AmeriScan: October 19, 2005

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Government Scientists Must Raise Funds for Their Salaries, Research

WASHINGTON, DC, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of the Interior has told its ecological scientists that they have to raise 20 percent of their own salaries and research funds from outside sources, according to memos released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national organization representing government workers in natural resources agencies.

This new “business practices” policy jeopardizes long-term research, skews scientific priorities and causes researchers to spend time scrambling for funds, say affected scientists in a PEER survey released today.

Over the past several months, Interior’s top ecological scientists are being told to collect larger and larger percentages of assigned agency overhead from research partners. Researchers working in at least three of the agency’s main science centers are responsible for obtaining at least one-fifth of their salaries from industry, academia or other government “customers.”

The scientists given fundraising targets are within the Biological Resources Discipline (BRD) of the U.S. Geological Survey. BRD consists of biologists, ecologists, hydrologists and other specialists who study how ecosystems function and what is required for environmental health.

To gauge how the emerging “business practices” approach was affecting research activity, PEER sent a survey to all 858 BRD scientists. More than a fifth of the scientists responded and delivered an overwhelmingly negative review of the fundraising policy and the status of science within Interior:

More than three out of four respondents found Interior’s “business practices” failing to produce any positive results. Only one in 20 found any positive impact. Two in three did not believe “research funding matches research priorities.” Three out of four contended that long-term research receives inadequate support; and more than six out of seven said that BRD lacked the resources “to adequately perform its mission” of providing basic “scientific understanding and technologies needed to support the sound management and conservation of our nation’s biological resources..."

As one scientist wrote, “Directing scientists to generate salary not only creates a work environment that can compromise the objectivity of science but also switches a scientist’s creativity from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of economic reward.”

One of the agencies under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, the National Park Service, wants to start pursuing donations from both corporations and park visitors, under a proposed rule change that could take effect this fall.

The plan would transform the Park Service’s current passive posture of merely accepting donations to actively asking vendors and other interests for money, according to an analysis of the proposed rule change released by PEER earlier this week.

The plan allows park employees to “engage in solicitations of outside sources.” While “direct personal solicitation of park visitors” would not be allowed “unless specifically authorized,” park officials could distribute “donor envelopes” in “informational materials” to visitors.

“We already pay twice for national parks, once with our taxes and again with the steadily rising visitor fees charged at the entrance gate, but now our national parks are angling for a third shot at the public’s wallet,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

He noted that the proposal expressly forbids employees from portraying “Congress, the Department or their bureau as having failed to meet their responsibilities” when asking for contributions.

Corporate plaques, logos and ads announcing National Park Service affiliation will be allowed. “What other federal agency begs for spare change?” Ruch asks.

The proposed rule change, which is open to public comment until December 1, would also repeal the prohibition on seeking or accepting gifts from park concessionaires, permit-holders and other private entities with which the park does business or regulates.

In its place, the Park Service proposes non-specific criteria, such as the donation “would not likely result in public controversy.”

To view the documents behind both of these changes in the Interior Department funding practices, visit PEER at: www.peer.org

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Forest Service Sidesteps Public Input on Industrial Forest Projects

WASHINGTON, DC, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Forest Service has asked a federal judge to stay a ruling he handed down in July that the agency says is responsible for sidelining hundreds of small projects on national forests across the country, including the cutting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree in New Mexico.

But the conservation groups that first brought the legal action say they never intended their case to apply to small activities such as mushroom harvesting, fishing trips and harvesting of the Capitol Christmas tree.

At issue is a ruling that ordered the Forest Service to solicit public input on commercial timber sales, oil and gas drilling and other controversial and environmentally damaging projects.

On July 2 U.S. District Judge James Singleton Jr. found that the Forest Service was improperly approving projects without public comment or appeals. The judge concluded that this violated the Appeals Reform Act.

Judge Singleton ruled that the Forest Service was illegally allowing activities under its “categorical exclusion” rule, which provides that routine, administrative functions can go forward without going through the public comment and appeals process.

At the heart of this controversy are new regulations put in place by the Bush administration in 2003 that removed the rights of public comment and appeal on several types of “non-controversial” projects, or “categorical exclusions,” including timber sales up to 250 acres in size.

The regulations in place prior to the Bush rules noted a difference between activities such as harvesting mushrooms and a 250 acre timber sale.

