- AmeriScan: September 15, 2003 AmeriScan: September 15, 2003

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Energy Department Asked to Study Plutonium Shipment

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - In a letter sent today to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, 62 U.S. and international public interest groups requested that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared on a proposed military style shipment of weapons grade plutonium to France.

The groups expressed concern about the environmental and security risks of the unprecedented land and sea transport of 150 kilograms of "surplus" U.S. military plutonium - enough for 50 or more high yield nuclear weapons.

The shipment is set to be sent to Cadarache, a French plutonium fuel factory permanently shut down due to seismic safety concerns.

"If the French facility is unsafe for further handling of European plutonium, how can it possibly be safe for processing U.S. military plutonium?," asked Tom Clements of Greenpeace International.

The groups say the Energy Department appears to being trying to avoid preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) - even though this is mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

The Energy Department must be held "strictly accountable to US environmental laws and prepare an SEIS on this dangerous, unnecessary shipment of plutonium to France," said Mary Olson, of the Nuclear Information and Resource Services Southeastern office in Asheville, North Carolina. "The global commons must not be put at risk by Energy Department's disregard of environmental concerns and post-9/11 security risks."

According to a department document obtained by Greenpeace International, the shipment would involve land transport from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to an east coast port and then sea shipment to Europe. The plutonium would be fabricated into experimental fuel - plutonium-uranium mixed oxide, or MOX - for testing in a U.S. reactor.

The MOX testing is part of DOE's plutonium disposition program, which is centered on construction of a $2 billion U.S. MOX plant at DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

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EPA Budget Cuts Undermining Core Programs

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is facing "significant reductions to [its] core programs," according to a memo from the agency's Chief Financial Officer released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The September 8 memo, written by EPA's Chief Financial Officer Linda Combs to acting Administrator Marianne Horinko, centers on the Senate version of the agency's proposed budget for fiscal year 2004, which officially begins in two weeks on October 1.

Although the Senate increased EPA's proposed budget, it did so by directing $750 million to local water projects and Congressional earmarks. In order to pay for this new spending while staying within budget caps, the bill mandates large cutbacks "to EPA core programs."

The core programs this is likely to impact include Superfund cleanup of toxic sites, grants to states for implementing anti pollution laws, and programs ranging from combating particulates to protecting the water quality of the Great Lakes.

The Combs memo warns, "despite the increase to the over-all Agency [budget] total, the prospects for our core programs are sobering..."

For example, in the area of Environmental Program Management, Combs states that congressional "add ons" will necessitate "a general reduction of more than $40,000,000, the largest in recent memory to this account."

The Superfund program, already under strain from the expiration of the polluter pays tax, faces a $125 million reduction in the amount requested by the Bush administration. Grants to fund state anti pollution efforts face a $72 million cut and the EPA's science and technology programs are set for a $60 million cut.

PEER says that although the Senate version of the EPA budget is pending on the Senate floor the "very misleading" overall budget increases will make reversal of the Senate Appropriation Committee's actions difficult.

"Today, EPA is a rudderless bureaucracy without strong leadership capable of protecting its mission," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Without strong intervention by an as yet indifferent administration, the nation's basic environmental safety net may be ripped apart by hundreds of short knives carving out pork barrel projects."

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New Lawsuits Filed to Tighten Pesticide Regulation

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2003 - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is failing to adequately protect children from dangerous pesticides, according to two lawsuits filed today in federal district court in New York City.

One lawsuit was filed by a coalition of environmental, public health and farm worker organizations, and the other by four states - New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Both lawsuits say the EPA is violating the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, a bipartisan law passed unanimously by Congress requiring the agency to protect the health of infants and children.

The lawsuits ask the court to force the EPA to comply with the Food Quality Protection Act's key provision that requires the agency to protect infants and children 10 times more stringently than adults, unless it can show that children do not have special sensitivities or exposure.

"The EPA is ignoring the threat toxic pesticides pose to children who work on farms and other children who live nearby," said Aaron Colangelo, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

In 1998 NRDC and more than 60 other organizations petitioned the EPA in 1998 to address the risks pesticides pose to farm children, but the agency never responded to the petition.

"The EPA also illegally bases some of its most important pesticide safety decisions on a secret, industry-funded computer program that it refuses to reveal to the public," Colangelo said. "This is an unacceptable violation of the law and the public trust."

