- AmeriScan: September 24, 2003 AmeriScan: September 24, 2003

Senate Panel Passes Highway Funding Extension

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - Congress is scrambling to pass an extension of federal highway funding before September 30, when the current six year transportation spending bill expires. Attempts to pass a new six year bill have broken down, so on Tuesday the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed by voice vote a five month extension of the current authorization.

The extension, which must be approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives, would provide states with some $15 billion over the next five months, a seven percent increase over what was appropriated during the same period in fiscal 2003. A similar measure has been introduced in the House - if the two bodies can not broker a final bill, the Federal Highway Administration will run out of money.

Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that the extension was appropriate because it will "ensure that highway projects all across the nation continue to move forward."

The six year reauthorization of the nation's transportation spending bill has become embroiled in disputes over money and environmental oversight. Critics say that Bush administration and Republican proposals tilt the scales to expedite highway construction projects by relaxing requirements that projects comply with environmental regulations.

And there is little surprise that a spending bill that could range from $250 billion to $300 billion has proven contentious, in particular when the Congress must wrestle with deficits set to hit some $400 billion.

But the failure to pass the transportation bill has serious consequences, said Inhofe, who blamed the House for the impasse.

Transportation spending is a proven jobs creator, Inhofe said and passage of the six year reauthorization - combined with the President's tax cuts - is the "best economic stimulus our economy can receive."

Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, agreed that the full reauthorization of the six year bill, could create up to 100,000 jobs, but said that the blame for the breakdown in progress did not just lie with the House.

"We have a Republican president, a Republican led House, a Republican led Senate and we can not come up with a highway bill," Reid said. "I am left to draw only one conclusion, that the Bush administration and the Republican leadership have decided that taking care of our own domestic infrastructure needs is not a priority."

Reid said the extension is not "a painless alternative" because the uncertainty will mean "$2.1 billion in project delays and the loss of 90,000 jobs."

Inhofe then accused Reid of walking away from negotiations to approve the bill.

"I walked away because of ridiculous proposals made dealing with the environment and no money," Reid said.

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Oversight of Oil and Gas Drilling in Refuges Is Inconsistent

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has "not addressed the cumulative environmental effects of oil and gas activities on refuges," according to a new report released Tuesday by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The report comes as federal lawmakers continue to battle over whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

The GAO, which is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, reports that some 25 percent of the nation's 575 refuges have past or present oil and gas activity, dating back to at least the 1920s.

The environmental effects of oil and gas activities "vary from negligible, such as buried pipelines, to substantial, such as from large oil spills or from large scale infrastructure," the GAO says.

The report notes that some of the most detrimental effects have been reduce through environmental laws as well as through improved practices and technology. But federal management and oversight of oil and gas activities "varies widely among refuges," the GAO says.

"Some refuges take extensive measures, while others exercise little control or enforcement," according to the report.

This variation occurs, the GAO says, because of differences in authority to oversee private mineral rights and because refuge managers "lack enough guidance, resources, and training to properly manage and oversee oil and gas activities."

Since 1994, oil and gas exploration has occurred at 44 refuges, and during the most recent 12 month reporting period, the 1,806 active wells produced 237 million barrels of oil and 88.2 million cubic feet of natural gas.

The GAO says this amount has an estimated commercial value of some $880 million and represents about 1.1 percent of domestic oil production and 0.4 percent of domestic natural gas production.

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Study Warns of Flame Retardant in Breast Milk

LOS ANGELES, California, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - Tests for chemical fire retardants in the breast milk of American mothers found high levels of the toxins in every woman tested, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The national advocacy organization says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should move to ban these chemicals, but cautions that the study does not indicate women should stop breastfeeding their infants.

"Breastfeeding remains the single most important choice mothers can make for the health of their babies," said EWG Analyst Sonya Lunder, coauthor of the study "Mothers' Milk." "But finding these chemicals in breast milk shows the shocking extent to which industrial toxins are invading our bodies. Brominated fire retardants do not belong in breast milk, they do not belong in babies, and they should be phased out as soon as possible."

Similar to polychlorinated biphenyls - PCBs - brominated fire retardants persist in the environment for decades and build up in people's bodies over a lifetime. The chemicals, known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are used to coat plastics, electronics, textiles, carpets and furniture.

The European Union (EU) has banned some fire retardants starting next year, but they remain unregulated in by the U.S. government. In August, California passed a law banning some PBDEs, but it does not take effect until 2008.

By 2008 says EWG, another 365 million pounds of the chemicals will be in American homes, businesses, schools and people.

The EU ban was in part reaction to a Swedish study that found levels of the chemicals in breast milk in Sweden had increased forty times from 1972 to 1997.

How PBDEs get into the environment is still uncertain, but they are being found worldwide in house dust, indoor and outdoor air as well as in the water and sediments of rivers, estuaries and oceans. The chemicals have been found in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish.

EWG says the study included 20 first time mothers from 17 cities in 14 states.

It found the average level of brominated fire retardants in the milk samples was 75 times higher than the average for Swedish women and were at levels associated with toxic effects in several studies using laboratory animals.

