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AmeriScan: March 21, 2005

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Unocal Settles Four Lawsuits Over Burmese Gas Pipeline

LOS ANGELES, California, March 21, 2005, (ENS) - The parties to four lawsuits related to Unocal’s energy investment in the Yadana gas pipeline project in Myanmar/Burma announced today that they have settled their suits.

Unocal and attorneys for the Burmese peasants who were plaintiffs in the lawsuits said in a brief statement released jointly that the cases were settled by agreement and the terms will remain confidential.

Four cases were settled by today's agreement - two in state court in California and two in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles. Many of the court documents remain sealed.

Although the terms are confidential, the settlement will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region.

"These initiatives will provide substantial assistance to people who may have suffered hardships in the region," parties said in their joint statement.

Unocal "reaffirms its principle that the company respects human rights in all of its activities and commits to enhance its educational programs to further this principle."

Plaintiffs and their representatives "reaffirm their commitment to protecting human rights."

Jennie Green, Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Attorney and counsel in Doe v. Unocal, commented, "After over eight years of litigation, we are so happy for our plaintiffs, and for the others who will benefit from this settlement."

Plaintiffs in these lawsuits sought redress for the human rights abuses associated with the Unocal Yadana gas pipeline.

The plaintiffs are Burmese peasants who suffered a variety of abuses at the hands of Burmese army units that were securing the pipeline route, including forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture, and murder, according to EarthRights International.

EarthRights, with offices in Washington, DC and Chiang Mai, Thailand, sued Unocal on behalf of the peasants, who were identified in court documents only as "Doe" or "Roe."

The organization is headed by Burmese national Ka Hsaw Wa, winner of the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, the 1999 Reebok Human Rights Award the 1999 Conde Nast Environmental Award, and the 2004 Sting and Trudie Styler Award for Human Rights and the Environment.

Ka Hsaw Wa is presently out of the country and not available for comment on the settlement.

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Agriculture Dept. Redirects $7 Million to Mad Cow Research

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has redirected almost $2 million in funding to conduct research on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns made the announcement during keynote remarks at the National Restaurant Association's Food Safety Summit on Friday.

In addition, said Johanns, $5 million has been awarded to 17 colleges and universities to establish a Food Safety Research and Response Network.

"In a rapidly changing world marketplace, science is the universal language that must guide our rules and policies, rather than subjectivity or politics," said Johanns.

"Expanding our research efforts to improve the understanding of BSE and other food related illness pathogens will strengthen the security of our nation's food supply. These projects will help improve food safety by enhancing our research partnerships with the academic community and establish another tool to aid our response to food related disease outbreaks."

The BSE research funds, redirected by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), will be used for new projects and facilities.

The newly funded projects include an international collaboration with the Veterinary Laboratory Agency in Great Britain to study the biology of the BSE agent.

BSE is a relatively new disease of cattle. It was first recognized and defined in the United Kingdom in November 1986. It reached its peak in 1992, when 36,680 UK cases were confirmed, and has declined since then.

Two other international collaborations were funded one with the Italian BSE Reference Laboratory to evaluate present diagnostic tools for detecting atypical BSE cases, and the other with the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain to compare North American and European BSE strains.

About $750,000 will go toward a biocontainment facility now under construction at the ARS National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa. These facilities will eventually allow the long-term study of BSE infection in cattle and other large animals, which can take a decade or more.

ARS developed the immunohistochemistry test that is currently used as the gold standard in the United States to confirm a diagnosis of BSE. ARS has an annual budget of nearly $10 million for research into transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and 15 scientists involved in the research.

The Food Safety Research and Response Network, spearheaded by North Carolina State University, will include a team of more than 50 food safety experts from 18 colleges and universities who will investigate several of the most prevalent food related illness pathogens.

Pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella and Campylobactor will be studied to determine where they are found in the environment, how they are sustained and how they infect herds.

