AmeriScan: March 23, 2007

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Federal Judge Rules Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Illegal

WASHINGTON, DC, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - Today, a federal judge in West Virginia ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the law by issuing mountaintop removal mining permits that allowed headwater streams to be permanently buried. The ruling will affect dozens of pending mining permits across Appalachia.

The decision by Judge Robert Chambers was a victory for environmentalists who brought the case challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to allow stream and headwater destruction by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Although the Corps has no direct regulatory authority with respect to mountaintop removal coal mining, under the Clean Water Act the Corps must issue permits if fill material is to be dumped into the waters of the United States.

Earthjustice and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment represented the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

They sued the Corps for issuing permits to five West Virginia coal companies between July 2005 and August 2006.

Judge Chambers ruled that in issuing these permits the Corps violated the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He rescinded the permits and enjoined the coal companies from the mountaintop removal coal mining that the permits would have allowed.

Earthjustice attorney Steve Roady said, "The federal government has been illegally issuing such permits. Doing so has led to widespread and irreversible devastation to the streams, mountains and lands across Appalachia. The judge has made it clear that the Corps must now comply with the Clean Water Act and stop issuing illegal permits."

"This decision does give the Corps another chance to try and show that they can issue permits for valley fills in streams without violating the law. But the evidence to date shows that the Corps has no scientific basis - no real evidence of any kind - upon which it bases its decisions to permit this permanent destruction to streams and headwaters.

In his ruling, Judge Chambers determined that stream destruction caused by mountaintop removal coal mining cannot be fixed through mitigation.

"The Corp's witnesses ... conceded that the Corps does not know of any successful stream creation projects in the Appalachian region," the judge wrote.

Mountaintop removal mining is a form of strip mining in which coal companies use explosives to blast as much as 800 to 1000 feet off the tops of mountains order to reach the coal seams that lie underneath. The resulting millions of tons of waste rock, dirt, and vegetation are then dumped into surrounding valleys, burying miles of streams under piles of rubble hundreds of feet deep, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition explains on its website.

Mountaintop removal mining harms aquatic ecosystems and water quality, and destroys hundreds of acres of healthy forests and fish and wildlife habitat, including habitat of threatened and endangered species.

Residents of the surrounding communities are threatened by rock slides, catastrophic floods, poisoned water supplies, constant blasting, destroyed property, and lost culture. Many have been fighting the practice for years.

Mountaintop removal mining takes place West Virginia, Kentucky, southern Virginia, and eastern Tennessee.

"Mountaintop removal mining valley fills cannot comply with the Clean Water Act without strict environmental limits," said Roady. "We hope the Corps recognizes this fact and realizes that approving illegal mountaintop removal mining permits does nothing to protect the environment, violates the law and is destroying the lives and culture of the people of West Virginia and the region."

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Conservationists Will Try to Overturn Grizzly Bear Delisting

WASHINGTON, DC, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - Conservationists say they will fight a decision announced Thursday by the Bush administration to remove Yellowstone grizzly bears from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Calling the government plan "deeply flawed," the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, said it will "pursue every avenue possible, including a lawsuit and Congressional action," to protect the bears from being hunted and their habitat from being exploited for real estate and energy development.

"The government is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," said Louisa Willcox, director of NRDC’s Wild Bears Project. "When you consider that they were nearly extinct 30 years ago, Yellowstone’s grizzlies have made a remarkable recovery. But they’ve survived only because of the Endangered Species Act, and they’re not out of the woods yet. The bears face grave threats that will be even more daunting if they’re stripped of protected status."

The public overwhelmingly opposes revoking the bears’ protected status. The tally of the 193,000 formal comments to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the issue shows that by a margin of more than 200 to one commenters said they oppose the plan.

Willcox said land that is inhabited by the Yellowstone grizzlies is being "chipped away" by development, oil and gas drilling, logging and road building.

Delisting grizzlies will loosen restrictions on all those activities, accelerating the loss of bear habitat and increasing the likelihood of bear-human conflict.

Climate change, too, is a threat. Warmer temperatures have increased the spread of beetles that are killing whitebark pine trees, which produce nutritious nuts that the bears feed upon.

