AmeriScan: May 31, 2007

* * *

Export of Toxic Ghost Ships to UK Ended

WASHINGTON, DC, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - The Bush administration's plan to export nine ex-naval "Ghost Fleet" vessels from the James River in Virginia to Teesside, England for scrapping has itself been finally scrapped, according to British ship-breaker Able UK.

American environmental groups responsible for first blocking the deal in 2003 applauded its end as a victory for American recyclers, and for national environmental responsibility and self-sufficiency in toxic waste management.

In October 2003, the Basel Action Network and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Maritime Administration, MARAD, to prevent the resumption of U.S. exports of contaminated decommissioned naval vessels for scrapping abroad.

The suit alleged violations of the Toxics Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, DC ruled that four vessels could cross the Atlantic as their export was mandated by Congress, but prohibited the departure of the remaining nine until MARAD completed an Environmental Impact Assessment, obtained proper authorization to export toxic PCBs, and ensured the existence of an adequate dismantling facility in the UK.

Now, after three and a half years, MARAD has decided to annul the contract because the intended ship-breaker, Able UK, has been unable to obtain the permits required to conduct its business in Teesside, England.

"The death of this contract is good news for the environment and for American workers," said Martin Wagner of Earthjustice. "The management of U.S. toxic waste is a U.S. responsibility. Why dump our trash in other countries when we can take care of it here and create new jobs at the same time?"

It is expected that the nine ships in the James River will now be put up to bid for domestic ship recyclers.

It is unclear what will happen to four U.S. ships that sit rusting in Teesside. The vessels contain tons of materials contaminated with carcinogenic and toxic substances such as PCBs, asbestos, mercury, and used fuel.

Currently there are 238 old ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet, most located in Texas, Virginia and California, that will need to be dismantled. The groups warn that some of the ships are in dangerous condition and pose an environmental threat as they have never been emptied of fuels, oils and other hazardous substances.

"Our precious Chesapeake and San Francisco Bays are no place for floating toxic time bombs," said Michael Town of the Sierra Club in Virginia. "The budget to remove these vessels and have them properly recycled here in America should have been appropriated long ago."

* * *

Smoke Forecasts Issued for Southern Wildfires

ATHENS, Georgia, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - Wildfires across south Georgia and north Florida are producing so much smoke that the Georgia State Department of Health has requested daily smoke forecasts to help communities determine potential health risks.

The forecasts will be produced by scientists with the Southern Research Station Smoke Management Team located at the Center for Forest Disturbance Science in Athens, Georgia.

"The smoke forecasts are extremely useful to communities surrounding wildfires as well as those in neighboring states," says Dr. Scott Goodrick, Smoke Management Team research meteorologist.

"Our research also helps Incident Command Teams suppressing these fires, providing information they can share with local health officials who determine potential health risks," he said.

Smoke forecasts will be particularly useful when deciding to issue warnings for sensitive populations such as infants and children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with chronic heart or lung diseases such as asthma.

Fire conditions throughout the region are the worst in decades, and fires are expected to burn throughout the area for at least another six weeks.

Smoke from these fires has impacted major airports and interstates throughout both states, and statewide air quality advisories have been issued.

Over the past few weeks, smoke from wildfires has impacted metro Atlanta, with reduced visibility at Hartsfield International Airport, as well as the towns of Athens and Columbus, which are more than 250 miles from fires burning in southern part of the state.

Roadways and driving conditions have also been affected, with transportation officials reducing speed limits on major highways flowing into Florida due to visibility concerns. Several interstates have been closed at various times during the past month, including Interstate 10, Interstate 95, and Interstate 75.

The forecasts show smoke concentrations over continuous 72 hour periods, combining detailed weather forecasts with information about the fire to estimate the amount of smoke produced and where that smoke will be transported.

The smoke forecasts focus on a specific class of pollutant, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter or PM 2.5, that is known to be associated with respiratory problems. It is a criteria pollutant measured by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The forecasts may be accessed through the Southern High Resolution Modeling Consortium at http://www.shrmc.org/ge.

Hourly forecasts data is available in a format compatible with Google Earth; daily peak values of smoke concentration are also viewable on the Internet.

* * *

Interior Department Headquarters a Sick Building

WASHINGTON, DC, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - The Interior Department has been exposing its headquarters workers to harmful chemical fumes, smoke, and construction dust for years, finds a new federal health evaluation released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, a national organization of workers in natural resources agencies.

The evaluation concludes that poor indoor air quality practices in the decade-long Interior Headquarters Building reconstruction have prompted hundreds of complaints of headaches, nausea, asthma attacks and other ailments from employees.

The reconstruction of the 70 year old Main Interior Building near the National Mall in Washington is "intentionally operating" to expose "adjacent occupied areas" to hazardous pollutants, according to the report issued May 24 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH.

The reconstruction has no effective Indoor Environmental Quality plan and employee "complaints of exposure" stem from "failure to design and maintain the renovation area under negative air pressure" which prevents fumes from entering the building ventilation system, the evaluation reveals.

