AmeriScan: May 28, 2007

* * *

NASA: Vast Areas of West Antarctica Melted in 2005

PASADENA, California, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - A team of NASA and university scientists has found clear evidence that extensive areas of snow melted in west Antarctica in January 2005 in response to warm temperatures. Combined, the affected regions encompassed an area as big as California.

This was the first widespread Antarctic melting ever detected with NASA's QuikScat satellite and the most significant melt observed using satellites during the past three decades, NASA said.

Son Nghiem of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and Konrad Steffen, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder, led the team. Using data from QuikScat, they measured snowfall accumulation and melt in Antarctica and Greenland from July 1999 through July 2005.

"Antarctica has shown little to no warming in the recent past with the exception of the Antarctic Peninsula, but now large regions are showing the first signs of the impacts of warming as interpreted by this satellite analysis," said Steffen.

"Increases in snowmelt, such as this in 2005, definitely could have an impact on larger-scale melting of Antarctica's ice sheets if they were severe or sustained over time."

The observed melting occurred in multiple distinct regions, including far inland, at high latitudes and at high elevations, where melt had been considered unlikely.

Evidence of melting was found up to 560 miles inland from the open ocean, about 310 miles from the South Pole, and higher than 6,600 feet above sea level.

Maximum air temperatures at the time of the melting were unusually high, reaching more than five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) in one of the affected areas. They remained above melting for about a week.

The QuikScat's scatterometer instrument sends radar pulses to the ice sheet surface, measuring the echoed pulses that bounce back. When snow melts and then refreezes, it changes to ice, just as ice cream crystallizes when it is left out too long and is then refrozen.

QuikScat can differentiate this icy fingerprint in the snow cover and can map on a continental scale the extent of strong snowmelt and the subsequently formed ice layer. Ground station measurements validate the satellite results.

The 2005 melt was intense enough to create an extensive ice layer when water refroze after the melt. However, the melt was not prolonged enough for the melt water to flow into the sea.

Changes in the ice mass of Antarctica, Earth's largest freshwater reservoir, are important to understanding global sea level rise. Large amounts of Antarctic freshwater flowing into the ocean ould affect ocean salinity, currents and global climate.

Nghiem said while no further melting had been detected through March 2007, more monitoring is needed. "Satellite scatterometry is like an X-ray that sees through snow and finds ice layers beneath as early as possible," he said. "It is vital we continue monitoring this region to determine if a long-term trend may be developing."

* * *

Congress OKs $14 Billion in Army Corps Water Projects

WASHINGTON, DC, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - Legislation authorizing a host of projects for hurricane, flood, and storm damage reduction as well as environmental and ecosystem restoration, has passed both houses of Congress. It is now headed for a conference committee of senators and representatives who will work out differences between the two versions of the bill before sending a final text to the President for his signature.

The Water Resources Development Act of 2007, WRDA, which authorizes $13.9 billion in Army Corps of Engineers projects nationwide, passed in the House of Representatives on April 19 and passed the Senate on May 16. The last WRDA bill was passed in 2000.

Primary sponsor of the bill in the House, Congressman Jim Oberstar expects the conference committee meeting to be short and sweet. "I have met with Senate leaders and we are in agreement on the major provisions of this legislation," said Oberstar. "I am hoping we can settle any differences in a one day conference committee meeting."

But the White House has gone on record as opposing the $15 billion price tag of the WRDA version passed by the House of Representatives, so more negotiating is expected.

The administration expressed concern about spending proposals for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects - previously a state and local responsibility.

The statement of policy also expressed concern over "a costly commitment to periodic nourishment of sand beaches..."

Millions of dollars are appropriated in the bill for periodic beach nourishment over the next 50 years - most are characterized as "projects for "hurricane and storm damage reduction."

Sums totalling $300 million are set aside for replenishment of New Jersey beaches, and lesser amounts for Imperial Beach, California; Pawley's Island, South Carolina; and Lido Key, Florida, among others.

For New Orleans, devastated by the breach of its levees right after Hurricane Katrina and reflooded by Hurricane Rita in 2005, the bill authorizes the Army Corps to raise levee heights as necessary, and to enhance the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Project and the West Bank and Vicinity Project to provide the levels of protection necessary to achieve the certification required for the 100-year level of flood protection.

The Corps is authorized to armor critical elements of the New Orleans hurricane and storm damage reduction system, and to improve the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal to increase the reliability of the flood protection system for New Orleans.

The Corps is authorized to perform onetime storm-proofing of interior pump stations to ensure the operability of the stations during hurricanes, storms, and high water events.

And the Corps is to reduce the risk of storm damage to the greater New Orleans metropolitan area by restoring the surrounding wetlands. The Corps is authorized to take measures that will begin to reverse wetland losses in areas affected by navigation, oil and gas exploration and extraction.

The bill authorizes the Secretary of the Army to close the Mississippi River Gulf outlet and restore and protect the ecosystem, "if the Secretary determines that the project is cost-effective, environmentally acceptable, and technically feasible."