The organization says the report is more evidence the chemicals should be banned and it recommends that in the interim, products containing brominated fire retardants should be labeled so that consumers can choose to avoid them.

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Conservationists Decry Removal of Judge From Everglades Case

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge who has spent more than a decade presiding over the federal lawsuit that brought national attention to the fate of the Everglades has been removed from the case. Representatives of the sugar industry, which has been at the center of much controversy concerning the health of the Everglades, were successful in efforts to remove Judge William Hoeveler from the case.

"The sugar industry knew that they could not make their case in court, so it decided to attack this extraordinarily distinguished judge," said David Guest, managing attorney for the Tallahassee office of the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Industry lawyers filed a motion to remove Hoeveler last spring, after he reprimanded the Florida legislature for passing a new law that relaxed limits on the amount of phosphorous pollution sugar interests are permitted to dump into the Everglades.

In 1992 - four years after U.S. Interior Department sued the South Florida Water Management District for failing to prevent pollution in the Everglades, Judge Hoeveler approved a consent decree that, starting in 2006, will prohibit discharges to the Everglades containing more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorus.

But last spring, the Florida state legislature - and Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush - enacted a law that gave the sugar industry an additional decade to comply with the phosphorus reductions.

Hoeveler responded by announcing hat the new state law would not affect pollution cleanup on federal lands. On federally owned portions of the Everglades, Hoeveler said the 10 ppb phosphorus limit must still be met by 2006.

He also declared that he would appoint a special master to ensure enforcement of the limit and the 2006 deadline - shortly afterwards, the motion to remove Hoeveler was filed by the sugar industry.

"Judge Hoeveler knew that the new law would allow the sugar industry to ease pollution controls, further damaging the Everglades," said Guest. "The judge's statement that the new law would result in increased phosphorous pollution to the Everglades is far from a biased opinion - it is a fact. Putting Judge Hoeveler through this indignity was totally unnecessary, and it certainly will not help Big Sugar's case."

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Fake Meat Raises Allergy Concern, Advocacy Group Says

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - A meat substitute sold under the brand name "Quorn" is more likely to cause adverse reactions than shellfish, milk, peanuts and other common food allergens, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). In a letter published in the "American Journal of Medicine," CSPI's Executive Director Michael Jacobson says eating Quorn can cause vomiting, diarrhea, hives, swelling, or even anaphylactic shock.

Quorn is the brand name for mycoprotein, which is made from vat grown mold. It has been marketed in the United States for less than two years, but has been available for more than a decade in the United Kingdom.

Authorities in the United Kingdom forced Marlow Foods to change the labeling, which had falsely claimed that mycoprotein was "mushroom protein," even though it is made from a non mushroom processed mold. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been investigating reports of adverse reactions to Quorn, but CSPI has repeatedly criticized the agency for the pace of its investigation and for allowing its sale in the first place.

CSPI commissioned a telephone survey of British consumers, and found that five percent of 346 people who had eaten Quorn reported adverse reactions. The public interest group says that was a higher percentage of people than reported allergies to shellfish, milk, peanuts, and wheat.

In addition, the study reports on 597 reports of adverse reactions attributed to Quorn. Of those people, 67 percent suffered vomiting; 33 percent diarrhea; 6 percent hives or broken blood vessels in the gastrointestinal tract or eyes; and one percent anaphylactic reactions.

"It is quite astonishing that the Food and Drug Administration considers Quorn Foods as 'Generally Recognized As Safe,' even though many people have suffered severe vomiting or diarrhea, hives, and even anaphylactic reactions," Jacobson said. "Many people said that Quorn made them sicker than they ever were before, that cramps and vomiting were debilitating, and that they had to go to their doctor or the emergency room.

"At a time of widespread public concern about food allergies, it is shocking that the FDA would permit a new food that it knows will sicken countless consumers," Jacobson said. "The FDA should order it off the market immediately."

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The Domino Theory of Overfishing

WASHINGTON, DC, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - Overfishing of whales in the North Pacific Ocean may have triggered one of the longest and most complex ecological chain reactions ever described, according to a paper published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." The researchers propose that such overfishing, beginning in the open ocean 50 years ago, led to the decimation of Alaska's kelp forest ecosystems today.

The paper, "Sequential megafaunal collapse in the North Pacific Ocean: An ongoing legacy of industrial whaling?," offers a unified explanation for why populations of harbor seals, fur seals, sea lions and sea otters in Western Alaska have crashed during the last several decades.

The authors propose that the decimation of baleen and sperm whale populations by overfishing removed a major source of food for killer whales.

They say this may have forced some killer whales to "fish down the food web," preying on other marine mammals which in turn has had devastating impacts on marine ecosystems.

"The message," said coauthor Alan Springer, an oceanographer with the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, "is that overfishing and massive extraction can lead to food web impacts that are unexpected and unintended."

The authors present a domino theory of major ecosystem impacts and restructuring, starting with the capture of hundreds of thousands of great whales from the North Pacific Ocean from 1946 to 1979.

