AmeriScan: April 18, 2002

* * *

Coastal Development Threatens Ocean Health

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - Development along the U.S. coastline is linked to the declining health of the nation's ocean habitats and resources, a new report shows.

Within 15 years, an additional 27 million people are estimated to live in coastal counties, which comprise just 17 percent of the nation's area. A new report prepared for the independent Pew Oceans Commission and released this week links this growth along the coasts to declining ocean health.

"Americans have long enjoyed living, working, and playing along the coasts," said Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff and current chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, which is conducting the first independent review of national ocean policies in over 30 years. "However, we see increasing evidence that this love of the coasts and oceans comes at a cost to the very beauty that attracts us there in the first place."

In the report, "Coastal Sprawl: The Effects of Urban Design on Aquatic Ecosystems in the United States," Dana Beach of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League details the effects of urban design and land use practices on aquatic ecosystems in the United States. Beach presents new strategies and tools that communities may use to preserve the same ecosystems that attract residents, tourists, and businesses to the coasts.

"Although the problems associated with coastal sprawl are complex, the solutions are straightforward, " said Joseph Riley, mayor of Charleston and chair of the Commission's coastal development committee. "Communities need to make active decisions about where and how to grow if they are going to protect their quality of life."

Beach reports that runaway land consumption, ill planned suburban development and exponential growth in automobile use lead to pollution and habitat degradation on the coast. Some large coastal metropolitan areas consume land 10 times as fast as they add new residents.

Across the country, driving has increased at three to four times the increase in population. Beach concludes that if today's land consumption trends continue, more than one-quarter of the coast's acreage will be developed by 2025 - up from 14 percent in 1997.

"These trends are a prescription for severe ecological damage," said Beach. "Abundant research on rivers and estuaries confirms that when impervious surfaces cover more than 10 percent of a watershed, the rivers, creeks, and estuaries they surround become biologically degraded. If today's growth trends continue, many healthy watersheds will cross that threshold over the next 25 years."

More information is available at: http://www.pewoceans.org

* * *

Radioactive Particles Found on Nuclear Workers

OAK HARBOR, Ohio, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - Microscopic radioactive particles were recovered from four individuals, their clothing, residences and hotel rooms after they left the damaged Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Ohio, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said Wednesday.

The incident happened in March, but the NRC did not make it public until this week.

Radiation protection personnel at the Davis-Besse plant were notified on March 22 by the Oconee nuclear facility in South Carolina that radioactive particles were found on a worker's sleeve. The worker was undergoing a new employee interview and processing for work at the Oconee facility, and had last worked at Davis-Besse.

FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company operates the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant near Oak Harbor, Ohio. The company's investigation has determined that a total of 13 discrete particles were recovered from four individuals, their clothing, residences and hotel rooms in Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

The individuals had worked on steam generators at Davis-Besse, which shut down in mid-February for a refueling outage. During that shutdown, workers removing boric acid corrosion deposits from the reactor vessel lid found that the acid had drilled a six inch deep hole in the lid, leaving just 3/8 inch of stainless steel between the reactor and the containment building.

A senior health physicist from the NRC's Region III Office has been dispatched to the Davis-Besse plant to assess the possible dose consequences to the four contract employees who visited Davis-Besse before traveling to other sites and to evaluate the company's investigation into the matter. FirstEnergy is attempting to determine how the particles were transported off site.

Preliminary dose calculations by FirstEnergy suggest that the tiny particles will not cause any ill health effects to the workers or to members of the public. The particles are believed to be byproducts of the fission process with low levels of radioactive activity.

* * *

Jury Labels MTBE Gasoline as Defective Product

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - A jury in San Francisco has decided that gasoline containing the additive MTBE is a "defective product," and that two major oil companies knew about the problem when they began marketing fuels containing MTBE.

The verdict, issued Monday, came in a product liability case filed by the South Tahoe Public Utility District over contamination of the district's groundwater. MTBE pollution had forced the South Tahoe District to close one third of its drinking water wells by 1998, when the utility filed suit.

The jury found that Lyondell Chemical Company, formerly Atlantic Richfield Chemical Company, Shell Oil Company, and Tosco Corporation, now part of Phillips Petroleum, knew their product was defective but withheld that information from the public when they started selling gasoline boosted with methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

MTBE is an oxygenate added to gasoline to make it burn more completely, reducing vehicle tailpipe emissions. The addition of the chemical is added by law in urban areas that fail to attain the clean air standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the water soluble chemical has made its way into drinking water supplies around the nation, contaminating the water with a foul smell and taste.

The verdict is the first of its kind, reports the "San Francisco Chronicle." However, dozens of similar cases have been filed by other utilities, communities and individuals across the country.

The next phase of the trial will determine whether MTBE from the three oil companies caused the groundwater pollution in South Lake Tahoe, and set the amount of damages the companies must pay.

* * *

Dozens of Wolves Killed for Preying on Livestock

BOISE, Idaho, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - The federal government spent about $15,000 to hunt down and kill five gray wolves after they were confirmed to have killed a calf on private land.

