AmeriScan: October 11, 2006

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W.R. Grace Must Pay Asbestos Cleanup Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear W.R. Grace & Co.'s appeal of a lower court ruling ordering the company to pay $54.5 million for asbestos cleanup in Libby, Montana. The move upholds previous decisions that ruled in favor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which filed suit in 2001 to recover funds it spent to clean up the former vermiculite mine.

The company had argued that the EPA lacked authority to force it to pay for cleanup of one of the nation's worst Superfund sites. The lower court ruling rejected that plea and the Supreme Court's decision not to consider Grace's appeal means the company must now foot the bill.

The company operated the Libby mine from 1963 to 1990. Vermiculite is used in many common commercial products, including attic insulation, fireproofing materials, masonry fill, and as an additive to potting soils and fertilizers.

The vermiculite deposits at the Libby plant contain asbestos, which is regulated under the Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant. Studies have shown that exposure to asbestos can cause life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Health studies on residents of the Libby area show increased incidence of many types of asbestos related disease, including a rate of lung cancer that is 30 percent higher than expected when compared with rates in other areas of Montana and the United States.

Grace and seven current and former company executives face criminal charges that they knew the Libby mine was emitting carcinogenic asbestos into the air, endangering workers and residents, but they concealed the information. Some 1,200 people have been identified as suffering from illnesses linked to asbestos exposure at Libby.

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Insurers Urged to Consider Global Warming Impacts

WASHINGTON, DC, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. insurance industry needs to more quickly analyze and assess potential risks from climate change, according to a new report by insurer Allianz Group and the conservation group WWF.

"Global warming is the greatest environmental threat facing the world, and the people and animals that inhabit it," says Carter Roberts, President and CEO of WWF-US. "The cost of doing nothing carries a price tag none of us can afford. The insurance industry has a vested interest in stepping up to the plate and being a part of the solution."

The report - "Climate Change and Insurance: An Agenda for Action in the United States" - examines the latest scientific findings about climate change, including the impacts of forest fires, storms and floods, and the potential impact on the insurance industry and its customers.

It says climate change has the potential to significantly alter and intensify destructive weather patterns in the United States, leading to increased flooding, forest fires and storm damage.

The most direct risk to the United States will likely come from hurricanes, which are expected to become more frequent and powerful.

Furthermore, rising sea levels over the coming decades could inundate many US coastal cities and portions of some coastal states. Forest fires could become even more frequent and larger. These changes could make insurance unaffordable for customers in high-risk areas.

Insurance premiums in states vulnerable to hurricanes are already increasing, the report said, and in some cases, insurers are exiting these markets altogether.

"We need to better understand the effects of climate change and the changing environment for our customers, but if we can find a way to provide insurance in the face of major changes, from the first transatlantic voyages to global terrorism, then we can find new ways to address climate change," said Clem Booth, an Allianz board member.

The report recommends governments and insurance companies help correct market distortions and communicate appropriate signals to homeowners, businesses and consumers moving into high-risk areas.

In addition, the report suggests U.S. insurers begin incorporating future potential climate change impacts, such as continued sea-level rise and longer fire seasons into planning, rather than relying only on historical data of past weather events.

The report also recommends that insurers influence land-use development and planning in high-risk areas. For example, conserving coastal mangroves provides a natural buffer from storms, surges and waves, while forest preservation can reduce mudslides.

Another way to minimize losses related to climate change is to promote storm-resistant and energy-efficient building materials, improved building codes, and better public education about their benefits.

"This emphasizes the win-win opportunity for customers presented by energy-efficient buildings that also incorporate state-of-the-art protection against wind damage, fire and water influx," Booth said.

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Suit Filed to Protect Puget Sound Chinook Salmon

SEATTLE, Washington,, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - The federal government's management plan for Puget Sound chinook salmon violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a coalition of conservation groups. The suit challenges a 2004 management plan that sets out catch guidelines for the fish through 2010. The plan was and developed by Washington state and Puget Sound tribes and approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The conservation groups said they respect and acknowledge tribal fishing rights, but that impacts to listed fish can be reduced by while still honoring treaties.

The suit was filed against NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It contends that the plan fails to adequately protect the Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the ESA.

The suit alleges that the plan does not ensure a sustainable number of fish will reach spawning grounds each year and was not based on figures NOAA had previously determined needed to be met to recover the species.

The conservation groups contend that some 76 percent of the wild fish are caught before they return to spawn.

The organizations that filed the suit include the Native Fish Society, the Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance, Washington Trout and the Clark-Skamania Flyfisher.

"Harvest rates on chinook from key Puget Sound rivers are too high for the salmon to recover," said Gary Loomis, president of the Salmon Spawning $ Recovery Alliance. "NOAA Fisheries acknowledges as much, but still approved the harvest plan anyway."

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U.S. Flood Maps Ignore Everglades Agricultural Zone

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has left the massive low lying Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) off its floodplain maps, according to documents released Tuesday by a government watchdog group.

The EAA encompasses 1,181 square miles, the northern border of which is adjacent to Lake Okeechobee, the fourth largest lake in the United States. The vast plain of the EAA is used to produce many crops, principally sugar cane. Its location and low elevation make it especially vulnerable to flooding from Lake Okeechobee, a danger accentuated by weakening Army Corps of Engineers levees.

Should these levees be compromised, the highly polluted Lake Okeechobee waters would likely inundate the entire area.

