AmeriScan: October 13, 2006

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Alaska's Ponds Disappearing

FAIRBANKS, Alaska, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - The size and number of Alaska's arctic ponds have fallen dramatically in the past half century, according to a study of fifty years of remotely sense imagery. The changes could have profound impacts on wildlife and climate, as they indicate widespread lowering of the water table throughout the interior of Alaska, the study's authors said.

A lowered water table negatively affects the ability of wetlands to regulate climate because it enhances the release of carbon dioxide by exposing soil carbon to aerobic decomposition.

"Alaska is important in terms of waterfowl production and if you have a lowering of the water table that could have a potentially huge impact on waterfowl production," said Dave Verbyla, co-author and natural resources professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The analysis of more than 10,000 Alaskan ponds was done by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists and published this week in the "Journal of Geophysical Research."

Over the past 50 years, Alaska has experienced a warming climate with longer growing seasons, increased permafrost thawing, an increase in water loss due to evaporation from open water and transpiration from vegetation, and yet no substantial change in precipitation.

The main study area was the subarctic boreal region of Interior Alaska, which spans more than 5 million square kilometers bounded on the north by the Brooks Range and on the south by the Alaska Range.

To contrast the semi-arid, subarctic sites of discontinuous permafrost in Interior Alaska, the authors also selected a study area in the Arctic Coastal Plain where the temperatures are much colder, the growing season much shorter, and the permafrost is continuous, and a more maritime site south of the Alaska Range.

All ponds in the study regions in subarctic Alaska showed a reduction in area of between 4 and 31 percent, with most of the change occurring since the 1970s.

The ponds in the Arctic Coastal Plain showed negligible change.

"No one has done a state water-body inventory of this magnitude," said Brian Riordan, lead author and data manager for the Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research program at University of Alaska Fairbanks. "It will allow land managers to stop speculating about possible water body loss and begin to address the implications of this loss."

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Bush Signs Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - President Bush today signed into law legislation that boosts funding for fish and wildlife protection in the Great Lakes from $8 million to $16 million a year. Conservationists praised the move and said the additional funding will help preserve and enhance some of the Midwest's premiere recreational destinations for outdoor enthusiasts.

"This is a victory for our Great Lakes, and the people who enjoy its beaches, world-class fishing streams, and national parklands," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association and co-chairman of the Healing Our Waters- Great Lakes Coalition. "The White House and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders deserve credit for together advancing manageable solutions to the urgent problems facing our Great Lakes."

This bill provides a new authority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take on regional projects based on recommendation by states and tribes for the regional benefit of fish and wildlife. Its approval represents a rare victory in the continuing quest for a broader restoration of the Great Lakes.

There is growing evidence the ecosystem is in dire straits and could be close to a tipping point when restoration is impossible.

The lakes are besieged by invasive species, and pollution from urban and agricultural runoff, including toxic industrial wastes and billions of gallons of raw sewage.

An ambitious $20 billion plan was announced last year to restore the lakes, which are a vital trade corridor that contain 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water and provide drinking water for 40 million people in the United States and Canada.

Reauthorization of the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Act was a goal of the plan, which many local and state officials believe the Bush administration has shown little commitment to implementing.

"Today's action comes at the right time," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office and co-chair of the Healing Our Waters coalition. "The health of the Great Lakes has been compromised by raw sewage contamination and other threats to our drinking water, our beaches and our wildlife. We can't afford to risk the future of these places we cherish. Every day we wait the problems get worse and the solutions more costly."

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Puget Sound Cleanup Will Cost Billions

OLYMPIA, Washington,, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - Cleaning up Puget Sound will take years and cost billions, a state-sponsored task force said Thursday. The daunting news was announced by the Partnership for Puget Sound, which was created in December 2005 by Washington Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire. The governor called on the task force to come up with a plan for solving Puget Sound's biggest environmental problems by 2020.

The task force's preliminary report says that Puget Sound has "ominous indicators of deteriorating ecosystem health." Toxic contamination still plagues the sound and numerous species are listed as threatened or endangered, including orcas and salmon, and other important species, such as herring, that are critical components of the Puget Sound food web are also in decline.

