AmeriScan: October 28, 2005

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Florida's Recovery From Wilma Slow but Steady

MIAMI, Florida, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - Florida ports and most airports are fully operational once again after the ravages of Hurricane Wilma last weekend, officials report, although the Key West and Marco Island airports are still closed.

Electric power is still down across much of the hurricane affected area, but crews from across the United States and Canada are working 24/7 to restore service to customers.

A workforce of some 9,400 people from Florida Power and Light (FPL) and from electricity companies and contractors from 33 states and Canada are working on the restoration effort, with an additional 2,200 workers to arrive throughout the weekend.

There are still 1,767,872 customers without power in Florida as of this afternoon, the Department of Energy says. This represents about 19 percent of customers in the state.

FPL reports that it has restored electricity to more than 1.4 million customers, or nearly 47 percent, of the approximately 3.2 million customers without power in the wake of Hurricane Wilma.

The utility expects to have restored service to a majority of their customers by November 8 and to 95 percent of customers by November 15.

Only eight of the 241 FPL substations that sustained damaged from Hurricane Wilma remain out and almost all critical facilities have been re-energized as of early this morning. Efforts are being made to restore electricity to critical infrastructure such as gas stations and grocery stores.

ExxonMobil reports that it has 112 branded gasoline stations open and with fuel in the Tampa and South Florida areas. Due to high demand in these areas, some stores may be out of fuel for short periods.

Shell and Motiva report that approximately 100 Shell-branded gasoline stations in South Florida are open for business and this number continues to increase. Electric power is being restored to sites and backup generators are also being utilized to expedite restoration efforts. Police have been escorting tanker trucks to ensure deliveries are made in a safe and orderly manner.

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Bush Administration EIS Approves Mountaintop Mining

WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - Today federal and state agencies released the final version of a programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on mountaintop removal coal mining. The final report endorses the coal mining method that cuts off the tops of mountains to get at coal seams, then dumps the mountaintops into valley streams below.

The practice has already obliterated thousands of square miles of mountains and streams and rivers in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the EIS "can lead to enhanced protection" for Appalachian streams and other environmental resources in about 12 million acres that includes most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia and scattered areas of east Tennessee.

Unlike a project EIS, a programmatic EIS is not a blueprint for actions on a site-specific basis. This programmatic EIS clarifies lines of responsibility among the agencies responsible for administering the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).

The agencies included in today’s action are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Office of Surface Mining and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

The agencies say the preferred alternative in the programmatic EIS contains actions that "could enhance protection for human health and the environment" by assessing aquatic ecosystem restoration and mitigation methods for mined lands and under taking demonstration projects and evaluating the effects of mountaintop mining on stream chemistry and biology.

s The EIS says the federal agencies should work with states to "refine the science-based protocols for assessing the ecological functions and making permit decisions and establishing mitigation requirements."

Interested stakeholders would be encouraged "to develop a best management practices manual for restoration or replacement of aquatic resources."

Consistent definitions of stream characteristics and field methods for delineating those characteristics are needed, the agencies say, as are mitigation and compensation monitoring plans incorporated into permit inspection schedules. The agencies should establish financial responsibility on the part of the mining companies to ensure that reclamation and compensatory mitigation projects are completed successfully, the agencies said.

Earthjustice Senior Legislative Counsel Joan Mulhern, said, “This EIS utterly fails to respond to the tens of thousands of public comments submitted by citizens of Appalachia and around the country who asked the Bush administration to rein in the worse abuses of mountaintop removal coal mining."

"The EIS’s studies demonstrate that the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining has caused widespread and irreversible damage in Appalachia and that, unless new limits are imposed, by the end of this decade the region destroyed will be over 2,200 square miles in size – an area larger than the state of Delaware."

"Yet the administration’s preferred alternative is, essentially, to do nothing about this other than making it even easier for the coal companies to continue this abominable practice," she said.

“This EIS is the bureaucratic equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Bush administration is well aware of the harm being done to the people and the region of Appalachia, but nothing they propose will do anything except make the ship sink faster.”