Congress inserted the stricter provisions to protect infants and children into the Food Quality Protection Act on the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that infants and children are more susceptible and more exposed to many toxic pesticides than adults.

A year ago, the EPA's independent scientific review panel on pesticides found that the agency erred by failing to apply the tenfold safety factor when reviewing the cumulative risks of organophosphate insecticides, which are among the most dangerous pesticides on the market.

"Protecting children from the risks of eating food containing harmful pesticides is an essential function of government," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

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Cheney Ordered to Comply With Energy Documents Request

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - A federal court last week denied another request by the Bush administration to keep secret documents from an Energy Task Force led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is the latest twist in a longrunning legal battle over an effort by Sierra Club and Judicial Watch to unearth details of meetings of the Cheney Energy Task Force, which many believe was responsible for crafting the administration's energy policy.

"It is time for the Bush administration to stop delaying and fess up to their secret dealings with energy industry," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Given that the Congress is currently debating the energy bill, it is more important than ever that Americans know who is deciding their energy future."

The public interest groups involved in the case say the public has a right to know what influence energy corporations may have had in crafting the administration's energy plan. Bush officials say there was nothing devious about the meetings and argue that the White House should be able to gather information and advice without public scrutiny.

In July, a three judge panel said the Bush administration is subject to "discovery," and must comply with requests for information.

The Bush administration had asked the court to throw out a lower court ruling that the Vice President was required to produce information concerning into the identities of task force participants, how the it operated, and the role of the Vice President in the task force.

The Bush administration asked for a rehearing of the appeal by the entire court - that was denied last week by a vote of 5-3.

The lawsuit was filed Judicial Watch.in 2001 under the open meetings law after it was rebuffed in its requests for information about the task force. Several months later, the energy task force also was sued by the Sierra Club, which is now a co-plaintiff in Judicial Watch's lawsuit.

Both groups believe industry representatives were in essence members of the task force even though the administration contends that only government officials were members of the policy group.

"The Vice President has been told by multiple courts that he is not above the law," said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. "Perhaps now he will give up his legal stonewalling and begin complying with court orders to turn over his secret Energy Task Force documents."

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GAO Says Feds Need to Better Prioritize Forest Thinning Plans

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - Federal agencies tasked with reducing the threat of wildfire on public lands have no baseline against which to assess their progress, according to a report released today by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, found that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Interior have identified three types of lands for fuels reduction. These are: lands with excess fuels buildup; lands in the wildland urban interface where federal lands surround or are adjacent to urban development and communities; and lands where vegetation grows rapidly and requires regular maintenance treatments to prevent excess fuels buildup.

But the GAO determined that the agencies have not yet reliably estimated the amount or identified the location of these lands - therefore, no baseline exists.

The GAO says a number of factors, including weather and diversion of resources to fire suppression, have hindered the ability of the Forest Service or the Interior Department to complete their annual fuels reduction workloads.

Both agencies are developing results oriented performance measures to assess the effectiveness of hazardous fuel reduction treatments, but the GAO notes that without specific prioritization guidelines it is difficult for the agencies to ensure any consistency in the prioritization of projects.

To measure progress, the agencies track and report the total number of acres treated nationwide. The GAO reports that "this practice, however, measures only the number of acres that receive fuels reduction treatments - not necessarily whether progress is being made in reducing the overall risk of wildfire."

The Bush administration has been lobbying hard for the U.S. Congress to fully implement its plan to thin the nation's forests in order to reduce the threat of wildfire. The plan would limit environmental review of projects as well as administrative and legal appeals, all of which are to blame for the poor state of the nation's forests, according to the administration.

Critics say the administration's plan is a giveaway to the timber industry that will do nothing to reduce the threat of wildfire near communities most at risk.

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Fair Trade Coffee Perks Up With Procter & Gamble Decision

NEW YORK, New York, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - Environmental and fair trade groups hailed the announcement by Procter & Gamble, the largest seller of coffee in the United States, that it would introduce Fair Trade Certified coffee products through its specialty coffee division, Millstone.