This is the second NIOSH report in the past 15 months. A February 3, 2006 NIOSH report concluded that Interior was ignoring hundreds of health complaints from workers suffering the effects of chemical exposure, air-borne particles and smoke generated by the HQ modernization and that the agency was not following "good practices" to ensure indoor air quality.

This latest NIOSH "health hazard evaluation" found that Interior had failed to comply with previous recommendations.

"If this is what NIOSH uncovered in a scheduled evaluation visit, imagine what it would have found in a surprise inspection," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

"The overseers of this reconstruction project are guilty of inexcusable disregard for the health of their own co-workers," said Ruch.

Interior has yet to release a final version of an internal audit from this past February that discovered major safety, health and environmental hazards throughout its HQ complex.

In addition, the Interior Office of Inspector General is now surveying and interviewing thousands of employees as part of an investigation into persistent health and safety problems plaguing the department.

* * *

Test Kit Swabs Fail to Detect Lead Dust in Homes

ROCHESTER, New York, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - The quick, inexpensive test kits used by homeowners nationwide to detect lead-laced dust are prone to high error rates, according to a new University of Rochester study.

Researchers found that 64 percent of the locations that LeadCheck Swabs indicated were safe, actually had hazardous concentrations of lead in dust, according to federal standards.

Katrina Korfmacher, Ph.D., an expert on lead poisoning at the University of Rochester Medical Center and first author of the study, warns that people should be aware of the tool's lack of sensitivity and how it might impact the health of children.

"We're very interested in promoting low-cost ways to detect lead at the low levels we now know to be dangerous to children. That's why it was important to evaluate the test," Korfmacher said. "Our concern is that parents or property owners might use these tests and be falsely assured."

Childhood lead poisoning is irreversible. It results from ingesting lead-based paint, lead dust, or contaminated soil.

Some county health departments across the nation use LeadCheck Swabs as an educational tool, recommending the kits to mothers bringing home infants from the hospital. The swabs are sold at many retailers; they cost about $1.30 each when purchased in bulk. They are popular among community groups, landlords and other consumers seeking an inexpensive way to get precise results.

The research was conducted as part of a community project called Get The Lead Out, a collaborative effort between the University and several community groups to prevent lead poisoning.

Korfmacher and co-author Sherry Dixon, Ph.D., of the National Center for Healthy Housing in Columbia, Maryland, report in the June edition of the journal "Environmental Research" that they tested the LeadCheck Swabs in Rochester houses, using the manufacturer's instructions.

The swabs work like a home pregnancy test. According to the instructions, a person rubs the swab onto a small patch of a floor to collect a dust sample. The yellow tip will turn pink or red if lead is present.

The instructions say the swabs will instantly detect lead in dust at levels that exceed the EPA standard of 40 micrograms per square foot for floors.

Even when results were interpreted conservatively, the LeadCheck Swabs' probability of correctly identifying dust lead levels above the federal standard for floors was only 72 percent, the study concluded.

"It's clear from our study that LeadCheck Swabs shouldn't be used to determine if house dust contains lead in excess of the EPA standards," said Korfmacher.

Korfmacher and Dixon say it is not clear why the swabs are failing to detect hazardous levels of lead in dust, but they sometimes turn a confusing brown color rather than yellow, pink or red.

Researchers compared the swabs to standard dust wipes, which are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, used by trained risk assessors, and analyzed at certified laboratories. Dust wipes give accurate information, but the required laboratory fees, waiting time, and labor costs that may be prohibitive for some consumers.

To read the new NIOSH report click here.

* * *

Sewage Overflows Cost Allegheny County $4.2 Million

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - In a $4.2 million legal settlement with federal, state, and county agencies, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, ALCOSAN, today agreed to a comprehensive plan to reduce its annual discharge of billions of gallons of untreated sewage into local waterways.

Under the proposed consent decree, ALCOSAN has agreed to a multi-year strategy to upgrade the sewage systems serving Pittsburgh and 82 surrounding municipalities.

The settlement requires ALCOSAN to pay a $1.2 million penalty for past Clean Water Act violations, and to undertake $3 million in environmental projects.

ALCOSAN must submit a wet weather plan to EPA that would resolve a majority of the untreated discharges from the sewer systems by 2026.

The $3 million in environmental projects will include stream restoration work and other projects to better control harmful stormwater runoff. The $1.2 million penalty will be shared equally by federal, state and county agencies.

"Sewage overflows can seriously harm public health by carrying dangerous bacteria into waterways used for recreation, such as boating and swimming," said Granta Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "Today's agreement will reduce the amount of untreated sewage being discharged into local rivers by more than 22 billion gallons per year."

The proposed consent decree, which is subject to a 30 day public comment period and final court approval, was filed in federal district court today by the U.S. Attorneys Office in Pittsburgh.

