- AmeriScan: September 30, 2003 AmeriScan: September 30, 2003

Wildlife Service Gets Mixed Review for Endangered Species

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policies and practices generally ensure that listing and critical habitat decisions are based on the best available science, but the agency has "lost control" of the critical habitat program because of litigation and lack of resources according to a report released Monday by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973 and amended in 1978, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to list animals and plant species that are endangered or threatened, designate critical habitat and develop a species recovery plan.

The report by the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress notes that the agency's critical habitat program has been characterized by frequent litigation and has lost a series of legal challenges.

Courts have ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service must fund critical habitat designation when a species is listed and before a recovery plan is implemented, and conservation groups increasingly rely on this legal interpretation to force action on critical habitat designations.

The GAO says that over the next five fiscal years the agency will "require significant resources" to respond to court orders and settlement agreements for designating critical habitat.

The pressure, the GAO reports, means the agency is "unable to focus resources on activities it believes provide more protection to species than designating critical habitat."

The agency has recognized this problem, the GAO says, but has failed to "offer a remedy."

"Without taking proactive steps to clarify the role of critical habitat and how and when it should be designated, the [Fish and Wildlife Service] will continue to have difficulty effectively managing the program," according to the GAO.

The GAO recommends that the agency provide clear strategic direction for the critical habitat program, which has been a frequent source of controversy for the Bush administration's implementation of the ESA.

Administration officials announced in May that the ESA was "broken" and said the critical habitat provision impedes the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve habitat for endangered species.

They said the agency did not have the funds to designate critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, a shortfall that forced officials to ask courts and plaintiffs for extensions for deadlines for critical habitat designations for 32 species.

Critics say the administration has little interest in protecting endangered species and has manufactured a funding crisis.

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Enviros Urge Protection of St. Andrew Beach Mouse

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit Monday to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the St. Andrew beach mouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The rare mouse was listed as endangered in 1998, but the federal agency has failed to specify the areas of habitat that are critical to the species' recovery or the measures that should be taken to preserve those areas.

"If there were ever a species and a place that need all the protections the law gives them, these are the ones," said Robert Wiygul, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the plaintiff. "The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to do its job and protect the habitat the beach mouse and a lot of other species rely on to survive."

The St. Andrew beach mouse lives exclusively in dune habitats along the Gulf of Mexico, and biologists say it is a critical indicator of the health of the coastal ecosystem. A shy, nocturnal animal, the mouse is rarely seen by humans and does not move into dwellings.

Its coastal habitat has largely disappeared due to unregulated development, erosion and vehicular damage to its sand dune habitat. The species now survives in only a small portion of the St. Joseph Peninsula in the Florida Panhandle.

The St. Andrews beach mouse population is estimated at as few as 500 individuals - the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the minimum population necessary to sustain the species is several thousand.

Conservationists note that the refusal to designate critical habitat for the St. Andrew beach mouse is only one of hundreds of such decisions by the Fish and Wildlife Service, beginning in the late 1980s.

"The St. Andrew Beach mouse and other endangered species need the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's help, not excuses that the courts have turned down time and again," said Sidney Maddock, environmental analyst with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Bush administration believes the critical habitat provision in the Endangered Species Act is in need of major revisions and says lawsuits over the designation of critical habitat are draining the scarce funds needed to recover endangered species.

Critics contend the administration is not committed to enforcing the ESA and say it has not earmarked appropriate funds to carry out the law.

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U.S., Russia Inch Closer to Shutting Down Russian Reactors

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - The United States and Russia say they have taken another step toward closing down the last three remaining Russian reactors producing weapons grade plutonium with the signing of two contracts for fossil fuel power plants to be built and refurbished in Siberia.

The two U.S. companies under contract - Washington Group International and Raytheon Technical Services - will carry out this work at the two sites, which will begin in fiscal year 2004.

The companies have completed negotiations with Rosatomstroi, a Russian investment and construction company, for preliminary designs of projects to refurbish and construct fossil fuel power plants in Seversk and Zheleznogorsk.

When the refurbishment and construction have been completed, operation of the plants will permit the shut down of the plutonium production reactors.

The announcement furthers the goals of an agreement signed by the United States and Russia in March 2003. The pact covers the last three Russian reactors that produce plutonium for military uses - the reactors have approximately 15 years of remaining life.

Combined they could generate an additional 25 metric tons of plutonium, the equivalent of approximately one additional nuclear weapon per day, according to U.S. and Russian officials.

The three reactors, which are located in the cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk in Siberia, also produce heat and electricity for two Russian "closed cities" within the Russian nuclear weapons complex.

Under the agreement, the United States is providing support to the Russian Federation for provision of replacement fossil energy plants. The three reactors will continue to operate until the fossil replacement plants are up and running.

In May 2003, U.S. officials announced that $466 million was awarded to Washington Group International and Raytheon to begin the shutdown work.

