AmeriScan: May 3, 2004

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Health Researchers Warn of U.S. Urban Asthma Surge

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - Asthma among pre-school children already is at epidemic levels, scientists say, having grown 160 percent between 1980 and 1994 - more than twice the rate for the overall U.S. population.

But millions of poor and minority children in U.S. cities could suffer even higher rates of asthma as the result of a "powerful one-two punch" of higher levels of pollen and changes in the types of molds spurred by global warming and unhealthy air masses from gasoline powered vehicles, according to a warning issued by Harvard researchers and the American Public Health Association (APHA).

Some 6 million American children suffer from asthma, which is a complex and serious disease characterized by lung inflammation resulting in shortness of breath.

The highest incidence of asthma cases already is found among low income and African-American children, a large share of whom live in urban areas.

The new report "Inside the Greenhouse: The Impacts of CO2 and Climate Change on Public Health in the Inner City" was released by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Medical School.

It calls for a shift away from fossil fuel burning vehicles and for increased development and use of clean energy technologies.

The report is a "real wake-up call for people who mistakenly think global warming is only going to be a problem way off in the future or that it has no impact on their lives in any meaningful way," said Christine Rogers, senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"The problem is here today for these children and it is only going to get worse," Rogers said.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the concern "is a public health issue and a health disparities issue."

"Low-income communities receive less treatment for environmental disease because they have less access to health care, yet are often at much greater risk from their environment," Benjamin said.

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Critics Say Bush Salmon Policy Undermines Recovery

PORTLAND, Oregon, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration's decision to push ahead with a policy that allows hatchery fish to be considered alongside wild fish in determining whether the wild stocks retain current federal protections has been widely condemned by many conservation and fishing organizations, as well as scientists originally asked to review the policy for the federal government.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is expected to release the new policy in June.

It paves the way for the removal of many of the 27 listed salmon and steelhead stocks from the northwest tip of Washington down to southern California and inland to central Idaho.

Critics say that instead of working to improve river habitat for listed species or to implement other viable recovery measures, the policy relies on hatcheries for long-term recovery.

"This policy circumvents the most basic tenets of the Endangered Species Act and effectively lets the federal government off the hook for any responsibility to recover salmon and healthy rivers and streams up and down the West Coast and inland to Idaho," said Kaitlin Lovell of Trout Unlimited. "Hatchery fish certainly have a role in restoring salmon runs and mitigating some of the damage inflicted by salmon declines, but they have no place in determining federal protections."

A federal advisory panel of scientists convened by the NMFS concluded that hatchery fish cannot maintain populations of wild salmon in the long term and should not be used to justify proposed removal of federal protections for wild salmon.

But these findings ran contrary to the policies of the Bush administration, which told the panel that its conclusions went beyond science and into policy and were thus inappropriate for official reports.

In March the scientific panel, which was formed to serve as an external review committee for the Pacific salmon recovery efforts, published their findings in the journal "Science."

The scientists warn that including hatchery fish with endangered wild salmon would create the legal possibility of maintaining a stock solely through hatcheries. They contend there is ample science to support the agency's past position that hatchery fish should not be included in population counts used to determine the status of wild salmon and steelhead stocks.

Hatchery spawned fish can harm wild fish by introducing disease and altering the unique genetic makeup of the species.

In addition, fish bred and fed in hatcheries are often larger than their wild cousins, grow quickly, and compete with them during early life stages in freshwater and estuaries.

Bush officials say the policy is justified by science and by a federal appeals court ruling in April - that ruling dismissed a challenge to a lower court's decision that invalidated the listing of Oregon coast coho salmon as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act because NMFS failed to include hatchery fish in its assessment of the species' population.

Salmon advocates say that de-listing of salmon and steelhead stocks should be the goal of any group, individual or interest vested in the future of those fish, but that de-listing should be due to the return of strong, healthy fisheries, not simply to avoid the responsibility of species and habitat protection.

"Genuine salmon recovery should be an investment in a future with sustainable, harvestable fish runs as nature intended them, in the wild," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "This new Bush administration policy abandons true recovery and moves us closer to a world where salmon only exist in hatcheries, not watersheds."

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State Legislators Reject Bush Mercury Cap and Trade Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - The National Conference of State Legislatures' (NCSL) Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted on Friday to reject the Bush administration's cap-and-trade proposal to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The committee voted 6-3 to reject a resolution sponsored by North Dakota State Senator Randel Christmann that would have directed NCSL to support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed cap-and-trade program for mercury.

"With 66 percent of the states present and voting rejecting a cap-and-trade approach to mercury, it sends a strong message to EPA and the industry that the states oppose trading emissions of hazardous pollutants, " said Maryland Delegate James Hubbard, who also chairs National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

States voting to reject Senator Christmann's resolution were Arkansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

States supporting the cap-and-trade proposal were Idaho, Indiana, and North Dakota. Virginia was present but did not vote.

Hubbard told the committee he plans to introduce a resolution at the NCSL Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City this summer to encourage EPA to abandon their cap-and-trade approach and calls on NCSL to urge EPA to regulate mercury as a hazardous pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

The controversy around the Bush plan has prompted the administration to extend public comment on the plan through June 31, 2004 and to delay finalization of the rule until March 14, 2005.

