AmeriScan: October 2, 2006

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Congress Approves Chemical Security Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interim authority to set security standards for some of the nation's chemical plants. The authority, outlined within the $35 billion DHS appropriations bill, gives the department the ability to set risk-based security standards for high-risk facilities that manufacture or store hazardous chemicals.

The rules will cover an estimated 3,400 facilities. The language also gives DHS the authority to audit, inspect and shut down facilities that fail to comply with agreed upon security standards. The authority outlined in the bill will expire after three years.

The provision reflects a compromise by lawmakers, who have taken more than five years to address security at a sector quickly identified as vulnerable after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

A Government Accountability Office report released in March 2002 found that of the nation's 15,000 chemical facilities, 123 are close enough to potentially endanger more than one million people if a terrorist attack occurred.

Efforts to pass standalone legislation giving DHS authority to set the standards have repeatedly failed, largely due to disagreements over federal preemption and mandates for inherently safer technology (IST).

Industry groups and many Republicans believe DHS rules should preempt state or local laws - the language in the bill is silent on this issue.

Federal preemption is opposed by environmentalists and most Democrats, who also want to see the regulations push companies to adopt safer processes - known as IST - as part of security measures.

IST, strongly opposed by industry, is not included in the language approved Friday by both the House and the Senate.

"While this bill is not a home run, Congress came through in the last inning to deliver essential chemical security legislation," said Jack Gerard, president of the American Chemistry Council. "While we would have preferred a more comprehensive bill and still have concerns regarding certain provisions, the approved legislation gives the Department of Homeland Security the power to establish effective national chemical security performance standards for the entire industry."

Environmentalists were less enamored and contend the measures fall far short, in part because they do not cover all facilities.

Alex Fidis, an attorney with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said the rules are impose standards equivalent to "shopping mall-level security."

"Without the authority to impose specific security requirements, the Department is left with a rubber stamp program to legitimize the industry's security status quo," said Fidis. "It's pathetic that in five years the best thing Congress can come up with is a rubber stamp program."

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Judge Upholds Otero Mesa Drilling

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - Opponents of the federal government's proposal to drill in New Mexico's Otero Mesa suffered a defeat last week when a federal judge rejected their bid to block the plan. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Bruce Black found the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had properly evaluated the environmental impacts of the plan.

The judge agreed with the BLM, which argued that its plan to open some 2 million acres of the area to oil and gas drilling includes ample measures to safeguard the fragile ecosystem. The Otero Mesa area includes one of the largest remaining intact swaths of Chihuahuan Desert grassland and is home to an array of wildlife, including several endangered species.

The remote area also holds a supply of clean ground water large enough to supply more 800,000 people or half of New Mexico's current population. Critics of Otero Mesa drilling fear the oil and gas development could contaminate this supply.

The BLM plan would allow drilling on all but some 124,000 acres of the area, including 36,000 acres the agency will permanently protect as habitat for the endangered Aplomado falcon. New Mexico had asked for 640,000 acres to be set aside as a national conservation area.

The state, along with environmentalists, have filed suit to block the plan, alleging it fails to protect sensitive ecosystems and groundwater supplies within the rare desert grassland.

BLM says that only 1,589 acres will actually be disturbed by the drilling plan.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, part of the coalition that filed suit to block the plan, said they would appeal the decision. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, added that he would also "continue to fight to protect Otero Mesa."

Last month, New Mexico Natural Resources Secretary Joanna Prukop said the BLM has "no idea" what the cumulative impact of drilling within the 2-million acre Otero Mesa.

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U.S. Ready to Participate in Platte River Recovery

WASHINGTON, DC, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has approved the federal agency's participation in a $300 million effort to improve habitat for four threatened and endangered species that use the Platte River in Nebraska.

The affected species are the whooping crane, the piping plover, the interior least tern and the pallid sturgeon.

The river, which runs through Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska, supplies drinking water for some three million individuals and is considered by conservationists to be the most important stopover for migratory birds in the nation's heartland.

Over the past several decades, dams and water diversion have dramatically impacted the Platte River's flows and habitat - in many places the river is a fraction of its original width and long stretches of it dry up altogether in the summer.

Kempthorne signed off on the plan, known as the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, on Friday. The governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming must also sign the agreement to implement the program.

"The Platte River Basin has seen more than two decades of conflict over water use and endangered species," Kempthorne said. "This recovery program is an outstanding collaborative effort among interest groups to cooperatively address the needs of endangered species and ensure that current uses of basin water can continue."

Kempthorne said the initiative is has been reviewed and endorsed by the National Academy of Sciences.

"By pooling resources and coordinating the restoration effort, the program provides a cost-effective way to meet each water user's obligations under the Endangered Species Act," he said. "It removes the uncertainty for water users about what will be required to comply with the ESA for the whooping crane, interior least tern, piping plover, and pallid sturgeon."

The plan was created by a committee made up of state representatives, federal officials, as well as water users and environmental groups in the river basin.