"The administration places a high priority on successful nonproliferation programs, and elimination of weapons-grade plutonium production in Russia is an important step in our joint nonproliferation program," said U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "Our two countries have made good progress towards nonproliferation goals, and we look forward to continuing our good work and progress through successful ventures like this."

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Advocacy Group Calls for One Agency to Monitor Farm Food Safety

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - There is no one federal agency in charge of food safety practices on U.S. farms - but there should be, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

The group is urging the Bush administration and Congress to make one agency responsible for improving food safety practices on the farm, where harmful pathogens can contaminate livestock, fruit, and vegetables.

"No government agency has the responsibility for improving food safety on the farm," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for CSPI. "Food safety practices have to start where food itself starts - on farms. But even though new farming technologies could make for safer food, the government does little to get farmers and ranchers to use them."

Food safety responsibilities are split between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is within the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The resulting regulatory gaps are most evident on farms, says CSPI, where better regulation is most urgently needed.

For instance, while USDA regulates chickens, the FDA regulates eggs. But CSPI says neither agency monitors or regulates on farm practices that might reduce the risk of Salmonella in eggs.

In the letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, CSPI also urged the administration to commission a National Academy of Sciences study of new on farm safety methods and adopt new regulations to reduce the incidence of Salmonella in eggs.

Such regulations have been pending since 2000 but have not been adopted, despite widespread support.

The advocacy group recommends increased federal research to develop on farm approaches like competitive exclusion, immunizations, bacteriophages, sanitation strategies, and improved transportation.

"A growing number of food poisoning outbreaks are linked to fresh fruits and vegetables, many of which carry the same hazards that are linked to animals," DeWaal said. "Better controls on the farm are urgently needed if we are to reverse this trend."

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Southern California Air Pollution Trading Scheme Under Fire

LOS ANGELES, California, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - California's South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is violating the federal Clean Air Act in the administration of the pollution trading scheme, according to two environmental groups who filed a lawsuit against the air district on Monday.

The groups say that the air district has mismanaged the trading program, known as RECLAIM. This mismanagement, they note, has allowed facilities to avoid federal Clean Air Act standards and resulted in the illegal release of tons of smog causing nitrogen oxides (NOx) into Southern California's air.

The lawsuit by Our Children's Earth and Communities for a Better Environment alleges this mismanagement is partially responsible for the air district's recent admission that smog in Southern California is getting worse and has reached its highest level in six years.

"The South Coast air basin is one of the dirtiest places in the country," said Tiffany Schauer, executive director of Our Children's Earth. "The air district, which is supposed to be in charge of cleaning it up, is instead turning a blind eye on the problem and allowing big polluters to game the system."

Created by the air district in 1993, RECLAIM - the Regional Clean Air Incentive Market - is a cap and trade air pollution trading program designed to control emissions of NOx in the greater Los Angeles area.

Under RECLAIM, each participating facility is given an annual allocation of pollution credits and facilities must hold credits equal to their actual emissions. If a facility wants to pollute above their allocation, they must offset that excess by buying credits.

Each quarter, RECLAIM participants must hold sufficient RECLAIM Trading Credits to cover the amount of NOx emitted by the participant up to that point in the year.

The two plaintiff groups allege that SCAQMD has consistently failed to carry out the requirements of the plan, often ignoring a participant's failure to have sufficient credits at the end of every quarter. They say the air district has also violated the record keeping requirements of the federal law - making it hard to determine if companies are in compliance.

"The RECLAIM program is not working and smog is getting worse," said Scott Kuhn, Communities for a Better Environment legal director. "It is time to take action to enforce the law and stop smog from increasing."

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Marine Life Plagued by PCB Pollution

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - A compilation of available data indicates that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are having a negative impact on humans and marine life, according to a report released Monday by the conservation group Oceana.

The report, "Toxic Burden: PCBs in Marine Life," includes data from 40 different studies that found high levels of PCBs in humans and marine life.

Ten marine mammals have levels of PCBs so high that the group has dubbed them the "toxic ten."

The top five of these marine mammals are the bottlenose dolphin, killer whale, Risso's dolphin, harbor seal and beluga whale.

The report details that in one case, a bottlenose dolphin was discovered to have PCB levels of 2,000 parts per million (ppm) - some 40 times the amount needed to subject the animal to hazardous waste disposal requirements.

"Because of their diets, marine mammals are bearing the burden of our actions, and so are indigenous people," said Jackie Savitz, director of Oceana's Pollution Program and primary author of the report. "Only concerted international action can stop the spread of such dangerous chemicals that can travel for thousands of miles and build up in our bodies and in marine life."

The report includes a study of the members of the Inuit population native to Greenland, whose diet includes fat from seals, contained PCB levels of 15.7 ppm in their fat, and blood levels nearly six times higher than non indigenous people.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cautions against eating fish containing more than .094 ppm of PCBs.

