AmeriScan: October 3, 2006

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EPA Air Advisory Panel Criticizes Agency's Soot Rule

WASHINGTON, DC, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The panel of scientific experts who advised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the public health impacts of federal particulate matter standards has sharply criticized the Bush administration for ignoring its advice.

In a letter sent Friday to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, the seven members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) expressed dismay that the new standards do not reflect their recommendations. The panel said it questioned whether Johnson had "appropriately given full consideration to CASAC's expert scientific advice."

The letter adds to considerable controversy over the new standards for particulate matter, which were issued last month and drew vocal opposition from a wide array of public health groups.

Particulate matter encompasses tiny airborne particles in dust, smoke and soot, created by a wide array of sources, including cars, factories, power plants and forest fires. The particles have been linked to respiratory and heart ailments and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

The letter criticized Johnson for failing to follow the panel's recommendation to tighten the annual standard for fine particulate matter - known as PM2.5.

Johnson chose to leave that standard at 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air - CASAC recommended it be changed to between 13 and 14.

The panel said it is concerned that EPA "did not accept our finding that the annual PM2.5 standard was not protective of human health and did not follow our recommendation for a change in that standard."

" there is clear and convincing scientific evidence that significant adverse human-health effects occur in response to short-term and chronic particulate matter exposures at and below the level of the current annual PM2.5 standard," the panel said in its letter.

Furthermore, the panel said that to its knowledge "there is no science, medical or public health group that disagrees with this very important aspect of the CASAC's recommendation."

The decision to leave the standard unchanged "does not provide an 'adequate margin of safety requisite to the protect the public health' (as required by the Clean Air Act), leaving parts of the population of this country at significant risk of adverse health effects from exposure to fine PM," according to the letter.

The panel also criticized the decision not to establish a new coarse particle standard - known as PM10 - that would account for the blending of large and small particles. EPA chose to retain the 150 microgram per cubic meter daily PM10 standard, but opted to revoke the annual PM10 standard.

The letter noted that since CASAC was created in the late 1970s, the EPA has always accepted its scientific advice with regard to final health-based air quality standards.

The particulate matter standards are likely to draw a legal challenge from public health groups and environmentalists, who point to CASAC's opposition as well as an internal EPA report that showed stricter rules could prevent as many as 30,000 premature deaths a year.

That report, posted to EPA's Web site the day after the standards were announced, detailed the analysis of 12 health experts.

They concluded a one microgram decrease in the annual PM2.5 standard would save between 0.7 percent to 1.6 percent fewer deaths - a figure that corresponds to between 17,000 to 30,000 individuals.

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Alaskan Storm Shattered Antarctic Iceberg

CHICAGO, Illinois, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - A severe storm that occurred in the Gulf of Alaska in October 2005 generated an ocean swell that six days later broke apart a giant iceberg floating near the coast of Antarctica, more than 8,300 miles away, researchers said Monday. The research team, led by scientists at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, was published in the October issue of the journal "Geophysical Research Letters."

Oceanographers have known since the early 1960s that ocean swells can travel half way around the world. But the new study, funded by the National Science Foundation, raises the possibility that an increase in storms driven by climate change could affect far-flung parts of the globe.

"One of the things we're debating in the world right now is whether global warming might increase the storminess in the oceans," said Douglas MacAyeal, a geophysical sciences professor at the University of Chicago. "The question we then pose is: Could global storminess have an influence on the Antarctic ice sheet that had never been thought of?"

The iceberg, known as B15A, measures approximately 60 miles long and 18.5 miles wide. It is half of B15, which became the world's largest iceberg in March 2000 when it broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Satellite images reveal that it broke into half a dozen pieces on Oct. 27, 2005, on a clear, calm day.

After the team observed the break up of B15A in satellite images, they arranged for a crew flying a Twin Otter aircraft from McMurdo Station in Antarctica to recover the seismometer left on B15A the previous year to learn more.