Critics say an emissions trading program, which means individual power plants will not reduce emissions at the same rate, will create local hot spots of mercury pollution, disproportionately impacting local communities.

A report in December by the environmental research group Environmental Defense analyzed air pollution modeling date from the EPA and found that local sources commonly contribute 50 to 80 percent of mercury deposition at the nation's current hot spots.

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Peru's Marine Birds Declining for Lack of Food

SAN DIEGO, California May 3, 2004 (ENS) - In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tens of millions of marine birds living in the "Bird Islands of Peru" became famous around the world.

This was due to their appeal as a visual spectacle and because they became economically important as high producers of guano, droppings that the country mined and exported around the world for fertilizer.

But these populations have declined dramatically in the last 40 years, scientists say in a new study. The researchers blame this decline largely on the severe reduction of the birds' main food supply - anchovies - by the Peruvian fishery.

A new study published in the current issue of the journal "Fisheries Oceanography" says

The results are the product of a new scientific model that characterizes the Peruvian marine ecosystem by cross-referencing natural factors such as wind strength with human influences through fishing activity.

"We saw a very different system prior to and after fishing was increased," said study coauthor Jaime Jahncke of the University of California, Irvine, who helped develop the model. "This model gives us a very clear example of how physical processes in the ocean and human influences can limit the populations of these birds, changing them from one state to another."

The Peruvian anchovy fishery, the largest single species fishery in the world, significantly increased production in the 1950s and '60s, exporting millions of metric tons of anchovies per year.

The study shows that wind forces in the early part of the 20th century caused a significant rise in the nutrient supply off the Peruvian coast and thereby led to a boom in the anchovy population.

With more food available, the numbers of guano producing seabirds, including cormorants, boobies and pelicans, similarly increased from 1925 to 1955.

But in the decades that followed, the seabird populations declined significantly.

"The decrease," the authors note, "appears to be due to the depletion of their food by the fishery, which grew to catch about 85 percent of the prey otherwise available to the seabirds."

All told, the latter half of the 20th century saw a dramatic decline - from about 20 million seabirds to about five million, according to the paper. Today, many of the so-called bird islands of Peru are largely devoid of seabirds.

Study coauthor David Checkley, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego says that although the fishery has profoundly impacted the abundance of these birds, a reversal is certainly possible.

"The important point is that we achieve an understanding of the causes of these population changes over time and manage them accordingly," he said. "Once we have the understanding I think it is really important that management and policy decisions are based on that understanding."

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Clean Air Settlement Aids Portland, Maine

WASHINGTON, DC, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - A federal-approved court settlement announced last week requires stronger anti-smog measures in the area in and around Portland, Maine.

The agreement provides for new limits on pollution from industrial facilities and power plants, and on fumes from paints and consumer products.

It also would strengthen the state's commitment to require the sale of low-emission vehicles that meet the same standards as required in California.

The settlement came in a suit by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club to address Portland's continued violation of clean air standards for ozone.

Elevated ozone levels have been linked to increased hospital and emergency room visits, and symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, and pulmonary congestion.

Portland missed a 1996 deadline for meeting the ozone health standard, triggering a U.S. Environmental Protection Act (EPA) duty to reclassify the area to a more severely polluted category.

When EPA failed to take any action for years, Sierra Club filed suit in federal district court in Washington.

This settlement resolves the suit by requiring stronger pollution controls, but without requiring EPA to reclassify Portland to the more severely polluted category.

"This settlement shows that health advocates can and do work together with the states and EPA to clean up the air," said A. Blakeman Early, chair of Sierra Club's air quality committee, "and it shows that the Clean Air Act works."

The settlement addresses compliance with EPA's pre-existing one-hour ozone standard - but earlier this month, the agency identified the Portland area as violating a new, more protective smog standard that limits ozone over an eight-hour period.

"This settlement will increase our chances of meeting the new eight-hour standard," said Sue Jones, energy project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "But unless the administration gets sincere about cleaning up upwind power plants and vehicles, Maine will likely again find itself in violation of the Clean Air Act."

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Conservationists Seek Block of Arctic Oil and Gas Leases

JUNEAU, Alaska, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration's determination to quickly open the northwest planning area of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) to oil and gas drilling has resulted in leasing plans that fail to protect key wildlife habitat, according to scientists and conservation advocates.

In January Interior Secretary Gale Norton finalized a plan that opened 7.23 million acres of the 8.8 million acre northwest planning area of the reserve to oil and gas development. The plan defers the remaining 1.57 million acres from leasing for 10 years, but critics say these protections are toothless and contend the decision in effect does little to protect the area's wildlife.

Conservation groups sued in February to block the plan and last week they asked a federal court for a temporary injunction against that plan in order to give the court time to review their challenge to the US Interior Department's leasing plans before holding a lease sale, now scheduled for June.

The lawsuit challenges the government's failure to meet the law's requirement to consider reasonable middle ground alternatives that would allow for oil development while protecting wildlife.

