AmeriScan: March 28, 2004

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EPA Not Ready for BioTerror, Warns Inspector General

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - The BioWatch program set up by the Bush administration to detect biowarfare agents in cities is behind the technological curve for air sampling, and is not adequately prepared to assist with consequence management plans in the event of a biological agent release, the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in a new report.

BioWatch is an early-warning system designed to detect the release of biological agents in the air through a comprehensive protocol of monitoring and laboratory analysis. BioWatch is a “detect to treat” network intended to detect biological agents within 36 hours of release, so that there is time for federal, state, and local officials to determine emergency response, medical care, and consequence management needs.

The report released March 23 by Inspector General Nikki Tinsley's office said, "We found that EPA did not provide adequate oversight of the sampling operations to ensure quality assurance guidance was adhered to, potentially affecting the quality of the samples taken."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funds and oversees the BioWatch program while relying on the assistance and expertise of the EPA and other agencies.

DHS uses the EPA to award and manage cooperative agreements to state and local air monitoring agencies to collect filter samples. EPA’s designated responsibilities include a crucial part of the BioWatch program – the sampling operations.

These operations include monitor deployment, site security, oversight, and assessing monitor technology.

The internal agency watchdog said the EPA did complete a technology assessment of the existing BioWatch monitors, but also "needs to be involved in assessing technologies that are more reliable and timely, and reduce costs."

A lack of consequence management planning was highlighted when a biological agent was detected in Houston in 2003, the Inspector General said, and at the time of this review an improved plan was still not complete.

The Inspector General recommended that the EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation take responsibility for identifying and testing alternative technologies that are more reliable, timely, and efficient for detecting biological agents, and ensure the agency is adequately prepared to assist with consequence management plans in the event of a biological agent release.

In response to the critical report, the EPA said in a statement that the federal government "continues to make substantial improvements to the program – from the quantity of monitors to security at monitoring sites to quality assurance activities. These improvements effectively resolve the concerns raised by EPA’s Inspector General."

While declining to name the cities due to national security concerns, the EPA did say that as of last month, the agency had worked with every BioWatch city "to ensure that the monitoring equipment at every site is functioning properly, is secure, and is able to effectively detect biological agents in the event they were released."

"And we know the program is working," the agency said, "since its inception, the BioWatch team, with the support of state and local public health officials, has sited and continues to site hundreds of monitors across the nation that have successfully yielded tens of thousands of samples.

Monitors are being deployed "on an extremely tight schedule because of rising security concerns," the EPA said and assured the public that the agency "is meeting the requirements of the Department of Homeland Security."

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Ag Department Offers $22 Million for Rural Renewables

WASHINGTON, DC, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns today announced the availability of $22.8 million to support investments in renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements by agricultural producers and rural small businesses.

Johanns said, "Renewable energy is an exciting growth frontier for American agriculture." He said renewables strengthen national security and the rural economy.

The funds announced today will be available to support technologies that include biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, solar, and wind energy, as well as energy efficiency improvements.

Section 9006 of the 2002 Farm Bill established the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements loan and grant program to encourage agricultural producers and small rural businesses to create renewable and energy efficient systems. To date, the Bush administration has invested through this program nearly $45 million in 32 states.

The $22.8 million announced today will be made available in two stages. One-half, $11.4 million, is available immediately for competitive grants. Renewable energy grant applications must be for a minimum of $2,500 and a maximum of $500,000.

Energy efficiency grant applications may range from $2,500 to $250,000. The grant request may not exceed 25 percent of the eligible project cost.

Applications must be submitted to the appropriate Rural Development State Office postmarked no later than June 13, 2005. Detailed information about application and program requirements will be included in today's issue of the Federal Register.

The remaining $11.4 million announced today will be set aside through August 31, 2005 for renewable energy and energy efficiency guaranteed loans. Final details on how to apply for these funds will be published in the Federal Register later this year.

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Judge: Florida Must Curb Ag Waste in Everglades Headwaters

TALLAHASSE, Florida, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - Three environmental groups have won their lawsuit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection over handling of the phosphorous levels in Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. The decision of a federal judge last week will require the agency to revise its pollution reduction plan and will help to restore water quality in the lake to normal.