They argue that this removal of prey forced some killer whales to seek alternative sources of food - first harbor seals, then fur seals, then sea lions and sea otters.

The authors surmise that killer whales may have preferred harbor seals and fur seals to sea lions because of the higher nutritional value of harbor seals and because seals are less aggressive and easier to catch.

As the pinnipeds became comparatively rare, the authors say, some killer whales expanded their diet to include the calorically least profitable mammals - the sea otters - with rippling ecosystem effects. By the late 1990s low numbers of sea otters allowed an explosion of sea urchins and decimation of the kelp forests due to the sea urchins' over grazing.

The authors modeled the nutritional requirements of killer whales, the nutritional value of sea lions and otters, and the number of deaths necessary to explain the documented declines of marine mammals in the Aleutian Islands.

They found that a dietary shift by less than one percent of the estimated 3,888 killer whales across the region would have been enough to drive the observed declines.

The eight authors of the study report that the importance of predation in structuring food webs needs to be more fully appreciated and understood - and humans are the ultimate predators. They add that this points to the need for caution in managing fisheries today. The kind of extraction that happened with whales fifty years ago still goes on with other species, wearing away the resilience of the system.

"To me it very much is an overfishing problem - same damn thing - but fifty years ago whales were the fish," said study coauthor Jim Estes of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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Live Seafood Trade Could Be Conservation Threat

NEWPORT, Oregon, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - A new report raises concerns that the global live seafood trade is barely regulated, even though it could be a significant conservation threat.

New research shows that "fresh" shellfish sold in markets are still alive enough to feed - and so presumably to spawn. The researchers say this suggests that the seafood trade could spread invasive non native marine species around the world.

"Introduced species can spread throughout entire ecosystems and across biogeographical regions from a few individuals released at single sites," the researchers say.

Invasive marine species are environmentally and economically costly - for example the European green crab costs an estimated $44 million per year in mitigation expenses and fisheries losses in northeast Pacific waters.

Published in the October issue of "Conservation Biology," the study focused on trade in clams, mussels and oysters.

These bivalves can survive out water for more than two weeks when refrigerated, and are usually mature when sold - this means that "fresh" bivalves sold at markets might be able to spawn if returned to marine waters.

To test whether the live seafood trade could indeed spread non native bivalves, the researchers assessed whether three non native species sold in Pacific Northwest markets were still alive enough to feed a day after being returned to seawater.

They note that spawning can be triggered by eating, stress or sudden temperature changes. Two of the species, Manilla clams and Pacific oysters, are already established in Pacific Northwest waters but one - the ocean quahog - is not.

The researchers found that 89 percent of ocean quahogs survived in the short term, as did 90 percent of Manilla clams and 100 percent of Pacific oysters.

"If released, [ocean quahogs] could potentially spawn and become a threat somewhere in the northeast Pacific Ocean," the researchers say.

The live seafood trade is already implicated in a number of devastating introductions of non native marine species, including green crabs and Chinese mitten crabs into northeast Pacific waters.

"The more species and the greater the volumes and distributions of live seafood markets, the more likely something will happen," said study coauthor John Chapman of Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The researchers call for policies to safeguard the environment from the live seafood trade, including regulations, education and monitoring programs.

National and international transfers of fresh seafood require "oversight at least as detailed as the live bait and pet trades receive," Chapman said.

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Rocky Mountain Conservation Bolstered by Ranches

FORT COLLINS, Colorado, September 24, 2003 (ENS) - New research indicates that preserving ranches from develop helps protect biodiversity. A study of ranches near Fort Collins, Colorado, finds that these ranches have more ground nesting birds and native plants than rural developments and have more native plants than nearby reserves.

"Our results support the notion that ranches are important for protecting biodiversity and suggest that future conservation efforts may require less reliance on reserves and a greater focus on private lands," said Jeremy Maestas, who did this work while at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and is now at the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service in Provo, Utah.

The study, published in the October issue of "Conservation Biology," is coauthored by Richard Knight of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and Wendell Gilgert of the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service in Fort Collins.

To see if ranches do help protect biodiversity in the rural West, the researchers surveyed birds and plants in cattle ranches, rural residential developments and nature reserves near Fort Collins, Colorado. The average lot size in the rural developments was 40 acres.

Ranches had higher densities of the ground and shrub nesting birds - in contrast, rural developments had higher densities of nest predators and of birds that are usually uncommon to the area, such as Bullock's oriole, a tree-nester that is presumably attracted by the landscaping trees.

Moreover, ranches had more native plant species and fewer non-native plant species than rural developments and reserves.

"Ranches can be more effective than reserves at maintaining native biotic communities," the researchers write.

They explain that reserves may be inadequate because most are in harsher environments with higher elevations and poorer soil. Moreover, the reserves studied have extensive trail systems that could facilitate the spread of non native plants.

About 30 million acres of U.S. ranch and farmland were converted to rural residential developments during the 1990s. This trend has increased the popularity of preserving ranches with conservation easements, which restrict development but often allow livestock production.

So far more than 1,200 land trusts have used conservation easements to preserve about 2.5 million acres of land in the United States.