GAO Report Cites Concerns About Superfund CleanupWASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should develop indicators to measure the outcomes of Superfund cleanup efforts, according to a report released today by the General Accounting Office (GAO).
The GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, was asked to examine the current status of the Superfund program, its future outlook and the factors used by the agency to determine which sites are selected for the program.
It found that the EPA lacks indicators "to fully measure the outcomes of the program's cleanup efforts."
Although the agency has asked an advisory council to develop criteria by which to measure the program's progress, the GAO says it is "unclear whether the advisory council will reach consensus on its recommendations and its findings are not expected until December 2003 at the earliest."
Performance indicators, the GAO says, could "help EPA and the Congress make the difficult funding, policy, and program decisions that the current budget environment demands."
And these funding, policy and program decisions are unlikely to get any easier.
The GAO reports that the number of sites that have no identifiable nonfederal source to fund their clean up is growing, and there is increasing evidence that this trend will continue and expand.
This is happening as the agency is increasingly relying on appropriations from the general fund for the program because the balance of the Superfund trust fund has decreased significantly since 1996, the GAO says.
Congress created the trust fund to pay for cleanups of non government sites and devised "polluter pays fees" to fund it, but this provision expired in 1995.
The trust fund was at a historic high of some $3.6 billion in 1995 when the provision expired, but is likely to be completely depleted by 2004 - forcing the government to pay entirely for future Superfund cleanup.
The GAO report noted that 80 percent of the program's total fiscal year 2004 budget request is from the general fund.
The inconsistent and unpredictable funding for Superfund means the effects of the EPA's actions to address future program challenges "remains uncertain," according to the GAO.
The report finds that funding decisions are also at play in determining which sites are added to the Superfund list. Of the many factors used by the EPA, "the most prominent of which are the availability of alternative federal or state programs that could be used to clean up the site, the status of responsible parties associated with the sites and the cost and complexity of cleanup required."
Critics of the Bush administration say it is undermining the future success of the Superfund program by not funding it at needed levels.
A study by the non profit research group Resources for the Future says the Superfund program needs annual funding of between $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion. Using these figures, the U.S Public Interest Research Group says that the Bush administration has under funded the Superfund program by some $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion from 2001 through 2004.
Seventy million people, including some 10 million children, live within four miles of the nation's more than 1,230 Superfund sites. Children are most vulnerable to the arsenic, DDT and brain-damaging toxins like lead and mercury that are found in the water and soil at these locations.
EPA Ends 25 Year Ban on Selling PCB Polluted LandWASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - An internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo obtained and reported by the newspaper "USA Today" indicates that the agency has lifted a 25 year old ban on the sale of land polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
PCBs were banned in the United States in the 1977 and are among the "dirty dozen" chemical contaminants slated for global phase out under the United Nations treaty on persistent organic pollutants. PCBs are highly persistent, and they have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.
According to the internal agency memo, the EPA has determined the ban was "an unnecessary barrier to redevelopment [and] may actually delay the cleanup of contaminated properties."
The memo says the agency did not make the change public because it was simply a reinterpretation of the law.
The memo was written and sent by EPA General Counsel Robert Fabricant on August 14 - the same day Fabricant, who came to the agency with former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, submitted his resignation from the EPA.
EPA has permitted its regional offices to lift the ban if the buyer of a contaminated property is willing to clean it up, and this new interpretation rests largely on that policy.
More than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were manufactured in the United States prior to cessation of production in 1977 and the EPA estimates more than 1,000 properties nationwide are contaminated.
Due to their nonflammability, chemical stability, high boiling point and electrical insulating properties, PCBs were used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications, in paints, plastics and rubber products, as well as in pigments, dyes and carbonless copy paper and many other applications.
Last month Monsanto and its spin off company Solutia agreed to pay $700 million to settle lawsuits over PCB pollution in Anniston, Alabama.
Conservationists Blast Bush Dam PoliciesBOISE, Idaho, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of business, fishing, and conservation groups last week warned the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries agency that the operation of 10 dams and reservoirs on the upper Snake River in Idaho needs to be reevaluated to avoid harm to salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Attorneys for Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers and the National Wildlife Federation notified the agencies and Interior Secretary Gale Norton in a letter that a lawsuit will be filed unless steps are taken to ensure that the upper Snake projects comply with the ESA.