Earthjustice, representing Florida Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and Save Our Creeks, brought suit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2003, challenging proposed pollution load limits - standards used under the Clean Water Act to limit pollutants - for streams that run into Lake Okeechobee.

The lake is the headwaters of the Everglades, and is a central component of the ecosystem of south Florida. Whatever flows into the lake will eventually make its way into the Everglades. In addition, communities such as Clewiston and Belle Glade get drinking water from the lake.

"This is a critical milestone in the effort to restore Lake Okeechobee," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "We hope we can build on this decision to work closely with DEP to restore the Lake."

Judge David Maloney issued the decision Wednesday in Tallahassee. "The evidence placed on the record by petitioners calls into question at every turn the process that the department followed," in drafting the pollution limits, the judge wrote.

"Instead of the examination called for by scientific method, the department conducted a flawed process. Its after-the-fact attempts to prop up the process were not successful nor could they have been; the evidence demonstrates that the process was flawed from the beginning," he ruled.

A previous lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the same clients resulted in an agreement that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would draft the load standards for phosphorous.

Still, the DEP allowed 25 tons of phosphorous annually, levels far too high to result in any significant recovery for the lake, which is already heavily polluted and damaged from phosphorous runoff from surrounding dairy farms north of the lake.

Phosphorous is a nutrient that causes algae growth, low dissolved oxygen, clouded waters and other severe environmental problems.

Lake Okeechobee - the nation's second largest freshwater lake located wholly in the continental United States - now has a two-foot layer of muck lining its bed, said the plaintiff groups.

"This is the department's first attempt at drafting the pollution load standards, but it was without any scientific basis," said Manley Fuller, President of Florida Wildlife Federation, "Florida DEP must get these levels right if there is going to be any chance for the lake to survive."

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Washington Welcomes Rain But Drought Status Not Lifted

OLYMPIA, Washington, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - No, the drought is not over, say officials with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Although it rained in many parts of Washington and as much as six inches of snow fell in the Cascade Mountains during the past week, the state still needs as much as 10 to 20 inches of water stored as snow to see a return to normal snowpack and stream-flow conditions.

"We would need a half-inch of rain every few days from now to the end of May to pull us out of the current water-deficit hole," said state climatologist Philip Mote. "Even the wettest spring ever would not bail us out of drought."

Despite the recent cool, wet weather, at least 21 Washington tributary streams and rivers posted new daily record-low flows yesterday. According to information from stream-flow gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Ecology,

On March 10, Governor Christine Gregoire authorized the Department of Ecology (Ecology) to declare a drought emergency.

Ecology Director Jay Manning then signed a declaration for a statewide drought emergency, based on the extremely low snow pack in the mountains and record-low flows that are being seen in many rivers across the state.

“While water shortages won’t affect all areas of the state in precisely the same way, it seems very likely that all areas of our state will experience at least some level of drought this year,” Gregoire said. “We need to start taking action now, and all of us need to be part of the solution.”

Everyone in Washington is directly or indirectly affected by a drought. A drought can result in farms and manufacturing plant workers losing their jobs and farmers not being able to plant crops.

A drought can spell disaster for recreational companies that use water such as swimming pool providers, water parks and river rafting companies. Landscapers and plant nurseries are affected as well if people are concerned about not being able to water their plants.

Eastern Washington is more likely to experience dust storms this year and the season may start about a month earlier than usual, weather experts predict.

Spring through fall is the season for dust storms in Eastern Washington, when the sky darkens and the air is gritty with dirt particles from dry farming areas, construction sites and unpaved roads.

Dust storms can occur in sustained winds above 18 miles per hour. Under vulnerable conditions like the state is facing now, they may occur at even lower wind speeds.

Dust storms stir up tiny particles that can irritate or damage sensitive lung tissues. People with respiratory illnesses, the elderly, young children, pregnant women and anyone engaged in strenuous physical activity outdoors are most at risk.

Most of the blowing dust from agriculture comes from land that is not planted or newly-planted winter wheat fields that lack sufficient surface residue and soil clods, according to Washington State University research agronomist Bill Schillinger, who works at the Dryland Research Station near Lind in Adams County.