"Habitat is being lost at a worrisome rate and restoration efforts have been unable to keep pace with rapid development in the Puget Sound basin," the task force said.

Challenges to the region's lands and water supplies "are expected to become more difficult with the influx of another 1.4 million people by 2020," according to the report. "Climate change will further exacerbate the stress on water and shorelines as temperatures increase, snowpack melts earlier and sea levels rise."

Fragmented efforts by local, state and federal governments, as well as private parties, are not adding up to recovery of the sound as a whole, the task force said, and the public is not aware of the extent of the problem.

"While people care deeply about the Sound, less than 25% recognize that our environmental quality has been impaired, making it difficult to obtain support for recovery actions," the report said.

Key priorities are to protect existing habitat and prevent further losses, cutting toxic contamination in the sound and reducing pollution from human and animal waste, including stormwater runoff. The group did not give a firm figure on the cost of the cleanup but said it will be in the billions. The task force will provide the governor its final report in December.

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EPA Staff Losing Access to Journals

WASHINGTON, DC, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to greatly reduce the number of technical journals and environmental publications to which its employees will have online access, according to agency e-mails released by a government watchdog group. The move follows a slew of library closures across the federal agency and could leave many EPA employees without access to either a hard copy or an electronic version of publications relevant to their work.

"EPA's professionals need current information in order to do their jobs, but with each passing month, even these basic tools are being put off limits," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which released the agency e-mails. "EPA is entering its own Dark Age, where both the inward and outward flows of information are being strained through an ever-narrowing sieve."

The e-mails cite budgetary shortfalls for the decision to cancel online subscriptions to technical journals and other publications.

Cancellations of online subscriptions will be felt more sharply in some EPA offices and regions than others. For example, one e-mail notes: "Region 3 [Mid-Atlantic Region] needs to cut its journal renewals about in half and the journals in question are very expensive." Other offices will face cuts of as yet unspecified but likely comparable dimensions, according to PEER.

EPA managers had sought to ease employee concerns about library closures by claiming that the agency "is implementing a new library plan to make environmental information more accessible to employees," according to a mid-September e-mail sent to all Headquarters employees concerning the closure of the Headquarters library.

But the e-mails released by PEER cast doubt on that plan. The group noted that cancellation of hard copy subscriptions occasioned by library closures has actually driven up online subscription costs, as online discounts for hard copy subscribers have been forfeit.

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New York Sues Coal-Fired Power Plant

ALBANY, New York, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - New York state officials announced plans Thursday to sue Rochester Gas & Electric Company for violations of clean air laws at one of the company's coal-fired power plants. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sent the company of notice of intent letter identifying Clean Air Act violations at its Russell Station power plant in Greece, New York. The law requires such a letter be sent at least 60 days before a suit is filed.

"The state informed RG&E over six years ago that its plant was violating the law, but the company refused to cut its air pollution," Spitzer said. "A lawsuit will ask the court to compel the company to take appropriate steps to curtail its harmful emissions."

The Russell Station, built in 1948, is one of the New York's oldest power plants. Last year, it emitted more than 1,800 tons of nitrogen oxides and 15,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, compounds linked to serious environmental damage and public health problems.

The state's lawsuit will allege that the company made major upgrades to the plant, but failed to install the necessary pollution controls as required by law.

"Projects undertaken illegally by RG&E at the Russell Station facility are resulting in the excessive emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide and New York State is committed to holding violators accountable," said Denise Sheehan, commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. "Through the implementation of appropriate pollution control technology at power plants statewide, we will continue to reduce harmful power plant emissions and furthering Governor Pataki's record of significant air quality improvements."

The lawsuit will build on a national clean air initiative begun in 1999 - Spitzer has filed lawsuits against companies that own polluting coal-fired plants in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Those suits have led to reductions in harmful emissions that drift on prevailing winds and contribute to acid rain and smog in the Northeast.

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Watchdog Group Blasts Ford for Ethanol Loophole

WASHINGTON, DC, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - The Ford Motor Company is misleading the public and the government about several of its vehicles that claim to operate on ethanol, according to letters sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by the watchdog group Public Citizen.