Judge Singleton made clear that his ruling did not apply to every small activity, stating, “While the Forest Service is clearly not required to make every minor project subject to the appeals process, it is required to delineate between major and minor projects in a way that gives permissible effect to the language of the Appeals Reform Act.”

Still, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth issued a directive September 23 halting all minor projects on the national forests.

“The court told the Forest Service to reinstate public comment on activities like timber sales and oil and gas exploration, but the agency chose instead to play politics by applying the order to activities that are not controversial,” said Matt Kenna of the Western Environmental Law Center, representing the conservation groups in the case.

Kenna said he has told the Forest Service that minor activities are not affected by the judge's ruling.

“The Bush administration is trying to manufacture a backlash by creating a false sense of controversy and finding scapegoats,” said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director. “It is the Bush administration, not conservation groups, that is slowing down simple projects in the wake of this court order.”

The environmental groups that are parties in the lawsuit have urged the judge for clarification on an expedited basis.

They say the intent of the lawsuit was to ensure that the public would have a say on major projects like timber sales, not on cutting the Capitol Christmas tree.

“It is a shame that this administration refuses to recognize that public participation in major decisions about projects like timber sales should not be feared and fought, but should be a welcome and helpful part of making informed and thorough decisions,” said Bill Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society.

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Nevada to Get World’s Third Largest Solar Electric Power Plant

BOULDER CITY, Nevada, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - Nevada Solar One, the largest solar electric power plant to be built globally in the past 14 years and the third largest solar power plant in the world, is on track to be built at Boulder City, Nevada.

The 65 megawatt concentrating solar thermal installation will use parabolic trough technology by Solargenix, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina, formerly known as Duke Solar.

In parabolic trough systems, curved, trough-like collectors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a receiver, a pipe running along the inside of the curved surface of the trough. The concentrated solar energy heats a heat transfer fluid (usually oil) flowing through the pipe; this heated fluid is then used to run a conventional steam generator for electricity production.

The Department of Energy (DOE) says the technology represents one of the major renewable energy success stories of the past two decades and has a near-term potential to compete directly with conventional fossil fuel powered technologies.

This project will make Nevada one of the largest generators of solar energy in the United States.

Last month, Solargenix announced the approval of amendments to their Power Purchase Agreements with Nevada Power Company and Sierra Pacific Power Company by the Public Utility Commission of Nevada (PUCN) that will allow the project to move forward.

The Nevada Commission on Economic Development has approved some $15 million in sales and property tax cuts for Solargenix, the first solar project in the state to get a tax rebate. The commission has approved tax breaks for a geothermal plant.

The Solargenix plant could help Nevada Power meet state requirements that it get nine percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2007. The so-called Renewable Energy Portfolio requires that the state get eleven percent from renewable sources in 2009, 13 percent in 2011, and then finally reaching 15 percent in 2013.

“We are most appreciative of all of the efforts by the many participants that helped make Nevada’s Renewal Energy Portfolio standard possible, including the PUCN, Governor [Kenny] Guinn, the Nevada State Legislature, the Nevada Bureau of Consumer Protection, Nevada Power Company, Sierra Pacific Power Company, the Nevada Development Authority and all of the citizens of Boulder City,” said Solargenix CEO John Myles.

Myles also explained that “many people are not familiar with concentrating solar thermal technology or its proven track record and capability to play a significant role in addressing many of the most important energy issues that confront America and the rest of the world.”

The DOE has issued a report that identifies suitable land and solar resources in Nevada that could produce over 600,000 megawatts of power generation using concentrating solar technologies.

Currently, Nevada’s electricity consumption is less than three percent of this resource capacity. The same report claims that the economic benefits far exceed the cost to develop this clean renewable energy source.

The Boulder City plant located in the El Dorado Valley is scheduled to begin production of electricity in early 2007. Myles added that, “critical major equipment and components have been ordered, land agreements are completed with Boulder City and interim financing is in place.”

Solargenix has collaborated with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the National Renewable Energy Lab on a series of solar research, design and development projects that have resulted in measurable success.

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Pennsylvania Offers $3.5 Million for Clean Energy Projects

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - The Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority is seeking applications to help finance clean energy projects in the commonwealth. A total of $3.5 million is currently available.

Applicants can seek assistance in the form of grants, loans or loan guarantees for a variety of electric power projects including wind, solar, biomass, waste coal, coal gasification and others. Applied research projects related to electric power also are eligible for funding.

Proposed projects will be evaluated for their ability to promote Pennsylvania’s indigenous energy resources, encourage energy diversity and enhance energy security.