“The residents of Appalachia deserve better. Their historic and cultural ties to their land are rapidly withering away with each explosion and as each valley is filled."

While this destruction continues, the Army Corps just keeps churning out permits for more mines, says Mulhern. "They recently permitted – illegally – a huge new mine next to Blair Mountain, the site of a historic battle in the 1920s between coal executives and miners who were seeking unionized wages and safer working conditions. This mine alone would destroy over three miles of streams and desecrate this historic site," she said.

Earthjustice, the Appalachian Center for the Environment and the Economy and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, in representing the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Coal River Mountain Watch, have challenged this permit in federal on the grounds that valley fills from this mine violate the Clean Water Act and that the Corps’ permitting action also violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

The final programmatic EIS is online at: http://www.epa.gov/region3/mtntop/index.htm

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Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository to Be Redesigned

WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) has instructed its managing contractor to devise a plan to operate the Yucca Mountain repository as a primarily “clean” or non-contaminated facility.

Yucca Mountain is the Department of Energy’s potential geologic repository designed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. If approved, the site would be the nation’s first geological repository for disposal of this type of radioactive waste.

The site is located on federally owned land on the western edge of the Nevada Test Site in southern Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Operating the site “clean” will improve the safety, operation, and long-term performance of Yucca Mountain, the OCRWM said, announcing the design change on Tuesday.

The direction for the change in design, outlined in a letter to contractor Bechtel SAIC, means that most spent nuclear fuel would be sent to the repository in a standardized canister that would not require repetitive handling of fuel prior to disposal.

Before today, plans called for shipping spent fuel assemblies in various types of canisters to the repository where workers would handle 70,000 tons of spent fuel up to four separate times per fuel assembly.

"Our new path forward will provide clear direction to improve safety and reliability as well as reduce programmatic risk,” OCRWM’s Acting Director Paul Golan said. “While this change requires coordination with utilities and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), we are confident that the simpler we make the design, the more reliable the project will be.”

The new design is intended to simplify fuel handling and the construction of the repository, while easing complexities of Yucca Mountain’s post-construction operations. The new path envisions spent fuel being delivered to Yucca Mountain primarily in standard canisters which are then placed in a waste package for emplacement, without handling individual fuel canisters.

Switching to a clean facility frees the project from having to construct several multi-million square-foot, multi-billion dollar facilities for handling spent fuel. It also reduces the potential hazards caused by the oxidation of bare spent nuclear fuel during handling.

Under the previous plan, the design was to construct large handling facilities that would prepare fuel for emplacement into the repository once it is received from utilities or other sources.

These facilities would have been inerted, meaning the composition of the air in the facilities would be altered to reduce potential oxidation. The old design was unique to the proposed repository, as no similar facilities had ever been built or licensed in the United States.

“The old plan is complex and adds a dimension of uncertainty to obtaining an NRC license. Nothing like this has even been licensed,” Golan said. “The program needs to make a solid, fully defensible technical case to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and this change takes a degree of complexity out of the licensing process. The bottom line is that this new path gives us simplification in design, licensing, and construction, while increasing worker and public safety.”

The letter, signed by OCRWM’s deputy director W. John Arthur, specifies development of a "conceptual design," or CD-1, package that addresses simpler surface facility and canister operations. The final package will be submitted to the Secretary of Energy’s Acquisition Advisory Board for review. If the board approves the package, it will become the project’s baseline design.

U.S. Senators from Nevada Harry Reid, a Democrat, and John Ensign, a Republican, released a joint statement, saying, “After 20 years of work, DOE’s big announcement is that they will now start working towards a clean, uncontaminated site. We have said all along the project is not safe and the science is bad, but never thought DOE would actually admit it."

“Something like what DOE proposed today would mean a major reassessment of the proposed project," the Nevada senators said.

"We certainly appreciate the likely decades long delay this announcement means. But this proposal is just words and a made up scenario with no substance or fact," they said. "DOE being sent back to the drawing board on this misguided and fraud-riddled project is the result of the united front our entire delegation has put forward.”