It also asserts the agency failed to assess fully the potential impact of oil and gas development activities on wildlife and the environment in the reserve.

The portions of the reserve conservationist believe the plan puts at risk provide habitat to globally significant migratory bird populations, two important caribou herds, marine mammals, and threatened Steller's and spectacled eiders, as well as the rare yellow-billed loon.

The National Audubon Society, one of the plaintiffs in the case, identified a number of critical bird and wildlife habitat areas in the reserve and determined that full wildlife protection would mean designating less than a quarter of the 8.8 million acres of the Northwest Planning Area as no-lease zones.

Audubon estimates that if the administration implemented all of Audubon's recommendations, 65 percent of the "high oil potential" lands would still be available for leasing.

"We do not oppose oil drilling in the reserve," said Stan Senner, executive director of Audubon's Alaska Chapter. "Most Americans want to see the government strike a balance between drilling and conservation, especially in wild and fragile places like America's Arctic. In this case, the Bureau of Land Management refused to look at a reasonable alternative like the one we suggested that would allow oil development and protect wildlife - and that violates the law."

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Rainforest Group Sees Some Progress From U.S. Banks

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) says it has seen progress from a challenge the organization issued to America's biggest banks to meet or beat new industry best practices set by Citigroup. In March the environmental organization issued an Earth Day deadline for the banks, which it calls "The Liquidators," to meet its challenge.

In January Citigroup announced with RAN a policy that sets standards related to endangered ecosystems, illegal logging, ecologically sustainable development and climate change.

The March letter sent by RAN to the banks compelled them to take immediate first steps on a wide range of activities, including the phase out of all funding and investment for extractive industries in endangered ecosystems, commitment to support the right of indigenous and local populations to have free and prior informed consent to projects on their lands, and commitment to sustainable forestry practices.

So far eight of the 10 have made some progress, RAN reports.

The organization says written responses it received on or before April 22 ranged from encouraging targets and timelines articulated by JPMorgan Chase & Co to an "outdated justification" by Goldman Sachs that it had "actively avoided applying a narrow set of rules" to social and environmental issues asserting that would encourage "box ticking" and "impede real thinking."

Bank of America continues to engage in active negotiations with Rainforest Action Network's Global Finance Campaign.

"The Liquidators are getting the message that the global marketplace will not tolerate environmentally destructive investments that pillage our planet," said Michael Brune, executive director of Rainforest Action Network.

"We are witnessing the beginning of a sea change in the relationship between ecology and economy," Brune added. "U.S. banks are waking up to the fact that if the environmental bubble bursts, the global economy bursts with it. There is a new bottom line on Wall Street, and financial institutions that do not reconcile with it are destined to become financial fossils."

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Small Ant Invaders Put Plants at Peril

TUCSON, Arizona, May 3, 2004 (ENS) - It is not surprising smaller ants can not carry seeds as far as their bigger cousins. And because seeds are more likely to survive and sprout if they are farther from the mother plant, it is best for plants to form seed moving partnerships with heftier ants.

Ecologists have built upon these facts in a new study, which research suggests that plants that depend on ants for heavy lifting may be in for tough times if small invasive species like Argentine or fire ants move into the neighborhood.

"Bigger is not just better than smaller, bigger is a lot better than smaller," said team leader Joshua Ness, an ecologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Ness says most native ants are larger than invasive ants, so as invasive ants replace the native species, the average size of seed-moving ants declines - a change in the ant community that can influence the plant community.

Ness and his colleagues examined 57 ant species from 24 sites across six continents and found that just a small increase in body length meant the ant was much better at carrying seeds far from the mother plant.

The research article, "Ant Body Size Predicts Dispersal Distance of Ant-Adapted Seeds: Implications of Small-Ant Invasions," will be published in the May issue of the journal "Ecology."

Plants that rely on ants to disperse seeds generally produce a tough-coated seed that has a little ant snack, called an elaiosome, attached to it. A foraging ant picks up the seed and drags it off, often to an ant nest. The food reward gets eaten, and the discarded seed germinates in the rich soil of the colony's trash bin.

In natural communities, such interactions between species can benefit both parties: the ant has a reliable source of food, and the plant's seeds are dispersed far enough to reduce competition between the seedlings and their parent. The further the seeds are dispersed, the better chance the seedlings have of making it to adulthood.

But how far the seed gets carried depends on the size of the ant.

As small invasive ants such as Argentine and fire ants move into ecosystems in the United States and throughout the world, plants are losing their traditional partners, because the invading ants displace native ants. The plants have to make do with having the new, smaller ants disperse seeds.

The smaller ants have a tendency to rob the seed of its elaiosome and then take off.

They do not lug seeds very far from the mother plants and are more likely to leave seeds lying on the surface exposed to seed predators like rodents and other insects.

That does not bode well for the plants, Ness said.

"The invasive ants take the reward and do not provide the level of service provided by the larger ant," Ness said.

Knowing what problems are likely to occur can help design strategies to mitigate the effect of ant invasions, Ness added. For imperiled plant species, managers may need to help the plants disperse their seeds.

Ness's next step is looking at other ways invasive ants differ from natives and how those differences change invaded communities.