But FEMA's own system for designating flood areas indicates that areas close to levees need not be designated as flood areas.

They are, in turn designated as "B" zones, indicating that they are outside of the 100-year flood plain. The flood maps issued by FEMA show most of the EAA, which has a lower elevation than Lake Okeechobee as being outside of the 100-year flood plain.

The FEMA maps are used by insurance companies and banks to determine whether property needs to be insured against flood risks - property designated outside a flood zone is typically more attractive for development in part because it is freed from the costly burden of flood insurance.

The omission is only one of several anomalous results stemming from FEMA's reliance on antiquated and inconsistent flood maps that omit some of Florida's most vulnerable tracts, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"Florida has a long history of developers selling swampland to unsuspecting tourists but this scam needs no help from our federal and state governments," said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. "Accurate mapping is a basic governmental function that one would think FEMA should have mastered by now."

PEER says that inconsistencies in FEMA mapping arise from outsourcing the function to multiple private engineering firms, yielding varying results that are also open to influence by interests seeking to temporarily enhance property values.

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Gas Wells Pose Pollution Concern for Wyoming Residents

PINEDALE, Wyoming, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - A massive expansion of gas drilling in Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley will bring unacceptable levels of air pollution, according to environmentalists and some local residents.

The proposed Jonah Field Infill project, which is overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), will add 3,100 new wells in the valley. Air pollution from the new wells would violate the Clean Air Act by releasing nearly double the amount of the maximum daily limit for particulate matter, said J. Thomas Johnston, the Sublette County Health Officer and former community physician for Pinedale.

"Our air in the Upper Green is becoming worse and neither the BLM nor industry has an effective solution," Johnston said. "Simply put, the Jonah Infill project will violate the Clean Air Act and potentially jeopardize the health and welfare of the adults and children who live, work, play and recreate in the Upper Green River Valley."

Particulate matter, which is a mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets, causes serious health problems including asthma and premature death for people with heart and lung disease.

Last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed new air quality standards for particulate matter to protect Americans from the health problems associated with this form of pollution.

The new EPA standard for fine particles - known as PM2.5 - for a 24-hour period is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

According to the BLM's Jonah Infill Environmental Impact Study (EIS), the predicted 24-hour concentrations for particulate matter would be 44 in the Jonah Field over the life of the project. During early stages of the project there could be concentrations of as high as 49.4 and a cumulative 24-hour concentration of 62.4 including regional sources.

At the time the BLM prepared its air quality analysis, EPA already had proposed the recently finalized particulate matter standard, but the BLM only considered the old standard and failed to acknowledge any health risks associated with the project.

"When I think that we may soon experience red alert days when outdoor activity is not recommended because of air pollution, I am appalled," said Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition. "Being outside in the mountains is part of our way of life here in the Upper Green. Before we move forward on the Jonah project, we need enforced air quality standards so as not to jeopardize human health."

Given the EPA's new standards, several conservation groups have filed a request to the U.S. Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals that their formal appeal of the Jonah Field Infill decision be reconsidered in light of the new standard and clear public health threats. The groups are urging that the BLM set more definite emissions limits, require industry to provide detailed pollution controls, and disclose any and all future public health threats.

The local residents, joined by the Upper Green River Valley Coalition based in Pinedale, said they are not seeking to end development on the Jonah Field, but they are calling for a common sense balance that allows for energy exploration with a defined upper limit on emissions and adequate protections of public health.

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Oysters Suffering From Warming, Heavy Metals

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia, October 11, 2006 (ENS) - Oysters exposed to heavy metals have less ability to tolerate warmer water temperatures, according to a new study released Tuesday. The study finds that exposure to the heavy metal cadmium, along with warmer waters, inhibits the ability of oysters to obtain sufficient oxygen and convert it to cellular energy.

Half of the oysters exposed to the pollutant in 28 C (82 F) water died within 20 days, said lead researcher Gisela Lannig, a scientist with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar & Marine Research in Germany.

Oysters exposed to cadmium at lower temperatures showed much lower mortality rate, Lanning explained, suggesting that the combination of high temperature and cadmium is more stressful than each of these conditions alone.

The study was presented Tuesday at the American Physiological Society conference in Virginia Beach.

Oysters once thrived in the coastal regions of much of the eastern United States, but over-fishing, global warming, rising ocean water temperatures and increased pollution have combined to reduce the oyster population to 5 percent of what it was 200 years ago, the research team said.

"We can't even imagine the expanse of oyster reefs 100-200 years ago and their impact on the ecosystem," said coauthor Inna Sokolova, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

For example, a century ago, the oyster population could completely filter the water in the Chesapeake Bay in three days. Today, with the oyster population continuing to decline from poor water quality and disease, it would take a year to filter the same amount of water, she said. In addition to filtering water, oysters create a kind of reef that other marine life depends upon.

"Studies have shown that there are more than 300 species reliant on oyster reefs, including at least 12 species important for their commercial or recreational value, such as blue crabs, sheepshead, croaker and stone crab," Sokolova said. "Some of these species, such as blue crabs, use oyster beds and reefs as nursery areas and as feeding grounds."

In future experiments, the researchers will try to determine whether the combination of temperature and pollution is preventing oysters from obtaining enough oxygen or whether it is interfering with the animal's ability to use the oxygen it obtains, Lannig said. These experiments on oyster physiology could be important to save what is left of this ecologically important population.