The federal government will provide half the funding necessary for the program - the other half will be contributed by the three states.

The estimated total value of these cash and cash-equivalent contributions over the first 13-year increment of the program is about $317 million.

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Court Blocks Dunes Recreation Plan

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - A federal judge ruled last week that current off road vehicle closures at the Algodones Dunes in southern California will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

The ruling will keep in place existing protections of sensitive habitat within the nation's largest sand dune system. It follows a March 2006 ruling that ordered the closures to remain in effect until the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) revises the environmental review for the management plan and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revises the critical habitat designation for an endangered plant, known as the Peirson's milk-vetch.

The off-road vehicle closures at issue encompass 50,000 acres of the 180,000-acre dune area and since 2000 have been protected for wildlife and recreation by keeping off-road vehicles in other areas. Off-road vehicle groups and BLM have pushed to curb the closures.

The court vacated BLM's decision and the environmental review for the Algodones Dunes plan (RAMP) and remanded those decisions to the agency to revise. The court previously found that the agency failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, all key national environmental laws.

The court also vacated the biological opinion from FWS that BLM relied on and remanded the biological opinion and incidental take statement to FWS to revise. FWS also must revise its decision on critical habitat for the Peirson's milk-vetch. The court ordered that protections under the 2004 critical habitat designation will remain and that the 2003 proposed critical habitat will be reinstated during the time it takes FWS to revise the designation.

"This injunction is critical to preserving the unique habitat at the Dunes for the species that depend on them," said Lisa Belenky, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "The court required nothing more than that the agencies comply with the law. BLM certainly knows that adequate environmental review must be completed before any changes in management at the Dunes can take place but it tried to cut corners and ignore many of the impacts of off-road vehicle use."

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Forest Service Report Finds Open Space Dwindling

WASHINGTON, DC, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - The United State is losing 6,000 acres of open space each day, according to a new report by the U.S. Forest Service. The report, released last week, details the growing threats to the nation's public lands, as counties with national forests and grasslands are experiencing some of the highest growth rates in the nation.

The report details a "steady loss of open space" that is outpacing population growth. From 1982 to 2001, 34 million acres of open space - equivalent to the state of Illinois - were developed and some 100,000 square miles are projected to be developed by 2020.

For forest land alone, the United States lost 10 million acres to development from 1982to 1997, with 26 million additional acres project to be developed by 2030.

The fastest growing areas include the South, Northeast, Rocky Mountain West, Upper Great Lakes, and Ozarks.

The report warns the trends are worrying in part because it is reducing the ability to manage public lands to maintain healthy forests and public recreation dwindles. In addition, it notes that undeveloped forests provide critical ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, clean drinking water, natural-resources-based jobs, and a sustainable output of forest products.

National forests, for example, are the single largest source of water in the United States, providing water for some 60 million people.

In addition, 57 percent of U.S. forest lands are privately owned and unprotected from development.

Conservationists said the findings of the report are "sobering."

"The levies around our remaining open spaces are leaking badly and inundating those places with development sprawl," said Tom Gilbert, director of eastern forest conservation for The Wilderness Society. "We don't have the luxury of waiting to see what happens."

The report describes cross-boundary partnerships between multiple levels of government, private interests and landowners as a promising tool to conserve open space in rural America. But Gilbert said the "missing ingredient" in such efforts is federal funding to purchase lands or development rights in threatened areas.

"If we hesitate, if we dither, we will lose tens of millions of acres of open spaces and forests," Gilbert added. "We need to make the investment today before our wild places, favorite recreations areas and forests are buried forever under the coming flood of development."

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Exelon Added to Dow Jones Sustainability Index

CHICAGO, Illinois, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - Energy giant Exelon has been named to the Dow Jones Sustainability North America Index. Launched in 1999, the Index represents the top 20 percent of companies in each sector, from the largest 600 North American companies, who rank the highest in terms of sustainability - economic, social, and environmental performance - based on an extensive evaluation of their performance on 91 parameters.

Other companies named to the index include General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson and Microsoft.

Exelon is a massive electricity generation and distribution company based in Chicago, with annual revenues in excess of $15 billion. Created in 2000 by the merger of Philadelphia-based PECO Energy Company and Chicago-based Unicom, which also owned Commonwealth Edison, the company has more than 5 million electricity customers and more than 450,000 natural gas customers. It has full or partial ownership of 19 nuclear reactors.

"Being named to this index is a significant achievement for Exelon and puts us in a class of leading companies that are able to create greater value for our shareholders by operating our business in an environmentally and socially responsible fashion," said John Rowe, chairman, president and CEO of Exelon. "Exelon continuously strives to go beyond simply complying with applicable regulations and requirements. We have made progress in recent years, and we are pleased to have our efforts recognized."

The economic evaluation of Exelon's performance considered corporate governance, risk management, codes of conduct, customer relationship management and price risk management; and Exelon scored higher than the utility average.