The group also will serve as a response team that can be mobilized to conduct focused research to control major episodes of food related illnesses. Episodes could include investigation of health problems associated with agricultural bioterrorism and the deliberate contamination of agricultural commodities.

USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service provided funding for the $5 million award.

The 17 other institutions in the project are: Cornell University, Iowa State University, McMasters University, Mississippi State University, North Dakota State University, The Ohio State University, Tuskegee University, University of Arizona, University of California at Davis, University of California at Berkeley, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Kentucky, University of Minnesota, University of Montreal, Washington State University, and West Texas A&M University.

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New Bill Would Ban Pet Primate Transport Across State Lines

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - Bipartisan legislation that would prohibit the interstate movement of chimpanzees, macaques, capuchins, and other primates if they are to be kept as pets was introduced in the House of Representatives last week.

The Captive Primate Safety Act (H. R. 1329) was introduced by Rob Simmons, a Connecticut Republican and Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat.

The Centers for Disease Control already restricts importation of primates as pets into the United States, but there is no corresponding federal regulation on movement of these animals between states.

Animal welfare groups called the bill a positive step toward protecting both humans and wildlife.

“I think we can safely say that there are at least 15,000 primates in private hands in the U.S.,” said Adam Roberts, vice president of Born Free USA, “But since the trade is largely unregulated, it is virtually impossible to get a precise number.”

Primates pose a potentially deadly threat because of the risk of disease transmission, including yellow fever, monkey pox, Ebola and Marburg virus, foot and mouth disease, tuberculosis, and herpes-b.

“Beyond the latent diseases primates may carry, there is also remarkable danger in keeping these animals who may become aggressive as they get older. Papers across the country are riddled with horrifying stories of primate attacks,” said Dr. Kim Haddad, a practicing veterinarian and director of the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition.

The Coalition tracks these cases and reports a disturbing minimum of 126 incidents involving primates in the past 10 years.

“Since 1995, Dr. Haddad said, 68 adults and 29 children have been injured, 99 primates have escaped in 60 separate incidents, and 37 animals have had to be killed as a result. Congress must act immediately to protect primates and people across America.”

Nonhuman primates do not make good pets, Roberts said. “The desire to be close to exotic animals is understandable, but keeping primates as pets is simply unjustifiable. The risk to the animals themselves and the people who live near them is just too great. Wild animals belong in the wild.”

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, advocated swift passage of the bill. “These animals are dangerous, they spread diseases, and they cannot be kept in private homes humanely.

"We applaud Representatives Johnson and Simmons for their leadership in introducing this important and timely legislation," said Pacelle. "We urge Congress to pass the Captive Primate Safety Act quickly before the next person is injured or killed by a pet primate.”

Congress has recessed for spring break and will not return until April 5.

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New Jersey Spends $2.2 Million to Get Rid of Tire Piles

TRENTON, New Jersey, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - The state of New Jersey has handed $2.2 million in grants to 16 counties and towns to clean up scrap tire piles and run tire collection programs, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bradley Campbell said Friday.

The 16 grants range in amounts from $25,000 to $300,000. New Jersey officials say the cleanup will reduce public health threats from West Nile virus and hazardous fires. Mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus breed in pools of rain water that collect in tire piles.

West Nile virus can cause encephalitis, an infection that causes inflammation of the brain which can be fatal. People can become infected with the virus after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

"Cleaning up these piles, which create prime mosquito breeding grounds, is one of our strongest defenses in combating West Nile virus," said Commissioner Campbell. "These grants will help clear tire piles across the state that present environmental and health hazards to communities."

Tire piles also have the potential to catch fire, creating an environmental threat through the release of hazardous air pollutants and potential soil contamination in the surrounding area. In 1990, there was a large fire at a tire pile site in Tabernacle that involved an estimated 200,000 tires.

"The grants will help local officials clean up tire piles to rid their towns of these unsightly hazards and improve public safety," said Acting Governor Richard Codey.