"They flew out to the iceberg, which was an all-day trip," MacAyeal said. "It was a superhuman effort, because they had to virtually fill the aircraft cabin with barrels of fuel, land several times, throw the fuel barrels out, pump the fuel into the wing tank, and then continue on."

The seismometer record showed movement in the iceberg starting 12 hours before the iceberg broke up and continuing for three days following.

Despite prevailing mild conditions, the iceberg moved half an inch up and down and four inches from side to side. The research team suspected ocean swell as the cause.

The team was able to calculate the distance to the storm from seismometer data by comparing arrival times of the faster-moving long-wavelength waves to the slower-moving short-wavelength waves. To the scientists' amazement, the storm was 13,500 kilometers (8,370 miles) away.

"Our jaws dropped," MacAyeal said. "We looked in the Pacific Ocean and there, 13,500 kilometers away, six days earlier, was the winter season's first really big, nasty storm that developed and lasted for about a day and a half in the Gulf of Alaska."

The experience of B15A appears to be fairly common. MacAyeal and his colleagues also detected other distant storms in Antarctic seismometer records.

"The most impressive event was a typhoon in the Pacific that had been a category five hurricane called Olaf," he said. "It produced a very strong reaction on all of our seismometers, so we know that hurricanes do send their waves down to the Antarctic as well."

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U.S. Cuts Protected Habitat for Alameda Whipsnake

SACRAMENTO, California, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated about 155,000 acres of critical habitat for threatened Alameda whipsnake on Monday, less than half the area originally proposed for the species.

In 2000, the agency proposed designating 407,000 acres of critical habitat for the whipsnake, but the Homebuilders Association filed suit, taking issue with the economic analysis of the designation.

In 2003, a federal court ordered the agency to reconsider its decision. The agency said its new decision reflects a focus on areas where the snake is doing well.

Only five isolated populations of the whipsnake remain - the designation consists of six critical habitat units in the East Bay corresponding to the remaining whipsnake populations and one unit which functions as a connective corridor.

But conservationists criticized the decision and said it leaves out more than 48,500 additional acres of occupied and suitable whipsnake habitat, including areas threatened by development.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has again caved to developers and excluded large amounts of habitat essential for the survival of this species," said Jeff Miller, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Protection of this habitat is important not just for whipsnakes, but to also maintain open space and preserve disappearing sage scrub, chaparral and grassland ecosystems."

A slender snake with black dorsal coloring and distinctive yellow-orange racing stripes down each side, whipsnakes are the fastest moving snake in the West.

They occupy a home range of 5 to 20 acres and can move more than 4 miles from core scrub habitats while traversing their territories or dispersing.

The species was listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in December 1997. Its habitat has been severely reduced and fragmented by urban sprawl, road construction, livestock grazing and fire suppression. Urban development and roads have fragmented the whipsnake into five isolated populations.

The designation goes into effect in 30 days.

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Wildlife Concerns Sounded for U.S.-Mexico Border Wall

TUCSON, Arizona, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate last week approved a plan to build a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ignoring vocal opposition from conservation groups.

The wall will not stem the tide of illegal immigration, but will have adverse impacts on wildlife, environmentalists say.

Expected to cost some $6 billion, the wall was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last month and passed by the Senate on Friday.

The specific legislation approves some 700 miles of double-layered fencing across the 1,920-mile U.S. Mexico border. It includes some of the Mexican border with California, Texas and New Mexico and virtually all of the border with Arizona.

The Center for Biological Diversity, echoing concerns raised by other environmentalists, contend the proposed border construction projects will severely harm some of the Southwest's most significant lands and wildlife habitat, including wildlife refuges, national parks, forests and wilderness areas.

More border walls further damage already-stressed wildlife and places, the Center said, including, the cactus pygmy owl, the Rio Grande River the and Big Bend National Park in Texas. Walls harm wildlife by blocking critical migration corridors and destroying valuable habitat, the group said.

"This is a disaster for the jaguar, Mexican gray wolf, Sonoran pronghorn and all of the other wildlife species of our borderlands," said Michael Finkelstein, executive director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "The only thing the wall won't stop is people."