Under the delisting rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is turning over management of grizzly bears outside Yellowstone National Park to the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

About one third of the Greater Yellowstone grizzlies - about 175 bears - live outside the park and a surrounding area known as the grizzly Recovery Zone. The delisting rule puts any bears that travel outside this area at increased risk of death, since the surrounding states plan to allow grizzly bear hunting.

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California Coastal Commission, Enviros Sue Navy Over Sonar

LOS ANGELES, California, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - The California Coastal Commission and an environmental coalition led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, Thursday filed separate lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over the use of sonar during planned training exercises off Southern California.

The 14 naval exercises include plans to blast high-intensity sonar sound waves repeatedly into some of the richest marine habitat in the country, including waters around the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The Navy recently decided to go ahead with the exercises despite concerns by the commission that the sonar poses risks to marine life in the region. High-intensity, mid-frequency sonar has been proven to disturb, injure, and even kill marine species, including marine mammals.

Among the mitigation measures suggested by the commission that the Navy refuses to adopt are - seasonal restrictions to avoid grey whale migratory routes; monitoring for marine mammals 30 minutes before training begins; avoidance of areas with high numbers of whales and/or dolphins; larger safety zones to protect marine mammals and sea turtles in the vicinity of training activities; and lower sound levels during times of low visibility.

The lawsuits seek to require that the Navy implement these and other mitigations.

"The solutions are so easy to implement, and they haven’t shown us any evidence that they can’t do them," said Patrick Kruer, chair of the California Coastal Commission.

"By rejecting simple measures, the Navy is challenging the jurisdiction of the entire Commission and undermining the Coastal Act and federal coastal protection laws that apply to all coastal states," said Kruer. "That has implications way beyond this case."

The Navy has not prepared an environmental impact statement about the exercises nor has it properly assessed impacts on endangered and threatened species as required by federal law.

The lawsuit filed by the NRDC cites violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.

NRDC is joined in its lawsuit by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.

This is the fifth time NRDC has sued the Navy over sonar, but the first time such a lawsuit has been brought by a state agency.

"The Navy’s rejection of common sense protective measures needlessly endangers whales and other marine life off our coast," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC. "It defies California’s authority, grounded in the Coastal Act, to safeguard the unique and irreplaceable natural resources along our coast."

The mid-frequency sonar systems the Navy plans to use generate underwater sound loud enough to flood thousands of square miles of ocean, the plaintiffs allege.

Five endangered species of whales, are in the target area, including a globally important population of blue whales, and seven species of beaked whales, known for their vulnerability to underwater sound.

Whales around the world have been found dead or dying following encounters with mid-frequency military sonar. In 2004, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission said the evidence connecting mid-frequency sonar to whale mortality "is very convincing and appears overwhelming."

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Exxon Valdez Anniversary Marked by ExxonRidicule Pole

WASHINGTON, DC, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - Tomorrow, on the 18th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Exxon will unveil a seven foot tall wooden ExxonRidicule Pole in Cordova, Alaska.

The special totem pole is a native Alaskan tradition meant to force a person of high standing to pay a debt or obligation.

Eighteen years after the most devastating oil spill in U.S. history, ExxonMobil still has not paid the court assessed punitive damages owed to the victims of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In addition, the company is operating what environmentalists call the largest, most dangerous oil tanker in the area - the Exxon Valdez sister ship, Sea River Long Beach, a single-hulled oil tanker.

ExxonMobil is the only oil company in the Alaskan spill area of Prince William Sound still operating a single-hulled tanker.

"Punitive damages are meant to deter reckless behavior," said Shawnee Hoover, campaign director of Exxpose Exxon. "If ExxonMobil finally paid the damages it might think twice about risking another devastating oil spill in the area."

"It says a lot about ExxonMobil's character that it continues to fight the victims in court and operate the same type of dangerous tanker, when they banked nearly $40 billion in profits last year," said Zack Brown of U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Since 1994, ExxonMobil has appealed every court ruling to pay punitive damages to the more than 30,000 spill victims.

During this time, 6,000 plaintiffs have died without compensation. When ExxonMobil was ordered to pay $2.5 billion in 2006, it again asked the court to reconsider.

ExxonMobil claims that Prince William Sound has recovered and is "healthy, robust and thriving."

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council reports that the multi-million dollar herring industry, which once supported thousands of lives and livelihoods, remains closed indefinitely.

