AmeriScan: October 5, 2005

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EPA to Contract Out Hundreds of Staff Positions

WASHINGTON, DC, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to outsource nearly five percent of its workforce according to agency memos released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national organization of government employees in natural resources agencies.

Employees in the areas of information technology, financial services, and administrative support will be outsourced under the newly approced EPA plan. For the first time, enforcement positions will be offered for bid to private companies.

The agency’s enforcement laboratory, called the National Enforcement Investigations Center, could lose as many as 78 specialists to corporate labs, according to EPA employees contacting PEER. This center is the nation’s leading forensic lab for environmental measurement and pollution compliance testing.

As described in a Decision Paper signed by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson on September 22, the agency has struggled over the past few years to meet its assigned goal of putting 850 full time equivalent positions - five percent of its total - out to bid for possible replacement by private providers by 2008.

This latest plan increases four-fold the number of employees potentially outsourced from the agency’s last published plan in 2004.

The Decision Paper describes a Competitive Sourcing Council under the chairmanship of the Assistant Administrator for Administration and Resources Management Luis Luna.

Luna is responsible for the agency's hiring and personnel policies affecting 18,000 federal employees nationwide, facilities management, a $1.2 billion procurement program, and the administration of EPA's grants totaling $4 billion annually.

The Council selected functions for competitive sourcing thought to be "the most commercial in nature," and directed all offices and regions to participate in the outsourcing exercise.

EPA employees contacting PEER expressed concern that the new outsourcing targets will affect enforcement and contractor oversight.

In the financial area, the EPA plans to outsource 25 full time positions. These financial analysts now review reports and invoices from the billions of dollars in research grants, toxic cleanup projects and other contracts administered by EPA.

Both the Government Accountability Office and the agency’s own Inspector General have issued numerous critical reports about the agency’s insufficient oversight of its current contracts.

EPA’s outsourcing plan may result in one set of contractors overseeing the work of another set of contractors.

The Decision Paper states that 325 full time positions in information technology and 450 administrative support positions will be contracted out. The paper acknowledges that this shift will "heavily impact minority employees and employees who might lack the skills to be mobile and be placed in other positions around the agency."

Following the June Council meeting, EPA’s unions were provided the opportunity to review and comment on the “short list” of functions. A considerable number of written comments were submitted.

On July 6, the heads of EPA’s five unions, along with representatives from the national organizations of NTEU and AFGE, met with Luna, the Decision Paper states.

Union concerns covered three categories: philosophical disagreement with the competitive sourcing initiative, disagreement with the agency’s interpretation of inherently governmental, and concerns about how the initiative would hurt the fabric of EPA’s workforce and adversely impact its ability to remain flexible and maintain public trust.

There were many references to the criticism the agency received in the late 1980s and early 1990s about being too dependent on contractors and having contracted out inherently governmental work.

But the Decision Paper states, "While the union discussions were healthy and served to emphasize the importance of managing the competitions carefully to protect the rights and well being of EPA employees, they did not provide a reason for altering the recommendations of the Council."

The Council's outsourcing recommendations were adopted on September 22.

“This outsourcing plan is not about making EPA more effective or protective of public health, it is about politics: giving more government work to contractors who will presumably be grateful to the President and his party for the lucrative opportunities,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “In the Bush administration, protecting the public is always a job for the lowest bidder.”

Agencies are graded by the President’s Office of Management and Budget on the percentage of their workforces that are made available for contractor competition.

Read the Decision Paper on Competitive Sourcing at: http://www.peer.org/docs/epa/05_3_10_competitive_sourcing.pdf

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Warm Loop Current in Gulf of Mexico Intensifies Hurricanes

MIAMI, Florida, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - The Loop Current is shaped like a horseshoe. It moves clockwise, transferring warm subtropical waters from the Caribbean Sea through the Yucatan Straits into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists monitoring heat and circulation in the Gulf during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita say the Loop Current is responsible for the way intensity built so quickly during the two storms.

The hurricanes intensify as they pass over eddies of warm water that spin off the main current. This year, the Loop Current extended deep into the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season.

"A positive outcome of a hurricane season like this is that we've been able to learn more about the Loop Current and its associated warm-water eddies, which are basically hurricane intensity engines," said Nick Shay, a University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) meteorologist and physical oceanographer.

After Hurricane Katrina and a week before Hurricane Rita, Shay and other scientists dropped sensors into the Gulf from aircraft to measure salinity and currents.