Matthew McKeown, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said, "We are confident that the remedial measures ALCOSAN will be making and the long-term control plan the company will adopt, will provide for significant and lasting improvements to water quality throughout the region."

The settlement was negotiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Justice, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, DEP, and the Allegheny County Health Department.

"This agreement will lead to a dramatic improvement in the water quality of the three rivers and area streams, improving recreational and development opportunities along our waterways," said Kenneth Bowman, southwest regional director for the Pennsylvania DEP.

"While illicit industrial discharges into our waterways were virtually eliminated many years ago, illegal sewage discharges have remained a very stubborn and chronic source of pollution," said Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the Allegheny County Health Department.

"Once wet weather sewage discharges have been minimized, our rivers and streams will become even more accessible to those who enjoy them for recreation and pleasure," Dixon said.

The judicial settlement with ALCOSAN complements a 2003 voluntary agreement by the 83 municipalities to monitor flow throughout the regional sewer system, and to work with ALCOSAN to identify and implement controls to avoid sewage overflows into local waters.

Today’s settlement with ALCOSAN and the 2003 voluntary agreement with the municipalities together represent one of the nation’s largest settlements of a Clean Water Act case involving sewage overflows – in terms of the number of municipalities affected and the extensive nature of the sewer system upgrade.

* * *

Threatened California Sea Otters in Recovery

SACRAMENTO, California, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - California sea otters are slightly more numerous this year than in previous years, indicating that the species is starting to recover.

The California sea otter is listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Observers, led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, counted a total of 3,026 California sea otters for the 2007 spring survey. This count marks a record high and a 12.4 percent increase over the 2006 count of 2,692. The previous high mark was 2,825 sea otters in spring 2004.

The favorable viewing conditions the best we've had in years during our spring surveys likely contributed to the encouraging count, said survey organizer Brian Hatfield, a USGS biologist in California.

Also rising slightly is the latest 3-year running average the average of the totals from the spring counts of 2005, 2006 and 2007 which is up 2.4 percent over the previous average, to 2,818 sea otters.

To assess overall population trends, three-year running averages of spring counts are used to reduce the influence of vagaries in any given years count, as recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan.

"We are guardedly optimistic about the slight increase in this latest three-year running average," said Lilian Carswell of USFWS, "though the population remains a considerable distance from the delisting threshold."

For southern sea otters to be considered for delisting, the three year running averages would have to exceed 3,090 for three continuous years.

While a high count is always better news than a low count, these counts have varied quite a lot in recent years, said USGS scientist Dr. Jim Estes, whose sea otter expertise spans three decades. Last year's count was on the low side.

"By themselves, these single most-recent counts are nearly meaningless. We cannot infer anything about the population until there has been a sustained trend," said Estes.

The spring 2007 California sea otter survey was conducted May 2 through 17, covering about 375 miles of California coast, from Point San Pedro in the north to Rincon Point in the south.

The spring survey is a cooperative effort of the USGS, California Department of Fish and Game's Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and many experienced and dedicated volunteers.

The information gathered from spring surveys is used by federal and state wildlife agencies in making decisions about the management of California sea otters.

* * *

Moths Mimic Sounds to Avoid Being Eaten

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina, May 31, 2007 (ENS) - In a night sky filled with hungry bats, good-tasting tiger moths increase their chances of survival by mimicking the sounds of their bad-tasting cousins, according to a new Wake Forest University study.

Published in the May 29 issue of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," the study is the first to show how an animal species uses acoustic mimicry as a defensive strategy.

The research was conducted by Jesse Barber, a doctoral student in biology at Wake Forest and the study was co-authored by William Conner, professor of biology at Wake Forest.
bat and moth

A bat and a moth captured by Jesse Barber's infrared camera. (Photo courtesy Wake Forest)
In response to the sonar that bats use to locate prey, the tiger moths make their own ultrasonic clicks. They broadcast the clicks from a paired set of structures called "tymbals."

Many species of tiger moth use the tymbals to make specific sounds that warn the bat of their bad taste. Other species make sounds that closely mimic those high-frequency sounds.

"We found that the bats do not eat the good-tasting moths that make the similar sounds," said Barber, who has worked on this research for four years.

In the study, other types of moths that were similar in size to the sound-emitting moths, but did not make sounds, were gobbled up by the bats.

The two species of bats used were big brown bats and red bats. Barber raised the bats in the lab so behavior learned in the wild would not influence the results of the experiment.

He trained free-flying bats to hunt moths in view of two high-speed infrared video cameras to record predator-prey interactions that occur in fractions of a second.

He recorded the sounds emitted from each moth, as well as the sounds made by the bats.

All the bats quickly learned to avoid the noxious moths first offered to them, associating the warning sounds with bad taste.

The bats then avoided a second sound-producing species of moth even though it was not noxious-tasting but only made the same warning sounds.

Barber said anecdotal observations indicate that animals such as snakes, owls and bees also use acoustic mimicry.