"Our letter puts the agencies on notice that they must fulfill their role in the regional salmon recovery effort by providing necessary water flows from the upper Snake River," said Laird Lucas, an attorney with Advocates for the West, a non profit environmental law firm that is representing the groups along with Earthjustice.
At issue is whether NOAA Fisheries' 2001 Upper Snake River Biological Opinion is adequate to protect the fish. The biological opinion is intended to insure that operation of the upper Snake River projects and dams does not harm federally protected salmon and steelhead.
In that biological opinion NOAA Fisheries concluded that Bureau of Reclamation operation of the projects would not jeopardize the protected species, a finding the coalition disputes.
They maintain that a recent ruling by the federal district court in Oregon invalidating the federal salmon plan for the federal hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers requires the Bureau and NOAA Fisheries to take a new look at the Bureau's dam operations in the upper Snake River basin.
In addition, the coalition contends that NOAA Fisheries failed to conduct adequate analysis in analyzing upper Snake River project impacts when it issued the 2001 biological opinion currently in place.
"This case is about complying with the law," said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League. "The plan for operating the upper Snake projects is illegal because it relies largely on another plan that has been ruled illegal. That situation needs to be corrected to make sure salmon get the water they need to survive."
In a visit to Ice Harbor Dam on August 22, President George Bush restated his opposition to removing the four lower Snake River dams - including Ice Harbor. Conservationists, and many government scientists, believe removing the dams is the best way to restore salmon to the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
"The Bush administration should not be allowed to have it both ways," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers. "If the lower Snake River dams are not going to be removed, the administration must deliver the water necessary to adequately mitigate the harm caused by the dams. The salmon recovery menu does not let you order up low flows with your dams, but that is precisely what the administration seems to crave. An objective and credible analysis of this situation is long overdue."
Conservationists have also criticized the Bush administration for recurring violations of the Clean Water Act in the Columbia and Snake Rivers and for policies some believe seek to exempt federal dams from the law.
Energy Secretary Announces Carbon Sequestration PartnershipsWASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham today announced the selection of seven regional teams to help build the framework needed to develop carbon sequestration technologies and put them into action.
Abraham said the announcement of the seven teams - called Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships - is the most comprehensive move yet in the continuing effort to address U.S. carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
"We must continue finding ways to ensure that coal, our most abundant power source, remains a viable energy alternative," Abraham said. "The Energy Department has accomplished a great deal in the field of emission reductions and energy efficiencies, but we will continue our focus on coal, since it is a major part of the energy resources we need to support the nation's growing economy and consumer demand."
Storing carbon dioxide inside coal seams or reservoirs far below the Earth's surface, rather than releasing the gas into the atmosphere, is a tempting prospect. It could reduce the overall emissions of a greenhouse gas most believe is largely responsible for global warming, without forcing an actual change in the amount of emissions produced.
Critics question whether the administration's plans fully acknowledges the cost and technical limitations of current sequestration technologies or the size of meaningful sequestration efforts.
The new partnerships, which are funded by more than $18.1 million, include leaders from more than 140 organizations spanning 33 states, three American Indian nations, and two Canadian provinces. Each team will evaluate and promote the technologies and infrastructure best suited to its region.
During Phase I of the partnerships, each team will work within its own multistate region to establish regional baselines for CO2 sources and sinks, identify and address issues for carbon sequestration technology deployment, as well as to assess environmental permitting, public awareness, and effects on ecosystems.
The partnerships support President Bush's Global Climate Change Initiative, which calls for an 18 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas intensity by 2012.
The Bush administration has received widespread criticism for its policies on C02 emissions and climate change, including allegations that the White House deleted references to global warming from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the environment.
Many scientists worldwide are convinced that greenhouse gas emissions, in particular C02, are causing the climate to change and the globe to warm. But the administration is steadfast in its policy that the science behind climate change is too uncertain for mandatory reductions of C02 emissions.
Last week the Bush administration announced that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions.