Other scientists deployed surface drifting sensors to measure surface and subsurface thermal conditions while traveling clockwise around a Loop Current warm eddy just south of Louisiana. The eddy was lying in the path of Rita, and the storm intensified from a Category 2 to a Category 5 storm between 2 pm September 21 and 5 pm the following day.

"This represents one of the most comprehensive ocean-data sets where two major hurricanes passed through the same region," said Frank Marks, director of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division.

"This series of observations is a testament to how new ocean observations are helping us understand hurricane intensity changes," Marks said.

"The last time there was a season with two Category 5 hurricanes in the same basin was in 1961 with Carla and Hattie," said Shay. "However, the same phenomenon occurred the year before in 1960 with Donna and Ethel."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also have much in common with Hurricane Opal, a category 4 storm that occurred a decade ago, on October 4. During Opal, meteorologists first recognized the pivotal role that deep, warm eddies play in quickly building hurricane intensity. Opal encountered a warm- water eddy in the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened in intensity from Category 1 to Category 4 in just 14 hours.

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New Hampshire Coastal Waters Now a No Discharge Zone

CONCORD, New Hampshire, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - New Hampshire’s request to designate its coastal waters as a No Discharge Area has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's New England Regional Office.

This designation means that discharges of treated and untreated boat sewage would be prohibited within three miles of the shore everywhere in New Hampshire’s coastal waters. Boat sewage can lead to health problems for swimmers, closed shellfish beds and the overall degradation of marine habitats.

"By making all of New Hampshire’s coastline a no discharge area, the state and EPA are taking a big step forward for water quality improvements,” said Robert Varney, regional administrator of EPA's New England Office. “This designation means cleaner beaches, cleaner shellfish beds and cleaner boating.”

New Hampshire is the second state in New England to designate all of its coastal waters as No Discharge.

New Hampshire's coastline has an estimated 4,593 boats, of which only 962 are large enough to have a head, or toilet, on board.

Before making a No Discharge designation, EPA and the state ensured that there are enough pumpout facilities where boaters can get their holding tanks pumped out. The pumpout facilities include five that are fixed or shore based, and one that is a pumpout boat.

New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Michael Nolin said 30 years ago his state was first in the nation to designate all inland lakes as No Discharge Zones.

"No discharge in inland lakes included both black and grey water which was essential for reducing phosphorus and bacteria loading to one of states most valued assets," Nolin said. "We are long overdue for providing similar protection to our coastal waters through a No Discharge designation for the entire New Hampshire coastline."

In 1975 all New Hampshire inland waters were approved as No Discharge Area waters. The state hopes to emulate the lake boating inspection program on their coastline. DES initiated the No Discharge Area designation for the New Hampshire coastline in the spring of 2004 to safeguard local marine resources.

Other areas in New England with No Discharge areas include: all of Rhode Island’s marine waters, including Block Island’s Great Salt Pond; in Massachusetts, Harwich, Waquoit Bay, Nantucket Harbor, Wellfleet, and Buzzards Bay including Wareham and Westport; in Connecticut, Stonington Harbor, Groton/Mystic area; and Lake Champlain, Lake George and Lake Menphremagog in Vermont and New York.

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Power Plants Can Cut Mercury Emissions With Boiler Modifications

BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - Researchers at Lehigh University's Energy Research Center have developed and successfully tested a cost-effective technique for reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

In full-scale tests at three power plants, says lead investigator Carlos Romero, the Lehigh system reduced flue-gas emissions of mercury by as much as 70 percent or more with modest impact on plant performance and fuel cost.

The reductions were achieved, says Romero, by modifying the physical conditions of power-plant boilers, including flue gas temperature, the size of the coal particles that are burned, the size and unburned carbon level of the fly ash, and the fly ash residence time.

The changes in boiler operating conditions, said Romero, prevent mercury from being emitted at the stack and promote its oxidation in the flue gas and adsorption into the fly ash instead. Oxidized mercury is easily captured by scrubbers, filters and other boiler pollution control equipment.

Coal fired power plants are the largest single known source of mercury emissions in the United States. Estimates of total mercury emissions from coal fired plants range from 40 to 52 tons a year.

The Energy Research Center scientists reported their findings in the article, "Modification of boiler operating conditions for mercury emissions reductions in coal-fired utility boilers," which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal "Fuel."

Mercury enters the atmosphere as a gas and can remain airborne for several years before it precipitates with rain and falls into bodies of water, where it is ingested by fish. Because mercury is a neurotoxin, people who consume large quantities of fish can develop brain and nervous ailments. Forty-four states have mercury advisories.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last March issued its first-ever regulations restricting the emission of mercury from coal-fired power plants. The order mandates reductions of 23 percent by 2010 and 69 percent by 2018.

Four states - Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and Wisconsin - issued their own restrictions before the March 15 action by the EPA.

The Energy Research Center (ERC) team used computer software to model boiler operating conditions and alterations and then collaborated with Western Kentucky University on the field tests.

Analysis of stack emissions showed that the new technology achieved a 50 to 75 percent reduction of total mercury in the flue gas with minimal to modest impact on unit thermal performance and fuel cost. This was achieved at units burning bituminous coals.

Only about one-third of mercury is captured by coal-burning power plant boilers that are not equipped with special mercury-control devices, Romero said.

Romero estimated that the new ERC technology could save a 250-megawatt power unit as much as $2 million a year in mercury-control costs.

The savings could be achieved, he said, by applying the ERC method solely or in combination with a more expensive technology called activated carbon injection, which would be used by coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions. The resulting hybrid method, says Romero, would reduce the 250 pounds per hour of activated carbon that a 250 MW boiler needs to inject to curb mercury emissions.

The breakthrough follows years of work by Energy Research Center researchers in optimizing boiler operations to control emissions of NOx, CO, particulates and other pollutants.

For their mercury emissions research, the ERC group received a total of $1.2 million in funding from a consortium of utility companies, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance and the U.S. Department of Energy. It is expensive to check for levels of mercury emissions, says Romero, because mercury levels are measured in parts per billion, while NOx levels are measured in parts per million.

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New York City Mayor Signs Green Schools Bill Into Law

NEW YORK, New York, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - The mayor of New York City Monday signed a bill into law establishing green building standards for most of the city's capital projects over $2 million. The law enters into force in 2007.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the signing ceremony, "Our hope is that our investment in green buildings will be returned many times over through energy savings and environmental, community and health benefits."

While the law does not take effect until 2007, said the mayor, our administration is already "actively engaged in planning for its implementation" and "looks forward to continued cooperation from the environmental and development communities."

To determine which buildings will be green, the city will use the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system, which is widely accepted as an industry standard.

Bloomberg called the city's commitment to green buildings "long standing and well developed" and said, "Projects involving schools or hospitals must be designed and built in such a way as to meet the equivalent of a basic LEED-Certified rating, while all other city projects must meet the equivalent of a higher LEED rating."

The Healthy Schools Network congratulated Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Council for "their leadership and commitment to the health of schoolchildren, teachers and all in school facilities."

This legislation will enact green and healthy and high performance building standards for new school construction and renovation, the Healthy Schools Network said.

Research and experience demonstrates that healthy and high performance schools improve test scores, improve the health of children, improve teacher and staff satisfaction and save through energy savings and reduced maintenance costs.

Claire Barnett, executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, said, "New York City is the nation's largest school district and the mayor has made a giant commitment to improving school facilities. New York now joins Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and many others in ensuring that its school buildings will be designed to be healthy places for all children. These are huge advances for children and for education that now lead the school design market."

Stephen Boese, New York State Director said "With NYC planning to spend billions over the next few years on school construction, it is critically important that we build school facilities that cost-effectively improve student health and learning."

Boese said, "This new law takes a huge step forward in improving our city's schools by assuring that new and newly renovated schools will be healthier for children and staff."

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Minnesota Implements Statewide Biodiesel Requirement

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - Minnesota has become the first and only state in the nation with a biodiesel requirement. On Thursday, Minnesota implemented an initiative that blends two percent biodiesel (B2) throughout its entire diesel fuel supply.

Minnesota has exceeded a state legislative requirement that the state have biodiesel production capacity of at least eight million gallons a year. The state now leads the nation with its annual biodiesel production capacity of 63 million gallons.

“Many people talk about doing something to help change our energy situation in this country; in Minnesota they don’t just talk - they took a stand and did something about it,” said Joe Jobe, chief executive officer National Biodiesel Board (NBB).

“Today, biodiesel produced in Minnesota from soybeans grown in Minnesota, is flowing through the veins of the state’s energy infrastructure. Liquid solar energy from the Midwest is replacing oil from the Mid-East," said Jobe. "Minnesotans should be proud.”

The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) first introduced the B2 legislation in 2000 and again in 2001. With the help of clean air advocates and agricultural organizations, including the National Biodiesel Board, the legislation that had become known as the “B2 legislation” passed.