The wolves, the surviving members of the Whitehawk Pack, killed the calf along the East Fork of the Salmon River near Clayton, Idaho on April 5. It was the third livestock kill by members of the pack within one week.

The gray wolves, three yearlings and the alpha pair, were killed after the livestock death was confirmed as a wolf kill by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said the Whitehawk Pack has been involved in chronic livestock depredations in the East Fork.

Wildlife sharpshooters had already killed four members of the radio collared pack in recent weeks. Gray wolf recovery managers from the USFWS and the Nez Perce Tribe do not believe any members of the pack remain in the East Fork.

"We attempted to use many preventive measures with the Whitehawk Pack, including radio activated guard units, helicopter hazing, electric fencing, ground pursuit and harassment," said Carter Niemeyer, Idaho wolf recovery coordinator for the USFWS. "These non-lethal means of control did not deter the wolves' persistent livestock depredation. We will continue to use various non-lethal measures to control problem wolves, but the reality is that chronic depredation incidents may result in the lethal control of some gray wolves in Idaho."

The destruction of the Whitehawk pack is the latest in a recent series of lethal control measures taken against gray wolf packs. Last week, for example, four members of the Sheep Mountain pack in Montana, near Yellowstone National Park, were killed after they ran across a horse pasture. The wolves were suspected of eating a cow, but biologists could not confirm that the pack had killed the cow.

Also in Montana, several members of the Ninemile pack were killed after biologists confirmed that they had been killing llamas.

Wildlife managers have spent thousands of dollars to track and kill the wolves, despite the low monetary value of the wildlife they have killed. All ranchers who have lost livestock have been reimbursed by a fund managed by the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife

The Wolf Recovery Foundation, which has donated radio collars to aid government biologists in tracking wolves, now says it will not donate collars for wolf packs located outside of Yellowstone National Park, because they are used so often to track down and kill the wolves.

The annual gray wolf count conducted in December of 2001 revealed 261 wolves in 17 known wolf packs in Idaho. Sixteen wolf packs produced pups in 2001, and fourteen of those packs met the recovery requirement for a breeding pair - an adult male and female wolf that have raised at least two pups to survive until December 31 in the year of their birth.

The USFWS believes that 30 breeding pairs of wolves for three successive years throughout the three state Northern Rocky Mountain area - Idaho, Montana and Wyoming - will constitute a viable and recovered wolf population. If current trends continue, those recovery goals will be met by the end of 2002, the USFWS said.

* * *

Underground Cleanup Accelerated at INEEL

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - A settlement between the Energy Department (DOE) and the state of Idaho will speed cleanup of buried wastes at the Pit 9 area of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

The DOE said it has also reached an agreement to move forward with a comprehensive technical study of cleanup options for the entire 88 acre Subsurface Disposal Area at INEEL.

The settlement, which includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, establishes a $5 million reserve fund that could be tapped by the regulators if the DOE fails to meet future commitments on the Pit 9 buried waste retrieval demonstration project. The DOE also agreed to pay Idaho $800,000 for potential delays under the previous Pit 9 cleanup schedule.

Under the agreement reached Wednesday, the DOE will excavate 80 to 100 cubic yards of buried transuranic waste in the one acre Pit 9 by October 31, 2004. DOE has already met one milestone in the new agreement by completing preliminary design on the project. Construction is scheduled to begin in June.

Transuranic waste consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, residues, and other disposable items contaminated with radioactive elements, primarily plutonium.

A new glovebox excavator approach in Pit 9 will allow the DOE to complete the excavation demonstration 67 months faster and at 37 percent less cost than was envisioned using the old design submitted by the DOE to its regulators. Work that INEEL scientists and engineers have performed in Pit 9 over the past couple of years to locate and verify areas of contamination supported the use of the simpler, faster excavator design.

"This agreement is an important step forward in our efforts to clean up the site," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "DOE will begin pulling waste out of Pit 9, and will evaluate all options for cleaning up the larger 88-acre disposal area containing other buried waste. We are firmly committed to getting the job done, and working with Governor [Dick] Kempthorne and the state to address long term scientific missions at the site."

The agreement also sets out a new schedule for a feasibility study of alternatives for cleaning up the entire Subsurface Disposal Area. The study will include data and operational experience gained from the Pit 9 demonstration project.

The ultimate cleanup decision is expected to be made in 2007.

* * *

Hundreds of Sturgeon Returned to Tennessee River System

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - Hundreds of hatchery raised lake sturgeons were released Wednesday into the French Broad River, part of the Tennessee River system, as part of a 25 year effort to restore the region's aquatic life.

More than 50 school children participated in the release along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials and representatives of conservation groups.

Along with lake sturgeon, the program aims to reestablish self sustaining populations of freshwater mussels, snails and other fishes. Lake sturgeon is an endangered species in Tennessee, but is not federally listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"The goal of this program is to reestablish native aquatic species in the French Broad River and reestablish the lake sturgeon so that it does not need Endangered Species Act protection," said Dick Biggins, fish and mussel recovery coordinator for the USFWS in the southeast. "We hope our efforts will establish a self sustaining population that may eventually become a fishable resource."

