AmeriScan: October 14, 2005

* * *

Avian Flu Virus Resists Drug Officials Hope to Use in Pandemic

MADISON, Wisconsin, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - An avian influenza virus isolated from an infected Vietnamese girl has been determined to be resistant to the drug oseltamivir, better known by its trade name Tamiflu, the drug officials hope will serve as the front line of defense for a feared bird flu pandemic.

Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working with colleagues in Vietnam and Japan, report in a brief communication in the October 20 issue of the journal "Nature" that a young girl, provided with a prophylactic dose of the drug after experiencing mild influenza symptoms, developed a strain of the virus that was highly resistant to the drug.

The finding suggests that health officials - now stockpiling millions of doses of the drug to forestall a global outbreak of influenza and buy time to develop and mass produce a vaccine - should also consider other options, according to Yoshihiro Kawaoka, an international authority on influenza and the senior author of the paper.

Recent reports indicate the federal government may spend billions of dollars to stockpile as much as 81 million courses of Tamiflu to forestall a possible influenza pandemic. The government has already stockpiled an estimated 12 to 13 million courses.

"This is the first line of defense," says Kawaoka, a professor in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine who holds a joint appointment at the University of Tokyo. "It is the drug many countries are stockpiling, and the plan is to rely heavily on it."

The drug would be used to slow the spread of influenza until a vaccine is developed, which may take up to six months.

Tamiflu is delivered orally and works to impede the spread of the virus by binding to and inhibiting one of the surface enzymes the virus uses to exit infected cells of a host.

Once inside a host cell, the virus commandeers the cell's reproductive machinery to make new infectious particles that go on to take over other cells.

When the drug is at work, Kawaoka explains, "the virus is still able to replicate inside a cell, but is unable to get out and infect other cells."

Oseltamivir, which Kawaoka describes as an "amazing drug," is one of three compounds proven to be effective against influenza.

One class, derivatives of the compound adamantine, would be less effective, as some flu viruses have already evolved resistance to it. The other drug, zanamivir, which was developed prior to oseltamivir, is effective, but is formulated as a powder and is more cumbersome to take.

These flu-fighting drugs, says Kawaoka, are by no means a replacement or alternative to a vaccine.

Effective vaccines can confer immunity, preventing the virus from gaining a toehold in the body. But a vaccine cannot be produced prior to the emergence of a new virus in human populations.

If avian influenza does emerge and becomes infectious from human to human - and nearly all experts agree that will happen at some point in the future - an outbreak similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic could occur. That pandemic killed as many as 50 million people, more than died on all the battlefields of World War I.

Scientists and vaccine manufacturers would be in a race against time to produce enough doses to forestall disaster. Drugs like Tamiflu, used in combination with quarantine, are intended to slow the spread of the disease until a vaccine is produced.

Kawaoka says there may not be enough Tamiflu to go around even though countries are stockpiling it. He says that will create a risk of patients sharing the drug and using smaller doses, which could accelerate the emergence of virus resistant to the drug and hamper efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

He says health officials should consider stockpiling zanamivir and recommending that only the therapeutic dosages of Tamiflu be administered to patients.

* * *

Minnesota Power Floats $60 Million Air Emissions Reduction Plan

DULUTH, Minnesota, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - Minnesota Power has announced a $60 million environmental initiative which, if approved by state regulators, is expected to reduce emissions from two of its electric generating facilities in northeastern Minnesota. Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions would be reduced, the company said today.

Minnesota Power, a division of Duluth-based Allete, Inc., provides electricity in a 26,000 square mile electric service territory located in northeastern Minnesota.

Minnesota Power's Arrowhead Regional Emission Abatement (AREA) plan is designed to "reduce emissions while maintaining a reliable and reasonably-priced energy supply," the company said in a statement today.

While federal and state governments work toward development of details for new emission standards, Minnesota Power chooses to take early voluntary action to reduce emissions in the 2006-2008 time frame from its two electric generating facilities nearest the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness - Taconite Harbor Energy Center in Schroeder, and Laskin Energy Center in Hoyt Lakes.

At Taconite Harbor, Minnesota Power will be employing multi-emission reduction technology, while Laskin will receive a retrofit focused on lowering nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions.

Upon projected completion of the retrofits, Minnesota Power estimates an emission reduction of over 60 percent for NOx at both facilities and a 65 percent reduction in SO2 at Taconite Harbor.

Laskin Energy Center already has relatively low emission levels of sulfur dioxide due to existing emission reduction technology. Additionally, with the emerging technology being applied at Taconite Harbor, there is the potential for as much as a 90 percent reduction in mercury.

Minnesota Power also continues to conduct technology testing at Laskin with a goal of identifying a technique that provides optimal mercury reduction for plants of its type.