Schillinger said farmers can reduce dust storms by reducing the amount of tillage done on the fields and using tillage tools that leave crop stubble on the ground and an uneven surface to slow the wind.

Non-farm residents can help reduce airborne dust by driving more slowly on unpaved roads and by postponing dusty projects around the house and yard until a less windy time.

Dust control is required for all construction projects. Control measures include clearing no more land than necessary, working in phases to minimize the amount of exposed land area, using a commercial dust suppressant to replace or reduce the use of water, covering bare ground with gravel and curtailing activities on windy days.

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Dredge Disposal Sites Added to Mouth of Columbia River

SEATTLE, Washington, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - Over the objections of environmentalists, two new sites for ocean dumping of dredged material have been designated near the mouth of the Columbia River by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

These sites will be used to expand dredge disposal capacity and to accommodate the several million cubic yards of dredged material produced annually by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they maintain the mouth of the Columbia River for navigation.

The shallow water site is a near-shore, dispersive site where material disperses back into the littoral zone after placement at the site. This site tries to reflect what states and some groups had expressed as a desire to keep material available for beaches.

While placement at the shallow water site is not expected to directly result in material moving onto beaches, it should contribute to the littoral zone material load, the EPA regional office said.

The deep water site is a deep site, located to, among other things, ensure capacity for dredged material for long term needs. The site avoids biologically diverse areas and is located to be usable for at least the next 50 years.

The agency says the sites were created in accordance with the federal Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act.

According to Gary Voerman, Aquatic Resources Unit Manager for EPA in Seattle, these designations were arrived at after extensive study and careful consideration of all comments received following the designation proposal.

"We clearly heard both positive and negative views during the public comment period," said EPA's Voerman. "At the end of the day, when we re-looked at our research, modeling and the decison-making process, we arrived at the same conclusion: these sites reflect the best balance of sound science, environmental and economic concerns, and the fulfillment of our statuatory responsibility under our dredge disposal site designation framework."

Indian tribes and environmental groups have raised concerns about sacred sites along the river, and about preserving the inreasingly endangered salmon runs.

More than a thousand growers and manufacturers in the region rely on the Columbia channel for affordable access to global markets. Some $14 billion worth of business floats up and down the river each year, said the Port of Portland’s dredging project spokeswoman, Elisa Dozono. Forty thousand jobs and 1,000 companies depend on the industry.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to be the primary user of the sites, however, the sites would be available to others, such as ports and marinas.

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New Jersey Law Makes Mercury Switch Recycling Mandatory

BURLINGTON CITY, New Jersey, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - New Jersey Acting Governor Richard Codey has signed legislation that helps reduce mercury emissions by establishing a program to remove mercury switches from vehicles prior to melting them for scrap metal. This new program will address one of New Jersey’s largest remaining sources of mercury contamination.

“Today, New Jersey takes another important step to improve the health of our citizens and protect our environment from mercury,” said Codey. “The switch removal program will lower the exposure of pregnant women and children to harmful mercury emissions, reduce the levels of mercury that build up in fish caught by our local fishermen, and aid the state’s iron and steel melters in complying with New Jersey’s mercury regulations.”

Despite ceasing to use mercury switches in cars sold in Europe as early as 1992, U.S. auto manufacturers continued to install switches containing mercury in convenience lights and anti-lock braking systems prior to 2003.

The New Jersy bill requires all scrap yards to remove mercury switches from vehicles before sending the scrap metal to iron and steel mills, where the mercury would otherwise be released into the air when the vehicles are melted down and recycled.

New Jersey joins Maine and Arkansas to become the third state in the nation to have mandatory collection and recovery programs for mercury switches.

Under the legislation, the vehicle recyclers or scrap yards will receive a minimum of $2 from the major auto manufacturers for each switch they remove. The auto manufacturers also are responsible for establishing a program for the safe final disposal of the switches.

Pennsylvania is sponsoring a voluntary program that offers $1 per mercury switch recycled.

“Mercury poisoning can cause serious health problems, especially in pregnant women and their unborn children," said Senator Sweeney, a Gloucester Democrat who co-sponosred the legislation. "Removing these switches from scrapped vehicles will help prevent mercury from leaking into local water supplies and damaging the health of New Jersey's residents."