In the environment area, companies are rated on the effectiveness of their environment policy and management systems, programs for reducing pollution and utilizing resources more efficiently, environmental reporting, and taking action on key issues like climate change. Exelon's annual environmental reporting and biodiversity activities were recognized as among the best and earned perfect scores.

The evaluation of the company's social performance addressed areas including labor practices, development of employees, corporate philanthropy and stakeholder engagement. For 2005, Exelon received top scores for labor practices and attracting and retaining talented employees.

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Oak Trees Crowded Out by Suburban Sprawl

GAINESVILLE, Florida, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - The majestic live oak is dying off in the face of suburban sprawl and the encroachment of taller trees, forest researchers said last week.

The iconic tree thrives in open savannas, but such landscapes are on the decline, according to the study by University of Florida scientists.

It is an irony of nature that the successes of reforestation and urban forestry threaten live oaks, which in the past maintained the elbow room they needed from logging, cattle grazing and frequent fires, said Francis Putz, a University of Florida botanist and the study's coauthor.

"We are confusing our natural savanna heritage with forested landscapes and the tragedy is that the forest is killing live oaks," he said. "If we allow other trees to grow up too close to the live oak, the live oak will die. Our research clearly establishes this fate in both rural and suburban landscapes."

The study was published in the June issue of "Forest Ecology and Management."

The live oak's broad crown, with long arching limbs that spread horizontally rather than vertically, as most trees do, give it a distinctive architectural makeup, said Tova Spector, who did the study with Putz as part of her master's degree in ecology.

"Trees that grow straight and tall crowd the live oaks, causing their crowns to die back," she said. "Once their branches begin to grow horizontally, live oaks seem unable to reverse this trend by growing upwards."

The reseachers mapped and measured crown densities in both closed canopy and savanna-like tree stands in Alachua County, Florida.

Sweet gum, black cherry and magnolia are among the culprits, but the worst offender ironically is laurel oak, which resembles the live oak but is not nearly as sturdy, killing more people in the South than any other tree, Putz said.

"I wouldn't park my brand-new Saab underneath a laurel oak if I had one, whereas the live oak is a homeowner's best friend," he said.

The live oak's deep roots, relatively short stature and strong wood help it withstand the high winds and strong storm surges that topple other trees during hurricanes.

Spector also measured changes in savannas and woodlands, live oak habitat, from 1955 to 1999, using aerial photos of rural parts of Florida's Alachua County.

She found that these open habitats declined from 70 percent cover to less than 33 percent, mostly because of the establishment of pine plantations.

A 2003 published study of live oak trees in four suburban Gainesville neighborhoods that Putz did with another graduate student, Mark Templeton, found that more than 90 percent of these trees were crowded by other trees.

Based on these findings, Putz said he believes more than half of the live oaks in the city of Gainesville alone are in danger of being destroyed by encroaching trees, a process that can take anywhere from 10 to 30 years and is most rapid in the suburbs where lawns are fertilized.

Saving live oaks sometimes means having to kill other trees, which can be expensive, but preserving a single live oak can add as much as $30,000 to the value of a house, Putz explained, and having a live oak nearby is good protection against hurricane damage.

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Manganese Can Keep Toxic Hydrogen Sulfide Zones in Check

NEWARK, Delaware, October 2, 2006 (ENS) - A dissolved form of the mineral manganese can help control toxic hydrogen sulfide zones in waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Black Sea.

The study is based on research that was conducted in 2003 during a month-long expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, to explore the chemistry of the Black Sea.

Some 90 percent of the mile-deep system is a no-oxygen "dead zone," containing large amounts of naturally produced hydrogen sulfide, which is lethal to most marine life. Only specialized microbes can survive in this underwater region.

Above this large underwater "dead zone" in the Black Sea is another aquatic layer, known as the "suboxic zone," that has both minimal amounts of oxygen and minimal amounts of hydrogen sulfide. This layer can have a thickness as great as 130 feet deep in the Black Sea, but only 13 feet deep in the Chesapeake Bay.

The scientists found that a chemical form of dissolved manganese - known as Mn (III) - can compose in the water or be mobilized from sediments originating from the continental slope and other sources.

It can maintain the existence of the suboxic zone by reacting as a reductant with oxygen and as an oxidant with hydrogen sulfide, preventing the deadly hydrogen sulfide from reaching the surface layer of water, where most fish, algae and microscopic plants live.

Coauthor George Luther, a chemist at the University of Delaware, the finding is surprising because dissolved manganese as Mn(III) was assumed not to form in the environment and thus was largely ignored by scientists.

"Our research shows that the impact of dissolved manganese is significant in any aquatic environment, including lakes, plus sediments on the seafloor and soils on land," Luther said. "And for the public who live near the water, dissolved manganese actually helps prevent naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide from getting to the surface, so it prevents both fish kills and the foul odors from this compound's telltale 'rotten egg' smell."

The results are reported in the Sept. 29 issue of the journal "Science."