"Minnesota Power has an excellent environmental record and we take stewardship of the land, water and air very seriously," said Don Shippar, Allete president and CEO. "Building on this historic commitment, we believe that control and abatement technology applicable to these plants has matured to the point where further significant air emission reductions can be attained through AREA in a relatively cost-effective manner."

Minnesota Power already utilizes emission reduction technology at all of its coal-based facilities and uses low-sulfur, low-mercury coal to operate at 70 percent below existing air emission permit requirements.

"These facilities are vital to our region's energy supply," said Eric Norberg, Minnesota Power Vice President-Strategic Initiatives. "It is our hope that the AREA plan will enhance the already-high air quality of our region, while balancing that improvement with the need for reliability and reasonable energy prices."

The cost for implementing Minnesota Power's AREA plan would be recovered through an adjustment to customer rates, upon approval by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, with the review and involvement of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Attorney General, Minnesota Power customers and other stakeholders.

Minnesota Power is also developing compliance plans for its other generating facilities as needed to meet expected future federal air standards.

* * *

Governor Codey Opposes Oil Drilling Off Jersey Shore

TRENTON, New Jersey, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - Acting Governor Richard Codey has told the federal government he will not allow oil drilling off the Jersey shore. Codey sent a letter last week to the director of the United States Minerals Management Service expressing New Jersey’s "staunch opposition" to oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic Ocean’s Outer Continental Shelf.

Codey’s letter to MMS Director Johnnie Burton was drafted in response to a request for comment on the development of the federal Minerals Management Service’s Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas leasing plan.

“Oil and gas development along New Jersey’s coast has the potential to cause significant and lasting damage upon the state’s coastal environment and economy,” wrote Codey. “The commercial and recreational fishing industries, in addition to tourism and related sectors, are critical elements of New Jersey’s economic health."

The state’s tourism industry generates $32 billion in revenues, in addition to providing more than half a million jobs. New Jersey’s continued overall economic growth is contingent upon a healthy shoreline, and Codey said shore tourism alone generates $20 billion in revenues and nearly 200,000 jobs.

"Further," the acting governor wrote, "New Jersey's coastline is a national treasure of great ecological value and its integrity is essential to the environmental health of this state. Activities associated with oil and gas exploration have the potential to inflict great damage to water quality, marine habitats, and other important natural resources."

A federal moratorium on oil and gas exploration applies to the Mid-Atlantic and North Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf areas, both of which are adjacent to New Jersey. These areas are not candidates for lease sales until the next decade. In the letter, Codey requests that they be excluded from a draft proposed leasing program by the federal government.

Under the Coastal Zone Management Act, New Jersey has an approved Coastal Management Program, administered by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. The rules associated with this program address many offshore activities, including oil and gas exploration and development.

* * *

California Spotted Owl Comment Period Reopened for Two Weeks

SACRAMENTO, California, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today reopened public comment on a detailed review of the health of the California spotted owl, a subspecies of spotted owls that ranges from the northern Sierra Nevada and the Central Coast ranges south through the mountains of southern California.

The Service is conducting a 12 month review that will be completed by March 14, 2006, and will then decide whether or not to propose listing the species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Beginning with today's notice in the Federal Register, the Service will accept public comments until October 28, 2005.

This is the Service's second review of the California spotted owl in three years, both triggered by petitions and/or lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign and other conservation organizations.

This sequence began in February 2003, when the Service found that listing of the California spotted owl was not warranted because the overall magnitude of threats did not rise to the level requiring protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In May 2004, the petitioners filed a lawsuit challenging that finding. Then in September 2004, they submitted a new petition to list the California spotted owl. In March, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California stayed the litigation to allow the Service to respond to the new petition, and directed the Service to report on the status of that response by June 13, 2005.

The petition contends that several changes have taken place in the last two years which may affect the status and distribution of the California spotted owl.

They include further range expansion of the barred owl, which hybridizes with the California spotted owl and takes over its territory; recent fires in spotted owl habitat; revisions to the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment; new state forestry regulations; and potentially relevant analyses of population dynamics.

Taken together, the Service concluded in its 90 day review issued June 21, 2005 that this may be substantial information and therefore justifies the more detailed analysis that occurs in a status review and 12-month finding.

The Service opened a 60-day comment period that concluded on August 22, 2005. Because of the large volume of information relating to forest management activities within the range of the California spotted owl, and the number of scientists involved in monitoring the status of the California spotted owl and its habitat, the Service needs additional time to receive information and comments relating to the status of the owl from federal, state, and private scientists.

All comments and information submitted from June 21 through October 28 will be considered by the Service in developing its 12-month finding.

The Federal Register notice, which includes information on how to submit comments, is at the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office's website at: http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/.

* * *

Groups Seek Listing of Polar Bears as Threatened by Global Warming

NEW YORK, New York, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - Three conservation groups said Wednesday they are taking legal action to have polar bears listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace say that survival of the world’s remaining polar bears is increasingly jeopardized by rapid disappearance of the Arctic sea ice on which they depend for hunting, mating and migration.