The 500,000 vehicles that are scrapped per year in New Jersey are estimated to contain as much as 1,000 pounds of mercury, much of which is likely to be released to the environment when the shredded vehicles are melted down. Since auto manufacturers stopped using mercury switches in the U.S. in 2003, the number of switches to be removed will gradually decline over the next years.

New Jersey is getting serious about limiting mercury emissions. Last year, the state adopted some of the most comprehensive regulations in the nation for curbing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, iron and steel melters, and municipal solid waste incinerators. Those rules will reduce in-state mercury emissions by over 1,500 pounds annually.

State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell said, “New Jersey’s proactive approach stands in marked contrast to the federal government’s failure to protect the public, as evidenced by the EPA’s recent mercury rules that delay by more than a generation reductions in nationwide mercury emissions.”

Mercury is a highly toxic pollutant that can cause permanent brain damage to the fetus, infants, and young children. It has been shown to affect the ability of children to concentrate and to remember. Exposure to the most toxic form of mercury comes primarily from eating contaminated fish and shellfish.

Even exposure to low levels of mercury can permanently damage the brain and nervous system and cause behavioral changes. At least one in 10 pregnant women in New Jersey has concentrations of mercury in her hair samples that exceed safe levels.

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Fish Discards at Sea Lower with Individual Vessel Quotas

SEATTLE, Washington, March 28, 2005 (ENS) - New fisheries research shows that allocating catch among vessels with individual transferable quotas reduces the amount of fish discarded at sea.

The study in Canada's British Columbia waters compared individual transferable quotas with a previous system of trip limits where vessels were allowed to land a certain quantity of each species every two months.

The findings come at a time when individual transferable quotas are being considered for the west coast of the United States.

"Economic models have assumed all along that individual transferable quotas increase discards," says lead author Trevor Branch.

But discards did not increase – they declined for most species, report Branchs, who earned his doctorate in aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington (UW), Ray Hilborn, UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, and Kate Rutherford, biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in British Columbia.

The study, "Replacing Trip Limits with Individual Transferable Quotas: Implications for Discarding," is the first to look at 35 species instead of only a handful, or even just a single species, before and after quotas were implemented.

With individual transferable quotas, the total allowable catch is divided among a limited number of boats with each quota holder receiving a specific proportion of the total catch. Quota holders then decide how and when to fish, and whether to buy additional quotas or lease or sell their quotas.

Such a system was implemented in British Columbia waters in 1997, after a one-year transition from individual trip limits and overall caps on the fleet. After a period of adjustment, rates have remained the same or less than the 15 percent of fish discarded in 1996.

Discarding occurs when unmarketable fish are caught or where trip limits are imposed and once the maximum of a certain fish is caught, all the rest of that type of fish that is caught must be discarded.

Trip limits are used in U.S. waters to protect overfished stocks and they have proved effective, Branch says.

"It's just that perhaps the mortality could have been reduced just as much under individual transferable quotas and without discarding large amounts of marketable fish, an economic loss for fishers that is hard to estimate," he says.

Under British Columbia's individual transferable quota system skippers have had more flexibility to choose when, where and how to fish so that fewer small, unmarketable fish were caught. Skippers with more than their quota of a certain species of fish could try to arrange to lease or buy another's quota to cover the overage.

In the British Columbia fishery any marketable fish that was discarded at sea was deducted from the amount the vessel was allowed to bring to shore, and observers are posted on every boat.

In the U.S. West Coast fishery, there is no deduction when marketable fish are discarded and in recent seasons monitors were on board only 13 to 16 percent of the vessels.

In comparing the two fisheries, the researchers found British Columbia discard rates of 14 percent and 19 percent in two recent fishing seasons, compared with 43 percent and 31 percent for those same seasons in U.S. West Coast waters. The drop to 31 percent occurred partly because new Groundfish Conservation Areas put some fishing grounds off limits, the scientists note.

When tossed overboard, all fish do not survive. Rockfish species all tend to die while lingcod and sablefish are among the fish with better survival rates.

The study was published online this week by the journal "Marine Policy."

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