PCBs were banned in the United States in the late 1970s and are among the "dirty dozen" chemical contaminants slated for global phaseout under the United Nations treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

PCBs are highly persistent, and they have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.

The report urges U.S. lawmakers to fully implement the UN POPs Treaty - known as the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

To date, 37 other countries have ratified the POPs Treaty. It will enter into force once it has been ratified by 50 countries.

In the United States, legislation to implement the treaty is currently being considered by the Senate Agriculture and the House Energy and Commerce Committees.

The Bush administration signed the treaty, but introduced legislation that critics say would gut the treaty because it does not include an "adding mechanism," which would allow the EPA to regulate similar dangerous chemicals that may be globally banned under the treaty in the future.

"The White House bill is a blatant anti environmental move," said Savitz. "But there is still an opportunity for Congress to pass a better bill that will actually protect the public and marine life from chemicals like PCBs."

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Desert Tortoises At Risk From Ravens

SAN MARCOS, California, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - Young desert tortoises in the western Mojave Desert are at risk of predation by common ravens, according to a new study in the September issue of the journal "Ecology."

The risk comes both from non breeding ravens living in large flocks around human developments and from nesting pairs scattered more evenly across the desert landscape, the researchers say.

They note that the risk is distributed across the landscape wherever ravens are found, with little potential for safe havens from possible attack for these young federally listed threatened tortoises.

Scientists estimate that common raven populations in the western Mojave Desert have exploded by 1,500 percent over the past 25 years, in response to the constantly replenished food and other resources that human developments have made available to them in an environment otherwise too harsh to support many ravens.

"Species like ravens that have more than one pattern of predation can put their prey at a greater threat of extinction," said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Dr. William. Boarman. "We cannot say for certain that ravens have contributed to tortoise declines in our study area, but abundant predators like these are capable of suppressing population growth and may inhibit the recovery of the threatened desert tortoise."

The researchers began the project because many desert tortoise researchers believe, based on finding carcasses of young tortoises with punctures in the shells, that ravens are hunting young desert tortoises. The tortoises are vulnerable prey up to about age five or six because they cannot easily escape predators and they have soft shells that a raven bill can easily puncture.

To assess the risk of predation by ravens, the scientists used artificial baits, two inch Styrofoam models resembling baby tortoises throughout an area of about 300 square miles in the western Mojave Desert on and around Edwards Air Force Base. Distinctive raven bill punctures were found in 29 of the 100 baits, the researchers report.

Based on computer modeling, the scientists determined that the riskiest areas for young tortoises - a 100 percent predation risk - were around landfills, which have dense concentrations of ravens. Pockets of elevated risk also occurred at successful raven nests, reaching between 44 and 59 percent predation risk.

"There is still a lot we do not know about raven predation on tortoises," said California State University at San Marcos professor Dr. William Kristan, lead author of the article. "We estimated the risk that a tortoise would be attacked given that ravens were nearby, but we can't translate risk of attack directly into population decline. But, to the extent that raven predation is a problem for the tortoise, it appears to be much more widespread than the distribution of towns and associated groups of ravens would have you believe."

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EPA Rolls Out Year Round Air Quality Index Forecasts

WASHINGTON, DC, September 30, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced that new information on air quality will be available in more than 100 U.S. cities beginning October 1.

The move is part of the EPA's effort, together with state and local governments, to expand current air quality forecasts to include daily information on particle pollution.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a color coded system designed to inform the public about daily air pollution levels in their communities. During the summer months, local broadcast meteorologists in nearly 300 U.S. cities use the AQI to provide daily ozone forecasts as part of their weather casts.

Beginning Oct. 1, the use of the AQI will be expanded to include daily, year-round forecasts for particle pollution for more than 100 cities - the EPA expects this number to grow in the coming months as additional areas begin forecasting.

Unlike ozone pollution, which is known to be highest during the summer months, particle pollution can vary throughout the year.

"Monitoring and emissions data show tremendous air quality improvement over the past three decades, but there is more to do," said EPA Acting Administrator Marianne Horinko. "As our work progresses, the expanded Air Quality Index forecasts will help millions of people protect their health - especially people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children."

While unhealthy levels occur on only a limited number of days, the EPA says that these expanded AQI forecasts give people the information they need to protect their health all year.

"Particle pollution" refers to a mixture of microscopic solids and liquid droplets found in the air. It comes from a number of sources, including cars and trucks, industry, fires, and power plants.

High levels of particle pollution are of particular concern to people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children, can also be at risk at lower levels.

Particle pollution has been linked to asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, changes in heart rate, arrhythmias and heart attacks, among other health problems.

Air quality forecasts are available on local television stations, on state and local air quality agency web sites, on "USA Today's" weather page and on The Weather Channel. More information about the cities and metropolitan areas that will be issuing AQI forecasts year round can be found here.