Projects will be judged on their potential to create jobs and stimulate investment in the commonwealth. Potential environmental benefits, as well as technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness, also will be considered.

“Pennsylvanians now spend some $30 billion per year on imported energy fuels and we want to develop homegrown resources that can help to support our energy needs,” Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty said.

“Now is the time to invest in projects that stabilize energy prices, promote job development, improve the environment and enhance homeland security. As traditional energy costs rise, alternative energy projects not only become more competitive, they also make more sense.”

Governor Edward Rendell has revitalized the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority (PEDA) as part of his strategy to build a clean, indigenous, diversified energy industry in the state.

The Governor’s Growing Greener II initiative provides up to $10 million annually for PEDA, which in June awarded its first round of funding that included $6.5 million for 16 clean energy projects.

Those projects will create as many as 450 permanent and construction jobs, including 327 full-time positions as the result of successful research and development efforts.

The governor has supported the nation’s first waste-coal-to-diesel plant and is creating a fuel consortium that will purchase nearly all of the 40 million gallons of diesel fuel to be produced at the Schuylkill County facility, being built by Waste Management and Processors Inc.

Pennsylvania has approved an alternative energy portfolio standard, ensuring that in 15 years, 18 percent of all energy generated comes from clean, efficient sources.

Pennsylvania is one of two states with a portfolio standard that includes energy efficiency.

The deadline to apply for project funding is November 15. PEDA’s guidelines are available on the authority’s website at www.dep.state.pa.us, Keyword: “PEDA.”

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Sea-Tac Airport Held to Stricter Storm Water Discharge Standards

BELLEVUE, Washington, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) will provide its highest-ever level of environmental protection to nearby streams and Puget Sound, under a revised storm water permit issued by the state Department of Ecology.

Ecology's revision carries out a directive from the state Pollution Control Hearings Board to reconsider two key parts of the permit, originally issued in 2003. The Port of Seattle, which owns the airport, and two citizens groups appealed the original version.

Sea-Tac, Citizens Against Airport Expansion (CASE) and the Regional Commission on Airport Affairs (RCAA) signed an accord in August to agree on key changes proposed by Ecology.

"We listened carefully and worked hard with both sides," said Kevin Fitzpatrick, a manager in Ecology's water-quality program. "Each had appealed for different reasons, and in the end, they agreed to cooperate to protect water quality and to accept the revised permit. We applaud this leap forward."

The permit covers all storm water runoff on the entire Sea-Tac airport property, including the Third Runway construction project, general storm water runoff from roads and roofs, and treatment of de-icing compounds that drain off 297 acres of taxiways and aprons.

The key revisions affect general storm water and the de-icing compound treatment system. The airport now will treat all general storm water discharges to meet state water-quality standards.

The revised permit sets tighter standards for the airport's plant that treats water contaminated by de-icing compounds and empties into Puget Sound.

The airport is building a pipeline to King County's wastewater treatment plant in Renton to handle busy de-icing periods that generate higher contamination.

The revised permit sets a lower trigger for the airport to divert flow from its plant to Renton, reducing de-icing related discharges to Puget Sound by 98 percent per year from current levels.

Parts of the airport property drain into the Lake Reba stormwater facility, which also serves nearby freeways and city streets. The port must use control measures known as "best management practices" on run-off that drains into Lake Reba, which empties into Miller Creek.

Under the permit's other key change, Lake Reba is designated as a natural water body. The permit originally viewed the lake, which is partially backed up by a dike, as a detention pond.

"This permit places Sea-Tac Airport at the cutting edge of controlling stormwater pollution," said Fitzpatrick. "It sets important standards and represents a significant investment and a serious commitment to clean water."

The permit - which Ecology upgrades and renews every five years - is available online at: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/permits/northwest_permits.html. Scroll down to Port of Seattle, Seattle - Tacoma Airport NPDES Permit Modification

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Gray Wolf Could Come Off Endangered Species List

CHEYENNE, Wyoming, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - Prompted by a state petition filed three months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is beginning to reassess the inclusion of the gray wolf on the endangered species list.

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal signed a petition in July, requesting that the service designate the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves as a distinct population segment and at the same time remove the gray wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species in that area.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision based on 90 days of consideration, finding that the state’s petition presents substantial scientific information indicating that the delisting of the gray wolf may be warranted.

