AmeriScan: October 19, 2006

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Bush Plans Massive Increase in Oil and Gas Wells

WASHINGTON, DC, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - The Bush administration is putting plans in place to approve more than 118,000 new gas and oil wells on public land across the western United States, double the current amount of producing wells on public lands throughout the Rocky Mountains. The plans are documented in a new report released Wednesday by The Wilderness Society, which the drilling boom would have devastating impacts to wildlife and local communities.

The report warns that 17 "still wild but unprotected areas" are threatened by the oil and gas drilling plan, including five sites in Colorado, four in Wyoming, and eight others in Alaska, California, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Utah.

"Oil and gas development is a legitimate activity on public lands, but the administration is not meeting its responsibilities to balance this development with its legal obligations to protect the air, water, and wildlife," said William Meadows, president of The Wilderness Society. "We are about to see gas drilling at a magnitude greater than anything we've experienced, and it threatens to forever damage many of our most treasured Western places."

Some 63,000 wells are currently producing on public lands. The average well impacts approximately 10 acres - therefore a future drilling boom of 118,000 wells could mar more than 1 million Western acres, fragmenting wildlife habitat and polluting air and water.

Wyoming leads the way with 50,528 planned new wells. The other totals are: Montana, 26,095; Colorado, 22,802; New Mexico, 11,273; and Utah, 8,502.

These results are from a preliminary review of pending and current federal actions authorizing drilling of new wells, which was conducted to gauge the magnitude of drilling being approved, and likely underestimates the magnitude of drilling activities that could occur on public lands in the region.

"Considering the impact that 63,000 producing wells are already having on our public lands, it is hard to imagine, let alone accept, how our water, air, and wildlife will be affected by twice as many new wells," said Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center, which completed the analysis. "Even the agencies responsible for managing our public lands are uncomfortable with the relentless push for more leasing. The administration needs to scale back and stop going after our most fragile public lands."

The report warns that federal agencies do not have the resources to adequately protect the environment from the expanded drilling and notes that oil and gas companies already have tremendous access to public lands.

A 2003 BLM report indicates that 85 percent of the oil and 88 percent of gas on federal lands in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Wyoming are available for leasing and development.

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Sierra Frog May Get Endangered Species Protection

SAN FRANCISCO, California, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must reconsider its decision to delay listing the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog under the Endangered Species Act, according to a ruling issued Wednesday by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In January 2003, after being sued by conservation groups, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the species deserved listing as an endangered species under the law, but that listing was "precluded" because the Service was too busy doing work with other species.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service basically agreed the yellow-legged frog was in serious trouble and needed to go to the emergency room, but then never let it in the hospital," said Michael Sherwood, an attorney for Earthjustice who brought the case to the Ninth Circuit on behalf of conservation groups. "This has been the fate of numerous imperiled species under the Bush administration. But today the court told the Service it needs to reconsider that decision. We hope that this time the Service will take the opportunity to do the right thing and give this species the legal protection it so desperately needs."

Historically the most abundant frog in the Sierra Nevada, the species is distributed widely in high elevation lakes and streams from Plumas to Tulare Counties.

Recent surveys have found that the species has disappeared from 70 to 90 percent of its former habitat. Remaining frog populations are widely scattered and consist of few breeding adults. What was thought to be one of the largest remaining populations, containing 2000 adult frogs as recently as 1996, has collapsed to only two frogs in a 1999 survey.

"The mountain yellow-legged frog clearly warrants immediate listing as endangered," said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Now the Fish and Wildlife Service must end their delay tactics."

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U.S. Moves to Protect Longleaf Pine Forests

MOULTRIE, Georgia, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - U.S. agriculture officials on Wednesday announced a new conservation reserve program initiative aimed at restoring some 250,000 acres of longleaf forests in nine southern states. The announcement was made by U.S. Farm Service Agency Administrator Teresa Lasseter and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican.

The program provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to reduce soil erosion, protect the nation's ability to produce food and fiber, reduce sedimentation in streams and lakes, improve water quality, establish wildlife habitat, and enhance forest and wetland resources.

Longleaf pine forests play an important role in the overall environmental and financial health of the South. These forests once covered 70-90 million acres in a great arc from Virginia to Texas, but have been reduced to only about 3 million acres remain over the past century.