DEP awarded the grants to counties and municipalities on a competitive basis for the proper cleanup of abandoned tire piles. In order to fund as many complete tire pile cleanup projects as possible, a cap of $300,000 per applicant was place on the grant funding.

The approved projects range from sites with more than 20,000 tires to sites with smaller piles. It also includes funding for some county and local tire drop-off programs.

Tire pile cleanups conducted on property that has been or will be acquired by a public agency received a priority ranking since these lands must be used for open space preservation. Grant funds cannot be used to clean up tires on any land currently in commercial use.

County and municipal officials applied to the DEP in December for funding to address tire pile sites in their area. The DEP urges New Jersey residents to report tire dumping to its environmental hotline at 877-WARNDEP (927-6337).

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Los Angeles Mayor Endorses Solar City Plan

LOS ANGELES, California, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, Councilman Eric Garcetti, actress Sharon Lawrence of Desperate Housewives, and other political, business and environmental leaders joined Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA at City Hall Friday to unveil the organization’s new “Solar City” report.

In the report, Global Green USA challenges the City of LA to put solar on city controlled or influenced city buildings, affordable housing, and schools over the next 15 years.

"Los Angeles could become a Solar City, a veritable Solar Silicon Valley," said Petersen. "We can generate high wage jobs, stimulate our economy, and clean our air by installing solar panels on all city buildings.

“The writing is on the wall," Mayor Hahn said. "California, Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Chicago - all these states and cities are seeing the potential of solar energy and LA should be at the front of the pack. We can create clean, local jobs here for our residents.”

Global Green USA proposes a goal of 70 to 80 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels to be installed on available roof space. The group says these systems would help reduce peak demand and lessen air pollution by preventing dirty peaker plants turning on in the dog days of summer.

This goal amounts to an estimated one percent of LA Department of Water and Power’s (DWP) electricity generating capacity over the next 10 years.

Flanked by solar panels, Garcetti said, "Renewable energy works for Los Angeles. Expanding DWP's solar PV program for affordable housing sites means more career-track, living-wage energy-sector jobs in our city. It means lower utility bills for low income housing tenants. It means we double the benefits of green power, because these economic benefits come with cleaner air for all of us."

The proposed goal would be in addition to the existing solar program, and would be integrated into the city’s recently adopted Renewable Portfolio Standard which calls for increasing renewable power to 20 percent of the city’s energy.

This policy can also leverage the tremendous growth of green building in the LA basin, as evidenced by the $15 billion in new green construction, Petersen said.

Jan McFarland, vice president and California director of Americans for Solar Power called the Solar City plan "an appropriate step for Los Angeles on the path to being the leading solar city it deserves to be."

"LA has abundant solar resources," McFarland said. "Building solar electricity now will save money and spare the air - it's smart policy for Los Angeles and an important part of California's push to become the world leader in solar power."

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Fish and Wildlife Service Must Correct Panther Information

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has accepted the recommendation of a panel of senior Interior Department officials that found the agency did not move quickly enough to correct scientific information related to Florida panthers and disseminated uncorrected documents.

"The Service used panther information that had been scientifically peer reviewed, but we and others engaged in panther science and conservation identified significant limitations in its methodology and conclusions," said Service Deputy Director Marshall Jones. "We should have moved more quickly to incorporate this evolving knowledge into some planning documents and biological opinions, an oversight that we regret and are working to correct."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Andrew Eller, a Service employee, filed a petition under the Information Quality Act (IQA) in May 2004. The Service responded in July 2004 and the petitioners appealed shortly thereafter. The agency released the response to that appeal today.

Eller, an 18 year veteran biologist in the Service's Florida panther recovery program who filed the complaint with PEER, was fired by the Service the week after the November 2004 election. PEER is contesting Eller’s termination; that case is slated for hearing in April.