The service now must review the recovery status of the gray wolf to determine whether delisting is warranted. The final decision on the state’s petition to delist the gray wolf must be made no later than mid-July 2006.

“We can safely say that gray wolves in Wyoming are one step closer to being delisted,” Freudenthal said. “While that is tremendously good news, I’m only sorry that it has taken so long to get to this point and will take so much longer to reach a final decision. I know I speak for many of the state’s residents when I say we will eagerly await next year’s final decision.

Tuesday's finding was made in response to two petitions - a 2001 petition from the Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd , Inc., and a July 19, 2005 petition from the Office of the Governor of the State of Wyoming and the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.

The Service was careful to say that its finding was not affected by recent litigation involving challenges to its 2003 reclassification of gray wolf populations from endangered to threatened throughout much of the species' current range in the United States, including the northern Rocky Mountains.

The Service is still evaluating its legal options after recent lower court decisions invalidated that reclassification. No decision has been made on whether to appeal those rulings.

In its most recent survey, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted 912 wolves in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. "Assuming wolf populations continue to grow at the same rate, that would mean between 990 and 1,000 wolves in the tri-state region by next summer," said Governor Freudenthal, a Democrat.

Among the issues being reconsidered by the Fish and Wildlife Service is whether Wyoming’s existing regulatory mechanisms can protect the gray wolf population within its borders if the wolf is delisted. In 2003, the Service came to the conclusion that the state of Wyoming's existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to protect the gray wolf population within its borders in the event that the wolf is delisted.

Wyoming Game and Fish Director Terry Cleveland defended his regulations. “Wyoming’s wolf management plan has been created to ensure adequate population levels that will keep the wolf off the endangered species list,” he said.

“Our plan has undergone exhaustive internal review, professional scrutiny and public input, and we’re confident that it strikes the proper balance needed to protect wolves in northwestern Wyoming while also keeping conflicts between wolves and people and between wolves and livestock to a minimum,” said Cleveland.

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Federal Funds to Support Sage Grouse Conservation on Private Land

LOGAN, Utah, October 19, 2005 (ENS) - After deciding not to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered, the Bush administration has decided to use federal funds to study the species and its habitat.

A cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Utah State University was announced today that provides federal funds to establish the Sage-grouse Restoration Project (SGRP). No specific amount of funding was given initially.

The project will support research in the western United States to evaluate the effects of conservation provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill on sage-grouse and other wildlife that depend on sagebrush-steppe ecosystems.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled negatively in January on three petitions to list the greater sage grouse as endangered or threatened across its range. The petitions came from the American Lands Alliance and 20 additional conservation organizations, from the Institute for Wildlife Protection, and from an individual, Craig Dremann.

While acknowledging that the greater sage grouse is at risk from "invasive species, infrastructure, wildfire, oil and gas development and conifer invasion," the Wyoming Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which wrote the decision to reject the petitions, called these threats "prospective in nature."

"Neither the Service nor the expert panelists could predict how these threats will develop over time or interact with each other or with different less important threats to accelerate habitat loss or other impacts to the grouse. This uncertainty was explicitly noted by several of the Service biologists and managers as part of the reason for a not-warranted recommendation," the Service wrote.

The new study project will benefit private landowners, according to the project's principal investigator.

Terry Messmer, a professor and Utah State University (USU) Extension specialist in the Department of Forest, Range, and Wildlife Science, and the project's principal investigator, said the results generated by the study project "will be used to assist NRCS, soil conservation districts, state wildlife agencies, and private landowners in planning and implementing wildlife habitat projects on private lands."

"A major goal of the SGRP," said Messmer, "is to create greater awareness of private land conservation planning needs among researchers. To help attract the best researchers in this field, we will develop an "SGRP library" that will provide visual information and data regarding the role of NRCS conservation programs that improve productivity and conservation of natural resources."

Greater sage-grouse are found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming. They are also found in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Greater sage-grouse are currently estimated to number from approximately 100,000 to 500,000 individuals. Sage-grouse populations are estimated to have declined an average of 3.5 percent per year from 1965 to 1985.

Since 1986, populations in several states have increased or generally stabilized and the rate of decline from 1985 to 2003 slowed to 0.37 percent annually for the species across its entire range.

Partners in the SGRP include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, USU Extension, USU College of Natural Resources, the Western Governors' Association, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Technical Committee, the North American Grouse Partnership, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and the Jack H. Berryman Institute.

The program is found online at: http://www.sgrp.usu.edu

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