The organization contends that as federal enforcement intensifies, a key focus should be wildlife-friendly vehicle barriers in strategic and at-risk places on the border, such as the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Goldwater Range, Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge and Coronado National Forest.

A wildlife-friendly vehicle barrier at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona has proven effective at stopping smuggling vehicles from entering the United States, the Center said.

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Texas Announces $10 Billion Wind Energy Deal

DALLAS, Texas, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry on Monday announced a $10 billion public-private initiative to expand wind energy.

Texas has abundant wind energy, particularly in West Texas and along the gulf cost. In 2001 Texas added more wind power capacity than all other states combined, and earlier this summer Texas surpassed California as the nation's leader in wind generation capacity.

The deal is expected to add 10,000 megawatts of wind power, enough to power 2.4 million homes.

Perry said that private companies have agreed to the capital investments in wind energy generation while the Public Utility Commission (PUC) directs the construction of additional transmission lines to capture and deliver the power.

"I am proud of our state's commitment to renewable energy production," Perry said. "We are on the leading edge of developing renewable sources of energy and a more diversified energy economy which is key to keeping costs down."

For every 1,000 megawatts generated by new wind sources, Texas will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by six million tons over the next 20 years, said Perry, who also touted the economic benefits.

"With this $10 billion announcement, the economic ripple will be more like a tidal wave as these companies pour millions of dollars into wages and salaries for Texas workers."

The planned expansion of wind-generated energy builds on initiatives Perry developed in 2003 with the creation of the Texas Energy Planning Council.

The council was charged with developing a long-term energy plan for the state, including exploring alternative and renewable sources of energy.

The council's report, issued in December 2004, recommended that by 2025, 10 percent of the state's power needs come from renewable sources and that the PUC takes steps to overcome transmission obstacles that limit the development of renewable energy sources.

"This is a monumental investment that will make our air cleaner and our people healthier," Perry said.

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California Redwood Confirmed as World's Tallest Tree

HUMBOLDT, California, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - A 379.1-foot tall redwood found in a remote section of northern California's Redwood National Park is the world's tallest tree, researchers confirmed Friday.

The tree, named "Hyperion," is the largest of three redwoods discovered this summer that eclipse the previous world record holder, a 370.5-foot tall redwood named "Stratosphere Giant."

The researchers suspected tree was more than 378 feet tall, but held off on declaring it a world record until Humboldt State University botanist Stephen Sillett climbed the giant tree two weeks ago.

Laser range finders are fairly accurate devices, but it is not always possible to hit a tree's highest leaf from the ground when using such a device.

The most accurate means of measuring a tree's height is to climb into its crown and lower a fiberglass tape from the top.

The climb was delayed until the end of the marbled murrelet's nesting season. The endangered species of bird relies old-growth trees like the redwood.

When the murrelet's nesting season came to a close, Sillett climbed Hyperion and verified its status as the tallest tree.

The Redwood Creek basin, where Hyperion is located, was thoroughly logged during the 1970s before Jimmy Carter's administration redrew the boundaries of Redwood National Park - an act that silenced the chainsaws in that particular neck of the woods.

"If you look at a map, it's just amazing," said Sillett. "Most of Redwood National Park has been cut. There are really just a few drips and drabs of old growth left in there, and in these little bits that are left, there are these tall trees lurking - and we just found them. One of the amazing things about this discovery is that we learned that this park expansion in 1978 really did save the tallest trees. No one has realized that until this summer."

The discovery is part of an ongoing collaboration between Sillett and two naturalists, Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor.

The three have been searching the range of redwood to document all living trees over 350 feet tall and have thus far found 136 individual redwood trees over 350 feet tall.

When they began their work in the 1990s, only about 25 such trees were known.

"The only reason these discoveries are made is that a group of people are willing to go out looking for them - I'm lucky to be associated with Michael Taylor and Chris Atkins," Sillett said. "We thought we'd mopped it up, as far as finding the tallest trees goes. No one has ever seen anything like this. It's the most significant discovery in tree height in 75 years. It's been pretty miraculous."