"Even after eighteen years, there's still no effective way to clean up oil spills," said Myke Bybee of the Sierra Club. "Exxon Valdez is the quintessential example of why we want Exxon and the government to invest in renewable energy instead of drilling our sensitive areas."

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Washington State Favors Removing Condit Dam

OLYMPIA, Washington, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - Removing Condit Dam and restoring a free-flowing White Salmon River will benefit salmon and steelhead and overall river health, according to the final Environmental Impact Statement, EIS, released today by the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The final EIS follows other technical reviews from federal government agencies - NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - that highlight the benefits of dam removal.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has yet to issue a critical order that would keep the dam removal schedule on track for 2008.

Built in 1913, the 125 foot tall Condit Dam has no fish passage, limiting salmon and steelhead to the lower three miles of river. Condit Dam produces little electricity, and a 2002 study conducted for the local public utility district concluded that the dam is not an economically viable source of energy.

Benefits of dam removal include "increasing the run size and long-term viability by anadromous salmonid populations in the White Salmon River," the EIS found.

In particular, chum salmon could develop a viable population in the White Salmon River, Chinook and steelhead would have expanded access to high quality habitat, and Columbia River salmon would have better access to cool-water refuge.

The EIS says, "Following the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, many fishery managers predicted that recovery of aquatic organisms and salmonid populations would take decades because riverine habitats had been so extensively damaged."

But the salmon populations rebounded more quickly than expected. "Within 2-3 years," the EIS said, "productivity and the abundance of invertebrates and rearing fish reached pre-eruption levels and by 5 years productivity and abundances exceeded pre-eruption levels."

"Rivers are remarkably resilient," said Amy Kober, Northwest communications director for American Rivers. "More than 700 dams have been removed on rivers across the country, with significant benefits to fish and wildlife, clean water and recreation. The long-term benefits of removing Condit Dam far outweigh any short-term impacts."

"This is an extraordinary restoration opportunity we simply cannot afford to miss," said Kelley Beamer with Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Removing Condit Dam will give salmon access to 15.3 miles and steelhead access to 32.4 miles of cold, clean, high-quality habitat.

The recreation and tourism industries will benefit as dam removal will open up an additional five miles of river for rafting and kayaking.

"Not only does removing Condit Dam make environmental sense, it also makes economic sense," said Thomas O’Keefe, Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater. "Restoring a free-flowing White Salmon River is the right thing to do for the river, the salmon and steelhead, and future generations."

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Sundance Channel and Robert Redford Present "THE GREEN"

NEW YORK, New York, March 23, 2007 (ENS) - The Sundance Channel has become the first television network in the United States to establish a major, regularly scheduled programming destination dedicated entirely to the environment.

On April 17, Robert Redford will present the environmental programming initiative called "THE GREEN" starting with a 13 part original series "Big Ideas for a Small Planet."

Each episode revolves around a different green theme as it spotlights an innovator or innovation that has the potential to transform everyday living. The people profiled range from scientists to fashion and product designers, entrepreneurs to first-time inventors.

Consisting of three hours of programming, "THE GREEN" will present original series and documentary premieres about ecology and concepts of green living that balance human needs with responsible care for the planet.

Each episode of "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" is paired with a thematically complimentary documentary premiere at 9:30 pm.

For example, the debut episode of "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" explores alternative fuel sources. Joel Woolf, alternative fuel enthusiast and inventor of Veg Powered Systems, drag races his truck with the vegetable oil from a fried-chicken tailgate party, while a one-woman, bio-diesel PR campaign in Prada shoes hooks up clients with diesel cars around the country, and an Indy 500 driver tests his Team Ethanol car at Daytona.

This episode is followed by the television premiere of "Crude Awakening – The Oil Crash," a look at the past, present and future of the world’s oil reserves.

Directed by Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack, "Crude Awakening – The Oil Crash," interweaves interviews with archival elements including news footage and cartoons extolling the wonders of oil. At the heart of the film lies the question: if the first half of the age of oil is now ending, as many believe, what will happen in the second half, when oil supplies dwindle to zero?

Hosts for "THE GREEN" are journalist Simran Sethi, formerly the host and writer of "Ethical Markets," on PBS, and "Treehugger News" on AirAmerica, and community advocate Majora Carter, founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx.