AmeriScan: October 7, 2005

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House Passes Post-Hurricane Energy Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, commended the House for the passage today of H.R. 3893, the Gasoline for America's Security Act of 2005.

"Today, House Republicans took action to help lower gasoline prices for American consumers, families and small businesses. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita dealt a blow to our Gulf Coast oil supplies and showed us the importance of expanding our capacity to produce energy here at home. The GAS Act of 2005 helps lessen our dependence on foreign refined products and lowers prices at the gas pump," he said.

The bill, sponsored by House Energy Committee Chairman Joe Barton of Texas was narrowly approved 212-210 along strict party lines.

Hastert said, "This bill encourages the construction of new refineries to increase the supply of gasoline; it limits boutique fuels; it promotes the development of new pipelines to move oil and gasoline to where consumers need it; and it promotes conservation."

"High fuel prices threaten our economy and place a tremendous burden on our families, farmers and small businesses," the speaker said. "This bill takes an important step towards developing our energy infrastructure here at home."

Not a single Democrat voted for the bill, which passed after Republican leaders held open a five-minute vote for more than 40 minutes in what Democratic Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi of California called an abuse of power.

Pelosi said, "This bill includes all the special favors to the energy industry that were too extreme to be included in the energy bill passed by Congress less than three months ago."

"Refinery companies have deliberately closed and consolidated their facilities to drive up profit margins. They are making enormous profits," said Pelosi. "Do the American people really believe the right response is to waive environmental laws, brush aside state and local authorities, and open up federal lands to new refineries? Of course not. But that is the Republican approach: greed over need."

Environmental groups were outraged by the measure and called it "shameful."

Karen Wayland, legislative director for the 1.2 million member Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said, "The Bush administration and its cronies in Congress are shamelessly exploiting the hurricanes to ram through legislation that only benefits polluters, especially big oil and gas companies."

"This is the same old polluters’ agenda they have not been able to get away with in the past, and now they are exploiting the hurricanes to ram this through. They are kicking Gulf Coast victims while they are down and hurting other Americans, too."

"The bill is a wish list for big oil companies and it will force Americans to breathe dirtier air," Wayland said. "It delays smog clean-up deadlines, sabotages clean-up of dirty diesel engines, and gives other sweetheart deals to big oil companies. If enacted into law, it will mean more asthma for our kids, more respiratory illness for the elderly and greater risk of cancer."

"The winners here are big oil companies like Exxon that are already enjoying record profits," Wayland said. "The losers are the rest of us, who are forced to breathe dirtier air and still pay higher prices at the pump and to heat our homes."

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Damaged Gulf of Mexico Oil Production Still 90 Percent Shut In

WASHINGTON, DC, October 7, 2005 (ENS) – The latest figures released by federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) indicate that 90 percent of Gulf oil production and 72 percent of Gulf natural gas production remains shut in after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Of the 4,000 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico administered by the MMS, 3,050 platforms were in the paths of the two storms.

Currently, 342, or 42 percent, of Gulf platforms are still unmanned. Seventeen of 134 drilling rigs, or 13 percent, remain evacuated.

A preliminary damage assessment reported by the federal agency Tuesday indicates that 108 of the older “end of life” facilities not built to MMS’ upgraded design standards were destroyed. They account for 1.7 percent of the Gulf’s oil production and 0.9 percent of the Gulf’s gas production. Another 53 platforms suffered significant damage.

Although the assessment is bleak, Interior Secretary Gale Norton is counting her blessings. “Despite such intense winds and powerful waves offshore, we experienced no loss of life or significant spills from any offshore well on the outer continental shelf,” said Norton Tuesday. “Personal and environmental safety are two of the major goals of the Department of the Interior and our Minerals Management Service.”

Many workers, including some who lost their homes and possessions, are in the process of re-staffing the facilities and preparing them to resume production.

Major new facilities withstood the storms better, but still one major facility was destroyed. "We are currently working to determine whether that damage was a result of the storm itself or whether another facility collided with it," Norton said.

Four other facilities sustained major damage. Repairs are underway on the damaged facilities, but Norton said a substantial portion of production is expected to require several months to resume.

Since Hurricane Ivan last year, the MMS has been focusing study on the mooring systems of Mobile Offshore Drilling Units. Nineteen of these units were torn from their anchor moorings and went adrift during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Secretary Norton has called a November 17 conference at which industry and regulators will come together to address the issue.

The Minerals Management Service has taken a number of actions to hasten the process of returning energy resources to America, consistent with the need for safety.

These measures include expediting review of requests for temporary barging of oil or flaring of small amounts of natural gas; expediting approval process for pipeline repairs; waiving of cost recovery fees until January 2006;

The MMS has maintained continuous operations in the Gulf area despite evacuation and relocation of the MMS New Orleans office and damage to district offices.

Only a very small percentage of oil and gas production in the Gulf is expected to be permanently lost, the agency said.

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Work Poor, But Yucca Mountain Contractor Paid Millions in Incentives

WASHINGTON, DC, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - Nevada Senators Harry Reid, a Democrat, and John Ensign, a Republican said in a joint statement Thursday they were "angry, but not surprised" by a new report showing mismanagement on the Yucca Mountain Project.

The Audit Report on "Use of Performance Based Incentives by the Office of Civilian Waste Management" issued by the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General found that the DOE repeatedly gave bonuses to Bechtel Corporation in spite of poor work performance on the development of a permanent geological repository for the nation's high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The audit shows that DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) paid Bechtel $4 million in “incentive-based fees” since 2001 even though “Bechtel did not meet contract specifications.”

Bechtel's five year contract with the OCRWM is valued at approximately $3.2 billion. One of the objectives of the fee plus approach was to encourage fast track submission of a license application for the operation of Yucca Mountain to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In a September 30 memo to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, Inspector General Gregory Friedman wrote, "We initiated this review to determine if OCRWM's performance based incentives program was effective in maximizing Bechtel's performance."

The audit found that OCRWM paid $4 million in incentives despite the fact that "additional time beyond the performance period was needed by the contractor to correct poor quality work; work scope was reduced due to poor contractor performance; delivered products were not acceptable to OCRWM; and OCRWM eliminated incentivized work because of concerns about the contractor's performance."

In addition, the audit found, Bechtel received a super stretch incentive fee for completing additional work when, in fact, it had not completed initial work package requirements.

The audit faulted the OCRWM for not establishing a quality assurance plan as required by the DOE.

The Inspector General said the Yucca Mountain problems are not the first in this area and the IG has identified the DOE's contract management as "a high risk area vulnerable to mismanagement."

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. It’s just one more in a long string of examples of incompetence and sloppiness at Yucca Mountain,” said Reid, who is Minority Leader in the U.S. Senate, and a longtime opponent of the Yucca Mountain Project.

“We’ve seen the DOE cut corners on vital scientific experiments, compromise safety, punish whistleblowers, and spend far beyond their budget," said Reid. "This is not sound science and it’s not sound business, but it is more proof that the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear dump needs to be stopped.”

“This demonstrates once again that the DOE is forging ahead with Yucca Mountain despite unanswered safety concerns and huge cost overruns,” Ensign said. “The government should never be in the business of paying top dollar for shoddy work, and Americans should be outraged by this continued arrogance and waste of their money.”

The OCRWM management agreed with the findings of the audit and stated that "the report would be used to develop a comprehensive corrective action plan."

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Storm Water Violations Cost Hawaii Transportation Department $52 Million

HONOLULU, Hawaii, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - The Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) has reached a $52 million settlement with federal and state agencies to address Clean Water Act storm water violations at highways and airports in Hawaii.

The U.S. Justice Department, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Hawaii Department of Health settled with the Transportation Department today in an agreement that will see $1 million in penalties divided between the state and the United States.

The settlement requires HDOT to undertake actions - estimated to cost $50 million over the next five years - to improve management of storm water runoff from its highways and airports.

In addition, HDOT will spend another $1 million to establish a management system to comprehensively assess HDOT's many environmental obligations at the highways, airports and harbors under its jurisdiction. Finally, HDOT will also spend $60,000 to provide statewide training to construction contractors on storm water controls.

"Storm water discharges pollute Hawaii's streams, coastal waters, and coral reefs," said Wayne Nastri, administrator of the EPA's Pacific Southwest region. "By agreeing to make long-lasting changes to its operations under this settlement, HDOT will reduce its impacts upon the environment at roads, airports and harbors. We believe these actions will result in increased protection of coral reefs and improved water quality for the people of Hawaii."

HDOT has agreed to:

"This joint enforcement action represents tremendous team work between federal and state partners that will bring long-term, significant environmental improvements to Hawaii's waters," said Granta Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Violations of the Clean Water Act's storm water control requirements led the EPA to issue several orders against HDOT in 1999, 2000 and 2002. Inspectors from EPA and the Hawaii Department of Health found that HDOT was significantly behind other state and local governments in meeting national and state storm water requirements.

HDOT's compliance with this settlement will resolve the outstanding violations covered by these orders.

"Storm water runoff is a major threat to our water systems and wildlife," Nakayama said. "This settlement recognizes the importance of compliance with environmental obligations by the state Department of Transportation and their contractors."

Storm water runoff from unpaved land areas, paved streets, and maintenance baseyards contains contaminants such as sediments, chemicals, and oils that enter waterways and coastal zones, adversely impacting the environment.

"We take very seriously the laws that protect our environment from harmful pollutants," said Kelly Johnson, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "As a result of today's joint settlement, HDOT will make the necessary improvements to storm drainage systems, strengthening compliance with environmental laws and ensuring that valuable natural resources will be protected in the future."

The agreement takes effect when signed by the District Court judge following the conclusion of a 30-day public comment period.

A copy of the consent decree lodged today will soon be available on the Department of Justice website at: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/open.html

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General Electric Will Dredge PCBs From Hudson River in 2007

ALBANY, New York, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - The General Electric Company (GE) has agreed to begin dredging sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) from the Hudson River, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today. The dredging is scheduled for the 2007 spring through fall dredging season.

Today’s agreement also calls for the company to pay EPA up to $78 million for the agency’s past and future costs. EPA has already collected $37 million from GE through past settlements.

For 30 years, ending in the 1970s, GE discharged large quantities of PCBs into the river from two major manufacturing facilities along the Hudson River. The contaminants posed environmental and health threats to river wildlife and people who eat fish from the river.

EPA has made substantial progress toward cleaning up the Hudson River since the agency issued its February 2002 Record of Decision for the Hudson River PCB’s Superfund site.

In that document, the agency recorded the decision to dredge an estimated 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediments from a 43 mile stretch of the river from Hudson Falls, New York to the Federal Dam at Troy.

The agency has reached two previous agreements with GE under which the company agreed to conduct the extensive sediment sampling needed to identify the areas to be dredged and to design the project.

Other milestones include the collection and analysis of more than 48,000 samples from the river bottom, the completion of strict engineering and quality of life performance standards to protect public health and minimize impacts from the project, and the selection of a site for the sediment transfer/processing facility.

Under the terms of the consent decree lodged today in federal district court in Albany, New York, GE will construct the sediment transfer/processing facility needed for the project and perform the first phase of the dredging according to design plans being developed under a prior agreement.

The Record of Decision divides the dredging of PCB-contaminated sediments into two phases. The first phase of the dredging will remove about 10 percent of the total volume of PCB-contaminated sediment slated for dredging during the full cleanup project, and together with the construction of the sediment transfer/processing facility, is expected to cost between $100 million and $150 million.

The remaining phase of the dredging is expected to take five years. The ultimate goal is to restore one of the country’s most important cultural and ecological resources, using approaches designed to minimize impacts on local communities throughout the life of the project.

“This is an historic agreement that commits GE to begin dredging the Hudson River,” said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. “This is an important milestone in this complex environmental project that will result in a healthier river, providing vast economic and recreational opportunities.”

During early 2008, following GE’s completion of the Phase 1 dredging, the dredging-to-date will be evaluated by an independent peer review panel, which will consider possible changes to the engineering performance standards. EPA will seek public input during the peer review process.

The agreement also contains a provision that provides additional health protections for people who may not be fully aware of state restrictions on consuming Hudson River fish.

Although New York State is not a party to the settlement, the agreement requires GE to pay the state $3 million to support its efforts to assist the public in understanding and complying with the state fish consumption advisories. GE will provide an additional $1 million to this effort if it decides to conduct the Phase 2 dredging under the consent decree.

The agreement does not address GE’s liability for natural resource damages.

The Justice Department and EPA will accept public comments on the consent decree during a 30-day public comment period that will be publicly announced and will begin shortly.

Copies of the consent decree are available on the Department of Justice website at: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/open.html, or on EPA’s website at www.epa.gov/hudson.

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Western Air Will Stagnate Over 50 Years as Climate Warms

RICHLAND, Washington, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - By mid-century, air quality throughout the western United States will deteriorate, according to a new computer simulation by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the model is among the first to project effects of future climate change on U.S. regional air quality, and they will be most dramatic in the West, this time of year.

In the fall of 2050, the model shows, a temperature increase of up to four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees F.) will contribute to a doubling of stagnant, bad-air days from one week to two in the area from the Rockies west to the coastal mountains, said Ruby Leung, a fellow at the Department of Energy laboratory who led the study.

Bad air days are marked by "stagnation events," which occur when dry, windless air heats and fills with dust, ozone and other pollutants harmful to lungs and eyes. The model covers the period from 2045 to 2055, factoring in meteorological elements relevant to air quality - temperature, solar radiation and cloud cover, and two that control the rate at which polluted air is diluted or flushed from a locale, ventilation and stagnation.

A known period, 1995-2005, was used for comparison.

The stagnation forecast in the West is limited to the fall, with no additional drop in air quality forecast for the summer, a finding similar to most other regions of the country.

But summer is the poor-air-quality season in Texas, and Texas will continue to warm by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius and to stagnate, by nearly four additional days at mid-century.

Still, Leung reported, "it's not a large change compared to the average 15 days per season in the control simulation."

By constrast, for the Midwest the model predicts increased cloud cover. This will deflect the Sun's rays back into space, offsetting warming in the air near the Earth's surface for unchanged or even cooler temperatures than today. There will be less stagnation, up to eight fewer days a season, and more frequent rainfall, as many as six extra days each season.

"Depending on the relative impacts of these parameters," Leung said, "ozone concentrations may remain similar or slightly decrease based on the simulated atmospheric changes alone."

PNNL staff scientist William Gustafson collaborated on the study, whose results were derived from the PNNL team's regional climate model, driven by Harvard University global climate simulations using a NASA model.

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More Than 950 Puget Sound Species at Risk

SEATTLE, Washington, October 7, 2005 (ENS) - The Puget Sound Basin is inhabited by over 7,000 species, more than 31 individual states, including Hawaii, New York, and Alaska, according to new research published Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the San Juan Islands.

The study determined that 957, or 14 percent, of these species are imperiled, and 19 species that once lived in the Puget Sound are now extinct.

In the most exhaustive survey of the status of Puget Sound biodiversity to date, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the San Juan Islands say they combed regional and national taxa guides, state and provincial databases, published literature and other sources to determine the total number of species in the Puget Sound Basin.

Once a species list for the Puget Sound was established, the Center reviewed state, national and global lists of imperiled species and available literature to identify imperiled species present in the Puget Sound.

“The Puget Sound is home to an amazingly diverse array of wildlife from the charismatic Orca to the diminutive Island Marble butterfly,” says Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, this diversity is threatened by a multitude of factors, including pollution, logging and urban sprawl.”

The study determined that the key threat to wildlife in the Puget Sound is habitat loss from urban and agricultural sprawl, logging, and other factors.

Wildlife threatened by habitat loss include familiar species like the Northern spotted owl threatened by logging of its old-growth forest habitat, and the Taylor’s checkerspot gutterfly that is threatened by loss of Puget Prairies, of which there are less than three percent remaining.

Other serious threats to Puget Sound Basin wildlife include pollution, invasive species, global warming and direct exploitation.

“Restoring Puget Sound should be a top national environmental priority, much the same as the Everglades, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay,” says Stephanie Buffum Field, executive director of Friends of the San Juans. “Protecting habitats, the places where plants and animals live, is the key to saving the Puget Sound’s precious wildlife for future generations.”

The study identified key habitats for saving the Puget Sound’s biodiversity, including old-growth forests, Puget Prairies, shorelines and estuaries, alpine meadows, rivers and wetlands, and the marine environments of the Sound itself. Each of these habitats harbors unique species that are at risk of being lost forever without swift action.

To this end, the study recommends mapping, protecting and managing the last best places for species and their habitats in the Puget Sound.

“The Puget Sound is currently home to 17 federally listed threatened or endangered species and 13 candidates for listing,” says Greenwald. “If swift action isn’t taken to protect key Puget Sound habitats, many more of the 957 imperiled species identified in this study will require similar protection.”

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