Producers in the states of the natural range of longleaf pine forests may sign up to participate. They include: Alabama (37,000 acres), Florida (42,750 acres), Georgia (44,750 acres), Louisiana (36,250 acres), Mississippi (21,500 acres), North Carolina (32,250 acres), South Carolina (21,000 acres), Texas (10,750 acres) and Virginia (3,750 acres).

Robert Bonnie, codirector of the land, water and wildlife program for Environmental Defense, praised the initiative as a "great boost for longleaf pine, landowners and wildlife."

"The Farm Service Agency's action today provides landowners with powerful incentives to restore up to 250,000 acres of longleaf pine on farmland," Bonnie added. "These future forests will restore rare wildlife habitat, boost bob white quail and turkey populations, and produce valuable forest products for decades to come."

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Conservationists Call for Protection of Wyoming High Plains

LARAMIE, Wyoming, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - Conservation groups on Thursday announced a new proposal to protect 28,000 acres of high plains wilderness on federal public land northwest of Casper, Wyoming.

The new proposed wilderness, called the South Fork of the Powder, stretches eastward from Notches across about 28,000 acres of public land, ten miles north of the community of Powder River.

The area, which is on land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, includes grassland breaks, flats, and rims dissected by intermittent waterways, with wooded domes at the western end and the South Fork of the Powder River near its eastern end.

It is an area rich in wildlife, ranging from antelope to hawks and eagles, and including rare and sensitive wildlife like the sage grouse, mountain plover, and white-tailed prairie dog.

"Most of our wilderness areas today are in forest or alpine environments, with very little protected wilderness in our grasslands and deserts," said Erik Molvar, a biologist with Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. "This area is a beautiful example of Wyoming's shortgrass prairies, and its protection would add a new dimension not currently represented in the national wilderness system."

The BLM is currently revising its Casper Resource Management Plan, which covers the lands in the wilderness proposal. The conservation groups called for the BLM to protect the outstanding natural qualities of the South Fork of the Powder unit from industrial development through the new Casper resource management plan.

"This area is part of the Hole-in-the-Wall core area, one of the ten highest priority areas for conservation identified by the Northern Plains Conservation Network, a diverse coalition of conservation groups ranging from the World Wildlife Fund to the Denver Zoo," added Molvar. "This entire Hole-in-the-Wall area is a world-class grassland system which deserves to be prioritized for long-term conservation."

Other important issues in the plan include whether the BLM will strengthen its current ineffective wildlife protections, whether the BLM will require cutting-edge oil and gas techniques to reduce impacts to the land, and the potential for selling off over 120,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands, primarily in Platte, Goshen, and eastern Converse Counties.

"With the pace of Wyoming's accelerated energy development, every square foot of pristine Wyoming prairie lands should be spared from drilling rigs, new roads, and power- and pipelines," said Liz Howell, director of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. "Many are finding that the best key we have to lasting protection is wilderness designation."

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California Faces Storm Season With Damaged Levees

SACRAMENTO, California, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - Officials from the state of California state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have identified at least 71 more damaged levee sections throughout the Central Valley that could fail this winter. The need for repair is termed "urgent," as officials fear the upcoming flood season could be severe and are racing to get the levee repaired before the winter storms.

Progress is being made. The California Department of Water Resources, DWR, this week announced completion of structural repairs to 12 critical levee sites in the Central Valley flood control system. Repairs to the remaining 17 original erosion sites are on schedule to be finished by November 1, ahead of this year's flood season.

"We have been moving at full speed since Governor Schwarzenegger signed a State of Emergency for California's levee system in February," said DWR Director Lester Snow. "It's unacceptable to not do everything possible to complete these repairs when so many people and property are at high risk."

Repairs to four erosion sites that were added to the project in August are scheduled to be complete by November 30.

Meanwhile, new tools have also been given to the Department of Water Resources to prevent a Katrina-like flood disaster in California.

"Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger's October 3 Executive Order (S-18-06) allows us to help cash strapped agencies repair their critically eroded levees and other infrastructure without incurring undue long-term cost to the state," said Snow.

