continued commitment to preserving the high quality of Raritan Basin water for New Jersey's residents."