House Puts Bike Path, Sidewalk Funding on Chopping BlockWASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - The House of Representatives is poised to eliminate funding for safe bicycling and walking facilities, according to bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups. The full House is set to vote on the fiscal year 2004 appropriations bill for the U.S. Transportation Department later this week, and the current legislation eliminates dedicated funding for the Transportation Enhancements program.
Since 1991, the program has provided funds to help communities build more than 8,000 sidewalks, multi-use paths, and other facilities for bicycling and walking.
"If Congress passes this measure as it stands, thousands of communities will have to shelve plans that would have given residents more transportation choices and a shot at better health," said Keith Laughlin, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a board member of America Bikes.
Laughlin is urging House members to support a proposed amendment to restore funding for the program to the previously proposed level of some $600 million.
The funds were stripped from the program in favor of additional funding for highway construction projects, a move critics say reflects the misguided and short sighted transportation policy of the current House leadership and the Bush administration.
The appropriations bill increases highway funding by $6.1 billion over 2003.
Laughlin and others note that the vote, set for Thursday, comes one week after a scientific study published in the "American Journal of Health Promotion" found that Americans who live in more sprawling areas generally weigh more and are more likely to have high blood pressure. The study determined that people who live in sprawl areas walk less because of distance, lack of sidewalks and other barriers.
In addition, a report released on August 19 by the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that there is increasing evidence of health risks from air pollution caused by the nation's growing reliance on automobile based transportation.
Providing people with options to bike or walk is critical to reversing this trend, according to the report by the public policy group.
Water Projects Could Threaten Arkansas SongbirdsATHENS, Georgia, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - Bottomland forests in the lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley are threatened by agricultural conversion, and much of the remaining forest is actively managed by timber harvest, but new research from the University of Georgia shows that a bigger threat to local songbirds may come from proposed projects that threaten the water to the region.
A study by University of Georgia researchers examined the effects of timber harvest operations in bottomland forests by measuring the reproductive ecology of prothonotary warblers in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas.
The refuge covers more than 60,000 hectares and is almost entirely bottomland hardwood forest largely consisting of Nuttall oak, overcup oak, and bitter pecan trees. The timber is actively managed for habitat diversity and oak regeneration, among other objectives and regular flooding occurs in late winter and early spring.
The researchers explained that they focused on the prothonotary warbler as an indicator because of its relationship to this kind of forest.
"Virtually every ecosystem has at least one bird species that is so intimately tied to that system that they could be seen as ecological indicators," said Robert Cooper, professor in the wildlife program of the Daniel B. Warnell School of Forest Resources at the University of Georgia.
"The prothonotary warbler is found virtually nowhere other than forested wetlands, and that is the primary makeup of this area," Cooper said. "That is also why it is so important to assess the full effects of our land management decisions before they are implemented."
Cooper and wildlife graduate student Jill Gannon found that nest success for the warblers seemed to correlate with water levels in the system.
"We believe that protection is afforded to nests built over water," said Cooper, "and that alternative abundant prey like fish and crayfish are available to some nest predators like raccoons. In dry periods, nests are relatively unprotected and alternative, aquatic prey is not as readily available."
The major cause of nest failure in the study was nest depredation by a variety of forest dwelling predators such as raccoons, woodpeckers, and rat snakes. Years with normal flooding resulted in higher nest success, and dry years, or dry periods within wet breeding seasons, resulted in increased nest depredation.
Cooper and Gannon say three proposed water management projects on the White River - which would alter flows in the river and its floodplain - are a significant threat to the system.
One of the major proposed projects, the Grand Prairie irrigation project, would draw water directly out of the White River to irrigate about 240,000 acres of cropland. Other projects proposed or under construction on the White River are a navigation improvement project and a lock-and-dam project to promote barge traffic.
Proponents of the Grand Prairie irrigation project say it is necessary to preserve the region's farm based economy, but critics say the project threatens the river basin.
"If we listen to what this indicator is telling us," said Cooper, "then the threat to the river basin is real."
Hawaii Native Forests Need Conservation Cooperation, FundingHONOLULU, Hawaii, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - A new era of public-private cooperation and investment to preserve the Hawaii's native forests, according to a new public awareness report.
"Land Stand - the Vanishing Hawaiian Forest," released last week in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the state forest reserve system, makes the case for renewing the public private commitment to forest and watershed protection that sparked the creation of the forest reserve system a century ago.
"The long term survival of Hawaii's native forests is at a critical historical juncture," said Suzanne Case, executive director with the Nature Conservancy, which produce the report in cooperation with Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Malama Hawaii.
"A decade of chronic budget shortfalls has left forest managers struggling to sustain watersheds, battle the nation's worst extinction crisis and stem a silent invasion of alien plants and animals," Case said. "A new era of public-private cooperation and investment is urgently needed to secure our future water supply and ensure the long term survival of our native forests - just as it was a century ago."
Hawaii's native forests evolved over millions of years, but since the onset of human arrival some 1,500 years ago their history has largely been one of loss and destruction.
More than half of the islands' native cover has been lost and the greater threat remains from invasive weeds such as miconia as well as wild pigs and other feral animals.
This is no small threat to biodiversity - more than one-third of the plants and birds on the U.S. Endangered Species List are from Hawaii.
When spiders, snails, and insects are included, some 60 percent of Hawaii's total native flora and fauna is endangered, by far the highest percentage of any state.
But the state, which has the stewardship responsibilities for almost half of Islands' 1.5 million acres of forested lands, is currently spending less than one percent of its budget to protect and manage all of its natural and cultural resources, the report finds.
Hawaii's state owned forest reserve system is the 11th largest in the country, yet it ranks 48th in the nation for state spending on fisheries and wildlife.
The report's key recommendations are for lawmakers to provide dedicated funding for enhanced alien species prevention and for the recent statewide movement toward watershed partnerships. Watershed partnerships are voluntary alliances of public and private landowners committed to the common value of protecting large areas of forested watersheds for water recharge and conservation values.
"Watershed partnerships represent our best hope for long term protection of Hawaii's watersheds and native forest resources," said Case. "But secure, dedicated public funding is essential for landowners to make the long term commitment of their lands and resources necessary for the protection of this most precious public resource."
Gator Could Be Nature's Top ChomperGAINESVILLE, Florida, September 2, 2003 (ENS) - The alligator appears to have the most powerful bite of all known creatures, researchers say. The findings come as part of a study measuring the force alligators exert when they clamp down their toothy jaws.
It shows that American alligators bite harder than any other member of the animal kingdom yet studied, including lions, hyenas, some species of sharks and wolves as well as people, said Kent Vliet, a University of Florida zoologist.
Vliet is an author of a paper about alligators' biting prowess that appeared last month in the "Journal of Zoology of London." His colleagues in this study were Gregory Erickson, a professor of anatomy and vertebrate paleobiology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and Kristopher Lappin, a biologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
To test the gators' bites, the scientists built "bite bars" - metal bars resembling large tuning forks. The bars, which were covered in leather to prevent damage to the alligators' teeth, contained strain gauges that measure force.
The researchers presented the bars, which were of varying length and thickness for different sized alligators, to more than 40 captive gators ranging from about one foot to more than 12 feet at an alligator farm.
"The hardest part of the work was getting the bite bar back from them, because they would often hold onto it for 20 minutes, and it is delicate equipment," Vliet said. "We did not really want them walking off with it."
The largest alligator in the study - a 12 and a half foot gator named Hercules - bit down with a more than 2,100 pounds of force.
That is more forceful than all living animals measured, Vliet said.
The lion, for example, has a bite force of about 940 pounds, slightly less than the hyena's roughly 1,000 pounds. The dusky shark, which was the only shark tested, achieves about 330 pounds, while a common dog, the Labrador, bites at about 125 pounds.
The gator chomp may even be mightier than some dinosaurs, Vliet said. Although tyrannosaurus rex may have bitten with a force of some 3,300 pounds, smaller theropod dinosaurs, or bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs, may have bitten with a force of no more than 450 pounds.
Vliet, who studies alligator ecology, said he is interested in alligators' bite force because their varied diet often includes turtles.
To consume the animals, alligators have to crack their shells, which raises the question for Vliet of much force is involved.
Alligators, for their part, seem to have an innate understanding of their mouths' crushing potential, Vliet said.
When eating turtles, he explained, alligators often maneuver the animals to the back of their mouths, then squeeze them like jawbreakers until they either "pop" the shell or abandon the effort.