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Texas Governor Orders State Agencies to Conserve Energy

AUSTIN, Texas, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - With utility bills on the rise, Texas Governor Rick Perry has issued an Executive Order that requires state agencies to implement energy conservation measures and expedites the permitting process for electric generation facilities.

The order includes a public information campaign aimed at ensuring consumers are aware of choices when choosing their electricity provider.

"This executive order will help empower Texas ratepayers to find the best price available to power their homes and businesses," Perry said. "With energy demands continuing to rise in the state and the sharp increase in the costs of natural gas in recent years, it is imperative that consumers not only have choices in the marketplace, but that the state undertake conservation measures. And ultimately, in order to keep prices low, we must diversify energy sources for the generation of power."

Perry says he recognizes that "overreliance on natural gas has driven up the cost of electric power." Texas is developing wind energy sources and clean coal technologies, which should reduce the state's dependence on natural gas to produce electricity, he said.

The Executive Order directs state agencies to submit, by December 1, energy conservation plans to the Governor's Office and the Legislative Budget Board. State agencies must also submit quarterly reports, beginning April 1, 2006, on whether energy conservation goals have been met and outlining new conservation ideas.

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) to begin a consumer education campaign advising electric customers of the retail electric provider choices and assuring consumers that service will remain reliable if a customer switches to a competitive electric provider.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is ordered "to expedite the processing of environmental permit applications to use Texas' natural resources to generate electrical power while also protecting the public health and environment."

The State Office of Administrative Hearings is ordered to "expedite hearings of contested applications for permits for electric generating facilities," which should cut the usual one year delay to six months, the governor said.

"There is no reason it should take more than six months for a state agency to resolve a permitting dispute concerning an electric generation facility," Perry said. "This executive order reduces red tape, increases conservation, and empowers consumers as they choose their electric provider."

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Illinois Struggles to Contain Rampant Spread of Kudzu

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - A fast growing invasive plant called kudzu has been spotted in more than 30 Illinois counties, and the University of Illinois is partnering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to keep it under control.

“Many people are not aware that kudzu has been found in Illinois,” said George Czapar, an extension educator at the Springfield Extension Center of the University of Illinois. Czapar is monitoring kudzu in Illinois and is part of an effort to slow the spread of the creeping vine.

“We try to make people aware of what it looks like, and help document infestations of kudzu” he said. “We hope to make people more vigilant to keep kudzu from spreading.”

Kudzu, Pueraria montana var. lobata, can grow a foot a day, and a single crown may send 30 vines in different directions, Czapar said. Vines can extend 98 feet, and mature vines can be four inches thick, according to the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council.

Kudzu was introduced from China and Japan, coming to the United States during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia as part of a Japanese garden exhibit.

In the 1930s, kudzu was praised for its ability to stabilize eroding land and as a food source for cows, Czapar said. The U.S. government promoted what it called the “wonderplant,” leading to 2.47 million acres of kudzu-covered U.S. land by 1946, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now the invasive vine, a relative of soybeans, covers an estimated seven million acres across southeastern states. In Illinois, kudzu is located mainly along roads.

“It blocks the sunlight and smothers native plants,” Czapar said. No natural enemies or predators of kudzu are common in Illinois, which is typical of an introduced, invasive species, he said.

Southeast Illinois has 90 percent of the Illinois kudzu and the greatest kudzu problem compared with the rest of the state, said Jody Shimp, regional administrator at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The northernmost reported patch of kudzu in Illinois is in Evanston, where there is about an acre of kudzu near the Chicago Transit Authority railroad, Shimp said.

Since kudzu is a host for soybean rust, interest in the weed has increased lately, Czapar said. Soybean rust can cause significant soybean yield loss. First discovered in the United States in November 2004, the rust is now in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina, the USDA says.

The DNR uses both herbicides and mowing to destroy patches of kudzu. Czapar said, “Because its root system can descend 12 feet into the soil and weigh 300 pounds, controlling kudzu requires a combination of management practices rather than simply pulling out the weed."