The result was three biodiesel plants in Redwood Falls, Albert Lea and Brewster, with combined production capacity that far exceeds the production requirement to implement the B2 rule.

“An economic study completed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture estimates that using just B2 blends will increase the demand for soybean oil in Minnesota by 92 million pounds – that’s the equivalent of 8.5 million bushels of soybeans,” said Bob Worth, president of MSGA.

“But we already have school bus fleets, trucking firms and municipal fleets using a 20 percent blend – B20. Minnesotans really embraced biodiesel for three basic reasons - it’s better for the environment, it’s good for the economy and it helps our nation reduce its dependence on foreign oil.”

The biodiesel blend will also help meet an operational need in diesel starting in 2006. Next year, ultra-low sulfur diesel will be phased in nationwide, and some sort of lubricity additive will be required. Two percent biodiesel fully restores the needed lubricity to prevent premature engine wear and tear in diesel engines.

The B2 legislation, passed in 2002, required that the state have a biodiesel production capacity of eight million gallons before it could be implemented. In August, 2005, Commissioner of Agriculture Gene Hugoson certified that the state had met that requirement, setting in motion the September 29 implementation date.

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Touching Klamath River Algae Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 5, 2005 (ENS) - Some of the highest recorded levels of toxic algae appeared in blooms on the Klamath River in California this summer. In response, the Karuk Tribe, the North Coast Regional Water Board, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are joining other local, state and federal agencies in warning residents and recreational users of the river to use caution when near such algal blooms.

“This algae produces toxins that pose a significant potential public health concern," said Alexis Strauss, Water Division director of the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco. "We advise people to avoid all direct contact with Klamath River water while the bloom is occurring.”

Water samples taken over the past two months from Copco and Iron Gate Reservoirs – located on the Klamath near the Oregon border – have revealed high levels of the toxic blue-green alga Microcystis aeruginosa.

Blooms of Microcystis aeruginosa, which often occur between June and September, can look like green, blue-green, white or brown foam, scum or mats floating on the water. They have been found as far as 125 miles downstream of the reservoirs.

The Klamath River is rich in nutrients that support the growth of the blue-green algae. Warm and calm surface water created by Iron Gate and Copco Reservoirs provide an ideal environment for the growth of large algal blooms. The extent of the blooms, and their toxicity, were not known until studies were conducted this year by the Karuk Tribe.

“In August, we found levels of Microcystis aeruginosa as high as 46.8 million cells/milliliter along the shoreline and 8.9 millions cells/ml on the open water. These levels exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) standard for recreational use by 468 and 89 times, respectively,” explained Susan Corum, the water resources coordinator for the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources.

"These levels are among the highest recorded in the United States," said Corum.

There are three main ways to be exposed to Microcystis aeruginosa and the microcystin toxins in contaminated waters - direct contact to exposed skin or to the highly sensitive membranes of the ear, eye, nose and throat; accidental or intentional swallowing; and inhalation of contaminated water aerosols.

“The public needs to take the microcystin toxin in this algae seriously,” said Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Water Board. “The levels of algae and associated toxins measured in parts of the river are high enough to pose health risks to anyone drinking or bathing in the water, particularly children and animals.”

Possible health effects of exposure to Microcystis aeruginosa and its microcystin toxin range from mild, non-life threatening skin conditions to permanent organ impairment and death depending upon exposure time and intensity.

Symptoms could include mild to severe eye irritation, allergic skin rash, mouth ulcers, fever, cold and flu-like symptoms, vomiting, diarrhea, kidney damage, liver damage or complete failure, and death.

An adult ingesting 3.4 ounces of contaminated water in a day would be exposed to levels 28 times greater than the accepted World Health Organization’s Tolerable Daily Intake value. This calculation is based on a single one-hour swimming event per day. More swimming events or activities of longer duration could result in greater exposure. For an average-size three year old, ingesting slightly more than a measuring cup of contaminated water in any one swimming event would be the equivalent of 278 times the accepted WHO Tolerable Daily Intake value. As with adults, more swimming events or activities of longer duration could result in greater exposure. Local, state, tribal and federal health and environmental agencies recommend that people not drink or cook with contaminated waters, and avoid or minimize contact. It is best of stay out of the water near algal blooms and to keep pets away. If you do come in contact with the water, wash thoroughly with clean water. Avoid eating fish caught during an algal bloom. If you do, fishermen should clean the fish with fresh water and dispose of the innards away from the river or where animals could eat them. Avoid irrigation with contaminated water. Report dead or distressed wildlife along the shoreline to local, state or tribal authorities.

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