The letter to NHTSA alleges that several of Ford's flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) do not qualify for credits against the company's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard - the credits increase the CAFE standard for Ford's entire fleet, allowing it to sell more vehicles with lower gas mileage. FFVs qualify for the credits under the assumption that the vehicles use gasoline 50 percent of time and the ethanol fuel E-85 the other 50 percent. That doesn't happen in reality, according to Public Citizen, which called on the FTC to sanction Ford for deceptive advertising and require the company to correct its current ads for its entire FFV fleet.

The letter complains that Ford claims its model year 2003 to 2005 Taurus and Mercury Sable FFVs qualify for the credits and advertises them as "hassle-free and environmentally sound driving." Public Citizen asserts that Ford is misleading the public in its advertising because E-85 is not widely available and because its Taurus vehicles do not operate properly with the fuel.

It is widely known that few FFVs actually use E-85, which is only available at about 900 of the nation's 176,000 gas stations.

Public Citizen criticizes Ford for advertising FFVs in nine states that have zero fuel stations that sell E-85 and in an additional 12 states that contain five or fewer E-85 fuel stations.

Furthermore, the group asserts that Ford has received numerous complaints from customers that the Taurus and Sable are unable to operate properly on E-85.

"Ford is misleading consumers into thinking they are buying efficient and environmentally friendly cars, while taking advantage of a perverse system that rewards car makers for building vehicles that do just the opposite," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "Ford's flex-fuel vehicle is grossly misnamed; it isn't flexible and doesn't run on alternative fuel."

Public Citizen was alerted to the Taurus defect by David Buss, a Nebraska corn farmer, who purchased a Ford vehicle marketed as a flex-fuel vehicle. Buss also has filed complaints with the FTC and the Nebraska Attorney General, and he has sent Ford a letter demanding a refund for his vehicle.

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Giant Pandas See World in Color

ATLANTA, Georgia, October 13, 2006 (ENS) - New research shows that the world's most famous black and white animal sees in color. The study, published in the psychology journal "Learning and Behavior," was completed by the researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Zoo Atlanta.

Graduate researcher Angela Kelling tested the ability of two Zoo Atlanta pandas, Yang Yang and Lun Lun, to see color and found that both pandas were able to discriminate between colors and various shades of gray.

"My study shows that giant pandas have some sort of color vision," said Kelling, graduate student in Georgia Tech's Center for Conservation Behavior in the School of Psychology. "Most likely, their vision is dichromatic, since that seems to be the trend for carnivores."

Vision is not a well-studied aspect of bears, including the giant pandas. It has long been thought that bears have poor vision, perhaps, Kelling said, because they have such excellent senses of smell and hearing.

Some experts have thought that bears must have some sort of color vision as it would help them in identifying edible plants from the inedible ones, although there's been little experimental evidence of this. But one experiment on black bears found some evidence that bears could tell blue from gray and green from gray. Kelling used this study's design as the basis to test color vision in Zoo Atlanta's giant pandas.

Over a two-year period, Kelling investigated whether giant pandas can tell the difference between colors and shades of gray. In separate tests, the two pandas were presented with three PVC pipes, two hanging under a piece of paper that contained one of 18 shades of gray and one that contained a color - red, green or blue. If the panda pushed the pipe located under a color, it received a reward. If it pushed one of the pipes under the gray paper, it received nothing.

Kelling tested each color separately against gray. In the green versus gray tests, the bears' performance in choosing green was variable, but mostly above chance. In the red versus gray tests, both bears performed above chance every single time. Only Lun Lun completed the blue versus green tests because Yang Yang had a tooth problem that prevented him from eating the treats used as reinforcement. For this trial, Lun Lun performed below chance only once.

"While this study shows that giant pandas have some color vision, it wasn't conclusive as to what level of color vision they have," said Kelling. "From this study, we can't tell if the pandas can tell the difference between the colors themselves, like red from blue, or blue from green."

"But we can see that they can determine if something is gray or colored," Kelling added. "That ability and the accompanying visual acuity could lead to the pandas being better able to forage for bamboo. For instance, to determine whether to head for a bamboo patch that is healthy and colorful as opposed to one that is brown and dying."