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California Pulls Organic Labels Off Fish and Seafood

SACRAMENTO, California, October 28, 2005 - Misleading labeling on fish and seafood sold as "organic" in California will be history by January. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that outlaws the use of organic labels on fish and seafood, making California the first state in the nation to place a ban on the use of the organic label on all seafood and fish products sold in the state until a federal or state standard is set.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has yet to adopt organic certification standards for seafood and fish products, as it has for produce, meat and poultry.

But this has not stopped producers and merchants from labeling fish and seafood products as organic.

"California consumers deserve to know the truth about what they are eating and I am delighted that the Governor agrees," said State Senator Jackie Speier Speier, a San Francisco Democrat who drafted the labeling bill.

"Labeling seafood as organic in the absence of any state or federal certification standards is misleading and confusing," Speier said.

Seafood and fish sold as organic in California includes several farmed varieties from Scotland and British Columbia where increasing numbers of so-called organic seafood are raised.

What many consumers fail to realize is that these products do not necessarily conform to the definition of organic that they have come to expect when purchasing meat and produce.

Most so-called organic seafood products currently sold in California are imported from Canada, Europe, and Southeast Asia and include farmed varieties of salmon and shrimp which researchers have shown pose a health risk due to the high levels of contaminants and pesticides such as PCBs, dioxins, and mercury that have been found in these products.

A March 2005 nationwide online survey of 1,200 U.S. adults conducted by Consumers Union found that nearly half of consumers buy organic food. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed expect fish and seafood products sold as organic to be free of contaminants such as mercury and PCBs.

Within the past year, the United States Department of Agriculture formed two aquaculture task forces to begin to develop organic standards for aquaculture but has yet to propose or finalize formal certification standards.

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Diamond Nanotube Composite Could Save Energy, Advance Fuel Cells

CHICAGO, Illinois, October 28, 2005 (ENS) - Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have combined the world's hardest known material – diamond – with the world's strongest structural form – carbon nanotubes. They say a new process for "growing” diamond and carbon nanotubes together opens the way for its use in a number of energy-related applications.

The resulting material has potential for use in applications that appear likely to benefit the environment - low-friction, wear-resistant coatings, catalyst supports for fuel cells, high-voltage electronics, low-power, high-bandwidth radio frequency microelectromechanical/nanoelectromechanical systems, thermionic energy generation, low-energy consumption flat panel displays and hydrogen storage.

The nanoscale is about a thousand times smaller than micro, that is, about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair. Approximately three to six atoms can fit inside of a nanometer, depending on the size of the atom.

“Diamond is hard because of its dense atomic structure and the strength of the bonds between atoms,” said John Carlisle, one of the developers of the new material. “The larger the distance between atoms, the weaker the links binding them together. Carbon's bond strength and small size enable it to form a denser, stronger mesh of atomic bonds than any other material.”

Diamond has its drawbacks, however. Diamond is a brittle material and is normally not electrically conducting. Nanotubes, on the other hand, are incredibly strong and are also great electrical conductors, but harnessing these attributes into real materials has proved elusive.

By integrating these two novel forms of carbon together at the nanoscale, a new material is produced that combines the material properties of both diamond and nanotubes.

The new hybrid material was created using Ultrananocrystalline™ diamond (UNCD), a novel form of carbon developed at Argonne. The researchers made the two materials - ultrananocrystalline diamond and carbon nanotubes - grow simultaneously into dense thin films.

A surface covered with a mixture of diamond nanoparticles and iron nanoparticle "seeds” was exposed to the argon-rich, hydrogen-poor plasma normally used to make UNCD.

The diamond and iron “seeds” catalyzed the UNCD and carbon nanotube growth.

The plasma temperature and deposition time were regulated to control the speed at which the composite material grows, since carbon nanotubes normally grow much faster than UNCD. "Experimenting with these variables led us to the right combination,” said researcher Jeffrey Elam.

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