“While we are gratified by this decision we are mystified why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insists on firing the biologist who risked his career to expose this scientific fraud,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

Eller accused the Service of adopting flawed science in order to sign off on mega-developments planned in the Western Everglades on the basis that the projects would have no adverse effects on the panther. “We are concerned that the Fish and Wildlife Service has charged the very officials who perpetuated the fraud with correcting it,” Ruch said.

The panel found that the Service did appropriately acknowledge that a discussion of panther habitat in the Multi-Species Recovery Plan was in serious dispute.

But, because the agency allowed the Plan to remain in circulation without a disclaimer, it violated the IQA. The panel said the Service's ongoing work to address these questions is adequate, but recommended the use of a disclaimer in the meantime.

The panel found problems with a draft Landscape Conservation Strategy that the Service released before adequately addressing questions raised about panther telemetry, habitat use, and modeling, that arose during the peer review process. Because the draft document was circulated without the appropriate disclaimer, it violated the IQA.

In addtion, the Service did not correct the record in four biological opinions that had been issued to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it was discovered that the opinions had confused the terms "Minimum Viable Population" and "Current Verified Population" of panthers.

Jones said the Service will immediately update panther related provisions of the Multi-Species Recovery plan, incorporating appropriate recommendations of the Science Review Team, and make them available for public comment. Until then, the Service will use a disclaimer addressing the questions about some of the research relied upon.

The Service will end further dissemination of the draft Landscape Conservation Strategy and continue its work to address all peer review comments as well as recommendations made by the Scientific Review Team.

And, the Service will take the necessary steps to correct files on several biological opinions to address confusion created over the use of Minimum Viable Populations and Current Verified Populations of panthers by August 1, 2005.

In defense of the Service, Jones said the agency played a major role in identifying these scientific concerns and supporting their investigation by establishing a Florida Panther sub-team of the Multi-Species Ecosystem Recovery Implementation Team, and by working with the state of Florida to convene a Scientific Review Team to address questions raised about some of the research.

Over the past 25 years, panther numbers have roughly quadrupled to nearly 90, the Service said, partly due to land acquisition. In 1989, the Service established the 26,000 acre Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Ken Haddad, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, expressed confidence in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's panther conservation work. "As the panther's numbers increase, it's clear we are making progress on a complex conservation challenge, and I think that is largely because of the strong partnership we've forged with the Service."

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National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Up for New Funding

WASHINGTON, DC, March 21, 2005 (ENS) - Before Congress closed for spring recess Friday, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, introduced legislation reauthorizing the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), a nonprofit organization that partners private donors and federal agencies.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the Foundation’s primary federal agency partner. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are other federal partners.

The NFWF says that for every dollar that Congress provides to the Foundation, nearly $3 in on-the-ground conservation takes place. Since our founding in 1984, we have supported over 6,400 grants and leveraged $261 million in federal funds for more than $786 million in conservation.

"Since its inception the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has financed through private and federal monies more than 7,200 conservation projects," said Pombo. "Their efforts have successfully aided in coral reef conservation, San Francisco and Chesapeake Bay restoration and saving endangered marine sea turtles."

The foundation was established under the Reagan Administration to conduct conservation projects and accept private gifts of property to be used for the benefit of fish, wildlife and plants.

By using a partnership and "challenge grant" approach, said Pombo, the foundation has funded conservation projects worth more than $918.8 million, with a vast majority of those funds donated from private sources.

Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican cosponsored the bill, saying, "This organization, through the funding and coordination it provides for fish and wildlife conservation projects across the nation, helps government and private partners contribute effectively to the survival of fish and wildlife species in the ecosystems upon which they depend."

The Community Alliance of Family Farmers said, "NFWF projects and education do make a difference. The highly visible demonstration projects are seen by many people, and are greatly helping farmers and the agricultural community learn about the value of resource conservation. This is the kind of on-the ground funding that really makes a difference."

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance said, "NFWF is playing an important role by engaging private landowners, including winegrowers, in the conservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife and natural resources on their lands."

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