If threatened status under the act is granted, polar bears would be the first mammal to be officially declared at risk due to global warming. Global warming is caused by emissions from cars and trucks, power plants, and other sources that accumulates in the atmosphere and traps the Sun's heat close to the planet. The United States is the largest world contributor of those emissions.

“The polar bears’ habitat is melting right out from under them as Arctic temperatures rise,” said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Their entire lifecycle, from finding food to finding mates, depends on these seas being frozen. If things continue as they are, these majestic animals will be driven out of existence.”

Polar bears, the largest of all bears, live only in the Arctic and are totally reliant on the sea ice. They feed mainly on ringed seals, which live in the same habitat. But a growing body of evidence is proving that the ice is vanishing much faster than previously documented.

In late September, NASA and the University of Colorado released a report revealing that the Arctic ice cap has shrunk twenty percent since 1979, losing an area the size of Colorado in just the past year.

“We need to take action now to protect these animals and preserve their Arctic habitat. We cannot afford to ignore the threat any longer,” said Andrew Wetzler of NRDC.

Last year, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report, involving 300 scientists from the U.S. and seven other nations, also found that Arctic sea ice is melting quickly and identified global warming as the cause. Even under conservative estimates, the scientists said Arctic winter temperatures could rise as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit, eliminating year-round ice completely by the end of the century.

In Canada’s Western Hudson Bay, where the sea ice season has shortened by three weeks in recent decades, polar bears are already in decline. Fewer cubs are surviving, and the total bear population declined almost 14 percent from 1995 to 2004.

The groups first petitioned to have the polar bear listed as threatened last February. The Endangered Species Act requires that the Secretary of the Interior respond within 90 days of receiving such notice, but the Secretary has yet to comply. Today’s announcement is a legally-required notice of intent to sue the agency for action. Formal filing will occur after the agency has had 60 days from today’s notice to comply with the law.

Listing under the United States Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that United States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the United States government will not “jeopardize the continued existence” of polar bears, or adversely modify their critical habitat.

Earlier this year the International Union for the Conservation of Nature/World Conservation Union’s Polar Bear Specialist Group - a polar bear scientific body, recommended the bears be classified as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of imperiled wildlife at high risk of extinction in the wild. The primary reason, they said, is global warming.

“If we want to save the majestic polar bear, we must cut global warming pollution,” said Kert Davies of Greenpeace. “We have the know how to fix the problem, but we need leadership from the U.S. government to make it happen. Our addiction to dirty energy sources will exact its price.”

* * *

Gas Pipeline Granted Right of Way on Colorado Wildlife Area

LAKEWOOD, Colorado, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Federal Assistance has adopted a Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the proposed Wyoming Interstate Company Gas Pipeline Project.

The Wyoming Interstate Company Gas Pipeline Project consists of constructing and operating a natural gas pipeline that will extend 141.8 miles from Rio Blanco County, Colorado to Wamsutter, Wyoming.

A 3.4 mile segment of the pipeline will be constructed on the Piceance State Wildlife Area which is owned and managed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Colorado Division of Wildlife acquired the Piceance State Wildlife Area with funds from a Federal Assistance in Wildlife Restoration grant administered by the Service. Federal Assistance regulations require that any sale of property rights acquired with Federal Assistance funds, including granting temporary or permanent easements, must be reviewed and approved by the Service.

Two right-of-way easements would be granted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife to the Wyoming Interstate Company over approximately 3.4 miles of the Piceance State Wildlife Area.

The short term easement will allow for the construction of the pipeline; the long-term easement will allow the company to operate and maintain the pipeline for a maximum of 50 years.

The EIS is available for review at the FWS Regional Office, 134 Union Boulevard, Lakewood, Colorado 80225.

* * *

Predicting the Next San Francisco Earthquake

DAVIS, California, October 14, 2005 (ENS) - The San Francisco Bay region has a 25 percent chance of a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake in the next 20 years, and a roughly one percent chance of such an earthquake each year, according to the Virtual California computer simulation.

The Virtual California approach to earthquake forecasting is similar to the computer models used for weather forecasting, said John Rundle, director of the UC Davis Computational Science and Engineering Center, who has developed the model with colleagues from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other institutions.

A previous forecast of earthquake hazards, the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities, used records of past earthquakes to calculate the probability of future ones.

The Virtual California model includes 650 segments representing the major fault systems in California, including the San Andreas fault responsible for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The simulation takes into account the gradual movement of faults and how they interact with each other.

The researchers used the model to simulate 40,000 years of earthquakes in California. They found almost 400 major earthquakes, of magnitude 7 or above, at an average interval of 101 years.

The simulation data indicates a 25 percent chance of another such earthquake in the next 20 years, a 50 percent chance in the next 45 years and a 75 percent chance by 2086.

The latest work is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

* * *