The executive order authorizes the Department of Water Resources to utilize funds from Assembly Bill 142. The bill appropriates $500 million from the General Fund for flood control system evaluation, repair and improvement.

Although these repairs are the federal government's responsibility, federal funding currently is not available. The Governor's executive order allows state funds from AB 142 to be advanced to the federal government for these repairs.

DWR has contracted with the Corps to fund work on some levee sites, and additional contracts are in the pipeline. The state will work closely with the federal government to expedite the issuance of federal permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries, and the Corps of Engineers to comply with federal environmental laws.

Earlier this year, DWR and the U.S. Corps obtained more than 50 permits and approvals from state and federal agencies to repair critical erosion sites.

Up to $50 million will be available for grants to local agencies throughout the state. With 50-50 cost-sharing, approximately $100 million could be spent on flood infrastructure evaluations and repairs.

DWR is developing guidelines and criteria for the award of grants to local agencies. Information on emergency levee repairs can be found online at: http://www.levees.water.ca.gov/.

"We must address the health of the delta because our current practices are not sustainable," said Schwarzenegger. "My executive order and the signing of this bill will help ensure that a plan exists to determine how to deal with the challenges facing the delta today and in the future."

The Delta Vision builds on work done through the CALFED Program, which will continue to focus on water supply and ecosystem restoration. Delta Vision will encompass the Delta's full array of infrastructure and land-use resources.

Delta water sustains more than 500,000 people who live in the Delta, more than 300,000 acres of agriculture within the Delta, and 750 plant and animal species that inhabit the Delta.

The governor also signed SB 1574, a bill that will create a cabinet-level committee to develop a plan for a sustainable delta. The bill requires the strategic vision developed by the committee, including sustainable flood management strategies, sustainable water supply uses, and sustainable ecosystem functions.

A copy of the October 3, 2006 executive order can be found online at: http://gov.ca.gov/index.php?/press-release/4263/

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Pennsylvania Seeks $8.89 Million for Norfolk Southern Rail Spill

MEADVILLE, Pennsylvania, October 19, 2006 (ENS) - The Department of Environmental Protection is seeking at least $8.89 million in penalties from Norfolk Southern for the damage caused by a train derailment June 30 that spilled 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide. The spill affected waterways in McKean and Cameron counties.

The spilled chemical wiped out fish and aquatic life in Big Fill Run at the accident site spill and along a 7.5 mile segment of Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek. It also affected the aquatic environment in the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek.

"The waterways, wetlands and soil all paid a price when that speeding train derailed and the tank cars split open," DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty said.

In the first of two actions, DEP today filed a complaint with the Environmental Hearing Board, EHB, citing the company for violations of the state's Clean Streams Law and requesting $5.41 million for discharges into Big Fill Run, Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek, Sinnemahoning Creek and associated wetlands.

That penalty covers discharges that occurred between the date of the accident and the EHB filing today. The department is seeking an ongoing civil penalty of $46,420 a day for discharges that continue past today.

In the second action, DEP assessed a $3.48 million civil penalty for violations of the state's Solid Waste Management Act and Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act for the unpermitted disposal of wastes and the release of hazardous substances related to the accident.

"The discharges that devastated and continue to affect this environmentally pristine area violate a number of state laws and regulations," McGinty said.

The accident occurred near the McKean County village of Gardeau, spilling sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, into Big Fill Run and the Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, damaging those waterways and severely affecting the Driftwood Branch. The effects of the spill were observed as much as 30 miles downstream from the derailment site.

An unknown amount of the 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide also soaked into the ground in and around the derailment site. This residual material must be addressed and cleaned up to ensure a complete recovery of Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, which is designated as an exceptional value and wild trout stream.

The department has established a website that includes a brief summary and answers to frequently asked questions about the derailment and its aftermath. That information is available at: www.depweb.state.pa.us. Click on "Northwest" or "Northcentral" on the left side of the page, then "Community Involvement," then "Norfolk Southern Train Derailment."

In addition, DEP has established a public file repository, which includes water sample results, at the Cameron County Conservation District Office in Room 105 of the courthouse in Emporium. Residents should contact Conservation District Manager Jan Hampton at 814-486-9353 or ccconservation@cameroncountypa.com to arrange a file review.

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