The Mississippi river Gulf Outlet is a 76 mile long man-made navigation channel connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans' Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in eastern New Orleans. Critics say it is destroying protective wetlands through erosion, saltwater intrustion, and the dredging done by the Corps to keep the channel open to navigation.

Finally, the bill appropriates $59 million for storm drainage systems, stormwater upgrades, and storm sewer improvements in 12 cities. The largest appropriation is $25 million for sanitary sewer and storm sewer improvements in Rahway Valley, New Jersey.

For Everglades restoration in Florida, the bill authorizes $1.4 billion for the Indian River Lagoon-South project that will go for wetlands and estuarine restoration and $375.3 million for the Picayune Strand ecosystem restoration project.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the Water Resources Development Act would cost about $6.7 billion over the 2008-2012 period and an additional $6.5 billion over the 10 years after 2012.

* * *

EPA on Alabama Beach to Create Quick Water Quality Tests

FAIRHOPE, Alabama, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - This summer, thousands of beachgoers at Alabama's Fairhope Municipal Beach will be recruited to participate in a study that will help the U.S. EPA develop a new generation of super-fast water quality tests.

The new tests are expected to provide results in two hours or less to replace the standard 24 to 48 hour tests. This will allow local beach managers to test the water in the morning and make quick, reliable decisions about beach closures by afternoon.

Untreated storm water runoff from cities and rural areas, combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and malfunctioning sewage treatment plants all contribute to beach water pollution, the EPA says.

"Swimming in water of poor quality can cause a variety of illnesses ranging from stomach problems to eye and ear infections," said Dr. Rebecca Calderon, director of the study at EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

"This study will help prevent these illnesses by giving health officials and beach managers the power to know the water quality sooner and therefore take actions to protect beachgoers," she said on Friday, announcing the new study at Fairhope.

On weekends through mid-July, up to 6,000 people will be asked to provide information about their recreational activities at the beach and health status after their beach visit.

In addition, EPA will monitor beach water quality throughout the days of the study to help understand the link between water pollution, swimming at the beach, and people’s health.

"The support of the community and beachgoers is key," said Dr. Al Dufour of the EPA, a co-investigator on the research project. "With their involvement, EPA's science can provide the information that health officials and beach managers need to make decisions to protect public health."

The study will contribute to National Beach Study research conducted in 2003 and 2004 at four freshwater beaches on the Great Lakes and one marine beach at Edgewater Beach in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The National Beach Study is being conducted by the EPA and involves the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with the City of Fairhope.

Fairhope Municipal Beach, with its subtropical waters and nearby large population, was selected to ensure that the study included a representative sample of U.S. beaches.

For more information on the National Beach Study, formally titled the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water Study, visit: www.epa.gov/nheerl/neear/.

* * *

Ruling in Delta Smelt Case May Limit Water Exports

FRESNO, California, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - A federal judge ruled Friday that a government assessment of risk to threatened fish from pumps in the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary is illegal and must be rewritten.

State and federal water project managers relied on the Biological Opinion written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to justify increased water exports to farms and cities south of the delta.

Conservation groups sued the Service, arguing that its conclusion that increased pumping would not harm the delta smelt ignored a steep decline in the fish's numbers and was not supported by science.

"The delta smelt population has crashed to the lowest levels ever recorded," said Kate Poole, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, a plaintiff in the case.

"The smelt's dramatic drop coincides with the highest levels of freshwater diversions from the delta ever. That's not a coincidence," said Poole. "Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that increasing diversions even further would not jeopardize the smelt and other threatened and endangered fish."

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federally owned Central Valley Project, and the California Department of Water Resources, which runs the State Water Project, among the world’s largest water diversion projects, used the wildlife's agency's opinion as justification to increase delta water exports and to renew 25 and 40 year contracts to irrigation districts and urban water agencies.

But in his ruling, Judge Oliver Wanger of the U.S. District Court in Fresno wrote, "The Delta smelt is undisputedly in jeopardy as to its survival and recovery. The 2005 BiOp's 'no jeopardy' finding is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law."

"The agency's failure to reasonably estimate the Delta smelt population and to analyze most recent smelt abundance data make the take limits based on historical data unreliable and unreasonable," the judge ruled.

In 2005, delta smelt numbers were the lowest ever measured, just 2.4 percent of the numbers counted when the species was listed under the state and federal endangered species acts in 1993. Fish surveyors are having trouble finding any smelt at all this year, increasing concern that the fish is on the brink of extinction.

"The water project operators must decrease pumping," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with Earthjustice, which represented in the plaintiff conservation groups in court. "That's the common sense solution to protecting smelt and other threatened and endangered species in the delta."

The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of NRDC, Friends of the River, California Trout, The Bay Institute, and Baykeeper.

Scientists say that smelt are an indicator of the health of the entire bay delta ecosystem, and are representative of a much larger decline in native delta fisheries, including striped bass, longfin smelt, and threadfin shad.

The delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast. It functions as the hub of California's water system, as a vital component in its fishing and agricultural economies, as a recreational mecca, and as home to millions of Californians.

* * *

Mislabeled Monkfish Really Toxic Puffer Fish

WASHINGTON, DC, May 28, 2007 (ENS) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to buy or eat imported fish labeled as monkfish, which actually may be puffer fish, containing a deadly toxin called tetrodotoxin.

Eating puffer fish that contain this potent toxin can result in serious illness or death, the agency said. Monkfish do not contain tetrodotoxin.

Tetrodotoxin is not destroyed by common food preparation or storage, such as cooking or freezing.

The Food and Drug Administration, FDA, issued the warning on Thursday after two people in the Chicago area became ill after consuming homemade soup containing the fish. One was hospitalized due to severe illness.

The FDA's analysis of the fish they ate confirmed the presence of potentially life threatening levels of tetrodotoxin.

The product was imported and distributed by Hong Chang Corp. of Santa Fe Springs, California.

Consumers concerned that they may have purchased this fish should contact their retailer and ask if the product was received from Hong Chang Corp.

The product should not be eaten, it should be thrown away, the FDA said. Care should be exercised in handling the fish, as the tetrodotoxin may be present on the skin and flesh of the fish. Consumers should wash hands thoroughly after handling the fish.

Initial symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning occur 30 minutes to several hours after food containing the toxin is consumed. First there is tingling of the lips and tongue, tingling of the face and extremities and numbness follow. Later symptoms may include headache, balance problems, excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Consumers experiencing these symptoms should seek immediate medical care and are encouraged to report their illness to local health authorities. In severe cases, muscles can become paralyzed, and death may follow from respiratory muscle paralysis.

A total of 282 22-pound boxes labeled as monkfish were distributed to wholesalers in Illinois, California and Hawaii beginning in September 2006.

These fish were then sold to restaurants or sold in stores. In one instance, the retailer labeled the fish as "bok," the Korean name for puffer fish.

The white 22-pound boxes are labeled in black ink. One box panel is labeled as: "FROZEN MONKFISH GUTTED AND HEAD-OFF" and "PRODUCT OF CHINA." A second panel bears nutritional facts and the following: "Ingredients: Monk fish; Imported by: Hong Chang Corp, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; Product of China (P.R.C.)."

A third panel has a checkbox indicating the size as either "0.5-1" or "1-2" and shows the net weight as 22 pounds. There are no manufacturing codes on the box. The fish in the box are individually wrapped in plastic bags with no labeling.

FDA allows puffer fish to be imported into the United States only under strict provisions that minimize the risk of the toxin being present in the fish. The recalled fish were not imported in compliance with those restrictions. FDA is examining all entries from the Chinese supplier and will take additional action, if warranted.

* * *

WGNO-TV New Orleans Cleans Up Its Mess

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, May 28, 2007 (ENS) – New Orleans TV station WGNO has taken the first steps to cleaning up solid waste generated from its place of business. The state Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, discovered the waste, consisting of old video logs and tapes, illegally dumped at a site on Gentilly Road in east New Orleans.

The site was one of more than 150 others along the Almonaster Corridor that was documented during a recent investigation into environmental issues in the area which has historically been home to many illegal dump sites.

"As part of DEQ’s statewide solid waste initiative, the department will call people when their waste is found at an illegal dump," said DEQ Assistant Secretary Harold Leggett. "That is standard investigative procedure."

"What’s unique about WGNO is they took the initiative to remove their waste from the site," said Leggett. "This is a business that paid someone to haul their waste, and WGNO had every reason to believe the waste was going to be disposed of at a permitted landfill and not an illegal dump site. As soon as we called them, they came out to the site and have moved quickly to have the waste removed."

An illegal dump covering 20 acres up to 7 feet deep was the worst discovered by DEQ investigators during Operation Clean Sweep. But it was not the only one. Agency officials found environmental abuses at about 80 percent of the 177 sites they visited in the Almonaster corridor, a thinly populated area surrounded by wetlands that has long served as the city's unofficial dumping ground.

Leggett said that waste haulers are often to blame for illegal dumping in the Almonaster corridor and that it is "refreshing" to have WGNO take the responsibility to clean up part of a site.

The DEQ has worked with many partners in recent months to curtail illegal dumping that has escalated since Hurricane Katrina.

As part of Operation Clean Sweep, trucks have been seized, penalties handed out and there are more penalties to come, the agency says.

"The department has worked with city, state and local agencies to try to make it a deterrent for haulers, landowners and waste generators to illegally dispose of solid waste," Leggett said.

"The Almonaster area has many sites where waste is illegally dumped and up until now very few responsible parties have taken the necessary action to clean up their mess. What WGNO is doing is correcting a small part of the overall problem, but they have taken care of business in the right way," said Leggett, "and should be an example for others."