The announcement comes in response to dialogue with shareholders about the company's practices, as well as pressure from consumers, people of faith, human rights activists, and humanitarian organizations. In the wake of this announcement, the advocacy groups have agreed to suspend their campaigns against the corporation and the shareholders have withdrawn the resolution they had filed on the issue.

"With world market prices as low as they are right now, we see that many coffee farmers cannot maintain their families and their land anymore," said Jeronimo Bollen, director of Manos Campesinas, a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative in Guatemala. "We need Fair Trade now more than ever."

The price of coffee has fallen almost 50 percent over the past three years and now hovers near a 30 year low. This has caused an economic crisis for some 25 million coffee growing families in more than 50 developing countries.

Grown by democratically organized cooperatives, Fair Trade Certified coffee guarantees farmers a minimum of $1.26 a pound for their harvest. Last month, the International Coffee Organization composite indicator average price for green coffee was 52 cents a pound.

The action by Procter & Gamble is an "excellent example of what can be accomplished through the collaboration of shareholder activists and nonprofit organizations," said Sister Ruth Rosenbaum, executive director of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, which helped lead the shareholder dialogue with Procter & Gamble. "It is a win-win for the world's small-scale coffee farmers, for the environment, and for [the company] itself."

Procter & Gamble is one of the four largest coffee companies in the world. With this announcement, it joins a more than 200 coffee companies that currently offer Fair Trade Certified coffee.

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Colorado Reports River Otters Recovering

DENVER, Colorado, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - Citing success in efforts to recover the species, the Colorado Wildlife Commission has down listed the river otter from endangered to threatened on the state's protected species list.

Otters, natives that once inhabited many of Colorado's streams, were last recorded in the state in the early 1900s. Biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) began working to recover the species in 1976 and have released more than 100 into streams from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Dolores River in southwestern Colorado.

"All of the information we have collected supports a designation of threatened rather than endangered," said Larry Nelson, the DOW's species conservation manager. "The river otter has expanded its range from the five release sites and now meets the criteria for threatened status."

Species listed as endangered no longer inhabit the state or exist in such small numbers they could disappear within a short period of time. State official say the threatened designation still provides full protection for the species, but signifies that their status is less precarious.

The DOW's otter recovery plan specifies that the species should be downlisted to threatened when there are at least three separate, self sustaining populations in the state. The latest survey by the DOW found populations on the Green, Gunnison, Piedra and Colorado rivers over the past two years.

"We have known for some time that Colorado's river otter population has shown a strong recovery that warrants a downlisting," said Greg Walcher, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. "The future of land management and the health of wildlife populations in Colorado will hinge on the ability of states to recover endangered species, and this is a great step toward that goal."

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California Looks to Save the Salton Sea

SACRAMENTO, California, September 15, 2003 (ENS) - The California state legislature last week passed legislation aimed at restoring the Salton Sea, the state's largest lake and home to more than 400 bird species.

The restoration of the lake is part of a water transfer agreement that requires transfer parties, rather than the public, to pay environmental mitigation costs. Conservationists originally opposed the agreement because it included $200 million in public funds to pay the mitigation costs.

They contend that requiring the parties to cover those costs allows cheaper, more efficient transfers in the future and saves taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

The legislation passed last week would have the state buy up to 1.6 million acre feet of water from agricultural interests in the Imperial Valley over the next 13 years. The water would be resold to a Los Angeles water wholesaler, with the proceeds going to fund restoration at the Salton Sea.

"The water transfer agreement is now a win-win for taxpayers and the environment," said Julia Levin, state policy director for Audubon California. "It begins the process of restoring critical habitat for hundreds of bird species and other endangered species, while freeing up $200 million of public funds that can now be used for the environmental and water supply projects that voters called for when they passed Proposition 50."

Considered one of the most important wetland areas in the Pacific Flyway, the Salton Sea is located in the southeastern corner of California, which occupies a desert basin known as the Salton Sink. Covering more than 376 square miles, it is the state's largest lake, bigger than both Lake Tahoe and Mono Lake.

Agricultural runoff is the main threat to the health of the Sea, in particular as it is in an area with an average annual precipitation of less than three inches. The Sea's salinity has increased steadily over the years. Now at 44 parts per thousand, or at a content level 25 percent greater than the ocean, the hypersaline environment is jeopardizing the survival of fish and will ultimately jeopardize the survival of much of the Sea's biological bounty.