"An astonishing array of creatures live in the Tennessee River Basin," added Wendy Smith, director of the World Wildlife Fund's southeast rivers and streams project. "In fact, this part of the world boasts the greatest diversity of temperate freshwater aquatic species on Earth, but populations of some species, like lake sturgeon, have been decimated. They are an important part of the ecosystem so reestablishing them is a big step towards revitalizing our rivers."

Lake sturgeon once thrived throughout Tennessee, but were killed off through overharvesting, water pollution and dams which decreased their ability to migrate throughout the river system.

"Today's release would not be possible without improved water quality in the French Broad River, as well as [the Tennessee Valley Authority's] Reservoir Releases Improvement Program," said Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director of the USFWS.

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dubbed lake sturgeon the "king of fishes" because they can grow to be eight feet long, weigh more than 300 pounds and live to be 100 years old.

"Working to reestablish a large native fish like the lake sturgeon is a once in a lifetime opportunity," said George Benz, director of the Southeast Aquatic Research Institute. "Just imagine seeing an eight foot long sturgeon swimming in a small river in the Tennessee River system. My generation hasn't had that experience but hopefully my grandchildren will."

* * *

Effects of Forest Fragmentation on Birds Vary

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - Researchers have discovered why some forest nesting birds thrive and others decline when forests are fragmented by agriculture and development.

For much of the last ten years, many migratory birds in the U.S. have appeared to be in trouble. Forest fragmentation, a widespread phenomenon, seems to be causing declines among some bird species.

But the numbers from bird surveys puzzled scientists. Not all forest dwelling species were declining in number. Some species even seemed to be on the increase.

Two ecologists now offer an explanation for this seeming conflict in data. When documenting bird numbers, they say, regional numbers, regional landscape patterns, and dispersal should be considered as important factors, and scientists should be careful to not assume that local bird activities will mirror regional or global trends.

Therese Donovan from the U.S. Geological Society's Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and Curtis Flather from the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station analyzed 10 years' worth of data regarding 10 species of birds which had been deemed sensitive to forest fragmentation. The results of their work appear in the April issue of "Ecological Applications," a journal published by the Ecological Society of America.

By analyzing the available data on all 10 species, Donovan and Flather discovered that there was a significant connection between the areas which birds chose to nest in and their population trends. Species that were more likely to occupy fragmented landscapes, such as the wood thrush and the northern cardinal, were more likely to experience region wide declines.

Species such as the red-eyed vireo and the scarlet tanager, however, experienced population increases. On the whole, tanagers and other area sensitive species appeared less likely to nest in fragmented landscapes.

Because most of the individuals in these species nested in unfragmented forest landscapes, their populations increased in certain regions. For instance, between 1970 and 1980, tanagers increased region wide by a rate of 3.11 percent.

Donovan and Flather found that regional population declines were uncommon among the bird species examined. Only two of the 10 investigated, wood thrushes and northern cardinals, showed range wide population declines over the period of time included in the study.

"Our findings caution against using localized data to make generalizations about broader geographic scales," said Donovan.

The researchers note that their findings reinforce the important link between fragmentation and population declines.

"This study provides additional support for the hypothesis that fragmentation of breeding habitat throughout the breeding range could spur range wide population declines," said Flather. "But in order to do a better job of conserving species, we need to improve our understanding of the dispersal of species throughout regions, and we need to enhance our understanding of what drives birds to inhabit one landscape versus another."

* * *

DC Transit Adds Natural Gas Buses

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) board voted today to buy 250 new compressed natural gas (CNG) buses over the next two years and build a natural gas fueling station at its Four-Mile Run facility in Arlington, Virginia.

The new buses will join the 164 CNG buses Metro bought last year, which are housed at Metro's Bladensburg facility in NE Washington - where Metro built its first natural gas fueling station. By 2004, more than a quarter of Metro's fleet - 414 buses - will be running on natural gas.

"This is a great Earth Day present for the nation's capital, Maryland and Virginia," said Elliott Negin of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Expanding Metro's natural gas program and retiring its polluting diesel buses is clearly the best choice for our public health and environment. It also is the best choice for strengthening U.S. energy security, since we get nearly all of our natural gas from North America, and more than half of the oil we consume is imported."

The board also approved a proposal to retrofit its remaining diesel buses with particulate traps and run them on low sulfur fuel (30 parts per million), which will cut the amount of soot that comes out of the buses' tailpipes.

"The Metro board's vote today shows it cares as much about the health of the region's residents as it does having a modern, efficient transit system," said Mark Wenzler of the Sierra Club's Washington, DC, chapter. "The good news is that by purchasing CNG buses, Metro can have both."

Building natural gas infrastructure now will make the system compatible with pollution free fuel cell bus technology when it becomes available, said the Clean Bus Campaign, a project of the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The campaign held a rally this morning in front of Metro headquarters to drum up support for additional clean bus purchases.